Saturday, December 31, 2011

Card Game Review - Mundus Novus

If I were way, way smarter, and maybe went to graduate school in London or something, I would write this review in Latin. It would be awesome and brilliant, maybe even use iambic pentameter. Mostly, it would totally go with the title of the game Mundus Novus, which is Latin for something that I would know if I could actually write stuff in Latin.

And I would write the review in Latin to help illustrate what a smart game Mundus Novus is. It's basically a fully developed trading game pulled from the game Mare Nostrum, which also has a Latin title, and would therefore be far more interesting to read in Latin, except for maybe the fact that nobody really knows how to read Latin, and so the review would actually be, for most people, the equivalent of reading complete gibberish for several paragraphs in a row (which makes it basically the same as this review, but with fewer juvenile jokes).

The idea behind Mundus Novus is that you're all wealthy merchants sailing across the Atlantic to make money in the newly discovered Americas. This theme is so exciting and revolutionary that any gamer worth his wrinkly dice bag will be absolutely overwhelmed with a desire to play the game. I mean, you just don't see games about snobby Europeans exploiting the New World in the late Renaissance period. In case you're wondering, no, I cannot figure out how to put more sarcasm in this paragraph.

But even with a back story about as fresh as a used Kleenex, Mundus Novus is a very clever game. It's also very focused and pretty damned fun, to boot. It's like if you took an entire game about global conquest, surgically extracted the most intellectually challenging part, then injected it with Super Soldier Serum and anabolic steroids until it was like the board game version of Mr. T. It keeps all the parts it needs to be awesome, and for the rest, it just does not have time for no jibba jabba.

The goal of the game is to either have ten different kinds of resources at the same time, or to accumulate a buttload of money by building sets of cards. You only get five cards every turn, and you discard them at the end of the turn, so making a set of ten is problematic, to say the least. So to improve your odds of success, you need to pick up the crazy ability cards, which you get by building sets of cards.

So, you have to build sets of cards to get the ability cards, and you need the ability cards if you want to build other sets. And you need those sets to be very specific cards, which you are decidedly unlikely to have handed to you by pure chance. And that means you need to trade with your friends.

Every turn, you'll all choose some cards to put up on the block, then take turns swiping the stuff in front of your friends. You don't get to choose a card unless someone chooses one of yours, so it's worth your time to put some good stuff out there. Plus there are other advantages to putting out really good cards, like the chance to go first in the trading or pick up the best ability cards. Of course, if you put out all your best cards, you might get a very nice ability to go with your hand full of absolute garbage that you have because you gave away all the good stuff.

One thing I love about Mundus Novus is the subtle layers of consequence and decision-making. For instance, you might decide to try for a hand containing three high cards, to grab that double-sized warehouse, but to do so, you only offer up some crappy low cards. Then someone else gets to go first, and you get shut out of the trading, leaving you with a bunch of nothing to reward your greed. Or you might decide on a lower set, but the sweet goods you put out there wind up letting someone else build a much better hand than yours, and then they get that sweet warehouse and you wind up with a dirty sock.

We also really enjoyed the various potential strategies. You could try for a huge hand of varied cards, to grab up the instant crazy-combo win, or you could go for a big earner with lots of recurring payoffs. You might exploit the events to hinder your opponents, or you could just get nasty and never let anyone else get ahead. It's actually kind of deceptive - every time we think we've figured out one particular preferred strategy, someone at the table breaks it and sweeps the win out from under us. Like I said, this is a smart game. I'm a little ashamed at not being able to write the review in a dead language.

It's also a beautiful game. It's an Asmodee game, which makes the amazing art no surprise, but even still, it's hard to imagine how it could have been any better looking. The visual design is impeccable. The cards are fantastic quality. The artists for Mundus Novus should be very, very proud of their work. If I knew how to say, 'holy crap, that looks good' in Latin, I totally would.

But then, if this review had been written in Latin, it would be very snooty, and might give you the impression that Mundus Novus is a game only fit for Mensa members and ivy league academics. And if the game were that hard to play, it would not be anywhere as smart. Being a smart game means that dumb people can play it, but smart people will win more. And that's definitely the case with Mundus Novus - this game is deep and clever, but it's surprisingly easy to learn.

So it's probably just as well that I don't know any Latin. On top of being able to write this review in a language most of you can read, it also means that I won't have to replace all my t-shirts with cardigans. But in the absence of thoroughly brilliant writing, I'll have to settle for blunt. And here it is - Mundus Novus is fun and smart and pretty. If you visit a redneck bar in Arkansas, those same adjectives can be used as a pickup line. You're welcome.

(Please note that those words will not work in a redneck bar in California, because then you have to include some reference to either organic artichokes or pretentious-but-affordable white zinfandel).


2-6 players

Focused, intelligent trading game
Wastes nothing - every part of the game is useful and important
Incredibly attractive
Very fun and exceptionally interactive

Theme worn out worse than a bald tire

Mundus Novus is very affordable, especially considering what a great game it is. Unfortunately, it's not out yet, so you'll have to wait until Asmodee actually releases it to buy a copy.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lego Game Review - Heroica

I love Legos. And I love dungeon crawl games. So it seems to me that Heroica, a dungeon crawl game using Legos, would be the absolute best of both worlds.

On the other hand, just because a person is particularly good at coming up with interesting ways to put plastic bricks together does not mean that the same person is a master of theoretical game design. Plus Legos are Norwegian or Danish or something. Cultural differences are virtually guaranteed, like naming all the sets weird stuff I can't pronounce.

However, the idea bears exploration. Of course, there are some obvious hindrances. For one thing, can you really expect to find a good orc warlord in a Lego minifig? And how much room would you need on the table to recreate the dragon's lair? And what rules do you use?

Happily, Lego saw all those potential pitfalls and dealt with each one. First hurdle - minifigs. They solved this one by not using minifigs, and instead substituting miniature versions of minifigs. These are very tiny, with just a small amount of art painted on them, and no moving parts. They are not as cool as a minifig, I can tell you that, but they are smaller, so that's something.

The room on the table - this was also solved, because with the tiny playing pieces you don't need much room to make dungeons. Each corridor can be assembled from just a few pieces, and with just a small box of parts, you can build quite an impressive dungeon. Plus you can mix it up and make your dungeon do pretty much whatever you want, and because of these little miniature rooms, you can fit the whole thing onto the table in your breakfast nook (or in my case, the counter in our hotel).

That just leaves the last issue, which would be the rules, and Lego conveniently solved this problem by pretty much not using any rules. Sure, it leaves something to be desired in terms of game play, but you have to admire the simple elegance of a game that you play with virtually no rules of any kind.

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. On your turn, you roll a die that tells you how far you move. The die also has hit icons on it, so you roll it when you attack, too. If you hit (which you will, 2 out of 3 times), the monster dies. If you miss, you lose some life. You all run through the dungeon and try to be the first to get to the big bad guy and kill him.

The monsters are spiders and werewolves and golems and stuff, but unfortunately, the only real difference between them is whether their strength is one, two or three. Other than that, they have absolutely no differences of any kind. Fighting a flying giant bat is exactly as dangerous as battling a weak goblin, and that just is not as cool as it could be. I kind of like for my monsters to feel different - sure, they all die just the same, but some should throw sticky webs and some should shoot arrows and some should fly out of reach. Sadly, that's kind of hard to accomplish in a game with virtually no rules.

But that's also kind of the beauty of Heroica. If you were a ten-year-old with no exposure to Warhammer Quest or Descent or even HeroQuest, Heroica would be just the right amount of meat. It's light and pointless, but you still get to wander around and kill things, and I do really like to wander around and kill things (you know, in games. In real life, I prefer to sit on my ass and kill beers).

If you're a grown-ass man, or maybe just a kid who actually knows that dungeon crawls are supposed to be interesting, Heroica still has a lot of potential. Only now, you're going to have to make some rules of your own. The beauty of this game is that when there are practically no rules to begin with, there's plenty of room to expand it.

Personally, I love the whole thing. I got the biggest set for Christmas, and once I built it and loved it, I had to go get more. Now I have all four sets, and I'm putting together some rules that I plan to test with my daughter tonight. I can send my adventurers (there are six in all, if you buy all the sets) from the beach, into the forest, through the goblin fortress and into the mountain lair of the golem overlord. I can rearrange everything on a whim, and add or subtract potions, treasures, magic gates and locked doors. The giant, bouncy die is fun to roll, and once I develop some differences for the monsters, this game is going to be a hoot.

Of course, that exposes the biggest problem with a game like Heroica - once you start tweaking it, you'll never be done. You'll tire of defeating the goblin king, and decide you need a lich. You'll develop special abilities, but then you'll need tougher monsters. And with all this dungeon crawling, there's still no dragon. All of which means I will be modifying the hell out of Heroica for a good long time, until my daughter and I tire of creating thrilling dungeon crawls and battling for very small plastic trophies.


2-5 players (depending on the set you buy)

Legos are bad-ass
Really fantastic modular dungeons
The pieces are pretty damned neat
Dungeon crawls are fun

Practically no rules - certainly not enough to make a good game
Not enough variety

I can't believe it! Noble Knight Games carries Heroica! I'm actually really surprised, because Legos are not exactly hobby games. But here you go anyway:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Card and Dice Game Review - Carnival

I just got this game called Carnival. Now, when I first opened the box, I was hoping it would have an 'e' on the end, so that it would be Carnivale, and it would be like that crazy HBO show and you would travel the US during the Great Depression and Satan would take on the guise of a Baptist preacher who also used to be the Kurgan from Highlander. But it's not.

It is pretty cute, though. It's got kind of a Reiner Knizia feel, but without boring math exercises. It's fairly simple, but it has some neat twists that you haven't seen before, and they force you to think on your feet while you make plans in your head. They don't have a blind guy drinking absinthe over a spoonful of sugar, but that's not really kid-friendly, anyway.

The idea of Carnival is that you're trying to build four out of your five rides before anyone else can get them done. Each ride needs banners, lights, seats and materials, and if you're paying attention at this point, you can probably spot pretty quick that the theme in this game is almost completely unnecessary. It's a set collection game with randomized actions, which is another way of saying it's a heck of a lot like a Reiner game, which I already said.

To build your sets in front of you, you'll roll some dice and put them on a card that will tell you what your actions are for that turn. This is basically how you get more cards in your hand, or how you steal cards from your friends, or how you screw up their sets so they can't win. It's not a mean-spirited game, but it is fairly competitive, and that's OK with me. It also went over alright with my family.

Of course, the dice can be pretty capricious, as anybody who has ever rolled dice knows full well, so to give you a little more control, each player also has three tickets. You can burn a ticket to manipulate the dice a little, or just reroll all of them. You can also throw one away to block some mean bastard's attempt to screw up your pretty sets. But you only get three for the whole game, and you're going to be sorely tempted to use them all in the first three turns. But don't. You're going to want them.

Now, I said the theme in Carnival was pretty disposable, and yeah, it is. But it's implemented so well that I would actually be a little disappointed if this were just played with a deck of regular ol' Bicycles. The art is charming and attractive, and while I certainly don't get the feeling that I'm a traveling carnie setting up hilariously unsafe sideshows for unsuspecting townies, I did find myself drawn to the simplicity and basic beauty of the game. It doesn't try to do more than it should, and the design manages to make the game easier to play and more pleasant to see.

Unlike the HBO show that I was really hoping this game would be about, Carnival is not terribly deep (it is also not frighteningly twisted and full of deception, and that definitely makes it more palatable to the average American family of four). It is a little on the light side, but still has enough meat to attract a serious gamer who wants to play with a couple junior-high kids and a visiting grandmother. It's engaging and smart, and fun to look at. The only part of the HBO show that was like that was Adrienne Barbeau. The rest was just weird (and really, so was Adrienne Barbeau).


2-4 players

Fun and clever
Competitive without being mean
Delightful graphics
Great pacing - plays fast without feeling rushed

Theme is just there to be pretty
Not overly deep, and very Euro

Carnival is one of those games coming out of the Game Salute deal, which means Noble Knight Games doesn't have it. The only place that does have it (and they just have it set for preorder) is Game Salute. It's a decent game, but I can't tell you where to save any money on it, because the only place you can buy it is charging full retail:

Friday, December 23, 2011

Board Game Review - Ninja

You are ninja. Clad all in black and armed with poison, blade and shuriken, you creep silently over the wall of the daimyo's compound and into his palace. You glide silently through the corridors, hunting the lord of the land, intent on shedding his blood to fulfill your ancient contract. You creep like a shadow to the very door of his room, slip inside, and promptly stumble over a pile of folded clothes and fumble around the room like a drunk wildebeest. Then guards stab you.

OK, you're not really that bad at doing ninja stuff. Well, you probably are, because your asthma makes you wheeze and you are about as graceful as Ethel Merman stomping grapes. But if you play Ninja, you get to be a really bad-ass ninja, unless you're playing the guards, and then you get to be about as clever as a bag of ripe fruit.

I tend to be somewhat skeptical of hidden-movement games. There's no way to ever really know if your opponent is cheating, for one thing, and for another, one innocent mistake or misplaced pencil mark could completely screw up the whole game. Plus after I played Escape From The Aliens In Outer Space, I kind of wanted to swear off these mark-your-movement-on-a-hidden-pad games altogether.

But Ninja is pretty cool. For one thing, only the ninja player has to hide his movement. The other guy has nifty plastic minis to show where all his guards are. For another thing, most of the stuff in this game actually works, as opposed to Escape The Aliens, which was mostly just stupid.

As the ninja player, you'll have two bad guys roaming around the castle compound, intent on mayhem and discord - and they're trying really hard not to get caught. You can move faster than the wind, and strike with deadly skill, but the guards you have to outwit are not exactly mall cops, and they'll perforate you like a spaghetti strainer if you're not careful. You can run when time is of the essence, and when silence is more important than speed, creep slowly past the watching guard.

You'll have a handful of cards for each of your villainous intruders, cards that can be used to quietly dispatch the searching guards, distract them, or escape capture. These cards can be very powerful, but you don't have very many, and you can only use each card once per game. You never have to reveal your location until a guard stumbles across you, and if you use your cards right, you can take them down with a shuriken in the knee before they raise the alarm.

It may sound like the guards have a hard time of it, but remember, these are trained samurai walking the grounds. They're not just flashing a torch into the corners and yelling at kids to quit necking in the back seat. They'll stop every now and then and listen for intruders, and if the ninja player has been sloppy, you'll have a chance to go running off after the bad guys and throw down some steel justice.

Plus there are a ton of guards. You'll start the game with a decent handful, and as you go, you'll wind up with as many as 20 pipe-hitting warriors patrolling the grounds. Some of the guards are sleeping at the beginning of the game, but as the game progresses, they're going to wake up and start running aroung like the Keystone Kops playing lacrosse with the F-Troop.

The only thing is, where the ninja player can go wherever he wants, you're stuck using cards every time you want to make a move. At the beginning of the game, you'll have plenty of options, but by the end, you're going to be groaning when you discover that even though you know right where the traitorous fiends are hiding, your cards will only allow you to pick the lock on the outhouse and throw cherry bombs in the toilet.

Ninja is a hard game to win. For the killers to win, both the bad guys have to accomplish their hidden goals and get out. For the guards to win, they have to kill both of the bad guys. If only one murderer gets out alive, the game is a draw - and since that's about the most likely result, not very many games of Ninja are going to end in a decisive victory for anyone.

In fact, while I do like the mechanics of Ninja, and think that the pieces are simply brilliant, the end of the game is likely to be very unsatisfying. You'll maneuver around, playing cards and positioning your forces, and then after you spend an hour or so working hard to outwit the other guy, the game ends and nobody wins. That's incredibly frustrating.

But even though the end of the game can be a let-down, the part where you're playing is ridiculously tense. Over and over, the ninja player will be just one lucky move away from getting caught. And time after time, the samurai player will be hot on the trail, just to have his prey escape at the last second. Every time you play, you're going to want to go back over the events of the game and relate all the places where the good guys almost got the bad guys, the time when the ninja escaped by hiding silently in the corner, and how the patrolling guards were just seconds away from stumbling across the nefarious murderers.

There were a few other problems with Ninja, like the fairly confusing rules for the secret tunnel, but those will vanish after you play a couple times. My only serious beefs with Ninja are that it's too easy for the samurai player to wind up with nothing he can do, and the fact that far too many games end in a tie. If you like a game that will literally get your heart beating faster (and I am using the word properly - while playing Ninja, I could seriously feel my heartbeat speeding up), Ninja does a spectacular job of both telling a story and just plain being exciting. There's a lot of bluffing, sneaking, and outwitting, and those make for a pretty fun game where I'm from.


2-4 players (but it's really just meant to be 2)

Really feels like a cat-and-mouse ninja home invasion
Spectacular components make the game more fun just by being pretty
Tense and exciting

Poor card draws can cripple and frustrate the guard player
Too many games end in a tie

If you feel like creeping around in the dark, run over to Noble Knight Games and pick up a copy of Ninja. You can even save ten bucks in the process!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Card Game Review - 51st State

Neuroshima is the coolest setting that was ever ruined by a board game. And the crazy thing is, the games that ruin the setting are great games - but they suck at playing up the setting. Neuroshima Hex is a brilliant game of careful placement and long-term planning, but it has virtually nothing to do with killer robots or mutated plants, aside from some pretty pictures.

51st State does a better job of playing up the theme, but only marginally, and now it feels way too friendly to be a game about killing bands of roving marauders. It has a lot of similarities to Race for the Galaxy, and like that Puerto-Rico-in-space game, really does help to deliver the feeling of building a nation from the ground up. In fact, I would say it's even better than Race for the Galaxy, but it still doesn't address my main problem with either game. Namely, you can raise powerful armies and hard-hitting raiders, but you can't send them to hit other players. If I'm playing a game with bloodthirsty armies, I want to use them, and not just to beat up the cards.

The idea behind 51st State is that, in the wake of the nuclear destruction of the United States, you head up a nation attempting to build a new nation from the ashes of the old. Your opponents are doing the same thing, but only one of you can come out on top. So instead of having a race for the whole galaxy, you're really just racing for the East Coast.

There are so many great concepts in 51st State that I'm really only going to hit on a few of them. My favorite is how all the different locations can serve three different purposes. For instance, say you find a bar full of gun-toting wastelanders. You can ride up with a couple tanks and kill everybody, then steal all the liquor and guns. You can negotiate with them and get a regular supply of small arms. Or you can bring them into the fold, thereby allowing all your soldiers a place to fire guns in the air and disco until the bullets come back down and kill their dance partners.

However you decide to exploit a location, you're going to have to pay for it. If you decide to settle it, you'll need a different resource than if you decide to burn it down. Every faction has three cards they can use every turn to generate the specific resources needed for conquering, negotiating or incorporating - but you can only use them once. And to make things more complicated, you have to buy the resources on those cards with other resources.

The goal of the game is to earn victory points (so no, that's not all that original), but you don't just count up every turn. You can build up points with special actions that will be counted every turn, so early investments can pay off big down the road, as long as you don't screw it up and wait too long for your big play. You can hire leaders and use them to earn these recurring points, then kill off the leader and get another one - just to build up more points. There's a very delicate element of timing and planning that can pay off huge, if you exploit it, or ruin the unprepared.

Unfortunately, it's not all wine and roses. Nothing is easy in 51st State, and I don't just mean for the guys who live there. There's an unnecessarily complicated series of resource generation steps that means you have to invest in raw materials, then in ways to use those materials, then in ways to spend them. This is actually where 51st State starts to bog down. A typical transaction might go like this:

1) Discard spoils to gain workers.
2) Send workers to round up some gears.
3) Swap gears for negotiation points.
4) Spend negotiation points to play a card.
5) Wonder out loud why it takes four steps to do something that probably could have been accomplished in one.

This complication adds a few cascading downsides, too. For one thing, instead of having just two or three icons for resources, there are eight or nine. And since the icons relate quite a bit of information (and the game was originally Polish), there are no words on the cards describing what the icons mean. If you thought it was tough to remember what all the icons meant in Race for the Galaxy, you're going to need night classes to learn the pictures in 51st State.

Another problem is that a game that requires all those resources also requires tiny cardboard circles to represent them. You'll have a pile of chits depicting everything from indentured servants to clay bricks. And in a production decision that I can only assume still causes the publishers to shake their head at their own oversight, these chits are made out of fairly thin cardboard, making them virtually impossible to pick up. I finally broke down and stuck a piece of gum on the end of a ruler, and used the gum to pick up the pieces (I did not actually do that. Instead, I just dropped them all over the place).

But all these are secondar compared to the biggest complaint I have about 51st State - I want to shoot my friends. I've raised a howling, rabid pack of mutant ass-kickers, and I want to use them to burn down enemy encampments and get mud all over my friends' carpet. Instead, I have the option to send my guys to work for my opponents in exchange for a box of bricks. It's too damned cooperative. If I want peaceful coexistence, I'll play a game by Oprah Winfrey.

So I do have some pretty valid complaints about 51st State, and I haven't even mentioned how complicated the rules are. But I don't want to give the impression that I didn't like the game. In fact, I loved it. We played it a bunch, just because of how much fun we were having. We played it wrong, because we didn't understand a few of the rules, but we still had such a good time that we kept coming back for more.

Even with all the downsides, it really is quite fun to start with almost nothing and build up this powerful nation of ruined airplanes and mutant hamburger stands. It's an excellent blend of tactics and strategy, where you decide on a direction early in the game and then see it through with smart plays as the game progresses. The art is great, and the game has plenty of tension as you push to get just one or two points ahead of your opponents before you hit the finish line and the game ends.

If you hate Race for the Galaxy, you're probably not going to enjoy the amount of mental effort it takes to play 51st State. In fact, you might be completely confused for the first couple games, because all those icons really do take some learning, and can become an avalanche of indecipherable information. But once you get it down, you might find that all the complication and tricky rules make for a game that is wonderfully engaging and just a bunch of fun.


2-4 players

Build a nation out of nothing
A great mix of long-term planning and quick thinking
Fantastic art
Every decision matters

Unnecessarily complex
Tiny pieces that you can't pick up without very sticky fingers
Not anywhere near as much interaction as it should have

I enjoyed the crap out of 51st State. If it sounds like your kind of game, you can pick it up from Noble Knight Games, and save yourself a few bucks:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Event Review - Lighting the House on Fire

In my never-ending quest to bring you reports of interesting things you could do with your weekends, I have found the most fascinating event - burning down your house. Unfortunately, I have to give this a negative review, as I must say it is not nearly as much fun as it sounds.

Honestly, I never meant to review a house fire. I always pretty much assumed it would suck, and I think most people would agree that a house fire is a pretty crappy way to spend your day. However, today my son made fireworks in his bedroom and succeeded at setting his mattress aflame. Shortly thereafter, the attic exploded.

OK, that's a dramatization. Only the windows exploded. The attic itself (where his room is found) did not explode, though one wall of the house was pretty well ruined, and was open to the rain when I left tonight.

If you do decide to burn down your house, I highly recommend having very good homeowner's insurance. That way, while the firemen throw every game you own out a second-story window because your office is next to your boy's bedroom, you will rest comfortably, knowing that all of your games will be replaced. Like, in three months or so, when the checks come in. And, of course, you won't have that cherry copy of Black Ops any more, since they only made 1,000 of those.

Also, if you do intend to burn your home, it's a good idea to take your computer out of the office first. Had I realized this, my computer would not currently be a mishapen pile of melted plastic, and I would not have to write the evening's review on my wife's laptop while in a hotel room.

Another good tip, if you decide to burn your home, is to save the Christmas tree. If you can grab any presents, that's also a good idea. We may be celebrating in a hotel room this year, but we will have our artificial tree and most of the presents (that is, the ones that were not water-damaged when the ceiling in the living room collapsed).

While the actual event of watching flames shoot out the windows of your home is actually quite exciting, it is amazing how quickly the excitement becomes very boring. Once the fire department finishes with the process of saving about half of your wordly possessions (the other half being claimed by hungry flames), you will have to wait for the insurance rep to show up. After that, you will have to wait for the guys who will board up your home. Then you will wait for the guys who will come out and see what can be salvaged. Then, for some extra good times, you will have to wait for the arson investigator who thinks that your son is working for Al-Qaeda and building a bomb in your attic.

So, all things considered, lighting fire to your house is getting a flat-out negative review. Not only did I miss the cool part where flames and smoke shot out my windows, but everything after that sucked. Not one part of my day after that was awesome. If you are desperate to do something destructive, just to break up the monotony, consider hitting yourself in the foot with a hammer. It will hurt an awful lot, but at least you won't have to wonder how long it will take you to paint all those Warhammer Quest miniatures. Again.


No need to clean, if you're just going to burn everything
An excellent way to get your attic remodeled

Half an hour of sheer terror followed by a whole lot of boring
Virtually guaranteed to lose something with considerable sentimental value

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Board Game Review - Dungeon Run

I've made a lot of friends because of reviewing games. For instance, I got a review copy of HeroScape, which I loved so much I had to find a fan site, which led to a trip to GenCon, and led to a lot more stuff, and eventually to making friends with some truly amazing people.

One of those truly amazing people is Colby Dauch, the creator of Summoner Wars and proprietor of Plaid Hat Games. He's not only a good game designer, but a savvy publisher and one of the flat-out best guys I know. And that's why it causes me all manner of anguish to have to review Dungeon Run, which I did not like very much at all.

The problem is even worse, though. See, not only is Dungeon Run published by my friend Colby, with whom I have sat until 4 in the morning talking about nothing in particular while I drank hard liquor and used extraordinarily foul language, but the game is also designed by Mr. Bistro (not his real name), who is ALSO a friend. Hell, even the guy who sculpted the miniatures is a friend. Hopefully all these guys will still be my friends when I finish this review.

Dungeon Run should be awesome. It's set in the world of Summoner Wars, where a band of competing adventurers dives into a dank dungeon to chase down a summoning stone. Monsters pop out of the woodwork, whirling axe blades pop out of the walls, and rickety bridges threaten to collapse. Plus it comes from the company that produced Summoner Wars, and that is one of my favorite games of all time. It is practically guaranteed to rule.

But then it doesn't rule. It is a randomized, dice-throwing extravaganza where strategy takes a back seat to just being lucky. I wouldn't go so far as to say it sucked, but I don't much want to play it again. There are some really cool ideas at work here, but they seem to be surrounded by things that just drag it down.

For instance, there's a seriously cool fighting mechanic where the monsters roll for hits, and then the hero rolls to attack, but some of his dice can block the damage, or he can go for broke and just berserk the ugly bastards and suck up a little pain. This is probably the best part of the game, and while it does get very dice-heavy, I really did like the way it worked.

The problem is, you only get two actions on your turn, and so if you roll fair-to-middlin', you'll maybe wound the monster once and block all the damage - and then your turn is over and the big sumbitch is still there. Then you get to wait until you get a turn again, and then you get to say, 'OK, roll', followed by, 'OK, roll,' and then your turn is over again. There are ways around this - you could run away, you could get all berserk, or you could hope someone else kills the beastie - but that doesn't mitigate the fact that there's a very dull and repetitive way to play the game, which might actually be the best strategy you could employ.

Then there are little things that pop up here and there. The deck of encounter cards has a ridiculously high number of traps, and not enough monsters, so you're far too likely to wander through room after room finding not one actual opponent, and a nearly endless supply of poison arrows and spears shooting out of the walls. I don't mind a trap now and then, but I would really much rather fight. I'm a violent dude, especially when I'm gaming, and my brand of excitement does not include continuously dodging clouds of poison gas (if I want poison gas, I've got plenty of gaming buddies who eat far too much fast food).

For another example of something I didn't like, look at the evil wizard (he's called the Filth). He's a bad-ass magic-slinger, and he can bust a cap in a cave mole or walking fungus like a West-Coast rapper. But when he gets to the final bad guy, if he finds himself fighting the dragon, he's up a smelly creek without a paddle, because that fire-breathing thunder lizard is immune to magic. Sorry, Filth, you're screwed!

Now, in all fairness, simply killing the dungeon boss is not how you win Dungeon Run. Once you kill the boss, you have to grab up the stone MacGuffin and make it out the door while all your friends come after you with howitzers and safety razors. If one of them can kill you, he can make a run for freedom, and everyone gets to kill him instead. This actually sort of works - you'll spend the first part of the game trying to get everyone else worn down to a nub, and the end game trying to finish them off.

Unfortunately, the rules for fighting your friends are not the same as the rules for fighting monsters. The rules work great for killing gross booger monsters, but they're clunky if you're fighting other heroes. And escaping a dungeon denizen takes more work, too - the best strategy for most Hero Turned Ultimate Dungeon Boss types is to just run away.

And then comes my biggest complaint with Dungeon Run - it's just not intuitive. Over and over we found ourselves going back to the rulebook and going, 'well Hell's Bells, how the crap does this work?' The rulebook is quite long, and while I'm not afraid of a rulebook, this one is really wordy. And you need all those words, because you're not just going to guess at how it works. It's not like you're going to pick up the basic premise of the game and then see everything else spin off from there.

I'm actually really glad that Dungeon Run is not the first game Plaid Hat has produced, because Summoner Wars put the company on the map in a big way and continues to keep it there. Dungeon Run is a pretty mediocre game leaning more towards bad than awesome, and there's no way Plaid Hat would have made as enormous a splash if they had entered the market with Dungeon Run.

Now, my negative reviews basically come in two flavors. The first flavor is the one where I tell you that the game in question was planted by dread Cthulhu to torment the minds of mortals, and nobody who values their sanity should ever consider playing. The second kind of negative review, which is the kind we've got here, is the one where I didn't like the game, but I can certainly see where someone would. In fact, I've heard a great deal of pretty good buzz about Dungeon Run, so I know that someone out there is enjoying the hell out of it. I'm not, but someone is, so maybe you'll throw me a bone here and buy the game just so Colby will still bring bottles of Crown Royal to my hotel room when we're in Indianapolis again.


1-6 players

Great production - I liked the art, and the minis are sweet
Cool fighting concept
Really cool setting

Too many rules, and some rules seem to be at odds with others
Too easy to get mired in repetitive, boring roll-fests
There's no strategy you can use that can't be undone by a few bad die rolls

I know that a lot of people are really digging Dungeon Run, and there's every chance you will, too. If you want to give it a shot, you can save a sawbuck on it and pick it up from Noble Knight Games:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Card Game Review - Godzilla Stomp

I want to know who came up with the term 'Kaiju'. I'm sure it was someone in Japan. It doesn't make sense that it would have been an American, because no American would have invented a term so cute to represent giant rampaging monsters who regularly eat pieces of Tokyo. The word sounds like it ought to be a cuddly little fantasy beast who has a magical sneeze that cures the common cold. But whoever invented the word, a whole lot of people who have never been outside the United States know that it means 'Godzilla and Friends', and so it gets slapped all over games about blowing up cities with twenty-story-tall lizards and mutated moths.

One such game is Godzilla Stomp, in which players compete to trash the most buildings. It's a very simple game that takes about as long to play as it does to explain the rules (which is about five minutes). Each player chooses a monstrous menace from among some fairly famous movie stars, like Mothra and Battra and of course the big man himself (or, I guess, big lizard), Godzilla. Then you get six cards with pictures of your favorite city-basher, and try to pick up some killer points. You don't train your adorable pet to evolve into a larger, also-adorable pet, because that's not actually what Kaiju means.

It really is simple. You have five cards numbered 1 to 5, and the last card says, 'Rampage.' There are a bunch of cards on the table, buildings with values on them, and everybody chooses a card at the same time. The highest played card takes the first building, and then everyone else gets one in order, unless you played Rampage, in which case you go last, but you get everything that's left. Also, there are power plants with variable values based on how many you have wrecked and a tie-breaker mechanic based on who got the last card.

Now you're probably going, 'that's it? That's the whole game?' And my answer is, 'yep, that's all.' Kaiju are fairly simple creatures, with fairly simple needs. They break things. They don't like to complicate it with fancified rules. They excel at mayhem, breathing lightning and eating cars and what-not. They don't like to be bothered with dice mechanics and turn order. They also don't require the love only a young child can offer. They would rather have the arms and legs a child can offer.

The thing is, while that simplicity might make them fun to watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon as they descend from the sky or rise from the ocean to turn Tokyo into a steaming ruin, it doesn't make for much of a game. Godzilla Stomp contains marginal decision-making at best. Calling it a light game is like eating a single popcorn kernel and calling it a light lunch.

I don't mind a light game, but I would like it to have at least a little meat on it. Godzilla Stomp isn't stupid, and it does what it means to do, as long as what it means to do is help you unwind between taxing rounds of tic-tac-toe. It just happens so fast that you'll finish the game and wonder if maybe the designer thought Kaiju really were pink furballs with electric tails.

Now, I'm sure that if I spoke Japanese as a first language, the word Kaiju would instill a sense of wonder and terror that can only be inspired by a creature the size of Mechagodzilla. And then maybe I would play a game like Godzilla Stomp and think, 'wow, that was terrifying!' But probably not. Probably I would be disappointed that the biggest, meanest motor-scooters who ever took a bite out of a big city were distilled down into a five-minute numbers exercise.

I didn't hate Godzilla Stomp. I also like popcorn. But I want more than one kernel of popcorn, and I want more out of a game than Godzilla Stomp provides. If you have to entertain some kids with very short attention spans, you might see a reason to pick up this game. But I play with grown-ups who are used to games that make our brains sweat, and we were all pretty underwhelmed.


2-5 players

Really cool art
Very easy to pick up and play

Decided lack of meaningful decisions
Not much game in this game

If you really want to try out a game this light, you might as well save a buck on it and get it at Noble Knight Games:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Total Retraction - Game Salute is Actually OK

I'm wrong a lot. Usually, it has to do with a game (probably because I review a lot of games). And usually, all I really have to do is edit the original review a little, and point out where I was wrong. Usually, there's very little egg on my face.

This time, however, I have cooked an omelette directly into my beard. That's how much egg is on my face. And now, to go with all that egg, I also have to eat some crow. I just hope I can find some fresh-squeezed OJ to wash it all down.

I completely misunderstood the Game Salute thing. Well, not completely, but I missed several very important distinctions, and came to some incorrect conclusions based on limited information. In other words, I jumped the gun, got egg on my face, and had to eat crow. If I can find another metaphor, I'll shoe-horn that sumbitch into this article, one way or another.

I talked to some of the Game Salute guys over the weekend, and considering how I compared their program to rotten fish, they were pretty darn nice. I would have been going through the files for a home address so I could hire a thumb-breaker who makes house calls, but they were very friendly.

So, here's the actual deal. Game Salute is not even remotely a traditional distributor. They don't buy the games from the publishers. They take a commission for every sale, which means if the games don't sell, they don't get paid. They are not holding a monopoly on anything, because they don't actually have anything on which they could hold a monopoly. They run the store front for the publishers, with the end result that however you buy the game, you're buying it from the publisher.

And they also have an entire host of things they do to help out the publishers. Like, they do an incredible amount of marketing to get game stores to pick up games they would have otherwise ignored. They even help stores promote the games so that the stores can sell what they buy. Where most traditional distributors are sort of faceless machines doling out product like a street-corner drug dealer, Game Salute puts a considerable emphasis on relationships.

To go one further, Game Salute vets the publishers they carry. They won't just accept any knucklehead with a self-published gaming disaster. They recommend printers (which I can tell you, having attempted to find printers myself, is a huge help all by itself), they consult on the graphic design, and otherwise make sure that stores aren't buying crappy games.

Heck, they even arrange international distribution for their publishers, so that game stores in Germany can get copies of Alien Frontiers. You still can't buy it online, except through the Game Salute or the publisher, but they've found ways to open the markets for their publishers.

So whatever smelled fishy about this entire thing was not Game Salute. It was probably the raccoon that died in my attic. Game Salute is not setting prices, so they can't do any price-fixing, and whatever market manipulation they're attempting is relatively benign. They're not screwing anybody.

Now, I'm not taking back everything I said in my last post. I still don't think eliminating online retailers is a good idea, because one website is simply never going to have the same market penetration as ten, especially when those ten sites carry a hell of a lot more games and are in locations all over the globe. Customers who can't get discounts online are going to be a lot less likely to buy, and when they can't bundle up shipping with products from nearly every publisher on the planet, some of those games just aren't going to get sold.

But I learned something else from my discussions with the Game Salute guys - they're old-school industry guys who have been in game stores since before you could buy games on the ol' interwebs. Not that Game Salute was a cover to ratchet up more dough for their storefronts, or anything, but I can sure see how a guy who owns a physical store would be interested in blocking online discounters. Everything about Game Salute is meant to make things better for physical retailers, because those are the people Game Salute understands.

The final score on this Game Salute thing, then, is that these guys are not profiteering assholes trying to rape and pillage their way to a quick buck (especially since they're not expecting to break even for a couple more years). They have a vision, one based in large part on their experience as physical retailers, and they're attempting to see it out. They've come up with some pretty innovative ways to make that vision happen, but they're not crooks. If they're guilty of anything, it's not telling irresponsible game reviewers how things work until those game reviewers go off half-cocked and start spouting off without knowing all the facts.

I still think it's ultimately counter-productive to cut out the online stores, and if I were a publisher, I don't believe I would consider signing with Game Salute. But that's not a moral decision, it's a business decision, and it's not even remotely sleazy. In fact, it's also a business decision I don't have to make, and it's not one I have to approve. I think it's safe to say it's not even really any of my business, except that the place where I personally prefer to buy games - Noble Knight Games - isn't going to be able to carry all the games I like to buy. On the other hand, there's a good chance my local game shop is going to carry those games that retailers normally wouldn't touch, because Game Salute is busting ass to make sure those store owners know how good the games really are. There's a trade-off, and a long-term investment in traditional game stores, and I think a lot of people are going to respond to that.

So after our lengthy conversation, the Game Salute dude said he was putting the new Flash Duel in the mail. Like I said, these guys were a class act. Not only were they not verbally abusive, as I most assuredly would have been, but they're actually sending out review copies right after I was all stupid and wrongfully accusatory (I'm not sure if those are actual words, and I don't know if used them correctly, but my spell checker didn't flag 'em, so I'm leaving them right there).

Only time will tell if this business model is successful. The Game Salute guys are putting a lot on the line to bet that it will be, though, and they've put their money where their mouth is. I, on the other hand, have put my foot where my mouth is, and while my personal guess is that those publishers might have been better served with a different strategy, I'm still rooting for them. Game Salute isn't bad. In fact, it might just be what this industry needs.

While we wait to see if Game Salute revolutionizes the way gaming works, I'll keep reviewing games and occasionally talking out of my ass. The Game Salute guys will be working 90-hour weeks, and I will be picking egg out of my face hair. You can just keep doing what you've been doing - ignoring your day job to read my ignorant boob jokes - and we'll all just keeping playing games.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Rant - Game Salute

EDIT: Feel free to read this bit, to see what a jackass I am, but after you do, please read the next post, right here. Because most of this article is wrong.

I love to wallow in my hypocrisy. For instance, I fully endorse my son dating pretty much any girl he can catch (and since he's 6 foot 2 and full of muscle, he can catch a lot of them), but when my daughter's suitors come to my house, I make sure to be cleaning a shotgun at the coffee table. I complain about the environmental impact of fossil fuels, and I drive an enormous SUV. But there has to be a line somewhere. So I've decided that I will no longer drink milk right from the carton (though in all honesty, we buy those big gallon jugs, and after the third time I spilled milk all over my shirt, I decided I better get a glass, anyway).

The milk thing has been going so well that I decided I needed to find another way to practice what I preach. And so I've decided that I will not be reviewing games carried by Game Salute any more.

This was not an easy decision to make, and I don't expect it will make me very popular. But then, I'm not doing this to be popular, I do this to get free games. Yes, OK, I'm kind of screwing up that particular goal, but I can explain.

There's been a lot of talk recently about this new fulfillment/distribution thing called Game Salute. A bunch of small publishers have signed up with Game Salute, who acts as both retailer and distributor. The way this works is, Game Salute will not sell games to anyone who will sell them online. They're ostensibly supporting physical stores by not allowing online stores any access to the games they represent.

Now, maybe I don't follow this whole thing. In fact, it's incredibly likely. But I've looked at a lot of different sources here, and I gotta say, this Game Salute thing smells fishy. And I don't mean like the kitchen at Red Lobster, I mean like the pier where they unload the catch of the day. Maybe like the dumpster behind that pier where they throw all the fish they can't sell.

Here's the nitty gritty part, as I understand it. Game Salute agrees to essentially be the distributor and retailer for the games they carry, and the publishers agree that they will not sell their games to anyone else. Then Game Salute agrees not to sell the games to anyone who would sell it online. Then Game Salute is the only place in the entire known universe where you can buy these games. And they're doing pretty well - they've got some really impressive titles, like Yomi and Alien Frontiers.

I'm not an economist. I should say that up front (or halfway through, I guess, since that's where we are now). But I don't think it takes an MBA to know that monopolies are bad for everyone - well, everyone except the company that holds the monopoly. They set their own price to buy, and they set their own price to sell. Everybody in the chain gets screwed, except, as I said, the guy holding all the cards.

I can see why a publisher might think this was a good idea. From where they're sitting, online stores undercut their prices and devalue their products. So the publishers sign up with someone who promises to champion the cause of undercut prices, by not letting those nasty online retailers undersell their games. But there are some painful flaws in that line of thinking, flaws that really ought to be addressed.

For one thing, online stores have to discount. It's how they exist. Are you going to walk up to your virtual salesman and say, 'pardon me, electronic chat window, but can you direct me to something I might like?' You have to know what you want, because even if they advertise, the fact is, there's nobody in an online store who can tell you what you might dig. Physical stores have a huge edge in the interaction department, and without discounting, online stores would die right out.

Second, physical stores are not going to carry as many copies as online stores. They can't. A physical store has limited shelf space, and is generally only going to carry stuff it knows it can sell. Online stores have lower overhead, and keeping stuff online for a year only hurts if their warehouse is smaller than my tool shed. So not selling to online stores means you don't sell as many games. The Spanish have a word for a business strategy that sells fewer products. That word is estupido.

Third, online retailers will account for a hell of a lot more sales than a small publisher is ever going to get selling direct. What makes more sense, selling 10 games and clearing $500, or selling 100 games and clearing $1500? (Yes, I'm accounting for cost of goods sold. I did take some accounting in college.) I'll give you a hint - it's the one that makes more money.

Finally, and in my opinion, most important, is that you don't see the big guys signing up with Game Salute. And you don't see FFG and Days of Wonder signing up because they're not threatened by online sales. Small publishers will get up in arms about not being able to sell their twenty copies direct, where FFG sells 2,000 copies to a discounter in Brazil and laughs all the way to the bank.

Of course I know there is a difference between the big guys and the little ones. But the reason small publishers stay small is because they think small. Acting like the underdog means you get to stay the underdog. The big publishers don't do what they do because they like to waste money or cost themselves sales. They have very good reasons for selling to anyone who will buy a copy, and those reasons resemble small green pictures of dead presidents.

So up to this point, Game Salute isn't so much bad as it is misguided. Deliberately snubbing online retailers might seem like a spit in Goliath's eye, but it's really just kind of short-sighted. I would just shake my head at the poor business practice, and just keep playing some of my favorite games, but then we get to the thing that makes Game Salute look less Dopey Dwarf versus Goliath and more just plain rotten - the monopoly.

By persuading publishers that online retailers will steal their wallets, Game Salute has managed to be the exclusive distributor for their games. Game Salute sells online at full retail, because they can - they've created a market with no competition. Without lower-priced games available anywhere, however, fewer people will buy those games. Publishers will not sell as many games. And physical stores were unlikely to buy them in the first place, because they buy stuff they know they can sell. So your scorecard looks a little like this:

Online retailers: Just Plain Screwed
Publishers: Selling fewer games, so Screwed
Customers: Paying more for games, so Screwed
Physical stores: Not carrying the games anyway, so Breaking Even
Game Salute: WIN WIN WIN WIN

And that's the part that bugs me. To me, that looks like dirty pool. It looks like taking advantage of inexperienced businessmen for personal gain. It just looks sleazy. And I'm not going to use Drake's Flames to help promote sales for a company that I think is sleazy, so starting right now, I'm not reviewing anything else that comes from Game Salute.

This wasn't an easy decision. For one thing, I only write this stupid website so I can get free games, and deliberately cutting someone out of my supply chain means I get fewer free games. For another thing, those free games are some really good games. Alien Frontiers was one of my favorites from 2010, and I am a huge fan of Sirlin Games, and now I won't be reviewing anything from either of those companies. I didn't just jump into this without thinking, and for me to stop getting review copies means I'm pretty serious about this.

My hypocrisy has to stop somewhere. I'm still going to get furious at anyone who flips me the bird, even though I will most assuredly fly you the eagle if you cut me off on the freeway. But once my wife found out that I wouldn't drink out of a gallon jug and started buying the big milk, I have to find some other way to pretend that I have at least an ounce of integrity.

I willingly admit that I could be reading this wrong. There's probably something I'm missing. Please, feel absolutely free to point out my errors. Hell, I want you to. I want to believe that Game Salute is simply making an honest mistake. Because, really, I want that Puzzle Strike expansion. In fact, there's the gauntlet - I'm throwing it down. Show me the error of my ways, and I'll write another whole article about how wrong I was.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Expansion Review - Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack

Usually, when I review an expansion, the end result is usually, 'if you like the game, get the expansion.' It's rare that I play an expansion and go, 'why the hell would you get this?' For one thing, people rarely need reviews to get expansions, because most expansions are basically whatever you liked about the original game, plus some more.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Consider, if you will, the Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack. After rooting through this expansion and playing it, I've come to the conclusion that there is virtually no reason to buy it.

Keep in mind that Puzzle Strike is my second-favorite deck-building game, right after Nightfall, and so I was very excited to get the Upgrade Pack. I'm not cursing the expansion because I hate the game - I love the game, and I really like the new chips that are in the upgrade.

The problem is, the upgrade only has three new chips. Three. As in, less than four. When I get an expansion, and have played the original into the ground, I want it to give me a bunch of new reasons to play. While these three new chips are really cool, there are only three of them. After a couple games, I will already be bored with the new stuff.

That's not all that's in the pack, of course. There are also cardboard screens and mouse pads with art on them, plus updated character chips. But the game I already had contains character chips, and I didn't need a completely new set. They're not new characters. They're just the same characters, but with some balancing. If you ask me, they should have been in the original.

And while it's great to have a mouse pad tell me where to put my discard pile, I never had a problem playing without the pads. I have always managed to remember which pile is my gem pile, and which is for discarded chips. These pads are not something I need. Of course, if you tend to accidentally throw your gem pile into your bag instead of your discards, the pads may come in handy - in which case you could draw a couple circles onto a sheet of notebook paper, and make your own.

Same with the screens. I've always managed to either hold my chips in my hand, or lay them down and cup a hand over them. I have not needed a screen to keep my chips secret. But now there are four cardboard screens, and if I really needed screens, I could have made them with a couple index cards. Basically, if you have access to office supplies, you don't really need this new stuff.

Which leaves me with an expansion for one of my favorite games that only barely expands it. The three new chips are really cool, I admit, and I am glad they're in the pack. But I don't need the other stuff. I won't use it. I don't see a compelling reason to pick up the expansion, unless you just really want those three chips.

I'm actually very disappointed in the Upgrade Pack, because of how much I enjoy playing Puzzle Strike. When I heard about an expansion, I was giddy, hoping for a wide variety of exciting new ways to play. I was looking forward to exploring new strategies, discovering new ideas, and playing new games. Instead I got a minuscule expansion surrounded by crap that doesn't even fit in the original box.

I can't say that nobody will want the Upgrade Pack. Two of the people who played with me were delighted with the player mats and screens. And I've heard from others who were very pleased with the balancing edits made to the character chips. And, of course, everybody agreed that the new puzzle chips are great.

I really hope that there's another expansion in the works for Puzzle Strike, and if I had my way, the only thing in the expansion would be more chips. More actions to buy. Maybe even different characters, or new crash chips, or a double-combine. Because I feel like this Upgrade Pack was a missed opportunity, and while it will definitely appeal to some fans, I just kind of feel like I ordered a Big Mac and got a McNugget.


Three new chips are pretty damned cool

I could have made my own play mats and screens
The updated characters should have been fixed before the original released

Noble Knight Games isn't carrying the Upgrade Pack. That's fine, though, because I can't think why you would want it anyway.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Board Game Review - Quebec

If I were a history teacher, I would have a bunch of different ways to teach history. There would be all manner of interactive lessons, theme days, and stirring lectures. However, one method I would not employ in order to teach history would be to play board games.

At first glance, Quebec (the game, not the city) seems to be a history lesson in a box. You each play a different family attempting to stamp your name on the legacy of Quebec (the city, not the game). To do that, you'll spend four centuries building the city and jockeying for power, whether you buy off politicians, sponsor plays, or build churches. Personally, I think it would be more effective to simply let everyone in the class dress as their favorite Canadian.

As a historical reference, Quebec (the game, not the city) is unfortunately lacking. However, as a game, it is charming, thematic and full of depth. You will feel like a powerful magnate manipulating the future of a city. That city could be Quebec, or it could be Ice Station Zebra, or it could be a colony on Mars. Historically, you won't really care about how Quebec was built (the city, not the game), but you'll definitely have a vested interest in building the best city you can. If you want to find out how Quebec was really built (the city, not the game), you can have Canadian food day, and everyone will bring in bacon and beer.

In an ironic gesture, the game has no violence at all. This is ironic because the city most definitely had a lot of people die, especially since it's 400 years old. If nobody had died, it would be chock full of geezers who didn't have enough room to maneuver their oxygen tanks, and they would be actively bankrupting the social security program. And yet as you play Quebec (the game, not the city), you will never once kill anybody. However, everyone knows Canadians are peaceful people, so it's no surprise the game doesn't have a body count.

What it does have is a fantastic amount of intelligence. You'll form strategies right from the outset, and every turn will be spent advancing the plan you think will help you win. Everything you do has layer upon layer of consequence, too - you may just be helping to build that cathedral because it will let you move your workers into position for next turn, but it also means you're exerting more influence over the city's religious development, which could create a chain of events that scores you a bunch of points and puts you in a better position for next round - which won't happen for half an hour. It might also mean you miss a great opportunity to improve your standing with the city's political leaders, or hamstring yourself and allow an opponent to sweep in and turn that opera house you've been eyeballing into a motel that charges by the hour.

Another excellent feature of Quebec (the game, not the city) is that while there is a ton of interaction - in fact, you will rely on it - it's not overly confrontational. There's minimal amounts of screwing your friends, which is nice if you play with people who don't like it when you steal their stuff and leave them bleeding out on the sidewalk. Canadians are all about cooperation, which this game will teach us, though I think the lesson would have been better taught by having everyone team up to build collages on poster board.

In case you're not picking up this vibe so far, I'll be real blunt - Quebec (the game, not the city) is very European (obviously the city is not - it's Canadian). Where most games that earn the label 'worker placement' call their little wooden cubes meeples, soldiers, farmers, or disgruntled postal workers, this game actually comes right out and calls them workers. It's that European.

And it's not like it's a dead sexy game, either. The first night I got it, I opened the box, looked at the contents, said 'man, that looks boring,' and closed it again. It's a good thing I'm here to tell you about these things, because if you just judged Quebec (the game, not the city) by appearances, you might be very inclined to skip it. But that would be a mistake, because even though it does not look very fun, it's a really interesting game with a fantastic amount of interaction, virtually no luck, layer upon layer of strategic decisions, and best of all, it really does make you feel like you're building a city that may or may not be Quebec (the city, not the game).

I really do think that board games are a crappy way to teach things, and this particular game has not changed my mind. I do not know any more about the history of the city for having played the game. As an educational tool, Quebec (the game, not the city) fails completely. As a game, it's a masterpiece. Although I did learn one thing - I learned that before I die, I really ought to visit Quebec (the city, not the game).


2-5 players

Feel like you're building a big historical city
Incredible long-term repercussions with every move
Exciting despite a complete lack of bloodshed
Lots of interaction, and most of it is helping each other

Looks very boring
Teaches virtually nothing

Quebec is a little on the pricey side (the game, not the city - though the city might also be expensive). But if you want a copy, you can score a heck of a deal on it at Noble Knight Games:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Expansion Review - Claustrophobia: De Profundis

Claustrophobia has to be one the finest head-to-head dungeon crawl games you can buy. You've got brilliant rules that ramp up the tension and keep the game down to the wire. You've got really cool pre-painted miniatures. And best of all, you've got Dark Ages Crusaders romping around in the bowels of Hell and beating the ugly out of demonic hordes. I can't think of anything bad to say about the game, especially when I get to send ravening demons to chew the gonads off a bunch of self-righteous, Bible-thumping assholes who think they've got some right to perform home invasions just because the residents have horrible skin conditions and poor dental hygiene.

And it just got a whole lot better, with the inclusion of the magnificent expansion De Profundis. There's so much stuff in this box, you won't know how to store it all (I'm not exaggerating - I hate keeping two boxes for one game, but I can't fit everything into one box, and it's vexing me).

Basically, it's like the creator of Claustrophobia sat down and came up with every cool thing he could add, then added it. Then the publisher came and said, 'oh, we'll have to cut-' but the publisher never got to finish, because the creator punched him in the sternum, and the publisher wheezed for five minutes and agreed to let the creator have whatever he wanted, as long as there was no more violence.

There are new minions for the demon player in the form of Hellhounds. These are some bad-ass, mean motor-scooters who will tear up any humans who get separated from the pack. They're wicked cool, but they're kind of pricey, and the demons only get two of them. The new cards that go with these guys give them a ton of ways to be useful, too, and the demon player is going to have a great time taking these guys out for a walk. They are, of course, beasts from the pit of Hell, which means they are prone to starting fights with smaller dogs and pooping on the neighbor's lawn, but at least they're leash-trained.

To meet the added threat of Satan's pit bulls, the forces of humanity have their own secret weapon - the siccaria. If that word is new to you, don't worry, because it's new to me, too. Or it was, until I looked it up. It means 'assassin,' and because it ends with an 'a', it means chick assassin. You can ask anyone you want - chick assassins are awesome. And these particular chick assassins are freaking death machines. In fact, any scenarios that let the humans use the chick assassins has to give the demons even more monsters, because those siccaria will go through them like a hot knife through soup (I know the saying is about butter, but I think a hot knife would go through soup faster).

And let's just assume you were getting tired of tromping through the same old tunnels. 'Oh', you might say with a bored expression, 'another hallway lined with flesh-eating tentacles. Oh, another lair full of teeth-gnashing, murderous demons. How wonderfully pedestrian.' But now you'll explore some new places! Now you can find the sanctified zone, where demons who enter the room will be forced to change their ways and volunteer at the Salvation Army. You can also run across the demonic well, where seriously twisted monsters with horrifying dark powers like to spend their downtime. There's a pool table, and the bar has tons of imports on tap.

I could actually keep going, and describe every cool thing in the box, but that would just spoil it for you (one more spoiler - there's a baby troglodyte. OK, now I'm done). But the point is, De Profundis is full to the rafters of new stuff that will make Claustrophobia a whole Hell of a lot more fun. There are more scenarios than you're likely to play in a year. There are lots of new demonic events, holy gifts, and blessed artifacts. There aren't a bunch of new rules, or new ways to play the game. There's just a big fat pile of stuff that makes the original game a whole bunch better.

If you like Claustrophobia, and you play it more than once a year, you're going to want De Profundis. If you're offended by the theme, find the demons too blasphemous, or think the entire concept is completely absurd, then you're probably about as much fun as a wet diaper, and you should probably head back to the kiddie table, because the grown-ups are talking.


Still just 2 players

More forces of Hell
More forces of Humanity
More places to die
More scenarios
More cards
More of everything that makes Claustrophobia such an awesome game in the first place

Where will I put it all?

So if you read this site often enough, you know that Noble Knight Games sets me up with review copies. They get me review copies I couldn't get otherwise, which lets you read about the games you want to see. And so if you're going to buy your games, get them from Noble Knight, and give them a reason to keep sending them to me. Here, start with De Profundis:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas - Bah... Oh, What the Hell

As the Christmas season begins (well, it may be the first of December, but really, the season has been in full swing since just after Halloween, if you pay any attention to television commercials), the time is upon us for my annual 'how much do I hate Christmas' rant. It's that time of year when I complain about Christmas carols, bemoan the lines at the store, and bitch about the parking at the mall.

There are just two problems. First, I've covered this all before. It's not like it would be a grand revelation, and the jokes would mostly be recycled hash (I would definitely revisit the one about time-traveling to kill Bing Crosby). As much fun as it is to write an annual reminder about how much I despise Christmas in general, it would probably be more effective to just link to one I wrote a year ago.

The second problem is even more pertinent - I'm not really that upset about Christmas this year. I don't know what happened. Maybe the Ghost of Christmas Later stopped by and persuaded me in my sleep, so that I would run out and buy turkeys for everyone and cure the little crippled boy up the street (except that I can barely afford my own turkey, and I don't know any cripples, and I don't like turkey). Maybe I'm getting more tolerant as I age, though I find that particularly difficult to believe. Or maybe - and this is the most likely answer - being broke has freed me from my need to buy some worthless trinket for everyone I know, and so now I can just enjoy the pretty lights. We've already got a couple strands hanging in the living room, and they're really very nice.

It's confusing me, to be honest. Every year I dread the oncoming season, knowing that I will soon be feeling the pressure to get my wife something amazing, that I will be expected to appear jolly at the office Christmas party, that I will be subjected to hour after hour of relentless caroling. But this year, I didn't really care. I know I'll get something for my wife and kids, send out a card to my mom and dad, and completely ignore my extended family - but where that used to cause anxiety, for no reason I can completely understand, I just don't care.

Don't get me wrong - I haven't suddenly begun to actually enjoy all the Holiday crap. I still get annoyed when every single freaking thing I see has snowflakes glued on it. I have no greater tolerance for car commercials with jingle bells than I did last year (although, thanks to the wonder of DVR, I don't actually have to watch those commercials any more). And I still really don't like all the damned Christmas songs. While I'm at it, I'm not going to watch any inspiring tales of faith and joy on the Lifetime channel, because I would rather scoop out my eyes with a melonballer.

But I am starting to see cubicles wrapped in green paper, Christmas ornaments hanging from rearview windows, and people wearing ridiculous red hats, and unlike previous years, they just don't faze me like they used to do. I'm not planning on getting into the spirit of the season and wearing festive turtlenecks, but for the first time in more than a decade, I don't really mind if anyone else does.

I am looking forward to Christmas morning. I don't think I'm actually getting anything cool - my family doesn't have any more money than I do - but I love the quiet day and the tasty meal. I love spending that day with my wife and kids, especially because I usually start that particular morning with two shots of Johnny Walker Black and take a nap after lunch (sometimes, I take a nap shortly after the two shots of Johnny Walker).

So I hate to disappoint, but this year will not feature any angry grandstanding about the evils of mall Santas or the overwhelming desire to pummel a small child in the Target toy aisle. This year, I'll just review some games, and if I do anything cool, I'll let you know. Hell, I might even make a top ten list, or some game recommendations, or some other stupid thing like every other game reviewer on the Internet.

Before you know, I'll be taking my kids to get pictures with Santa. Considering my kids are in high school, though, that could be awkward.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Expansion Review - Babel 13

I've wanted to play Neuroshima Hex since it was new, but it was a Z-Man game, and Zev has sent me, in the entire time I've been reviewing, exactly one game - and it wasn't Neuroshima Hex. So when I sold a bunch of games to Noble Knight and wound up with a hefty store credit, I used it to get the elusive Hex game and the first expansion. But even after playing several games of the original, I still had not played with Babel 13 until Thanksgiving, when I invited a friend to join my family for the holiday, and then spent the entire time playing games with him and ignoring my family (which, I should probably admit, works out great for me).

My biggest problem with Neuroshima Hex is that you have this cool setting with punk-apocalypse characters and scary powers, and the whole thing is reduced to a faceless abstract (the faceless part, actually, is fine with me. Can you imagine how disconcerting it would be to play a game that actually had eyes and nose and stuff? That would freak me out). Every battle takes place in the same symmetrical junkyard, with the same bizarre warriors who can be summed up with a couple triangles and an initiative number.

And now that I've played Babel 13, that complaint is forgotten. The new stuff in this box adds what the base game is missing - namely, a feeling of being there. Of course, since 'there' is a world dominated by monster robots and man-eating shrubbery, you may not want to feel it too much. But don't worry, you're still sitting comfortably in your living room, placing cardboard hexes on a cardboard map while ignoring your family and pretending that this is actually quality time. You don't have to survive sniper fire from mohawk-sporting road raiders. You just have to remember to take out the trash. That's not flowery prose - you literally need to take out the trash, or flies will start to breed on your discarded food wrappers and soggy coffee grounds.

Of course, the most important thing about Babel 13 is that it comes with two new factions. The New York faction is a team of reinforced warriors who can take cover in the shadow of their headquarters, while the Neojungle is composed of walking rutabagas that build a massive plant wall and attack with a terrifying hive mind. The two new factions just feel more unique and post-nukey, with special pieces and cool effects that help you imagine a running battle in the wasted ruins of America (and yes, I just made up the term post-nukey, and will be applying for a trademark shortly).

Only slightly less vital to the success of Babel 13 is the inclusion of terrain pieces. Now you don't have to fight over the same redundant slab of open landfill. Now you can fight through jungles and over hills. You can hide in reinforced bunkers and break into warehouses of supplies. There are more terrain pieces than you probably could have invented on your own, and they all do different things. Plus every piece of terrain could have different effects - the forest might be so dense that really big bruisers can't fit between the trees, or it could be so tall that it blocks attacks. A hill might provide cover, or it might add the ability to shoot over enemy troops and hit the scary guys behind them. With all the terrain in the box, you can create a huge variety of cool places to get killed.

The last thing that really makes Babel 13 a must-have expansion for Neuroshima Hex is the list of scenarios. There's an entire campaign in the box, one that will let you play a half-dozen games in a row, with each battle having consequences that affect the next. The angry trees might team up with the psychotic robots or make friends with the mutant zombies. The humans could discover a huge weapons cache that will give them a definite edge in the next fight, if they remember to use them and don't leave them gathering dust because they forgot they were there, having been distracted by the promise of pumpkin pie with an absurd dollop of whipped cream on top (which happened to me, because I really like pumpkin pie, and it was, after all, Thanksgiving).

Now that I've played Babel 13, I really want to go get the other expansion for Neuroshima Hex. If it's anywhere as cool as Babel 13, it's going to be a great purchase. Not only are the strategic and tactical elements vastly improved by adding Babel 13 to the original, but I finally have a sense of playing out a battle, rather than arranging geometric chits to create a waterfall of unpleasant consequences, including (but not limited to) bludgeoning, explosions, electrocution, and being called very insulting names by elementary-school students.

Not that any of those things are bad. But it’s nice to know they’re happening somewhere outside the dump.


Still 2 player (or up to 4, but really, still just 2)

Really interesting new factions
Terrain opens up enormous possibilities for varying places to maim and murder
Campaign gives you a great reason to play a bunch of times
Lots of different games possible now
Really brings out the theme in the game, which was lacking before

Out of print, which sucks, because it’s awesome

Babel 13 is a great expansion to a great game. You should totally go buy it... but it's out of print! Oh, woe is you! Where will you find this gem?

Wait, I know. Noble Knight Games!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Expansion Review - Omen: Shattered Aegis

It almost makes me hurt a little when I see enormous brilliance limited by small thinking. Look at Einstein - he thought big. If he had been content to make a couple theories in his garage, he never would have made the atom bomb, and then where would we be? In a world without Fallout, that's where.

Now, if we could just make John Clowdus see that he is depriving thousands of nerds the opportunity to experience his genius, maybe John could create the next awesome game setting, and we'll have even better video games. Or at least we could all play Omen.

I've already reviewed Omen. You can read about it right here. In case you're lazy, I'll sum it up - Omen is a card game about war where you will kill a bunch of ancient Greeks and lay waste to cities. Also, it is awesome. Sadly, if you didn't buy it when it was in pre-order, you're completely out of luck. You can't even find it on eBay. It's a fantastic game that everyone should play (unless you don't like war, in which case you should buy Monopoly), but you can't get it any more. And that makes me sad.

However, if you were one of the smart people who bought Omen when you had a chance, you should know that there's a really great expansion for it called Shattered Aegis. In case you were wondering, Aegis is a Greek word that means 'leg bone.' So the expansion is really about breaking peoples' legs, specifically ancient Greek people who are trying to keep you from dominating the known world with the help of half-naked chicks and one-eyed giants. (Please note that I may be making that up. Not the Greek part - that's definitely in there. But it's possible that Aegis might mean something else. Because, you know, I might have made that up.) (Also please note that while it might seem I inadvertently made a slight innuendo by combining naked women and one-eyed monsters, I absolutely did that on purpose. If you don't get it, then you're way to clean-minded to be reading this website.)

Shattered Aegis is everything an expansion ought to be. When Clowdus decides to give you more game, he doesn't play around. There are more new ways to play Omen than you could possibly use in a single day, unless you spent the entire day playing the same game over and over. Which, in the case of Omen, would be a very good way to spend your day.

The easiest way to use Shattered Aegis is to just shuffle all the new unit cards into the old cards, and just let 'er rip. Now, fair warning - John needs to have a serious heart-to-heart with his printer, because the cards don't match up as well as they should, so you can tell pretty easily if your opponent is holding expansion cards or original. However, it won't really matter, because there are a ton of new cards, so it's not like you'll know what he has. You'll just know it's new.

With all these new units, you're going to see the game take on entirely new dimensions. If you like going heavy with oracles and playing them for their ongoing bonuses, you'll love all the new ones. Before, the oracles were mostly pretty benign, and just helped you out. Now there are some nasty oracles in here, like the one who robs your opponent every turn, or the one that scares the piss out of the enemy naked chicks and sends them running home to their mommies.

The new soldiers are pretty awesome, too, and so are the new beasts. There will now be plenty of new ways to manipulate the table to your liking - play the Solemn Arbiter and use your opponent's oracles, or play the Masked Surrogate and make his soldiers work for you. Or throw down the Brazen Slayer, and get a beast card for free, or the Fortuitous Dryad, and score an extra feat card without having to work for it.

If the only new stuff in Shattered Aegis was a bunch of new units, it would be worth every penny. But like I said, Clowdus doesn't play around when he makes an expansion. There are also a lot more ways to play the game. You could always play a draft-style game, where you build your own deck before you start playing (and with all the new units, that's even better now), but now there's the pure deck-building variant, where each player has his own custom-made deck composed completely in secret before the game even starts. There's a really awesome four-player variant (using the extra feat cards in the box, plus some cool new hidden cards) that will let you break the legs of more of your friends at once. There's more, too, but this paragraph is starting to get really long, and it's wearing out its welcome.

But I still have one really enormous complaint, and it's one that John Clowdus should address as soon as possible - you can't get the base game any more. There's this amazing expansion that offers lots and lots of incredible options and awesome ways to play the game, and the only people who can use it are people who already have Omen. And that's sad, because Shattered Aegis makes Omen so much better that it would appeal to even more people, but they can't get it because it's sold out. Reprint, dammit!

This is where that thinking-small thing makes me sad. Just looking at his two most recent games, Omen and Hemloch, John Clowdus has a couple of games on his hands that could be household names, if only there were enough copies to be in everybody's house. If Small Box Games ran itself like a big-time publisher, with printers in Brazil and thousands of copies and full-color advertisements, I think it would only be a matter of time before the company was a major contender in the world of hobby gaming. Thank God he started using professional artists - the games are freaking beautiful, and are inherently more fun because they're better looking. Now if we can just get him to understand that everybody should be playing his games, maybe we can get him to make enough of them that he can retire to the Azores and sit around his cabana all day, drinking mai-tais and inventing brilliant games.

But then, even if that doesn't happen, those of us who know about Small Box Games can continue to be delighted at his genius. We know enough to buy anything Clowdus creates, because we know we'll never get another shot at it if we miss it the first time. And we'll get to play some really fun games because of it. Like Shattered Aegis - which, I just found out because I looked it up, actually means 'Shattered Dinner Plate,' which frankly doesn't make any sense to me at all.


2 or 4 players

Stunning art
Even more strategy than before
Lots and lots of new ways to enjoy an already awesome game

Low print runs!

If you already have Omen, and if you like it, you absolutely should buy Shattered Aegis. In fact, you should do it this weekend, because there's a Black Friday / Cyber Monday sale going right now at Small Box: