Monday, January 31, 2011

Card Game Review - Yomi

I grew up in the 80s. Back in those good old stone ages, the only place you could find good video games was at the arcade. We would saddle up with a roll of quarters and roll out to a dark room, lit up from the glow of the glass tubes, with pings and beeps and explosions echoing off the walls. We would wander around, spending our money a quarter at a time, playing all kinds of games with guns and joysticks and buttons and roller balls. And while I was never very good at them, I still ended up spending all my money on my favorites - fighting games. I spent God only knows how much money trying to master Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Capcom VS Marvel and a whole lot of games I can't even remember any more.

Those days are long gone. There are still arcades, but most of them take swipe cards these days, and I haven't seen a good fighting game in years. All I ever see are games with guns. I can get Tekken and Soul Caliber and all the DOA games for my consoles, but I still can't face off against a complete stranger in a dank dungeon surrounded by garbled voice effects and warbling sirens, sweating all over a joystick and probably picking up seven different kinds of ebola from the last fifty snot-nosed kids who smeared their mucus all over their hands before they started slapping those buttons. And if I lose at home, I can just play again. Lose in the arcade, and you had to go to the back of the line - losers walk in the arcade.

Apparently, Dave Sirlin remembers those great fighting games, too, with their ridiculous characters, hidden combos and split-second timing. Dave has created a series of games that all take place in a fictional video game called Fantasy Strike. His first two games, Flash Duel and Puzzle Strike, were faintly reminiscent of those arcade monuments of bygone days. But when Dave finally decided to really turn it up a notch, he went and made a game that feels so much like an arcade fighting game that you'll wonder where to drop a quarter if you lose.

Yomi has everything you'll see in one of those old-school quarter-eaters. You've got an over-the-top cast of characters, all drawn like they just popped out of a Capcom spin-off. There's the stone golem, the gambling panda, the hot ninja, and even the bearded master who turns into a mean-ass green dragon. There are attacks and blocks and throws, crazy combo attacks and powerful counter-strikes. But most of all, there's the eternal attempt to guess what your opponent is going to do half a second before he does it.

According to the slightly self-indulgent explanation provided in the rules, yomi is Japanese for reading, as in reading an opponent and guessing his moves. In Yomi the game (as opposed to yomi the Japanese word), both players play a single card at the same time. Attacks beat throws, throws beat blocks and dodges, and block and dodges beat attacks. Hit your opponent with an attack or throw, and you may be able to string together a combination of punches and kicks that sends them reeling. Finish it off with a powerful combo ender, and you'll pound your opponent right into the mud.

One thing that is really amazing about Yomi is how the rules don't change, and yet every character plays very different. Grave likes to telegraph an attack, psyching out his opponents and then switching it up when they least expect it. Rook can block attacks like a stone giant (because he's a stone giant) and then retaliate with devastating throws. And Setsuki can afford to play ridiculous combos and still have cards in her hand, because she's got a killer power called Speed of the Fox. Considering her scant attire and tendency to flip upside down a lot, maybe her ability should be called Speed of the Beaver.

But even with the different strengths provided by any particular character, there are still lots of different strategies you could adopt with any of them. You could play a defensive early game and power up for a couple back-breaking blows, or you can hammer your opponent with flurries of swift attacks. Swing for the fences with powerful throws and press the advantage while your opponent reels backward, or build up great combinations and unleash them when your opponent finally leaves himself open.

Probably the most important part of Yomi, and the thing that makes it an absolutely spectacular game, is the importance of out-guessing your opponents. You'll have to look at your opponent's hand (the backs, anyway - if he has any sense, you won't see the front of his cards until you're wearing them for a hat), remember what he's played, and exercise just a little clairvoyance to time your blows so that you attack when he tries to throw, block when he punches, and throw him when he tries to dodge. It would seem almost arbitrary, except that specific moves are often the best moves. If your opponent is low on cards, he probably needs to block. If he's been powering up for several turns and has a hand full of deadly attacks, he's probably itching to use them. Plus you can often draw your opponent into specific maneuvers, setting him up for your ultimate secret weapon of destruction, leaving him cursing furiously as he gets thrown to the ground - again.

For a game that's channeling those old arcade hits of my golden youth, the art in Yomi is spot-on perfect. When I dodge an attack and follow up with a throw against my defenseless foe, I can almost hear cheap speakers reverberating with the sound of digital smack-downs and grunting battle cries. When I finally reduce my opponent below zero hit points, I keep expecting a booming voice to rise from the table and say, 'Finish Him!', expecting me to pull out his spine or light him on fire. Instead I just start shuffling and say, 'one more!'

Yomi is available in two-deck sets, so you can try it before you dive in the deep end, or you can splurge and get all ten decks at once. The deluxe version comes with two very cool battle mats and little counters you can use to track your life, and it has the added bonus of saving you 25 bucks and getting all ten decks at the same time. I'm having a great time experimenting with all the characters, but I'm also looking forward to finding a favorite and sticking with it until I master it, the way I used to pump quarter after quarter into Street Fighter as I attempted to figure out how to routinely beat all comers with Chun-Li (don't judge me. That flippy-kick thing was my speciality).

Yomi is a magnificent game. It has been tested so thoroughly that no character feels better than any other - all have weaknesses and strengths that can be exploited, and every character offers a different feel. It's smart and fast, which are two things I love in a game, with rules that you can learn in a matter of minutes before diving head-first into a crazy martial arts tournament that will have you missing those dimly lit digital palaces of your youth (unless you're too young to remember arcades and think the game room at the miniature golf place is as good as it gets).


2 players

Easy rules that will take a long time to master
Different experience with each of the various fighters
Layers of game will have you reading your opponent while you plan your moves
Crazy fun, with lots of reasons to play over and over

Only two players

It's time for my regularly unscheduled sponsor pimping. Here's how this site works:
You request a game review.
I ask the publisher for it, and they ignore me because I said one of their other games was a transvestite.
I ask Noble Knight Games for it, and they send it to me because they know I'm dead sexy.
I review that game, you get your review.
See, Noble Knight Games sends me all kinds of stuff I couldn't get from publishers because I have made too many crude jokes about those publishers' product lines. And so, in return, I ask you, the people reading this, to shop at Noble Knight Games. Don't click the ads if you're not interested. Don't try to send me money. I have just one request - if you're going to buy a game, get it from Noble Knight, and let them know I sent you.
If you're going to buy Yomi, here's a link to save yourself a bundle.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Here's To Jack

When you're a young kid, all your nightmares are about being chased around by monsters and not being able to run. When you get a little older, your nightmares feature a lot of inappropriate nudity and doing poorly on tests. But once you have kids, the worst dreams you ever have are the ones where you lose a child.

I just got done watching the memorial service for Jack Vasel. Tom had it streamed live, and it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. Tom was strong and brave, but I could feel his heartbreak when he said how he wished he could have seen Jack graduate, and how he would have liked to go to Jack's wedding. He was grateful for the time that he had with his son, and that for two months, he got to hold his boy. He was honest, too - he wasn't sad for Jack, he was sad for himself and his family.

The last thing Tom did before he followed the pallbearers out the door to head to the grave was to step in front of the camera and say 'thank you' to all of us watching from home. That was the point where I broke down. I have two kids, and if I have to have a funeral for one of them, you can bet your ass all you Internet nerds are not invited. Tom's a hell of a lot classier than I am, though, and I'm grateful to him for letting us share such an intimate, painful moment.

I have a lot of stuff to do this weekend. I only ever saw a couple pictures of Jack, and I've never even had the chance to shake Tom's hand. But before I get on with my day, I'm going to go into the kitchen, pour myself two fingers of scotch, and drink to Jack and his tough old man.

Here's to you, Jack. And here's to you, Tom.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Event Review - Vigilante Night Patrol

I don't feel like reviewing a game tonight. I have one all ready to go, but I'm just not in the mood. I just found out that one of the best friends I've ever had is moving to Oklahoma, and in honor of how much I'm going to miss him (never mind that he's only three hours away and will still be coming back to town every weekend), I'm going to review vigilante night patrol, instead.

Most of the time, when I write an event review, the purpose is to tell you about a cool thing you could do that you may not have considered before, or to warn you away from doing something that would suck. However, vigilante night patrol is not the kind of thing you can plan, unless you do this kind of a thing for a living, or are Spider-Man. So the purpose of tonight's event review is not to give you advice about whether you should wait outside the trailer of an armed fugitive. You probably should not. Instead, the purpose of tonight's review is merely to tell you a story about a stupid thing I once did that turned out awesome (as did most anything I ever did with the friend who is moving).

My friend lived in a trailer park. That's just unfortunate, and he doesn't any more, but while he did, we regularly convened at his double-wide for Halo LAN parties and cheesy horror movies. After a neighbor broke into his home, my friend decided it was time to do something about the crime in his community. Namely, we were going on vigilante night patrol.

The neighbor was a known, wanted felon with multiple warrants, and my friend even knew where he lived, but the police would not enter his trailer without knowing for certain that he was inside, because the trailer was not his residence of record. Or something - I'm not a cop, so I don't really know why they wouldn't just knock down the door and haul his ass out. So despite multiple attempts to apprehend this dirtbag, the rotten crook still walked around a free man, attempting to crawl through trailer windows to steal very small televisions.

The plan was that we would convene at my friend's trailer early in the evening. We would park up the road, so as to allow the house to appear empty, and then sit in the dark with baseball bats and hope the neighbor took the bait and broke in again. This was a dumb idea, and it failed almost immediately because we got bored and turned on the television. We watched belly dancing, which is awesome because it's one of those things that's not supposed to be hot but is anyway.

After we finished watching exceptionally fit middle-aged women pretending that their workout wasn't sexy as hell, we decided that we wanted ice cream. So we piled into the crappy station wagon I drove at the time and went for milk shakes. For no reason I could explain, we brought our bats. I guess maybe we were hoping the neighbor would be in the trailer when we returned with our frozen treats.

At any rate, on our way home, we took a spin past our target's trailer - and there he was, sitting on the front porch. My friend, in a state of excitement brought on by a combination of sexy aerobics, ice cream and the thrill of the hunt, urged me to stop immediately. As I brought the vehicle to a complete stop in front of the trailer, the villainous neighbor leapt to his feet and ran inside. But he was too late - my friend had his scent now.

It was obvious what we had to do. Immediate action was required, if we were to help the police bring this dangerous scumbag to justice. There were three of us in the car, all big guys armed with baseball bats, and we knew exactly what the situation demanded. We turned off the car, called the police, and then sat in the car and ate our ice cream.

Seriously, the ice cream place was like half an hour from the trailer park. No way were we going to let it go to waste. And the would-be burglar wasn't going anywhere. We had time.

Once we finished our ice cream, my friend hopped out of the car with his bat and began to patrol. We had the perp cooped up in the trailer, and as long as we knew he was in there, the police could go in and drag him out. So we watched the doors, and my excitable friend walked around the trailer, making certain his prey didn't escape through a window.

It was a good thirty minutes before John Q Law arrived, and in the interim, not a damned thing happened. It was shaping up to be an extraordinarily uneventful night of crime fighting, not counting the belly dancing or delicious frozen snacks. The black-and-white stopped just up the street, and we went to talk to them. We let them know that their target was inside the trailer, as we had waited the entire time and knew he had not left. After a brief discussion, the police went into the trailer, and five minutes later, emerged with the bad guy in cuffs.

My friend taunted him all the way back to the police car, and then the cops shook our hands and thanked us for the assist. We went back to my friend's trailer and played Halo for a few hours to celebrate our victory over the forces of evil.

Since we apprehended our nefarious arch-nemesis, we have had no more good reason to battle villainy in the dark of night. We also haven't watched any more belly dancing. I'm not sure which I miss more.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

RPG Review - Savage Worlds

If I have one serious pet peeve in RPGs, it's when people feel a need to separate the game from the setting. Maybe it's just me, but I want my rules to be integrated into a setting. I want different rules for a spaceship game than you find in a superhero game. And it takes all the fun out of reading a game book if there's no crazy world to explore, no trip to unreal worlds that I can visit in my mind's eye. Most of the fun of an RPG is discovering the wild corners of your imagination, and when the rules are all about how to shoot stuff and not the story those rules are meant to tell, I think it drains some of the soul out of a game. Reading a game without a setting is just work, and a setting without rules is not a game at all, it's a movie set.

So I was a little skeptical about Savage Worlds. It's supposed to be fast, furious and fun, but there's no indication of where you go to have all this fast, furious fun. It's a good-sized book of rules that you use to play a game, but with no playground, I was worried it would be as dry and lifeless as a college term paper.

I was about half right. The Savage Worlds rules are kind of a dull read. There are rules for spells, but none of the spells have cool names - you're supposed to add those yourself. There are a bunch of monsters in the back, but it seems odd to have stats for dragons and mechs in the same bestiary. I know it's meant to be a generic set of rules, but I'm not a big fan of generic. I like flavor.

Happily, the rules for Savage Worlds are just a stripped down version of the Deadlands rules. The Deadlands rules were complicated, certainly, but they were cool and worked really well, especially for an Old West game with monsters in it. You had cards for initiative, a bunch of dice, and poker chips you could discard for rerolls and what-not. They were perfectly married to Deadlands, because cards and poker chips are about as reminiscent of the Old West as you can get without bringing firearms and saloon girls to the table.

Savage Worlds dispenses with many of the finer subtleties of the Deadlands system. Instead of drawing a poker hand when you want to cast a spell, Savage Worlds has you spend a couple power points and roll some dice. Instead of dealing a dozen cards that you use for character creation, you just assign some points. And instead of fate chips, Savage Worlds has bennies, which everyone at our table agreed was a stupid name and we immediately decided to call them fate chips instead.

I liked the Deadlands rules. I didn't mind rolling piles of dice, because it felt like you had a better chance to shoot something when you could throw five dice at it. I liked dealing out cards based on Quickness rolls, because it meant the bad-ass gunslingers and fleet-footed kung-fu assassins got to act more than everyone else. I especially loved how so many things in the game required you to build a poker hand, and you could roll some dice to see if you could draw more cards. But I'll be the first to admit that where I enjoyed many of these elements, they sure did slow down a game. You could walk into a saloon, start a gun fight, and not finish for forty-five minutes. Halfway through, someone would have to pee, and then we would all discuss nerdy movies while we waited for our weak-bladdered friend to return.

Savage Worlds gets rid of a lot of that flavor, which is probably best in a game that could be about anything from stabbing orcs to shooting Nazis. After all, what are the odds that poker is a serious pastime in Cimmeria? Low, I would think. Without that flavor, the rules are not as interesting, but compared to Deadlands, they're like greased amphetamines. If you're looking for a game where the fights don't last all night, Savage Worlds can seriously deliver.

I tested Savage Worlds with a little mocked-up Deadlands adventure I made myself (with no setting in the rules, I had to improvise). We had one battle where five heroes faced off against twenty monsters. We finished in twenty minutes. It was quite a bit more rollicking than rolling initiative, dealing out half a deck of cards, rolling for the first guy to hit, rolling for hit location, rolling for damage, rolling for chips spent to reroll the damage, then figuring out that the attack didn't do enough damage to count and subtracting a bunch of wind before moving on to that same guy's second action. Instead, each player gets one card, and can shoot once. There's an attack roll and a damage roll, and wounds are marked right on the table with chunky colored beads I gathered just for this occasion (not really, I used to use them as sex toys, so I had a few laying around).

While I did miss all the flavor of the Deadlands rules, I didn't miss how long it used to take us to kill one bad guy and a couple minions. A small fracas against zombies was finished in five minutes, and even the final boss fight was over in less time than it takes to get a pizza delivered. The rules are easy to grasp, and yet flexible enough to handle lots of different eventualities. It didn't take long before everyone knew how to play, and where many RPGs reward players for thinking in terms of maximizing die rolls, Savage Worlds allowed us to reward smart thinking and acts of heroism without getting bogged down in five-foot moves and improved dice pools.

In fact, while I continue to be underwhelmed by systems without settings, I have to admit that Savage Worlds does a good job of letting you play a game without getting hung up on rules. And there are a hell of a lot of settings available for Savage Worlds, from pulp fiction to fantasy, space opera to superheroes. Plus the publisher wants you to give it a whirl, so a quick-start version of the rules is available on their site, along with pregenerated characters and sample adventures. If you just want to try Savage Worlds, you can get everything you need for your first game for the price of a couple sheets of printer paper.

Yet, with all those wild settings available, and all kinds of expansions, I know the next one we're getting. If you've been paying any attention at all, you probably do, too. Look for my review of Deadlands Reloaded in the next month or two.


Fast rules
Accommodates anything from huge battles to quick scrapes
Easy to learn, but with plenty of flexibility
Lots of choices in character creation mean you can make whoever you want
A whole lot of cool setting material to support the game

No setting
Generic rules are short on flavor

Basically a miniatures game with a few rules for calling people names

Noble Knight Games has Savage Worlds, plus a bunch of the settings and other support material. Plus it's really cheap:

Monday, January 24, 2011

Expansion Review - Arkham Horror: Curse of the Dark Pharaoh

Game expansions are generally created for one of two reasons. First, they exist to extend the value of the original game and give players more enjoyment out of their initial game investment. Whether an expansion adds new stories, new mechanics, or new options, players can get more fun out of games that had grown stale and begun to be boring.

The other reason expansions are created is because publishers know how many suckers out there will buy all the expansions before they even try the game, then end up with all those boxes taking up copious space at the bottom of a closet somewhere, until the owner finally remembers that he owns them and donates them to a local thrift store. So the second reason expansions are created is because publishers like to get paid.

Which brings me to the main question you should ask yourself when you're reading a review about an expansion: Why hasn't this luddite asshole started doing video reviews yet? (In my case, it's because I am not what you would call a handsome man. That has not stopped most other video reviewers, but I have enough pride to hide my face.)

No, wait, that's not the right question. The right question is: Will this expansion add enough value to my original game for me to bother buying it? And if that's the right question, then it could be inferred that a good review of an expansion would answer that question for you, maybe even make up your mind for you through a complicated mix of coercion, persuasion and magical mind control.

Too bad I don't have any of those things. Think for yourself. I'm just here to make insipid jokes and get free stuff in the mail.

So is Curse of the Dark Pharaoh worth your money? That depends entirely on you. Do you play Arkham Horror a lot? Have you memorized all the location cards, until you know exactly how likely you are to get a membership to the Silver Lodge instead of being attacked by a mind-melting monster from an alternate dimension? Are you tired of that one guy at the table who always knows the exact right item to buy, and bullies you into buying the cigarette case when you really wanted the bullwhip, and now you wish you had the bullwhip because you want to hit him in the face with it the next time he says you're stupid for going to the Black Cave when there were more clue tokens at the police station?

If you said, 'yes' to all those questions, then you should stop reading out loud. Just answer the questions in your head. Also, the guy on the other side of your cubicle wall asked me to tell you that he's had it with you singing show tunes. Save it for the car, Dorothy.

Curse of the Dark Pharaoh doesn't really throw a new twist on Arkham Horror, at least not the way I was hoping it would. It does replace every location card with cards more specific to the traveling museum display that has brought all the bad guys back to Arkham, and it replaces the gate cards, so you'll have all new encounters. That part is pretty cool, actually. It also introduces a deck of creepy artifacts that relate to the doomed exhibit, and they're pretty interesting, too. New spells seemed about as useful as a barn door on a submarine (no, that isn't the right saying, but I maintain it is still apropos), and the new allies are even less compelling. But the new stuff on the mythos cards (which you'll draw every other turn) have all kinds of cool options, in addition to spreading the cult of Yig (well, in our case it was Yig. You might be dancing with Shib-Nuggo-Hooja-Gig, the Third. Seriously, what was Lovecraft smoking when he named these bad guys? You know it's bad when 'Goat with the Thousand Young' rolls off the tongue easier than the actual name.)

Basically, there's not much in the way of new rules in Curse of the Dark Pharaoh. There's no new ancient evil. There are no new investigators, and no new monsters. If you're playing Arkham Horror for the mechanics of the game itself, the all-against-the-game cooperative gaming experience, Curse of the Dark Pharoah is going to disappoint you. If you were already bored with Arkham Horror, this expansion isn't going to change your mind.

On the other hand, the new story is pretty interesting. The traveling museum exhibit featuring the lost artifacts from a long-dead religious cult has brought with it a retinue of cultists, nutjobs, and dark energies, and once again, Arkham has gates to alternate dimensions opening faster than new Starbucks franchises. And once again, the investigators have to close all those gates before some sleeping ancient evil wakes up and eats the East Coast like a Hostess cupcake. So if you enjoy the comfortable familiarity of the original rules, but really only play to see how the story evolves, Dark Pharaoh may give you a good reason to take another trip to the world's unluckiest small town.

And if you've only ever played Arkham Horror once before you stuck it on a shelf to play the other fifty new games you got this month, then you should ask yourself why you would even consider buying an expansion in the first place (I already know why - it's because you're a sucker for expansions. Fantasy Flight asked me to thank you for your support).


Still 2-8 players

A new story gives you a new reason to fight evil and go insane

Mechanically, a lot more of the same

If you love Arkham Horror and just want a new story to tell, you can get a copy of Curse of the Dark Pharaoh from Noble Knight Games:

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chip Game Review - Puzzle Strike

At first, it was kind of tough to say what kind of game review I was writing. I mean, I know it was a game review, and those really only come in one flavor (at least when I'm writing them) - a flavor called 'off color.' But it's hard to categorize Puzzle Strike as a board game because there's no board, or a card game because there's no cards. It bills itself as a card game that uses chips instead of cards that simulates a puzzle game that doesn't exist that simulates a fighting game that also doesn't exist. Calling this a 'Card Game That Uses Chips Instead of Cards' game review seemed cumbersome, so I went with Chip Game.

The crazy thing is, Puzzle Strike could have been a card game. You have a bag where you throw your chips, instead of a deck where you put your cards. You draw chips from your bag, and you play the chips like cards. But where cards might have been cheaper to print or easier to categorize, chips just plain work better than cards would have. Plus they're more fun.

In fact, the chips in Puzzle Strike kind of make me want to make one of those Dominion sets where someone converted the whole game and put it on poker chips. It really would work pretty well, and get rid of all that shuffling (not that the shuffling ever really bothered me). But I'm not planning on doing that, because while I have loved Dominion for a long time now, and played it a whole bunch of times, I don't really care if I ever play it again. Puzzle Strike does just about everything Dominion does, but it's way better.

Dominion puts a bunch of cards in the center of the table, and then you go around the table buying them. Puzzle Strike does the same thing, but with chips. Dominion has you building your deck as you play, and so does Puzzle Strike. Dominion gives you some cards that are currency, and Puzzle Strike gives you some chips that are currency. Dominion will not give you a blowjob. Neither will Puzzle Strike. So you see, they're very similar.

But Puzzle Strike dispenses with Dominion's tired, overused, fake-middle-ages theme and replaces it with a quirky, Japanese-style puzzle game pretending to be a fighting game. That sounds insane, and it might be, but it's far more interesting. And where Dominion suffers from a desperate lack of interaction, Puzzle Strike throws a sleeper hold on Dominion, beats it into unconsciousness, and stuffs it into a steamer trunk that it ships to Taiwan, where Dominion spends the rest of its days scrubbing toilets in a factory that makes cheap plastic dinosaur toys.

The goal of Puzzle Strike is outlast your opponents. You lose and are eliminated if you end your turn with ten or more gems in your gem pile (yes, that sounds odd, but only if you never played a Japanese puzzle game that simulates a fighting game - which I have). You automatically gain one gem every turn, but if you have the right chips, you can 'crash' your gems, splinter them into smaller gems, and send them to an opponent.

To really exploit the wacky fighting-game concept, everybody gets a character. You might be the tough stone golem with great defense, or the goofy lucky panda with high risk moves, or the volatile flame-arrow chick who can beat the pants off everyone else but who gets hurt a lot doing it. Your character is defined by three unique chips that you're going to see a lot during the game, so it's a very good idea to tailor your overall strategy to your fighter. The fox ninja girl, for example, is going to want to buy lots of special actions. The half-naked schoolgirl isn't actually in the game, so you know it's not actually a Japanese game, but there's still a good bit of inferred T&A, so the influence is still there.

Often, your turn might be pretty obvious, based on the chips you have in your hand. If you've only got one action, it's not really that tough to decide what you're going to do. But more often than not, Puzzle Strike gives you the chance to make really cool moves that leave everyone at the table saying, 'ooooh, good move!' except the guy to your left, who is going to say, 'you son of a bitch.' You have to plan your purchases and form an overall strategy for the game, but you also have to be on your toes and be creative with the chips you have available at any given time. It's genius, is what it is. It's smarter than Dominion, and considering how much I've enjoyed Dominion, that's saying an awful lot.

The place where Puzzle Strike really shines in comparison to Dominion is how much you're forced to work around the horrible things other plays do to you. Hold on to those defense chips or lean heavily on brutal attacks. Save your crashes for just the right moment or hammer away constantly. The choices are yours, but you're not playing in a vacuum. If you were playing in a vacuum, you wouldn't be able to breathe, so that's probably for the best.

I can't even begin to describe how much I've enjoyed Dominion since I started playing it. It's innovative and original, smart and just plain fun. And so when I say that I don't care if I ever play it again, because Puzzle Strike is better, I want you to understand that I'm not saying that lightly. Puzzle Strike picks up where Dominion left off and improves on the absolute brilliance to create a game that is more exciting, more intelligent, and more damned fun.


2-4 players

Thematically clever
Neat art
Great components
Strategy and tactics in massive doses
A lot like Dominion, but better

This space intentionally left blank

Noble Knight Games is sold out of Puzzle Strike right now, but you can still get it direct from the publisher right here:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dice Game Review - Cookie Fu

It's not often that I read the rules for a game and then wonder what the hell I'm supposed to do. It's even more rare for me to play the game and then end up making that sound Tim the Toolman used to make when he was confused. If I typed that sound, it would be something like 'Erruhnh?' Which I think was actually the same sound Scooby Doo used to make.

Cookie Fu elicited one of those odd grunting sounds that you can say but not type. The rules were downright confusing, and I had to read them three times to figure out what I was supposed to do with this box full of dice. Then I played the game, and was a little less confused, but still not sure what it was supposed to be. Then I went online to find more, and came very close to throwing up my hands and making another sound, this one quite a bit more intelligible but a lot less appropriate for family-hour television.

From what I've gathered after extensive Internet research (by which I mean I went to the publisher's website for five minutes), Cookie Fu is currently limited to just the starter packs. And apparently, it's a collectible dice game. But you can't get dice beyond the starter, so maybe that's why I'm confused - it's a collectible game that doesn't have anything to collect.

Another thing that confused me is why there were fortune cookies in the box. I mean, it's a cool gimmick, but I'm not eating any food that comes in a game. I smashed the cookies to get the fortunes (which are special moves, not actual fortunes), and then threw out the cookies. I get that it's called Cookie Fu, and comes with actual cookies, but honestly, there's a limit to the amount of prepackaged food I want to ingest, and when it's prepackaged with dice and packing peanuts, I'm not eating that.

The game also confused me because the rules didn't make sense. There's some jabber at the start about how whole cookies are better than crushed cookies, but it wasn't until I actually pulled out the dice and read the rules a few more times that I figured out I was supposed to roll a die with pictures of cookies on it to figure out who swings first.

So here's how the game works, as far as I can tell. You have a handful of dice, and so does your opponent. One of your dice has pictures of cookies on it, in various states of disrepair, and this one is used for a sort of rock-scissors-paper dice-off for initiative. The others have fists and feet and grabby hands that let you attack your enemy or defend yourself. You hide your dice, and take turns showing them to each other and saying, 'I kicked you in the pubes.' Some dice let you attack, like if you have punches or kicks, and others let you defend, like blocks and grabs. You might also roll Chi, which lets you do more powerful attacks that are harder to block.

OK, so this part actually makes sense. You select the dice that you think will do you the most good, and save the ones you need for defense. Or, if you're me, you look at your dice and realize that there's absolutely nothing you can do with them, and say, 'I stand here like a rube while you punch my face out the back of my head.' Some dice can be used for multiple things, and you might want to save them for defense, or use them to set up a killer grabbing and throwing combo move. And then you have Chi.

Chi is where this game actually begins to be worth something. You won't see a whole lot of these, but when you do, they're useful for all manner of powerful super-attacks. You can unleash your clan moves with Chi, or you can do a Flaky Crust Boot to the Head, or Sugary Face Punch, or Dry and Stale Tooth Decay (that last one is not a special move, exactly, it's just what you get if you eat cheap fortune cookies that come in games). You can also use these Chi dice to stop some of the more violent attacks, and even save them for later, if you think you can hold out that long. The Chi adds an element to the game that takes it from a rather insipid festival of luck and makes it interesting.

Another thing that helps is if you don't play the novice-level game for very long. Once you understand what you're doing, you'll want to add some of the more specialized dice and add more options to your repertoire. When you do, the game gets a less about lucky dice and more about risk assessment and planning. In order to work all the way up to grandmaster and roll the cool green dice, you'll need a bunch of dice for each player... which means you'll need to collect more... but there aren't any more to collect. So just buy the game again. I figured out that for two players to be able to play at the highest possible level, you'll need to spend two hundred dollars. And if you do, then you are stupid.

I can't gush about Cookie Fu because it's got too many problems. A collectible game with nothing you can collect seems pretty well doomed to me, especially when I would actually be interested in getting more dice, if I didn't have to fork over a car payment for them. And to say the learning curve is steep is an understatement - you have to memorize a lot of stuff before you're not just randomly showing each other dice like a six-year-old showing off a booger. And I'm not ready to sign off on food in my games, no matter how full of preservatives they might be.

But I can see a lot of potential in Cookie Fu, if the publisher pulls his head out and starts doing a few things right. Releasing some boosters might help, for starters, and a massive rules overhaul should be a huge priority. Because at its core, Cookie Fu is a fun, quick dice game with lots of direct face-bashing and clever maneuvering. Granted, collectible games are as dated as Nirvana and plaid shirts, but the game itself is actually interesting and fun. If you play it a few times, you may even get close to a point where you don't feel like a caveman operating a helicopter every time pick up the rules.


2 players

Neat dice
Cool combat game that plays really fast
Nice balance of luck and strategic planning

Confusing rules
Collectible game with nothing to collect
Food belongs in the pantry, not in my games

If you can't hold out a few months to see if Blue Kabuto actually releases more dice, you can rush over to their site and pick up the starter:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Board Game Review - Zombie State

Usually, when you see a movie about zombies, it's about a handful of survivors surrounded by nothing but walking dead. You never find out what happened everywhere else. It's kind of assumed that the entire world is one gigantic wasteland of flesh-eating psychopaths, but you never really find out for sure. Usually it doesn't much matter, because the story is about a few characters, not a global event.

Which is one of the reasons Zombie State took me by surprise. In this incredible game, players assume control of different world powers as the zombie apocalypse descends and everything goes to Hell in a handbasket full of chewy meat parts. This is a pretty considerable departure from the standard rising-dead scenario, and I wasn't sure it would be as interesting.

But it turns out that trying to stem the rising tide of face-munching zombies is pretty damned fun. In fact, it's three hours of seriously tense fun that feels shorter than a lot of 45-minute games. You'll have to balance your need to control the spread of the plague against researching improvements that will eventually lead to the eradication of the undead menace. In other words, you'll have to let the zombies eat New Jersey if you want to teach your tank drivers to aim for the head. So that's not a particularly difficult decision, but what if the zombies are eating every farmer in California? No more Napa Valley, for one thing, and your surviving populace may get really tired of canned food when they can't get their mitts on fresh produce.

The thing that really struck me as I played Zombie State was how well it had been tested. There were a lot of factors to work out in order to create a balanced game that made you sweat without making it impossible to survive. But the game works out great - early on, everyone watches in horror as their cities are swarmed, their countries fall, and their resources go up in smoke. But once you get a little traction, get dug in and start fighting back, it starts to look a little better. Sure, Argentina is now populated solely by zombies and llamas, and Mexico City is one giant all-you-can-eat brain buffet, but you've managed to protect Brazil and the scientists there have finally figured out how to make zombie blow-up dolls that make all the male zombies drop everything and have rubber-girl orgies.

But no matter how well you've planned, there's still always the possibility that the zombies will pop up where you least expect them. Every turn, there's a chance that a couple infected corpses smuggle into the country on fruit trucks and start a whole new outbreak. And then your tanks will have to roll in fast, because if you let those wackos feed, before you know it, all of Buenos Aires is dining on Brains Con Carne and the whole place smells like unwashed runner's crotch.

At first I was worried Zombie State was going to be a Risk clone with walking dead, but in this game, it's not a bad idea to help out your opponents now and then. After all, the real enemy is the corpse strolling down Main Street and cracking skulls like walnuts for the gooey center. You won't invade anything, which works out, because you'll be lucky if your soldiers don't wind up being a blue plate special. You won't really have troops left over to attack your neighbors - they'll be too busy trying to keep Moscow from turning into a chow line.

As the game progresses, your research projects will begin to pay off - you'll learn how to wall off entire countries, repopulate empty lands, or inoculate your citizens against the zombie virus (they'll still die when they get eaten, mind you. They just won't stand up and eat anyone else). By the end of the game, someone will have strategic nuclear attack capability, and you'll be able to nuke the zombies in Saudi Arabia into glass. Hopefully someone manages to eradicate the zombie threat before it gets out of control, because the virus continues to mutate, and if nobody finds the cure before the disease goes airborne, the entire world is screwed like a fetish porn star.

Everyone who played Zombie State with me said that they didn't even realize three hours had passed. We had so damned much fun that we couldn't believe how much time had passed. The game is tense, balanced, exciting and challenging, and really makes you feel like you're in charge of managing a population doomed to eventual extinction. Sometimes you'll be hopeful, sometimes you'll watch in dismay as the entire population of Germany turns into zombies who will only play games about farming (the difference would be that now, after they finish a rousing game of being farmers, they eat some farmers).

Aside from the unconventional approach to a zombie apocalypse, another reason Zombie State surprised me is that visually, it looks like it should suck. I really hope that the publishers have enough success with this game to hire artists for the next one, because the illustration and visual design for this game is pure ass. There's a horrifying Photoshop filter applied to the art on the box cover that makes it look like they drew it with crayons and then glued their drawing to a balloon. The board you use to track your research progress is so crammed full of information that it looks like the org chart for a Microsoft call center. If you could arrest people for Photoshop abuse, the creators of this game would be in San Quentin right now.

But Zombie State surprised me, in a big way. Of all the games I've played that look like they were put together by a pair of junior-high potheads using Dad's laptop and a couple online tutorials, this is the best. In fact, I've played hundreds of professionally produced games that looked like a million bucks and bored me half to death, and Zombie State surpasses many games I have really enjoyed. If I rated games, it would get a big pile of stars and thumbs and even a very high number.

So embrace the unconventional theme. Ignore the criminally bad art. Zombie State is one hell of a good game, and I hope it sells like hotcakes, so that the creators get all fired up to make more.


2-5 players

Tense and tough and exciting
Three hours that feels like 45 minutes
Brilliant balancing game
Seriously well tested
A new approach to the zombie story

Beat-down butt ugly

Games this small should be ordered direct from the publisher. Check it out right here:

Friday, January 14, 2011

These Are A Few of My Favorite Games

A while back, a reader asked me to tell him what games I really like. Then a couple weeks later, someone else had the same question. I guess people actually do like Game of the Year lists, even if I think they're overrated and just created to give people a good reason to argue on the Internet. But I'm not going to do a Game of the Year list, because the games I love might be the ones you hate. Instead, I'm just going to tell you about some of my favorite games. I've linked the headline for each game to my review of it, so you can find out more, if you feel like reading even more.

Warhammer Quest

To start off with a bang, my favorite game (right now) is Warhammer Quest. I know these things are supposed to have a bunch of build up and then a big reveal, like when you find out who was the runner up in the beauty pageant and which one gave a handy to the judge so she could get the crown, but the audience doesn't know which girl was using hand sex for bribes, so they're all excited (unless they've got more than three brain cells to rub together, in which case they're not watching in the first place). But I'm impatient and lazy, so I just started with the big hitter and I'll wind up at the end with nothing but dick jokes and boring games.

Warhammer Quest is the greatest dungeon crawl game ever made, if you ask me. There's no DM, and you can play it solo. The boards and figures are gorgeous, with cool plastic doors that clip together, and you can make your own dungeons by customizing your deck of bad guy cards. It's fast and brutal and fun as hell. I have spent so much money on Warhammer Quest that I could have replaced my washing machine by now (though it would have been a very crappy washing machine).

Formula D

This one springs to mind easily because I just played it the other night. It's a fast-paced racing game that rewards risky maneuvers but penalizes stupid moves. The new Asmodee edition is sparkly and pretty, with cool little gear boxes and neat plastic cars. Plus it's only one of two racing games that have ever made me feel like I could actually smell the burning rubber.

Many people will compare Formula D to Rush N Crush, and that's a very fair comparison. Rush N Crush uses a different method for controlling speed and adds in deliberate violence. While we are always seeing dead bodies in Formula D (thanks mostly to torn up tires or shredded fenders), Rush N Crush is virtually guaranteed to result in a very steep body count.

I guess the reason I prefer Formula D is that it feels like a tighter game. Rush N Crush is a blood-soaked blast of adrenaline, but it can get a little sloppy, and the rules are not as easy or as flexible as Formula D. I will play the crap out of both games, really, but Formula D edges out Rush N Crush by a dented bumper.


It seems almost sacrilegious to praise Rush N Crush and then talk about Dominion, and that's probably why I'm doing it. But no matter what anyone says, Dominion is one hell of a good game. It's got hundreds of cards (if you have the expansions), and you only use ten in any given game, so it's really long on replay value. Which is nice, because I play the bejeezus out of it.

Now, anyone with any sense will admit that the theme is practically non-existent. The cards have very generic abilities and only need names so you can tell them apart. And unless you get some pretty good attack cards going, there's very little interaction. All the complaints people aim at Dominion are totally fair, but in the end, they don't really matter. The game is just amazing, and the longer you play, the better you get. It's a huge hit at my house, and at a hell of a lot of other houses, too.

Last Night on Earth

I hear complaints about Last Night on Earth, people who say the game play is weak or the various rules are tweaky. Those people are entirely missing the point. Last Night on Earth is fantastic because when you play, you really feel like you're in the middle of a zombie movie. A story develops around the game, and the best games are the ones with the most cool twists (though I did really love the game where the humans found everything they needed to escape in the first ten minutes, which would have made the stupidest zombie movie ever).

The expansions for Last Night on Earth are really not all that necessary unless you've played the original at least a dozen times. But once you get tired of protecting the manor home and escaping in the truck, there's an enormous line of add-ons that will provide you with new heroes, new scenarios, even new zombies. And still, every time you play, you'll feel like you just finished watching a zombie flick, except that you won't have had to sit through two hours of ridiculous George Romero dialog.

Alien Frontiers

OK, this is kind of a new one, and I swore I wouldn't name anything I hadn't owned for at least a year (I swore it to myself, way before you got here, which is why you didn't hear it). But Alien Frontiers jumped up to the top of our repeated play list after just a couple weeks, and has proven to have considerable staying power. It will probably lose its glossy luster after another dozen games, because unlike the other games in this article, it's doesn't provide a different experience every time you play. But it is a unique game, really solid, and it makes it to the table at least once a month. It's a little too European in flavor for lots of people, but I love it, anyway.


I think the main reason HeroScape didn't start this list is because I haven't spent as much time on it recently. But there was a time - a long time, really, like three or four years - where I played HeroScape at least once a week. Any of the other games on this list so far, I've played dozens of times, but I can say with no hesitation at all that I've played hundreds of games of HeroScape. And I still get my ass kicked by the people who are really good at it.

Sure, part of the appeal of HeroScape is that it's like playing with toys. You build a mountain pass, or a craggy desert, or a fortress on a lake. Then you take all your plastic people and send them rampaging at each other in an incredibly violent manner, crushing, maiming and spindling until only one of you has anyone left. But on top of looking like a million bucks, HeroScape is just plain brilliant, and one of the best tactical games I've ever played. Wargames are fine, and admittedly have a lot more depth, but HeroScape is brilliant without being complicated, and exciting without being capricious.

Unless you're using Deadeye Dan. Then it's a crap shoot.

Nostra City

While you probably recognized all the games so far, there are a lot of people who have missed the absolute genius of Nostra City. I don't know why, but Nostra City just never got as popular as other games that are a lot weaker. It's devious and tricky and clever and more fun than a barrel of monkeys stoned on apple cider and roofies. It's a mind-bending conglomerate of cooperation and cutthroat competition, with the possibility of a rat trying to send the game spiraling into chaos.

You may have tried all the other games I named so far, but most of you have probably not played Nostra City. I seriously recommend that you make a concerted effort to score a copy of this fantastic mob game. If you're like me, it will take you an hour to fall in love with it, and then it will stab you in the testicles and steal your wallet, and you'll still want to play again.


I'm getting tired of typing, so I'm going to finish with one of my favorite games. Well, OK, these are all favorites, but I couldn't end the article before I mentioned Bootleggers. It's a great game about selling whiskey during prohibition, and while you'll spend most of the game trying to out-maneuver your opponents and send the cops around to bust up their stills, you can also kill their goons and steal their trucks. It's practically a staple of game night at my house, and while we haven't played in six months or more, there's no doubt in my mind that I could get everyone in my family to play with me tonight.

In fact, I think that's exactly what I intend to do. I'm going to quit typing and start pestering my family to play Bootleggers with me tonight. Buy these games, or don't. I'm weary of entertaining you.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Expansion Review - Formula D Maps Expansion #3

I love Formula D. I play it all the time, and at nearly every available opportunity. It's one of the only racing games I've ever played where I feel like I'm really racing, where I can almost see the smoke billowing from my overworked gear box and hear my tires squealing in protest as I blow through a corner.

But there's a problem - I get bored running the same race over and over. I have the original track that came with the game, plus the first two expansion tracks, but still, I am always in the mood for something new, something interesting, something with some teeth. Hopefully not actual teeth, though - that would be really creepy in a racing game.

And that's why, when I got the new expansion tracks from Asmodee, I got all excited and hollered just a little (I try to restrain my enthusiasm when my children are sleeping, even though they're high school students - when you have teenagers, you'll understand how much nicer things are when they're asleep). And when I laid the boards out and saw how cool the new tracks look, I couldn't wait to break out the tiny plastic cars and go flying through turns and destroying perfectly good automobiles.

The simpler side of the board is Singapore. It's a pretty straight-forward race, with the usual complement of twists and turns and tricky bends. But what isn't obvious at first is how difficult it can be. There are several places where you could upshift, if you're feeling lucky - but you may not want to. When a low roll could stick you at the wrong end of a turn, and a high roll could send you hurtling past it out of control, it can be tough to decide which gear you should use.

In fact, out of all the tracks I've played, I don't think I've ever played one that required such a careful balance of common sense and balls. The curves are spaced just wrong - drop a gear, and you could wind up puttering up to the finish line four hours after everyone has gone home, but if you shift up, you might wind find yourself flying ass over teakettle into a skyscraper filled with lawyers and Yakuza masterminds. And then you would feel really bad about killing all those nice gangsters.

But while it has plenty of places where you have to decide between glory and restraint, Singapore is otherwise an unremarkable map. It's basically just a standard two-lap race. It's a good track, but it's not all that thrilling, because it doesn't really give us anything we haven't seen before. It's like trying a new flavor of ice cream that's just a twist on an old favorite - it's fun to try something new, but it's still just vanilla with different candy in it.

For a real taste of a whole new race to play, you need to flip over the board and run a few races at the Industrial Docks. This is an absolutely fantastic track. It's got everything - difficult turns in technically challenging series, road hazards that could make you spin out your car, and even better, it's three laps in one.

See, the track is only one lap, but it has three different loops. There are pits, so you can still stop for new tires if you're driving like a maniac, but only if you run the loops in a particular order. And this forces a decision - do you drive hell-bent for leather for one lap so you can pull a good lead and then swap tires for the last two, or do you drive conservative for two laps hoping to push yourself at the end? Or maybe you just feel particularly lucky, and save the loop with the pit stops for last, in which case there won't be any reason to stop - but you better be careful with those tires. You may want to try to choose different loops than your opponents, so that you don't spend the whole race swapping paint, or you may want to be aggressive and block them in until they crash into you and send you both to an early grave.

And that's not all. There are multiple ways to set up the race. You can start all in a line, with everyone choosing their route ahead of time, or you can play a normal race and run the laps in order. An enormous starting area gives you plenty of room to switch loops between laps, so while all the other drivers are bumping into each other on one loop, you're driving another all by yourself. This adds an element that has been largely missing from Formula D before now - strategy and planning. Sure, you could always decide to take a conservative first lap so you could skip the pit stop, but now you can make much more meaningful decisions right from the outset.

There is one feature of the Industrial Docks that makes me particularly giddy - a ridiculously long straightaway that gives you plenty of room to get to sixth gear. One complaint I've had with nearly every Formula D track I ever played was that even if you do manage to get to sixth gear, it's probably suicidal. But if you play the Docks well, you can come out of one particular turn in a high enough gear to actually make sixth gear a good idea. When I realized that I had just finished a turn in fifth gear and had more than forty spaces in front of me, I turned to my opponents with a grin that may have made them wonder if I was about to murder them and eat their kidneys. They were probably not too worried. They know that I don't know enough gamers that I can spare one just for kidney pie.

If you like Formula D at all, you really owe it to yourself to pick up this expansion track. Singapore is a very fun track that will reward you for driving like you had a pair and punish you for driving like you were high on prescription painkillers. And the Industrial Docks are easily the most fun I've ever had with this game, which is remarkable when you consider how much fun I had with the game before I ever got the new tracks (I had a lot of fun before, in case I was not clear). Asmodee really stepped up and gave us a couple great tracks. Once again, I can't wait to run out to my car, throw it into high gear and hurtle through turns at incredibly unsafe speed.

Of course, I would almost certainly crash into a van full of grade-schoolers on their way to soccer practice, so I better stick to board games for now.


Same beautiful graphics we've come to expect from Asmodee
Two excellent tracks that are begging you to drive like a bat out of Hell
Finally, some real strategy and planning, right from the starting line

Can't think of any, really. These tracks are really good

If you race over to Noble Knight Games, you can save a few bucks and get yourself a copy of the latest expansion track:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Board Game Review - 7 Wonders

Every year, gaming websites have a ritual. I like to call it the Masturbatory We Wish We Had An Awards Ceremony ritual, though most places just call it the Game of the Year. It's like the Emmies or the Daytime Grammies or the Uncle Bob's Zippies or the Downers or Uppers or Ludes or some damned thing, except that instead of having a bunch of people show up in tuxedos and walk down red carpets, a handful of game nerds wearing Star Wars t-shirts with Cheeto stains tell the rest of us what games we should have been playing all year. Then everyone argues about it.

I read some of those lists this year. In many cases, I had not played most of the games on those lists. Being a maverick freelancer with no respect for authority (yes, that was tongue-in-cheek), I don't have access to many of the games I would really love to get, and no desire to get a bunch of the ones I end up missing. But in my opinion, not enough of those lists included 7 Wonders. I don't know if it's just because it has been so damned hard to get, or because not enough people loved it. And I don't care, really, because I don't put much stock in lists compiled by other people. I barely put any stock in lists I compile myself. Which, incidentally, makes it tricky to shop for groceries.

If I was to make a Top Games of 2010 list, however, I can tell you right now 7 Wonders would be on that list. Since I got the game about a week and a half ago, I've played half a dozen games, making it one of the most-played games I've ever received. When I really like a game, that usually means I'll play it three times before it starts gathering dust, so for me to play a game this much, I have to really love it. For the sake of reference, here are a few other games I've played a whole lot of times:

Formula D
Warhammer Quest

Not coincidentally, those round out the top of the list of my absolute favoritest games of all time, which is why I look for nearly any excuse to drag them out. And now, I have another game to add to that list, because 7 Wonders is ludicrously fun.

Here's a quick rundown of 7 Wonders. You start with a wonder, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Pyramids of Giza, and that basically tells you which civilization you're controlling. Then you get a hand of seven cards, choose one to play, and pass your hand to the guy next to you. You run out, then you see who has the best armies, then you do it all two more times, with progressively more impressive (and expensive) cards. There's more to the game than that, but if you came here to get a summary of the rules, let me just tell you how disappointed you are going to be. Very. That's how disappointed you'll be.

The brilliance of 7 Wonders comes from the intensely difficult decisions you will have to make in order to win. You need to decide on a strategy from the outset, and you need to tailor every decision to reinforcing that strategy. Are you going to be a nation of brilliant scientists? Will you rule the land with military power and an open disrespect for bathroom breaks? Or maybe you'll develop the arts, or become a nation of traders and merchants, or maybe you'll just get your ass kicked because you try to do too many things and wind up with the worst country in the world, and the Egyptians will stomp a mudhole in you so deep that it goes right through to China.

Every time you get a hand of cards, you're getting them from someone who can clearly see what you're trying to build. At the same time, you're passing cards to someone whose goals and capabilities are right there for you to see. So you have to decide - should you play the card you really want, or should you play one you want less to keep it away from the guy who will use it against you? Destroy it for money or bury it under your pyramid? Because the next hand of cards you get may give you exactly what you need - or it may give you a pile of used donkey crap that you don't even want, making you wish you had not just blown all your cash to kill a great card on your giant statue when you could have buried a crappy one instead.

Another awesome thing about 7 Wonders is how your first few turns have a profound effect on the rest of the game. Establish too many resource streams, and you'll waste the chance to create the building blocks of your master scheme. But build too many clay pits and stone quarries, and while you'll never have a problem building the good stuff, everyone else will have mighty armies and libraries full of brilliant works, and you'll be stuck with tin soldiers and coloring books.

But just because you build a great opening strategy does not mean that late game decisions get any easier. If anything, it gets even more difficult to decide what to develop, because the cards get more and more powerful. Too much focus on one aspect will help you pull out the stops on your fine arts district, but your neighbor is going to turn into a military juggernaut and repeatedly hand you painful beatings. Trying to control your neighbor by burning up his cards means you'll lose the chance to build the pantheon that will bring everlasting glory to your country. It's a tricky balance, and it gets trickier. And awesomer. Yes, that's awesome with an r. I don't care if it's a real word.

I've played several civilization-building games, and they always take far too long. I love a game with meat on it, but when the meat in my ass molds to fit the chair I'm in, the game is too damned long. By comparison, 7 Wonders has the elements of those historic empire games, but you can finish inside half an hour. Which means you have time to play again, which you will want to do, because 7 Wonders is a simply fantastic game.

It should not come as a surprise that 7 Wonders is as good as it is. It was designed by Antoine Bauza, who also created a little cooperative piece of genius called Ghost Stories, which is another game I've played more than five times. He also made Bakong, but I'm pretending I didn't see that. Hell, nobody gets it right every time.

With a nearly ideal combination of strategy, excruciating decisions, speed and constant tension, 7 Wonders is quite possibly about to join my top five games of all time. And I could tell you what those five games would be...

But I don't like lists.


3-7 players

Incredible art
Tons of strategy
Accessible to nearly any level player
Easy to learn
Every turn is a difficult decision
Early decisions have long-term effects
Absolutely fantastic

Sold out everywhere

I would tell you where to find yourself a copy of 7 Wonders, but it's really hard to find right now. Once Asmodee figures out that a reprint would be a license to mint money, Noble Knight Games will have it right here:

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Board Game Review - Hornet Leader

When you think of games about fighting in jets, you probably think of something like Wings of War, where you maneuver planes around the table and try to blow up your opponents, one airflap at a time. So when I opened Hornet Leader and saw that that board looked like a Venn diagram, I was a little non-plussed. Then I read that it was a solo game, that you can't even play with anyone else, and I was suddenly wondering if I might have just lost that loving feeling.

But after reading the rules, Hornet Leader starts to make more sense. It's not a dogfighting game. It's a game about planning air strikes, taking out targets, and managing a team of bad-ass, widow-making pilots dropping bombs and taking names. It's also a game about getting your ass kicked because you didn't plan very well.

Instead of just outfitting one or two planes, you'll outfit an entire squadron. Depending on the engagement you want to play, you'll have access to U.S. planes spanning fifty years of construction. You'll have lots of missiles and bombs and rockets, plus electronic counter-measures. All these options mean that when you finally get over the target and discover that you should have equipped your planes with more radar-seeking missiles, you'll have the opportunity to write the next of kin and tell them their sons are dead because you were stupid.

The actual game play isn't that difficult. Your guys shoot, bad guys shoot, and then you see if anyone is still alive. I managed to play a whole game without losing any pilots, though one of them still flinches every time someone says, 'night run.' But every time I played, I found myself spending more time selecting planes and munitions than I did actually playing. There's an incredible amount of micro-management, and you can't take it lightly or you're practically guaranteed to fail.

You'll select your targets from a deck of cards, showing stuff like radar stations and government buildings and tank convoys. Then you'll pick and tell yourself that you can beat it. You'll slap missiles and bombs all over a bunch of planes and send them bravely into the air, and when the anti-aircraft on the ground blows all the guided missiles off your best Tomcat, you'll figure out that your mouth was writing checks your body couldn't cash.

In case I'm not being clear, this game is hard. A decent player with good planning can pull out a marginal victory, but you're going to have to play several times before you'll be able to achieve a victory you can crow about. I could tell you that a little planning and luck will carry the day, but I don't want to blow sunshine up your ass. Hornet Leader is fun, but it's not for wimps.

And when I say it's not for wimps, I don't just mean you have to be brave. I mean you have to be willing to sift through piles of information (literally - the pilots are all on cards, and there are hundreds of them) just to decide who you want flying for you. Then you have to wade through dozens of different armaments, keeping in mind weight limits, distance to the target, and whether your pilots can get by with smoke breaks or if they really need full-body massages with happy endings. The sheer volume of data can be overwhelming. The creator of this game did his homework, for sure, but he didn't dumb it down.

This is where the game really breaks down for me. I really enjoyed playing Hornet Leader, but I just don't have the mental stamina to stick it out. I tried a long campaign, and after three hours of managing stress, weight penalties, infrastructure damage, intel and a bunch of other minutia, I was tired. I love the idea of picking a bunch of pilots and taking the highway to the danger zone, but after all juggling all these details, I just felt a desperate need... a need for speed.

Hornet Leader is a meticulously designed game with an incredible attention to detail. If you ever wanted to know how it feels to command a battle group of planes from an aircraft carrier, you should join the Navy. Of course, you're too old for that, and you probably couldn't pass the physical anyway. So you'll have to settle for Hornet Leader, which is a lot of fun, if you can handle all the details.

But don't screw up, or you'll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog crap out of Hong Kong.


1 player

Amazing detail
Great planning will pay off, and poor planning will kill you
Lots of tactical decisions and difficult choices

Dense as granite - lots and lots and lots of stuff to consider could slow the game to a crawl

If you've got the guts to tackle a game this brutal, you should run over to Noble Knight Games and pick up a copy. It's fun, especially if you spend a lot of time playing with yourself.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Announcement - BoardGameinfo

If you're enough of a gaming nerd to read Drake's Flames on anything like a regular basis, you are almost certainly also aware of the Great Big Gaming Site called Board Game Geek (recently retitled Geekdo, so they could cover every kind of game ever, albeit rather poorly in the case of RPGs and video games). And you probably also know that there's virtually no competition for the job of Primary Geeky Gaming Site.

You may also know that while Board Game Geek is an incredibly useful tool, and a veritable treasure trove of information, it's also about as user-friendly as a punch in the nuts. It will allow you to do a wide range of things, from uploading images and useful files to trading games and managing your profile - if you can find the right link. I never can, so I don't use it a lot. It's also home to some of the most stilted Internet justice and downright censorship that you'll find at a site that owes its entire existence to unpaid volunteers who contribute enormous amounts of time and effort just to be thanked by having some power-mad asswipe give them a five day suspension for defending themselves after douchetit Euro-nerds pull their 'I'm smarter than you are' arrogant horse manure.

But all that is about to change. There's a new game in town, and BGG is about to get a run for its Monopoly money. is finally live, and it's ready for game nerds to descend on it like a pack of nit-picking locusts. Sure, there's some work to do - but what do you think BoardGameGeek looked like when it started?

If you visit the new site, you may notice that I'm one of three feature reviewers over there. I'll be copying my reviews to BoardGameinfo, and maybe writing exclusive content for them from time to time. I'm very excited to see someone really stepping up and being prepared to compete with the current reigning superpower in gaming sites, and I intend to support the hell out of it.

BoardGameinfo is owned and managed by James Mathe, a guy I’ve been working with off and on for nearly ten years now. He’s a savvy businessman and a pioneer of game-related Internet entrepreneurial efforts. He started RPGNow, and while there were other people selling PDFs on the web before he showed up, he was the first to create a viable online mall combining hundreds of different publishers, and allowing micro-press creators a place to sell their works. That’s not all he’s done, either – he knows gaming, and he doesn’t go into a new project half-cocked. He has done his homework, and he and his team are prepared to pour an incredible amount of time and resources into BoardGameinfo. He has tapped into some serious heavy hitters and knowledgeable people to make BGi a contender (which makes me wonder what he was thinking when he asked my ignorant donkey’s ass to help out).

BoardGameinfo is going to be the same kind of game-information resource that you see at BoardGameGeek, and frankly, they’re not entirely original in how they’re going to get the work done. Just like the bloated beast that is BGG, BGi will allow its users to upload content. And like BGG, which rewards users with a false currency (effectively creating their own internal economy), BGi will pay you for your time. You’ll earn Victory Points, which can be redeemed at their store for actual games. Right now you can’t get a whole hell of a lot, but sooner or later, you’ll be able to get real products, in addition to stuff like avatars and titles and other silly crap that I’ll totally be buying myself.

BoardGameinfo will also have one thing that you won’t find at BoardGameGeek – me. Like I said before, I’ll be copying my reviews there, and I intend to contribute to the forums and otherwise be active at the new site. I quit posting at BoardGameGeek around the beginning of 2009, but I’m enthusiastically looking forward to being a big part of BoardGameinfo, and I hope you will join me.

One point I want to make here is that the Internet is a wide open place, and there’s no reason anyone has to stake their loyalties at one site and ignore another. Unless you just don’t have any time in your day, there’s no reason you can’t visit BoardGameGeek and BoardGameinfo. I still accept the occasional trade request at BGG, and even if I don’t post, I still like that I can find information when I need it. There’s room for two gaming sites, and no reason you have to snub one to be loyal to the other.

Oh, one other thing - I'm not getting jack squat from BoardGameinfo, outside the same rewards any other knucklehead can get for posting reviews. I'm excited about the site because it has a real shot at being the kind of place I wish BoardGameGeek could be, and because it's a seriously professional effort. Sure, I'm shilling for them - but I'm not doing it because I'm getting a kickback. I'm doing it because I'm 100% thrilled they exist.

So come on down and join me. Together, we've got a chance to make BGi into something awesome. Let's take it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Board Game Review - Tikal II

Once upon a time, in a land not unlike our own, there lived a prince. He was kind of a wiener, and he had silly ears and cheated on his hot-ass wife with a woman who had buck teeth and a horsy laugh. So we're not going to tell a story about him, because this prince was a douche and his story would be lame.

Instead, our story will take us to a nearby land, which is not as much like our own land, but still not totally different. In this magical far-away land (not unlike our own), there lived two designers, and they made a game. They poured their hearts and souls into this game, and then rubbed it with a little bit of dust they pulled out of a pixie's bunghole (pixies poop magic dust). They brought their magical game to the people of the land, and a whole bunch of people that I don't know said it was a brilliant game, and gave it awards and stuff. That game was called Tikal, and it had many adventures before fading quietly into the realm of games that everybody likes to talk about because it makes them sound like they know more about games than they really do, as if knowing lots of information about European games would ever make you more likely to get laid. It won't, by the way.

Well, one day, these two adventuring game designers decided to set off again in search of magical treasures and paychecks. They put their heads together and decided that the best way to recreate the success and magic of their first game would be to make a sequel to the game. To make sure that all the people of the realm knew it was a sequel to their wildly popular game that won awards but that I've never even seen, much less played, they called it the same thing, but then put a 2 on it. Their new game, which was destined to take the world by storm, was therefore called Tikal II.

But there was only one problem - the game designers forgot to rub pixie poop on their new game. Without the magical pixie crap, Tikal II just didn't have the same charm. Basically, it was fun, but it was kind of a pain in the ass to play. It was magically beautiful, but it just didn't make much sense, and without the pixie dust, the game had too much happening at once.

In this non-magical game, every player got to pretend to be an explorer and his posse competing to unlock the mystical treasure of an ancient temple. Kind of like Indiana Jones, but not exciting, and with no women (pixie dust may have added hot Nazi chicks, but alas, no pixies). The players would send their canoes around the peninsula looking for clues and keys and other stuff that would appear on action tiles, and then they would pretend to be the explorer tromping madly through the temple. Players could score points in the first part of the turn for all kinds of things, like grabbing treasures and scoring rooms, and then they could get points in the second part, mostly for exploring rooms inside the temple and maybe for getting their dumb asses locked in a secret chamber.

Sadly, without the magical pixie excrement, the game bogged down and wound up getting boring by the end. Sure, there were lots of things to do on your turn, and you always had lots of options, but it became difficult to keep all the options straight. You could grab a key, and then it could go down or up. Or you could grab treasure and hide it, but you still had to ship it back home if you wanted more points (apparently in the crazy land of Tikal, the treasures would spoil if you didn't get them in the fridge fast enough, and then they weren't worth as much because they had mold on them and smelled like grandpa's feet). Maybe you could discover a new room, which your explorer could then explore, but you could also find a secret passage or an altar or some other damned thing that you would have to keep track of, and it would all start slipping around in your mind until you ended up completely forgetting that the turns were supposed to be passing to the right for the second round.

It's not that Tikal II was hard to play, really. The rules eventually made sense, especially if you played a little bit. After a few turns, you could remember what all the stuff was supposed to do. It was more like the game just had too many things happening at once, and while you could certainly play it, it started to drag after a while. If the temple was half the size and stuff happened way faster, it might be more fun, but then again, it might not. Unfortunately, in the absence of magical pixie poop, Tikal II was a graceless, lumbering beast that stayed so long that its hair got everywhere and it started to make the furniture stink.

However, even if they forgot to make a pixie drop a deuce in the box, the designers did hire a wonderfully talented artist to make it beautiful. While the game itself was not amazing, it looked like it should have been. The paintings on the board and the tiles and everything else came pretty close to transporting the players to the depths of some forgotten South American jungle as they traipsed around a completely harmless temple. The plastic bits were equally remarkable - each explorer had a different sculpt, and the little canoes were undeniably cool.

This story has not ended yet, but if I had to guess, I would bet it ends a lot happier for the two game designers than it probably should. See, the people of the realm knew that the first game was a big hit, even if they had never played it or even seen a copy. And so based on the success of the original, lots of people would run out and buy Tikal II just because the original was so impressive, and then persuade themselves that they loved the game. They might even say that they could see the pixie dust, because this magical land was full of people who liked to say they could see things that they could not so that other people would think they were perceptive and maybe, just maybe, want to sleep with them. In case you’re wondering, that still won’t work.

And those people might actually like Tikal II. The game designers were very good, and the game was ridiculously pretty. It was put out by a respected publisher, and while it was busy and overburdened with unnecessary tasks and little tweaks that could have been removed to make the game faster and easier to play, there are always gamers who will enjoy something. Tikal II wasn't a terrible game, just not the magical, record-breaking success the designers were hoping to create.

Hopefully, the next time these two game designers get together to have an adventure in game design, they'll remember to catch a pixie and force him to take a dump in the box. Then they will live happily ever after (but not the pixie. He's going to have permanent emotional scars).


2-4 players

Great theme, even if it is missing the exciting parts
Lots of options and tricky choices to make
Holy crap, is this game pretty

An overabundance of tweaky little things make the game a bit of a chore
A decided lack of magical pixie manure

If you just absolutely feel like you must play Tikal II, you can get it from Noble Knight Games, and save ten bucks.