Monday, February 28, 2011

RPG Review - Deadlands Reloaded

It's funny, for a guy that grew up playing roleplaying games and amassing a considerable collection of oddly shaped dice, I actually enjoy a very small number of roleplaying games. Some are too much work, and others don’t have enough meat on their bones. Some are just board games with options, and others have so much drama and baggage that they should be played on a headshrinker’s couch. Some have convoluted and twisted rules that try too hard to fit onto the setting, and most make almost no effort to make rules that fit the world you’re supposed to be visiting. And of course, whole bunches of them are just stupid (no offense to anyone who actually really loved RIFTS).

That leaves me with a good-sized pile of games that I tolerate, a few I enjoy, one or two that I really love, and just one that I will play nearly any time I have the chance. That one game is Deadlands. Between 1996 and 2001, I procured every book ever published for classic Deadlands, and didn’t stop buying them until they started making d20 and GURPS crossovers. Then I cried a little (but only on the inside), because making a d20 version of Deadlands is an affront to all that is holy.

Deadlands is a brilliant mix of dark and campy, horror and sci-fi, monsters and cowboys and steam-powered robots. It’s a game where your heroes can get stronger and faster, but they can also lose limbs and develop debilitating speech impediments. It gives me everything I want, sacrificing nothing to deliver great stories, exciting scenes of derring-do, and more flavor than a Kansas City barbecue joint.

If I had one beef with classic Deadlands, however, it was that the game tended to drag if you fought more than one bad guy at a time. I recall one battle against mud creatures that slowed so badly, I would have sworn the slop critters had left the game and were actually in our living room, making every turn take three times longer than it should. I loved the game, but I regularly found myself cheating to make stuff happen faster (I ran the game, so I could fudge a die roll now and then and just say, ‘wow, you got him in one shot!’)

I was hopeful when I decided to check out Deadlands Reloaded. It’s the same setting I know and love, but now it uses Savage Worlds, which runs like a road runner on amphetamines compared to classic Deadlands. On the other hand, I was worried that trimming down the rules meant I was going to lose a lot of the flavor that made Deadlands a wonderful marriage of setting and rules.

It turns out, I had nothing to worry about. For starters, Deadlands Reloaded dumps a few of the problems I have with Savage Worlds and goes back to its roots. There are no ‘bennies’, which I feel compelled to put in quotes because I’m embarrassed to be typing the word at all. They’ve been replaced with fate chips, which is as it should be, because fate chips are Old West, and ‘bennies’ are ugly guys who mop up after wild nights at the gay bar.

I did kind of like how classic Deadlands gave each player a roll at the beginning of each round, and then you got cards based on how well you rolled. So if you had a very high Quickness, you were likely to get to act many times in a round, and if you were slower than Christmas, you got to go once. However, this was also the main reason classic Deadlands is so slow, and so when Savage Worlds replaces it with just dealing out a single card to each player, I can see why that happened. I don’t like that my lightning-fast gunslinger has to count on getting lucky if he wants to shoot before the bad guy can pull a weapon, but on the other hand, there are edges he can take to make sure he gets a good draw. It’s not quite as slick as the original, but it gets the job done.

Deadlands Reloaded also does away with many of the cool spells, and kind of lumps them all in together. I actually really liked many of the hexes, miracles and other arcane madness, and don’t really like that mad scientists just build devices that cast spells. That seems like too great an effort to make everything work the same, and I don’t want everything to work the same. I want the hucksters to throw a soul blast while the mad scientist calibrates his fluctuating defrabinator and the preacher sings Glory Hallelujah while swinging a hickory stick and firing a righteous shotgun. That still happens in Reloaded, but now it all basically works the same way. And that’s not as much fun.

Anyone who knows classic Deadlands knows how every different character type had his own book, from the hucksters and voodoo priests to the Texas Rangers and the walking dead known as harrowed. Each book was chock-full of specialized powers, arcane knowledge and secret handshakes. Half the fun of taking one of those specialized characters was finally being allowed to read through the book and find out what you had been missing. Unfortunately, Reloaded distills all those crazy archetypes into a few pages in the player’s book, which again, is not as much fun.

Ironically, all those things I loved about classic Deadlands were also its biggest failings. Information overload became almost impossible to manage. When I had four players, and they were a huckster, a preacher, a mad scientist and a harrowed, I had to know where to find rules in almost 400 pages of books. After a while, it became a running gag – ‘a shaman, a nun and a harrowed walk into a bar. Hold on while I look that up.’

Deadlands Reloaded may have cut a lot of the stuff I loved about classic Deadlands, but at the same time, it trimmed the fat until Deadlands is a lean, mean, Old West horror machine. I can run a zombie invasion with a terrified town and a posse of deputies in half the time it used to take me to fight two drunks in a saloon. When a player asks me how long it will take to climb under the burning wreckage, I can tell him so fast, I still have time to send a trio of angry prairie ticks to rip off his face when he’s stuck under a fallen rafter. I don’t have to work anywhere near as hard I used to, and that makes running Deadlands a lot more fun.

I wouldn’t say that Deadlands Reloaded is the perfect replacement for classic Deadlands. I like the flexibility of the old system, and the way everything about the game oozed Weird West. You could meet Doc Holliday, get in a shootout with the Clantons, then have some nightwalking demon scare you so bad you soiled yourself. You can still do that in Deadlands Reloaded, though, and now those two shootouts won't take the better part of three hours. Now you can kill Ike, run from the manitou, find its weakness, change into clean drawers, and go back to bury the bastard before everyone gets tired of asking if it's their turn yet.

I was on the fence about whether I liked the new Deadlands better than the old, to be honest, until I considered a few things. First, those long fights can really suck the fun out of a game night. Second, there's nothing stopping me from adding some of my favorite parts back into the game. Third, none of my current group of players made characters with any kind of supernatural ability, so until somebody croaks (and possibly comes back), I don't have to worry about asking anyone to build poker hands to throw unholy death at their foes. Finally, the Pinnacle website has a PDF specifically made for converting old Deadlands stats into Savage Worlds - and that means I can still use the bookshelf full of classic books.

And I guess that brings me to my final conclusion. Deadlands is my favorite RPG ever - and I like Deadlands Reloaded better.


Fast and lean
Rules are easy to learn and easy to remember
All the flavor, half the calories

Not really all the flavor. I lied about that part to make a diet food joke.

Hey! Guess who has Deadlands Books! Yep, Noble Knight Games!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Card Game Review - Nightfall

Groff Deathbloodfang, squire of East L.A. and fire marshal of the apocalypse, spread his leathery vampire wings and swooped down out of the night. His prey was below him, hot blood filling his nostrils like the cream in a chocolate eclair. He dove down, down, down, down, down, down and one more time down, claws extended to pluck his dinner out of the inky blackness and devour the human's terror. He was a wolf on wings, a wolverine in a hang glider, a badger on roller skates.

At the very last possible second, Groff's prey turned and looked up at him, and a high-powered rifle exploded in an orgasm of gunsmoke and muzzle suppression. Groff's last thought before the bullet tore into his face and sent his brains flying out the back of his head like a water ballon filled with orange marmalade was, 'son of a bi-' He wasn't able to finish the thought, because he died halfway through 'bitch.'

Derek Coolaselvis smiled grimly. 'You won't hunt in my town again,' he said as he lowered his rifle and wiped vampire brains off his cardigan. Then a werewolf ate him.

The unending night had consumed another victim. Well, two victims, if you count the vampire, but he was a bad guy, so he's not so much a victim as a statistic. The werewolf had a little indigestion, too. So maybe three.

If you play Nightfall, you too can join in the brooding darkness where the sun never comes up and humans are walking snack cakes. Vampires fight werewolves, and they both fight humans, and all this drama and violence and sadness and angst is played out in the only feasible way it could ever work - as a deckbuilding game.

Nightfall brings to your table the epic struggle between vampires and werewolves, with humans caught in the middle, by letting you buy cards that represent vampires and werewolves and sometimes humans who are caught in the middle. You can also buy actions that simply do what the bestial animal inside every immortal demon longs to do - hurt your friends. Only you do it with cards, which is not quite as dark, unless you're giving them paper cuts or throwing the cards at them really hard. Then it's as twisted and evil as the soul of the abominations hunting through the neverending night, where streetlights cast watery shadows and nobody anywhere has a tan.

When your turn arrives in this abyss of hopelessness and long black leather coats, you will have the chance to unleash your minions so that they can ravage your opponents in a festival of blood-soaked anarchy and freeform dance. But beware, because each of your minions and actions shows colored moons, and if your opponents have matching colored moons, they can play on your turn. They can also steal your Lucky Charms. Then not only will their actions resolve before yours, possibly ripping out your spleen and eating it with fava beans and a glass of Not-Very-Sunny Delite, but you will not have any breakfast cereal.

Carefully selecting your minions and special actions is paramount to survival in the dark world of Nightfall, where policemen carry loaded pastrami sandwiches and every action could be their last, especially if they carry their sandwiches past werewolves who really like pastrami. It's important that you choose actions that you can chain together, because you may be able to play five cards when everyone else is playing one or two. Of course, it's also nice if the cards you choose actually work well together. It's not as helpful as you might imagine to destroy a summoned minion if you're the only stupid vampire lord with any minions summoned. Then you kill your own guys and your friends laugh at you, and in a fit of hideous anger you rip off your shirt and feel very bad about yourself.

As with any game where the goal is the complete decimation of your foes and the eventual consumption of their internal organs in a nice cobb salad, the hunters in the darkness win by giving more wounds than they receive. To represent this tragic and violent goal, Nightfall uses the one thing at which it excels - cards. When Bad Fart and Cheese Toe, your werewolf aggressors, rip through your opponent's meager defenses and savage his leader with their very scary claws and razor-sharp teeth, that leader will have to add wound cards to his deck, which will then take up space and irritate him to no end as he receives hand after hand with a bunch of cards that aren't good for anything.

Ultimately, nothing can adequately express the horror and misery of unending night, unless that something is black eyeshadow and false fangs that make you talk with a lisp. No card game could ever really convey the darkness in your soul. Only by wearing fingerless gloves and dying your hair, and then reading fan fiction you found on a Masquerade website, can you truly understand the powerful urges of the monstrous rulers of the night. And when I say all that, I mean the theme in Nightfall is almost as weak as the theme in Dominion, but with better art.

However, no matter how easily you rest in your comfortable chair, gathered around the dinner table as you hold your cards close and pretend to be from Transylvania, nothing can prepare you for how damned much fun it is to play Nightfall. It will hurt your head, though it will hurt considerably less than if a vampire were to really eat your face. Carefully buying the right cards and playing them in swift, damning moves destined to wreak havoc on your foes will aid you in your quest for bloody victory. But buying the wrong cards and playing like a chump human will have you reeling from the constant stream of painful blows to the face that your opponents will heap upon you.

So many things about Nightfall make it one of the best deckbuilding games you can encounter. A redraw for wound cards provides an edge you might need if you are losing badly. Personal archives of cards that only you can buy force you to form an overall strategy from the very outset of the game. A beginning deck erodes as you play, forcing you to buy wisely before your resources are depleted and the other werewolves all pull your underpants up over your head and give you a nightmare of a wedgie. The greatest feature of the game is the chain, where you plot and scheme to take advantage of the weaknesses of your enemies while building towering attacks and unbeatable defenses. In other words, Nightfall is a very, very good game.

And if you don't buy Nightfall, Goat Raper the werewolf will come to your house in the middle of the night and run off with your Magic cards. Then all you will have left is the black of your soul and your red-tinted contact lenses.


2-5 players

A deckbuilder that really lets you lay into your opponents with your bloody talons of doom
The chaining card play makes this a thinking-vampire's game
Never any morose pauses, because you could play on your opponent's turn (could be a con if you need to touch up your white foundation)
Neat re-draw rule helps players who are losing to get back in the game
Excellent depth and plenty of room to grow
I totally dig the art

Theme is a little weak, but it gets the job done

Nightfall kicks ass. If you like deckbuilding games at all, you should check it out. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like it's out yet. That sucks for you.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Worm Game Review - Worm Up!

One day, aliens are going to come to the planet long after we've all died out. They'll be exploring the ruined husk of our planet, and using the odds and ends they can find to determine what kind of society we had. If they find Worm Up, they will assume that we were pretty darn stupid.

Worm Up is another in a long line of reprints coming out of Gryphon Games. In this latest rehash, players will partake in a particularly asinine activity - they will race worms. When the aliens see this game, they will probably deduce that humanity died out because neither our brains nor our bodies moved very fast, and so we were actually capable of being entertained by worm races.

Each player's worm is made up of a bunch of wooden balls, only they're chopped in half. These half-globes all sit in a line that you tell people is a worm, even though you know they're actually just a pile of wood buttons laid out in a line.

To move your worm, you bid a movement number, which you indicate by turning a humongous die with numbers on it. If someone else bids your number, then you don't do a damned thing. If you're the only one bidding your number, you get to take the those wooden beads from the ass end of your worm and put them in front of his head. That's how worms move, too - they just suck their butts up through their faces. It's quite fascinating, or it would be, if it actually happened that way.

If this were one of those reviews where I just tell you the rules, I would be done now, because that really is most of the rules. Fortunately for you, that's not all I do here. For one thing, I haven't made any boob jokes yet, so I need to work those in somewhere. I also haven't reached the part of this review where I tell you that I actually really liked Worm Up.

OK, yes, the game is stupid. It takes almost a whole minute to set up, then you can finish in ten more minutes, then you sweep everything into the box and you're done putting it away. There aren't very many decisions to make, outside trying to second-guess your opponents. But even without a lot of flash, or excruciating decisions, Worm Up is cute and a lot of fun. And that's not something you can say about a lot of games (which makes me wonder why those other games get made in the first place).

When you think you're the smart one and you bid the X, and then someone else does, too, you're both going to slap your foreheads and groan (make sure you slap your own forehead, and not the forehead of the other guy. This is a pretty important consideration). When you get one turn where you're leading the pack, you might twist your worm so he's cutting off all your opponents and forcing them to swing wide. You can move the finish line to get it closer to your worm. You can laugh at the light silliness of the game, and then laugh at yourself for playing it.

I was dreading Worm Up when I broke it out. Like the alien archeologists, I was sure the game was dumber than a bag of hammers. I could only surmise that babbling idiots were responsible for its creation, and that someone was playing a joke on me. But the rules and pieces don't show the goofy charm of Worm Up. To understand how much fun you can have with a ten-minute game about racing worms, you really have to try it.

If the aliens try it, they're going to decide we knew how to have fun. But they will still think we were stupid for playing a game with wooden nipples.


3-5 players

Incredibly quick to set up and play
Fun for all ages
Light and silly and charming

Kind of dumb

You can get yourself a copy of Worm Up at Noble Knight Games, and then you can also feel stupid while you have a good time:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Board Game Review - Earth Reborn

A couple weeks ago, I heard some Metallica on the radio. Then I got to work and someone mentioned Zombieland, and since I was already humming Whiskey in the Jar in my head, I leapt to For Whom the Bell Tolls, and I had a kind of shot of inspiration. And here it is:

We need some heavy metal board games.

It's not like there have been no solid attempts at making a metal game. Space Hulk should have been pretty hardcore, but while it is awesome, it's not quite loud and raw enough to go with a little rowdy Quiet Riot. It's fun, but it has a little too much polish to be metal. Space Hulk is more like the kind of music young people play at raves while they ingest ecstasy and have sex with strangers. The same can be said of a lot of other games with lots of violence but streamlined rules - they start out metal, but then they get all cleaned up and corporate.

The very next day, still pondering a kick-ass headbanger board game, Earth Reborn showed up at my house. It was like fate was in my head, guiding me to the answer I had silently asked. No, not that question. I still haven't heard back on that one, but I have a tarp and a shovel in the back of my truck, just in case.

I'm not sure it was intentional, but it sure looks to me like when Cristophe Boelinger was making Earth Reborn, he was staring at an Iron Maiden poster and listening to Sabbath. I'll run down a few elements, to illustrate my point.

1) Raw and unpolished
2) Loud and fast and violent
3) Zombies and machine guns
4) A guy with a giant saw blade permanently attached to his arm

Add it up, you get headbanging metal. You also get Earth Reborn, the most thrashing, hardcore, flat-out heavy metal game I've ever played.

The first indication that Earth Reborn is a heavy metal game is the post-apocalyptic setting. This isn't just post-nuclear armageddon. In Earth Reborn, China and the US are threatened by Greenpiece (yeah, I spelled it right), and so everyone builds underground vaults and hides for five hundred years. The NORAD guys get all paranoid and military, and while they build mechs and learn how to shoot heavy weapons, the people living underneath Salem learn how to make zombies. So now you've got heavy machine guns and robots fighting creepy guys who make zombies in an irradiated wasteland. And just in case you've been listening to Michael Bolton and Air Supply for the last ten years, that is heavy metal.

Of course, when guys in powered armor shoot vicious aliens in a derelict pile of space junk, that's also pretty metal, so there has to be more to Earth Reborn to make it truly metal - and there is. For starters, look at the art. Zombies with glass tubes attached to their heads to give them superhuman intelligence. Top-heavy women with guns nearly as big as their boobs. Guns and claws and kevlar and night-vision goggles. The illustrations in Earth Reborn look like they could have been taken directly from a Judas Priest album cover.

And then we get to the game, and if we weren't sure if this was heavy metal before now, we are now. In an age of gaming where we've become used to universal resolution, elegant rules and streamlined mechanics, the insane variety of things you can do in Earth Reborn is like a Thin Lizzy guitar solo to the brain.

Forget about having some carefully worded special ability on a character card that lets you use one particular guy in one particular way. Screw that - send your wounded gunfighter to the infirmary to heal up, and drop a mine on the way to discourage pursuit, then send the crazy scientist to fill up his syringe in the chem lab before he runs to the bathroom to drop a deuce (I didn't make that up - it's in the game). You'll roll a bunch of dice - the more the merrier - and you'll do anything from firing guns or stabbing people in the gizzards to activating the radio scrambler or torturing a captured opponent. Search for enemy plans in their stronghold. Blow up the command room. There are so many things you can do in Earth Reborn that you'll play dozens of times and still never try everything. And most importantly, not one of those things is neat and tidy and streamlined. They do all make sense, though. They're just not so abstracted that you're placing a clue token and acting like that means you bribed a gate guard.

Most of all, Earth Reborn is like heavy metal because it is fast, violent and fun as hell. There are rules for playing with three or four, but mostly you'll be across the table from one guy, who will be doing everything in his power to kill the living and raise the dead, and it will be awesome. I can't remember a time when I had this much fun playing a two-player face-off shoot-em-up game. It's just plain incredible.

But like any good heavy metal band, Earth Reborn is not perfect. In fact, the list of flaws may threaten to drive off people who would otherwise become huge fans. For example, the graphic designer for this game never even heard the word 'restraint.' There are icons everywhere. garish colors, sloppy lines, confusing backgrounds, and endless arrays of needless Photoshop layer effects. If Pantera is supposed to make your ears bleed, Earth Reborn targets your eyes. The rules and character cards are painfully cluttered and sloppy.

I could easily forgive the slop on the cards and rules if not for the fact that it flows over to the room tiles. You've got this infinitely versatile building set to make all different kinds of interesting locations, but they're hideous. I know it's the apocalypse and all, but would it kill you to use a bright color? It's been 500 years since the bomb. Could we maybe put in a request to get the grass green instead of gray?

It's bad enough the colors are a mess, but when they make it harder to play, that's a serious problem. I don't know how many times I plotted an entire move, shot at a guy, and ran off to make my escape - only to run smack into a wall that I didn't see because it was the same color as the floor. The artist clearly knew how to use Photoshop. Would it be too much to ask that he learn how to adjust the contrast?

The last thing that is going to intimidate anyone who is not really committed to Earth Reborn is the length of the learning curve. A book of tutorial scenarios teaches you the game, one scenario at a time. The first scenario teaches you about moving and close combat - and when that's all you can do, Earth Reborn is stupid. Then you get to do running and stabbing, but with interrupts - and it's still stupid. Add in guns, and you've got some great opportunities for covering fire and suppression and other cool violence, but you still can't use the mission cards or the surveillance room. In fact, you have to play five or six times before the game really gets good, which means some seriously lame games early on.

But here's the good news - those downsides are lame excuses for nancy boys who can't take the heat. The visual assault of the cards actually makes them easier to play. After you set up a couple times, you'll remember where the doors are. And once you work through three or four of the scenarios, you'll start to realize that you're playing a piece of two-player genius that will rock your face off like Queensryche opening for Motorhead.

If you're a fan of two-player gridded miniatures games, Earth Reborn should be at the tippy top of your wish list. It's crazy amounts of wild fun, with so much flexibility and brilliance that even if you lose every game, you'll have fun. If there's another reason to play games besides having a good time, I don't ever want to know about it.


2-4 players

Fast and fun and violent
Wacky and exciting and over-the-top
If Megadeth and Black Sabbath collaborated on a board game, this would be it

Rookie design mistakes
Wicked learning curve

Noble Knight Games has Earth Reborn for a pretty good discount. If you like games where you shoot zombies and play with cool toys, you really ought to pick this up.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Expansion Review - Railways of England (and Wales)

It's been a while since I was able to get Railways of the World to the table. Until a few weeks ago, it had been more than a year since I broke it out and played my favorite train game. Four days of ice-covered roads and a mandated vacation, however, gave me boatloads of time to spend with my family, whether or not I wanted it. So to kill time while we shivered in our poorly insulated house and waited for the pipes to thaw so I could crawl around under my house and fix the leaks while lying in frozen mud, we broke out the trains.

And when we did, I realized that I have owned Railways of England and Wales for a year and a half and never actually wrote the review. It wasn't because I didn't want to review the damned thing, because I did. But there are two sets of rules in the box, and one of them was so completely foreign to anything I understood at the time I first got it that I gave up and put it away, then forgot it was there.

I sure am glad I dug it out again. Going over the rules again, I realized that the reason I didn't understand the advanced game was because I couldn't wrap my head around a railroad game where you didn't actually own the railroads. But after I forced myself through Baltimore & Ohio, I was embarrassed that I was ever confused by the advanced version of England and Wales. Compared to Baltimore & Ohio, England and Wales is a breeze.

The theory is essentially the same. There are a bunch of train companies, and you buy stock in them. The guy with the most stock in one company decides what that railroad does, and the railroads pay dividends to the shareholders if they make enough money. So you need the railroads to make a lot of money, so that their stock rises and they give you a bunch of money. You win by being the richest investor, so having lots of expensive stock at the end of the game (especially if you bought it on the cheap) is, you know, good.

It's almost funny to me now that I actually gave Baltimore & Ohio a positive review. If I had just grown a pair and powered through the rules for England and Wales, I would have realized what a tweaky mess Baltimore & Ohio really is. The two games have a ton in common, enough that if you're going to own one, there's not much reason to own the other. And in this case, I'll be dumping my copy of Baltimore & Ohio as quick as I can. Railways of England and Wales is so far superior that there will never be a reason to play Baltimore & Ohio again. Like if you've only ever had one girl in your whole life, and then she dumps you and you wind up with some bedroom freak who reinvents your entire sex life, and you wonder why you thought that other chick was so hot when all she ever did was lay there. I'm not saying that either game is like sex, of course. And there is absolutely no good reason to lube your plastic trains, you sick bastard.

The concept of owning stock and controlling railroads with the end goal of getting rich is not exactly innovative. A bunch of those 18XX games do exactly that, as do England and Wales and Baltimore & Ohio. However, where Baltimore & Ohio is so overrun by mathematical minutiae that every player has to have a calculator (this is literal - every player will need their own calculator. It helps if you can program if for sine curves), England & Wales distills the math down to sheer simplicity while maintaining every bit of the strategy and planning required to excel at either game.

Another feature that ruins Baltimore & Ohio is needless historical accuracy. I can make plenty of tactical decisions and long-term plans simply by having varying starting values for stock prices. I don't need to be forced to run the cast of Jersey Shore to Buffalo just to be reminded that this is how it happened in real life (but with different stupid people, obviously). I'm all for granting a little historical feel to a game in the name of playing out a theme, but when it interferes with the game play, I just don't see the point.

Need another reason that England and Wales beats the balls off Baltimore & Ohio? How about the fact that it plays in half the time. You can have very nearly the exact same experience, but finish before your wife goes to bed, so you can still have time to kick your friends out of the house and maybe get a little before she calls it a night. Would you rather have a great game, or a great game and then sex? Don't answer that. I do not want to know.

One final improvement in England and Wales is that the map is a lot smaller. Even with just three players, you're going to run into each other by the end of the first turn. And then you're going to be scheming and plotting and blocking and competing right up until the end of the game. Make a good move early on, and it could pay off for the entire game. Screw the pooch right out of the gate, on the other hand, and there's still a little time to catch up.

So now that I've spent this much time singing about why England and Wales is so awesome, it may surprise you when I say that I'll probably stick with the normal game. The advanced game really is fun, but I like owning my railroad. I am pretty good at the standard rules, and I really like the England and Wales map. It's perfect for three players, with enough chances to get bare-knuckles with your opponents, and still enough room to spread out a little. For playing with my wife and daughter, England and Wales is just about ideal. It has that sweet spot of interaction without excessive brutality, and all the stuff I enjoy about Railways in general, like jockeying for cards and racing to complete rail lines and rebuilding cities so the game can go just a couple more turns.

If you enjoy Railways of the World, you're really going to like England and Wales. If you enjoy Baltimore & Ohio or some of those 18XX games, but don't like having to break out a laptop just to track dividend splits, England and Wales will totally be your cup of tea. But if you like a really small map, you can get Mexico in the base game, and if you like a really huge map, you can use Eastern or Western US. England and Wales is perfect for me, and my favorite Railways expansion so far. It works for me without making me do too much work.


2-6 players

Map is just the right size for three
Advanced game kicks Baltimore & Ohio in the balls and steals its lunch money
Everything I like about the Railways games, in a size and location that is perfect for my family
Pick the game you want to play - both are a blast, so play the one you like

Still that stupid thing where you can't tell the blue from the purple
Simplified, which you may not like if you're a math nerd and a history dweeb

Noble Knight Games has a great deal on Railways of England and Wales. If you like Railways of the World and want to try something new and different, get it here, and save some money on it:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Expansion Review - Summoner Wars Reinforcements

One of the very few downsides to being a game reviewer is that I don't get to play the games that I really like as much as I want. If I have a spare night to play a game (and I'm not playing 500), I usually have to play something so I can write about it. This means that as much as I would love to break out some old favorites, I have to devote myself to playing crappy Reiner reprints far more than is pleasurable (of course, when it comes to a crappy Reiner reprint, one play is too many).

While there are many games I would play a lot more if I had time, one of the most painful casualties of my mandated short attention span is Summoner Wars. I just plain love this game. It's quick to set up, quick to play, and quick to put away again. It's brilliantly balanced and deep in strategy and tactical plays. There's a lot of careful gambling and risky play. Sometimes everything comes together and you pull off an amazing coup at the last minute, and sometimes you're just plan screwed. However it goes, it's always fun.

But after a while, it can get a little repetitive. You might be playing the phoenix elves against the goblins and wishing you could swarm a little better, or wishing you could smash walls with a bit more reliability, or otherwise just want to change things up from time to time. And that's where the reinforcements come in.

There are two packs of reinforcements, one for each of the base sets you can get. One pack has replacements for the burny elves and the freezy orcs, and the other is for the dwarves and goblins. Both packs also include mercenaries, which can be added to your deck for even more variety. The reason for all these extra cards is so that you can customize your deck - your opponent can't really counter-draft against your orcs any more because you may not even have ranged units in there, and he can't count on you spawning a horde of weak-ass goblins that he can tear up like wet toilet paper. You can try different strategies than you've used in the past, because the new units give you all new ways to get your head chopped off and stuffed up your ass.

The additional elf and orc cards are very interesting. My favorite new tundra orc is a champion who makes your freeze cards more expensive to thaw, which can give you a huge advantage if you time it right. The elves have some new commons called fire beasts, and they're incredibly awesome, but frighteningly expensive. If the cost is scaring you off, though, you can also find the elf chick who brings them in cheaper, and who can still hold her own in a brawl.

On the other hand, maybe you just want to pull out a little flame-based horde to rush the field. In this case, you can add a bunch of fencers to your elf deck, and summon them for free. And bad news for the enemy who attacks and misses, because he gets to try out his own weapon as a suppository.

The dwarves were already pretty decent at crushing walls, thanks to some wicked event cards and some irritating engineers, but with the addition of the ballista, now they're flat-out frightening at it. Play your cards right, and you might be able to clear out all the walls before your opponent is halfway through his deck, and then mop up whatever he has left like the mess your dog made in the kitchen.

The dwarf champions are also impressive. You can send the protector dwarf to the front lines to cover for your engineers, giving you a better chance to tear down walls like Jericho, or you can send the scrappy little ass-kicker screaming across the board to wail on targets who thought they were far enough away to be safe. There are lots of new ways to break things and hurt people, and I like them all.

After all this new brilliance, I was surprised at how thoroughly I was disappointed in the new goblins. Both of their new commons have a summon cost of one, which would be fine except that so many of the goblin event cards only affect free goblins. It's actually possible to build a goblin deck in which more than half of your event cards are completely useless. Not advisable, I wouldn't think, but still possible. I was really hoping for some new zero-cost goblins, and while I like the beast riders and the wall crawlers, I'm a little disappointed at how much their absence limits my options with my favorite crazed horde.

I haven't mentioned the mercenaries yet, because I'm saving the best for last. There are two new champions and some cool new commons. The spear grounders are ten pounds of kick-ass in a five-pound bag, and the vermin have an incredibly cool plague attack - as long as you don't stand around your own guys too long. The champions are also pretty cool - one lets you hold a bigger hand, and the other can cut through the enemy ranks like poop through a goose.

I really like all the new ways that Summoner Wars is expanding. The reinforcements add so much to the starting sets that you'll have lots of new ways to build your armies. And since every pack includes all the commons and champions you'll need, you don't have to buy crates of them just to make them worthwhile. Plaid Hat Games may be a one-trick pony so far, but that one trick just keeps getting better.

Now if I could figure out some way to store this game when it's languishing on the shelf for weeks at a time, it would be perfect.


2 or 4 players

Lots of great new cards to really tweak the decks you already love
New strategies and new combinations
I really like the direction the new art is taking

The lack of zero-cost goblins seems like one hell of an oversight - if they weren't bundled with the dwarves, I wouldn't buy that set

If you haven't tried Summoner Wars yet, that's a mistake you should correct immediately. While you're correcting your grievous error, you can pick up the reinforcements and the expansion decks:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Card Game Review - 500

I have more than a hundred games, and the reason that number isn't more like 400 or more is because I regularly donate heaping piles of games to churches and youth groups and homeless people who use them as blankets. I have set collection games and war games and miniatures games and dungeon games. I have bidding games and party games and sex games (well, OK, just the one, and we keep it in the dresser in the bedroom). And yet, with this cornucopia of games, I end up playing 500.

It's not a game with lots of components - 500 is played with a regular deck of cards, after you remove all the 2s and 3s. You can't play it solo, either - you need exactly four people. Which, coincidentally, is exactly how many people live in my house (also a good number if I ever need to plan a bank heist, except my son would make a horrible getaway driver). It doesn't even come with everything you need to play, because you have to keep score, and it has this horrible scoring system where you can score anywhere from 40 to 500 points in one round (except in this case, instead of calling it a 'round,' it's called a 'hand.')

So why do I play a lot of 500? You would think I would be gravitating toward Warhammer Quest or Arkham Horror or 7 Wonders, or any of the ever-growing pile of games with expensive graphics and cool plastic pieces and oversized cards with pictures of half-naked girls. And while any of those would be my first pick, I don't live with four people just like myself (a blessing, really, because we would be constantly plunging the toilet, and we would never have any beer). I live with a wife and a daughter and a son, and while it can be like pulling teeth to get everyone around the table for a game of Irondale, we can all agree to play 500.

I may sound a little like I'm complaining, and that would probably be due to the fact that I am. I want to play Rush N Crush and Descent and Dominion. But my wife is a freaking shark at 500, and my daughter loves it (though she is an unrepentant table-talker), and my son... well, my son only wants to play poker, because he thinks he's Armadillo Slim and he's going to retire to Cabo on his gambling winnings. But we rope him into playing with us, and just tell him to suck it up, it will all be over in half an hour.

I don't know why I like 500 as much as I do. It's a trick-taking game, which means it's like a dozen other card games, and I suck at all of them (that may be another reason people want to play). I can never figure out if I should play the king of spades or the four of diamonds, because I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be leading my partner or throwing off trump or setting a heart with a backgammon. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what all those things mean. I'm pretty sure that last one was from a different game.

The rules to 500 are ridiculously easy to explain, but the strategy and card-counting that goes into playing the game makes my head swim. How a game can be this easy and still so freaking complicated boggles the mind. My wife's dad plays 500 nearly every day, and he's so good at it, sometimes I would swear he's got a camera behind my chair. He and my mother-in-law will have company over all the time just to play cards, and they only ever play 500.

I can't even begin to wrap my head around playing the same game every day, even if it is over in half an hour. I like to bounce from game to game like a pinball coming off a Ritalin dependency. I show up at my weekend group with a half dozen games, hoping we can get in most of them before we all have to go back to our families. I can't imagine inviting someone over to play the same game I've been playing since I was ten years old.

But it turns out, this is what lots of normal people do. Not all normal people, mind you, but nearly everyone knows how to play at least one card game, and lots of people play a bunch of them. A deck of cards is about the most accessible game component known to man, outside using your hands for rock-scissors-paper, and even your dull-witted Aunt Hetty can play gin rummy, hearts, or if she's been hitting the sauce again, 52 Pick Up.

Happily, I really enjoy playing 500. I learn more about it every time I play, and I'm getting pretty good at counting how many trump are out and keeping track of what suit my partner wants me to lead. I find it fascinating that a game with so little can do so much, and entertain so thoroughly. The other night, I bid a ten no-trick, which is nearly impossible to achieve unless you're holding a hand of cards that's nearly miraculous. By the time the last card hit the table, my heart was about to leap out of my chest - but I pulled it off, and I'm going to be crowing about that one for a long time.

It's funny to me that I can enjoy a game with no art, no playtesting credits, and where I have to keep track of the score with pen and paper because it doesn't even have a scoring track. But 500 is full of bluffs and misleads, planning and smart plays, and while luck will go a long ways, a good player can win with a bad hand while a bad player loses with a good hand. With these credentials, 500 is a sure-fire winner. Add that to the fact that I can get everyone to play while we're waiting for dinner to finish cooking, and it's going to hit the table on a pretty regular basis. A lot more regular than Nexus Ops, I can tell you that.


4 players

Strategy and tactical plays
Fast and easy to learn
Incredible depth
An element of luck that you can beat if you know what you're doing
People will play it with me
Really, really affordable

No art to speak of
No score track
No fancy box or storage tray or plastic bits
Really, just a deck of cards

If you want to play 500, go online and look up the rules. Then go to Target and buy a deck of cards. If you need a link for that, then it's time for you to get a hobby that makes you go outside every now and then.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Expansion Review - Arkham Horror: Black Goat of the Woods

I've been thinking about Arkham Horror lately, and trying to decide if the town is cursed, or if I am. Every time I show up, people die and monsters drop out of the sky. I kind of wonder if it's like Murder She Wrote - everywhere Angela Lansbury ever went, someone died, and somehow, it was never her fault.

Of course, in my case, nobody actually dies, because it's just a game. But if it were a real place, you can bet your ass I would be on some kind of official no-fly list. Last time I visited, Azathoth tried to wake up and eat the world, and some crazy goat thing was setting up shop out in the woods to help him. Why, I don't know, because that crazy goat thing was just as dead as I was if Azathoth popped up from his nap with a rumble in his belly and turned the whole world into a gigantic unhappy meal.

The reason the goat was helping the Lovecraft version of Galactus was because I was playing The Black Goat of the Woods, in which a thoroughly twisted cult is working with a totally screwed-up supernatural entity to release a completely malevolent ancient being of unimaginable power. It's a cool expansion for Arkham Horror that adds new monsters and cards and stuff to make Arkham Horror even harder than it already is, just in case you were winning too often and having too much fun.

Actually, Black Goat of the Woods was a lot of fun. We infiltrated the goat cult, and then things went from bad to downright nasty, as we started gaining corruption cards that hastened the coming of the planet snacker. We met new monsters and killed them. We wandered in and out of gates to alien dimensions, closing them as fast as we could, but those damned cultists kept screwing us by busting out more monsters and hustling up the clock timer.

Black Goat isn't the most flexible or universally applicable expansion for Arkham Horror, but it did something we've been needing - it made us lose. We had reached a point where we were almost guaranteed to win every time, using our idiot-proof formula of getting a blessing and then succeeding at everything with almost no effort. Black Goat makes the game harder, and it screws up the winning scheme we were following, which means that Arkham Horror gets interesting again.

The reason Black Goat of the Woods makes Arkham Horror more difficult is because of a few different elements. The cult of the Thousand Knuckleheads is interesting, and the corruption you get tends to snowball pretty quickly and is pretty fun. You'll have all kinds of horrible encounters as you infiltrate, and it turns out this is a pretty nasty cult. They don't even have any of that free love you used to hear about in 70s cults, just gross monsters and stuff. I was hoping to join up and then get three subservient wives who would walk around the house naked and cook all the time, but all I got was creepy people in robes who kept summoning horrors from alternate dimensions. Talk about a letdown.

The herald (which would be the black goat mentioned in the title) is really mean. More monsters will be popping out, and some of them will make the sleeping giant wake up faster. People in town get scared faster, and bad stuff generally happens all over the place. It's a great way to accelerate the clock and goose the big bad bogie to get out of bed. Which is great if you're good at the game, but really problematic if you always end up waking the big bad guy and then getting eaten.

The story for Black Goat of the Woods is not as interesting as the Dark Pharaoh expansion, and you probably won't want to shuffle the new cards in with the old ones. But if you want to try something new, and you want Arkham Horror to be as difficult as you remember it being when you first learned how to play, you really ought to give it a whirl. It's a fun expansion, and it adds more to the game, and that's what expansions are supposed to do.

It still doesn't explain why this stuff happens to Arkham every time I show up. That town is a mess.


Adds a new, interesting story
Infiltrate a cult and battle even more heinous monsters than normal
Ratchet up the difficulty level, which is great if you win too often
New monsters and spells and items and other cool stuff

Not for new players - you will get stomped

If you want Black Goat of the Woods, so that you can also get stomped in the balls by forces powerful enough to strip you of your sanity, you can get it from Noble Knight Games. Well, OK, they're sold out right now, but if they get another one, it will be here:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Expansion Review - Railways of the Western US

Let's say you're playing Railways of the World (which, by way of reminder, is just Railroad Tycoon with a map of Mexico in the box), and you start wondering if there's a really huge map you could play with lots of mountains, so that nobody can actually build any interesting trains before the game ends. If you are thinking that, then you're in luck - you can play Railways of the Western US!

It seems that the reason Eagle Games reworked Railroad Tycoon was a pretty classic one - expansions. By making the game the base set that comes with two expansions, rather than a game specifically about the beginning of the train age in America, they have provided themselves an opportunity to create a whole lot more. And that means they can sell more, which as we all know, is basically why you bother making expansions in the first place.

They are already making considerable progress in the expansion department. Since they released Railways of the World in 2008, Eagle Games has made an expansion every year. Railways of Europe was the first, followed by Railways of England and Wales, and the 2010 release let you build tracks all through the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, mostly with John Henry and some Chinese immigrants.

If you’re familiar with the Eastern US version of Railways, it’s not like you’re about to stumble onto a whole new game. It’s a new map, which means you don’t have to keep playing the same one over and over, but you could have found that in either of the previous releases, so that’s not a fantastic reason to buy an expansion, unless you have already played the other two until you’ve worn the ink off the board (which reminds me, I need to quit doing lines off mine).

There are a couple new things in the Old West with Trains. New operations and barons are expected, and basically replace the Eastern US cards with their Western US equivalents. But one thing that makes the game considerably more interesting are the color spinners, which change the color of a few of the cities, allowing more opportunities to deliver different color goods every turn. Fuel depots are cool, too, and let you make longer deliveries when you would otherwise be unable to make them work because your trains suck. Of course, you wouldn’t need them if you didn’t keep insisting that the kiddie train at the zoo could deliver cattle to Dodge City. I told you that wouldn’t work.

The new rules elements are interesting, and definitely add a twist to the original game, but the only real reason I can see to play Western US over Eastern US is if you’re bored with New York and want to build out of San Francisco. However, if you regularly play Railways with more than four people, Western US should be your next purchase.

The various maps in the expansions for Railways of the World come in many different sizes, from the gigantic US maps to the miniscule and brutal Mexico map. But if you really need some room to stretch out, the fact that half of the Western US map is covered in mountains will really give you some room to breathe when you’re playing with a crowd. Conversely, a map this expansive will almost completely isolate the opponents in a three-player game, so it could be a real drawback if you like to swipe goods and block people out of their favorite cities.

What you want out of Railways of the World will largely determine whether or not you want the Western US expansion. If you have a large group and want a little more room, this is a good idea. If you play with small groups and don’t like to be cutthroat, you have another good reason to get the Western US. On the other hand, if you despise train games with low interaction, or if you’re looking for an expansion with a thrilling new take on an old game, you may not see much here to whet your appetite. And if you hate train games, then we can assume that you are only reading this review to see if I make another joke about cocaine.

Many of my initial problems with the original version of Railways of the World are still present in Railways of the Western US. For instance, I can still barely tell the difference between the purple and blue. And why can’t I establish industry in a town and turn a gray city red? What if I’m surrounded by red cubes and no red cities? And while I absolutely love playing Railways of the World, I haven’t played Eastern US (or Mexico, or Europe, or England) enough to need a new place to lay track just yet.

On the other hand, I do love the Old West, and while this is kind of a top-down view, I still feel a touch of history when I finally build a line connecting San Francisco to Salt Lake City. I can imagine the train rolling into Fort Worth, loaded down with cowboys, troublemakers and very smelly cows. The fuel depot and the city spinners are cool new additions that definitely change the way you play, so those are also neat.

In the end, I’m glad I have Railways of the Western US, and won’t be dumping it any time soon. I’ll definitely play the hell out of it, especially if I can get a bunch of people together – this map is too damned big for just me and my family, but it would rock with half a dozen railroad barons. And as big as it is, I could do a ton of coke off it.


2-6 players

New map
Huge, with lots of room to spread out
A couple cool new rules add some little twists

Low on interaction with two or three players

If you run over to Noble Knight Games, you can pick up Western US right here, and save some greenbacks while you're at it:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Guest Review - Thunderstone: Doomgate Legion

I've got a special treat for you tonight - a guest reviewer! Come to think of it, since that means I didn't have to write the review and got someone else to play the game for me, I think that's a treat for me. Anyway, my old man really likes Thunderstone, and I don't. So I gave him my copy of Thunderstone, and then Alderac sent me expansions. I gave him those, too, because he lives like 1500 miles away and I can't exactly borrow it back for the weekend.

So please give a warm welcome to our guest reviewer, who is doing me a big favor and writing my column for me tonight - my dad!

Right up front, I take it for granted that if you’re reading this review you already own Thunderstone, and take it a safe assumption you already own the expansion Wrath of the Elements as well. That’ll save us all a lot of needless explanations and we’ll understand just what I’m referring to.

My first thoughts when I got Doomgate Legion was, “Hmm, just like the last expansion.” When I opened it up, I was confirmed – at first sight it’s REALLY like the last expansion. A solid box with great inserts and such, just like the box to Wrath of the Elements. If you have all the games in the series so far you’ll now have two extra boxes, since all the cards fit in either WotE or DL – I know, because all mine are in the DL box now. Not that I mind the box and inserts, but you may end up with a collection of boxes. OK, enough about the box. As I perused the cards I was anxious to get them on the table. Lots of new cards and lots of new ideas – so in this respect not so much like the last expansion. Thunderstone should never get boring.

The rules: Look just like the previous rules, and these rules fit in the box. The writing has improved, IMO, over the first game, so they’re pretty darn clear to understand. And the rules seem easier this expansion.

Now, about the rules, I have a thought of a not-so-positive nature; did anyone proof-read the rules?!? Thunderstone is a slick product, and I’m fairly impressed with the quality of the cards, but the little glitches in the rules are just stupid. For example, I spent a long time looking for the Bodyguard. You know what? There is no Bodyguard!! He’s a “Border Guard.” Jeez Louise! This should have been caught in the rough draft of the rules! And I took a long time finding the Squire – BECAUSE HE’S THE “Doomgate Squire”! In the future, you ought to be able to find some homeless guy with time on his hands to proof-read your rules.

The cards: I’ve read some disparaging remarks regarding the art work of Thunderstone. Some guy says they look like comic book art. I don’t see it, but . . . what’s wrong with comic book art anyway?!? Some of the cards are maybe a bit dorky, but all-in-all I think they look great for the theme. No complaints on my part.

I noticed in one post the reviewer mentioned that his cards were about 1mm larger than the original cards. Not so with mine – I checked. My Doomgate Legion cards are exactly the same size (and color on the back as far as my failing eyes can make out) as the original. Everything fantastic so far.

Some of the new concepts: Well, Disease is a major new change in this box. Holy smoke, but if all your monsters lurking the dungeon are from DL, be prepared to take a lot of Rest actions. Most of the new monsters seem to infect heroes with something in each battle. And there’s now an assortment of diseases, so you don’t just lose attack points. Like I said, be prepared to Rest fairly often. All-in-all, I’m not overly taken with the variety of Diseases, but maybe the one game I’ve played didn’t have a sufficiently shuffled deck. But I have to say, I think the idea of monsters infecting heroes with diseases is clever and is well done.

DL also has Treasures that are lying on the floor of the Dungeon and, when a monster is killed or sent back to the bottom of the dungeon, they appear, and the player who moved the monster just picks it up. Kind of like, you just killed this monster and behind his dead body you find the valuable treasure. Very clever concept, and I like it. Also kind of cool that the treasure doesn’t go in your discard pile but stays on the table in front of you, so you can use it’s special effect on demand. (I can feel a house rule developing here – if you send a monster back to the bottom of the dungeon and a treasure appears, you don’t get to take it. I play with guys who might just do this very thing to find a treasure.)

There’s a “Spirit Blast” card you can buy in the village that seems kind of odd. You see, if you play Spirit Blast in a battle, for each XP you have saved up, you get an attack point. I can see someone developing a strategy by not cashing in his XPs, but I and all the guys I play this game with level up our heroes as soon as the opportunity presents itself, so Spirit Blast didn’t see much action in the game we played with it on the board.

Well, I don’t have a lot to say about various heroes and monsters – you can read other reviews to get the details. But the variety of cards for Thunderstone just keep expanding, so you could play this game for many years and play a different game each time. In fact, this might just be one of those games that, if you were stranded on a deserted isle and could only have one game, this is the one you’d choose. (Well, for myself I have a different game passion, but I can see someone choosing this one.)

Now we can sit on our doorstep and wait for the delivery of Thunderstone: Dragonspire. The box shown for this next expansion looks fantastic, and the new concepts I’m reading about have me anticipating this one. Of course, it means my box collection will be growing.


Awesome art (even if it does possibly look like comic book art).
Great new concepts that add to the game.
Same great quality of product.

Stupid glitches in the rules. You can do better than that.

If you're going to buy Doomgate Legion, I sure would love it if you get it from Noble Knight Games. It would also be great if you told them I sent you:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Bidding Game Review - 1655 - Habemus Papum

If there's one thing that identifies gaming as a nerdy pastime, it's the fact that we can make a game about anything. It doesn't take long to exhaust the demon-hunting, Nazi-killing, and alien-blasting, and then we move on to boring crap like farming and storing things. Historical events are traditionally a big winner, but they're generally focused around something violent. For some convincing evidence that we can make a game about damned near anything we want, I present 1655 - Habemus Papum.

This is a bidding game about electing the pope. Yes, you read that correctly. Electing the pope. If there was ever a theme less fascinating, it probably had something to do with milking sheep or harvesting artichokes. But I guess in 1655, electing the pope was kind of a big deal.

At least, someone in Germany thought this was a big deal, big enough to make a game about it. They probably invented the game as part of their masters thesis at a depressing German university. It's all historical, full of actual cardinals who were actually jockeying to become the next pope, and it even includes historically significant factors such as rich Spanish people and the king of France. There's even one cardinal who doesn't vote, but influences other cardinals, because in 1655, he didn't vote, and influenced other cardinals.

With a theme this sparkling and thrilling, you know the game just has to be dynamite. In case your sarcasm detector is broken, I should point out that I am not being honest. A theme this depressingly European almost has to be married to a stupid game. And if you buy this game, you might never actually know if the game is stupid, because in order to play, you will have to read the rules.

If you read game rules in your native German tongue, then you probably won't have any problem with this game, beyond it being a game about bribing religious leaders. But if you have the extreme misfortune to read this game in English, you are either in for a thoroughly frustrating time, or one of the most accidentally hilarious gaming events of all time.

The translation for 1655 was almost certainly performed by circus clowns who spoke neither English nor German, and simply guessed at the words based on hand gestures and a complicated game of charades. The mistakes range from unintentionally funny to completely obscure. You may chuckle to yourself when you read, 'when a player is sucked dry,' because that's not a blowjob joke, that's just the rules describing someone with no money. But you will be more confused than Jessica Simpson on Jeopardy when you read 'a player must personal most of the time a set of cardinals.' I'll be honest, I still don't know what that last one should have said.

In fact, there are blocks of rules that we were forced to completely ignore, thanks to having absolutely no idea whatsoever what they meant. There were sentences that contained words that were apparently chosen completely at random by throwing darts at a dictionary. The resulting chaos means that even after playing the game twice (because we had no idea what we were doing the first time), I still know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we did something wrong. I just don't know what it was, because I can't understand that part of the rules.

Interestingly enough, the game itself is not entirely horrid. I hated it the first time I played, because it didn't make any damned sense, but once I figured out what the rules were actually trying to tell me (mostly - like I said, there are still parts I don't get), we had fun. I can think of fifty games I would rather play, but 1655 is not a complete travesty.

It's basically a bidding game. You have a handful of gems, and every turn cards become available that will get you votes. Some cards combine with other cards for more votes, and some cards just make it easier to get more cards later. You bid with these little plastic gems, and try to outbid everyone else when you really want to win while saving your money when you just don't care. Probably 90% of the game is just placing your bids and picking the right cards, and the rest is playing the action cards that let you place better bids or pick better cards. It's a pretty smart game, at times, even though it's a bidding game (which I don't really like) about electing a pope (about which I don't really care).

I have to wonder what kind of gamer sees this game and says, 'Hot damn, I have to own that! Electing the pope through 18 turns of bidding?! That's just what I've been looking for!' I'm almost amazed at how little 1655 appeals to me, though I should not be surprised, because I don't care for bidding games and electing the pope is a really boring theme. However, I can acknowledge that there are people who actually enjoy boring games about boring events, even if I can't imagine wanting to spend any more time with this game.

One thing though - even if I'm willing to grant that 1655 could be fun if someone else was playing it, I'm not giving an inch on the translation. This was worse than Bolide, and those rules had made-up words that didn't even mean anything.


3-4 players

Historical theme
Nice quality cards
Decent bidding game with some tricky decisions

Boring theme
Ridiculous translation
Boring bidding game with boring decisions

I don't know where you can find a copy of 1655. Maybe you can get a friend who thinks that it's hilarious to see you make fun of bad games. Then he can buy games that you will hate and send them to you in the mail. At least, that worked for me.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Board Game Review - Pirates: Quest for Davy Jones' Gold

If you're a game nerd, you've probably at least seen the pirate game from WizKids, the one where they print punch-out pirate ships on credit cards and then you put them together yourself, usually after breaking one or two of the masts in half. Many of you have probably played that game, too. Some of you even think it didn't suck, but sadly, you would be wrong, because it did. The pirate ships were fun to build, though, if you could figure out how to get them together without snapping pieces into little plastic splinters.

When I picked up a copy of Pirates: Quest for Davy Jones' Gold, I didn't expect it to be particularly impressive. It was a board game version of that popular collectible game, and so I was prepared for it to be dull, unimaginative, short on strategy, long on arbitrary die rolls and prone to fragile bits flying across the table. I did not expect the pieces of the game to be crappy, though - I used to buy the boats to put them together, just because that part was neat. So the absurd vinyl play mat took me by surprise.

Right out of the gate, simply so that we could play, we had to mod our game. In this case, we had a large piece of plexiglass that we put on top of the plastic mat where we were supposed to play. This worked very well, which was good, because otherwise our pirate ships never would have been able to cross the Grand Teton mountains rising out of the ocean at every spot that the vinyl son of a bitch wouldn't lay flat. If you buy this game, consider also removing a window from your house so that you can slap the glass down on top of the crappy plastic board.

The game itself is basically just the collectible version, but with training wheels. All the ships have the same movement, and many of the other game elements are trimmed out to make it easier for first-time players. You each have two ships, and you visit islands and try to pick up treasures. Some of the treasures will tell you to fight Davy Jones, who is a total bastard and will beat the crap out of you nine times out of ten. Some of the treasures tell you to go kill sea monsters, which is really hard to do because they get a dozen chances to hurt you before you can even get off your first shot, unless you're the guy who can move then shoot, in which case you'll probably miss because your cannons suck.

The worst thing about this game is the curse token. There are actually four of these, and when you draw one, all your ships travel from wherever they are and wind up stuck in a pile of seaweed, or lost in a fog bank, or run aground on a reef. Then you have to sit there for the rest of the game, and your turn consists of rolling two dice and then using very harsh language because you still didn't roll doubles. These curses add absolutely nothing good to the game, and serve only to frustrate and irritate. The creators of these curse tokens should be dragged behind a plastic pirate ship over a vinyl mat until they get friction burns on their ass cheeks.

I do remember that while I did not much enjoy the collectible version of this game, it still had some depth. Not a whole hell of a lot, mind you, but it had some cool play options, and you could spend a fun couple hours building a good fleet. I guess in order to appeal to the new Pirate purchaser, WizKids decided to remove the part of the game where it was fun. The strategic element of choosing your ships is completely gone. The part where you tactically maneuver and try to take out the enemy ships is watered down to a thin, tasteless gruel. The best way to win this game is to rush to the island, fill up your ship, and be luckier than everyone else. It's not fun. The ships are cool, though.

I can't say with complete sincerity that I was disappointed in Pirates: Failed Quest for Something Interesting in the Box. But I wasn't disappointed because I wasn't expecting very much, and that's what I got. I still love the pirate ships, and the sea monsters were very cool. The game could be fixed to actually be fun, but you'll need to laminate the board, remove the curses completely, nerf the sea monsters so they don't completely cripple the players who have to kill them, and give people a good reason to shoot each other instead of just rushing for treasure like contestants on a stupid reality television show. But I don't really have the inclination to fix a game when I have dozens of games that I already love, and that don't need repairs, so it seems this pirate game is going straight to Davy Jones' Goodwill Donation Box.


2-4 players

Doesn't matter how many I already have, I love building those plastic pirate ships
The kraken and the sea serpent are totally bitchin'
Lets you get a taste of the collectible game without having to buy a case of boosters

Weak rules remove all the fun parts and keep all the bland parts
Stupid vinyl play mat is too small and won't lay flat
Desperately needs a good game designer to fix it

If you would like to try Pirates: Davy Jones' Stanky Crotch, go to a thrift store. If you don't find it there, don't get it somewhere else. If you pay more than three bucks, you're going to be pissed.