Friday, April 29, 2011

Crazy Game Review - Bugs & Co

If you're going to play games with kids, they should be educational games. Everyone knows that. No, the kids might not have as much fun as if you just played a fun game, but it's really important that your children learn things. Way more important than having fun.

But if you can make them have fun and fool them into learning, that's the best of both worlds. That's why Bruno Faidutti and some other people made Bugs & Co. They wanted kids to learn that germs are cute and entertaining, so they made a really fun game that will trick your kids into developing a lifelong love of microscopic antibodies.

Because this is an educational game for kids (known as 'edutainment,' a word invented by a soulless corporate marketing executive to sound smart in a meeting), Bugs & Co is easy to set up and play. Just flip over the germ discs and shuffle them up. Take out a few to confuse and frustrate everyone, then in a crazy smorgasborg of action, everyone dives in at the same time and starts flipping up the discs to see if they can find matching sperms. You can only flip one at a time, and if you decide to keep the herpes amoeba you drew, you hide it in your hand and keep going. Otherwise, you just put it back, face down, and try to remember what it was.

There's an element of Bugs & Co that resembles one of those Memory games that Sunday School teachers use to trick kids into learning about Moses and his apostles. Only instead of a handful of cards laid out in a grid, you have to remember where you put your bug in the gigantic free-for-all chaos of the middle of the table. And to screw up your memory entirely and make your head hurt, someone else can take the tiles you've carefully memorized and move them somewhere else. This is likely to make your job of memorizing things a great deal more difficult, and may result in an aneurism. Only you won't notice that your brain just threw a clot and killed you, because you'll be too busy flipping discs and looking for the little booger with claws and two wieners (I'm pretty sure he's crabs).

When you finally decide that you've searched through enough e-coli and dysentery germs, you can pick up a trophy. When the last trophy is snagged, everyone else has to stop searching. Then you see if you made matching sets. If you do, you get points. If you did not, you lose points. And if you're me, and you totally suck at Bugs & Co, you will then add up your gains and losses and discover that your total is negative four, and your adolescent child has scored fifteen, making you look like a senile coot with bladder control issues.

This game happens really fast. If you hate it when one of your group gets up to go take a piss right when it's that guy's turn, and then he can't find the toilet paper or he clogs the crapper and you have to wait ten or fifteen minutes, this is the right game for you. Because by the time that guy gets back from washing his hands (unless he doesn't wash his hands, in which case you have another opportunity to teach your kids about germs), you could play a whole game, set it up, and play it again. We played several times, and our longest game lasted six minutes. I don't know why we timed it.

Yet for being an insanely fast game that allows no time for contemplation or organizing your thoughts, Bugs & Co will task your brain. You need to actually have some sort of strategy going into the game, but you have to also be able to shift strategies on the fly when the one thing isn't working. That, or you just grab willy-nilly without thinking. I'm pretty sure that's what my wife did when she trounced me. Maybe I'm just overthinking it.

In all seriousness, Bugs & Co is a fun game, it's not educational, and you can play it with grown-ups without having any kids at the table. It does have squiggly little germs which may or may not be mucus, but they're cute and different enough that you can remember if you're already holding the tapeworm or if you still need to find the third gonorrhea. Plus you can seriously knock out a whole game in under ten minutes. The only problem is, as soon as you finish, someone at the table is going to say, 'let's play again!' and you're going to wind up sinking forty-five minutes into a game that ends after five. It's not all bad, though - you'll have fun every time.


2-8 players

Super easy to play
Crazy fast
Cute germs
Energetic and chaotic and fun

Bet you can't play just once

In case I haven't said this recently enough, the best way to support Drake's Flames is to just show up and read. The second best way is to buy your games from Noble Knight Games, because they send me review copies of games I could not otherwise score, which lets me review the games you ask me to review. So if you're going to get Bugs & Co (and you probably should, it's fun), go here to get it:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Solo Game Review - Toe-to-Toe Nu'klr Combat with the Rooskies

I like to play games with other people. That sounds like it should go without saying, but I bring it up because if I'm getting out cards and dice and cardboard, I do not generally plan to use those things to play with myself.

But sometimes it can be hard to find someone to play with me. You know, it's late, the wife is in bed, and I am overcome by a desire to play a game. I don't want to wake her up, so instead I just take care of it myself. It's not quite as enjoyable, and it can be hard to be satisfied that way, but sometimes you just gotta take things in hand and get them done.

Which leads me to Toe-to-Toe Nu'klr Combat with the Rooskies, because it's a solo game. You're piloting a B-52 and you have to drop nukes on Russia. Russia takes some offense and tries to shoot you down. Every turn, you'll fly toward different targets and try to rub one out.

This is not a tricky game to play. Every turn you'll move one step closer to your final target, and then you'll blast it to glass and turn around to fly back. MiGs and SAMs will shoot at you and try to blow you out of the sky, and you can choose how high to fly and when to fire flares or chaff to try to make them miss. If you choose poorly, they'll blow your wings off, but if you're lucky, they'll shoot blanks.

There's not a ton of reasons to play Nu'klr Combat over and over, but there are four different missions with varying levels of difficulty, so you can choose how hard you want it to be. The first one I played was easy, but they can get downright gnarly.

The game has a lot of luck, and your decisions are less crucial than your ability to get lucky, but this is meant as a light distraction, not a full-on simulation. It's quick and fun, with not a whole lot of meat to beat.

I wouldn't say Toe-to-Toe Nu'klr Combat with the Rooskies will be completely changing my mind about playing solo games, but it can be tough to find decent solitaire games, and this is a good example of a game that won't overstay its welcome. You can sit down, set it up in two minutes, and knock it out in fifteen more. It's fun, and it scratches that late-night gaming itch without keeping you up too late. In places it's even funny, like when you play the card that lets your bombadier ride the nuke all the way to the ground.

Of course, you might skip the game completely and just masturbate.


1 player

Easy rules
Varying difficulty levels
Plays out in fifteen minutes
Fun and light
Quick solitaire game

Typical Victory Point Games production, which means 'not very good'

If you want a quick solitaire game with a dark-but-campy theme, you can run over to Victory Point Games and pick up Toe-to-Toe Nuk'lr Combat right here:

Monday, April 25, 2011

CCG Review - A Game of Thrones

I first discovered A Game of Thrones in 2004, when my wife bought the book for me as a Christmas present. I had never even heard of it before that Christmas morning, but I discovered pretty quickly that I had been missing one of the best fantasy epics ever written. You can have Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks and Michael Moorcock. The Xanth stories barely held my interest, maybe because they seem like they were written for an audience composed mostly of twelve-year-old boys. A Game of Thrones was powerful, exciting, fascinating, and incredibly well written. Tolkien's work might be better, but A Game of Thrones is still my favorite.

And yet somehow, I never managed to play any of the games based on the books. There's a board game that's supposed to be decent, and a card game that has been in production since 2003, but I never tried either one. I was even content to leave it that way, until I reviewed Warhammer Invasion, and a reader mentioned that he preferred the Game of Thrones LCG. After that, I checked out a couple reviews, and it seemed like it might be worth investigating. Plus my wife likes CCGs, and when I mentioned the game, she went and bought us a copy.

It turns out, this is one hell of a game. Like the books, the game has a whole lot happening all the time, with hundreds of characters, plots and intrigues, wars and assassinations, and enough supernatural to keep things interesting without turning the whole thing into a D&D Monster Manual. You don't have to keep track of two or three different effects every turn. You have to keep track of a dozen, maybe more, and an inattentive player is almost guaranteed to take a very painful ass-kicking.

Some things work like nearly any CCG. Every turn you'll get money, and then pay it out to play your cards. Different cards have different abilities, and different characters are stronger than others. But what makes a game is not where it is the same as other games. What makes a game is how it's different, and A Game of Thrones has a whole lot of important differences.

For instance, you don't just attack when it's your turn. There's no battle phase. Instead, you'll have a chance to perform military challenges, or intrigues, or power plays. Commit your forces to a game of cloak-and-dagger, sending in your best schemers, and you'll force your foes to throw away their best cards. Recruit entire armies to march against your enemies, forcing them to choose which of their loyal followers (or barely-loyal mercenaries) will fall before your might. Or maybe just cut right to the chase and make a grab for the throne, because in the end, the winner is the one who can grab enough power to name himself the king. If this sounds heavy, it is - but it gets worse, because you have to make these choices every single turn, and it's almost never an easy decision.

To make matters worse (or better, depending on how you like your games), nearly every character has multiple things he or she can do to help. A knight might be a fantastic military asset, but his best use might just be to sit on his ass and get more popular every turn. It might be a good idea to save your most powerful fighter to defend against the almost-certain assault your opponent will launch on his turn, but if that mighty warrior can succeed at a quick intrigue, he could grab a little renown, which will help ease the pain when he starts burying his friends after the inevitable retaliation. Some characters might be best used to prop up others, and some are just really good at taking a sacrificial spear to the soft parts, but nearly anyone you could bring into play has several different ways to help you win - if only you could manage to choose the right way.

One thing that really sets A Game of Thrones apart from just about every other card game is how brilliantly it plays with three or four players. Where most CCGs add multi-player rules as an afterthought, this one really shines when you're fighting more than one person. Every house has different strengths, so where the Starks are great at winning fistfights, they're weak in the early game and take a while to build up. The Baratheons, by comparison, may not be quite as mighty with a sword, but they can pull through with their winning smiles and widespread fame. The Lannisters and Targaryens make up the rest of the cards in the box, and they, too, excel in areas where the others are weak. When all four houses are in the game at the same time, there's a constant back-and-forth struggle to keep what you've gained and steal from your opponents. The leader changes from turn to turn, and just when you're one turn away from the big win, some sneaky bastard can come flying from the shadows to destroy everything you've built.

To really make the multiplayer game rock, each turn will have players choosing titles that will determine how they interact with other players that round. This choice can be excruciating, because there are lots of angles to consider and long-reaching ramifications of your decision. Be the commander of the Kingsguard, and you'll have a huge edge in military challenges, but then someone else will have a chance to grab Crown Regent and blow your doors off in power challenges. If you're short on money, it might make sense to pick up the Master of Coin and get a little extra scratch that turn - but be careful, because if the guy you meant to hit that turn decides to be the Master of Laws, you can't attack them at all. The different titles interact with each other on top of granting special bonuses for the turn, so just because you don't need the ability of the Hand of the King, you might wind up taking it just to get the bonus when you club the Master of Coin like he was a baby seal.

So many things about this game make it a very tight, intelligent game. It requires many of those words that hardcore card gamers throw around the way mechanics talk about carburetors and crankshafts, words like Hand Management and Table Control and other words that escape me because I don't really get that into anything that doesn't help me pay my mortgage. You have to think to play A Game of Thrones, not just react, and you can believe your plan to be airtight right up until someone plays an event that throws your delicate balance into disarray and leaves you scrambling to pull your bacon out of the fire before your goose is cooked (to mix some metaphors).

I think A Game of Thrones is about to be my new favorite collectible card game (I don't care if they do call it a 'Living Card Game', to try to make us think you're not going to be collecting cards; the only difference is knowing what new cardboard you're getting). All I have so far is the core game, so I still can't play House Greyjoy or House Martell, but from what I've seen so far, A Game of Thrones rivals some of the best CCGs in existence - and may just beat them hands down. It's based on my personal favorite fantasy world, has brilliant player interaction, and easily the best multiplayer format of any CCG ever made. It's a game made for people who like to use their heads when they play their games, and it has all the depth and genius that make me love a game, whether it's on a giant board or a deck of cards.


2-4 players

Most depth I've seen in a CCG
Difficult decisions every step of the way - and every one of them matters
Based on a simply fantastic series of novels
Tricky enough that you're going to find a limited Smelly Halfwit factor among players

So much happening that it can be tough to keep up
The rules are easy enough to follow, but there can be a painful learning curve

We had a heck of a time finding our copy of A Game of Thrones, but now, as if to mock us, Noble Knight Games has it - and at a much better price than what we paid:

Friday, April 22, 2011

Illness Review - Strep Throat

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bluffing Game Review - Skull & Roses

I don't play a whole lot of bluffing games. They're not usually my bag. I tend to have more fun playing games where I move plastic around a board and then people die. I'm not exclusive, or anything - I can enjoy party games and clever German games, too. But bluffing games have never really been my go-to genre.

Skull & Roses is a bluffing game. In fact, that's about all there is to the game. You basically try to sucker everyone else into grabbing up your skull, and scare them out of swiping your roses. Usually, this kind of game is a little obvious, and a lot boring. But Skull & Roses is actually pretty damned fun. In fact, at points, it's downright Machiavellian.

The actual gameplay is so simple that it's hard to see where there would be a game here. Each player has four cards, and you put down a card or challenge for the right to grab some. If you challenge, everyone else gets to try to outbid you. The highest bidder picks up a bunch of cards, and if he can get enough cards that don't have skulls on them, he wins the challenge. If you can do that twice, you win the whole game. That's pretty much all there is to it.

Now, until I understood completely what I was doing, I really didn't dig Skull & Roses. But then I figured out what I was missing - you have to take your own cards first. So if you put down a skull, it might be stupid to challenge, because you know damned well you'll be grabbing it, and that will suck. And if you're all eager to grab your own cards, everyone knows your cards are safe, and they'll outbid you because they already know what they have. But if you mix that up a little - put down the skull and then bid eagerly, for instance - people might outbid you just because you seemed so excited. And then they'll think your cards are safe, and then they'll grab your skull, and then it will be awesome for you and it will suck to be them.

There isn't a whole lot of game here. Skull & Roses is all about selling your opponents a line of bull manure, and trying to figure out when they're trying to sell you their own brand of fertilizer. If you got all your friends together for a night of mental calisthenics and tactical domination, and then pulled out Skull & Roses, your friends are going to take their bean dip and leave. But if you want to sit around a table and mess with other peoples' heads, this is a real good time.

The art on the cards helps make this game a good time. Each player picks a bad-ass biker gang and gets all that gang's cards. You've got the Werewolves, the Panthers, the Serpents, and other names created by the same kinds of math nerds who form fraternities because they think the girls won't be able to tell that all the guys in the house are geeks if they throw out their pocket protectors. The art follows suit - it looks like it could be a tattoo, if your tax accountant decided to get some ink on his butt cheek. It sounds silly, but it looks cool. The cards are thick and round, with a great linen finish that makes them fun to hold and easy to play.

I had a great time playing Skull & Roses. It's a hoot to snicker when you sucker another player into picking up your skull card. It's also fun to let out a little 'Hell yes!' when you flip the last card out of six and discover that you guessed right. Because the game is all about bluffing and lying and deception, all the fun comes in trying to buffalo your buddies and then gloating about it when you succeed. It's one thing to roll some dice and say, 'That's it, I just took Berlin,' but it's another thing entirely to see the 'I hate you' glare you get when you show your friend a skull and say, 'Hah! Got you again!'


3-6 players

Very attractive art with just enough nerd to keep it tongue-in-cheek
Cool bluffing game that's all about spinning and spotting lies
Excellent quality cards

Not much depth outside the bluffing

Skull & Roses is fun, if you like to play games where you mess with your friends' heads. Noble Knight Games has it, and it's pretty darn cheap, for the amount of fun you'll get out of the box:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Quick Announcement - Game Giveaway

Not me, you greedy assholes! I already gave most of my games away, just to clean my office.

No, BoardGameinfo is giving away free games. Right now they're giving away Those Pesky Humans, which is fun, and totally worth the one post it will cost you to enter. They're going to be doing more, too.

I don't run a news site, or anything, so don't count on me to do this a lot. It's more like a special favor.

Anyway, go check it out:

Monday, April 18, 2011

Online CCG Review - Shadow Era

I don't have an iPad. I want one real bad, and I'm saving up for it. I even took a second job so I could afford it. And I want an iPad because all the cool games are on there. Yes, I'm a little shallow.

So when my friend called me a few weeks back and mentioned this great game he was playing on his iPhone, I got all grumbly. But then he told me that you can also play it online, and so I checked it out, and was almost immediately hooked.

The game is called Shadow Era. It's a free collectible card game that you play online (or on your iPad, if you have one and aren't still trying to get caught up on some bills so you can drop six hundred dollars without feeling incredibly guilty). If you've ever played the World of Warcraft card game, it will be dreadfully familiar. In fact, I'm not entirely sure how they're avoiding a cease-and-desist, because you do nearly the exact same thing.

There are two factions, human and shadow. Then there are categories within those factions, like hunters and warriors and wulven and elementals. You'll get a hero who combines a faction and a job description (human mage or shadow green-grocer, for instance), and then you'll build a deck and summon allies and throw spells to try to kill the other hero. The game keeps track of your life points, and your allies can get hurt while you play, too. You can attack with your hero if you have a weapon, and you can put special items into play that help you out, like war banners and power crystals and clean socks.

You get a free deck when you sign up, and there are two ways to get more cards. One is the free way. With the free way, you get 20 gold every time you win a fight, and when you've got 100 or so, you can buy one card. The other way costs actual green money, which I actually appreciate because it means that the game is not just a throwaway. For five bucks, you can get enough cards to be competitive with two or three different decks, and for ten, you can play just about anything you want. The money you'll spend is negligible, really, unless you're a rabid collector. Why you would become a rabid collector in an online card game, I can't say, because it's not like you can sell your cards six months later when you get tired of the game and decide to get rid of everything at once.

Shadow Era is a relatively deep game, especially considering it's cheap and online. It doesn't have the complex brilliance of Magic, but it does have several clever moves and tough deck-building decisions. You can build your deck one card at a time and play just the kind of game you like, and as with many far more expensive games, you can still lose with a great deck just because you play it poorly. I've had many tense games where I beat players who should have won, simply because they played the wrong cards at the wrong time. I've also lost many games just because I screwed up.

Shadow Era is a lot of fun, and I'm really enjoying it, but it's not without flaws. Possibly the biggest strike against it now is that there just aren't enough cards. If you're playing a direct-damage mage, your deck is probably very similar to every other direct-damage mage, and if you're playing a warrior, the only difference will come in the incredibly expensive cards that the other guy bought and you can't afford. More cards will make Shadow Era a far better game, and so I'm looking forward to future releases.

There are also bugs, and from time to time, balance issues. Very few people play the wolfmen, because their main talent is losing. For a long time, everybody who wanted to win a lot played elementals, because they were crazy overpowered and had cards that were not only exclusive to them, but against which there were no counters. Not to mention the number of times allies get stronger at random, or die at bizarrely inappropriate moments, or the variety of other bugs that have plagued the game since it began. The computer-controlled enemies are prone to making idiotic mistakes, like playing a card that permanently renders one of your allies useless, and then firebombing them when they could have hit someone else.

However, the developers of Shadow Era are very involved with the game. Updates are regularly released that address those irritating bugs, and just recently, a badly overdue update to elementals fixed it so that they were not as blindingly overpowering as they had been. A very active forum allows players to discuss strategy and interact directly with the guys in charge of the game, and so many bugs are fixed as soon as they are discovered.

Shadow Era isn't perfect, and it's still in its fledgling stages, but I am very excited to see what will happen with the game over the long haul. More cards would be great, and maybe more hero types, but those will probably appear as time goes by. You don't have to be a genius to win (though it helps), and because the cards are so incredibly affordable, it takes almost no investment to have a very competitive deck. It's fun, it's damned pretty, and you can play it wherever you go.

Well, you can play wherever you go, if you have an iPad. For the rest of us broke assholes, you can use a web browser.


Play against the AI or other real people

Great art
Very affordable
Fun and easy to learn
Plenty of meat without being overwhelming

Not enough cards
Minor bugs and balance issues

If you can read this review, you can play this game. It's available for iPhones, iPads, Android phones and regular old web browsers. You can try it out for free, and theoretically, never pay a dime for a game you could play for weeks. If you want to give it a spin, it's right here:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Card Game Review - Pirate Fluxx

In a market full of silly card games, Fluxx is the standout leader. The goal of the game is to complete the goal. The rules of the game are that you follow the rules. The goal continually changes, and the rules continually change, and it's goofy and fun and occasionally ridiculous.

It also has more than a half-dozen expansions. There's Martian Fluxx and Zombie Fluxx, Eco Fluxx and Monty Python Fluxx. There's even Stoner Fluxx, though that game does not appear on lots of promotional material, being a version of Fluxx about smoking weed. And I guess Looney Labs believes that if it works once, it will work another ten times, so they just released Pirate Fluxx.

Pirate Fluxx is just Fluxx, but with pirates, which I suppose is how they came up with the name. There are a few unique twists in Pirate Fluxx, though, and while they won't make you think you're playing a brand new game, they do change up the game enough that it's not exactly like every other Fluxx.

There are a ton of keepers in Pirate Fluxx. These are the cards you have to gather to win. Like if the goal is Pirate Pets, you have to have the monkey keeper and the parrot keeper. If the goal is Keg of Rum, you need the keg and the rum. If the goal is Powder Monkey, you have to sell a bunch of cocaine to gorillas (not really. That would be silly). And yet the 'you can't win with this card' creepers are few and far between.

The reason for all these keepers is that you have all kinds of cards that steal keepers from each other. In fact, there's a rule you can play where every player steals a keeper on his turn. Some keepers, like the gun and the captain's hat, keep you safe from being plundered, but there are still lots of other ways to swipe stuff, so it's a pretty chaotic game.

One nice addition to Fluxx (and one I think was overdue) is the surprise cards. These let you respond to other players out of turn, so when someone tries to run off with your jewels, you can stymie the play and not have to worry about stealing them back later. Given the psychotically chaotic nature of Fluxx, and the fact that it's impossible to be good at a game this random, it is kind of nice to have a card that you can play and say, 'You know what? Let's not.'

While the creators did take a good swashbuckling stab at bringing the theme to life, this still doesn't really feel like a pirate game. Sure, there are pieces of eight and a card that requires everyone to talk like a pirate, but for a thematic version of Fluxx, I still prefer the one where you all play Martian invaders.

Pirate Fluxx is pretty fun. You can still mix it up with other Fluxx versions to make pointless cross-pollenated Fluxx, though I can't imagine why you would want to do that if you weren't stoned. But then, a company that makes a game about getting baked and having the munchies is probably not exactly chock full of tee-totallers, so there's a good chance the folks at Looney Labs have some humongous Fluxx deck containing every card ever made, and they sit around after work with a bong that starts up like a chainsaw and play Fluxx while they wait for the pizza guy.

In fact, I think Fluxx is probably the perfect game to play if you're high. It doesn't require concentration or strategy. The rules are ridiculously simple, yet unlike a streamlined European game, the simple rules lend virtually no depth. There's funny art, and you barely have to be conscious to play. Yet it's still enjoyable if you're not on drugs, as long as you don't take your games too seriously. I wouldn't invite a group of friends to play every Friday night, but I'm not above breaking it out now and then when I want to play a game and I don't want to think about it.

Pirate Fluxx adds a few things to Fluxx, but basically, it's still Fluxx, which means it's still a game you can play while you smoke a bowl.


2-6 players

Incredibly easy to learn
Turns go very quickly
Light as a feather but still fun
Goes great with hallucinogens

No tactics or strategy or planning or smarts of any kind
You can't get good at a game this insane
Not as heavy on theme as Martian or Zombie Fluxx

Noble Knight Games has Pirate Fluxx. It's a pretty cheap game, and when you buy it from Noble Knight Games, you're supporting Drake's Flames. You can pick it up here:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fighting Game Review - BattleCON

I typically review games that are for sale. Sometimes I review games that are not for sale, because they've been out of print for ten years, and that's because I get hard up for review material and have to resort to reviewing whatever I just got in a trade that week. So it's a special treat to get to review a game that isn't even out yet.

I grant you that reviewing a game that doesn't exist yet sounds like one hell of a challenge. But here's how it works (at least in this case). There's a game in the works, and they're running one of those Kickstarter promotions designed to help them drum up enough money to publish it. So they have a copy of the game, but it's not all polished up. Hell, this one doesn't even have an official box, just one of those literature mailers you use to send computer parts. But the game is still there, even if it's not an official honest-to-God published game, and the idea is that I get you all excited and you run over and buy a game that doesn't exist yet. So you see, it's not quite a ridiculous as it sounds.

The game in this case is called BattleCON. It's a card game simulating a fighting game you might have played in an arcade fifteen years ago, assuming you're over thirty, and assuming you ever played fighting games in an arcade. If that sounds familiar, it's because Sirlin Games has been doing arcade-fighting-game-turned-card-or-board-game since they started. But BattleCON is not like Yomi, or Puzzle Strike, or even Flash Duel, though it does have something in common with all of them.

In BattleCON, you each choose a character from a very wide assortment, and you get all the cards associated with that character. So if you're playing Vanaah Kalmor, you get Divine Rush and the other fighting cards for her. If you're playing Regicide Heketch, you get the scary cards that come with being a vampire who apparently kills kings. And if you play the mechanical knight named Cadenza, you get a desk (if that one didn't make sense, try a Google search on 'credenza.' It's a play on words).

But instead of each of you having a deck of cards, you only get a dozen. Seven of those cards are base attacks, and the other five are styles. You choose one of each, and they combine to create the move you'll attempt that turn. For instance, if Lixis Ran Kanda decides to do a strike, it can be a venomous strike or a vine strike or a rooted strike, to name a few. She can't play a card that makes her name sound less like a bottle you might hang in a hamster cage, but each of the combinations she can play will have a different effect, so that's something.

What you'll need to do is play your cards based on what you think your opponent is going to do, keeping in mind the distance from your foe and the last attack your opponent played. Because you're never able to play the same cards twice in a row, you always know what attacks you don't have to worry about. Sadly, that still leaves a bunch you do have to worry about, but if you never had to worry, what would be the point of playing at all? You could just play the solo version of 52 Pick Up (which I understand is not a particularly excellent game).

You also have a board to track the distance from your enemy as you play, so some attacks might miss just because your opponent jumps out of range at the last second. You might wind up stunned and unable to react, because the faster attack hits first, often leaving the slower character sitting on his can while birds tweet around his head like a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. You might be able to dodge an attack, or suck up the damage, or otherwise pull out some winning combination that takes your opponent by surprise.

The first time you sit down to play BattleCON, you'll probably suck. Don't worry, it happens to everyone. Well, almost everyone. You'll just play whatever card seems like the best thing at the time, which means you'll probably just be switching back and forth between two attacks because they look like the most likely maneuver to score some pain. And that's fine, you can play that way, because if your opponent is any good, he'll beat the pants off you by countering your best moves and then slapping you silly after he makes you look like a retarded midget in clown shoes.

But the more you play BattleCON, the more you see all the strategy and mind games that go into it. Sure, a powerful strike might be just what you need to pound your opponent to dirt, but if he dashes past you and leaves you swinging at thin air, you will have just spent your good attack for nothing, and he'll be standing behind you about to shove a two-by-four up your ass - sideways.

You'll also want to play BattleCON a bunch of times because there are all kinds of cool optional rules. There are special cards that let you pull off once-a-game killer moves, and a fascinating team game that can have you both jumping in and out of the ring like a team wrestling match. There are tournament rules, and rotating team duels, and other options that let you play the game with up to six players. In other words, there's a lot of game in this box, even if it doesn't have a box yet.

The game might not be published yet, but the art is done, and it looks very cool. A variety of artists were hired to do some very cool character illustrations, and there's a very eclectic sampling of styles. You might not be in love with every piece of art, but it's hard to deny the hard work and killer talent that went into making the game.

BattleCON isn't exactly out yet, but it sure looks like it will be. It has great art, a very clever card system, and a fun premise. It plays in twenty minutes or less, and the longer you play it, the better you'll get. If you want to jump on the preorder before the game hits the shelves, you can even pick up some cool promotional characters. It's fun, it's pretty, and it's going to happen. If you're a fan of light fighting games, you can run over to the Kickstarter page and give it a look.


2, 4 or 6 players

Clever card mechanic gives lots of flexibility with just a few cards
The board makes maneuvering just as important as hitting hard
I love the art

Not out yet
Tough to see the strategy on the first play or two

If you want to score a preorder before BattleCON even exists, or if you just want to see more, you can check out the Kickstarter page here:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Board Game Review - Zombie Survival

There's a game company that prides itself on having the highest production values on the market. Their games come with plastic miniatures, fully illustrated rulebooks, and the best art money can buy. Their rules are finely tuned and thoroughly tested, and the games that result from this dedication to quality are some of the best you can buy.

Twilight Creations is not that game company.

I have played a lot of games from Twilight Creations. They're almost all horror games, and they usually feature big bags of plastic zombies. I would think that having all those zombie games would mean that sooner or later, they would have to have something I like. Apparently, they think so, too. They are wrong. I have never played a game from Twilight Creations that I thought was even a reasonably decent game.

Until now. This weekend I tried Zombie Survival, and while it has all the telltale markings of a Twilight Creations game - confusing rules, bland art, and cheap zombie figures - we actually had a very good time. In fact, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Zombie Survival.

The idea of the game is that each player has a house at the start of the zombie apocalypse. Zombies will show up every turn, more and more of them, and you'll have to shoot them to get them to go away. The lights will go out, the water will go bad, food will go rotten, and people will come running up to your house begging to be allowed inside. Why, I don't know - your houses are doomed. But still, it's fun.

The game starts out with what turns out to be one of the most important parts - stocking your house. You'll need lumber to blockade your doors, food to stock your fridge, a generator to power the house after the electricity fails, and most of all, you will need weapons. Lots and lots of weapons.

This first part is crucial because there are limited numbers of items, and if you miss your chance to grab the best car, you'll be making the run into town in a Prius, and zombies will dismantle it before it can leave the driveway. Other people will steal the sword and leave you with the crappy machete, or take the silencer so your rifle attracts zombies, or otherwise hose you as they stock their houses. It takes a little while to finish this part, but it is very important that you get it right. And like I said, get lots of weapons. You need at least one for every person in your house, because if you don't have those, you are going to feel stupid when five zombies break through the doors and one guy with a kitchen knife is your only defense. You will also feel dead, because the zombies will eat everyone.

Once you actually start playing, each person in your house can do one thing every turn. Mostly, that will be fighting zombies to keep them away from the windows, but since four zombies show up every turn, you still won't be able to stop them all. They'll just keep coming, until they tear down the boards you put over the windows and pour into your house. Hopefully, they eat the other players first.

One reason I liked this game, despite the fact that the movement rules for zombies left us all unsure as to when, exactly, a zombie comes in the house, is the rules for fighting. You have a bunch of dice, and you roll them in the lid. There's a picture of a zombie in the lid, and you have to land the dice on his head to kill him. That's pretty damned cool, if you ask me, and we had a lot of fun with it. It's dumb, but so are zombies, so we liked it.

Event cards happen every turn, and mostly suck. People will get sick. Cars will break down. Batteries will die. In other words, things will go poorly, and you will all groan every time one of these cards flips up and destroys your crossbow or makes all your people hide in the toilet instead of doing something useful.

I would be lying if I said this was a good game, in the sense that Agricola or HeroScape are good games. The rules are kind of a mess. They leave out parts you might need, they have too much happening at once, and they left me with a headache (that may have been induced by look at the horribly bland art on the boards, but I still think it was the rules). The only parts of the game with decent art are the deck of event cards and the inside of the lid, and so most of the game looks like it was produced by a couple teenagers with a Xerox machine and some expensive cardstock. In other words, it was par for the course for Twilight Creations.

However, despite having many flaws, Zombie Survival is still enjoyable. Not great, but fun. I don't think I'll probably trot it out again any time soon, but we did have a reasonably good time, and nobody was sorry we played. Of all the Twilight Creations games I have played, this one was the best, though that's not saying much, because all the others really sucked.

If you're not a fan of zombie games, don't play Zombie Survival (or anything else from Twilight Creations). If you don't like games with lots of micro-managing resources, you also won't like Zombie Survival. But if you can overlook vague rules and art so boring it could be hanging in an accounting office waiting room, you just might have fun with Zombie Survival. Don't pay full price, or anything, but if you see it on sale, it might be worth a shot.


1-4 players

Fun theme
Interesting decisions to make
Some random elements combined with a little bit of a dexterity game
Great art on the event cards

Typical Twilight Creation rules leave a lot to be desired
Weak graphic design and bland art on the houses and yards
Lots of resource management (only a con if you hate that kind of thing)

It appears that even if you were anxious to get a brand-new copy of Zombie Survival, you're out of luck - Noble Knight Games is sold out. Maybe someone else has it, but I really can't be bothered to check for you.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Card Game Review - Omen: A Reign of War

War is awesome. Not real war - that's kind of messy and can lead to indigestion and potentially lead poisoning, unless your enemies are using bullets that don't contain lead, in which case you get brass poisoning or some other kind of poisoning that shows exactly how little I know about how bullets are made.

But everything about war that's not actual war is pretty much kick-ass. Sergeant Rock, Haunted Tank, Guns of Navarone, Dirty Dozen, Band of Brothers, and a whole lot of other entertaining things that I love are directly attributable to war. And most of all, without war, games would mostly suck.

John Clowdus understands that war is awesome. That's why he made Omen. He even subtitled it A Reign of War, because he knows just how cool war is, and he wanted us to know that he knows. And because he knows how much fun you can have with war, he went ahead and made the best game to come out of Small Box Games since he started making games (although A Lone Banner was also excellent, probably because it was about war).

Omen is not about modern war, but that's OK, because old wars are even cooler than new wars, especially when they have monsters in them. So Omen has two players pretending to be ancient Greeks who use mythical creatures, powerful oracles (who are sexy), and bad-ass soldiers to wage war against each other. It's all done with cards, and it's all fun.

Every kind of warrior you can call into battle is on a card. Both of you will draw off the same deck, so you each have the same odds of pulling the minotaur or the pegasus or the servitors of the dead who pull opposing soldiers into the underworld where Hades lights them on fire and cooks them over open lava pits. You'll play your forces of destruction on your side of the three cities, and the other guy will play his, and then you'll fight about it and people will die.

There is a lot of very cool card play in Omen. In typical Clowdus fashion, every card can be used for different things, so you're forever trying to decide how you want to use them. Oracles are helpful for keeping up your cash flow and hand of cards, but they suck in a fight. Beasts are great at fighting, but they also have killer abilities that can only be used if you discard them without ever using them in a battle. Soldiers are good all-around brawlers, but they all have abilities that can totally change the flow of a battle if you play them right.

While Omen plays very quickly, it can be very tricky to make the right move. If you play your cards in the right order, you might be able to dominate two cities at once and still manage to pull off some legendary feats and win favor with the gods of Olympus. But if you play just one card at the wrong time, you could wind up flat broke with all your guys dead in a ditch somewhere while you try to thumb a ride back to Sparta and wind up having to blow a truck driver for a lift.

Smart card play is the key to winning Omen, but that's not to say you can't manipulate some long-term strategies. Building up your oracles can help you maintain a good flow of resources, but might leave you too weak to win any fights. Focusing on quickly winning a few battles could give you a huge lead early on, but you might wind up with no way to keep up momentum and letting your opponent grab control when you're not prepared. You have to be flexible, and not too married to any one plan, but it helps a lot to have a few ideas in mind when you start playing.

All those tactics and strategies can be chucked out the window if you're not paying attention, though, because Omen is nothing if not crazy brutal. You can have ten cards and a pile of cash, and your opponent can play two cards and leave you begging for change at a bus stop with no help for miles around. Or you might see that your opponent is setting up some killer strategy that is bound to cause you untold misery, and unleash just a few cards that rip a hole right through him and send all his half-naked oracle hookers to the afterlife. This is not a game for people who like friendly games with minimal interaction. War is hardcore and violent, just like Omen, and that's why both are this much fun.

Small Box Games is moving into the big-time with Omen. The art alone is proof that Clowdus is committed to making this game a serious contender. If you weren't sure how much war rocks, the flat-out gorgeous art on these cards will make up your mind for you. Omen is not just prettier than any Small Box Games ever made. It's prettier than lots of big-name games that cost twice as much.

With the best art, the best packaging, and the best all-around game play Small Box Games has released so far, Omen is a surefire hit for anyone who likes violence, war and card games. I know I do.


2 players

Subtle strategy
Killer card combination plays
Amazing art - seriously, it's gorgeous
The best game from Clowdus to date
Brutal war is fun

Limited print run means you better pre-order now

Whether or not you have ever played a game from Small Box, and whether or not you liked them, you're going to love Omen. Unless you don't like war, because then you might enjoy a game about teatime in a rural English village. For people who know how much fun it is to do violence, you can get Omen right here:

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Expansion Review - Defenders of the Realm Dragon Expansion

The funny thing about expansions is that while I love to get them, and I love to play them, I don't really like reviewing them all that much. Usually, it's not hard to tell if you want the expansion - if you like the base game, the expansion is usually a pretty obvious choice. If not, there's no reason to throw good money after bad, unless by 'bad' you mean 'topless dancers.'

On the other hand, sometimes (as in the case of the Dragon Expansion for Defenders of the Realm), an expansion is expensive and large enough that it can be tough to decide if you feel like breaking free of the cash, or if you would be better off just taking your wife to dinner and maybe trying to get a little date-night nookie.

If you really enjoy the Pandemic-in-Fantasyland game Defenders of the Realm, you might be considering the Dragon Expansion just because you want to expand the game and play it more. And there are lots of new things in the box. Obviously, there are more dragons - that should probably go without saying, because otherwise the title wouldn't make any sense. But there are also rules for using some dragons as agents of evil rather than generals, or getting a little help from the king, or a better way to determine an overall winner (personally, I think the idea of one player being a winner in what is otherwise a completely cooperative game is stupid, and leads to stupid people doing stupid things out of a ridiculous desire to be crowned the winner).

While there are a lot more tools in this box designed to give you a lot more ways to play, it can still be a little tough to tell why it's worth as much as a decent meal without the kids. There are three dragons inside, but they're the only thing that's not cardboard, and they're really dorky. They look like Happy Meal toys. Not that the figures in the main game don't look like they could have been sold in plastic bags out of a drug store toy aisle, but these dragons really look silly. They're sure not worth as much as what you'll get from your wife if you can get a couple martinis in her.

The new dragons might not look like much, but they are really cool in play. The imps that follow the green dragon spread fast and cause mayhem when they do, and the crazy cultists of the black dragon will hurt you even when you're killing them. The red dragon's flame minions set entire regions on fire. For that matter, so does the red dragon. If you've been married more than ten years, you know that the only way you're going to set your bed on fire is to literally set it on fire, so on this point, the advantage goes to the dragons.

If you play a lot of this game, you can even have recurring characters. Using the King's Champion scoring system, your heroes will earn fame and glory for doing stuff like putting out fires and laundering their socks, and then they'll get rewards that they can use the next time they play. This particular option isn't going to see much play in my house - we don't play Defenders of the Realm more than once a year - but it does add a neat wrinkle if you play more often than you take your wife to Chili's.

The art and components in the Dragon Expansion match right up with the original game, which is a positive way to say that they are just as goofy-looking and poorly designed. There's a giant on the cover fighting a dragon, which is odd because there are no giants in the game. There are also no guys in turbans, but there's one on the cover. I guess this was the only piece they could afford from Larry Elmore's collection. Your wife has probably aged better than the art, so this one might be a point in favor of dinner with your lovely bride. Hell, the menu will probably be prettier than this game.

The Dragon Expansion did provide me with a good reason to go back and play Defenders of the Realm again, so from that angle, it's pretty cool. If you're getting bored with the original, the dragons will make you change your strategies and let you customize your level of difficulty. That's worth a few bucks, because when you can take a game that's starting to get stale and triple the number of times you'll enjoy playing it, that might be worth as much as a couple salisbury steaks and a bloomin' onion.

I'll be hanging on to the Dragon Expansion. I've enjoyed playing Defenders, and I'll continue to enjoy it more with the Dragon Expansion. It's a tough call whether you want to pay as much as most places want for it, but if you do, you'll get a lot more mileage out of Defenders of the Realm. And if you play it with your wife, you might still manage to get laid afterward.


Still 2-4 players

Lots of new ways to play
The new dragons change the game considerably, and freshen it up
Set your difficulty level based on how much you play
All new optional rules that let you pick what you want like a cafeteria chow line

Still does not look very good
Will probably not get you any sex

You have to decide for yourself whether you feel like paying this much for a game expansion, but if you do, you can find a copy right here, at Noble Knight Games:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Browser Game Review - Gemcraft Labyrinth

I have a problem. I cannot quit playing Gemcraft Labyrinth.

It would be one thing if I were addicted to a 60 dollar console game with immersive graphics and a deep storyline. It would be completely understandable if I were hooked on some mass-market MMO and couldn't stop raiding every night. But it's seriously embarrassing to be unable to stop playing a free game on the Internet.

OK, it's not entirely free. You can play Gemcraft Labyrinth for free, but if you pay five bucks, you can get more stuff. Like, in the game. And having played the first two Gemcraft games, and having loved them, I paid the five bucks before I beat the first level. It's been money well spent, because I have put way too many hours into this game.

To really heap shame on my sagging shoulders, Gemcraft Labyrinth is a tower defense game. It's one of those games where monsters come rushing toward your home, and you have to shoot them to stop them. With almost no exceptions, I hate those kinds of games. I find them insipid and unoriginal and dull.

But Gemcraft is different. Where most tower defense games are just clones of each other, this one is really, really smart. You can beat the first few levels with ease, but you'll find pretty quick that you have to be sharp if you want to keep winning. You'll be making tricky decisions the whole time - upgrade your big gem, or put in an amplifier? Block off all the walls now, or trust to one big gun to get the job done? Summon the next wave early for a little extra spending power, or hold off to improve your mana pool?

Gemcraft Labyrinth adds even more stuff than the previous two games. For one thing, there are a lot more maps to beat. For another, now you can build walls, so you can construct a death trap to keep the creeping boogers at bay for a really long time. Then there are tombs that you can bust open if you're feeling especially confident, and they'll dump a string of black monsters that will descend on your headquarters like the black plague on a dirty street urchin. Monsters have lairs that can let them pop out closer to your house than you might like, but you can blow them up, if you feel like allocating the resources.

Many of these lame Internet games have fairly pathetic art and sound, but the Gemcraft series has graphics better than some console games released in the last year or five. The sound goes with the game the way flavored paint goes with middle-aged couples trying desperately to find something interesting about their sex lives. The production on all the Gemcraft games is excellent, and that may be why I'm so hopelessly addicted to Labyrinth.

Of course, another reason I can't stop playing Gemcraft Labyrinth is that there is so damned much to do. There are more than 100 different maps, and you can unlock later maps by beating earlier maps. Most of the maps are just straight-forward kill festivals, but some of the cooler maps have different objectives, like charging special power reservoirs or creating super-gems.

As you play Gemcraft Labyrinth, you'll find yourself formulating strategies, responding to fluctuating conditions, and customizing the battle to suit your plans. Since you get in-game rewards for completing various tasks, like destroying a certain number of walls or building a set number of amplifiers, you may return to levels you already won to exploit their resources for more experience and a shot at unlocking the various special sectors.

The seriously crazy thing about Gemcraft Labyrinth, and maybe my only excuse for being addicted to a browser game, is that it could have been an Xbox game. If it were available on Xbox Live, and you could download it for 20 bucks, I would gladly purchase it and spend hours bogarting the television and pissing off my son when he wants to watch Supernatural.

I know I should step away from the game. I know I should be using my computer for work, and not whiling away the nights trying to beat just one more level. But I've only got four maps left before I've completed the game. I can't quit now!

Please, send help immediately.


Very nice graphics and sound
Flawless - hasn't ever crashed or frozen or glitched
Smart and versatile and exciting
More depth than you'll find in a lot of expensive games
Free, unless you want to pay five bucks, and you should, because it's better that way

So addictive, you'll be pissing in an empty milk jug so you don't have to leave your desk

In the ultimate case of try-before-you-buy, you can play Gemcraft Labyrinth for hours on end without ever putting in a penny - but it's far better if you'll just pony up five bucks:

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Board Game Review - Axis & Allies

I miss the 80s. The clothes were cool - when even chicks wear ties, people just tend to be dressing better. The music was great - kick-ass metal, great Europop, U2, and The Alarm were ruling the airwaves, and it was good. And we expected our games to take a while to finish.

Now we complain about games that take longer than an hour (well, some people do. Not me. But some people). I know of entire game groups who won't touch anything they can't finish in 45 minutes, because they're in a hurry to get to the next game. I guess if I was constantly trying to shuffle through some colossal pile of throw-away games, I could empathize, but many of my favorite games are marathons.

Take Axis & Allies. This is one of those Gamemaster Series game from the early 80s. It's a huge game, with a box that rivals those huge Fantasy Flight games that come with eight pounds of plastic and at least three oak trees worth of cardboard. Even if you didn't already know what it was, you could probably guess from the name that Axis & Allies is a World War II game. And like many of my favorite games, it takes a very long time to finish.

Ideally, you should play Axis & Allies with five people. There are Germans and Japanese - those are the Axis, in case you failed fourth grade. On the other side, you have Soviets, Brits and the US of A. Each of these nations is played by a different person, unless you have less than five people, and then someone has to double up. Every nation has a big fat bag full of plastic dudes and tanks and planes and ships, and you'll put so many guys on the map that you have to put miniature poker chips underneath them to remember how many are there.

Axis & Allies is the ultimate dudes-on-a-map game. You'll invade Ukraine from Western Europe while your ally fights naval battles in Guadalcanal and bombs the piss out of Tokyo. You'll invade Normandy across the English Channel. You'll rampage across Northern Africa until the Limeys get sick of your Nazi ass and kick you back out. Basically, you'll fight across the entire globe, with ships and planes and tanks and most of all poor soldiers who will die by the truckload, and you'll either free the world from the tyranny of the fascists or you'll rule with an iron fist. Or, you know, lose.

Along the way, decisions will come at you like freeway traffic at rush hour. You'll have to decide whether you need another tank, or if you want to try to research some new technology, like rockets or jet planes. You'll have to choose between reinforcing beleaguered armies or mounting a counter-offensive in a flanking attack. Bomb or attack? Tank or infantry? Battleship or carrier? Island hop or go for the jugular? And while no single decision is going to outright destroy you, a couple wrong moves will leave you hoping you're lucky, because if your brains fail you, you better hope the dice can save you.

Also like most of my favorite games, there are lots of dice in Axis & Allies. Since you get to roll one die for each unit you have in a fight, you could wind up chucking a pile of dice the size of Hitler's ego. And then you'll throw all those dice, and when you score one hit on ten dice, your jaw will hit the floor and your pants will fill up with ice water (the ice water is because after you miss that much, you'll flail around and spill your drink in your lap. What did you think I meant? Don't be gross).

One thing is important to know about Axis & Allies - it is a very long game. I know I already said that, but it's worth mentioning twice. If you can't parcel out a whole evening for one game, maybe because you have some biological drive to hop from game to game like a rhesus monkey hopped up on Red Bull and diet pills, then don't bother even looking at this one. You'll never finish a game before someone leaves the table and starts playing pinball (seriously. That happened to me once. Not with this game, but it did happen. In his defense, he was drunk).

A long game might be a drawback to some people, but for others (including people like me), a long game is the best way to get everything you want from a board game. You get to exercise long-term strategies and think five turns ahead, and still make split-second decisions that have long-reaching consequences. You get to see a big-picture story develop over the course of the whole game, leaving you with the kind of game you're still remembering aloud three weeks later. And most of all, a long game means you get to spend a good long time with your friends without feeling some overwhelming pressure to maintain a forced dialog because nobody can think of anything to say, except that one ass-hat your buddy brought over who can't stop talking about his great job and his expensive car and his trophy girlfriend until you want to super-glue a bathroom plunger over his flapping cakehole.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that a long game can be a serious drawback if the game feels long. You know what I mean - those games where you turn around after someone finally wins and look at the clock on the wall, and at the same time, everyone goes, 'Woah! It's only been an hour?' Those kinds of long games suck, because even if you are enjoying the social experience, you still have to actually play the game if you want to finish.

But Axis & Allies doesn't feel like a long game. In fact, after we hit the four hour mark, someone said, 'Holy crap! Is it already that late!?' We had no idea we had been playing more than a couple hours, because we were having so much fun. Everyone agreed afterward that Axis & Allies was a great game, and the time just got away from us because we were so involved.

If you're a fan of short-attention-span games, or if you just want to try every new themeless diversion that ever pops out of a German game designer's head, you're going to hate Axis & Allies. Worse yet, you'll never finish it. If you don't have lots of time on your hands, there's no reason to bother.

But if you do have the kind of schedule that lets you carve out an entire night for one game, and if you like games that actually feel like you're doing more than just rearranging cardboard tiles, you'll love it. The strategy and tactical maneuvering, the difficult decisions and the whims of fate, all add up to make Axis & Allies the hallmark for world domination games, the yardstick by which other games measure their privates and compare them behind the lockers.


2-5 players

Tactics and strategy
Far-reaching consequences to nearly any action
Tough decisions and painful mistakes
Plenty of dice
Very cool theme, unless you don't like war

Really long

I don't know where you can get the original Gamemaster Series version of Axis & Allies, because it's been sold out for a long time. But the revised version (which came out a couple decades later) is available at Noble Knight Games - but they only have one, so you better hurry: