Friday, August 31, 2012

Card Game Review - Revolver

I think timewaster games are a sad commentary on society. When you can put a game on your phone whose sole purpose is to distract you from the fact that you are doing absolutely nothing whatsoever, and then play it while you wait at the DMV instead of reading a book or something - well, that obviously means something bad. What that might be, I don't know, but it can't be good.

But not everyone agrees with me. In fact, I don't even agree with me, because I have plenty of time-wasting games on my phone. However, some people disagree so much that they decided to go ahead and make a timewaster that you play at the kitchen table. They called it Revolver.

Revolver has a story, and it has a body count, so I should love it. I don't love it, but I liked it OK. It's a fun fifteen minutes that you can sweep into the box when you're done. It plays just long enough to distract you while you wait for your Hot Pockets to finish nuking and then cooling down enough that you can eat them (have you ever bitten into a Hot Pocket right out of the microwave? The name should be a hint, but let's just say that when they say 'hot pocket' they mean 'pocket full of searing magma that will burn right through your tongue').

It's not hard to play Revolver. One guy is the bad guy, and the other guy is the good guy. On your turn, you draw some cards then you play some cards. If the good guy plays better cards, one of the bad guys dies. If the bad guy plays better cards, one of the bad guys still probably dies because the good guy has all these cards that say 'kill a bad guy even if you don't play better cards.' If the good guys can kill sixteen bad guys, they win. If the bad guy can get the gang's leader onto the train and out of the country before he dies, he wins.

There's actually some pretty interesting card play in Revolver, which is nice in a game that takes less time than you need to watch an episode of Robot Chicken. The bad guy will want to save his cards for when they're important, and not squander them when he's almost guaranteed to lose anyway. He'll want to gamble a little, wondering if the good guys can draw cards to beat him, because he might need that gatling gun at the next location. The good guy has basically the same conundrum - send a herd of buffalo through right now, or hold off for later in case the bad guys are hiding the Jackson clan?

But that's about it, really. This is not anything remotely like a complicated game. It doesn't have the depth to be interesting more than two or three times, unless you're playing it because you have absolutely nothing better to do. It's light and fun and people die. For lots of people, that's high praise.

Me, I like a game with some meat on its bones. I want a longer game that makes me think more. I want to get into what I'm doing. I also like to play a game that isn't over before I can finish a beer. But if I am ever looking for a game that I can set up in half a minute and play through before my wife calls us for dinner, I've got Revolver. It's perfect for when I need some way to not notice that I'm doing nothing of value, and I don't have time to actually do something useful.


2 players

Neat art
Incredible body count
Surprising amount of story for a game that ends this fast
A little bit of strategy

Finishing quickly is nice if you're having your oil changed, but not as great in a game
Not really very deep, but that's OK because it's over before you notice

If you need a card game designed perfectly to waste fifteen minutes, you should run over to Noble Knight Games and pick up a copy of Revolver.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Card Game Review - Tooth & Nail: Factions

It seems odd to me to title a game with a colon in it. Expansions do it all the time, but when Small Box Games calls their game Tooth & Nail: Factions, it sounds like there's another Tooth & Nail out there, maybe Tooth & Nail: Clippings or Tooth & Nail: and Hair. But nope, this is the base game. Of course, it's no stranger than Vampire: The Masquerade (which begs a similar question - is there a Vampire: The Night Out At The Movies or Vampire: The Going To Bed Early?), and that's been around for decades.

Off-beat naming conventions aside, Tooth & Nail is a fascinatingly interesting little game. It comes in a really small box, which makes sense because it's from a company called Small Box Games, thus displaying a remarkable amount of truth in advertising. And not only is the box really small, but the cards inside only fill it about halfway, which means you've got a pretty darn small game. It doesn't seem like there should be much game play with the 200 cards you get, but small packages and all that.

Tooth & Nail features a bunch of cards with animal warriors, like an elephant with a chain gun and a wallaby with a diaper rash. And in an exceptionally complicated twist, they fight. Damage is done as discarded cards, and whoever runs out of cards first loses.

If that doesn't sound like a lot of theme, don't worry about it. This game doesn't have a lot of theme, but it doesn't need a lot of theme. Because what it has is the kind of combo-slinging genius you don't often see outside of collectible games, and it has it in spades.

The game itself is remarkably easy to learn, especially for a Small Box game. You get cards, you get actions, and you can use the actions to play the cards. In your command zone, the cards can be used to get you more cards and more actions, and in the war zone, they can attack. And if they're in your command zone, they can also grant you awesome abilities, which is awesome.

For instance, one vulture card with wires in its head can steal cards from the other guy's deck and add them to yours. One hyena with an uzi can kill wizards (which is interesting, because you would think an uzi would be equally efficient against people who were not wizards). There are Egyptian jackals who yank cards right off the top of the other guy's deck and directly out of the game. There are all manner of awesome abilities, and they work great together.

Another interesting thing about Tooth & Nail is the timing. As in, this came out at almost the same time as Smash-Up, and if you really want to see the game work at it's best, the only good way to play it is by combining decks. Only instead of shuffling together your ninjas with your pirates, you get to throw your African animals in with your Arctic animals to see what happens when they meet up in Munich for a beer and some schnitzel.

This combined-deck mode is called Alliance, and seriously, it's the only way to play. You can learn on the base game, but as soon as you possibly can, you need to mix up the decks. There's a lot of strategy in how you combine your decks, because it will change how you play. You can only use the special ability of one faction, so you have to decide how you're going to use your combined deck to beat the yak hair out of the other guy's water buffalo. One ability might give you insane attack strength but leave your command vulnerable, while the other might give you all kinds of control over your deck or the ability to heal the damage you suffer.

And then when you play, you're going to see combinations so involved that they will literally make your head spin. I'm not being metaphorical or allegorical or prehistorical. Your head will actually spin. Of course, it can only spin like 90 degrees, or you would snap your neck and die, and it's probably only spinning that far if your dog is puking on the love seat and you have to jump up really quick to get her outside before you spend the next two hours shampooing orange barf stains out of the upholstery.

But the combinations really are amazing. In one game we played (and we have played seven so far), the last turn was incredibly crucial. If my wife could do 15 damage - an incredible amount - she would win. Otherwise, her two remaining cards were toast. So she attacked, used a jackal to put the attackers into her deck, used a different jackal to get more cards, used a rat to draw some other cards, used another rat to get two more actions, used her new actions to put more warriors into the fight, and then used her last action to attack one more time. To describe how convoluted and tricky this was would be impossible if you had not played Tooth & Nail, and if you had, you would already be nodding and saying, 'yep, you can totally do that.' And after all the convoluted combo play, she actually managed to destroy a third of my deck in one turn and win the game in a wild upset.

Moments like that, where you see an incredible series of brilliant plays come together to pull off amazing feats, are what gaming is all about (unless it's all about driving cars with guns on the roof, or barbarians smashing goblins with giant swords, or growing a crop and then taking a nap, which only happens in German games). After that last game, with that stunning combination, I was hooked. I don't care if there really is no reason at all for there to be an anthropomorphic walrus. This game could be played with no theme at all, and be absolutely brilliant.

In fact, I don't think I would have minded an absence of theme, if the art was pretty. In an act of arguable irony, the art was done by John Ariosa, who has done several games where his work was fantastic, like Summoner Wars and Mice & Mystics. And yet in Tooth & Nail, he must have been on a really tight deadline, because there were several cards where I said to my wife, 'I think this bird has cerebral palsy.' Lots of the art is thoroughly bitchin', but I ran across a whole bunch of them that were sloppy and awkward. Since Small Box Games is starting to make a real effort to publish gorgeous games, the occasionally unappealing card stood out more than it would have if the game had come from, say, Z-Man, who often specializes in butt-ugly games.

But art aside (and I'm nitpicking like crazy, because most of the art is pretty awesome), Tooth & Nail is one hell of a fun game. It combines all the things I love in a game - strategy, clever plays, planning, sacrifices, decision-making and violence. You can play the base game in fifteen minutes, and the Alliance version in half an hour, and both are pretty damned awesome. I know I recommend a lot of Small Box games, but if you're only going to get one, make it this one. If you like the kind of card play you expect out of Magic, but don't want to spend a paycheck on cards and then throw a third of them away because nobody needs that many land cards, you really ought to check this out. And then you should start an email campaign to John Clowdus and tell him he needs an expansion right now. Tell him to ignore his day job, his family and his personal hygiene and get us more factions, because Tooth & Nail is one you're going to want to play until the cards fall apart in your hands.


2 players (or more with optional rules)

Surprisingly robust
Lots of strategy, starting before you play your first card and ending when one of you is dead
Incredible combinations
A neat but unnecessary theme

A few poorly illustrated cards
I want more of this, right away

Being as Small Box Games is a very small company (thus the name), you can only get Tooth & Nail directly from them. And you should, because it's awesome.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Board Game Review - Monopoly Millionaire

I know that in some circles, it's offensive to say you like Monopoly. It's like walking into a Baptist church and saying you have a thing for naked sheep. But I can't help it, I love Monopoly.

There's awesome deal-making. There's shrewd building. There's timing and calculating odds and a whole lot of luck. Sure, it may take a couple hours, but I don't care. It's two awesome hours, and that works great for me. If you can't finish in two hours, you're doing it wrong.

But Hasbro keeps messing with it. Apparently, nobody ever told them that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Some reinventions have been kind of cool, like the one where you build parks and prisons and stuff, and the Monopoly Deal card game was actually pretty damned slick. But they're not all perfect. For example, there's Monopoly Millionaire.

This is one they could have thrown back. There are a lot of things wrong with Millionaire, and it looks like they made all the changes to make the game finish faster. Well, as a die-hard fan of Monopoly, I don't want the game to finish faster. I don't want an artificial accelerant added to my Monopoly, any more than I want artificial grass added to my furniture. I want all the underhanded dealing and ruthless maneuvering. I don't want to finish early just because some Euro geek said Monopoly lasts too long.

For instance, they took out two spaces from every side. There are no more trains, no more utilities. They took out the tax spots, too. You can call those spots extra if you want, but they added a ton to the game. Not so much as income properties, since they were capped pretty low, but they were great for trading fodder, and I could always fool - er, cajole someone into giving me a lopsided deal by throwing in the B&O.

They made the pawns upgradeable. You've got three levels of each pawn, so you start out in a go kart, upgrade to a convertible, and then one more time for a limo. OK, never mind, that part was kind of interesting.

They put special powers on some of the cards that would let you do stuff like steal property from other players or jump ahead to the next unowned property. This part I disagree with vehemently, because stealing from the other players should only occur when they don't actually know you're stealing from them. Like if you say, 'look, I'll give you Park Place, and you give me Tennessee, and then we'll both have a monopoly, and yours will be awesome' and neglect to point out that the orange properties get more traffic than any other spaces on the board. And then immediately put hotels on them when the other player is about to land on them, and you steal all their money and they have to mortgage Park Place to pay for the rent they just gave you. And then take Park Place.

But the worst part is that they made the game end when one player has a million dollars. This wouldn't be so bad, but they added zeroes to the end of every bill, and a million bucks is chump change. It's like having a thousand in classic Monopoly, and I've hit that point after someone else bunches of times and still won the game. It's a crappy way to end the game before you get to the good part.

If I had to guess, the Hasbro marketing guys spent five minutes reading comments at BGG, and saw some ADD asshat say that Monopoly takes too long, and they want it to end in half an hour. Then the marketing guys went to the designers and said, 'make the game end in half an hour,' and the designers said, 'but it will suck at half an hour,' and the marketing guys said, 'no, some random BGG asshat said half an hour would make it a good game, so make that happen.' Then the designers looked around at the job market and said, 'since our main employable skill is making board games in a nation where most of the people only play games on their iPads, and we don't even have the programming skills to set up our DVRs, maybe we better do that.' And so they did.

I can see what Hasbro was going for with Monopoly Millionaire. They were trying to make it finish quicker, because today's gamers want their games to end before they accidentally start having fun. But in this case, they have made a big mistake. While previous versions of Monopoly actually improved the game, like the little computer thing that would keep track of your money by swiping a credit card, this one is a failed bit. I wanted to like it, because since the fire, it's the only version of Monopoly I own.

Unfortunately, Monopoly Millionaire sucks all the soul out of the old classic like a Ghostbusters vacuum cleaner. Everything that I love about classic Monopoly is gone, replaced by copious amounts of luck and flashy pieces. I easily admit that this is the prettiest version of Monopoly, and I do kind of like the upgradeable pawns, but that's it. There is literally no other thing about Millionaire that is better than the original, and a whole lot wrong. Skip it. I can't think of a good reason to own this game.


2-4 players

Looks really good
I do like the upgrading pawns

Fixed what wasn't broken
Took everything that was great about Monopoly and surgically removed it

Don't get Monopoly Millionaire. I'm only posting the picture so you know what to avoid.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Incredibly Awesome Deal - Reaper Kickstarter

Tomorrow is my game-playing day, and I have to make up for all the games I didn't play while I was at GenCon (yes, that's as messed up as it sounds). So tomorrow, I'll have a review, and tonight, I want to tell you about the only Kickstarter I have ever decided to back.

Rewind in time to last November. I had hundreds of D&D minis and hundreds of rebased Mage Knight figures. I could put out hordes of kobolds, small armies of orcs, or teeming masses of goblins. I never looked twice at buying miniatures, because I never needed any more.

Then my son lit my house on fire. Only the top floor was destroyed, but all my minis were up there. Starting on December 20, 2011, I had no miniatures left at all. This was especially tragic because now I couldn't play D&D properly!

Fast forward to day before yesterday, when a friend points out a Kickstarter campaign being run by Reaper. They're trying to jump-start their line of plastic miniatures, because right now, they only have twelve models and that's not even enough to fill out a single boss fight. When they started the campaign, $100 got you a decent handful of figures - not a great deal, but not bad.

I didn't find out about this campaign until two days ago, and it ends tomorrow. So I'm looking at the tail end of the show, and they have hit a LOT of stretch goals. I mean, it's actually absurd. And the neat thing is that every stretch goal adds more minis that you'll get with your initial $100 pledge. They have actually gathered over two million dollars! That is a lot of money, especially since they initially needed only 30K.

So duh, I'm in. Sure, I'll have to wait until March, but when my minis do finally arrive, I will have almost 300 figures! I did add in a bunch of extras, like dragons and giants and paints and a case, but even those were a freaking steal. Seriously, it's like you're stealing them. At what I paid, and what I'm getting, those excellent plastic figures will cost me something like a buck apiece, and that's only because I added some ten-dollar dragons and stuff. Just that $100 pledge will get your figures for less than 50 cents each.

And this isn't some rinky-dink startup trying to break into the market. This is Reaper, arguably the finest miniatures manufacturer in North America. They have some exceptional sculpts, and they tend to be pretty proud of their work (meaning that their minis can cost you a mint). To score this enormous selection of figures at such a ridiculously low rate makes me wonder if I could just sleep until March, because I'm like a six-year-old dreaming of Christmas morning.

I've spent the last two days watching them continue to hit stretch goals. Since I pledged, I've watched my collection expand to include lizardmen, golems, giants and hobbits. Right now I'm itching to see if they can get the necromancers paid for, and I hope they do, because I totally want those, especially since they won't cost me any more than I've already paid. I'm checking the site every two minutes, anxious to see if they've earned another 20 grand in the last half hour (and usually, they have).

If you love plastic miniatures as much as I do (I vastly prefer them to metal), you should go check out this insane collection of awesome stuff. You may never see a deal this good again. Opportunities this outstanding just don't happen twice - and this one will be gone by this time tomorrow, so jump on it while you have a chance!

(I don't know a single person at Reaper. I've never even emailed any of them. I'm announcing this deal because 1) some of you might not have heard about this incredibly awesome thing, and 2) if they hit the next stretch goal before bedtime Saturday night, I also get some awesome necromancers.)

Anyway, here's the link:


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How to Make It In Game Reviews

So you're sitting at home, reading Drake's Flames, and you notice that I get a lot of games for free. And then you start thinking, and you say to yourself, 'I am a good writer. Why are people not sending free games to my house?' And then you are saying, 'Maybe because I have no idea how to become an instant success and have free product pouring into my house in a metaphorical flood of Biblical proportions.' Well, I have some advice, and my first suggestion is that you should stop talking to yourself. Your dogs think you'll take them for a walk, and your mom is starting to worry.

Don't worry. I do have some other advice.

1. Use BoardGameGeek. If you want to be popular enough that people send you lots and lots of stuff, you have to be someplace you can get noticed. The best place on the planet to get noticed is BGG, where drooling potato-heads can review things and get free games in the mail. I've seen it. Those spit-cup halfwits write thoroughly boring, dry-as-hell reviews and people fall all over themselves to tell them how awesome they are.

Whatever you do, do not start your own blog. Every fourth person in the world right now has a board game blog, and 99% of them are pure refried ass. If you want to just talk about what happened the last time you played Agricola, write up a session report and post it at BoardGameGeek. If you absolutely must have a blog, start one that is hosted by BoardGameGeek.

If you start your own blog, you can count on a readership as high as seven, possibly eight if your mom knows how to use the Internet. And allow me to assure you that being able to count your readers on your fingers is not a good way to get people to send you free games. Toiling in obscurity may be great for Russian novelists, but it is not very useful for people who want to actually get free games before they die.

2. Do video reviews. Seriously, nobody reads any more. They just watch videos on the Internet because it is a lot less work than exercising their language skills. When you have spent eight hours hard at work in a cubicle, staring at a monitor and trying to pretend you're busy, taking the ten minutes it would take to read a game review is just too much effort. Instead, people take those ten minutes and watch a video of another person playing a game and then talking about it.

If you do decide to make video reviews, it hardly matters if you are interesting. People will just drool on their keyboards and watch your review, even if you are slightly less compelling than a fourth-grader reciting the pledge of allegiance. It is important to show all the pieces that are in the box. You don't actually even have to convey an opinion, if you do a really good job of showing off the stuff in the box. Seriously. There are very popular video reviewers who don't actually create reviews. And they get free games because they are so very popular.

3. Self-aggrandize. This is a big word that means 'be an arrogant turd.' This particular piece of advice is very important if you want to be a successful game reviewer. You absolutely must crow about your genius at every possible turn, so that mindless drones will follow you like the Pied Piper stealing children. Only you will not be stealing children, you will be telling hapless sheep that you are awesome, and then they will give you loads of golden thumbs (please note that despite sounding like a kinky sex act, the 'golden thumb' actually has nothing to do with nakedness of any kind). And publishers will see those golden thumbs and say to themselves, 'I should send this person some free games, because loads of people think he is awesome, even though he is actually an arrogant turd.'

You will also have to tell publishers how indispensable you are. You will need to describe the torrential rainfall of golden thumbs that you get on a daily basis (keeping in mind that a golden thumb has absolutely nothing do with sexual relations, perverted or otherwise). You will need to tell those publishers how your video reviews practically force people to buy the games you're reviewing. You will need to be anything but humble. Humility is for chumps, and also for masochistic attic trolls who create blogs that use written words.

4. Under absolutely no circumstance must you ever give a game a negative review. I cannot emphasize this enough - you must actively enjoy every single game you ever play. If you ignore this advice, and have the temerity to actually tell the truth when you hate a game, you can count on a very limited supply of future review copies. You can also count on some marketing guys totally hating you, and potentially leaving burning dog poop on your front porch.

This last one is not entirely true. You actually should pan some games from time to time, just to make sure people don't figure out that you're an utter whore with the integrity of cockroach who steals lunch money from small children. But you have to be careful, and only write negative reviews that come from companies you don't like. For instance, if a game company makes seven games you love and one you hate, you must lie about that eighth one. But if a company makes only two or three games, you can afford to alienate them to prove how honest you are. This is especially important because if you want to be successful, you cannot actually be honest, but you desperately need to APPEAR honest.

However, you must be gentle in your negative reviews, because it is actually possible to alienate publishers before you ever review just one of their games. Write some particularly scathing reviews, and you will find that publishers you don't even know will actively avoid sending you their games. If they see your negative reviews, many publishers will delete your emails without even reading them.

I should interrupt this list right now to say that of the four solid pieces of advice I have provided so far, I successfully accomplish none of them. I do not write for BoardGameGeek, because I like to make jokes about prostitutes and heroin. I do not do video reviews, because it is my opinion that the only thing more boring than watching people playing a game is watching a video of people playing a game. I am not a fan of bragging about myself, because for one thing, I don't find myself all that impressive. And I write negative reviews any time I don't like a game, because at this point, I would be shutting the barn door after the horses are out - too many of the big publishers already hate me, so there's not much to lose any more.

So how do I still have a review site, and ever get review copies after ignoring every single piece of my own advice? It all comes down to the last piece, the only one I actually do follow:

5. Keep doing it even if nobody is paying attention. I have been reviewing games since before the turn of the century. I got nothing for a long time, and then a little more, and then a little after that. I've reviewed for six or seven different websites, and even had a gig with a printed magazine for a while. And when you've been reviewing for a decade, you should be able to get one or two good contacts who will still send you stuff even though they know there are only twelve people on the planet who bother to read what you write. And then, if you're lucky like me, you can buy the rest of your review copies yourself. Which is what you have to do to start out anyway, so you ought to be used to it.

So there you go. Now you can run out and begin your world-changing board game website, which will almost certainly be nearly indistinguishable from every single other world-changing board game website, and will still get some traffic one way or another. Follow my advice, and you will have lots of fans and lots of free games. Ignore my advice, and you will have to make dick jokes for ten years before anyone even notices you.

Happy blogging!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Board Game Review - Panic Station

GenCon has been a whirlwind. I was hoping to get some time to go discover some new games, but I have been stuck in the Asmodee booth selling the bejeezus out of Libertalia (which, I may have mentioned, is pretty awesome). So instead of telling you about some exciting new game, I will tell you about one I played last weekend and thought was pretty darn fun.

The game was Panic Station, and my exceptionally timely review comes out only a year or so after its release. In terms of board games, that makes it a super old game, and every reviewer worth a pile of warm spit has already reviewed it, leaving me to pull in last like your annoying kid brother saying, 'hey, guys, can you believe the latest Avril Lavigne album?' when everyone else is already listening to Adele. (Please, someone tell me we haven't moved on from Adele yet.)

Panic Station has a team of 4-6 players trying to stop a viral infection from taking over YouTube and posting your homemade sex movies. That, or you're fighting an alien invasion. Honestly, it's probably that second one. The first one would hardly be a family game.

The problem with fighting this alien invasion is that you're in a remote Arctic research station, and one of you almost certainly has a bad case of alienitis. That one person is going to try to infect the rest of the crew,  and if he can pull it off, the bad guys all win - except for the last guy who got sick.

Yeah, this is a familiar idea. It's basically the plot of The Thing, except this one has androids for no apparent reason except to be wacky. I mean, the android on each team is the only one who can shoot a gun, even if the human can find one, so he is handy to have around, but the game could have just given you each a scientist and a soldier. Some of the thematic elements don't make a lot of sense, is what I'm saying. It would be like if your team was a hardened killer and Bert from Sesame Street.

Also, the rules are kind of a mess. The publisher, Stronghold Games, has drafted a final, corrected version of the rules, and before you try to read the rules for yours, you should talk with them about getting the new one. The original is so convoluted and confusing that the first time we played, we did almost every single thing wrong. And so we hated it, and I had to go check out BGG to see what I did wrong, and then amidst heavy groans from my friends, we played it again.

And the second time, we loved it. In fact, we loved it so much that we played it twice, and I got requests to bring it back again. It is absolutely not a perfect game, and there are a lot of ways to do it wrong, but when my group is that adamant about wanting to play it again, the game did something right.

What Panic Station does right is paranoia. It has everyone accusing the other players of being shifty and disreputable, of displaying antisocial tendencies, and of having smelly feet. Come to think of it, we're gamers. We might just have smelly feet.

The greatest thing about this particular game of mistrust and deception is how quickly the paranoia can shift. If you are certain that you know which of your friends are trying to kill you, and then another of your friends finds himself in a potentially compromising situation, you will find yourself questioning his motives, even as he attempts to assure you that he avoided the infection. You just won't know who is on your side.

Of course, at some point, it begins to be pretty obvious which players are trying to kill the others. And after that, Panic Station changes into an exciting game about paranoia and turns into an exciting game of tactics and strategy and scheming. The humans have to fight their way through a station overrun with parasites and alien hosts, avoiding infection and gathering the crucial elements they need to burn the nest and stop the alien horde from spreading to the world. At this point, even with certain knowledge of which players are bad and which are good, there still remains an enormous amount of tension, the kind of tension that, when one team finally beats the other, will have you celebrating loudly and proclaiming to your enemies, 'Ha! In your face, alien scum!' until you remember that one of them is your ride home.

Like I said before, Panic Station is not perfect. It is almost too easy for the aliens to win in a four-player game, and not very hard for the humans if they have six. This is easily overcome by the fact that the real strength of the game is in how well it draws out unpleasant emotions like fear and mistrust and a general hatred of stinky shoes. Again, the shoes might just be because someone should be washing their feet, but I am not making any apologies. We play on Saturday afternoons. You guys are just lucky I'm wearing a clean shirt.

Despite a handful of flaws that would seriously ruin a different game, Panic Station is actually really good. It has balance issues, thematic problems, and a confusing rule book, but in the end, it delivers the most important thing a game can deliver - fun. You will scheme and accuse, plan and fail, and probably get a lot of your friends killed. Those might be the ingredients for a really horrible high school dance, but they make a great recipe for a fun game.


4-6 players

Plenty of paranoia
Loads of planning and scheming
Enough mistrust that you avoid the classic cooperative lead-dick syndrome
Pretty darn fun

Rules may cause you to play completely wrong
Odd thematic decisions break the suspension of disbelief
Inconsistent with varying sizes of groups

I am posting this review from my iPad, and it is almost impossible to put in links on this thing. When I get back to a real computer again, I will tell you to go get it at Noble Knight Games.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

GenCon Eve

I just flew in to Indianapolis, and boy are my arms tired. OK, I actually drove. So my arms are fine, but my ass is tired. After a long two-day drive, we are right in the middle of the beginning of the annual convocation of nerdity.

I lied again. We're not in the midddle of anything. Asmodee books rooms in a hotel that is like ten miles away from the convention center. We just went to a bar, and were the nerdiest people there. I mean, that's not saying a lot, because we're pretty nerdy, but I mean everyone else was totally normal. Not one person was wearing a t-shirt with dorky sayings or pictures of stormtroopers or a bat symbol. I mean, aside from me.

But still! We are only ten miles away from the nerdiest show on Earth, and we had dinner at Steak & Shake and saw a guy wearing a camo shirt and elf ears. So we're definitely here, smack-dab in the middle of game nerdvana.

Not sure what to expect from this trip. In the past, I always stayed right downtown, and met up with the other 20 or so friends who always visit each other's hotel rooms and stay up until 2 in the morning playing games and talking about how much we love playing games designed for children. Earlier this evening, I went and visited the huge room 15 of my friends share where they bring in crates of booze and a pinball machine, and nobody gets any sleep. But now I'm pretty sure I am actually in a suburb  of Indianapolis, and I am not entirely certain what's happening tomorrow.

I would tell you that I'll give you a full GenCon report later, but I would be a liar. There are two reasons why I will not write a full GenCon report. First, those reports tend to be boring, unless I'm making fun of people who dress like homosexual demons who eat too much fried food. I hate reading GenCon reports. They usually go something like this:

"Stinkzilla Press had their game Go Big Or Go Home But Really, Just Go Home, and there was a long line for it because it was new. Garbage Games had their latest game The Thing That Did Something Amazing, and there was a long line for it because it was new. And finally, Douchebag Publishing was here with their brand new game Rechurned Crap, and even though nobody has any idea what it is about, the line was around the block because they had a full-color ad at BGG and everybody started stabbing each other and bludgeoning their friends with stones so they could get a copy. Then we left, because we are scared of crowds."

GenCon reports are BORING. Seriously, if you publish GenCon summary reports, stop doing that. They are less interesting than checking the business pages for the price of stock you don't own. If you can't punch it up and do something worth reading, just write another boring review of a boring game and pretend it's awesome so the publishers will send you more crap for free.

The second reason I won't write a GenCon report is because it is nearly impossible to actually tell you what this show is like. I mean, there are hundreds of game publishers, thousands of events, and tens of thousands of sweaty nerds with hygiene issues and underdeveloped social skills. Many of them are wall-eyed, though that can hardly be their own fault. I blame ugly parents.

Seriously, there is simply too much happening here to sum it up in any meaningful way, and trying to sum it up for people who have never seen it is nearly impossible. Instead, I intend to play some games I haven't played before and write a regular ol' review for Friday night. I have games at home I could play, but all I brought with me this trip was The Resistance, so that I could rope ten of my closest friends into playing with me so I can deceive them for my own entertainment.

If you are here at the show, stop by the Asmodee booth tomorrow and come see me. I will drop everything to greet you warmly and shake your hand, possibly even hug you, unless I don't do that and do what is actually far more likely, which would be to barely acknowledge your presence and hope you go away. One of those things, or something in-between, will definitely be what I will do.

Unless you bring a Sharpie. Then I will sign your boobs.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Card Game Review - Smash Up

Ninjas team up with zombies to battle futuristic robots and dinosaurs with lasers.

If that sounds really stupid to you, you can stop reading. If, like me, you think that sounds like a buckshot blast of kick-ass, Smash Up might be exactly your brand of psychotic.

In Smash Up, you're going to assemble your deck by combining any two of the eight factions available to you. You might decide that green-skinned Martians work best with the little people from Doby Gillis, or you might put the wizards and the pirates together to see what happens when Harry Potter gets cabin fever on the HMS Pinafore. Then you play your cards and try to grab up bases to get enough points to win.

However you decide to build your deck, you'll only have two kinds of cards. Minions go on bases, and contribute their strength to the contest, and actions mess with everyone else or make you stronger or kill people or buy tacos. You can use tacos to feed to other people at the table so that they will drip hot sauce and liquid fat onto your cards. So you may not want that card.

There are actually lots of different effects in play, and each team does something different. The dinosaurs (the ones with lasers) are really good at being really strong. The pirates can move around a lot, and it's tough to kill someone when they won't stand still. The Martians keep abducting people, and the zombies simply refuse to stay dead. Combine the factions that work best for you, and get ready to blast something with eye lasers and magic wands.

The drafting part of the game, where everybody carefully picks decks to try to balance out their opponents, is a very important part of the game, and requires you to have some experience with the cards. If, for instance, you see your opponent snatch up the gnomes and leprechauns, you know that they have all manner of ongoing actions - and the ninjas will shut that right down. If your opponent snags the wizards, you know he's going to have a lot of chances to play cards, so you're going to have to overpower him. I suggest mechanically augmented dinosaurs.

Then you have to play right. There's a lot to think about, which is how I like my games. You'll have from three to five different places to play your minions, and you'll need to guess how the other people at the table will play on their turns. The bases have different effects, and the various minions have wildly different abilities, and you'll have to consider all of that before you decide whether your freshly resurrected zombie horde will descend on the alien homeworld or the pirate island of Tortuga.

Smash Up really is a very fun game, but it's not perfect. They tell you that there are all these different ways to mix and match, but some are a lot better than others. Some decks are really heavy with minions, and others have a ton of actions. And while actions are good, minions are a lot better. Actions might let you do all manner of cool things, but only minions can grab bases, and grabbing bases is how you win the game.

For example, the fairy kingdom is chock full of outstanding ongoing actions, but doesn't have as many minions as other decks. The ninjas also don't have a lot of minions, but they have cool actions that will shut down all those ongoing actions. But if you build a deck with ninjas and little people, you get a bunch of great cards that are best used to shut down all your own cards. And not enough minions.

Other combinations are staggering. The dinosaurs are huge. The robots will swarm like mutated cockroaches. Put those two together, and you could have an unstoppable juggernaut. By the same token, the pirates-plus-wizards combo deck is crazy powerful and incredibly versatile.

So sure, theoretically you can combine any two decks to play the game, but there are several combinations that are a bad idea, and a few that are a no-brainer. This would seem to contradict the spirit of the ultimate mix-and-match game, and it would seem that way because it does.

On the other hand, once you learn how to play this silly, fast-paced game, Smash Up is a lot of fun. It's not complicated, but it's got some good depth, and if you have the right combination of factions, you'll have a great time blowing up your enemies and laughing as they die. And if they are zombies, they will have the last laugh when they rise from the grave and come right back again.


2-4 players

Crazy mash-up theme
It's fun to build your strategy by combining the cards you want
Tough decisions make games more entertaining

Crazy mash-up theme
Not quite as mix-and-match as it pretends to be

You can't get Smash Up yet. You have to go to GenCon to get one, or you have to wait until September.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Announcement About Ads

You may have noticed an extra ad in my little ad strip over to the side there (unless you're seeing the mobile site on your phone or something, and it just doesn't show you ads, thereby saving the trouble of seeing pictures of zombie Mitt Romney eating a baby). It's an ad for Plaid Hat Games, and obviously sort of implies an endorsement of that company.

And that is exactly what it is. I don't charge for that little spot. The only way I will advertise for a game publisher is if I am a big fan. Plaid Hat Games currently has three games - Summoner Wars, Dungeon Run and Mice & Mystics - and two of those are simply fantastic games. I don't much care for Dungeon Run, but I heartily endorse the other two, and think you should buy them.

That ad will run for a month or so. If you're a publisher and you want some free pimping, tell me. I will have to play your games, and furthermore, I will have to like them. If I don't like what you've got, no amount of ad revenue will buy my endorsement. (That is not technically true. I will advertise Yahtzee, if they pay me a million bucks. But after that, I'm giving up game reviews and retiring.)

I can think of several other game companies who could get some free rent on that spot. AEG makes tons of games I would happily play any time. Asmodee is simply fantastic. I may not care for Fantasy Flight's marketing guys, but I love an awful lot of their games, and would be fine with recommending them. But there are a lot of smaller companies I would be fine with advertising, too, like the guys who make Sentinels of the Multiverse.

So anyway, if you see an ad for a game publisher in the margin to the side of the reviews, you can rest assured that I actually do recommend that you buy their games. I'm still not in this for the money (just the free games).

Friday, August 10, 2012

Board Game Review - Libertalia

If you're headed to GenCon next week, you'll have first dibs on a brand new game from Asmodee called Libertalia. I would tell you how everyone is talking about it, but honestly, I don't really follow who is saying what any more. I'm like a hermit living in a cave above the village who just comes out once a month to buy toenail clippers and porn.

But no matter what people are saying, Libertalia is going to be a big deal. It's an exceptionally fun game with gorgeous art, which is beginning to be par for the course when it comes to Asmodee. In fact, the art is good enough that you'll want to play the game just to see all the pictures. Of course, you could just open the box and look at all the cards to see the amazing illustrations, but who buys a game just to see the art (outside, like, most of us, if we were being honest)?

The art in Libertalia is telling you how good the game is, and it's not lying. This is a really smart game. It's tense and surprising and fun. What could be a simple game of blind bidding for the best prizes becomes a cutthroat power play with more depth than you thought you were going to find.

The basics are pretty… well, basic. There are six rounds of bidding, and you're all holding the same cards. You each pick a card, reveal them at the same time, and then you pick prizes in order of your card's rank. It's pretty easy, and if Reiner Knizia had made the game, you would be done now.

But Reiner didn't make the game, some French guy made the game, and he knew enough to ratchet it all up a notch. Every card you play is a character - the governor's daughter, the first mate, the gambler or the beggar. And every character has a special ability, and they all take place at a different time. The captain gets you paid right now, but he could cost you a lot later. The carpenter is almost the opposite - paying for him now will hurt, but it will be worth it if you can keep him alive for later, when he gets paid double what he cost you.

In fact, the abilities on these characters can be more interesting than the bidding war itself. You'll want the quartermaster to be dead before the end of the week, so you'll have to wait to play your governor (who hangs all the pirates). If you can't get all of the treasure map, the tavern wench will let you cash in a part of it for some quick cash. And if you're just not sure what everyone else is going to play, throw down the parrot and pick your card after everyone else picks theirs.

If this was the end of the strategic decisions, Libertalia would still be a remarkably good game. But it is not the end, because every time you choose, you'll have to take a good look at the pirate's booty (which is great if the pirate is Megan Fox, not so much if the pirate is Ned Beatty).

(Yes, I plan on making more pirate booty jokes. It's easy, and I'm lazy.)

The most obvious choice for the booty tokens would be to make them all varying degrees of treasure, and just let you compete for them. And about half of the prizes are just that - goods, jewels or chests of gold that are all worth having. But the rest of the booty is interesting and potentially dangerous, like Jennifer Lopez after a Taco Bell bean salad. The saber can be used to kill your opponents. The Spanish soldier will kill your character. The treasure map is worthless unless you can get all three pieces of it, and the cursed mask will actually cost you money later. Sometimes you're not bidding to grab the best stuff. Sometimes you're just trying to make sure you don't get stuck with the booty that has Montezuma's revenge.

(OK, I'll stop. Diarrhea jokes at a game blog? Gross. Just juvenile. Instead, I'll remind you to come to GenCon so I can sign your boobs.)

There are a dizzying number of decisions to make at every stage of Libertalia. Even if you play smart and win the bid, you could still end up picking the wrong prize. Sometimes it's good to get killed. Sometimes it's better to let your opponent get the big treasure as long as you avoid the execution.  Sometimes you'll throw caution to the wind and just try to get your hands on the biggest booty.

(I know I said I would stop. But if you're being honest with yourself, you didn't really want me to.)

Libertalia is a surprisingly deep game, especially since you can read and understand the rules in ten minutes (compared to Mage Knight, which I have been trying to read through for two weeks now). The art is simply fantastic, and the theme is a hoot. Great opportunities for long-term strategy, agonizing decisions, and a complete absence of blind luck make Libertalia an immensely satisfying and engaging game that you can enjoy in an hour. And best of all, you can spend the whole time making crude innuendo about pirate butts.


2-6 players

Gut-wrenching decisions
Crucial strategy
Exceptional depth in a game that is easy to learn
Breathtaking art
Super fun

Can't think of one

Since Libertalia isn't out yet, I can't get you a link. But if you go to GenCon, you can buy one. The game, not a link. You can't buy a link.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Card Game Review - Ninjitzoo

I hate when a perfectly good theme gets ruined by a bad game. A game where ninja-trained animals escape from the zoo sounds like it should be a hoot. When your ninjanimal can use a bamboo pole and a wad of chewed gum to vault over a fence and foil the guards, there's some serious promise here. And when the animals have goofy names like Camoukazee and Dung Fu and Bruce Flea, you should have a fun game on your hands.

Sadly, when the game has virtually no meaningful decisions and a poorly balanced distribution of different kinds of cards, the game can go from hilarious and silly to arbitrary and frustrating. Still silly, just not fun.

That's what happened with Ninjitzoo. It's got a funny name, a funny premise and a funny cast of funny characters. The art is a little basic, but it's also amusing and entertaining. So how do you take a story that could be this much fun and make it appeal mostly to the same kids who would get a kick out of Snakes & Ladders?

You start with a handful of ninjanimals, each with different skills and talents. Then you get hands of cards that give you escape routes, helpful items, surprise actions and aggravating obstacles. If you can find the right combination of talent and equipment, you can send wise Mooshu the pig over the fence and out to freedom - as long as your opponents don't stop you by alerting the guards, tripping the laser defenses, or throwing spotlights in your path.

So far, so good. But the problem is all in the execution. There are too many escape routes and not enough items. You could go the whole game without drawing the stuff you need and losing your entire hand because you hit a vein of escape routes that empty out your hand. You could have a handful of obstacles you don't want to play because nobody else can escape, either.

To make matters worse, even if the card distribution was better, the cards themselves just don't provide any good options. I want to hold the killer combination for just the right moment, agonize over which card to discard to jump the wall, and set up an amazing escape using hand soap to slick up the escape route and a set of blinders to hide your eyes when your opponent puts a naked girl in the way to distract you (for the record, there are no naked girls in this game. But that would have made the game better).

Instead, the winner is going to be the person who has the right cards at the right time. There are almost no scenarios where it's not immediately obvious which cards would be your best play, and this means that you could set a couple robots to play for you while you watch Matlock reruns and run through a bag of Tostitos and bean dip. You could just come back after ten minutes and go, 'hey, robots, did I win?' and the robots will just sit there because robots don't talk, unless they're that creepy chick you hear in iPhone commercials where Zooey Deschanel dances in her socks instead of cleaning her house (and we're supposed to believe that she doesn't have enough money to afford a housekeeper).

There's a decent game hidden in Ninjitzoo. You can see it when you play with a different number of players - try it with two players, and it's more than just bland, it's almost actively stupid. Play with three or four, and the game gets a lot better. Not good, but better than with two. There's more variety and interaction with more people, but there still aren't smart plays and clever decisions, and more than anything else, that's what Ninjitzoo needs. It's got the story, the art and the characters. It's got the quirky humor. But it doesn't have the part of the game where it's a good game, and that makes all the other stuff just pointless.


2-4 players

Funny theme
Cute and relevant art
Good design
Kooky characters

A lack of meaningful decisions
Frustrating card distribution
Not actually a very good game

If you really want to try Ninjitzoo, you can preorder it through Pozible, right here:

Monday, August 6, 2012

Announcement - Indy Bound

Last week was a big long ordeal of bad news, but this week, I have good news - I am going to GenCon this year. I really can't wait. I haven't been to GenCon in a few years, and frankly, I miss it.

I was still not planning on going this year, but things just kind of worked out. As some of you may know, I have a side gig doing a little writing (mostly editing) for Asmodee. Earlier this year, they asked me if I could help out in their GenCon booth. Being a helpful guy, I shrugged and said, 'well, if that's what you need…'

No, that is not what I said. What I said was more like, 'Oh, hell yes! Free hotel and a vendor badge? Where do I sign?' They were also going to buy me a plane ticket, but I don't fly, so I will be driving there.

(Quick clarification: I am not scared to fly. I have been in planes more times than I can count, and it doesn't frighten me at all. But the seats are too small and crush my six-foot-two frame, and I always end up sitting next to some fat guy who smells like moldy fruit, and the guy in front of me loves to take a nap, which he can only do if he reclines far enough that I can examine his head lice. I hate having my luggage lost, or even worse, having my luggage get left out on the runway during a tropical storm that soaks every garment I own before the bag is stuffed into a baggage compartment that gets to 100 degrees and makes all my clothing smell like damp pig farts. And even if I could live with all that, there's no way I intend to subject myself to voluntary molestation at the hands of some minimum-wage junior-high dropout who gropes by my ballsack because he's finally found himself a position with more power than the guy who has to clean the toilet at the all-night porn theater.)

So my old man is driving here from Idaho (incidentally, the trip from Idaho to Texas is very long) and then we will drive together to Indianapolis (for the record, the trip from Texas to Indiana is also very long). We will share my free hotel room, split gas money, and have a very good time.

I am really hoping to see some good costumes this year. In years past, I was less tolerant, but as time passes, I find myself much more willing to put up with some silliness. Hell, you're at GenCon. Where else can a middle-aged man wear a skirt and a tiara and go out in public? Come to think of it, I still hope I do not see that costume. Or the granny whose sagging butt can be seen through her fairy outfit. Man, that one still wakes me up sometimes. But I am still looking forward to hot chicks dressed as slave Leia, or impressive Drizzt costumes, or totally bizarre stuff that doesn't make one bit of sense whatsoever but still looks kind of bad-ass.

If you are planning to go to GenCon, you can find me at the Asmodee booth. If you come by and see a bald dude with a shrubby beard, that would be me, unless my dad is spotting me, in which case the bald guy with the shrubby beard is not me, it is my old man.

And here's the part where I sweeten the deal. If you bring a Sharpie and wear a Drake's Flames t-shirt (either of them, I'm not proud), I will sign your boobs. Yes, really. But since that incredibly awesome t-shirt will be covering your boobs, I may have to sign your hairy belly instead. It's up to you, but you probably don't want to stretch the collar on that fantastic garment.

I am desperately hoping someone takes me up on that offer. Man or woman, I don't care. And hopefully someone will take a picture. I can think of few pictures more hilarious than me scribbling my name on some tubby dude's fur-covered beer gut. I mean, how awesome would that be? Pretty awesome, is how awesome.

It's only a week away, so if you're going to be wearing a Drake's Flames t-shirt, you probably better order one tonight. I'm leaving a week from Tuesday, and you'll want to have that spiffy shirt in hand for the first day. I've added an ad over to the side there, so you can find the shirt store easily, and here's the direct link to the store:


I will be back Wednesday with an actual review of an actual game, and there should theoretically be a couple more before I leave for the show. After that, I will see you in Indianapolis, unless you don't go to GenCon, or unless you don't stop by the Asmodee booth, or unless you do stop by and I'm out getting a hot dog, or unless I'm in the bathroom because I ate a GenCon hot dog.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Sorry, We're Out Of The Cod

So headaches and earwigs and dead rats. It's been a miserable week. I haven't played anything new, and I haven't slept, and I think I am going to spend my morning at the emergency room. Long story short, these are not the reviews you're looking for. The magic eightball says, 'Try again later.'