Friday, April 20, 2018

A xenomorph by any other name

Stop me if this sounds familiar: in the cold, isolated blackness of deep space, a freighter crew wakes up from suspended animation for find that their ship is crawling with bug-like monstrosities bent on their destruction...

If this sounds like a familiar science fiction franchise that starts with the letter "A," you're half right. Argo is a tile-laying game in which players race to be the first to evacuate their crew of astronauts while leaving their opponents to be food for the vicious alien invaders. Sort of.

Game play involves placing tiles to add to the maze of rooms and corridors that all future space stations will no doubt be, and moving your figures around in such a way that you get your pieces to the escape pods and your opponents do not. There are several game elements that make this more interesting than it sounds.

Most tiles can only accommodate one or two player figures, so if you move your piece onto a tile, you bump someone else off, and if this puts them on an overcrowded tile, its piece moves as well, often creating a chain reaction that can allow you to put your pieces in the best positions and your opponents in the worst.

Additionally, many tiles have special abilities that can be activated to make figures move faster, trade places, return to the board after being removed, and so on. The object is to move your pieces to the escape pod tiles and launch them, but each pod can only hold two figures, and the pods are worth more points the longer you wait before evacuating.

Most importantly, some tiles call for an alien creature figure to be added to the board. At the start of each player's turn, that player can move one of the aliens, and if it lands on a player's figure (or if a figure moves onto a tile containing an alien), that piece is removed, and the player who moved the alien earns a point for any figure (other than his or her own) that is devoured.

The catch is that the aliens earn points of their own based on how many astronauts they devour, and if they finish the game with more points than the winning player, then no one wins. The aliens earn more points for devoured pieces than the players do, so the game becomes a bit of a balancing act - you can't let the aliens eat too many of your opponent's pieces.

Each player piece has a unique ability - marines can kill aliens, explorers can move faster, robots can move past aliens without being attacked, and so on. It gives you quite a bit to think about, and the shuffled tiles are the only random element in the game so it's almost all strategy and tactics.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A little too simple to be something that we'll play a lot, but it's a solid mid-weight game with a great theme that doesn't feel painted on.

  • Argo official website
  • Argo on BoardGameGeek

Viking roundup, part 4

Setting a series of games in the same world is a great marketing tool for games publishers. If done well, it allows them to present a consistently branded series and encourages gamers to at least take a look all the games in the series, when normally they might not notice three separate games with little or nothing in common.

A more cynical view would be that this marketing strategy is at best a way to re-use artwork across multiple games, and at worst, trick consumers into buying games they might not normally be interested in. I'm happy to say that this was not the case with Explorers of the North Sea, part of designer Shem Phillips' North Sea trilogy of games.

Obviously the look of the game is very similar to Raiders of the North Sea, but that's not a problem at all - both games feature superb graphic design and illustration. The games are thematically linked, but feature different stages in the life-cycle of the viking culture. Where Raiders is about preparing and executing raids on settlements, Explorers covers setting off into the unknown, establishing outposts, and bringing back livestock, with raiding being a relatively small part of the game and only one of may paths to victory.

The game board is composed of tiles that are placed one by one over the course of the game, forming waterways and islands of various sizes. Each tile features elements in support of one of the game's various ways to earn points: livestock to be brought back to the starting tile, non-player ships to be attacked, settlements to raid, and empty space to build outposts on. Placing tiles involves a fair amount of strategy all on its own: you can create small islands that are easy to control and navigate around, or large ones with space for multiple outposts that earn a lot of points at the end of the game.

Direct player interaction is fairly minimal, which might frustrate players who like a lot of interaction but is great for those who prefer less confrontational games. Each player starts the game with a leader character with a unique way to get extra points, which helps guide your strategy and makes the game a race to see who can best take advantage of their leader's ability by the time the game ends.

Explorers isn't quite as interesting as Raiders, but it's still pretty fun and quite a bit simpler. That, combined with its less competitive nature makes it a great game for new gamers, while still having enough going on to keep more experienced players interested.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A great addition to the North Sea series and a good gateway game to get new people interested in board games.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Weirder western tales

I love westerns, and as such I have a huge weakness for games in that genre, of which there are surprisingly few. While I prefer a straight-up historical western, I'm willing to settle for weird westerns with fantastical elements added, and that more-or-less describes the theme of Grimslingers.

Grimslingers is really two games in one: a fairly simple combat game about dueling sorcerers, and a much more engaging cooperative adventure game in which players work through a storyline that introduces them to the world of the game, fighting weird monsters and gaining spells and items along the way.

The dueling game is really just a combat system and not particularly interesting on its own -- the cooperative game is where Grimslingers really shines. Players start out with a hand full of basic spells and a few items, moving around on a small map to gather more powerful spells and better pieces of equipment, gain experience that allows them to play more effectively, and unfold the events of the (admittedly very linear) story.

It's still essentially a combat deck-building card game, and a somewhat clunky one at that, but it does have a few interesting innovations. Principle among them is that players don't have a randomized deck. Instead, they have a maximum hand size (which increases as they gain experience) and a "stash" that they can freely look through and take cards from at certain points during the game. Once used cards are put into either a discard pile or a deactivated pile, and can only be recovered by spending energy points, the game's main currency for playing cards.

Additional cards are earned by defeating monsters and also at certain points in the storyline, which makes it a little different from the usual "play cards to buy more cards" mechanics that most deck-building games employ.

Despite these innovations, the game play is a bit clunky. Having two different discard piles with slightly different rules governing them is needlessly fiddly, and too much of the game rides on random dice rolls or draws from a separate deck of numbered cards. In a recent game we played, we made it three quarters of the way through the game, only to be defeated by a random event card and some bad number card draws.

But all that aside, the real point of the game is as a framework to hang the setting on, and a wonderful setting it is. The world of Grimslingers is a perfectly balanced mix of western, post-apocalypse, science fiction, and fantasy, with a surprising amount of humor thrown in, and supported by some truly spectacular artwork. The game is clunky, but not so clunky that it distracts from the world it takes place in.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Game play alone would probably be a 2, but the setting is so vibrant and original that it more than makes up for it.

Viking roundup, part 3

We picked up Hnefatafl (the Viking Game) at the British Museum in London, and as such it's more of a souvenir of our trip than a game we plan to play regularly. That said, it is actually a pretty engaging game, sort of an asymmetrical version of chess with fewer rules and (in my opinion) slightly more interesting strategy.

The defending player gets 12 pieces plus a king. These pieces start in the center of the board, and the goal is for the king to reach one of the corner squares. Meanwhile, the attacking player gets 24 pieces that start along the 4 edges of the board. Any piece other than the king can be captured by sandwiching it between two opposing pieces, or between a piece and a corner space; the king can only be taken if he's closed in on all 4 sides.

Our experience playing the game is that it's substantially weighted in favor of the attacker, but still pretty challenging for both sides. It's possible for the attacker to effectively block the corner squares, but it's also pretty difficult for him to keep his blockers in place, since he also needs to use his pieces to chase the king around the board and (hopefully) capture him.

The attack and defense game play isn't particularly viking themed, but Hnefatafl is purported to be a game that was actually played in Scandinavia during the viking era. If nothing else, it can clearly be seen being played on the History Channel's excellent Vikings TV show.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) We don't spend that much time playing abstract strategy games, but this one is more interesting than a lot of them.