Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Return to Madness Mansion, this time with an app


The first edition of Mansions of Madness is a great game. It really is a role playing game without all the extra work, however, it does have some issues. It requires one player to play as the Keeper, in charge of unfolding the plot and controlling the monsters, and that player's role is much more difficult and often less rewarding than that of the other players, who just have to bumble around in an old house until they either die, go insane, or (very rarely) solve the mystery.

Its nature as a board game requires it to have a very strict structure, where a "real" role playing game is much more free form, and one mistake during the game's complicated setup can ruin the whole experience. It's also extremely fiddly, with tons of cards and counters on the table -- a strong breeze or curious house cat could end the game in a moment.

For Mansions of Madness Second Edition, the game's designers set out to solve the game's problems by introducing a companion app to take over the Keeper's job, managing the storyline and a lot of the fiddly bits and allowing all the players to work together as investigators.

When this idea was first announced, there was a lot of resistance among players of the first edition, mainly of the "you got video game in my board game" variety, but I believe most of those fears were put to rest. While the app is a vital component of the game, it functions more like a story book, keeping track of the timed release of the game's story elements. What it doesn't do is make Mansions of Madness into a video game. Players still track the majority of the game's progress using a board, miniatures, and counters, but the app has allowed that tracking to be greatly simplified, allowing the players to concentrate on the game's story and atmosphere.

The game play has been modified enough that most of the components from the first edition aren't of any use, but the designers did include a "conversion kit" consisting of monster tokens and character cards that allows owners of the first edition to use the older miniatures and location tiles with the new game. A new dice mechanic for accomplishing tasks (borrowed, with a few changes, from X-Wing) replaces the old game's boring old 10-sided die and counter-intuitive "roll low" system.

It's a very rare case of a game being simplified without losing any of its depth. All the rules changes make the game easier to play, and the app isn't intrusive at all -- on the contrary, its artwork, sound effects and music add greatly to what is already a very atmospheric game.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A vast improvement on an already great game.



Read our review of the First Edition.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Return to Lucky Mansion, this time without the mansion


Taken on its own merits, Get Lucky: the Kill Doctor Lucky Card Game is quite amusing. Players take turns trying to kill Doctor Lucky by attaching motive, opportunity and weapon cards to characters, and then manipulating the position of those characters in order to make repeated attempts on the life of poor Doctor Lucky, whose presence in the game is represented by a pawn that moves between the characters. It is up to the other players to foil the murder attempts by spending cards from their hands, which are valuable and finite resources.

The cards are peppered with the usual great graphic design and biting humor that we've come to expect from James Ernest's Cheapass Games, and they are further enhanced by a series of word puzzles that have no direct bearing on the game, but give players something to talk and think about while playing, which enhances the 1920s drawing room flavor of the game.

The game does a good job of being a card game version of Kill Doctor Lucky -- perhaps too good. The game play, flavor and overall experience of playing both games is so similar that I can see little reason to choose one over the other, and I can't even say which is the better game. When looking at both games, Get Lucky doesn't really seem like its own game so much as it feels like a variant of Kill Doctor Lucky where you play without the board.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) if you don't already have Kill Doctor Lucky, 2 (out of 5) if you do, or if you just prefer board games to card games for whatever reason. They really are so similar that I don't see much point in having both games.

Not quite so masterly

Reiner Knizia's Modern Art is fairly typical for the prolific game designer, with a fairly simple game mechanic, clever scoring system, and a theme that is tacked-on but still makes sense. It's generally a fun game, especially if you're playing with non-gamers who might be turned off by complex game play or a preponderance of elves and goblins.

Where it falls down is on the artwork, which, while clearly intended to poke fun at the 1960s pop-art movement, is also very hard to look at. So it was nice to see the game re-skinned as Masters Gallery, using classic (and copyright-free) paintings by such masters as Monet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Vermeer.

Players play cards representing masterpieces by the five different artists in the game. At the end of each round, the artist with the most cards in play is worth the most points, and players score based on how many cards by that artists they played during the round. Strategy involves attempting to manipulate the "market" by recognizing as early as possible which artists are going to be worth the most points that round, and trying to play cards by those artists.


The game play actually makes more sense in a game about up-and-coming artists than it does in a game about established masters, but at least you get to look at better artwork while you're playing. Except...the design of the cards is such that a heavy border takes up almost half of the available space on each card, so the actual artwork is very small. The brightly colored borders aren't doing the works of art any favors either.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The clunky graphic design isn't quite enough to kill the game, but it is a pity that, in a game about amazing works of art, the art itself doesn't take center stage like it should.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Rushing toward the last sunset

I picked up Helionox: the Last Sunset some time ago on a whim. The artwork on the cover reminded me of one of my favorite current comic book series (the excellent East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta), the science fiction theme is one I enjoy, and it came from the publisher of Spurs, a game I enjoy quite a bit. Additionally, the price was under $25, which is a good way to get me to try a new game without too much "should I buy it or not" agonizing.

We played it a couple of times and enjoyed it, but then it went in the "small games" cabinet and we pretty much forgot about it. Clearly the game play wasn't quite compelling enough to make us want to keep playing, but at the same time, the box is small enough that it escaped the last few recent game purges.

Just recently I had occasion to take another look at Helionox - it was next on the list of games to review that I'm woefully behind on, and the creator had launched a Kickstarter for a deluxe edition and expansion of the game.

At its core, Helionox is a game about averting disasters. The playing field consists of five locations representing planets of the solar system, and players get extra abilities in the game depending on where their spaceship token is currently located. Each turn an event card is drawn that details a crisis befalling one of those systems, and if the crisis isn't dealt with in two turns or less, the location's extra ability is neutralized. Players earn points by overcoming event cards, and the game ends when the deck of event cards runs out.

The game uses standard deck building game mechanics, with players starting with a deck of relatively weak cards and using their resources to buy better cards for their deck. I like the relatively non-competitive theme of averting disasters rather than just attacking the other player, and I like the idea of moving between different locations for different game effects, but the problem I have with this game is that the event cards run out (ending the game) before I feel like I've had a chance to build up a deck of interesting cards to play with.

We had a similar problem with Eldritch Horror, which is one of the reasons we eventually removed that game from our collection. The game presents an interesting world, but the time limit and often abrupt game end means that you never really get a chance to explore that world.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Really not a bad game, but the short built-in time limit makes it less fun than other deck building games such as Legendary or Star Realms.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A few more that didn't make the cut

I reserve the right to change my mind about games. Occasionally, I'll sit down to play a game that I've always enjoyed in the past, but this time I see the game's fatal flaws. Or maybe the novelty of the new just wears off. We have way too many games anyway, so deciding on a few that we don't want to play any more (for whatever reason) won't do us any harm.

Dungeon Quest (3rd Edition) In my original review, I said "a relatively simple game that gives players plenty of decisions to make, but with enough randomness that the game doesn't ever get boring." However, in our most recent play, I found that very randomness to be egregious and irritating. Additionally, the game's card-based combat system always seemed out of place, and while the Revised 3rd Edition attempts to simplify, it's still awkward.
  • Original rating: 4
  • What we'll play instead: I originally bought this game thinking it was an expansion for RuneBound, so why not just play Runebound?

Legendary Encounters: Firefly We got rid of this game so fast, I never even got around to reviewing it. I love Firefly, and I love the other Legendary games, and this one added some interesting game play involving keeping the crew's ship running, which was very much in keeping with the source material. So why did we decide we don't want to own a copy of this game? It may sound shallow, but we just couldn't get past the abysmally poor artwork. Seriously, the card art in this game is so bad it was taking us out of the game and interfering with our enjoyment of it.
  • What we'll play instead: Gale Force Nine's Firefly game is still the gold standard for licensed games. Plus we have several other flavors of Legendary (Aliens, Predator, Marvel (with a ton of expansions), even Big Trouble in Little China), all of which have artwork that, while not always spectacular, at least isn't distractingly bad.

Raptor I liked this game, but my wife did not, and we really have no use for a 2-player game that only one of us likes.
  • Original rating: 4 (wishful thinking?)
  • What we'll play instead: there's no shortage of good two player games in our collection. Additionally, we just got Cretacea, a set of dinosaur-themed miniatures rules.

Star Wars: Empire vs. Rebellion This game is a simple re-skin of Cold War: CIA vs KGB, with some minor changes to the rules. We like Cold War better, and we have enough other Star Wars games.
  • Original rating: 3
  • What we'll play instead: Well, Cold War, obviously, but if we want to visit a galaxy far, far away we have X-Wing, Star Wars Miniatures, Rebellion (review coming soon), and Fantasy Flight's excellent Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

Volt: Robot Battle Arena This is a fun little game, but honestly, we just found ourselves never taking it off the shelf. We're more likely to want to play Robo Rally.
  • Original rating: 3
  • What we'll play instead: Robo Rally is the obvious choice, but our current go-to move-programming game is the excellent (and not nearly as infuriating) Colt Express.