Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Thrilling days of yesteryear

Perhaps appropriately, Cowboys: Way of the Gun is a game out of time. It was first published in 2007, but it has the look and feel of a game from the early 1980s, right down to the "bookshelf format" game box and a design sensibility that definitely favors function over form. It reminds me a lot of the 1989 Aliens board game, which is an excellent game design let down by weak production values.

Mechanically, Cowboys is a very well-designed small scale skirmish game that avoids a lot of the convoluted rules that seem to plague most games of this type. It plays on a grid for easy movement, and has simple game mechanics for establishing range and line of sight. Since it is played on pre-printed boards, the rules for moving and shooting through terrain are also very straightforward. It's a very fast-paced game, with the average scenario taking around 30 minutes to play.

"Move and shoot" games can get stale easily, and like several others such as 7TV and Alien vs. Predator: the Hunt Begins, this one uses a deck of event cards to give players a way to introduce some tactical decisions and unpredictability to the game. Of course, the game's even deck also functions as a standard poker deck, which allows it to also be used as a random generator for things like initiative.

The real meat of the game is in its scenario book, which details 26 simple game setups that recreate famous gunfights both historical and fictional, from the shootout at the OK Corral to the three way standoff at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The scenarios in the book escalate slowly, starting with one-on-one "shootout at high noon" games before eventually moving on to more complex setups with victory conditions beyond simply killing all of the other side's cowboys.

Unfortunately the game falls seriously flat on its outdated production values. It uses cardboard standups and tokens in lieu of miniatures, which in itself wouldn't be a problem, but the artwork on the game pieces is very bland. The same holds true for the game's various boards depicting sections of wilderness or classic western buildings like saloons and banks, which is a pity because they are otherwise of pretty high quality, printed on nice sturdy cardboard.

"The fight's commenced! Get to fightin' or get away!"
That said, the game's simple rules make for some cinematic action that inspires the imagination. In one game, I had to have Wild Bill Hickok run into a general store to reload his weapon, then come crashing through the store's window into the street to get a shot at his opponent. In another, recreating the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, I was stuck with one character (Ike Clanton) who didn't have a weapon, so I had him run around getting in the way of my opponent's line of sight, much like the "get to fighting or get away" scene from the 1992 Tombstone movie.

It shouldn't be too difficult to find some gunfighter miniatures (in fact, I have tons of them) and maybe even find some western town maps with better artwork, which is all it would take to make this a truly great game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The biggest problem with this game's weak production value is that it's a hard sell to get others to play, especially if they're not particularly interested in the historical west.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The ants go marching

March of the Ants is not a game that would ordinarily catch my attention, but a good friend of mine did the artwork for the Minions of the Meadow expansion, which prompted me to back the Kickstarter for the expansion and pick up a copy of the base game. Well, that, and the giant centi-meeple...

Nepotism aside, the game is pretty good. It features elements of resource management and area control, with a tile-based board that unfolds gradually as the game progresses. Each player controlling a colony of ants and working to expand their colony outward to collect resources while avoiding (or fighting off) the dreaded centipedes. Player turns involve a lot of meaningful decisions and the game gets going right away, avoiding a lot of the slow build-up that is common to resource management games.

The mighty centimeeple...
Cards are played for various effects, but mainly to evolve your particular species of ant by improving its head, thorax and abdomen, which gives you additional in-game abilities and results in an often bizarre Frankenstein mix of different ant parts.

The expansion adds several small modules to the game which can be mixed and matched depending on how much more complex players want the game to be. It includes aphids which players can herd to generate more food, parasites which add a bit more "take that" style player interaction, and predators that can be used to further antagonize your opponents, but at the risk of giving them more points if they manage to defeat them.

The game also includes a solo/co-op variant, which seems increasingly to be a must for Kickstarter games.

The graphic design leans towards readability over asthetics (which is a welcome change from a lot of games from less experienced publishers), and the components are solid and of high quality, nice bright colors that makes everything easy to see and understand.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The game mechanics and structure are extremely solid, but the theme leaves me a little cold, otherwise I would probably play this game more often.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The hunt begins...for a better set of rules

Alien vs Predator: the Hunt Begins by Prodos Games began life as a very troubled Kickstarter campaign, followed by a high-priced retail boxed set, and despite being a massive fan of the Alien and Predator franchises, this kept me from showing much interest in the game. However, the release of a much more reasonably priced second edition, combined with my interest in the emerging category of skirmish/board game hybrids such as Conan and Mythic Battles, prompted me to take another look.

The components are, for the most part, very high quality. The miniatures look great, and the game's three factions are cast in different colors so you can start playing right away without struggling to tell who is who. The interlocking tiles that make up the board are quite nice too, with artwork that evokes the industrial look of the first two Alien films. The cards and counters leave a bit to be desired, but more on that later.

I wish I could say that the game lives up to the quality of its components, but unfortunately it is marred by convoluted rules, as well as some ill-considered graphic design that makes the rules, cards and tokens very difficult to read.

The basic structure of the game isn't bad at all. The board is constructed from the tiles based on the scenario being played, and as I already mentioned, it all looks great on the table. Players take control of either a large group of Aliens, a small group of human Marines, or 1-2 Predators, and from there it's a pretty straightforward move-and-shoot tactical game. However, the rules governing the moving and shooting are very obtuse and difficult to follow, with tons of modifiers and exceptions to keep track of.

One feature of the rules that seems like an interesting idea in theory is the use of what the game calls "ping" tokens. The idea is that at the start of the game, players don't know anything about their opponent's forces, so figures are represented by face-down tokens until the move into view of another player's team, at which time the token is revealed and replaced with a miniature. This semi-hidden movement seems quite thematic, evoking the tension-filled motion tracker scenes in the Alien films, but in practice it means that you're playing a fair amount of the game with flat cardboard disks instead of awesome-looking miniatures.

The stat cards for the figures are another problem, with very small white-on-black text that is impossible to read, and a system of symbols that is too involved to memorize, prompting constant referral to the rule book just to translate what's on your card.

A game element  that I do quite like is the addition of a deck of strategy cards for each player, themed for each faction. Cards such as Cloaking Field for the Predators, Covering Fire for the marines, and Acid Blood Splash for the Aliens allow players to introduce unpredictable elements into the game. There is also a deck of environmental cards that are drawn at the end of each round, creating effects that all players must work around. 7TV does something similar with its Gadget and Countdown decks.

Ultimately, I am a narrative gamer: what I want out of a miniatures game is a conduit into whatever world the game takes place in. The rules are there to provide a structure for that, and then get out of the way. The complicated rules system for AVP: The Hunt Begins seems more like its aimed at tournament-level play, where being able to manipulate the rules to your advantage is more important than enjoying the theme and setting.

The miniatures and tiles are so good, though, that I'm really interested in finding another rules system I can use them for. There's a fan-created set of cards for 7TV detailing the Aliens, Predators and Marines, and a thread on BoardGameGeek dedicated to expanding the rules for the excellent Aliens board game published by Leading Edge Games in 1989. I've even thought of adapting the Aliens Predator CCG to include miniatures and more tactical movement.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) I'm reluctant to give this game a rating at all since the tactile components are so out of line with the game itself, but ultimately it fails to deliver a satisfying game experience.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Viking roundup, part 5

Shipwrights of the North Sea is easily the most cutthroat entry in the North Sea series of games, which is strange because you would think a game about building ships would be less confrontational than one about claiming territory (Explorers) or raiding settlements (Raiders).

It's a card drafting game like 7 Wonders, a format that has a bit of a "screw your neighbor" element built into it. The goal of the game is to build ships, for which you need resources and specific workers. You get those by drafting - starting with a hand of cards, keeping one, and passing the rest to the next player.

The artisan cards are particularly difficult to get in the right combinations, and it's easy for your opponents to see what you need and try not to let you have it. That's only somewhat effective in a card drafting game, but there are also several plays available in the game that let you steal or discard other players' workers, preventing them from building the ships they need to win the game.

Once you start building a ship (you can have two in play at a time) you're stuck with it until you get the resources needed to build it, and there's only one card that you can play to abandon a ship if you're just not getting the cards you need to build it. This leads to frequent turns where a player can't do anything significant, which is frustrating and (to me, anyway) a sign of a poor game design.

It's disappointing because the other games in the series are very enjoyable, and this one looks just as good, with great artwork and components.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) The weakest entry in the otherwise excellent North Sea series.