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.

Battlefield classic

Even though I probably only played Stratego once or twice as a child, I've always had a weird fascination with it, and I've spent several years hunting down the collector's wooden box edition that Milton Bradley put out in 2002. For years it seemed to be the only one that wasn't readily available, but I did eventually find one at my friendly local game shop (Guardian Games in Portland, Oregon), which carries a substantial selection of used games.

Now, having played the game a few times as an adult with a wealth of gaming experience, I still find it weirdly fascinating.

For those who aren't familiar with the game, Stratego gives each player an assortment of pieces of different ranks, ranging from humble scouts to the powerful Marshall, plus a handful of bombs, a devious Spy, and one flag. The goal of the game is to capture your opponent's flag. Pieces are arranged on the board with blank faces towards the opponent, so he doesn't know which pieces are where until he starts sending his own pieces out. When a piece enters the same square as another piece, the one with the lower rank is eliminated, with a few exceptions: a bomb will eliminate any piece (along with itself) unless that piece is a Miner, and a Spy will eliminate an opposing Marshall (the highest ranked piece) if it is the attacker. Bombs and Flags can't move, and Scouts are the only pieces that can move more than one square at a time.

At least half of the game's strategy is in the setup, figuring out where to place your various pieces at the start of the game. Will you put all your Scouts at the front and run them at the opponent's front line right away? Or will you fill your front row with bombs to take out your opponent's first attackers? Or maybe it will be better to surround your flag with bombs, but what if that's what your opponent is expecting you to do, and he manages to clear the way for his Miners to easily defuse your bombs?

The rest of the game is a series of decisions involving what pieces to sacrifice in order to learn which pieces your opponent has where, and a struggle to remember the position of those pieces once revealed. It's a bit of a guessing game, but it's really more about choosing what pieces to send into enemy territory and when, and where to position your flag so that it remains protected.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Stratego doesn't quite have the timeless elegance of chess, but nevertheless it's an engaging game that's a classic for good reason.

Viking roundup, part 2

Continuing our look at the weirdly large number of viking games we've acquired recently.

Champions of Midgard is a viking themed worker placement game, which means we can't help but compare it to Raiders of the North Sea, especially since we picked up both games within a few months of each other. Apart from the obvious similarities, however, the two games couldn't be more different.

For the most part, Champions is a more traditional worker placement game. Each player gets a set number of workers, which they use to compete over common spaces on the board. Spaces are a mixture of resource gathering and opportunities to fight monsters such as trolls, giants, draughr, and dragons, which is the primary way to score victory points. Players use their workers to recruit warriors (represented by dice) and supplies which are needed to travel to far off monster-infested lands.

An interesting wrinkle on the "use resources to fulfill quests" theme is blame, a currency in the game that subtracts from a player's score. One of the spaces on the board is the Troll, and the player who successfully fights the Troll each round gets to give a blame token to another player, and get rid of one of his own if he has one. If no one fights the Troll, every player gets a blame token. Blame tokens are worth negative points at the end of the game in a somewhat exponential manner: one blame is -1 point, 2 is -3 points, 3 is -6, 4 is -10, and so on, so managing blame becomes a critical part of the game's strategy.

Warriors are represented by dice which are rolled to combat monsters. The different types of warriors are not necessarily better or worse than each other; sword- and spearmen provide some defense, allowing you to play it safe, while axemen tend to do more damage but provide no defense, meaning that more of your warriors will be killed in combat.

There's a fair amount of variety as far as what you can choose to focus on in the game, and this is guided to some extend by Destiny cards, which grant extra points at the end of the game for accomplishing goals such as having killed the most of a particular type of monster, or having the most gold or food left over at the end of the game.

It's a little more involved than Raiders of the North Sea, and a lot more fantastical, to the point that I think it has more in common with Lords of Waterdeep than any of the more historical viking games like the North Sea series. It is definitely sufficiently different that we play both games fairly often, sometimes even in the same weekend.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A good mix of worker placement and dice rolling, with a fun theme and some neat twists you won't find in other games of this type.