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 both franchises, this kept me from showing much interest in the game. 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.

First of all, 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. On the other hand, 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 more tactical movement.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) I'm reluctant to give this game a rating 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.

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: 3 (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.