Friday, November 10, 2017

Making room, part 1

Part of the point of this blog is to critically assess all the games we've felt compelled to buy, for several reasons. One is that every game we play is taking up time that we might be spending on another game, so we should really make sure we're spending that time as enjoyably as possible. Another, more practical reason is that we live in a one-bedroom apartment, and just don't have the space to store hundreds of games.

We will occasionally take a hard look at our collection and decide that some of the games in it are too similar to other, better games, or just aren't as fun as they originally appeared to be. Luckily for us, our local game store takes in used games for trade, so we have an easy funnel to drop unwanted games into.

Here are a few that failed their performance review and had to be let go:

Bang! the Duel If I'm honest, I think I love the idea of Bang! rather than the reality of it. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the game, but the high player count needed means it's a struggle to get it to the table, and at the end of the day I think I enjoy the artwork and the western theme more than the actual game. I think I was initially excited about the two player version as something I would be able to play more often, but in reality it just never seems to hit the table.

  • Original rating: 4
  • What we'll play instead: Tiny Epic Western is our current go-to wild west game, and Spurs is one I would like to spend more time with.

D6 Shooter A Kickstarter game that dazzled me with some very slick graphic design, and another with what is turning out to be my Achilles' heel, a wild west theme. We played it several times, and the theme and design just couldn't disguise the fact that it's a very basic, dull and repetitive press-your-luck dice game.

  • What we'll play instead: In addition to the above western games, if we want to play a dice game we have Discoveries, Elder Sign, or even Age of War if we want something simple and quick, and Dino Hunt Dice is a more engaging but just as simple press-your-luck game. 

Doctor Who Risk: the Dalek Invasion of Earth While the Doctor Who theme is fun and addresses some of the issues I have with Risk, but it's still Risk. There are many similar but much better alternatives if you want an "armies on a map" game, and I'm hoping that Gale Force Nine's upcoming Doctor Who board game is going to fill my need for a good Doctor Who game.

  • Original rating: 3
  • What we'll play instead: Age of Conan, Star Wars: Rebellion (review coming soon), and War of the Ring are all much more interesting games that do Risk better than Risk does. Unfortunately there still aren't any good Doctor Who tabletop games...yet (I'm looking at you, Gale Force Nine).

Get Lucky My review of this game says it all: it's so similar to Kill Doctor Lucky that I can't see any reason to have both games.

  • Original rating: 3 if you don't have Kill Doctor Lucky, 2 if you do.
  • What we'll play instead: take a guess.

Helionox I love deck building games, and it's nice to see one that doesn't have 600 cards and come in a gigantic box, but this game's built-in time limit means that the game ends just as it's getting interesting.

  • Original rating: 2
  • What we'll play instead: Star Realms has a similar sci-fi theme, and there are plenty of other great deck building games out there. 

Rex: Final Days of an Empire This Twilight Imperium re-skin of the classic Dune board game is an excellent update of the game, fixing some of what makes the original a little on the slow and dry side. However, it only shines as a game with 5 or 6 players, and getting that many people to play a game set in a universe they know nothing about is next to impossible, so Rex just never makes it to the table. It's a pity the publisher wasn't able to get the Dune license.

  • Original rating: 4
  • What we'll play instead: Dune, if we can get enough players. Risk-style games like Age of Conan or Star Wars: Rebellion scratch some of the same itch, or even Battlestar Galactica (especially with a Cylon Leader player) if you're looking for a game with uncertain alliances.

Star Trek Panic In my original review I hailed this game's lighter tone and less complex game play when compared to other Star Trek games in our collection, but that's probably what's preventing it from getting to the table. Star Trek Expeditions is a great cooperative game with a bit more depth to it, and while it is ostensibly based on the 2009 Star Trek reboot, the game's story and structure play out like an episode of the original series.

  • Original Rating: 4
  • What we'll play instead: If we're in the mood for a cooperative game we usually want something more deep and immersive like Mansions of Madness or Legendary Encounters, and if we want something lighter we'll lean towards Star Trek Expeditions, or the Reiner Knizia Lord of the Rings game.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Days of high adventure

Conan, by French game publisher Monolith, merges board gaming, tactical miniatures and even role playing into what is probably the best adventure game I have ever played. The game uses a "one vs. many" structure similar to Mansions of Madness First Edition, Descent, and the legendary Heroquest, with one player taking the role of Overlord to control the villains and monsters, and the rest of the players working together to accomplish the goal of the particular scenario being played.

The game uses an ingenious resource management system to govern player actions. The hero players each get an individual character with a set amount of plastic gems that are spent for actions such as attack, defense, movement, opening treasure chests, and so on. This gives the players a lot to think about tactically: spend too many gems running across the grounds of the ruined fortress and you won't have enough for an effective attack, and there's a pack of vicious hyenas right around the corner, so be sure to save some gems for defense. Players are given the choice at the start of each turn whether to stay active and only recover a few spent gems, or to rest, which recovers more gems but means you don't get any actions for the turn.

Conan hero sheet with resource gems

The Overlord, in control of the forces stacked against the heroes, has a similar system of spending gems to activate the monsters and villains at his disposal. Depending on the scenario, the Overlord is given a row (called the "river") of between 4 and 8 tiles, with each tile representing a group of minions or a single (usually more powerful) individual. The cost in gems to activate a tile depends on its position in the river, and once a tile is activated, it moves to the end making it more expensive to activate. The Overlord's strategy lies in managing the river and his gems so he'll be able to move the right adversary at the right time to prevent the heroes from succeeding at whatever their goal is.

The Overlord's control panel with tiles representing his forces
The game is entirely story-based, with the particular scenario dictating the game's setup, including the heroes' equipment, the setting (the game comes with 4 different boards) and the goals for the Overlord and the heroes. There are a great variety of different scenarios to choose from, some of which put the heroes on the defensive, charged with keeping a non-player character alive or defending a position, while others put them on the attack, requiring them to rescue a princess or defeat an evil sorcerer (or often both).

The relatively simple mechanics make it an easy game to learn and teach (despite an often confusing rule book that suffered from numerous errors when translated from its original French language), and unlike the first edition of Mansions of Madness, the Overlord's game play is just as simple and fast paced as the heroes. The game does favor action and combat over story, but that just makes it true to the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard.

Conan has had a somewhat troubled release, with a confusing and over complicated Kickstarter campaign, limited retail availability, and incomplete rules for integrating the game's large number of add-on components. But the core game design and quality of the miniatures and other components is so solid that I'm willing to forgive all that, as none of it really interferes with my ability to enjoy this fantastic game.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) a great tactical action game that puts you right into the middle of Conan's adventures.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Send lawyers, guns and money

At its core, Tiny Epic Western is a game about controlling commercial real estate in the wild west.

The game consists of six mats placed in a circle, with locations on each that offer different resources or game abilities. Players use worker placement to secure those locations to secure the resources they need, either money, law, or force (or lawyers, guns and money for you Warren Zevon fans). These resources are used in different combinations to buy building cards from an available pool, which then give victory points as well as additional locations that can be used on future turns. Play goes for six turns, at which time the winner is the player with the most victory points.

That may not sound particularly wild or western, but if you think about it, the struggle in the American West was entirely about controlling land - land for farming and settlement, land for mining gold and silver, land for building towns to exploit the new found wealth of the people mining the gold and silver, land to build railroad tracks, and so on. The famous gunfight in Tombstone was the result of a power struggle between two factions trying to control the town, and the range war that Billy the Kid found himself involved in was started by two competing mercantile companies. So really, nothing could be more wild western than fighting over who controls the general store or the post office.

In order to convey the sense of struggle and lawlessness, Tiny Epic Western adds some very clever game play to the standard worker placement game model. In most worker placement games, you place your worker to either get a particular game effect (usually a resource of some kind), or to prevent your opponent from getting it. Tiny Epic Western does that too, but many of the spaces on the board only give a reward if the player wins a hand of three-card poker, either against the other players who have placed their workers on the same mat, or against a non-player rival.

The way the poker works is particularly interesting. As already mentioned, the main play area is made up of six mats placed in a circle. In between each mat there is a poker card drawn from an abbreviated deck made up of cards numbered one through five in four suits. At the start of each round, players are dealt a "hole card" from the deck, and after all workers are placed, they must play a round of poker against the other players who have workers on the same mat, using their own card and the cards on either side of the mat to make the best poker hand they can. The winner earns an overall reward, and additionally many of the spaces on the mat only pay out to the poker winner.

To prevent a player from winning simply by virtue of being the only player on a particular mat, there is a non-player "rival," a card which is dealt face down at the start of each round and revealed to provide an opponent when no other players are fighting for control of that particular mat.

It's very thematic, and it adds an air of strategy and uncertainty to worker placement, when in most games the advantage always goes to the player who places first.

As if that weren't enough, it's also possible to duel other players for placement in a particular space. If another player's worker is in the space you want, you can challenge him to a duel, which involves rolling dice, spending resources for re-rolls, and possibly using your hole card to give you an extra advantage. The winner of the duel gets control of the space, and also gets the "wanted" card, which provides extra resources, and is also worth victory points to whoever is holding it at the end of the game.

The game is tense, exciting, involves a lot of strategic decision making, and the only real random element is the dice-rolling during gunfights. It's very engaging, and the western theme is fully integrated rather than just painted on. Not bad for a game about real estate...

Rating: 5 (out of 5) It's everything it says on the box: an epic power struggle of a game with a strong western feel, and it comes in a very small box.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Wargaming in the world of cult TV

Before playing 7TV, most of my experience of tactical combat games was with collectible miniatures games like Heroclix and Star Wars Miniatures, which really play more like 3D trading card games, where killer combos and extensive knowledge of what each piece does usually win the day. I've also played quite a lot of X-Wing, which is a bit of a hybrid in that, while the pieces aren't actually collectible in the blind-box sense, the game does hinge largely on upgrade card combos and knowing what to expect from your opponent's ships.

7TV is a more traditional miniatures skirmish game of the type favored in Britain and Europe, where painting the figures and constructing the terrain to play on are at least as important as actually playing the game. There are skirmish games based on every imaginable genre, from straight up historical warfare to Tolkien-style fantasy to far-future combat; this one is based on 1960s and '70s cult television, and draws its inspiration (and many of its figure designs) from British "spy-fi" TV shows such as The Avengers, Doctor Who, Danger Man, and The Prisoner, to name a few.

Some of 7TV's Future Freedom Fighters
We decided to jump into 7TV because we are big Blake's 7 fans, and the game's Future Freedom Fighters bear more than a passing resemblance to Blake, Avon and the crew of the Liberator. We ordered a bunch of figures and, after lovingly painting them, sat down to play. Since we didn't have any of the fancy terrain that most miniatures wargamers use, we decided to play on a poster map from the Star Wars Miniatures Game, as many would argue that Blake's 7 was the BBC's answer to Star Wars anyway.

We enjoyed the game quite a bit, but we did agree that we needed some proper terrain to play on, so we put the game on the shelf until we could get some (in our case, the excellent modular sci-fi terrain from Battle Systems). Our second play-through was a lot more enjoyable, which got me wondering: I never minded playing Star Wars minis or Heroclix on flat maps, so why did having 3D terrain seem to make this game so much better?

2D vs 3D - a huge difference
Our conclusion, reinforced by a recent game of Heroclix, was largely that the structure of the games is so different. The rules for Heroclix are significantly more complicated, which I think is intentional. Played at the in-store tournament level, Heroclix is a very competitive game where a players knowledge of the rules and ability to manipulate them is the key to victory, so they need to keep changing the rules in order to keep those high level players interested (and buying figures).

On the other hand, I think the point of games like 7TV is really the tactile pleasure of moving hand-painted miniatures around in an evocative environment, so the job of the rules is to provide a framework for that, and then get out of the way.

That said, the rules for 7TV do have some very interesting elements in the form of two decks of cards that are used while playing: the Gadget deck and the Countdown deck.

Gadgets are one-time use cards that a player can use to spice up the game a bit, providing relatively simple effects such as free moves, re-rolls and extra victory points. They can only be used by a player's main character minis, which gives some incentive to avoid swarming the board with tons of low-level troops. And of course, mad scientists get extra Gadget cards.

The Countdown deck is probably the aspect of the game that provides the most flavor. It adds quite a bit of randomness to the game, which may be a turn-off for more serious-minded gamers, but we thought it was a great way to keep us from taking the game too seriously. The deck is populated with a number of random event cards based on the size of the playing surface, broken up into an equal number of relatively mild "act one" cards, slightly more significant "act two" cards, and game-changing "finale" cards.

Each player draws a Countdown card at the start of their turn, and the game ends when the cards run out, so in addition to random effects, the deck provides the game with a built-in time limit. Effects range from temporarily neutralizing figures on the board to bringing back dead characters, and players have the option to draw 2 in one turn if they wish, which gives them more of the currency the game uses to move figures, but also accelerates the end of the game.

All in all we had a great time playing 7TV, which in a way is unfortunate because it has set us on a path to one of the more expensive and time-consuming aspects of the gaming hobby. But it might also be one of the more rewarding.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) It would have to be, given the amount of cost and effort involved in playing any game like this.

  • 7TV official website
  • 7TV on BoardGameGeek (not much activity here)
  • 7TV Action! Facebook page