Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On the button

Button Men was developed by Cheapass Games head honcho James Ernest as a game to be played at conventions. The game is played with polyhedral dice, which most gamers are likely to have on their person at a convention, and characters are printed on buttons that can be pinned to clothing or backpacks. A single game takes 5-10 minutes to play, so it can easily be played between longer games.

Each character is represented by a usually stunning piece of artwork, and several (usually four or five) dice of varying sizes. Cheapass released several sets of characters themselves, and they also opened up the field for other publishers to produce their own Button Men, usually as a promotional tool to advertise their other games (buttons frequently feature characters from other games such as Brawl or Lunch Money).

Play begins with both players rolling all their dice. Whoever rolled the lowest single die goes first. Players use their dice to capture their opponent's, either with a power attack (one die showing a higher number than an opponent's die) or a skill attack (several dice which add up exactly to the number shown on an opponent's die). All dice used to capture are then re-rolled, which risks rolling a lower number and making the dice easier to capture.

 The game ends when one player runs out of dice, after which players score points based on the number of sides of all the dice they captured, as well as any of their own that they still have at the end of the game.

It sounds simple but it is surprisingly compelling. Some characters have special dice with different abilities such as poison (worth negative points at the end of the game), shadow (capture a die showing a higher number) and speed (capture any number of your opponent's dice that add up to the number showing on one of yours). Since you have to re-roll any die used to capture, you have to make some agonizing strategic decisions over the course of a game.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A great game for as simple as it is, but its nature as a short game to be played in between other games means you can only play it for so long.

  • Download the rules and trading card versions of many of the original Button Men characters from Cheapass Games
  • Button Men on BoardGameGeek.com

Date played: December 6, 2013

Monday, December 23, 2013

Three Cheapass card games

James Ernest started Cheapass Games in 1995 with the idea that most gamers already have all the dice, counters, and other playing pieces they need, so giving them more with each new game was a waste of resources. If he just gave the rules, boards and cards, they could scrounge the rest of the components they needed and  he could sell his games for a lot less.

It's a great idea, and it certainly let a lot of games see the light of day that probably wouldn't have otherwise. Most of the games published by Cheapass were based on gag ideas like a hapless millionaire wandering the halls of his mansion while his guests try to kill him, or zombies working at a fast food restaurant. Many were extremely clever, probably just as many fell short of the mark, but all of them were informed by Ernest's sharp wit, superb graphic design sense, and frequently ingenious use of public domain clip art.

In Before I Kill You Mr. Bond (later re-titled James Ernest's Totally Renamed Spy Game, and still later, Before I Kill You, Mister Spy, for what I can only assume were legal reasons), players are supervillains who use cards to build elaborate lairs and score points by luring spies there to taunt them. The more drawn out the taunt, the more points, but also the greater risk of the spy escaping and destroying your lair.

The game's core mechanic relies on whether or not one of your opponent has the counter card to the taunt you are using, so we found it to be rather abrupt with only two players. We tried it out with five players and it played a little better, but it was still more of a race to see who could build the biggest, most indestructible lair and score points from taunting spies. The mechanic of countering opponents' card plays and letting the spy escape never really seemed to get off the ground.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Clever and humorous, but the game play never really seemed to get moving.

I have to imagine that The Big Cheese is a reflection of its designer's ongoing frustration with corporate culture. Each round a card is turned over, representing a meaningless corporate task. Players bid a number of their workers (each player has ten), and the high bid wins the project, which then takes a number of rounds to complete based on the number of workers on it (in true corporate fashion, the more workers on the project, the longer it takes to complete). When a project finishes it pays off a number of points based on a die roll, with some projects rolling smaller or larger sided dice, for a greater range of possible points. The first player to get to 40 points wins.

Rating: 1 (out of 5) Our group seemed to like this one the least. The bidding mechanic was interesting, but the theme (simple cartoons of rats, poking fun at corporate life) failed to grab us.

The Big Idea, a game about presenting absurd new product ideas to venture capitalists, was definitely our favorite of the three. Players play two-card combinations of objects and descriptions to create bizarre and unlikely new products such as Dangerous Drink, Frozen Tool, and the extremely questionable Laptop Lotion. There is then an elaborate bidding process to determine whether the products are successful or not. This is initially a popularity contest based on each player's sales pitch for their silly product, but in later rounds it becomes more strategic as players invest in products that look like they're going to pay off.

The player with the most money at the end wins (of course). This isn't necessarily the one who had the most successful products, but the one who invested the most wisely.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) With decent game play and a very amusing premise The Big Idea was easily the best of these three games.

  • FunForge published a deluxe, color edition of The Big Idea with somewhat altered rules, but it currently appears to be unavailable
  • The Big Idea on BoardGameGeek.com

Date played: December 2, 2013

The sheriff shot me

Bang! is one of my favorite games that I never play. The box says it can play with 4-7 players (3-8 if you have the Dodge City expansion), but the four player version doesn't balance very well, so it really needs five or more players to be a satisfying game experience. It's also one of those games that tends to polarize gamers: they either love it or they hate it, so rounding up five or more people who want to play can be a challenge. For our game we co-opted our weekly role playing game group, most of whom like the game and have played it before.

The game simulates all the drama and tension of a climactic spaghetti western shootout. Each player is given a role: the Sheriff, the Deputy, the Renegade, and two or more Outlaws. All the roles are kept secret except for the Sheriff (even his own deputy), and each one has its own victory condition, so you never really know the other players' motivations. You can just imagine them all squinting at each other across a dusty street, sizing each other up.

Cards represent shots, dodges, weapons, horses, and other trappings of the genre, that will either help or hinder the players as they try to achieve their victory. The Sheriff must get rid of the Renegade and all the Outlaws, the Deputy must keep the Sheriff alive, the Outlaws win collectively if the Sheriff dies, and the Renegade must be the last man standing in order to win.

Additionally, each player is given a character to play, with a unique ability that gives the game some extra variety.

To make the spaghetti western theme even more pronounced, the game was originally published in Italy, so all the card titles are in Italian, making them look like the credits to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The action is pretty fast paced, with enough wrinkles to keep it interesting. In one of our games, I was left holding the Dynamite card, which travels around the table until it randomly explodes. The player playing the Sheriff shot me dead rather than end up with the Dynamite...

Rating: 4 (out of 5) I think Bang! is a thrilling western action game, one of the surprisingly few on the market. The only barrier to playing it a lot is the relatively large number of players required.

  • Bang! official website (you'll need a translator unless you can read Italian)
  • Bang! on BoardGameGeek.com

Date played: December 2, 2013

A fistful of western clichés

The premise of Z-Man Games' B-movie card game series is relatively simple: each player attempts to put together a movie using cards representing characters, props and locations. Players then attack each others' movies using creature cards (representing villains). Special Effect cards can be played at any time to affect the game in various ways. The game ends when a player plays one of the two Roll the Credits cards in the 120 card deck, at which time players total up the points on their cards in play to see who won.

For an added bit of fun, the bottom of each card is printed with a keyword. At the start of the game the top six cards are drawn, from which the players as a group create a movie title. Those cards are then shuffled back into the deck, and at the end of the game, they are worth five extra points each if they are in a player's hand or in their movie on the table.

Our movie title was Shane Colt: Renegade Sheriff in Colorado Justice!

Z-Man published 10 of these games between 2001 and 2009, with each one focusing on a particular movie genre. Bushwhakin' Varmints Out of Sergio's Butte was the eighth to be published, and as you might imagine, it covers westerns, particularly the low-budget American westerns of the 1950s and the Italian spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and '70s.

At its core this is a battle game, with a structure that of most collectible card games such as Magic: the Gathering, albeit in a simplified and more fast-paced form. Players establish defenses via characters, props and locations, attack other players' cards with creatures and villains, and interrupt play using special effect cards that provide unforeseen twists. The real fun of the game is in the humorous quotes on the cards, depicting real and imagined lines from movies that poke fun at the genre and its common tropes.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The game play doesn't really fit the theme, but it's still a good fast paced game, and the humor makes up for a lot of its shortcomings.

Unfortunately, it appears that the only B-movie game that Z-Man still has in print is Berserker Halflings.

Date played: December 1, 2013

Friday, December 20, 2013

Return to Blue Moon

As I mentioned in the review for Aladdin's Dragons, we tend to favor adventure games, and adventure games are frequently fairly violent, with players competing to outrace or just annihilate one another, or cooperating to avoid being crushed by hoards of aliens or a power-hungry tentacled horror. While all this action and death can lead to some thrilling gaming, sometimes it's nice to build something for a change. And this leads us to Blue Moon City.

Set in the same universe (and ingeniously using much of the same artwork) as Blue Moon, Blue Moon City takes place after the conflict depicted in the previous game, as the citizens of Blue Moon work together to rebuild their capital city. A grid of tiles representing the buildings of Blue Moon City is laid out, and players travel from tile to tile using spending cards to place resources on the tiles. When a tile fills up, the building gets built, and players are rewarded with crystals, dragon scales, and cards, based on how much they contributed.

In addition to buying spaces on the building tiles, cards can be played for game effects, the most important of which is moving the three dragons around the board. If a player places a resource on a building tile while a dragon is there, that player is rewarded with a dragon scale. When the supply of scales is exhausted, they are traded in for crystals; the player with the most scales gets more crystals than the other players, and all the scales are returned to the supply.

Players spend their crystals to buy spaces on an obelisk board; the first player to buy a certain number of spaces (determined by the number of players) wins the game. Like most games by renowned designer Reiner Knizia, the gameplay is deceptively simple and gives players a lot to think about during the game.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) This game plays just as well with two as it does with three or four, which is rare for a board game. It's also a great game to introduce non-gamers to, with relatively simple rules and good-looking, high quality components.

Date played: December 1, 2013

Enter the dragons...

Aladdin's Dragons is a fairly atypical game for our collection. We tend to favor adventure games to a pretty overwhelming degree, especially games set in well-developed worlds often based on pre-existing literary, television or film properties (witness the ridiculous number of Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings and Star Trek games on our list).

One of the main reasons I play games is to immerse myself in another world. I often find that watching Star Trek makes me want to play the Star Trek Customizable Card Game, and reading superhero comics almost always puts me in the mood to play Heroclix.

Aladdin's Dragons offers little in the way of world immersion. It's not based on a particular film or book, and makes only vague references to Arabian Nights-style adventure tales. It may not take place in a detailed world, but the game play itself is very absorbing.

It is essentially a bidding game: each player has a set of numbered tokens, which they bid face down one by one to different areas of the board. After all the players' tokens have been bid, each space is totaled, and the winner gains the advantage of that space for the turn. The basic strategy is to gain treasure in the cave spaces, and then spend that treasure to buy magic artifacts in the palace spaces. Once all the artifacts have been bought, the player with the most artifacts wins.

Advanced rules give the artifacts special abilities, making a player's decision of which artifact to purchase more critical. They also add spell cards which can be purchased and used to manipulate the game.

Since it requires at least 3 players, we had to wait until we had some friends over to play. Neither are hardcore board gamers, although they both play Magic: the Gathering and have played many board games with us in the past. Usually we spend as much time socializing as we do actually playing, but this time we were all completely engrossed in the game, plotting strategy and discussing what the best moves might be.

Unfortunately Aladdin's Dragons is long out of print. It's a great casual game which is easy to play and teach, but has a fair amount of things to think about during the game.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) In spite of it not being our usual type of game, we always enjoy Aladdin's Dragons, but unfortunately the 3-5 player requirement keeps us from playing it as often as we'd like.

Date played: December 1, 2013

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Beautiful artwork, good enough game

The thing that initially attracted me to Blue Moon was the artwork.

The game was designed by the world-renowned Reiner Knizia, whose games I usually enjoy, and it's his first attempt at a customizable card game, which is an intriguing notion. It's a two-player game, which we're always on the lookout for, and it was published by Fantasy Flight Games, the publisher we probably own the most games from.

But really, it was the artwork, which is absolutely stunning.

The cards are quite a bit larger than standard playing cards, and they don't have much game information on them, leaving more room for the images. And with nine expansion packs, that's a lot of pretty cards to look at.

Imagine what a relief it was to discover that the game is pretty fun to play, too.

Each player chooses a faction to play and builds a deck based on that faction's leader card. Players can use the decks included in the base set and expansions right out of the box, or they can mix and match cards as they like, much like any collectible card game but without the rewards and frustrations that come with collecting rare cards.

Games are played in a series of battles, wherein players play out characters, aided by support cards. Each new character played replaces the last, and must match the strength of the opponent's most recent character. If it cannot, the opponent wins that battle and attracts one of the three dragon miniatures from the middle of the table to their side, or back to the middle from the opponent's side. Then the cards are cleared and a new battle begins. A player wins as soon as they have attracted all three dragons to their side.

As usual for Reiner Knizia, the game is based on the manipulation of numbers in a way that is interesting, but is a little too simple and generic, and it stops short of being truly immersive. It really is the artwork that holds your attention.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A visually stunning game, and the deck customization and number of factions means it has a lot of replay value, but the game play is just a little on the simple side.

Date played: November 30, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

...and they have a plan

Interesting historical note: the look and feel of the original Battlestar Galactica television series is very similar to that of the first Star Wars film. This is probably at least partially due to the fact that John Dykstra did a lot of the special effects photography on both Star Wars and the Battlestar Galactica pilot episode.

Additional interesting historical note: one of the designers of the Battlestar Galactica Collectible Card Game, published by WizKids Games in 2006, was Chuck Kallenbach, who was also one of the designers of Decipher's Star Wars CCG back in 1995. Coincidence?

Granted, the Battlestar Galactica CCG is based on the more recent SciFi Channel series, so my metaphor doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny, but it's still an interesting connection.

We played this unfortunately short-lived game quite a bit in the year it was released, but we hadn't played it since then, so we decided to start with the demo set that we just happened to have a copy of. The demo did a good job of re-introducing the game's structure and core concepts, and after a few turns we were ready to play a game with the full decks that we had customized seven years ago.

The game reflects the tone of the television series very well. Players control both human and Cylon characters and ships in a race to control the Colonial Fleet by gaining a certain number of influence points before the other player does, while at the same time needing to work together to fight off constant attacks by the Cylon fleet. And extra kudos to the design team for putting the show's trademark diagonal corners on all the cards.

What makes the game interesting, and true to the source material, is that characters and ships can challenge each other regardless of whether they are human or Cylon, representing the constant infighting on both sides of the struggle. As an added complication, at the end of each turn the players as a group face a Cylon attack (represented by each player flipping over the top card of their deck and referring to its Cylon value). So if you use too many of your resources fighting with the other players, you won't have anything left to fight the Cylons with, which causes you to lose influence.

Unfortunately, the middle game turns into a bit of a slog, as each player's influence score rises and falls, and the game doesn't end in triumph for the winner so much as just stop out of attrition. But I suppose that does reflect the bleak nature of the show as well, with the Galactica's exhausting quest to evade the Cylons and find Earth, which always seems just out of their reach.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) A fairly immersive game that is true to its source material, but the game play can be a little tedious.

Date played: November 30, 2013

The Awful Green Things from Outer Space

When I was a kid I used to see ads for The Awful Green Things from Outer Space in comic books and gaming magazines. I was always intrigued, if a little put off by the cartoony artwork, but I never got around to playing it.

Steve Jackson Games has reprinted the game numerous times since its original publication in 1979, and when I saw that they were going to reprint it again in 2011, my curiosity about the game was rekindled. There must be something to the game if it's gone through eight editions over the course of 34 years, right?

On top of that, it's a two-player game, and we're always on the lookout for games that are balanced well for two.

The setup is simple enough: the board represents a space ship, and one player controls the crew while the other controls the invading Awful Green Things. The Green Things start with just a few pieces on the board, but they reproduce at an alarming rate. The crew have the use of weapons and equipment scattered about the ship (everything from stun pistols to cans of food), but the catch is that they don't know what effect their weapons will have on the Green Things. The effect of each weapon is determined randomly the first time it is used, so some weapons will kill, some will stun, and some will blast the Green Things into fragments, which unfortunately grow into more Green Things...

In spite of the goofy artwork, the game has a fair amount of strategy to think about. Most of the time we've observed that the game is weighted in favor of the Green Things player, with the crew usually getting decimated or, at best, setting the ship to self-destruct while a handful of crew escape in life pods. But the random nature of the combat between crew and Green Things, and especially the weapon effects, means that anything can happen.

In our game, the crew won a rare victory, getting rid of all the Green Things and only losing about half the crew...

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A solid game with a good mix of strategy and random chance, but the rough, goofy artwork keeps it from really firing the imagination.

Date played: November 30, 2013

Monday, December 9, 2013

The mother of all cooperative games

I've been a fan of H. P. Lovecraft since high school, and Katherine and I have played Call of Cthulhu: the Card Game since it was originally released as a collectible card game. But for some reason, it was a long time before we made the jump into Arkham Horror. We eventually tried it out at a convention several years ago, and bought the game the next day. Since then we've obsessively bought all the game's expansions, and we play it whenever time allows.

Arkham Horror is an incredibly immersive cooperative game, where all the players work together to save the sleepy New England town of Arkham from the ravages of an Ancient One, a horror from beyond time chosen at the start of the game from among several possibilities. The Ancient One chosen has an effect on game play, some subtle, some very overt, which is one way in which every game of Arkham Horror is different.

Players choose from among the many heroic characters who are drawn to the danger and mystery of Arkham. Characters run the gamut from rough and tumble adventurers to tweedy librarians, and each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages in the game, and trying out all the different characters is another reason it is so easy to play this game over and over again.

The object of the game is to work cooperatively to close all the gates to other worlds that are opening throughout Arkham. Players move their characters around the board, seeking clues and encounters at different locations, occasionally travelling through a gate to another world where they try desperately to hold on to their sanity. New gates open every round, so it's a race against time to close them all before the Ancient One awakens.

On the surface Arkham Horror seems really complex. The board is huge and there are a ton of counters, cards, and dice. But once you get into the rhythm of the game, it isn't that difficult, and it's easy to get caught up in the adventure and tension as more and more gates open, spilling bizarre monsters into the streets of Arkham.

Four our game we randomly chose Yibb-Tstll, from the Kingsport Horror expansion, as the Ancient One. It's a horrid looking  creature with dozens of eyes, and so during the game, our ability to evade monsters is made more difficult.

When it's just the two of us, we usually play two characters each, as we've found that the game is virtually impossible with only two heroes. We usually deal out a few random characters for each of us to choose from. Katherine ended up with Patrice Hathaway (the violinist) and Wendy Adams (the street urchin), and I got George Barnaby (the lawyer) and William Yorick (the gravedigger).

Our game had its highs and lows, as they usually do. Poor Patrice Hathaway was devoured while in another dimension, to be replaced by Daisy Walker, the librarian. When a character is removed from the game (a constant danger), its player gets to choose a new character and carry on until either the gates are all closed and the game is won, or the Ancient One awakens, in which case the players must fight a near hopeless battle to try to destroy it.

A good cooperative game needs to be difficult to win, to justify the players being able to work together and also to give them a sense of accomplishment if they win. Players will quickly lose interest if the game is too easy, but if it's hard to win, they'll keep playing as long as the game also engages their imagination, which Arkham Horror certainly does.

We managed to win our game by closing all the gates, but only barely...

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Incredibly immersive, with a vast amount of replay value. It takes 3-4 hours to play, and we have occasionally played two games in a row, not ready for the experience to end after one game.

Date played: November 29, 2013

Friday, December 6, 2013

Anachronism: violent yet educational

Published in conjunction with The History Channel, Anachronism offers an interesting variation on the trading card game format combined with the tactical movement of a miniatures game. Each player assembles a stack of 5 cards, consisting of a warrior from history and four support cards representing weapons, armor, and cultural inspirations and advantages. One of the anachronisms of the game is that players can use support cards belonging to other cultures and time periods, so you can finally find out what might have happened if Beowulf had been given a Spanish arquebus, or Cleopatra had the Russian Okhrana backing her up. The card artwork is absolutely gorgeous, with foil printing on much heavier than usual cardstock.

The warrior cards are placed on opposite sides of a 4x4 grid, and the other four cards are laid out, face down, in whatever order the player wants. A game consists of at most five rounds: each round players turn over their next card, activating that card's abilities, and then has a limited number of actions with which to move his warrior into position and attack. Each attack's outcome is determined by dice rolls, modified by various card effects. If there's no winner after four rounds, a fifth is played with no new support card, and if both warriors are still standing, the one who has taken the least damage is the winner.

With an average game taking about 15 minutes, Anachronism was envisioned as something that could be played during a break between other games at a tournament or gaming convention. Later on, the game proved popular enough to inspire tournaments of its own, with players choosing 3 or more warriors and their support cards and playing a series of matches.

We decided on a series of 5 matches. We didn't want to spend time looking for the best card combinations, so we just chose the support cards that originally came with each warrior.
  • Match 1: Priam, King of Troy vs. David of the Tribes of Israel. Cassandra (one of Priam's support cards) gave him a major edge, and he won the battle.
  • Match 2: Greek leader Agamemnon vs. Celtic revolutionary Boudicca. Boudicca's support cards worked particularly well together, with her Carpat (a Celtic chariot with nasty spiked wheels) allowing her do do a lot of extra damage that Agamemnon couldn't recover from.
  • Match 3: Native American Black Hawk vs. Robert the Bruce of Scotland. Black Hawk was able to go first every round, and had an amazing spear that allowed him to attack every time Robert tried to use one of his abilities.
  • Match 4: Salah Ad-Din, the Saracen who re-took Jerusalem, vs. Sun Tsu, Chinese author of The Art of War. Sun Tsu's weapon was a crossbow that only worked at long range, and Sadah Ad-Din just stayed too close for it to be used effectively.
  • Match 5: Maori warrior Ariki Te Wherowhero vs. Joan of Arc. Wherowhero's support cards allowed him to use the natural terrain to his advantage, much as the Maori were able to do in their conflicts with European settlers.
Katherine won four out of the five games, with Boudicca being my only victorious warrior.

Anachronism avoids many of the pitfalls of trading card games, with its simple rules and smooth game mechanics. It was much easier to pick up and play than the Aliens Predator CCG, but I think we would get more out of the game if we spent time figuring out interesting and anachronistic card combinations to use.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A good, solid game with plenty of replay value, but it requires a commitment similar to that of any trading card game to get the most out of the game.

Date played: November 29, 2013

When franchises clash

The Aliens Predator Collectible Card Game was released in 1998, at the tail end of a slew of new trading card games that flooded the market in 1997. The concept seems like a shoe-in for a trading card game; the majority of the games in this format have followed Magic: the Gathering's concept of a duel between two players, and who better to duel than the iconic Aliens and Predators, especially when both franchises happened to be owned by the same studio?

The game is complex, but engaging. Cards represent characters, weapons, locations and actions, and each player has their own goal depending on whether they're playing the Aliens, Predator or the unfortunate humans caught in the crossfire.
  • Aliens players capture supporting characters, taking them to the Alien Queen in her breeding chamber to make more Aliens. The player's eventual goal is to use his hoard of aliens to convert all the locations in play to parts of the Alien hive.
  • Predator players earn points for hunting Aliens, human Marines and supporting characters. The number of points the Predator needs in order to win is determined by the amount of weaponry and equipment the player chooses to use.
  • The Marines win by evacuating a certain number of supporting characters -- even Jonesey the cat counts.
  • Additionally, any player wins if they manage to eliminate all the other players' main characters.
An expansion based on Alien: Resurrection adds a fourth faction, the Rogues, who win by stealing data and taking hostages.

There are two different scenarios detailed in the basic rules; both carry the same victory conditions, and are different mainly in determining what cards players get to start with, and in what manner the game's location cards enter play. The game stopped being officially supported years ago, but there is still an active fan community who have created many new scenarios and even new cards for the game. More interestingly, the same design team later created a card game based on the Terminator movies that is fully compatible with this one.

In our first game, Katherine played the Aliens and I played the Colonial Marines, using the rules for the basic Contact scenario. I had some trouble getting the locations I needed into play, and she was able to get her Alien breeding machine going relatively quickly. Soon she had a hoard of Aliens tearing through every location and converting them all to the hive, and killing most of my Marines in the process. It came down to me having one Marine left in play and needing to evacuate one more supporting character, but she had a choice of either hiving the last location in play or just killing my last Marine. Either way, she wins.

We enjoyed the first game so much that we decided to play a second. Looking through our cards we found that we had built decks for the second, more complex scenario. Katherine played a hunting pack of Predators, and I played the Cloned Aliens from Alien: Ressurection, who play a little differently from the natural born Aliens. My poor clones never had a chance.

Katherine managed to get a card into play early in the game which amounted to a short cut her Predators could use to get to my Alien Breeding Chamber. She was able to assassinate the Alien Queen right away, and then pick off my Aliens and Facehuggers one by one.

Collectible card games require a high level of commitment: they tend to have complex rules, and there is a lot of prep time involved in creating and honing decks. This is the reason the format is so popular and engaging, but also a detriment if you don't want to focus all your time and energy on a single game.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) We could easily play this game all day and then some, but it does have a steep learning curve, which makes it difficult to just jump into after not playing for a while.

Date played: November 29, 2013

Thursday, December 5, 2013

This time it's war

I bought Leading Edge Games' Aliens board game new when it was originally published in 1989, and I've been dragging it around with me ever since. It's a terrific little game that served as my introduction to both cooperative board games and tactical combat games.

The game uses a simple action based combat system to recreate the action of the 1986 film. Players control the Colonial Marines and hapless civilians who find themselves under siege by hoards of bloodthirsty monsters. The Aliens themselves are controlled by simple system that places them in random squares on the map and has each one make a beeline for the nearest human. Victory in each of the scenarios is determined by the number of surviving humans.

It is interesting to note that, according to the game's victory conditions, the characters in the film lost.

The base game allows players to play through the Marines' initial foray into the Alien hive (3 survivors out of 9 in the film), and their escape through the air ducts towards the end (2 survivors out of 7 in the film, since Newt got captured by the Aliens). There is even a scenario that allows a single player to play through Ripley's powerloader battle with the Alien Queen, and an expansion adds a second map so Ripley can rescue Newt from a fate worse than death in the Alien hive. You can play each scenario with the characters that were there in the film, or play a campaign option that allows players to play through each scenario in order, keeping the survivors from the previous game.

We did quite well on the first scenario when we played, with only 2 Marines lost. However, we lost everyone except for Ripley and Newt in the air ducts.

Aliens is a great game that really does a good job of evoking its source material. The only place it falls down is in the poor quality of its components, paper maps and rough punched cardboard counters in plastic stands that don't always fit properly. The publisher did release a line of unpainted metal miniatures for the game, but I don't remember ever seeing them in my local hobby store back then. They're virtually impossible to find now, much like the game itself.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A good, solid game with a lot of replay value. The only major drawback is the relatively poor quality of the game pieces.

Date played: November 28, 2013

Entering the Age of Conan

I often describe Age of Conan as "Risk on steroids." Players control the kingdoms of Hyboria, using their armies and emissaries to take control of provinces, gaining money and victory points. Ultimately, as a player your goal is to (all together now):
  • Crush your enemies
  • See them driven before you
  • Hear the lamentation of their women
I should point out that Katherine almost always wins at this game, so I'm usually the one lamenting.

The game addresses the question of "who gets to play Conan" in an interesting way. The game is divided into three Ages, with each age consisting of four of Conan's adventures. Each adventure is represented by a card that sets Conan's destination for that adventure; as each new adventure starts, players bid for control of Conan for the duration of the adventure. Controlling Conan is a huge tactical advantage, but at the same time the game requires Conan's controller to make some interesting and sometimes agonizing decisions.

At any point during the final Age of the game, a player may attempt to make Conan the ruler of their kingdom. This doesn't guarantee victory, but if successful it gives the crowning player a major leg up in the final scoring. During our game, Katherine conquered a lot more territory than I did, but I managed to sneak a very narrow victory by crowning Conan.

The game accommodates 2-4 players, and it scales up or down based on the number of players so it plays really well with a full group or with just 2.

Even at $80, we've gotten our money's worth out of Age of Conan. We love this game and we play it a lot, which may be why so many of our other games don't see the light of day very often.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) We could play this game all day, and often do.

Date played: November 28, 2013

First on the list: 221B Baker Street

221B Baker Street the Master Detective Game

Originally published in 1975, 221B Baker Street is a classic Sherlock Holmes themed board game in the same mold as Clue, although not nearly as well known. At the beginning of the game, players are read a card with a short story detailing a mystery, followed by the elements of the mystery that the players must solve.

In our game we were faced with "The Adventure of the Chameleon's Vengeance," a tale about an attempt on Holmes' life by his old enemy the Chameleon. We were given a story about Holmes and Watson attending a violin performance at the Playhouse, and tasked with: a) discovering the nature of the Chameleon's deadly surprise for Holmes; b) where it was hidden; and c) who the Chameleon was disguised as.

From here, the players are in a race to see who can solve the mystery first. Each turn, you roll a single six-sided die to see how many spaces he or she can move, travelling around the board to different locations such as the Playhouse, Scotland Yard, the Pawnbroker, and so on. At each location you are given a clue to the mystery, to be silently read from the clue book and recorded on a provided solution checklist form. The goal is to figure out the mystery in as few moves as possible, then get back to Baker Street and announce the solution, which is then read silently from the clue book. If the first player to get there is correct, they win, otherwise they're out of the game and the others keep playing.

It's a light, reasonably entertaining game, with a few minor flaws:
  • There are a lot of empty spaces between the board, at least 5 between each location, so unless you roll really well, you will spend many turns doing nothing but moving.
  • The clues given are often simple word puzzles rather than story-driven clues.
  • Frequently the locations mentioned in the setup story fail to yield any especially meaningful clues, so where to move first is often based on lucky guesswork.
Somewhat deviously, the word puzzle clues will often seem to point to a different character or story element when not interpreted correctly. This is what happened in our game: Katherine made it back to Baker Street first with what she thought was the solution, but one of the word puzzle clues misled her into getting the Chameleon's identity wrong.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) We don't mind playing this game, but it would rarely be our first choice on game night.

Date played: November 28, 2013


As lifelong gamers, we own what I consider to be a fairly large collection of table top games. I often find myself scanning the shelves of games, stopping at a particular title, and thinking "I wish we played that more often."

This bit of existential gaming angst became more prominent a few months ago when we had to temporarily empty our our basement storage unit. We decided to take the opportunity to get rid of some stuff, so we went through all the bins and boxes as we carted them up the stairs. Naturally, quite a few of them were filled with more games, some of which we hadn't played in years.

Over Thanksgiving weekend we decided that we should play all of our games. In alphabetical order, to avoid playing all the favorites first. We took an inventory, made a list, and started at the top. We're going to play them all. In order.

I wonder how long it will take?