Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A few classics

You could argue that classic games are classics for a reason, but you could also argue that many classics are only considered classic because they got there first, and no one knew any better at the time.

Water Works falls firmly into the former category. It's a card game that is very easy to play, but with a reasonable amount of strategy and more player interaction than similar card games where the object is to be the first to have a set number of cards in play. Players start with a valve and a spout, and the goal is to play a pipeline of 8-15 cards (depending on the number of players, and which edition of the game you have) between the two.

Of course, it's a little more complicated than simply laying down cards. All the cards in your pipeline must be oriented the same way, so there is a difference between horizontal and vertical pipes. There are also T-Junctions, which will cause your pipeline to go in two different directions, one of which must be capped before you can play your spout card.

More deviously, your opponents can play leaky pipes onto your pipeline, which must be repaired or replaced before you can win.

It's a great game whose card laying mechanics inform many newer games, from Starbase Jeff to Tsuro, and even dungeon crawl games like DungeonQuest.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A simple game, but still a classic that holds up fairly well.

Date played: November 9, 2014

Yahtzee is another classic game that has influenced countless others, but in this case it is the game's elaborate scoring system that has made its mark, especially in Reiner Knizia's games.

In Yahtzee, players roll dice in an effort to get the best combination of numbers they can, in order to fill up a score sheet that gives bonuses for things like having the most of a single number, or a sequence of consecutive numbers. The strategy lies in deciding when to fill each section of the score sheet, since you have to fill one each turn, but you always risk getting a better roll for that section later.

Yahtzee is an undeniable classic, and it is simple and well known enough that it has become a favorite "fill in the blanks" merchandise item, much like Monopoly or Risk (our copy is the Pirates of the Caribbean edition). However, I found that it doesn't hold up on its own the way some of the other classic games do: in Yahtzee, the entire game is the scoring system, with the game play reduced to rolling dice and putting numbers in boxes. There is very little to inspire the imagination.

That said, the Firefly version is tempting...

Rating: 2 (out of 5) A little too abstract and lacking in any kind of theme to hold my interest.

  • Yahtzee USAopoly official website for licensed versions
  • Yahtzee on BoardGameGeek.com

Date played: November 27, 2014

Lawyers, bombs and money

Using money in games as a way to keep score may be a bit too close to real life, but it's also a good mechanic for keeping a running tally of players' progress. Money often doubles as a costing system for game effects as well, introducing an additional layer of strategy as players are forced to manage their resources and decide whether paying (essentially losing points) is worth it for a particular game effect or advantage.

Many of prolific designer James Ernest's games use money in this way, so much so that I suspect that a lot of his card game designs start out as poker variants, eventually reaching a level of variation where they can no longer be played with regular playing cards.

U. S. Patent No. 1 is described on the box as "The Novel and Elegant Time Travel Game," and to a large extent it is exactly that. It has all the hallmarks of the best games in James Ernest's Cheapass line: clever mechanics, sharp humor, and excellent graphic design involving creative use of historical (and copyright free) clip art.

The premise is that all the players have invented a time machine, and they are in a rush to travel back to opening day at the U. S. Patent Office so they can be the first to register a patent on time travel. The board is made up of spaces representing different time periods, with opening day of the patent office in the center. Each player must trick out their time machine with a weapon, shield, chassis, and power plant, and then take a number at the patent office, waiting a randomly generated number of turns before they can register their patent and win the game.

Money isn't really used to keep score, but it is a resource that players must use intelligently in order to manage and manipulate the cards, which represent the different parts players need to win and can be either bought or discovered by visiting other spaces on the board, and players need to balance the power requirements of their shields, weapons and chassis with the power output of their power plants. All the parts have unique game effects, and there are bonuses given for matched sets, such as having a power plant and a chassis with the same numerical rating.

Throughout the game, players can attack one another if they've fitted a weapon card to their time machine, and this is really where the game falls apart. As soon as a player gets all four parts to his time machine, he has to move to the center of the board and then "take a number," that is, wait a randomly generated number of turns before he can win. There is a bit of risk-taking strategy in taking a number before you're ready, and then hoping you can make it back to the center before your number is up, but in any case, whenever a player gets close to winning they find themeselves under attack by the other players. This will cause the player to lose parts from their time machine which they must then scramble to replace, and it makes for a somewhat long and tedious end game.

Apparently the world agrees with us, because this game has vanished into the mists of time, not even rating an appearance on the Cheapass Games website's print and play page.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Witty and clever at the beginning, but the end game is a slog, so much so that it often seems better to stop playing than to finish the game.

Date played: November 3, 2014

Unexploded Cow is probably the most successful of the Cheapass Games "cards and money" games, and was certainly the most fun for us. Cards, money and a single six-sided die are used to great effect, creating a fast-paced game that involves a fair amount of both luck and strategy, but not too much of either.

Players control herds of mad cows from postwar England, which have helpfully been sent to the green pastures of France to help find unexploded bombs left over from the war. Each player starts with a fixed amount of money, which they use to purchase cow cards. These cards are played in a row in front of the player, and at the end of each player's turn a die roll determines which cow explodes, resulting in a payoff for that cow's owner.

Other cards represent effects that add an element of both strategy and chaos to the game, and all cards must be paid for in order to be played, with the money going into a pot in the center which is paid out from when a cow explodes. a second deck consists of 12 city cards that are earned when a player's cow explodes on their own turn. The city cards usually offer either a payment or a game advantage such as extra card draws, and the game ends when all the city cards have been claimed. The player with the most money is the winner.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A well designed game that offers a reasonable amount of strategy, but is fast paced and simple enough that just about anyone should be able to enjoy it.

Date played: November 11, 2014

Witch Trial isn't quite as elegantly designed as Unexploded Cow, but it was more entertaining for us, as it contains a lot more of the clever wit that James Ernest is known for. Players are trial lawyers, either prosecuting or defending eccentric defendants accused of crimes such as atrocious manners, card playing, or the dastardly wearing a hat in the theatre.

All the players get to act as both prosecutors and defenders. On their own turn, players accuse by match crimes to suspects, and then call for defense. Another player can volunteer to defend the case, earning a small amount of money in the process, or, if no one volunteers, a public defender is randomly chosen from among the other players. Each crime card specifies an amount of money to be put in for court costs.

During a trial, each player plays evidence cards in an effort to move the jury value either up or down (it starts at a fixed number based on the severity of the crime and the guilt of the suspect). After both sides have played their evidence cards, the dice are rolled and added to the jury value to determine the suspect's guilt or innocence, and the winner of the trial earns the court money. The game ends when the deck runs out, and the player with the most money is the winner.

The game play is pretty basic, with the only real strategy being in matching the right suspects to crimes and deciding when you have enough evidence cards to try a case, but sly jokes on the cards make Witch Trial a great game for table banter, resulting in a highly entertaining game overall.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Witch Trial gets by on theme and humor, and is definitely more than the sum of its game mechanics.

Date played: November 16, 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Watch where you're going

Tsuro is a fairly simple tile laying game that plays kind of like a more relaxed, zen version of Robo Rally. The game accommodates anywhere from 2 to 8 players, all of whom start with a piece on the edge of the board. Players take turns playing tiles which depict various paths that their pieces move along, all in an effort to avoid moving off the board or crashing into another player's piece.

The combination of simple game play and beautifully designed components make this a great game for non-gamers. It's very easy to teach (play your tile, move your piece, draw a new tile), and the simplicity and short play time makes it a game that children and families can play, along with more experienced gamers. We find that it also makes a good warm-up game when waiting for people to arrive for game nights.

For those players who would like a bit more complexity, there is Tsuro of the Seas, which casts the players in the roles of ship captains trying to keep their boats afloat. We haven't played it, but it appears to use the core game mechanics of Tsuro with a slightly larger board and the addition of tiles representing sea monsters that move in random directions, wiping out everything in their path.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A great game that is more engaging than its simplicity might suggest.

Date played: November 3, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Zen and the art of board gaming

Tokaido is a very, very pretty game. The graphic design and the illustrations combine to form a simple and elegant presentation that fits perfectly with the peaceful nature of the game, which is about accumulating experiences while taking a scenic walk along the road between Kyoto and Edo in feudal Japan.

Players move their pieces along a linear path, with spaces representing the temples, villages, and inns along the road where different experiences can be had, such as meeting another traveler, buying a souvenir, eating a meal, or viewing a bit of scenery. These experiences are represented by cards that are worth points at the end of the game.

Movement is the most strategic part of the game. There are no dice, and no regular turn order. Rather, it is always the turn of the player who is farthest behind on the path, and that player can keep taking turns, landing on spaces and drawing the appropriate card for each, until they are no longer at the back. In this way, the game rewards players who take their time to enjoy the journey, but at the same time, the other players may block a space you are trying to get to if you let them get too far ahead.

At various points on the path are Inn spaces where every player must stop and have a meal. The first player to land at each inn gets to draw the meal cards that will be available at that inn, and gets first choice of what meal to buy. The meals are all worth the same number of points, but they have different costs, and no player may purchase the same meal twice, so having a wide variety of meals to choose from is preferable to being the last to arrive and having only a few choices.

Other experiences along the path include three different scenic overlooks, which are represented by sets of cards, the idea being to collect all the different cards in the set, both to score points and to complete the panoramic illustration that is formed by the cards. Players can also make donations to temples along the road, visit hot springs, and meet strangers that will offer anything from free souvenir or panorama cards, to extra money or points.

For added variety, each player is given a particular character to play, with their own special abilities that will help guide that player's strategy. The artist, for example, is better at collecting panoramas, while the street urchin gets free meals at the inns.

For as cheerful and pleasant as the game is, it can be a little cutthroat, with a lot of the movement strategy involving preventing your opponents from being able to land on the spaces they need to, but this brings a good balance to a game that might be a little dull otherwise. We've also found it to be a great game for non-gamers, having played several games with my mother and aunt on a recent visit.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Tokaido has a surprising amount in common with a lot of the "move around the board and draw a card to see what happens" style adventure games that we tend to favor, but the differences in theme and tone make it feel like something entirely new.

Date played: November 2, 2014

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Fearless moster hunters

I first started looking at A Touch of Evil as a possible substitute for Arkham Horror. I was looking for a game with a similar cooperative "us vs. the monsters" feel to it, but maybe a bit simpler, with a shorter playing time. The early 19th century theme, clearly inspired by Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow as well as many of the old Hammer Horror vampire movies, was also appealing, as it is a setting that doesn't see much use in board games.

As it turns out, A Touch of Evil actually has more in common with Talisman than Arkham Horror, and plays like a combination of the two. Players have a choice of playing cooperatively or competitively, but the only real difference is that the competitive game is a race to see who can defeat the villain first, while in the cooperative game the players work together to defeat a villain that is much more difficult to kill.

Players choose from an assortment of fearless monster hunters such as the Soldier, the Noblewoman, or the Outlaw, each with different skills and abilities. The basic game play is similar to games like Talisman or Runeboundplayers move around the board and draw cards to see what happens, with the eventual goal of building up their strength so that they can face down the main villain, chosen from among such gothic horror staples as the Vampire, the Headless Horseman, or the Werewolf.

There are a few game elements that set A Touch of Evil apart from other, similar games, helping to reinforce the gothic horror theme. One is that, in addition to a general deck of Event cards that players draw at various times, there are also Mystery cards that are drawn at the end of each round, most of which benefit the villain and move the game's storyline and time limit forward. There are also separate decks for each of the board's major locations, so that visiting the Manor or the Windmill offers a different experience than a trip to the Olde Woods.

Another major game element is the Village Elders, six characters who are each given a Secret at the beginning of the game. Players can spend Investigation (the currency of the game) to peek at the Elder's secrets - some are harmless, some are positive and help the players, while others will reveal that the Elder in question is actually an Evil Elder, in league with the villain!

When a player is ready to face down the villain, they can choose two Elders to help out. But if they choose one that turns out to be evil, that elder helps the villain instead, making it more difficult to vanquish.

The game's photo artwork has been polarizing for a lot of players, but, just like with Fortune and Glory (by the same publisher), I think it contributes to the cinematic atmosphere, which emphasizes the fun and adventure as much as it does the gruesome horror. The included soundtrack CD of cheesy but fun music also helps with the gothic horror movie feeling.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Part Arkham Horror and part Talisman, with a much shorter play time and options for cooperative or competitive games.

Date played: October 31, 2014 (that's right, we played it on Halloween!)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bad timing

The commercial failure of The Terminator Collectible Card Game could be down to any number of things, but most likely it was timing. It was released in 2000, when nothing much was going on in the Terminator universe other than a handful of lackluster comic books from Dark Horse Comics. More importantly, by 2000 the collectible card game market was flooded with product competing for a dwindling customer base, and none of the 17 other CCGs released that year lasted either.

Poor marketing may have been a contributing factor as well. In 2000 I was hip deep in the CCG craze, actively playing several games and always looking for new ones, and I hadn't even heard of the Terminator CCG until I happened upon a few starter decks in a bargain bin in 2004 or so.

I picked up the game for several reasons: it was cheap, it was based on one of my favorite movies, and it was compatible with the Aliens Predator CCG, delivering on that game's thus far unfulfilled promise of being the first in a series of "Battleground System" games.

The two starter decks introduce a game based solidly on the first Terminator movie, with players taking control of either SkyNet's killer cyborgs or the brave heroes of the Resistance, and travelling back in time to either protect or destroy supporting characters with varying degrees of importance to the future.

The game adapts the system from Aliens Predator reasonably well, helped along by the fact that the Terminator storyline contains many of the same elements: military-style heroes, lots of weapons, innocent civilians that need to be rescued (or terminated), and a vicious opponent in the shape of the robotic Terminators. The problem is that the game takes a very literal approach to the strengths and weaknesses of the humans and the Terminators, to the point that the Resistance characters are hopelessly outclassed and almost never win.

It's a problem when playing with just the Terminator cards, but it even holds true when taking advantage of the game's compatibility with Aliens Predator. Even when pitted against the well-armed Predators or hordes of Aliens, the Terminators are pretty unstoppable, to the point that they aren't really much fun to play.

Viewed as its own game, The Terminator CCG is unfortunately one-sided in favor of the Terminators. Viewed as an expansion for Aliens Predator, it contributes some interesting weapon and action cards that the Aliens, Predators and Colonial Marines can take advantage of, but the Resistance faction plays too much like the Marines to be interesting on their own, and the Terminators still manage to unbalance the game to a pretty spectacular degree.

These issues probably could have been addressed in future expansions by adding cards that would balance things out for the other factions, or possibly even reigning in some of the game elements that make the Terminators so powerful. Unfortunately, the game never made it that far.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) It may have seemed like a good idea, but doesn't really hold together, either on its own or as a continuation of the Aliens Predator Battleground System.

Date played: October 26, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Shooting in the dark

With a few exceptions, space combat as depicted in the various Star Trek television series and films has never been what I would describe as "action-packed." That isn't to say that it isn't dramatic: in my opinion, the original series episode "Balance of Terror" is one of the best space battles ever put on film, and the battle in the Mutara Nebula between Kirk and Khan in Star Trek II is a very close second.

Those battles take their cues from World War II submarine movies, slowly building tension rather than going for fast movement and explosions. While this makes for excellent drama, it may not necessarily translate into interesting gaming.

Starship Duel, designed by Heroclix mastermind Jordan Weisman and published by FASA in 1984, attempts to recreate the dramatic tension seen in the space battles from Star Trek II and III. To its credit, the game tries to do something different, foregoing the traditional board with miniatures or counters representing the ships in favor of a wheel that shows the other ship's position and heading relative to yours, with no accounting for distance.

Game play involves trying to anticipate the direction your opponent is going to move. Your ship has a limited amount of power, so you have to decide which side of your ship to charge the weapons and shields on, hoping that your opponent's ship will end up in the right position, and ideally that you'll catch him from a side that he hasn't charged his shields on.

On paper, it sounds very much like space combat the way it was depicted in Star Trek at the time, with ships floundering in the dark and never seeming to have enough power to fight effectively. In practice, however, it can be frustrating. It is often difficult to visualize the position of the ships, and in the end it's mainly a guessing game, as you try to put power into the weapons and shields that you hope will be facing your opponent.

It was an interesting idea that just didn't translate into a playable game, and FASA quickly abandoned it in favor of the more traditional Starship Tactical Combat Simulator.

Rating: 1 (out of 5) While we applaud the effort to try something different, we found this game to be frustrating and difficult to play.

Date played: October 26, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Too much like something else

With a feature film, 10 seasons on television, two spin-off series and two TV movies, you would be hard pressed to call the Stargate franchise anything other than successful. There was clearly an audience for the series and the stories it told, so it's not too difficult to see why someone thought a Stargate Trading Card Game would be a good idea.

In broad terms, the Stargate series tells the same kinds of stories that Star Trek does, with the Stargate itself taking the place of the Enterprise's transporter room as the device used to deliver the characters to the action. Like Star Trek, most Stargate episodes involve the characters arriving on a new planet and getting involved in some kind of plot there, with the occasional story taking place at Stargate Command, much like the ship-bound episodes of Star Trek. The point being that, like Star Trek, Stargate is about stories and intrigue more than it is about fighting and conflict, and the game's publishers seem to have understood that, to the extent that they hired several game designers who had worked on Decipher's Star Trek CCG to develop the Stargate card game.

The similarity between the two properties shows, but unfortunately so do Stargate's shortcomings. Faced with the relatively small number of underdeveloped alien cultures depicted on the show, the game designers opted for a setup similar to Decipher's Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, with each player given control of their own crew of series regulars that exist independently of their opponent's crew.

The game play is understandably similar to the Star Trek CCG: a turn consists of a mission being played by the active player, which has a set of requirements, such as Culture, Combat, Ingenuity, or Science. The active player sends his characters to the mission, reinforcing them with gear and event cards, while the opponent plays obstacles and adversaries in order to make the mission more difficult. If the active player succeeds, he has the option to either keep going if he thinks he has enough unused characters to solve another mission, or stop if he doesn't.

When the active player's turn ends, the players switch roles, with the opponent now playing a mission and sending his characters to try to win out against the first player's obstacles and adversaries. It's a solid solution to the "good guys vs. bad guys" problem that faces game designers working on a licensed property, but in this case it combines with several other game features that are also taken from the Decipher Lord of the Rings TCG, such as a token based card cost system to balance the number and power level of the cards each player can play. Even the method of playing missions is very similar to the site path featured in Lord of the Rings. It makes for a game that feels very derivative and doesn't offer anything new other than the Stargate setting.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) This game would probably be fine for a fan of the Stargate franchise and trading card games, but we found it to be too mechanically similar to Lord of the Rings, and too thematically similar to Star Trek, with none of the depth or texture of either.

Date played: October 26, 2014

Friday, November 7, 2014

The theme's the thing

I imagine that most of designer Reiner Knizia's games begin as abstract concepts before having a theme grafted on to them. With a few modifications, Through the Desert could be played with the symbol and color based tiles from Ingenious, and its game play is similar in that it is about placing tiles (or in this case, little plastic camels) in rows on a hex grid, in an attempt to create the largest groups of adjacent matching pieces.

But rather than being a criticism of the common features many of Knizia's games have, I think this example is an excellent illustration of why theme is so important in tabletop games. While some gamers may reduce all the games they play to their core mechanics and strategy, I believe that this is the exception rather than the rule, and the majority of these types of gamers tend to gravitate toward games like poker or chess, where they can explore pure strategy.

Most gamers (us included) play games in order to be immersed in another world. It doesn't matter whether it's a world of elves and goblins or real estate brokers, the point is that we get transported to a world different from our own, and the game mechanics merely provide a useful way to frame the experience in terms of strategy and competition (or cooperation, in may cases).

In Through the Desert, players take on the roles of caravan leaders. The game is played on an irregular hexagonal grid, with several spaces marked out as oases, and many more marked as watering holes with various point values. There are five piles of different colored camels, and the game starts with each player placing one of each color on the board, marked with a rider identifying whose camel it is.

After this setup, players take turns placing camels of the various colors, which must be placed adjacent to a camel of the same color connected to the one with that player's rider on it, and cannot be adjacent to another player's camel of the same color. The goal is to earn points create lines of camels that connect to the oasis spaces and through the watering hole spaces, and also to enclose areas of desert, cutting them off from opponent's pieces.

It's a little hard to describe without having the game in front of you, but it makes perfect sense once you start playing. There is almost no random chance involved, other than the point value of the watering holes when they are first placed. The game consists entirely of the strategy involved in choosing what color of camel to place, and where to place it, adjusting your plans based on what your opponents are doing.

Sure, Through the Desert could be played with abstract pieces on an abstract board, but then it wouldn't be a game about caravan leaders guiding their lines of camels across the barren wastes in search of the best routes between watering holes. It would just be about putting markers on a board, and that wouldn't transport you anywhere.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) a solid strategy game whose mechanics fit the theme very well, even if that theme isn't overly compelling.

Date played: October 19, 2014

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The undisputed king of adventure games

Talisman was the first adventure board game I ever played. It showed me that board games could be more than Monopoly or Clue, and it set me down a life-long path of gaming that I can't see ever straying from. To this day, the games I like best tend to be the ones that remind me of Talisman in some way, like Firefly, Fortune and Glory, or Runebound. Those games have all improved on Talisman's formula, to the extent that they get played a lot more often than Talisman does, but respect must be paid to the game that, for me, started it all.

The game structure will be familiar, since so many other games have copied it. Each player takes on the role of a character with specific strengths and weaknesses, whose goal it is to wander around the board fighting monsters and gathering treasure, weapons and magic items. Eventually, players must fight their way to the center of the board where they will assume the Crown of Command and attempt to use it to knock the rest of the players out of the game.

It is this sense of open-ended adventure that I love most about Talisman, the idea that you can just wander around the countryside encountering bandits, dragons, kindly wizards, and bags of gold inexplicably laying in the middle of the road. I enjoy the journey so much that I usually have to remind myself that there is an end goal: I would much rather just explore the world.

However, because the characters get gradually stronger as they defeat more foes, eventually you find that run-of-the-mill goblins are too easy to beat, and it's time to head to the center of the board and try to win. In many ways, this is where Talisman's game play falls a little flat for me.

In the base game, the center of the board is occupied by the Crown of Command, which can be used to force the other players to either admit defeat or grow gradually weaker. However, if another player manages to make it to the middle, you have to fight it out using all the weapons, armor and spells you've gathered on your journey. If the other player manages to defeat you, they then take up the Crown and go to work on the other players.

It's amusing, but at the same time it makes Talisman into an elimination game like Monopoly, and it can take a long time to determine a winner as players stubbornly hold on to life in an effort to knock the Crown of Command from your head.

One of the expansions I have (my copy is the Second Edition from 1985, rather than the current version published by Fantasy Flight Games) replaces the Crown with one of six random, surprise endings, so that the first player to reach the center doesn't necessarily know what they're getting into. Choices range from the Belt of Hercules, which allows you to teleport around the board picking fights with the other players, to the Demon Lord, a powerful enemy whose defeat wins you the game, to the Horrible Black Void, which simply destroys the first player to land on it.

My favorite is the Dragon King, whose reaction is random: he could just eat you out of hand, he could attack you, or he might even decide he likes you and head out to devour your opponents.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Even though later games that have followed in Talisman's footsteps have improved on its adventure game formula, you just can't beat the original.

  • Talisman official website for the revised Fourth Edition
  • Talisman on BoardGameGeek.com

Date played: October 18, 2014

Aligning the symbols

When we play The Stars Are Right, I often joke about how much I hate it, but that's not really true. It really is a fun little game, and what I don't like is that my brain just isn't wired the right way to be good at it.

There are two elements to the game: a deck of cards, from which every player holds a hand of five, and a 5x5 grid of double-sided tiles in the center of the table. The tiles are printed with different symbols, and the idea is that each player needs to manipulate these tiles so that the symbols appear in the right patterns to bring their cards (representing Lovecraft's Great Old Ones and their minions) into play.

It's a lot harder than it sounds. Cards are printed with a particular pattern of symbols, which need to be found in the 5x5 grid in order to play the card. The more powerful the creature on the card, the more complex the pattern, and the more points the card is worth when played.

The cards are also printed with different combinations of moves that allow players to either flip a tile over (revealing the symbol on the other side) swap the places of two adjacent tiles, or push a whole row so that all five tiles move up one space, moving the tile on the end to the opposite side of the row. In this way, the symbols in the grid of tiles are constantly shifting and changing as players try to align the symbols in the right way to get their creatures into play.

Since the tiles are constantly shifting (especially in a game with three or four players), it is virtually impossible to plan more than one move ahead. If you need multiple turns to get the symbols aligned to play your Cthulhoo or Hastur card, chances are something is going to change between now and then, destroying your carefully laid plans. Maybe this is why Lovecraftian cultists are always insane...

It's really a game about spotting opportunities and seizing them. I tend to be a deliberate, methodical thinker, and I always want to win with the big, impressive creatures rather than the small, easier to play ones, so I'm always trying to control the board. And in this game, the board is uncontrollable.

Fortunately, I know the difference between a bad game and a good game that I'm just not very good at, and I don't need to be good at a game to enjoy playing it.

Rating 3 (out of 5) Too chaotic to allow for much in the way of strategy, but definitely an exercise in thinking on your feet.

Date played: October 18, 2014

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An expression of Risk

As I mentioned in my reviews for Seven Card Samurai and Shitenno, we're always on the lookout for a good samurai game, especially one that isn't a Risk clone as many games about feudal Japan tend to be. It may be a bit ironic, then, that I was drawn to Age of War, which started life as Risk Express, a Risk-themed dice game designed by Reiner Knizia and published by Parker Brothers in 2006.

Apparently, Risk Express didn't stay in print for very long, and for whatever reason, Fantasy Flight Games decided to give the game a samurai makeover, complete with new artwork for the proprietary dice and tiles that represent the different provinces of feudal Japan.

Each starts in the center of the table and is printed with one or more rows of symbols representing infantry, cavalry, archers, and generals, that must be rolled on the dice in order to conquer that province. The rows of symbols have to be matched one at a time, so it will take several rolls in order to conquer the province. If a roll fails to produce the symbols needed, the dice can be re-rolled, but each re-roll of a failed roll requires the player to remove one of the dice, until eventually the roll matches all the symbols needed and the province is taken, or the player runs out of dice.

In addition to conquering tiles from the center of the table, players can also attempt to take over their opponent's tiles, although it requires an extra "general" to be rolled. The tiles are matched by color in a group of four, two groups of three, three groups of two, and one single tile. If a player conquers all the tiles in a color group, they are worth more points and safe from attack, so an important element of the game is strategically choosing which tiles to go after, while keeping an eye on your opponents and preventing them from completing their sets.

If this sounds a little familiar, it's because it is very similar to Elder Sign, a Lovecraft-themed dice game also published by Fantasy Flight Games. Elder Sign adds a lot of elements to the game, giving it a more elaborate structure and adding cards that can be played to influence the dice rolls, but the core dice mechanic is the same.

I think that's all right though. Lovecraftian games need to be more complicated in order to fit the theme, and while I like Elder Sign, I also enjoyed the simplicity of Age of War.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Age of War is far too simple to be really compelling, but it's a nice simple game that can be played in a short amount of time, and the small box makes it a good travel game.

Date played: October 14, 2014

All pilots to your fighters!

One of the problems with using miniatures on a tabletop to simulate combat is the lack of continuous movement, especially if your game includes flying characters or vehicles. While some game systems may use clear stands to indicate movement through the air, most of the time fliers in tabletop games tend to "hop" from one position to another, without any real sense of fluid movement.

Star Wars: X-Wing solves that problem in a variety of ways. Ships move using templates that make movement a bit more fluid than using a tape measure or bouncing from square to square. More importantly, every player has to decide on the direction and distance of their move each turn at the same time, deciding in secret and revealing simultaneously. Once moves are revealed, ships move in order of the skill of their pilot, starting with the rookies and working their way up to the seasoned fliers like Han Solo and Darth Vader. After all the ships have moved, they get the opportunity to fire if they have any targets within range, this time starting with the best pilots and working their way down.

It's an excellent system that conveys a sense of constant movement while at the same time using the limitations of a tabletop miniatures game (the fact that the miniatures still need to be moved one at a time) to simulate an advantage that better pilots would have over lesser ones. Additionally, it can sometimes be difficult to envision exactly where your ship will end up after moving along your chosen template, which adds a great element of unpredictability to the game. It also means I tend to crash into asteroids a lot when I play...

Players choose their ships based on a pre-determined point system, with a choice of several different pilots for each ship as well as a host of optional upgrades such as extra missiles, co-pilots and astromech droids. Will you go with Darth Vader piloting his TIE Advanced, maybe with one or two wingmen, or will you opt for a swarm of TIE Fighters in an attempt to overwhelm the pesky Rebels? Would you rather have Han Solo or Lando Calrissian piloting the Falcon? This gives players a lot of strategic decisions to make before the game even starts, and ensures that the game is different every time.

The pre-painted figures are exceptional, with a lot of great detailing, and they are perfectly to scale with one another, giving larger ships like the Millennium Falcon their own advantages and disadvantages when compared to the smaller X-Wings and TIE Fighters.

Most importantly, the game really feels like Star Wars, so much so that you can almost hear the screaming engines and laser blasts.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Great looking miniatures and a game system that suits the source material perfectly.
Date played: October 5, 2014

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Star Wars, in miniature

Any time a product is wildly successful it is bound to spawn imitators, and WizKids Games' Heroclix was certainly no exception. Collectible miniatures didn't quite sweep the gaming industry the way collectible card games had in the wake of Magic: the Gathering, no doubt owing to the relatively high cost of producing pre-painted plastic miniatures. Most of the collectible miniatures games that did hit the market tried to approximate the Wizkids click dial (no mean feat since they were smart enough to file a patent for it), which makes me think that they may have missed the point.

Mage Knight and Heroclix creator Jordan Weisman had said that he got the idea for the game after seeing how difficult it was to get started playing tabletop combat games like Warhammer, and how complex the rules to those games were. He wanted a miniatures game that was easy to play but still offered strategic depth and the tactile experience of moving great-looking figures around an environment filled with obstacles. For him, the click dial was the way to help simplify tabletop miniatures, but it certainly wasn't the only way.

Enter Wizards of the Coast, the largest player in the hobby gaming market, owners of Magic: the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, and (in 2004, at least) holders of a license to produce Star Wars games.

Star Wars Miniatures was inevitable, but Wizards of the Coast were smart about how they went about it. They adopted Wizkids' distribution model of randomized blind "booster packs," But their packs contained more figures for the price. More importantly, they appeared to understand what the appeal of Heroclix really was: a tabletop combat game with relatively simple rules, using pre-painted figures and printed map boards rather than expensive 3-D terrain.

The designers of Star Wars Miniatures didn't try to come up with an alternative for the click dial, instead opting for a plain black base and a simple reference card that accompanied each figure, detailing its game statistics. This had the added bonus that the figures could easily be used with the Star Wars role playing game in addition to the combat game, and it made them a little nicer for Star Wars collectors who may not have been interested in playing either game, but have an insatiable appetite for figurines of their favorite Star Wars characters.

The game itself features a stripped down version of the combat rules from the d20 role playing game system, used by Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, and a host of other role playing games. The rules were modified somewhat to work as a tabletop game with no referee or game master, but players of the d20 role playing games would definitely find the core concepts familiar.

This basis in role playing is the main advantage Star Wars Miniatures has over Heroclix. Star Wars tends to be a much more story-driven game, with rules for things like firing around corners, hiding in trenches, or jumping through windows that Heroclix just doesn't address. Star Wars has more "wiggle room," allowing players to play out a story rather than just engaging in a mindless battle. Several products for the game even included a host of scenarios allowing players to play out scenes from the films as well as new stories.

The game's other main advantage, of course, is being set in the Star Wars universe. What Star Wars fan wouldn't want to demolish an army of Battle Droids with just a few Jedi Knights, or take command of the Rebel forces defending Hoth from the dreaded Imperial Walkers?

Rating: 5 (out of 5) The simple but versatile rules really put you right into the action, and the games feel more like stories than just mindless battles.

Date played: September 27, 2014

Sadly, Wizards of the Coast gave up their Star Wars license a few years ago, but there is plenty of Star Wars Miniatures product on the secondary market. Meanwhile, Fantasy Flight Games has Imperial Assault coming soon, which is planned to work both as a tactical game and a board game similar to Mansions of Madness.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In space, no one can hear you deck build

Back in 1989, Dark Horse Comics published the first issue of Aliens vs. Predator, an idea that seems inevitable now but was pretty radical at the time. It opened up a floodgate of comic book crossovers, with the ubiquitous Aliens and Predators in the thick of it, fighting everyone from Superman and Batman to Judge Dredd and the Terminator, and of course each other.

So it makes a kind of sense that Upper Deck Entertainment would release Legendary Encounters: an Alien Deck Building Game as an expansion to Legendary, their Marvel super hero deck building game, although it should be pointed out that Marvel never jumped on the Aliens/Predator crossover bandwagon in the comics.

Interestingly, Legendary Encounters is a complete, self-contained game which uses some elements from the Marvel game (enough that crossovers are possible) but plays somewhat differently. It's a fully cooperative game, not unlike Arkham Horror, which makes sense given the Alien universe's almost Lovecraftian atmosphere of doom and futility. Players work together against an encounter deck composed of Aliens and other plot complications, depending on what scenario elements the players choose to add.

The game consists of four different three-part scenarios, based on the four Alien films. Each part of each scenario consists of a set of story-specific encounter cards that are added to the deck. In an ingenious bit of game design, the scenario parts can be mixed and matched, so that, for example, you can put together a scenario consisting of the first part of Aliens, the second part of Alien Ressurection, and the thrilling finale of Alien 3. This increases the game's replayability exponentially, as does the fact that for each game, players are also required to shuffle in a random assortment of additional Alien cards.

Another wonderfully theme-appropriate game mechanic is what happens when a player is infected by an Alien embryo. In the films, Alien facehuggers implant embryos in hapless human hosts, who then give grisly, explosive birth, usually at the most inconvenient of times. In the game, if a player is unlucky enough to lose a fight with a facehugger, they shuffle a chestburster card into their deck. When the chestburster makes it to the top of the deck and is drawn, it's all over for that player, leading to some great tension as each card draw is a nerve-wracking experience. There are even a few (but not many) cards a player can play to choke down the little monster and keep fighting a little longer.

The designers seem to really understand the source material, even to the point that each scenario's tone matches the film it's based on. The scenario for the original film is tense and atmospheric, with very limited resources for the players to use in fighting the Alien. The second one is much more action-packed, with an emphasis on equipping the players with weapons and gadgets. The less said about Alien 3 the better, and the Alien Resurrection scenario is as bombastic and over the top as the film.

As if the near-endless scenario combinations weren't enough, the game also includes several optional elements such as secret objectives that can result in one or more of the players being a hidden traitor, and even an Alien player deck, so that a player who has been killed by a chestburster can play as the Aliens. Great stuff.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A terrific, engaging game that is ingeniously designed and very true to its source material. Can't wait to see the Predator edition...

Date played: September 14, 2014

To boldly clix, part 3

The release of Star Trek Heroclix: Tactics came as a bit of a surprise to me. Wizkids Games had already released Fleet Captains, so I wasn't expecting another Star Trek game from them, let alone one that appeared to use the same ship models. I was even more surprised when it turned out that Tactics used the regular Heroclix rules word-for-word, with no changes made to accommodate the fact that it's starships rather than superheroes. Powers and abilities were renamed on individual ship cards, but the rule book and reference card refer to ships having incongruous powers like Super Strength or Psychic Blast.

In all honesty I found the whole thing more than a little bit silly, and as the game did appear to use all the same ship models that had been included in Fleet Captains (although in Tactics they are fully painted, at least), I decided to give the whole thing a miss.

That is, until the first expansion came out. Tactics II introduced Romulan, Cardassian, and even Vulcan ships to the game, but the ship model that sold me on the game after all was the bright orange Ferengi ship, proving that human beings do indeed respond emotionally to bright colors.

We bought a bunch of ships and played a few games. I suppose it was nice that we didn't need to learn a new rules set, but it still seemed a little silly when the odd superhero term would come up during a game.

In spite of that, the Heroclix rules do lend themselves fairly well to the way space combat is depicted on Star Trek. Game pieces in Heroclix don't move fluidly so much as hop around the board from square to square, and they have to stop moving before making an attack, which is more or less what happens on Star Trek, with its ponderous starships slowly moving into position and then firing until the other ship is destroyed or surrenders.

While Heroclix is a tried and true game system, at the end of the day it reduces Star Trek to a simple fight, with none of the drama or intrigue offered by the various television shows, or even by the other two Star Trek clix games.

I still thought it was odd that Wizkids had two competing Star Trek starship games on the market, so imagine my surprise when the announced Star Trek: Attack Wing, yet another ship combat game that would use the same models from Tactics and Fleet Captains, but with the rules system licensed from from Fantasy Flight's Star Wars: X-Wing. I'm definitely not touching that one...

Rating: 2 (out of 5) While Heroclix with space ships works surprisingly well, Star Trek Tactics suffers in comparison to the more interesting Fleet Captains.
Date played: September 14, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

To boldly clix, part 2

The second Star Trek game from Wizkids Games, Star Trek: Fleet Captains has all the makings of an epic. Rather than go the route of a straight-up combat game, Wizkids delivered a surprisingly deep game about exploration and mission solving, with combat playing only a small part. Players draft fleets of ships and explore a cosmos made up of randomly sorted tiles. The ships you choose determine what types of missions you are given, anything from colonizing planets to scanning stars to conducting hit-and-run attacks into your opponent's territory.

As a player, you can tailor your tactics with the use of a semi-customized deck of Command cards, composed of characters, actions, and combat maneuvers. There are 10 mini-decks of 10 cards organized around themes such as engineering, warfare, or subterfuge; at the start of the game, each player chooses four of these to shuffle together, forming a 40 card deck.

Play centers around solving missions to score points, with bonus points available from random encounters as well as by doing things like building starbases. Play proceeds until one player reaches a number of points (10 in a normal game) determined by the size of the players' starting fleets.

The Star Trek universe is certainly well-represented. Each faction plays differently, with the Federation focused on science and exploration, the Klingons on battle, the Romulans on subterfuge, and the Dominion on brute force conquest. Ships and characters from the original series, The Next Generaition, Deep Space Nine and Voyager are all present, and there's even a Klingon ship from an episode of the animated series.

While it is very successful in terms of theme, the game itself is often bogged down by complicated game play. The game tries to be open-ended, but unfortunately that has resulted in a lot of rules that aren't always intuitive and are often difficult to remember. We have found that we have to refer to the rules very frequently, even after playing several times.

The Command deck is an interesting idea, especially with the ability to customize the deck a bit without spending time hand-picking all the cards. However, each of the mini-decks has too many cards that are only useful in very specific situations. You often find yourself with a hand of cards you can't use, which means you get in the habit of just ignoring them all together.

As with Star Trek Expeditions, the patented clix dial seems a bit out of place and tacked-on. Ostensibly it is used to track power adjustments to each ship, so more power to the shields means less power to the sensors, but the numbers on the dials are in a poorly chosen font that is very hard to read, and in any case all the numbers are also printed on each ship's card, making the dials pretty unnecessary.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The incredible use of theme goes some way towards making up for some clunky game play, but not enough to make Fleet Captains a great game.

Date played: September 1, 2014

UPDATE May 12, 2015: Another look at Star Trek: Fleet Captains

Friday, September 26, 2014

Plumbing the depths of space

When I was a kid, one of our go-to family games was Water Works, the original (as far as I know) pipe-laying game. Fun as it was, I have no actual interest in plumbing, so the theme was always a bit lost on me, although the game is abstract enough that it doesn't really matter. It doesn't need to be leaky water pipes, it could be anything.

It could be a space station.

Already a fan of Cheapass Games, I was instantly intrigued by Starbase Jeff, a game which takes the basic concept of Water Works and puts it squarely in outer space. Even better, it has my name in the title.

Each player starts with their own color-coded deck of square cards representing parts of a space station, including 3-way and 4-way junctions, corners, and end caps. They also start with a set amount of tokens representing money. The idea is to add tiles to the space station in such a way that you have as many tiles as possible in a row between your oppoents' tiles. They have to pay you in order to "play through" when they add a new tile to the station, one token for each of your tiles that lies between where they're playing, and their nearest tile in the station.

Money gets passed back and forth in this way, and it also gets paid into a "pot" in the center of the table whenever anyone plays a new tile (they each have different costs depending on how useful the tile is). The player who closes off the station, by playing a tile in such a way that there are no openings for further tiles, wins the pot. Play can continue over multiple rounds until one or more players are out of money, or no one feels like playing any more.

An advanced rule adds the use of symbols printed along the sides of the tiles which, when connected to a matching symbol, give the player who connected them a special advantage such as being able to play more than one tile, or collect more money from players playing through.

The core idea of building a starbase and gaining points when other players need to connect through your parts of the station is quite ingenious, but it's a game in search of an ending. Winning the pot by closing off the station feels tacked on and anticlimactic, and it means that games can vary wildly in length. I guess that's the point of playing multiple rounds, but I would prefer a more satisfying conclusion, rather than just playing until everyone is tired of the game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) An ingenious variation on an old classic, only slightly marred by a vaguely unsatisfying end game.

Date played: August 31,2014

UPDATE April 20, 2015: Another look at Starbase Jeff

To boldly clix, part 1

After years of using their patented clix dial system almost exclusively for tactical combat games, Wizkids Games finally decided to try it out on some board games. For their first, they paired what should have been a winning combination: the venerable Star Trek license, and renowned game designer Reiner Knizia.

Star Trek: Expeditions is theoretically based on the 2009 film that rebooted the franchise, but it clearly has its roots in the structure and tropes of the original series, to such an extent that one wonders if Dr. Knizia has even seen any Star Trek material made after 1969. It's fine if he hasn't, because it allowed him to get down to the essence of a classic Star Trek story, without getting distracted by the world building and technobabble of the later television shows, or the empty Hollywood action of the more recent films.

It's a cooperative game in which each player takes on the role of one of the Enterprise crew, represented by a nicely detailed miniature with a patented clix base. The majority of the board is split up into areas, each containing a face-down plot card, and the idea is for the characters to beam down to the planet and uncover the cards that will move the plot forward and gain the group the most points in the process. Along the way, players will face tests using the standard clix system of rolling dice and adding whatever ability is appropriate (in this case: command, science or support) in an attempt to beat a target number. Failed tests can cause the character to click down their dial, reducing their abilities and making future tests more difficult.

There is also a track along the top of the board where miniatures of the Enterprise and a Klingon ship do battle, with each failure pushing the Enterprise backwards along the track and losing the players points from their final score.

The clix dials seem a bit shoehorned in, but that's probably to be expected, especially with a designer like Reiner Knizia who is perfectly capable of creating a game without a weird plastic gimmick. In spite of that, it's a pretty neat game. I really like the way it gets all the classic Star Trek elements in: characters get involved with the unfolding plot on the planet, with their choices leading to greater or lesser degrees of success, while at the same time there are things to do on the ship in orbit, fighting the Klingons to a standstill but also performing various support tasks such as repairing the ship and scanning the surface. It's very difficult to win, but that's to be expected for a cooperative game.

Where the game fails is in the repetitiveness of the plot cards. They are semi-random: the same basic cards that move the game forward are combined with a selection of random "side-missions" that can give the players advantages upon success, but have no real bearing on the main story. It's a problem that could be solved with expansions introducing  new storylines, but that's really just a band-aid for a structural flaw in an otherwise terrific Star Trek game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The Star Trek theme is spot-on, but unnecessary clix dials and somewhat repetitive game play stop this from being a truly great game.

Date played: August 17, 2014

UPDATE May 12, 2015: Another look at Star Trek: Expeditions

Monday, September 22, 2014

The perfect Star Trek game

The designers of the Star Trek Customizable Card Game made a few missteps when it was originally released on the heels of Magic: the Gathering in 1994. They went a little too crazy with the random sorting of the starter decks; it's a game that relies heavily on having the right combination of cards, and frequently a starter deck wouldn't have all the cards one player needed to play. Additionally, they made all the television show's main characters rare cards that were difficult to come by, so you almost never saw Captain Picard or Commander Data unless you were willing to buy a lot of booster packs or pay high prices for single cards (my first games featured Doctor Crusher and Ensign Ro in starring roles).

Even though it was poorly distributed, the game was very well designed, and in spite of their mistakes the designers got two very important things absolutely right. First of all, in a massive wave of imitations, the Star Trek CCG was not really anything like Magic, other than that it was played with trading cards and sold in random booster packs. Second, and most importantly, the game's structure reflected the tone of the source material extremely well. Although there is an element of direct combat, it's not a fighting game. It's a game about assembling crews, flying starships to planets, and undertaking missions beset by plot complications.

Each player (the game is designed for two but can accommodate more with a little tweaking) constructs a deck composed of personnel, ships, equipment, and missions, as well as event and interrupt cards. At the start of the game, a spaceline is created composed of six mission cards from each player, laid out by each player one by one in a line. Missions require personnel to be present with specific combinations of skills (such as Engineering or Leadership), attributes (such as Cunning or Strength), and sometimes other requirements such as particular characters or equipment. Each mission is worth a certain number of points (generally from 20-50), and the first player to reach 100 points wins the game.

Of course, there is a lot more to it than that. Before the game begins, each player gets to place Dilemma cards underneath his opponent's missions in order to make the mission more difficult. Some dilemmas require certain skills to get past, and others will kill or incapacitate members of the crew. They represent unforeseen complications that players must try to be ready for when they send their personnel to attempt a mission.

Initially, the game was based on Star Trek: the Next Generation and offered players the chance to play as the Federation, the Klingons or the Romulans, with a sprinkling of "non-aligned" characters and ships representing the various other races encountered on the show. Later, the license grew to include the original series, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, with expansions adding the Cardassians, Dominion, and even the Borg as playable factions.

The game was very successful and there were a lot of expansions, each one adding more and more complexity. The First Contact expansion added the concept of time travel, which was later expanded upon with a set of cards that allowed players to travel back to 1984 San Francisco and "save the whales" ala Star Trek IV. Just about anything that happened on Star Trek in any of its versions could be re-created in the game. But the real fun was in casting your own Star Trek adventures: suppose Dr. Bashir and Garak were given command of the USS Defiant, or Chakotay's Maquis ship and crew survived to explore the Delta Quadrant on their own? What if the Borg succeeded in assimilating Earth? How about Captains Kirk, Picard and Sisko leading an espionage mission to Romulus? The Star Trek universe is so rich, and so well-represented by the game, that anything seems possible.

As compelling as all this was, unfortunately all these added elements eventually caused the game to became virtually impossible to get new players interested in, despite several repackaged starter products that attempted to make it more accessible. After eight years the publisher chose to "re-set" the game with a Second Edition, offering re-designed cards and streamlined game play, but it never really caught on the way the original game did.

It is a testament to how compelling the Star Trek CCG is that a group of fans have continued to create new "virtual" cards long after the end of the game's official life. However, I think it's an even better testament to how well the game reflects its source material that every time I watch the show I want to play the game, and every time I play the game I want to watch the show.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Despite being on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own complexity, this is the gold standard for Star Trek games.

Date played: August 17, 2014

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gaming in the final frontier

Star Trek in most of its forms is an optimistic story about the intrigue and adventure that go along with exploring space. More often than not it is a a character drama, with the vast majority of stories from the various television series concerning the interpersonal problems the characters encounter when they visit new planets. Even the shipbound episodes tend to be concerned with the characters solving problems and interacting with one another, with notable examples from the original series being The Doomsday Machine and Balance of Terror.

Nevertheless, Star Trek presents its characters as part of a decidedly military organization. That military flavor is a fundamental part of the series, so it's really no surprise that the majority of Star Trek games tend to be about combat between starships, taking their cues from naval war games. The most successful and long-lived of these is Star Fleet Battles, a game that is legendary for being hopelessly complicated, yet has a devoted following.

It also has an unusual (and likely relatively inexpensive) licensing deal that allows the publishers to use the starship designs, organizations, and setting from the original Star Trek series, but none of the specific characters. So the game includes Klingons, Romulans and even Tholians, but can make no mention of Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock.

I've always been somewhat interested in Star Fleet Battles, but its reputation for being overly complicated has kept me from ever playing it. This most likely makes me part of the market targeted by Star Fleet Battle Force, a card game based on the same concepts and set in the same universe. It's a game that tries really hard to be simple and accessible, but it occasionally stumbles over what I suspect are various attempts to make it mirror Star Fleet Battles.

Players are dealt a number of ship cards which begin the game in play, either on the front line or in reserve. They are also dealt a hand of action cards from which they mainly play attacks and defenses. The attack cards must be matched up with an attacking ship's weapons, so you can only play a phaser attack if your ship has phaser cannons, a plasma attack if your ship has plasma weapons, and so on.

This core game mechanic is straightforward enough, but for me it causes the game's main thematic flaw. Since all players are drawing from a common deck, you will often have a hand of attack cards that require a wide variety of weapons in order to use. But if your ships are all from the same faction (Federation, Klingon, etc.) they tend to have the same types of weapons, so a lot of the cards you draw aren't going to be usable.

The game compensates for this by having each player's starting ships dealt out randomly, so that all players will most likely have a mix of different ships with different weapons. This is great for game play, but bad for the theme as each player will have a mixed fleet of ships from different factions, which seriously disrupts the theme of galaxy-spanning empires going to war with one another.

Star Fleet Battle Force used to be our laundromat game, since it takes up relatively little table space and doesn't take too long to play, but it suffers when compared to less random and more thematically solid games like Star Trek Fleet Captains or the Star Trek Customizable Card Game.

Rating 2 (out of 5) The core game mechanic isn't bad, but everything about the game is too random to be immersive or strategically interesting.
Date played: August 3, 2014

Star Trek: the Adventure Game is another game from before The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager expanded the Star Trek universe into the vast place it is today. But what it lacks in scope it makes up for in theme, as it is a game about traveling to different planets and having adventures, where each decision is crucial to the welfare of the quadrant (or at least, the score of the player).

While it's great that this game is about exploration and story rather than just being another ship combat game, what it amounts to is a two-player Choose Your Own Adventure. As a player reaches a new planet, their opponent reads from a book that describes the situation for the encounter on that particular planet, and offers several decision points that are influenced by the abilities of the crew tokens present, eventually arriving at an outcome that will move the score tracker in one direction or another.

One thing we noticed with this game was that once a player had a few bad encounters it was really difficult for them to recover, so that by halfway through the game it was pretty clear who the winner was going to be, to the point that it barely seemed worth playing to the finish.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) We enjoyed the novelty of this game when we first tried it a few years ago, but it seems dry and superficial when compared to similar games like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective or Star Trek Expeditions. The relatively poor quality of the components doesn't help mattters any.

Date played: August 16, 2014

Star Trek: the Card Game is something of an anomaly for a licensed collectible card game. It was published during an unusual "break" in the licensing agreement for Decipher, Inc.'s Star Trek Customizable Card Game. While Decipher was renegotiating their Star Trek license, which at the time only covered The Next Generation, Another publisher managed to grab the rights to make a CCG based on the original series.

Whether by design or by accident, Star Trek: the Card Game is as different from Decipher's game as possible, opting for a much more abstract approach to game play. Players compete to construct stories from Mission, Plot and Discovery cards. Crew cards are used to overcome Challenges played by your opponent, and in an unusual twist for a collectible game, the three main characters are common cards played to the center of the table and usable by both players.

It has some interesting ideas, and I like the idea of playing cards to construct episodes of the television show, the game is seriously bogged down by a nearly incomprehensible scoring and payment system involving placing and removing counters, and it suffers from some poor design choices that make many of the cards difficult to read.

Decipher eventually renegotiated their license for their Star Trek Customizable Card Game, and even expanded it to include material from the original series, so this game was largely forgotten.

Rating: 1 (out of 5) Even without comparing it to many much better Star Trek games, and even with a few unusual ideas, this game is mostly an unplayable mess.

Date played: August 16, 2014

I reviewed the Doctor Who version earlier in the list, and I really don't have much more to say about Star Trek SceneIt. It's an enjoyable trivia game, with some fun visual puzzles in addition to the usual tests of knowledge. The Star Trek edition definitely has a lot more source material to work with (Doctor Who SceneIt only covers the first three seasons of the new series), but that can be a down side too, as it has a fair amount of material from Enterprise, which we haven't seen a lot of (we'll debate the relative merits of the different Star Trek series at another time and place).

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Probably the best Star Trek video trivia game out there, limited only by the fact that in the end, it is just a video trivia game.

Date played: September 1, 2014

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A collectible card game without all the work

The thing I like about Smash Up is that it takes a lot of my favorite elements from collectible card games and distills them down to their most simple. It manages to provide the kind of game play I go to CCGs for, but without the added complications like collecting cards, figuring out combinations and strategies, and building decks. It's a collectible card game without all the homework.

The game consists of a selection of 20-card decks representing common genre tropes such as pirates, zombies, and ninjas, as well as some not-so-common ones like dinosaurs with laser cannons. Each player chooses two decks and shuffles them together to form a single 40-card play deck. Locations called Bases are dealt out to the middle of the table, and the object of the game is to score points by having the most character cards present at each base when it "scores," which it does when a certain number of characters from all players are present.

Each faction has its own gimmick. Zombies play cards from the discard pile, pirates move cards around between the different Bases, robots "self-replicate" by allowing their player to play a bunch of characters each turn, and so on. The strategy comes from figuring out how to make your two factions' abilities work together.

The point of the game is to occupy the Bases while preventing your opponent from doing the same, so it's not about confrontational combat, but rather about strategic placement and manipulation. There are only two card types, Minions and Actions, and on a normal turn a player can play one of each so it's easy to teach new players. Like the best CCGs, Smash Up presents a simple framework of rules and then gives the players cards which allow them to break those rules, in this case by playing extra cards, moving minions between the different Bases, playing from the discard pile, and so on.

At the same time, Smash Up avoids the barriers that stop most people from playing collectible card games. There's no collecting involved; the base set contains enough cards for four players, and each expansion is self-contained, with four 20-card decks and complete rules for two players. Choosing your two factions is the only deck-building involved, but that simple choice offers a surprising amount of strategic decision making, as the different factions work together in surprising ways, so a zombie pirate deck is going to play quite a bit differently from a zombie wizard deck.

Smash Up manages to offer the complex strategy of a collectible card game while at the same time being very easy to pick up and play without any prep time. It's a breeze to teach new players, and the slick artwork will help hold their attention.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) With all the different card combinations, we could easily play this very accessible game all afternoon.

Date played: August 5, 2014