Friday, January 31, 2014

There is a whole wide world outside of Arkham

Put simply, Eldritch Horror is Arkham Horror on a global scale. In Arkham Horror, players are concerned with gates to other worlds opening and sinister creatures coming through them. In Eldritch Horror, the gates are just a small part of a much larger problem, as players take on the roles of investigators scouring the globe, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the Ancient Ones and their unfathomable plans for the world.

It's easy to imagine that at one time Eldritch Horror may have been developed as Arkham Horror 3.0. The themes and game play are very similar, and a lot of the rules feel like attempts to streamline Arkham Horror. This could have been seen as the only option for a game that is slowly collapsing under the weight of all its expansions. Whether that's true or not, the game's designers wisely chose to make Eldritch Horror a separate but closely related game.

Eldritch Horror does an excellent job of being different, yet similar. The game takes a more global view of the Cthulhu mythos, which is more in line with Lovecraft's original "The Call of Cthulhu," a story which spanned locations from Louisiana to New Zealand. The whole scale of the game is larger, with locations representing cities and regions, players using influence to gather assets (rather than buying items with money), and encounters depending on whether a location is a major city, a site of archaeological interest, or an area of significance to the Ancient One (chosen from among four different options at the start of the game).

Each Ancient One's nefarious plans are represented by a series of cards detailing tasks that must be accomplished by the players in order to move the game forward. One down side we've discovered in our (admittedly limited) game play so far is that it is far too easy to get distracted by side quests and just exploring the world. Many of the side quests cause the players to lose if they are not resolved, so they can't just be ignored. The game's Doom track (similar to Arkham Horror and Elder Sign) creates a time limit which does a great job of increasing the dramatic tension, but it also means that spending too much time exploring can cost you the game.

Comparisons to Fortune and Glory, Flying Frog's globe spanning game of 1930s adventure, seem inevitable, and while Eldritch Horror is certainly similar, the grim Lovecraftian tone of it is enough to make it feel like a different gaming experience.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) We're enjoying the game so far, but we've only played it a handful of times and we haven't managed to win yet, so our opinion of the game could change after we spend some more time playing it.

Date played: January 19, 2014

UPDATE June 22, 2015: Another look at Eldritch Horror

You don't always have five hours to play Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror is one of our all time favorite games, but we will be the first to admit that playing it demands something of a commitment. It's a huge game with a ton of components, and it takes a long time to play, especially if you have a lot of players. There are eight expansions for the game, three of which extend the board, and playing with even a few of them adds quite a bit of complexity. I can't imagine trying to play with all of them at the same time.

These things are what make Arkham Horror such an amazing, immersive experience to play, but they can also be very daunting. Sometimes you want a trip into Lovecraft country, but maybe you don't want to stay there all day. For that, there is Elder Sign, a nifty little dice game that plays a lot like a scaled down version of Arkham Horror.

Players take on the roles of familiar Arkham Horror characters combating a selection of otherworldly Ancient Ones, but this time the tentacled monstrosities are menacing a museum rather than an entire town. Six cards are played to the middle of the table, representing different locations within the museum. Each one features a series of tests which must be passed by rolling a handful of dice with different symbols depicting investigation, combat, forbidden lore, and terror. If the dice you roll match the symbols required by the test, you move on to the next one; if you fail, you get to roll again, but you lose one die from your pool for each subsequent attempt.

If you pass all the card's tests, you win whatever reward it indicates. These can be equipment or spell cards, gateways to other worlds, or treasured Elder Sign tokens, which the players as a group need to amass a certain number of in order to win the game. Failure (by running out of dice) can lose your investigator health or sanity, add monster tokens to the table, or add Doom tokens to the Ancient One's card; if the Ancient One amasses a predetermined number of Doom tokens, it awakens and challenges the players to a probably hopeless battle for the fate of the world.

Like any good cooperative game, Elder Sign is difficult, but not impossible. We played two games with Yog-Sothoth as our Ancient One; we lost the first one, but we managed to win our second game, although we went through six characters over the course of the game.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Elder Sign has all the basic elements and theme of its more complex older sibling, but is a lot simpler to play. It will never replace Arkham Horror, but it is an excellent alternative.

Date played: January 17, 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

This dungeon looks familiar

I hate to admit it, but Fantasy Flight Games sort of tricked me into buying DungeonQuest. We're big fans of their Runebound game, and the Fantasy Flight edition has a Runebound logo on the box. I picked up the box at my local game store thinking it might be a new expansion for Runebound, but upon closer inspection, realized that the logo on the cover says "a game set in the Runebound universe." It's actually an entirely different game, and a reprint of an old Games Workshop board game originally published in 1985.

So what does "set in the Runebound universe" mean, exactly? Well, in fairness, DungeonQuest does include extra components that allow the use of its six player characters in either Runebound or Descent, which also takes place in Runebound's mythical land of Terrinoth. It also means they can re-use artwork between the three games, as well as in Rune Age and Rune Wars, much as they often draw upon the huge library of artwork from Call of Cthulhu: the Card Game for use in their other Lovecraft themed games.

It is also an excellent example of the value brand recognition. If I had thought it was just another dungeon crawl game, I probably wouldn't have even looked at DungeonQuest. As it is, the Runebound connection intrigued me, and I took a chance on the game.

As it turned out, we really enjoyed the game. DungeonQuest is similar to Runebound in that it is a race to the finish with minimal direct player interaction, so it's not very confrontational. Each player explores on their own, and whoever escapes the dungeon with the most treasure is the winner.

Players start in opposite corners of a blank board, drawing random tiles as they explore, revealing rooms, corridors, and the occasional bottomless pit, cave-in or giant spider-web. Cards are drawn to reveal different types of encounters such as exploring a room, searching the dead body of a previous adventurer, or raiding a tomb. Some tiles or cards reveal stairs to the catacombs, a dark sub-dungeon that is explored via its own deck of cards, with periodic exits that cause the explorer to pop up in a random part of the dungeon.

The goal of the game is to gather treasure, either by finding it along the way, or by making for the dragon's lair in the center of the board. The lair offers up much more valuable treasure, but it also has its own dangers: every turn a player stays to loot the dragon's treasure increases the chance that the dragon will wake up.

It's not all happy-go-lucky exploring though; there is a time limit. Each round, a sun counter advances along a track at the edge of the board. When it gets close to the end, the players have to start rolling a die to see if the dungeon doors slam shut, trapping everyone in with the dragon. This creates a lot of drama towards the end of the game, as players grapple with their own greed while deciding whether to keep looking for treasure or get out while they still can.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) DungeonQuest is a relatively simple game that gives players plenty of decisions to make, but with enough randomness that the game doesn't ever get boring.

Date played: January 12, 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The first 40 games: by the numbers

If you're joining us late: we're a married couple who spend a huge amount of time playing tabletop games. As a result, we have a fairly large collection of games, many of which we never seem to get out and play. So over the Thanksgiving 2013 weekend, we decided that we should make an effort to play every game in our collection. To avoid playing all our favorites first, we decided to play them in alphabetical order, or as close to it as we can, given the player and time requirements of some of the games on the list.

We've played the first 40 games on our list, which puts us one third of the way through...or at least it would, if the list didn't fluctuate from time to time. There were 120 games in our collection when we started, but there are currently 126. There may be a few games that we will quietly get rid of before their turn comes up (in fact, there already have been), and we will certainly get more new ones before we're done, but we're not going to re-name the blog every time we buy a new game.

Out of the 40 games we've played so far, we've given four of them a perfect 5 out of 5 rating. It may or may not be a coincidence that all four of them are published by Fantasy Flight Games.

Thirteen games earned a 4 out of 5 rating, twelve earned a 3, and nine earned a 2. Most of the twos serve as an example of why we're doing this in the first place; some games just aren't as fun as you remember them being.

Only two games have earned a 1 out of 5 rating: The Big Cheese, which is a small enough package to have been overlooked during our occasional game purges, and Doctor Who: the Game of Time and Space, which I keep for entirely sentimental reasons, even though it really is a terrible game. Chrononauts came close to getting a 1 for its sheer wasted potential, but its somewhat interesting solitaire variant saved it.

Seven of the 17 games that received a 4 or 5 rating were board games, and four were collectible card games (five if you count Blue Moon, which, while not collectible, employs a similar theme of each player customizing their own deck from a pool of cards). Only two were stand-alone card games (Bang! and Cold War: CIA vs. KGB).

Two of the three tactical miniatures games we played, Aliens and Dreamblade, got a 4 out of 5. Although I'm not sure Crimson Skies really got a fair shake, since it suffers when compared to other, newer air combat games like Star Wars: X-Wing and Wings of War.

The oldest game we've played so far was 221B Baker Street (our edition is from 1978), and the newest was Castellan (2013).

Our lingering affection for collectible card games is obvious: we've played eight of them so far (nine if we're counting Blue Moon), and only one received a score lower than 3.
It is interesting to note that Call of Cthulhu was the only CCG we gave a perfect score to, and it is also the only one so far that is still in active production. This bears out the idea that a steady flow of new cards is an integral part of this kind of game, and perhaps explains why collectible games tend to disappear from the gaming public's consciousness the minute they go out of production.

So that's the first 40. We can't wait to see what the next 40 look like!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why wouldn't there be a Judge Dredd card game?

The late 1990s and early 2000s really were an interesting time for gaming. Magic: the Gathering had taken the games industry by storm, and as a result, the market was flooded with dozens of collectible card games. You would have been hard pressed to find an active science fiction or fantasy intellectual property that hadn't been made into a CCG, so with its distinctive setting and cast of characters developed over 20 years (and in spite of the terrible 1995 film), Judge Dredd must have seemed like a natural to get the CCG treatment.

Detailed in the pages of Britain's 2000 AD Weekly, the world of Judge Dredd is one where humanity lives in giant mega-cities and the law is in the hands of the Judges, who dispense swift justice by acting as on-the-spot judge, jury and executioner. In Dredd: the Card Game, each player controls a team of five Judges; crime cards are "reported" to the center of the table from each player's hand, and then assigned to each player's team. Players then take turns adding locations and criminals from the Dredd universe to each crime. When a crime has both a location and a "perp," it can be investigated by the assigned player.

In true Judge Dredd fashion, players first attempt to intimidate the perp into coming along quietly, and if that doesn't work they enter into combat. Occasionally a game effect will remove the location from the crime, thus leading to a "chase" while the player waits for a new location to be played on the crime.

The criminal characters have signature crimes which make them more difficult to defeat when they are attached to certain types of crimes, so much of the game's strategy lies in sticking your opponent with the right combination of crime, location and perp so as to make it difficult for him to solve and score points, while at the same time clearing your own case load as quickly as possible.

The game is true to its source material in that it is definitely a game about catching and punishing criminals, and the artwork and lore on the cards definitely bring the Dredd comics to mind. Players can choose to focus their decks on street judges or psychics, but other than that there is little variety in deck-building or game strategy, so it tends to feel like the same game over and over again.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Not a bad game, especially if you're a fan of Judge Dredd, but not one with a great deal of variety to it.

Date played: January 11, 2014

The spice must flow

Avalon Hill's Dune board game, based on Frank Herbert's science fiction masterpiece and published in 1979, has achieved a kind of cult status among gamers. The game has been out of print since 1984, which adds considerably to its mystique, with copies selling online for $100 or more when they can be found at all. Fantasy Flight Games tried unsuccessfully to reprint the game in 2012: they were able to obtain the rights to the game from its original designers, but were unable to acquire a license for the Dune content from Frank Herbert's estate. They instead set it in their Twilight Imperium universe and published a revised version of the game as Rex: Final Days of an Empire.

The game play is relatively simple: each player controls one of six interplanetary factions from the novel, and attempts to take control of three or more of the five stronghold areas on the board, which represents a map of the planet Dune. Players control areas by shipping army units into play, and if two players have armies in the same area they fight it out.

The combat system is one of the many unique things about they game. When a battle breaks out, each player secretly bids a number of the units they have available in the contested area. The player who bid the most units wins the battle and wipes out all of the opposing units, but the winner still loses all the units he bid as well. So a player can't bid all of his units if he wants to stay in control of the area after the battle is over. Players on either side can use a leader to add to their total in the battle, as well as weapons to try to take out their opponent's leader and defenses to protect their own leader. Players also have access to treachery cards which can affect the results of battle, and at the start of the game each player randomly chooses one opposing leader as their traitor; if your opponent reveals your traitor as their leader, you automatically win the battle.

In addition to fighting over territory, players can collect spice from randomly determined areas of the board, which gives them the resources they need to pay for more troops. Even that isn't as easy as it sounds, as there is a roving sandstorm that moves around the board and wipes out everything in its path unless it's protected by rocky terrain or a stronghold.

At certain points during the game, the legendary sandworm appears, and players have the opportunity to form alliances. Players in an alliance share victory, although their victory conditions are a bit harder. More importantly, allied players can help each other out. They can't combine their armies, but they can pay for each other's army shipping, make use of each other's traitors, and they can use their faction's special ability to help all the other players in their alliance. For example, the Spacing Guild gets to ship armies to Dune for half price, the Atreides get to peek at Treachery cards as they are being distributed, and the Harkonnens start with four traitors rather than one.

Each time a new sandworm appears, players get the chance to withdraw from alliances and enter into new ones. For most of the game's hardcore enthusiasts, this wheeling and dealing is the real point of the game, and what sets it apart from other, similar empire building games.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) An intriguing and compelling game, but it really needs a full table of six players to get the most out of it.

  • Dune on

Date played: January 4, 2014

Friday, January 24, 2014

Dream a little dream

Wizkids Games pioneered the collectible miniatures game in 2000 with Mage Knight, brilliantly applying the blind booster pack and card rarity concepts from Magic: the Gathering to pre-painted plastic figures and adding the insanely clever clix base, which gave players an easy way to track the figure's game statistics such as strength, defense, remaining health, and so on.

It was only a matter of time before Wizards of the Coast (publishers of Magic) jumped into the collectible miniatures market with Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures in 2003, followed by Star Wars Miniatures in 2004. Both games took advantage of some massive brand recognition, and avoided the problem of coming up with an alternative to Wizkids' patented clix dial by simply printing each figure's game information on accompanying cards. This made it easier for the figures to be used with the D&D and Star Wars role playing games, and also provided Star Wars fans with yet another wave of plastic figurines to collect.

Both games were very successful, and in 2006 Wizards of the Coast added a third game to their lineup: Dreamblade, a much more abstract game with some very unusual characters and concepts.

The battles depicted in Dreamblade take place in "the shared unconsciousness of humanity." Since the game isn't locked into a particular genre or licensed property, there is a distinct sense that anything goes, a sensibility born out by characters such as Slaughter Boots (a giant pair of spiked boots) Decapitrix (a lovely lady with giant lobster claws) and of course, the mighty Octorilla (a giant gorilla with an octopus for a head).

The game's uniqueness doesn't end with the bizarre characters, either. Rather than literal, tactical movement using a grid or a tape measure, the playing surface is simple and abstract: five rows of five squares each. The object of the game is to score points by controlling the squares closest to the center of the board. So even combat between the figures is secondary to placing your figures in the right squares. The player who scores the most points each turn wins that turn, and the first player to win six turns wins the game.

Combat occurs when each player has figures in the same space, and is resolved using proprietary six-sided dice numbered one through three; two of the other three sides of each die are blank, and the final side depicts the Dreamblade of the game's title. When a Dreamblade is rolled, it activates many of the characters' special abilities.

This game reminds me a lot of the holographic chess game that R2-D2 and Chewbacca are seen playing in the original Star Wars, so much so that it surprises me a little that Wizards of the Coast didn't make it an official Star Wars game, since they held a license to produce Star Wars games at the time.

Dreamblade's simple area-based movement system and emphasis on holding ground rather than merely defeating all your opponent's figures is what sets it apart from most other miniatures games, but it also proves to be the game's major limitation. There is little in the way of immersive story or major variations in strategy, the two things that would keep players coming back for more. Even with all the weird, interesting creatures, the game can get a bit repetitive after a while.

A major barrier to getting into this game, and probably one of the reasons for its demise, was that it was phenomenally expensive, with starter sets and booster packs costing half again as much as other collectible miniatures games on the market at the time. It's too bad, because Dreamblade was really something unique.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) With its imaginative characters and unique game design, Dreamblade is fun to get out and play every once in a while, but the lack of strategic depth keeps us from playing it more often.

Date played: January 4, 2014

Thursday, January 16, 2014

It just doesn't feel like Doctor Who

Doctor Who fans often talk about the show's "undefinable magic." The vague something that makes it such a great television series, that inspires incredible devotion among its fans, has consistently defied all efforts to, well, define. Personally, I think it has something to do with the way Doctor Who manages to pile unique idea on top of unique idea. Its malleable format allows for an incredible range of stories to be told, free from the constraints of series with more conventional settings and characters.

That "undefinable magic" may be what makes the show so compelling, but it could also be the very reason why no one has managed to create a Doctor Who game that really feels like Doctor Who.

Cubicle 7's amazing Doctor Who: Adventures in Space and Time role playing game may be the one exception. Perhaps a free-form game format like a role playing game, as opposed to the more constrained nature of most board and card games, is the only way to get the feel of the Doctor's adventures onto the table top. Nevertheless, when Cubicle 7 announced that they were releasing a Doctor Who card game, I had high hopes.

Doctor Who: the Card Game is certainly an interesting game. Players put location cards into play, which they must then defend from their opponents. Monster cards are used for attacks, and the Doctor and his companions are used for defense, thus allowing each player to play the heroes and the villains. Successful defense allows a player to place a "defended" token on his location, and a successful attack means the opponent's monster stays at the location. A player wins if they ever has five "defended" tokens or five monsters in play at the beginning of their turn.

The game manages to avoid the trap that a lot of card games fall into, where a player's victory rides on getting the right combination of cards, by virtue of a "pass the trash" game mechanic that requires each player to end their turn with three cards in hand, which they then pass to their right before drawing two new ones. It's fast paced and features some great artwork of the Matt Smith Doctor, companions and monsters, but I can't help feeling that the theme is secondary to the game's mechanics.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) While the Doctor Who theme feels a bit painted on, the game itself is pretty engaging.

Date played: December 30, 2013

The Doctor Who Collectible Card Game, published in 1996, features characters and photo images from across the original series' 26 year history. However the game itself is an unremarkable attack and defense numbers game similar to Magic: the Gathering which, while not uninteresting to play, doesn't really feel like Doctor Who. I suspect that this game was developed with no particular theme in mind, just waiting for whatever licensed property happened to come along.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Not a bad game by any means, but fairly uninspired, and the only thing about it that really calls Doctor Who to mind is the card images.

Date played: January 1, 2014

Apparently, Doctor Who: the Game of Time and Space from 1979 started out as a fantasy treasure hunting game. Games Workshop bought the game design and decided that it would work for the Doctor Who license they had purchased but weren't using. Featuring many monsters such as Astro-Rats that are nowhere to be found in Doctor Who, and a few bizarre illustrations that look nothing like the characters they are supposed to be (in some cases their names are even spelled wrong), this game clearly used Doctor Who for brand recognition rather than inspiration.

Rating 1 (out of 5) Dull to the point of being unplayable, yet it remains in the collection for nostalgia's sake.

Date played: January 1, 2014

It is a testament to its "fill in the blanks" nature that there is a Monopoly set for every conceivable licensed property, and despite its utter lack of any connection to real estate investing, Doctor Who is no exception. The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary edition of Monopoly is a mixed bag. The board is actually quite lovely, and the traditional Monopoly properties have been replaced by episodes of the series with recurring monsters, which is an inspired idea. The text on the "chance" and "community chest" (here renamed "Gallifrey" and "UNIT") cards displays a fair knowledge of the show. But the playing pieces, which are supposed to be Doctor Who artifacts like the fourth Doctor's scarf and the sonic screwdriver, just look like bland lumps of metal.

In general I don't really like Monopoly, but playing this one I found myself having a good time, for a while at least. Unfortunately, we soon found ourselves just passing money back and forth across the board, and the game's fatal flaw as an elimination game that takes way too long to play reared its ugly head.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) As good as Monopoly can possibly be, but at the end of the day it's still Monopoly.

Date played: December 25, 2013

Doctor Who SceneIt was probably the most entertaining of the Doctor Who games on our list. I like trivia games, but I often find that the questions are a bit too easy if the subject is one I'm obsessively familar with, as I am with Doctor Who. However, in addition to the standard questions on cards, SceneIt adds unique video challenges where puzzle solving and reaction time play as much a part as trivia knowledge.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) More fun than your average trivia game.

Date played: January 2, 2014

At the end of our list of Doctor Who games are two versions of Top Trumps; one from 1978 and one from 2006.

The first one pits Doctor Who (a crudely illustrated Tom Baker) and the Legendary Legion, a bizarre group of fictional and historical figures, including Lord Nelson, Sherlock Holmes and Annie Oakley, against the Alien Attackers, a motley collection of monsters pulled from the first 15 years of Doctor Who. It's a simple game, but the descriptive text is surprisingly accurate, both for the monsters and the Legendary Legion.

As you might imagine, the 2006 edition is much slicker, with crisp images from the new series and somewhat overdesigned borders. The game is basically the same, with the cards divided equally among the players, who then compare statistics such as intelligence, darkness and courage, with the winner keeping the losers cards and play continuing until one player has all the cards. Great for a playground game, but a little juvenile for us.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) An overly simple game, although to be fair, we aren't really the target market.

Date played: January 3, 2014

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Everything is better with dinosaurs

Sometimes you just want to play a simple game. One that doesn't take 20 minutes to set up and four hours to play. Maybe you have half an hour to kill before it's time to leave for a movie, or you're waiting for everyone to show up for game night.

At the same time, maybe you also need to imagine that you are hunting dinosaurs for your dinosaur zoo.

The only solution is Dino Hunt Dice, a nifty little risk management game from Steve Jackson Games.

Players roll three dice at a time, chosen randomly from a cup. Each die has three symbols on it: a dinosaur, a fern leaf, and a footprint. There are three different colors of dice in the pool - green dice have fewer footprints and more dinosaurs, yellow have an equal number of each, and red are the most dangerous, with more footprints than dinosaurs.

Each dinosaur rolled scores one point. Fern leaves mean the dinosaur is hiding, and you roll the die again. A player can end their turn after any roll and bank their points, or they can keep pulling more dice out of the cup, rolling three at a time, but if you ever have three footprints showing on the dice you've rolled, your turn ends and you don't score any points for that turn.

It's an amusing little game and a great exercise in knowing when to quit. Plus it has dice with little dinosaurs on them, which is good enough for me.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A very simple game and not something we'd spend a lot of time playing, but for what it is it's pretty fun.

Date played: December 29, 2013

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The inscrutable Devil Bunny

I don't think there is any question that James Ernest is one of the most prolific game designers around, nor is there any question that he has a strange and unusual sense of humor. As the founder of Cheapass Games, he established a business model with such extremely low production costs that he could design and release a lot of games that never would have made it to market as glossy, high end products. Games with interesting and unusual mechanics, and games with themes that were always humorous and sometimes downright bizarre...

Two of the stranger games to come out of Ernest's fertile if somewhat deranged imagination are Devil Bunny Hates the Earth (2001) and Devil Bunny Needs a Ham (1998). Both games feature Devil Bunny, a cartoon character created by Ernest early in his career, and his weird needs and even weirder plans for fulfilling those needs.

In Devil Bunny Hates the Earth, Devil Bunny has decided that he hates the earth, and will make his hatred manifest by releasing a particularly unsatisfying variety of saltwater taffy. The players are sentient taffy machines who will attempt to destroy themselves by luring squirrels into Devil Bunny's taffy factory, thus saving the world from his wrath.

But none of that really matters, other than providing a glimpse into the psyche of a game designer. The strange story of Devil Bunny's salt water taffy factory is just an excuse to present a game about moving pieces around on a board. In turn, each player rolls a die, and the result of the roll gives him a choice of either adding a new counter to the board, or moving counters that are already there. Counters move in a specified pattern, and the player's goal is to eventually move six counters onto the space containing that player's salt water taffy machine.

If it sounds simple that's because it is, and unfortunately in this case the game never really gets particularly interesting. There is too much left to the random roll of the die, and not enough going on to give players much to do or think about.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) There's just not enough going on to hold a player's interest.

Devil Bunny Needs a Ham is a much more interesting racing game. Players are sous-chefs in a race to climb to the top of a tall building. Devil Bunny appears to be laboring under the impression that knocking them off the building will get him the ham he so desperately needs. It's a game about racing and forward movement, so the theme could have been anything (race cars, a marathon, people in an ill-conceived theme park running away from dinosaurs) but sous-chefs climbing a building makes as much sense as anything else.

Each player gets two or three counters (depending on the number of players and the length of game desired), which they move along a 6x21 grid of squares. Die rolls determine how far each counter can move, and on a roll of 6 Devil Bunny jumps on the counter in the lead, dropping it back to the start unless it hits another counter on the way down. The catch is that counters can't move straight forward, only sideways or diagonally, so the route to the top is a circuitous one. Additionally, after the halfway point on the board, counters that fall and aren't caught get removed from play.

The six spaces in the top row are each worth a descending amount of points. The game ends when all six spaces have a counter in them, at which time the owners of those counters total their points to see who won.

There is a lot more strategy here than in the other Devil Bunny game. The limits on forward movement and the need to protect your topmost counter give you more to think about, and while there is a random factor it still gives players choices to make regarding the movement of their pieces.

Rating 3 (out of 5) A fairly interesting light strategy game; something to play between other games or as a warm-up.

Date Played: December 29, 2013

Cowboys and monsters

The combination of the wild west and supernatural horror seems obvious now, but it was a fairly unique idea in 1996 when the Deadlands role playing game was first unleashed on an unsuspecting gaming public. Its setting, which populates the lawless American west of the 1870s with spell-slinging sorcerers and slavering monsters, was unique and very well developed, and was a natural to get the collectible card game treatment during the CCG boom at the end of the 1990s.

Deadlands: Doomtown revolves around the power struggle over a fictional California mining town that just happens to be sitting on the world's largest deposit of Ghost Rock, the mineral that powers magic in the Deadlands world. Players construct decks around the different factions vying for control of the town, from the greedy Sweetrock Mining Company to the sinister Whateley family to the Law Dogs, who had the unfortunate and probably hopeless job of maintaining law and order.

One of the things that made Deadlands: Doomtown unique was its strong story line, which progressed over the course of the game's expansions and revealed itself through text on the cards and changes to the characters in the game. The game's publishers even used the results of national tournaments to steer the story, with factions that didn't perform well being weakened or even eliminated from the game.

The most unique thing about the game, though, is its poker-based combat system. Each card in the game is printed with a poker suit and value, so when two players get into a shootout, they draw cards based on the strength of their respective posses, and the winner is the one who can make the best five-card poker hand using standard poker rules (with the exception that the legendary Dead Man's Hand of two black aces, two black eights and a Jack of Diamonds will beat even a royal flush).

Unlike most CCGs, Deadlands: Doomtown works best as a multiplayer game. Over the course of the game, players play location cards ("deeds") that provide either income or control (sometimes both). Income is used to pay for locations, weapons and characters ("dudes"), who provide influence. A player wins if he has more control points than any other single player has influence, so the game's balance relies on the players identifying who is in the lead and keeping that player in check. A two player game can end abruptly over a lucky (or unlucky) card draw.

In order to experience the game's superior multiplayer environment, we invited some of our friends over to play. We had a nice range of factions represented in our game:
  • The Collegium, a group of mad scientists who need ghost rock to power their bizarre steampunk gadgets;
  • The Whateleys, an inbred family of sorcerers straight out of H. P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror;
  • The Black Jacks, a gang of outlaws;
  • The Agency, government spooks from back east who are trying to keep a lid on things.

Our two friends hadn't played Deadlands: Doomtown before, but they are both experienced gamers and picked it up pretty quickly. We had a good time exploring the game's unique mechanics and setting, but the game did take several hours to play and we identified two major flaws in an otherwise well-designed game.

The rules governing how characters move from place to place are confusing and counter-intuitive (even to those of us who have been playing the game for years).

More critically, conflict in the game doesn't always come naturally. It's too easy for players to just have their characters hide out at their high-control locations, and it often takes a player just wanting to stir things up to get some action going.

However, the great things about Deadlands: Doomtown such as the unique poker-based combat system, the intriguing setting, and the colorful cast of characters, far outweigh the flaws in the game's design. It's a game I really wish we had the opportunity to play more often, and I would love to see an enterprising publisher pick it up and do something with it.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Deadlands: Doomtown is an incredibly immersive game, even by collectible card game standards. Unfortunately its nature as a collectible game makes it difficult to find players willing to get into it, and it really needs at least 3 or 4 players for a satisfying game.

Date played: December 27, 2013

UPDATE: Alderac Entertainment Group recently announced that they will be bringing Doomtown back, using the Living Card Game format made popular by Fantasy Flight Games with Call of Cthulhu, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Netrunner, and others. More information on Doomtown Reloaded can be found here.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Put a Cthulhu on it

Depending on who you ask, H. P. Lovecraft was either a master of cosmic horror or a hack who padded his word counts. Either way, his work has fired the imaginations of a lot of people, from his contemporaries such as Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith all the way up to the game designers of today. He definitely had a distinctive vision of the universe.

It helps that all his work is in the public domain, making it very easy for game publishers to use Cthulhu and Lovecraft's other creations, and perhaps going some way to explain the huge shadow he casts over the gaming industry.

Cthulhu Gloom is one of many Lovecraft-ized versions of existing games. In this case it's Gloom, a game whose transparent cards have always intrigued me, but whose "cute goth" theme has always been a bit of a turn off. With the game re-skinned and filled with Lovecraft references, I finally decided to give it a try.

Each player controls a family of five characters, and the object of the game is to play cards on top of them in order to make them worth as few points as possible, and then have them meet an untimely demise. When all five characters belonging to any single player are dead, the game is over and the points are tallied; the player with the score most deeply into negative numbers is the winner.

The transparent cards make for some interesting game play. Along the  left of each card is a row of between zero and three circles containing scores, either positive or negative, and along the right are different icons such as horror, investigation and madness, which are affected by other cards. As each new card is played on top of the previous one, these circles overlap each other, making the stack worth more or fewer points depending on which circles are showing.

I have since played the original Gloom, and the game play is virtually identical, but I enjoy Cthulhu Gloom a lot more simply for the humorous Lovecraft references on all the cards.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) An amusing diversion, but not something we're ever going to spend a lot of time with.

Date played: December 27, 2013

Just to be different

Wizkids Games released Mage Knight in 2000, inspired (so the story goes) by a need for an alternative to overly complex tabletop miniatures games such as Warhammer. Mage Knight consisted of pre-painted plastic miniatures with game information printed on a dial built into the figure's base, and was sold in random starter sets and booster packs like collectible card games. The idea was extremely successful, and Wizkids followed up with Heroclix, a similar game featuring characters licensed from Marvel and DC Comics.

Heroclix was also a raging success, so naturally Wizkids looked for other properties they could give the clix dial treatment to. The first was Mechwarrior, based on FASA's tabletop game of giant robot combat, and the second was Crimson Skies, also based on an earlier tabletop game, this one set in an alternate 1930s where America is divided into competing nation-states who battle one another using bizarre airplane designs.

It would be nice to be able to judge Crimson Skies entirely on its own merits, but unfortunately comparisons to Mage Knight, Heroclix and the later, similarly themed Wings of War and Star Wars: X-Wing are unavoidable.

Other than using the same click dial system to track damage and figure abilities, Crimson Skies seems to be an attempt to do everything as differently as possible from Heroclix. The attack and defense game mechanics are different, with Crimson Skies replacing Heroclix's single attack roll and fixed damage with a system that deals damage based on the number of individual dice that roll above a target number.

The game's movement system is the most well thought out change, given that it is a game about airplanes which move in a particular way. Rather than a tape measure or a playing surface marked with a grid of squares, it uses octagon shaped templates combined with a selection of cards which detail different movement options. These allow for more authentic yet very clunky movement, and the later Wings of War and X-Wing have greatly improved on the idea.

In addition to the main air combat game, Crimson Skies also includes a side game that allows players to play out the inevitable bar fights that pilots get into when they're not in their planes, but even that uses not only a different rules set to Heroclix, but the pilot figures are in a completely different scale.

The game was released in a completely different format as well, abandoning the random booster packs of Heroclix in favor of a series of fixed packs of figures with clear packaging. It almost seems like the whole thing was a test marketing experiment to try out everything they didn't do with Mage Knight, Heroclix, and Mechwarrior.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Crimson Skies isn't a bad game on its own, but it falls short when compared to more elegantly designed alternatives such as Wings of War, X-Wing and Heroclix.

Dates played: December 24 and 27, 2013

Yes, but who gets to play Conan?

Most collectible card games follow the basic model established by Magic: the Gathering, with players cast as unseen masterminds doing battle by controlling armies of characters and support cards. The designers of the Conan Collectible Card Game, perhaps concerned about the question of who gets to play Conan, decided on something a bit different.

Rather than controlling a hoard of Elves or a crew of Starfleet officers, Conan players each control their own version of Conan when it's their turn, and attack Conan with Foes drawn from a separate deck when it's their opponent's turn. But that's not even the most interesting part of the game.

The game itself is broken down into a series of fights between Conan and his Foes. Most of the cards played are moves in the fight: the cards have different symbols representing strikes, blocks, dodges and the like spaced out along either long edge of the card. The Foe player plays his moves face down, then the Conan player plays his moves along side them. The Foe moves are flipped over, and the combat is resolved based on where the different symbols line up. Conan can even play between two Foe cards in hopes of deflecting both attacks with one move.

It's a very clever game mechanic, and it suits the Conan property well, but in the end the game is still just a series of brawls, without the sense of epic empire building that makes other CCGs so compelling.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Not a bad game by any means, but lacking in the complexity and substance that would make us want to spend a lot of time playing it.

Date played: December 22, 2013

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Spy games

We're always on the lookout for good two-player games. We're also big fans of the British television series Danger Man (known in the US as Secret Agent) and The Sandbaggers, both about spying during the cold war era. So Cold War: CIA vs. KGB was a natural for us.

There are three parts to the game: the Objectives deck, the Groups deck, and each player's stack of Spies. Each turn an Objective is turned over and  played to the center of the table. Objectives are a mix of countries such as Afghanistan, Cuba or Korea, and situations such as Nuclear Escalation or the Space Race, and each is worth a certain amount of points.

Players each secretly choose one of their six spies to use for the turn. Spies have different abilities: the Assassin kills the opposing agent instead of winning the objective (thus reducing your opponent's options on future turns), the Director claims an extra Objective card if his player wins the round, and the Deputy Director can never be killed.

Having each chosen their spy for the round, players then take turns either drawing from the Groups deck, activating an ability on a Group, or passing. Each group belongs to a faction (either military, political, economic, or media) and is worth a certain amount of influence. Each card has its own special ability that can be used once during the round, depending on what faction it belongs to: military groups can destroy other cards, political groups can move other cards between players, economic groups allow a card's ability to be used again, and media groups will let a player peek at the top card of the Groups deck.

The goal is to play as many Group cards as it takes to get influence as close to the Objective's stability rating as possible, without going over. Each Objective has a limit to the number of Group cards that can be played, and a huge part of the game's strategy is this balance between the number of Group cards and their influence values. If your influence goes over the Objective's stability, your opponent wins the Objective and your spy dies.

Players play subsequent rounds until one player wins be reaching 100 points. Spies can't be used two turns in a row, so another important strategic decision for each player is what spy to play, and when. Playing the Analyst lets you peek at the top cards of the Groups deck before the next round starts, and the Master Spy reverses the winner of the round, as long as your influence doesn't go over the Objective's stability.

There are a lot of decisions to make over the course of the game, and there is a fair amount of tension as players draw and use the Group cards, both of which do a great job of reflecting the nature of the post-WWII cold war.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A deceptively simple and engaging game with a low price tag.

Date played: December 21, 2013

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

If only you could change history

At the center of Chrononauts is a brilliant game mechanic: a grid of 32 cards representing significant events in 19th and 20th century history, starting with Lincoln's assassination in 1865 to the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. Events are divided into linchpins and ripplepoints; if you change a linchpin event, the card is flipped over to reveal an alternate version of the event, and certain ripplepoints are turned over to indicate the paradoxes created by changing that particular event in history. Patch cards can then be played to repair the paradoxes with alternate versions of history.

Unfortunately, the game that was built around this mechanic is a massive disappointment.

At the start of the game, each player is given an identity and a mission. The identity tells the player which alternate version of history they need to make happen in order to win the game, usually a combination of one unaltered and two altered historical events. The mission gives the player an alternate victory condition in the form of three artifact cards from among the 15 in the deck that need to be put into play.

Because the game allows players to discard and draw in place of a card play, it becomes a race to see who can draw either the patches or the artifacts they need, or one of a few cards that let you search the deck or discard pile, first. Since there is only one of each patch and artifact, if you see another player discard one you need, your only hope is to draw either a "search the discard pile" card or one that lets you switch your mission or identity. The game is too chaotic and relies entirely on luck of the draw, with little to no strategy.

There is a solitaire version of the game that is actually a lot more interesting to play. It is played with only the patch cards and the cards that allow you to turn over cards in the timeline. You deal out 10 face up identity cards, and you goal is to manipulate the timeline and see how many of the identities you can send home to their particular alternate universes before the deck runs out of cards. Unlike the main game, this variant involves a lot more strategic decision making as you are changing events in the timeline back and forth.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) A great idea for a game that unfortunately falls far short of its potential. This game would have a rating of 1 if not for the much more interesting solitaire variant.

Date played: December 21, 2013

Building a better castle

Steve Jackson Games is one of the surprisingly few game publishers who do a lot of advertising. At least, they do a lot of advertising in comic books, and since I regularly read a lot of comic books, I see their ads all the time. They ran ads for Castellan for several months prior to the game's release, with an intriguing image of a castle built out of interlocking plastic parts and the tag line "cooperate to build the castle...compete to control it."

The ads did their job perfectly, and I bought the game as soon as it was published.

Players start with a hand of four cards, each depicting a number of short walls, long walls, and/or connecting towers. For each card you play on your turn, you get that many pieces to add to the castle that is being built by both players in the center of the table. You can play as many cards as you have, but you only get one new card each turn so you have to think carefully about when and how much to play.

Over the course of the game, players build a castle out of the walls and towers. If you enclose an area, you claim it as your own and score points at the end of the game based on the number of towers connected to it. The game ends when all the pieces have been used.

One of the things I really like about board games is their physicality. I like holding the pieces in my hands and seeing them on the table, so Castellan fascinated me from the beginning, but there is also quite a bit of strategy to the game. You have to decide how many cards to play each turn, what combination of walls and towers you can get the most use out of, and how to place the pieces in order to get as much out of them as you can for yourself, while avoiding giving your opponent too much to work with. The cards you draw come from two separate decks, one with mostly walls and one with mostly towers, so you even have to think about which deck to draw from each turn.

Best of all, though, is that I have an excuse to build little plastic castles. I'm sure Lego is kicking themselves for not having thought of this game first...

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A terrific abstract strategy game, made less abstract by the wonderful wall and tower playing pieces.

Date played: December 21, 2013

Raiders of the lost card game

Cannibal Pygmies in the Jungle of Doom is another in the B-movie card game series by Z-Man Games. It was the first one to be published after the original Grave Robbers From Outer Space, and the theme, as you may have guessed, is adventure films such as the Indiana Jones series.

We played the first B-movie card game on our list (Bushwhakin' Varmints Out of Sergio's Butte) as a two player game, and found it to be fun enough but lacking in any real strategy, with luck of the draw ruling the game. For this one, we decided to enlist a couple of friends to get a better sense of how the game system plays with a larger group.

Usually, games like this play better with more players, but I found this to not really be the case at all with Cannibal Pygmies. Having four players instead of two mainly served to make the game take longer to play, and if anything made it more random and chaotic, as any player who got even a little bit ahead got ganged up on by the other players.

One of the main points of strategy in the B-movie series is the timing of when to play the Roll the Credits card. It ends the game, so if you find yourself with one of the two in the deck, you want to hold onto it so you can end the game when you have the most points and your opponents have the least. Unfortunately the game also ends when the deck of 120 cards runs out, which happens a lot faster when there are more players.

The couple we played with are very experienced gamers, and fairly critical ones, so talking about the game with them made me reassess some of my opinions about this game series. One bone of contention for us is the fact that the theme doesn't really fit the game mechanics. The theme is that players are making low budget genre movies, casting actors, putting them in locations and giving them props, and applying special effects to affect the game. However, this idea falls down with the core game mechanic of using creature cards to attack your opponent's cards. It reduces the game to a fairly simple series of attacks and defenses which fits the idea of genre adventure, but not the idea of making movies.

I have a lot of affection for the B-movie games, but some of that may be because they came out when I was starting to make the transition from collectible games to stand-alone board and card games, and they have a bit of the flavor of both. Under closer scrutiny, this game starts to look like a fairly unremarkable combat game with the B-movie idea grafted onto it to give it a humorous gimmick.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Once you get past the jokes about adventure movie cliches, the game itself is unremarkable.

Date played: December 18, 2013

Monday, January 6, 2014


There are two possible sense-memory responses when hearing the name "Camelot." The first possibility is the stirring chorus of "O Fortuna" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, beloved of goths everywhere and brought to popular attention in John Boorman's 1981 film Excalibur. But it's much more likely that it will be the "Knights of the Round Table" musical number from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I fall into the latter category, so in spite of the relatively serious, scholarly tone of Camelot Legends, whenever I play it I can't help but mutter "it's only a model" under my breath when we set out the Camelot location card.

If you can get past the Monty Python associations, Camelot Legends is an interesting game that features a basic quest solving and location control game mechanics along with some excellent artwork and literary detail. Most of the cards represent knights, squires and damsels whom the players control in order to complete quests played to specific locations (Camelot, Cornwall and the Perilous Forest) from a separate Events deck, which is also sprinkled with cards that give certain characters temporary bonuses to their abilities.

Each character has six ability scores, and the quests usually involve having a certain amount of one of these abilities (such as Chivalry, Diplomacy or Cunning) at one of the three locations. Completed quests are worth points that are totaled at the end of the game, after one of three possible Final Events are completed.

Game play is relatively simple and straightforward, but there is very little depth to it, with games frequently hinging on which player is lucky enough to draw the best characters for the quests in play. However, the Event Deck is made up of a certain number of cards based on the number of players, plus one randomly chosen Final Event, which prevents the games from being too repetitive.  The main character deck is large enough that you don't usually see the same characters in every game, either.

On the rare occasion that we get this game out we always find it more engaging than we think we're going to, but that same simplicity prevents it from really making us want to play it a lot.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A good light game, but not one with a lot of strategy to it.

Date played: December 8, 2013

UPDATE July 20, 2015: Another look at Mystery Rummy, Lost Cities, and Camelot Legends

Friday, January 3, 2014

Desperation and paranoia

Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game is a cooperative game in which players take on the roles of the crew and passengers of the beleaguered Galactica, struggling to excape the Cylons and get the last survivors of the human race to a safe haven.

There are four types of characters: military leaders, political leaders, pilots, and support personnel, and the game setup forces the players to choose a balance of the four types. An Admiral, responsible for directing the fleet's movement, is chosen from among the military leaders, and a President is chosen from the political leaders and given access to a special deck of cards that can help the fleet by boosting morale and increasing other resources that dwindle over the course of the game.

Players work together to defend against the Cylons get the fleet to safety. But there's a catch: one or two of the players (depending on the total number playing) are secretly Cylons, working against the fleet towards their own victory conditions. And even the catch has a catch: the Cylon players may not even know they're Cylons until halfway through the game.

Viewed simply as a cooperative survival game, Battlestar Galactica has some great mechanics for fighting off waves of Cylon Raiders and struggling to hold on to valuable resources like food, fuel and population. But the addition of the "who's a Cylon?" twist is what makes the game brilliant, and is also why it reflects the desperation and paranoia of the television series so well.

Our game had five players. The characters chosen were William Adama (military leader), Gaius Baltar, Tory Foster (both political leaders), Sam Anders (pilot), and Galen Tyrol (support). Adama was given the Admiral title, and Baltar the dubious honor of being President. The Admiral and the President both have a tremendous amount of power in the game, with the Admiral able to control how quickly the fleet reaches its destination (victory for the human players) and the President able to manipulate the fleet's resources. So if either one ends up being a Cylon, the fleet is in serious trouble.

Naturally, in our game both the President and the Admiral were Cylons.

Neither player would tell the rest of us whether they were Cylons from the beginning or the mid-game point, but they both played their roles so subtly that we never really knew for sure until close to the end. We even locked poor Sam Anders in the brig for a while, suspecting that he might be a Cylon, which left us without a pilot to help fight off the constantly attacking raiders.

Our game was pretty hopeless: we were down to either running out of population, or having Cylon Centurions overrun Galactica, and having an Admiral stalling our fleet's progress and a President not doing anything to help, we didn't stand much of a chance. Most people who play this game will agree that it is much harder to win as the humans, but that's one of the things that makes it exciting, and so much like the television series.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) The only reason we don't play Battlestar Galactica all the time is that it really needs 5-6 players for a satisfying game.

Date played: December 7, 2013

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Still hearing the Call of Cthulhu

I love collectible card games. I started in the hobby in the early 1990s, not with Magic: the Gathering like most people do, but a little later with a few of the standouts in the first wave of imitators: On the Edge and Decipher's Star Trek Customizable Card Game. Later on I started playing the Star Wars CCG (released well before word of the prequels hit), and many others from the truly innovative like Deadlands: Doomtown, to the utterly silly like the one based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I love the idea of creating a unique deck from a collection of cards and testing it against others who have done the same. I was never crazy about the collectible aspect, with some cards being rarer than others and sometimes commanding ridiculous prices on the secondary market, but it didn't bother me enough to deter me from enjoying the games. It did mean that obsessive players could spend a lot of money on their collections, and the market for such games shrank considerably with the economic downturn of the early 2000s.

Fantasy Flight Games had entered the market late with two CCGs based on licensed properties: A Game of Thrones (based on the George R. R. Martin novels) in 2002 and Call of Cthulhu, based on the Chaosium role playing game which was in turn based on the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, R. W. Chambers, and other pulp horror writers, in 2004. The bottom fell out of the CCG market soon after, but rather than give up on their games, the publisher altered the format somewhat, repackaging both games as boxed card games with fixed expansion packs. Both games are active and vital to this day, along with several others that follow the same model.

Call of Cthulhu: the Card Game (as it was re-christened) more or less follows the standard CCG model, with players pitting armies of characters and support cards against one another for control of the table, in this case represented by three story cards played from a separate story deck. Each successful attack on a story adds success tokens, and five success tokens means you've won that particular story, which is then replaced. The first player to win three stories wins the game.

The combat mechanics are simple but allow for a huge variety of play options and strategies, and a unique system that allows any card from your hand to be played as a resource to pay for cards you put in play means you never have a useless card in your hand. It's a compelling game, but for me its two real strengths are the unusual setting of a 1930s New England ravaged by supernatural creatures, and the incredible artwork used to illustrate the cards.

We play this game fairly regularly thanks to a well-organized group that holds events at one of our local game stores, and by an amazing coincidence there just happened to be a tournament going on when Call of Cthulhu came up on the list.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) This game has held our interest since we first started playing it in 2004. Thanks to the incredible versatility of the format in general and the compelling nature of this game in particular, we will frequently spend entire days playing, either at home or at an organized event.

Date played: December  7, 2013