Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thousands of horror films couldn't possibly be wrong

Low budget horror movies are a pretty incredible genre when you think about it. Nowhere else is the cheapness and silliness of the product not only forgiven, but a major selling point. There are thousands of horror films out there, but the fan base seems to have an insatiable appetite for more, regardless of the films' relative sameness and heavy reliance on a hadful of overused clichés. In fact, identifying and reveling in those very clichés seems to be a large part of the genre's charm.

Which brings us to Grave Robbers From Outer Space, the first in Z-Man's now out of print line of B-movie card games. We've already reviewed two other games in the series, Bushwhakin' Varmints and Cannibal Pygmies, but to summarize: players use cards representing common horror movie characters, locations and props to construct a movie, and attack their opponent's movies using creature cards, with the hope of knocking out their opponent's characters. Whoever has the strongest movie when someone plays one of the two "Roll the Credits" cards is the winner.

But I don't think the game play actually matters very much.

What matters is that it is a reasonably entertaining game that lets players interact with the beloved clichés of low budget horror films. It doesn't necessarily poke fun at them so much as it celebrates them, since it is the familiarity of those creepy med students, dumb jocks, vampire hunters and shuffling zombies that make low budget horror such a surprisingly safe refuge from our mundane existence.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The game itself is mediocre, but the world it describes is fun to visit.

Date played: February 1, 2014

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The original Gloom, with a hint of Wheaton

During the poker craze of the early 2000s, I used to enjoy watching Celebrity Poker Showdown. Poker is an interesting game, but I appreciate it more for the interactions between the players than for the actual game play, and celebrities tend to have much more outgoing personalities than professional poker players.

When I first heard about Wil Wheaton's TableTop YouTube show, I thought "great! Celebrity Poker with board games!" Which is pretty much what it is. Wheaton's guests are a bit more obscure, but still interesting, and I'm much more interested in what's going on with the games themselves. I've bought a couple of games based on their appearances on the show (Tsuro and Smash Up).

Last year Wil Wheaton and TableTop's co-creator Felicia Day sponsored a worldwide TableTop Day, designed to encourage table top gaming and make a media event out of it. We participated at our local game store last year, and we're planning on doing the same for the second annual TableTop Day, coming up in April.

What does any of this have to do with Gloom? Well, we already played and reviewed Cthulhu Gloom earlier in the list, and the games are more or less identical to the point that it's not really worth owning both of them. However, at TableTop Day last year they gave out a special pack of promotional cards for Gloom featuring characters and situations from TableTop, so we bought a copy of the original game to go with them.

The TableTop cards are fun, with Story cards "The Loser's Couch" that lets you play additional cards on dead characters, and the "Table Top Trophy of Awesome" which gives you an extra card play on your turn. "Wil Wheaton, Notable Nerd" and "Felicia Day, Guild Goddess" move from player to player, offering game play advantages, and cards like "Bumped the Board" and "Distracted Dr. Hannah" commemorate notable events from the show.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) I like the Cthulhu version a little better, but the TableTop cards make this one pretty fun too.

  • Gloom official website
  • Gloom on

Date played: February 1, 2014

Thursday, February 13, 2014

It may not be Indiana Jones, but it's the next best thing

Raiders of the Lost Ark changed my life when I saw it in 1981, at the tender age of 9. Like any kid growing up in the late '70s and early '80s, I was a massive Star Wars fan, but Indiana Jones appealed to me even more. The 1930s setting was far enough away that it felt otherworldly, but close enough that I could relate to the characters. It's a few years before WWII, so you have the Nazis as a credible threat, but the narrative isn't taken over the military structure of a war story. I loved the color and texture of it all, with Indy's brown leather jacket and bullwhip set against the deep green of the jungle or pale tan of the desert.

It is a source of continual frustration to me that there are no good Indiana Jones tabletop games. However, "Indiana Jones-like" has become a fairly well-represented sub-genre in the games industry, and Fortune and Glory is at the top of the heap.

Players in Fortune and Glory take on the roles of treasure hunters and adventurers cast firmly in the Indiana Jones mold. The board is a map of the world, and the game involves traveling the globe in search of ancient artifacts. It can be played competitively as a race to gain a certain amount of fortune before the other players, or cooperatively to secure powerful treasures before the Nazis or the Mob get their hands on them.

When a player lands on a space containing an artifact, they must face a number of dangers such as perilous bridges, airplane chases, and shady nightclubs. They can be faced one by one, with time to recover in between, or players can barrel through, but they risk losing all the glory they've earned if they fail. The dangers are generally overcome by passing dice tests, and failure results in a cliffhanger which must be resolved on the following turn.

Once a player recovers an artifact, they have to sell it in one of the many cities on the board, which are fraught with their own dangers but also offer opportunities to gain allies and gear. All the while, a Zeppelin wanders the board depositing Nazi soldiers that must be fought, and villains such as Colonel Stahl and "Icebox" Eddie occasionally appear to fight the players or steal artifacts out from under them.

The game doesn't just scream "1930s pulp adventure," it screams "1980s movie about 1930s pulp adventure." The decision to use photographs of people in costume only serves to enhance the idea that you have somehow stumbled into an adventure movie that never happened. It even comes with its own soundtrack CD of original music.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) An excellent adventure game that really is the next best thing to being in an Indiana Jones movie.

Date played: January 26, 2014

Thursday, February 6, 2014

I've got a sinking feeling

In Forbidden Island, 2-4 players cooperate in their attempt to rescue four treasures and then escape from an island that is rapidly sinking into the sea. The island is represented by a grid of tiles depicting various locations, and a deck of cards with matching locations is used to determine which ones are lost to the water and when. Certain locations are more important than others, as there are only two possible tiles from which to rescue each of the four treasures, and only one helicopter pad for the players to escape the island from. Additionally, players need to make sure to retain clear paths between the tiles so they can move their pawns from one to another.

Players can control the rate at which the different locations sink by spending time during their turn "shoring up" locations. They can also play sandbag cards (if they have them) to rescue a sinking location in an emergency. Each player also gets a unique Adventurer card which gives them a special ability such as the Navigator, who can move other players on his turn, or the Diver, who can move through flooded areas.

As the game progresses, the number of locations that sink each turn increases, which does a great job building the tension and instilling the players with a sense of urgency. It really is thrilling when the group manages to rescue all four treasures and get off the island, and it can be devastating when the helicopter pad or the last treasure location sinks, making it impossible for the players to win. We sometimes get loud when playing this game.

The artwork on the cards and tiles is beautiful to look at, and the game components are of relatively high quality. Plus, it comes in a metal tin with a nice, solid plastic tray that keeps the parts sorted (a rarity among new games these days). All for less than $20 retail.

We play Forbidden Island fairly often, and we find that it is especially good for introducing non-gamers to the hobby. The beautiful artwork and components and the cooperative strategy will usually keep them interested, and can often work as a gateway into more complex games.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A terrific, high quality game that is also very accessible to new gamers, but interesting for experienced players as well.

Date played: January 26, 2014

Lunch is hell

Food Fight from Cryptozoic is the first game on our list that was entirely new to us -- a friend gave it to Katherine for her birthday, and very thoughtfully chose a game that started with a letter we hadn't got to yet. The only other games we've played from Cryptozoic are the DC Comics Deck Building Game (weirdly, Katherine liked it more than I did, even though I'm the superhero fan), and their Locke & Key card game, which I found to be overly simple and completely lacking in any thematic connection to the excellent comic book series it's based on.

Nevertheless, we tried to approach Food Fight with an open mind. It's clearly not supposed to be a serious game; it involves each player marshaling their units of military food items such as Private Pizza and Tech Sergeant Toast to strategically attack either breakfast, lunch or dinner. Troops are stronger or weaker depending on which meal they're fighting for, and can be condiments such as Medic Mustard. In a two-player game, players decide secretly which of two possible meals they're going to go after. If they both choose the same one, they fight against each other, and if they attack different meals, they must each face the dreaded Dog, a side deck of cards that provides random strength numbers for the player to pit their troops against.

It really isn't a bad game, it's just a very simple one. The theme is a bit silly, which wouldn't be a bad thing if the game had some interesting game play or strategy to it, but we didn't find that to be so. The rule book suggests a card drafting mechanic for the start of each round, where players chose one card from their hand to keep and pass the rest around, but with two players this just amounts to passing cards back and forth across the table, so we decided to skip it and play with what we were dealt. It could be that Food Fight is a lot more fun with more than two players (I suspect that it is) but since the box claims it can be played by 2-6, I don't think it's unfair to assess it based on our two-player games.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Although we didn't dislike the game, Food Fight failed to engage our enthusiasm.

Date played: January 25, 2014

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

You can't take the sky from me

It should be pretty clear that we tend to favor adventure board games, and that we also seem to like games based on licensed properties and/or with well developed storylines and settings (just wait until we get into the Lord of the Rings and Star Trek games). We like games that immerse us in a different world, and it's even better if that world is one we're familiar with through TV, film, books or comics.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that licensed games are mediocre products with a popular logo stamped on them in a bid for some quick cash (see most of the Doctor Who games on the market, for example). I try to approach new licensed games with cautious optimism, but it does sometimes seem like I am disappointed as often as not.

Which brings us to Gale Force Nine's Firefly: the Game, which is (thankfully) one of the most well-designed adventure board games we've ever played, and it perfectly reflects the tone of the television show.

Each player chooses a captain from among various characters who have appeared on the show (sorry, you can't all be Malcolm Reynolds) and a Firefly transport ship. The ships are differentiated by color, but they are all equal as far as game play is concerned (Serenity is orange, in case you were wondering). Scenario cards provide different win conditions, most of which revolve around either travelling to a series of destinations and passing dice tests, or amassing a pre-determined amount of cash.

The real fun of the game, of course, is in moving your ship around the beautifully illustrated board and interacting with characters from the show. Certain planets are trading destinations where you captain can buy from randomized decks of cards representing equipment and crew, from minor background characters to series regulars like Jayne, Zoe or River. Other worlds are are home to contacts such as Badger, Patience, or the dreaded Niska, who offer jobs for your crew to do in order to earn money and keep your ship in the sky.

Jobs tend to fall into one of two categories: deliveries, which require picking up cargo or passengers (or occasionally contraband or fugitives) at one location and delivering them to another; and single location jobs, which usually require some misbehaving (more on that later). At the same time, the Alliance Cruiser and the Reaver ship wander the board making a nuisance of themselves. The Alliance will stop your ship, seize any contraband or fugitives you may be carrying, and try to arrest your Wanted crew members. The Reavers, on the other hand, will simply try to murder and eat everyone on your ship, stressing the importance of having a pilot and a mechanic in your crew so you can get away from them.

Some jobs require one or more draws from the Aim to Misbehave deck. These are the unforeseen adventures that the crew runs into while trying to get the job done, and usually require that your crew pass a skill test, which involves rolling a die and adding your crew's total in a particular skill such as Fight, Tech or Negotiate. Often, there will be an alternative way to get out of trouble, such has having a Companion among your crew, or a fake ID, or a firearm.

Another fun detail that really reflects the source material well: when your captain and crew complete a job, you are supposed to pay them out of the job's proceeds, but you don't have to. Not paying a crewman gives them a disgruntled token, but you may not want to do this too often, as your opponents can hire away your disgruntled crew if their ship is in the same space as yours, and if a crewman ever gets a second disgruntled token, they leave your ship and go back to the planet they came from. You can get rid of your crew's disgruntled tokens by paying to send them on shore leave.

With all this open-ended depth of game play, it is very easy to forget about the scenario's win condition and just get lost in the game, travelling from place to place and seeing what jobs you can do and what interesting crew you can hire. One of the things I particularly like is that even if you are completely broke and have no fuel, you can always drift one space and you can always do "make-work" on any planet for some quick cash, so you're never out of the game, and you never have a turn where you can't do anything.

The game is complex, and the rule book can be a bit of a slog to get through, especially if you don't have much experience with this type of game. But the game's publisher has some helpful resources on their website, and if you're a fan of Firefly and/or adventure board games, you'll love the way this game transports you into the show's world.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) We occasionally question why we need any other games now that we have this one.

Date played: January 25, 2014 (and many times before and since)

Monday, February 3, 2014

It's a city...and they fight

Fight City was Cheapass Games' attempt to create a collectible card game without creating a collectible card game. By that, I mean that I'm sure they never had any intention of releasing hundreds of cards in random booster packs, but it was their shot at a game with customizable decks and a CCG-style rules set. It was originally released as two separate decks (one for each player) and later released in a "deluxe" two-player edition with both decks in one box.

The game system does its best to avoid being a clone of Magic: the Gathering, with a completely different way of using resources to pay for cards as they are put into play. Some cards provide resources in the form of white symbols in black circles, positioned strategically along the sides of cards. Other cards have similar symbols, but reversed with black symbols on a white background. To pay for a card, you have to line up the symbols, so the physical placement of the card on the table makes a difference. Cards that require resources will often provide others, so you end up with a mosaic, and losing a card from the middle can be catastrophic if it provided a needed resource.

Other than the resource system, Fight City's game play is pretty unremarkable. Characters have speed, attack, and defense values which can be augmented by equipment cards. Each turn a player chooses to either play cards, draw cards, or attack, and this is where the game starts to fall apart. In our games, we often found that one or the other of us would have a hand full of cards we couldn't use due to a lack of the right kind of resources. This would force one player to keep taking draw turns, allowing the other keep making attacks, which take away resources, which makes it even harder to get cards into play. In our games we found that it was very difficult to recover once you start losing in this way.

The cards are peppered with Cheapass Games' usual sharp humor, and feature many in-jokes and references to other Cheapass Games, but it doesn't really have a setting or storyline to speak of, which is something essential to most games of this type.

The game might work better if players had the opportunity to build custom decks and strike a better balance with the resources, but that isn't really possible with the 108 cards that come in the box. I imagine that if the game had been successful there would have been more decks released, providing a larger card pool to customize from, but we were unable to have a satisfying game with what came in the box.

Rating: 1 (out of 5) What could be a clever game system is marred by frustrating game play and a lack of depth in terms of strategy or story.

Date played: January 25, 2014

Spot the cliché

Everyone likes to poke fun at the clichés in cheesy action and horror movies. It's fun because it's so easy, especially if you're watching just about anything made in the 1980s, at the dawn of the home video age, and its fun because genre movies are so consistent in their use of the same tired tropes.

The creators of Film Frenzy identified that source of entertainment, and cleverly made a card game out of it.

Film Frenzy: Action Movie Edition is a card game meant to be played while watching an action movie, the more cliché-ridden, the better. The game's cards depict common action movie elements such as "shooting from a moving vehicle" or "impaled by scenery," each with a point value assigned to it. Players are dealt a hand of cards, and when you see something on screen that matches a card in your hand, you play your card to the table and draw a new card. Rewind cards allow players to play cards for scenes that happened earlier in the movie, and pause cards allow every player to discard and redraw as many cards as they like.

It's a very random game without a lot of strategy to it, but it can be a lot of fun with the right movie. For our game we decided to go for quality, choosing the recent comic book adaptation Dredd, starring Karl Urban and Lena Headey and based on the British Judge Dredd comics.

Dredd was long on a lot of the standard action tropes, but surprisingly light on others. There's only one real chase scene (at the beginning of the film), but I was able to get the "gloves" and "hand gun" cards out right away, and there were plenty of opportunities to play the "slow motion sequence" card.

I imagine the publisher's idea was to release a series of these, with editions for horror, science fiction, and so on, but sadly this was the only one they published, and it is long out of print.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Too simple to be really engaging, but fun for those nights when you can't decide whether to watch a movie or play a game.

Date played: January 24, 2014