Thursday, March 27, 2014

Better than you'd think

As I mentioned in my review of Fortune and Glory, I am a huge Indiana Jones fan who is frequently disappointed by the lack of good Indiana Jones table top games. Now, the Indiana Jones DVD Adventure Game certainly doesn't qualify as "great," but believe it or not, it is surprisingly entertaining.

At its heart, this is a tile-laying dungeon explorer not unlike Dungeon Quest. Players explore an ancient underground temple, scoring points by fighting villains and escaping traps, all while searching for the big treasures: the Lost Ark, the Sankara Stones, and the Holy Grail. The three major relics are worth a lot more at the end of the game, but they are also more difficult to acquire, requiring the solving of multiple DVD puzzles, and it is possible to win the game by quantity rather than quality, spending all your time escaping minor traps and fighting villains via what amounts to virutal dice rolls using the DVD interface.

The game's physical components are of surprisingly high quality, with nicely illustrated cardboard temple tiles and coins, and better than average plastic pieces of the Lost Ark, the Sankara Stones and the Grail, as well as the Indiana Jones figures.

The DVD features of the game almost seem like an afterthought. Other than the more elaborate memory puzzles that need to be solved to get the big treasures, there isn't much on the DVD that couldn't be done by rolling dice. It would only take a few nudges to make this into a very playable non-DVD board game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) For a merchandising tie-in, this game is a lot more fun than it has any right to be.

Date played: March 8, 2014

Fast food zombies

Like most games in James Ernest's Cheapass line, Lord of the Fries is a simple game built on a humorous premise: in this case, players are zombies working in a fast food restaurant, doing the best they can to get bizarre meals out the door with limited ingredients.

At the start of the game, players choose a menu from among restaurants such as Ratherbee's Steakhouse (home of the mighty cholesterol onion), Montezuma's Mexi-Deli (ostensibly food, affordably priced) or the original Friedey's, the fast food restaurant of the damned (featured in Give Me the Brain, another early Cheapass game). Once the menu is chosen, the deck of cards representing ingredients is adjusted accordingly, and all the cards are dealt out to the players.

Players then take turns calling out items from the menu that they hope their opponents won't be able to put together with the ingredients they have in their hands. Meals on each menu range in difficulty from simple one- and two-ingredient combos to absurdly difficult meals that require large combinations of cards. 

Once a player calls out a meal, play passes to the left, with each player given an opportunity to either play the cards needed for the meal or pass a card to the next player, with play reaching the player who originally called the meal last. If everyone passes (because they are unable to build the meal), play starts around the table again, but this time the meal can be made minus any one ingredient. The player who is able to make the meal gets to call the next one.

Play proceeds in this manner until any player gets rid of his last card. Scores are totaled based on the cards each player has played to the table, with the values of cards still in their hands subtracted from their score.

It's really just a variation on any number of traditional playing card games where the goal is to play cards in combinations and get rid of all your cards before the other players do, just enhanced by James Ernest's usual sly wit.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Lord of  the Fries makes for a good warm-up game, but like the fast food it makes fun of, the game gets old quickly.

Date played: March 1, 2014

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The perfect theme

When I first read the back of the box for the Lone Ranger Shuffling the Deck Card Game from Wizkids, the game play seemed perfect for the theme. Cards represent characters moving between the cars of a train, trying to put themselves in an advantageous position to collect the most silver and win the game. The climactic action scene in the film takes place aboard a moving train, so it seemed that more thought than usual was put into a game that was really just a piece of merchandise for a big summer movie.

The game is as advertised: each player secretly controls two or three (depending on the number of players) of the nine characters. These characters are laid out on the table in a row, with each position representing a train car. At the beginning of each turn, an adventure card is flipped over, showing what will happen at the end of that turn. Usually, characters in the positions indicated on the card gain silver, but just as often they can be pinned (not allowed to gain silver until unpinned by a player) or robbed by the characters around them.

The object of the game is to use movement cards to maneuver your characters into the positions that will gain the most silver. An additional goal is to keep the characters you control a secret for as long as possible, because if another player correctly guesses one of your characters, they get half of that character's silver.

It's a reasonably entertaining game for $10, and as I mentioned earlier, the game play fits the theme very well. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that the Shuffling the Deck Card Game series is Wizkids' "fill in the blank" generic game for licensed properties! It was first released as a Pirates of the Cursed Seas game (using artwork from the strategy game with the punch-out pirate ships), and there have since been versions for The Hunger Games and Pacific Rim.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Considering that it is mainly a piece of tie-in merchandise, this game is surprisingly engaging.

Date played: March 1, 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Before the mystery

In the classic Parker Brothers mystery game Clue (based on the original British Cluedo), players are tasked with wandering around the mansion of a man who has just been murdered, using a process of elimination to determine the murder, weapon used, and location of the crime. 221B Baker Street takes a similar approach, with players racing around the board to find which locations have the relevant clues needed to solve the mystery.

Kill Doctor Lucky, on the other hand, proceeds under the assumption that the crime is more interesting than the solution.

Players assume the roles of visitors to Lucky Mansion who, for whatever reason, really hate Dr. Lucky and want to kill him. Dr. Lucky moves in a predictable pattern through the mansion, and the goal of the game is to use movement cards to get him alone in a room where none of the other player's pawns have a line of sight, and play a weapon card with as high a value as possible in order to do the poor fellow in.

Other players will play failure cards to stop you; they are allowed to combine their totals to beat your weapon value, but the play goes in order around the table, so if a player decides to get stingy with the failures, they run the risk of letting you win. Additionally, the failure cards are not shuffled back into the deck when it runs out, so eventually there will be no more ways to stop a player from winning.

It's a pretty smooth game, if a bit simple. Room cards that allow you to move either yourself or Dr. Lucky to a particular location keep the movement less predictable than it might ordinarily be, but the ending can be a bit abrupt if a player gets lucky (pun intended) with a high value weapon card when the other players are low on failure cards.

Still, when we play this with friends they almost always want to play a second or third time, which to us is one of the hallmarks of a great game.

Kill Doctor Lucky was the very first Cheapass Game published by James Ernest in 1996. It is currently available as a full color boxed game from Paizo, but we prefer the simple black and white design of the original.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Not a game you'll play all day, but great for a few hours, especially if you're not up for something more complicated.

UPDATE 8/9/2016: The Paizo color edition is now out of print, but Cheapass Games has released a new 19.5th Anniversary Edition of Kill Doctor Lucky, which adds a few new rules and variants.

Date played: February 23, 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An ingenious solution

It should be readily apparent that we love playing games, and we're not going to stop just because we're travelling. However, traditional travel games don't really hold much appeal for us, and you can't really play Arkham Horror on your airplane tray tables (not even in first class). The solution for us is the unfortunately out of print travel edition of Reiner Knizia's Ingenious, a clever little tile laying game with Knizia's usual flair for creative mathematics and unusual score-keeping.

The game consists of a bag of double-hexagonal tiles, each printed with two colored symbols. The object of the game is to lay your tiles on the board in such a way that they create unbroken rows of the same color. When you place a new tile, you score points in each color based on the rows of that color that radiate out from the tile you placed. But, as usual with a Reiner Knizia game, there's a catch: at the end of the game, the color with your lowest score is the only one that counts, so you have to be careful to build up all your scores as evenly as possible.

It's great fun for two players, and it travels well, packed in a box not much larger than a paperback book, and taking up very little in the way of table space. In the travel edition, the tiles even lock to the board so you don't have to worry about them sliding around. You could probably even play this game in a car, as long as neither of you is driving...

Ingenious Challenges is a follow up to Ingenious which presents three different games based on the same idea of color matching and managing your score in the different colors as evenly as possible. It includes a Card Challenge, a Dice Challenge, and a Tile Challenge: all use the same colored symbols and a variation on the same scoring system, but they are subtly different enough that they don't seem like the same game with dice instead of cards or tiles.

Ingenious Challenges is also a great travel game, but for a different reason. Its relatively easy rules, bright colors, and complete lack of elves, space marines or Cthuloid monsters make it a nice game to play with the non-gamer friends and family you may be travelling to visit. And it comes in a very small box.

Rating: Ingenious 4 (out of 5)Ingenious Challenges 3 (out of 5) Both are great games, but the original is a bit more elegant.

Dates played: February 18 and March 8, 2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

Playing with pyramids

Although I find most traditional, "according to Hoyle" card games other than poker a bit too simple to be really interesting, I do like the idea that there are hundreds of games you can play with just a regular deck of cards. This is what caught my attention about Looney Pyramids (also known as Icehouse Pieces), a set of plastic, pyramid-shaped game pieces with which dozens of different games can be played.

The first game we decided to play, Martian Backgammon, is a two-player game played on an imagined board divided into a 5x5 grid. Each player starts with 15 pyramid pieces, five each of three different sizes, all the same color, stacked in groups of three with the smaller pieces on the top, then the middle pieces, and the larger ones on the bottom so that you end up with a tree-like shape.

The object of the game is to move all of your pieces across the board in a pattern that forces them to move through two full rows of spaces. Your turn consists of rolling two dice, and moving pieces the number shown on each die separately; for example, if you roll a five and a four, you can move one piece up to five spaces and another piece up to four spaces. As pieces move, they can be stacked on top of the same size or larger pieces of the same color, but not on top of smaller ones. They can also end their move on empty spaces, but that is dangerous because if a piece lands on a single opponent's piece, the opponent's piece goes to the back row and has to restart its journey across the board.

The game is very abstract but surprisingly engaging, with a lot of movement and strategy choices as you try to set up the safest path across the board for your pieces and also slow your opponent down by sending their pieces back to the starting row.

The next game we played was Volcano, which is the game I remember most enjoying when we originally bought these pieces. It's another abstract movement game, but rather than each player starting with and moving their own pieces, the board (again a 5x5 grid) is populated by several nests of pieces in 5 different colors, plus 5 distinct "caps," small pieces of a sixth color that sit on top of the others.

Over the course of the game, players move the caps, which cause the pieces underneath to spread out in a specific pattern. If any of those pieces land on a piece of the same size, they are captured by the player. Captured pieces are worth more at the end of the game if they are in matching sets by color, so part of the strategy is in which pieces you capture and which ones you leave for your opponent.

The third game we tried was Gnostica, a game played with pyramid pieces and a deck of Tarot cards (we used the terrific 8-Bit Tarot by Portland artist Indigo Kelleigh). At the start of the game, nine cards are laid out in a 3x3 grid to create a board. Players start with a hand of six cards, and one piece on the board. Orientation of the pieces is important, as they affect either the card they are pointed at, or the one they are placed on if the piece is set upright, pointed upwards.

Each turn a player can either activate the ability of a card his piece is either on or pointed at, add a new card to the board, or discard a card to use its ability once. The abilities depend on what suit the card is: Cups allow you to place new pieces on the board, Coins allow you to grow your pieces to a larger size, Swords allow you to attack other pieces, and Wands allow you to move your pieces on the board. The Major Arcana cards each have their own special ability, usually a combination of two of the suits.

The object of the game is to score nine points by occupying cards on the board. The game ends when a player thinks they will have the nine points on their next turn - they declare their intention to win, and then the other players each get one turn to try to stop them from winning by taking occupied cards away from them. If the player who declared doesn't have nine points at the end of their next turn, they are eliminated from the game.

We found Gnostica to be the least interesting of the three, although it's possible that it just isn't balanced well for two players. With two, we found the game endings to be too abrupt as either the winning player would have an unassailable position, or they could easily have a few points taken away from them, allowing the other player to win by default.

Rating: Martian Backgammon and Volcano 3 (out of 5), Gnostica 2 (out of 5) The two movement games were definitely the more interesting, with a lot of strategic choices. However, we found them to be very unsocial, as we tended to concentrate on figuring out our moves in silence rather than chatting about the game as we normally do.

Dates played: February 17 and March 8, 2014

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Monster squads

When Horrorclix was released in 2006, the collectible miniature/click dial treatment had been given to several games: the original Mage Knight, Marvel and DC Comics HeroclixCrimson Skies, which was two games in one (air combat and brawling pilots), and Mechwarrior with its giant robots. Strangely, the games' designers made no effort to make any of these games compatible with each other, and in most cases seemed to go out of their way to make them as different as possible.

Freddy Krueger takes on the Aliens
As the name suggests, Horrorclix features all the old standbys of the horror genre, including vampires, werewolves, zombies, Lovecraftian shoggoths and deep ones, and even ghost hunters and vampire slayers. Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street film series and Jason Vorhees from Friday the 13th both make an appearance via a special boxed set, as do the Aliens and Predators from the recent Alien vs. Predator film. They even did a large Alien Queen figure, and an even larger Cthulhu, which stood about 18 inches tall.

The game itself was sold as a more story-driven game than Heroclix, which tended to get right down to the fighting with little preamble. Horrorclix uses the same basic movement and combat system, but the character abilities have been greatly simplified, and the game adds plot twist cards and victim tokens in its attempt to add more narrative to the action.

Hellboy vs the Alien Queen
The plot twists and victims do add an interesting wrinkle to the game, especially the first few turns as each player's monsters scramble to consume (or rescue) the victim tokens in order to enhance their abilities. But in the end it still comes down to a fight between each player's squad of figures.

Rasputin, the Mad Monk
That said, the figures are pretty great. Aliens and Predators aside, the game wasn't beholden to a specific license, so the designers were able to be more imaginative with the characters populating the game. In addition to the standard werewolves, zombies and vampires, the game features some unusual figures such as a ghost-addled Rasputin and a whole set of sinister carnival freaks.

Fun as it is on its own, it's unfortunate that the game wasn't made to be more compatible with Heroclix, but the games are just different enough to make crossovers a bit awkward, and they are best played separately. They did release a Hellboy boxed set that was supposed to work in both games, but in practice the figures are a bit overpowered in Horrorclix and underpowered in Heroclix.

Wizkids Games has been releasing all of their new figures to be fully Heroclix-compatible, so hopefully they'll get around to re-releasing a few figures from Horrorclix. After all, who wouldn't want to pit a hunting party of Predators against the Justice League, or see if Doctor Strange can stop the zombie apocalypse?

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A great game that offers a similar experience to Heroclix, but is a bit easier to play.

Dates played: February 8 and 16, 2014

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Don't lose your head

Most collectible card games (the well-designed ones, at least) offer a tremendous amount of complexity and strategic depth. Players take on the roles of unseen masterminds in control of armies of creatures, fleets of starships or groups of intrepid heroes, fighting in epic battles with the fates of universes at stake. This approach works great for expansive settings like the fantasy world of Magic: the Gathering or the teeming galaxies of Star Trek or Star Wars.

Highlander: the Card Game, on the other hand, is a different story. The storyline in the Highlander television series and original film (we'll forget the bewildering sequel films for now), a tale of wandering immortals who must behead each other in sword duels until only one remains, has an "every man for himself" feeling that is at odds with the approach most CCGs take.

However, in the late 1990s pretty much every recognizable genre film, television and literary property was given the CCG treatment, and Highlander was no exception. Thankfully, the game designers understood that at its core, Highlander is a story about sword fights, so they made it into a game about sword fights.

Each player represents an immortal, out to win duels with other immortals. A player's deck consists primarily of fight moves: attacks and blocks to various areas, dodges and sidesteps, and specialized attacks and defenses such as slashes, parries and guards. Events and other special cards such as Head Shots and Bystanders give momentary advantages and add spice to the game.

If a player is lucky enough to possess one of the rare Persona cards featuring characters from the films and television series, they can use that character's Signature moves such as The Kurgan's Scare (which gets rid of bystanders) or Connor MacLeod's Slash (which is very difficult to block), but the game is just as exciting without them.

Each player starts with an Ability of 15, which is also that player's hand size. As the player takes damage from successful attacks, their Ability goes down, which means the more damage they take, the fewer cards they have access to each turn. A player's deck of cards is referred to as his Endurance, and if he draws his last card he gets to reshuffle, but loses five Ability, reflecting the exhaustion of the ongoing battle.

Each turn, a player plays a defense card to block or dodge his opponent's attack, followed by an attack of his own. Attack and defense cards are marked with a 3x3 grid of squares representing areas of attack: upper left, upper center, upper right, middle left, and so on. Attacks tend to target one square, while defenses cover a more general area of 3 or four squares. Dodges will counter any attack, but they usually prevent you from attacking in the turn you use them.

Players have the option to make Power Blows when they attack: they can double the damage they inflict if they discard 5 cards from the top of their deck to represent the energy being used on the strike. With the aid of a Head Shot card, they can even go for the win in one sword stroke.

The game's design is incredibly smooth, with the cards in a player's deck representing sword maneuvers and plot twists but also keeping track of the two variable game elements (Ability and Endurance) in a way that influences game play.

I used to play this game quite a bit when it was first published in 1996, but I didn't keep up with later expansions and hadn't played for years until I broke it out a few years ago for a friend who is a Magic player and a big Highlander fan. It struck me then, as it did when Katherine and I played recently, what a great, forgotten gem this game is.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Not quite a game that we would play all the time, but a solid, enjoyable game that perfectly reflects its source material.

Dates played: February 7 and March 9, 2014

I wanna be a cowboy

I love the western genre, and I love a good collectible card game. So far, Deadlands: Doomtown is the only game to successfully combine these things, and it has such a huge supernatural horror element to it that it is really more like a fantasy setting with western trappings than it is a true historical western.

So I was very interested when Wizkids (publishers of Heroclix) announced High Stakes Drifter in 2005, their first collectible card game, and since the CCG market was starting to dry up at the time, there wasn't much competing for our attention.

It was nearly 10 years ago, but I remember liking High Stakes Drifter. It had a purely western setting, with no fantasy elements at all. It used historical photographs for the card illustrations and included characters from history such as Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. In addition to the cards, the game used custom poker chips printed with text that affects the game.

We hadn't played the game since 2005, and after our re-examination of it, it was pretty clear why. Thinking back, I recall that a lot of the marketing for this game attempted to cash in on the Texas Hold'em poker craze that was sweeping the nation at the time. True to that marketing, the game uses several poker elements, including playing character and enhancement cards face down and players betting on whether they will win the round or not.

In fact, the game uses so many elements from poker (and so little else) that I found myself wondering why I wasn't just playing poker, a game which would give me much the same experience without having to purchase more than a $3 deck of playing cards.

As my good friend Robb put it, "playing poker is more fun than whatever it is HSD was trying to do."

Rating: 1 (out of 5) If you know how to play poker you should have no use for this game, and if you don't, poker is easier to learn.

Date played: February 6, 2014

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

With great power comes increasing complexity...

Heroclix is a tabletop miniatures game of superhero combat. It evolved from Mage Knight, using that game's ingenious click-dial and a simplified version of its rules, eliminating its tape measure guided movement and randomly placed terrain in favor of maps with printed terrain and a grid for movement.

One of the major selling points of both Mage Knight and Heroclix was that they were much simpler than the more involved fantasy miniatures games such as Warhammer, with each figure's game information printed right on the base (color-coded and read with the aid of a simple reference card), which could be clicked down to keep track of damage and changes to the character's abilities over the course of the game.

What really set Heroclix apart from Mage Knight was the fact that it featured recognizable characters, first from the Marvel Comics universe, with DC Comics following soon after. Finally, players could answer age-old questions like "who would win in a fight between Superman and the Hulk?"

Hundreds of collectible figures were released, with frequent new versions of popular characters such as Spider-Man, Wolverine and Batman, and a brief foray into the world of independent comics brought more obscure characters such as Hellboy, Judge Dredd, and even the cast of the City of Heroes online computer game to the table.

Heroclix is a great game. It's fast paced, and has a lot of strategic depth. There are a lot of tactical decisions to make during a game, and games are seldom predictable due to the random element of rolling dice when your figure makes an attack. The collectible aspect of the game is a turn-off for some: figures are released in random booster packs, with rare figures usually being more powerful. But for others, collecting the figures is half the fun. Most of the fun for me is pitting different groups of heroes against each other, such as Marvel's Nextwave (from the comic by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen) vs. the Avengers from the recent movie.

Even though it is one of my favorite games, I don't play Heroclix very often. While it started out as a refreshingly simple game, over the years it has gotten gradually more complicated, as the game's designers struggle to add new elements in order to keep longtime players interested, a phenomenon known in the world of collectible gaming as "power creep." Because of that it has become difficult to teach, and its current complexity makes it difficult to pick up and play every once in a while, much like any collectible game.

Many local game stores offer weekly tournaments, where players can get together and play in structured events, but that offers its own set of challenges. In order to stay competitive, tournament players need to keep up with the most recent figures released for the game, and there is just too much new product coming out on a regular basis. The only way to really enjoy Heroclix at the store tournament level is to focus on it to the exclusion of all else, and quite honestly I just haven't got the financial resources or attention span to do that.

I don't keep up with the game any more, but it still catches my eye when I see a new Heroclix product at the game store. The game's publisher has released figures from Lord of the Rings and even spaceships from Star Trek that use the same rules but are closed off from the more high-powered superheroes of the regular Heroclix universe (with Star Trek it is a question of scale as much as anything else). They've also started releasing fixed sets of figures with no randomness or rarity, and every once in a while I'll pick one of those up and convince my wife or one of our friends to spend the afternoon playing.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Heroclix is a very immersive game that drives me to distraction. It would rate a 5 if not for two major barriers to playing regularly: somewhat overly complex rules, and a flood of product that is impossible to keep up with.

Date played: February 2, 2014

Too many ideas for one game

A common criticism leveled at first-time novelists is that they tend to put too many ideas into their first novel, as if they are afraid they won't get a chance to write another so they have to get it all out at once. This can certainly be said about Heresy: Kingdom Come, a collectible card game originally released by Last Unicorn Games in 1995, during the first wave of games to come out in the wake of Magic's phenomenal success.

It's a little sad that, given the CCG format's inherent flexibility, most of the games in that first wave tended to copy Magic's game structure: use resource cards to put characters and support cards into play, attack your opponent with your characters, play interrupt cards to disrupt combat. Heresy was no exception, but it tried to make up for it by presenting a complex game world. Actually, several complex game worlds...

The setting for Heresy is a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by different factions struggling to survive. Added to that is a cyberspace element, with players able to move their characters into the digital landscape and attack their opponent's data nodes. And, as if fighting on both the physical and the digital planes wasn't enough, there are swarms of displaced angels who for some reason need cyberspace in order to get back into heaven. I'm not kidding.

The angels can fight with the humans in the physical world, and some of them can enter cyberspace and interact with what is going on there; in that way, they aren't that different from the game's human characters. However, the angels also have a complicated system of dueling each other one on one, and they have a voting system where all players (the game supports more than two and seems designed for multiplayer) can use their angels' influence to lend support to one player over another.

Playing Heresy feels like playing two separate games that sometimes intersect. One game is about the different factions of a post-apocalyptic world fighting for control of cyberspace. The addition of a second battlefield adds some interest to what is otherwise a bland Magic clone. The addition of the angels, with their one-on-one challenges and complex voting system to resolve conflicts, is a poor fit for the rest of the game, adding too much complication without improving the game play. It is as if the game designers had two mediocre games, and they hoped that by mashing them together they would get one good one.

The game's faults aside, mention must made of its stunning artwork by such gaming and comics industry luminaries as Rick Berry, Tim Bradstreet, William O'Connor, Brom, and Michael Kaluta, all presented on cards about an inch taller than standard gaming cards. The extra room lets the artwork really dominate the cards, which is great for the artwork, but the readability of the game text often suffers.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) the genre mash-up and oversized artwork feel like compensation for what is an overly complicated and mediocre game.

Date played: February 1, 2014