Thursday, May 29, 2014

Late to the table: Betrayal at the House on the Hill

Generally speaking, the point of this exercise is to play through all the games in our collection with an eye towards assessing their playability and in many cases answering the question "why do we never play this game?" One would hope that would be less of a question with new games that we pick up, but I like that these reviews also serve as documentation of our game collection, so we're going to add new games to the list as we get them.

For the sake of continuity, it would be nice if we could only buy new games that start with letters of the alphabet that we haven't got to yet, but that's not always going to be practical, so we will occasionally be backtracking. All of which brings us to Betrayal at the House on the Hill.

A friend of ours who isn't really a gamer visits us to play games every weekend. We've tried out many of our games on him, and he likes most of them, although he tends to favor less complex games like Blue Moon City or Tokaido. He also really likes haunted houses. He bought a copy of Betrayal at the House on the Hill, and, reasoning that he probably wouldn't play it with anyone else, he gave it to us to keep in our collection, with the understanding that it will always be available for him to play with us.

Each player takes on the role of an iconic horror movie character such as the dumb jock, the twitchy professor, or the precocious kid, exploring a haunted mansion by laying down tiles that represent different rooms and hallways. Each new room entered requires the player to draw a card, either an Event that has a one-time effect, a useful Object such as a weapon, or an Omen that moves the game's plot along. After each Omen is drawn, the player who drew it rolls the dice, and if they roll less than the number of Omens that have been drawn so far, the Haunt begins.

This is where the game gets interesting. When the Haunt is triggered, the players refer to a scenario book, cross-referencing the specific Omen that triggered the Haunt with the room it was found in to determine which of 50 different storylines will now be played out, and which player has been revealed as the Traitor.

The Traitor player is now working against the other players to fulfill whatever goal the Haunt requires. Sometimes the player's character turns into a giant two-headed snake whose goal is to destroy the house, sometimes their character stays in the game to assist whatever monster has been revealed. Meanwhile, the other players are given a specific goal they need to reach to defeat the Traitor, such as killing the monster or finding a particular object and taking it to a particular room.

As of this writing I've played Betrayal at the House on the Hill three times, and I've been the Traitor every single time.

There is a lot of suspense in the build-up to the Haunt, with all the players knowing that one of them could be revealed as the traitor at any moment. Much like many horror films, once the monster is revealed, it becomes an action-packed race to either destroy the monster, escape the house, or fulfill whatever goal has been assigned to the players.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A fun romp that has some of the feel of Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness combined with the paranoia of Battlestar Galactica, but without all the complexity.

Date played: April 27, 2014

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Form over function

Over the course of playing games for this blog, we have occasionally found that some games just aren't as good as we remember them being. I believe a lot of that is due to our standards (and the standards of board games in general) being higher than they were when we were first getting started in the hobby. Some games seemed great at the time simply because we had little basis for comparison, and others have been replaced by better variations on the same theme (sorry, Crimson Skies...).

As we worked our way through the letter L, the game that I was kind of dreading revisiting was Lunch Money. I remember really liking the game and playing  it quite a bit, but I also remember that it had some issues, and I was afraid those issues would supersede whatever it was that I liked about the game.

Lunch Money works best with a full table (the box says 2-4 players, but I think it's best for 4-6), so we took advantage of a game day with some friends to try it out. I'm happy to report that, while the game's issues are still there, everyone enjoyed the game a lot more than I was expecting.

For those of you who aren't familiar, Lunch Money is a card game intended to simulate a street brawl. The game's name and ironic card images have led a lot of players to assume that it's meant to be a playground fight among children, but reading the flavor text and card titles, I believe it's supposed to be a classic street rumble with knives, chains and optional leather jackets.

The object of the game is to deal damage to the other players until they run out of their 15 life points. The game play relies heavily on card combinations: on my turn I play an attack against another player, and that player has to defend against it, if they have the right cards to do so. Some attacks can be played in combination with others to do more damage, and some defenses can be followed up with counterattacks. There is also the dreaded Humiliation card, which can be played on any player to cancel whatever they're doing and follow it up with an attack that can't be defended against.

It's fast paced and fun, but Lunch Money does have two major issues that prevent it from being a great game, and unfortunately both of those are easily corrected production issues and have nothing to do with the actual game play.

The cards are illustrated with atmospheric photography (you've never seen a little girl look so sinister) and amusing quotes. They are color-coded to indicate the difference between the card types such as basic attacks, special attacks, defenses, weapons and so on, but the colors can be murky and difficult to distinguish. A bigger issue is that many cards in the game can only be played in combination with other cards, or have other special game effects, and none of that game text is printed on the cards themselves.

This lack of practical information on the cards results in a lot of referring to the rules, which slows down what was clearly designed to be a fast game and makes it difficult to teach the game to new players. I found a terrific player reference sheet here, which helped immensely but wouldn't be needed if the publishers had thought to print a bit of helpful game text on the cards themselves.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Lunch Money is a fast and action packed game that is a lot of fun. It would have rated higher if not for the issues with game text on the cards.

Date played: April 26, 2014

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Middle-earth for two

Lord of the Rings: the Search is a simple but engaging tile-laying game for two players. It isn't a cooperative game like many Lord of the Rings games tend to be, but it isn't overly confrontational either, being essentially a race to see who can navigate the tiles more effectively and get to Mount Doom first.

The tiles depict four types of terrain: mountains, deserts, forests, and water. Each tile is divided into between two and four areas of different terrain, so that when they are laid out the form regions of various sizes which must be navigated by the players. A player can't move into a water space until he has procured a boat.

Any region that is formed from exactly two tiles gets a counter placed on it: face-up allies and treasures in the desert, water and forest spaces, and face-down monsters in the mountain spaces. Any time a player moves into an area with a tile they either collect the ally or treasure, or fight the monster, which takes up valuable turns, although about half of the monster counters are blank and don't need to be fought. At any time, a player can trade in two defeated monsters (including blanks) to get a boat so he can move through the water spaces.

Players draw and place one new tile each turn, matching up terrain edges until no further tiles can be played. At this point Mount Doom appears, and it becomes a race. The game ends when a player reaches Mount Doom, but that player isn't necessarily the winner (although they do get a bonus to their score).

The players' final scores are determined by the number of counters they have collected throughout the game. Ally and treasure counters are printed with a value, but they can also be used during the game to help with combat or gain extra moves. These need to be used sparingly, however, as used tiles will deduct one point from your score rather than adding their value.

Two counters of special note are Gollum and the Ring. A player gains five extra points if they reach Mount Doom with Gollum and the Ring. They get four points if they get there with just the Ring, but they lose a point if they're stuck with Gollum at the end of the game and they haven't reached Mount Doom.

It's a simple, relaxing game that nonetheless has a fair amount of strategy and decision-making to it. Since it only accommodates two it's no good for gaming groups, but it's a great game for a couple to play after dinner or while travelling (we took it with us on a trip to New Zealand). Unfortunately, this game has been out of print for a while.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A nice casual game that should be fun for gamers and non-gamers alike, but not one that it occurs to us to play very often, and very simple compared to other games in our collection.

Date Played: April 20, 2014

Same rules, different world

Unlike The Lord of the Rings Dice Building Game, which attempted to add extra game mechanics to Quarriors in order to make it feel more Middle-earthy, Lord of the Rings Heroclix isn't a new game at all. In fact, the figures and rules are 100% compatible with the regular Heroclix game, so players can easily pit Superman against a horde of orcs or have Gandalf and Magneto join forces for an all Ian McKellen team.

The Lord of the Rings sets do add a few interesting and thematic things to Heroclix, however. The least successful, in my opinion, is the addition of Horde tokens. Similar to bystander tokens, these represent unremarkable characters such as orcs and goblins whose only real power is in the fact that there are a lot of them. The tokens are treated as characters and can move around the battlefield individually or in stacks that represent large groups and have better defensive abilities. It's an attempt to get across the idea of large numbers of characters on the battlefield without needing tons of expensive miniatures, but infortunately it falls a little (pardon the pun) flat.

Epic actions and traits are a lot more interesting. Most of the main characters such as Aragorn, Frodo, Gandalf and Saruman have Epic abilities in addition to their normal powers. Epic abilities can only be used in games with a build total of 400 points or more, and most of them tend to be more effective based on the size of the game, encouraging players to field large forces to get the epic flavor of the story.

The most intriguing game element that Lord of the Rings brings to Heroclix is a six-game scenario-based campaign. The scenarios are intended to be played in sequence and represent major scenes from the Lord of the Rings films such as the trek through the Mines of Moria, the battle at Helm's Deep, and the confrontation with Sauron's forces at the Black Gate of Mordor. The winner of each game gets an advantage to use in the next game, but in order to keep the games balanced, the loser also receives help, usually in the form of a special rule that delays the other player in some way.

Some of the campaign scenarios are straightforward battles, but one of them has an interesting special rule. In Betrayal at Amon Hen, depicting the Fellowship's battle with the Uruk-Hai at the end of the first film, Boromir is placed on the battlefield as a neutral character who will switch back and forth between the players' control based on the roll of the dice, reflecting his attempt to seize the Ring from Frodo.

I really enjoy Heroclix, but I often find that in tournament play the game becomes too competitive and predictable, and the vast array of figures that are available can be a little overwhelming. With the Lord of the Rings set I get a more manageable pool of figures to pick from, and the story-based campaign play adds a nice sense of continuity that is in keeping with the tone of the films and books.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Lord of the Rings Heroclix adds a few nice elements to the game that help reflect the feel of the films without making us learn a whole new set of rules.

Date played: April 19, 2014

Less than the sum of its parts

Both officially and unofficially, The Lord of the Rings has inspired countless table top games with its somber elves, greedy dwarves, sprawling forests and underground tunnels.. It's a great story and a fantastically detailed setting.

Wizkids Games came up with a fairly innovative game with Quarriors in 2011. Dubbed a "dice building game" it combines the build as you play strategies of deck building games (popularized by Dominion) with custom dice. It's a great game, but its goofy, cartoonish setting is a bit of a turn-off for me.

So The Lord of the Rings Dice Building Game (also by Wizkids) should have knocked it out of the park, combining the game play and nifty dice of Quarriors with Tolkien's tried and true characters and setting. Alas, no.

Like many Lord of the Rings games, this one is cooperative, with players working together to defeat the forces of Sauron, here represented by custom dice which come into play gradually over the course of the game. Borrowing a concept from Decipher's Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, the quantity of Sauron dice that enter play depends on the number of dice the players add to their pools. Additionally, the Ring spreads corruption, rendering certain dice unusable.

The game's length is determined by a deck of location cards, simulating the journey through Middle-earth that is central to the Lord of the Rings story. As each new card is flipped over, more dice become available for the players to use, but more are added to Sauron's pool of dice as well.

On their turns, each player must decide whether to use their dice to clear away corrupted dice (which helps everyone), assist the other players in fighting Sauron's forces, or score points for themselves. It's a mostly cooperative game, and if Sauron gets too far ahead everyone loses, but there is still an individual winner based on points scored.

So far it's a lot like Quarriors, but with Lord of the Rings characters and the added complication of Sauron, who acts as a kind of extra player, controlled by the game and out to ruin everyone's day. Unfortunately, this is where the game falls apart. Sauron's minions have to be defeated before players can advance to the next location, but this can take a long time and will usually drag the game out, making it take far too long to play for the amount of interest it holds.

Adding the Sauron dice and the cooperative element to the core Quarriors game mechanic was an interesting and very thematic idea, but it just doesn't bear out, and I think the game suffers from trying to be too familiar and too different at the same time.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Other than the Lord of the Rings theme, this game fails to improve on Quarriors, and takes too long to play without adding any meaningful interest or complexity.

Date played: March 17, 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A clear case of good vs. evil

Most of the more successful collectible card games (and the non-collectible "living card games" which are taking their place) rely heavily on the idea of a game world populated by different factions vying for power. Magic: the Gathering has its five colors, Legend of the Five Rings has its warring clans (which command a near-fanatical loyalty from its players), Star Trek has its various spacefaring Federations and empires, and so on. Different factions tend to have different play styles, and give players a starting point when building decks.

This works well in settings that are populated by many such factions, but The Lord of the Rings, while taking place in an extremely well-developed and diverse world, is nonetheless a tale about good fighting against evil, plain and simple. Sure, you have Elves, Dwarves, Men of Gondor and Rohan, even Hobbits on one side, and goblins, orcs, Uruk-Hai and Nazgul on the other, but they're all still on one side or the other. A game where it is possible for the Hobbits to rise up and attack Gondor just wouldn't be in the spirit of Tolkien's book (although it might be amusing in its own right).

The many Star Wars CCGs over the years have dealt with this by simply having players choose whether to play good or evil, and giving each side its own distinct card pool. This has worked fairly well, but unless you only have one opponent and you both agree on which side you're going to play, you're going to need two decks, one for good and one for evil.

The clever designers of Lord of the Rings: the Card Game got around this problem in a very innovative way: they made it a cooperative game. All the players build decks based on the forces of good, while the game itself represents Sauron and his evil minions. Players work together against a pre-constructed encounter deck consisting of enemies, locations and treachery cards that represent story-based events. The make-up of the encounter deck depends on the scenario being played, many of which are intended to be played in a specific sequence, allowing a story to unfold and giving the game an epic feeling that is entirely consistent with the books it's based on.

Since the game is based on the books rather than the film series, there is a lot more material to draw from. The game's main story thread takes place in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and details events only hinted at in the books, such as Gandalf's search for Gollum, or an expedition to find out what happened to the Dwarven colony in Moria.

Rather than dividing into obvious factions such as Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits, the game innovates again by splitting the cards up into four spheres of influence: Leadership, Tactics, Lore and Spirit, with each offering its own strategies and play style while supporting the others. Part of the fun of deck building is putting together different combinations of spheres and seeing what works best against the particular scenario you are trying to beat.

Like most good cooperative games, this one is fiendishly difficult. It often takes several attempts to beat a particular scenario, with much rebuilding of decks in between games.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) An incredibly compelling and challenging game, and the artwork on the cards is consistently gorgeous.

Date played: March 15, 2014

Monday, May 12, 2014

Expected journeys

At its heart, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is about journeys: Frodo and Sam's journey from the Shire to Mordor, and, to a lesser extent, Aragorn's journey from a northern ranger to king of Gondor. So it follows that any board game that's really going to capture the flavor of the story should involve moving from one place to another, and overcoming obstacles along the way.

Two of Fantasy Flight's Lord of the Rings board games do just that, in surprisingly different ways.

The first, originally titled simply Lord of the Rings but in its current version subtitled The Board Game, was designed by Reiner Knizia in 2000 and is widely considered to be one of the very first cooperative board games. Players assume the roles of the intrepid hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin (and even Fatty Bolger, the forgotten fifth hobbit from the book, if you have five players) on their epic journey across Middle-earth.

Each stage of their journey is undertaken on a separate board, with a primary movement track, separate smaller tracks that the players can choose to try to progress along in order to retrieve allies and other advantages, and a list of consecutive events representing brushes with the forces of Sauron. Progress along each board is made via two methods: drawing random tiles and playing cards. Tiles are drawn at the beginning of each player's turn and can represent player movement or movement along the event path, with each event consuming player resources or moving the forces of Sauron closer to the players.

A master board keeps track of each hobbit's proximity to the corrupting influence of Sauron. If a hobbit gets too close he is eliminated from the game, unless he carries the Ring, in which case the game is lost. The players have to work together, pooling their resources to stay a step ahead of Sauron and complete their journey to Mount Doom.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) We've been playing this game for a few years now and have yet to make it all the way to Mount Doom, but the engaging and thematic game play keep us coming back.

Date played: March 15, 2014

Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation (also designed by Reiner Knizia) is about Frodo's journey to Mount Doom as well, but in a very different way. It's a two-player game very similar to the classic Stratego, with one player controlling the Fellowship of the Ring and the other controlling evil minions of Sauron such as Saruman and the Ringwraiths.

Each player gets nine playing pieces, placed in such a way that the other player can't see which piece is which. The Fellowship player's goal is to move Frodo across the board to Mount Doom, while the Sauron player must try to block and eventually defeat him. The game's strategy lies in sacrificing some characters in order to make a clear path for Frodo, or box him in so he can't escape.

Playing pieces are only revealed when they move into an enemy's space, and they affect each other in different combinations. Combat between pieces is normally a simple contest of numbers, but some Fellowship characters will automatically defeat certain Sauron characters, and many of the Sauron pieces have unusual methods of moving across the board. Additionally, each player has a hand of cards that can be played to add an unexpected element to the clashes between characters.

The out of print "deluxe edition" (as well as the current edition by Fantasy Flight) includes a set of alternate characters for each side, which adds some variety to the game play.

It should be mentioned that the artwork for The Confrontation is especially stunning, setting the stage for the upcoming Lord of the Rings: the Card Game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) An entertaining game with some terrific artwork, but not quite as engaging as many of the other Lord of the Rings games out there.

Date played: March 16, 2014