Thursday, July 31, 2014

Assemble your fleet

Pirates of the Spanish Main (later re-branded as Pirates of the Cursed Seas) is a very, very clever game, almost ridiculously so. A sailing ship miniatures combat game with simple punch-out-and-assemble models printed on credit card plastic was ingenious enough, but using the random booster pack delivery system that the game buying public had become accustomed to by 2004 (when the game was released) was a stroke of brilliance.

Even better, each and every $4 booster pack contained 2 ships, a card of punch-out treasure coins, the complete rules, and even a tiny six-sided die, making it possible to try the game out with the contents of a single booster pack. The card edges even doubled as a measuring tool for ship movement and cannon ranges.

Delivery system aside, the game itself is great. Players assemble a fleet of ships to a pre-determined point value. Each ship has its own unique abilities, and can be further customized with captain and crew pieces. Initially the pool of ships and crew consisted of Pirates, English and Spanish, with French and Americans added later, followed by smaller regional factions such as the Barbary Corsairs of North Africa, the Jade Rebellion from the South China Seas, and even a small group of Vikings from the icy waters of the north. Later still, the game added a supernatural element with the Cursed, a group of ghost ships and sea monsters.

Several islands (three per player) are placed on the playing surface, and each player contributes a number of treasure coins that are randomized and divided among the islands, face down. Most coins have a gold value (anywhere from 1 to 7, and there are even some decoy 0 value coins), but some are unique treasures such as Shipping Charts, Letters of Marque or even unhelpful things like Cannibals. The goal of the game is to sail your ships to the islands, collect the treasure, and return it safely to your home island. The game ends when all the treasure has been collected, and the player with the most gold wins.

But of course it's not that simple. As was often the case on the high seas, ships can attack one another, conduct boarding raids, and even salvage derelict ships. Each ship model has a number of masts (depending on the size of the ship), which serve as both a damage tracker and a source of offensive capability. Each mast is printed with either a white or red die showing a number between 1 and 5, indicating how effective its cannons are and how far they can shoot. As ships get hit, they lose masts, and as a result they lose cannons. When a ship loses all its masts it is derelict and can be commandeered by an opponent's ship. Alternatively, if a derelict gets shot one last time, it sinks.

Another way ships can interact is by ramming into one another. When one ship rams another it has a chance of taking a mast from its target, and after the ram is complete, either ship can initiate a boarding action, with the winner choosing to either kill a crew piece (and possibly taking away a special power or advantage) or take a treasure coin if there are any aboard.

There are many options for strategy and play styles. You can go for speed and stealth, equipping your ships with helmsmen so they can move faster, with an eye towards gathering as much treasure from the islands as you can and staying out of the range of your opponent's ships. Or, you can play a more aggressive game, adding captains and cannoneers to your ships to make them more effective in combat. A cast of unique characters will give the ships they're on all sorts of interesting extra abilities; anything from cancelling the special abilities of nearby ships to allowing sunken ships to return to the game.

Later expansion sets added a supernatural element including ghost ships that can move through other ships, and giant squids that can travel safely underwater and spring up to engulf other ships. Still later a steampunk element was added, equipping ships with flame-blasting cannons, mechanical hoists, turbine engines and giant spikes that can spring out from the sides of a ship, impaling anything in their path.

Pirates really hits all my gaming buttons: collectible but not prohibitively expensive, a rich, immersive world, amazing components, and an incredible depth of strategy, both in finding the right combination of ships and crew to bring to the table, and maneuvering them once the game's begun.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) An absolutely ingenious game, and there really isn't anything else like it.

Date played: June 8, 2014

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

All that is sinister and bizarre

On the Edge was one of the first of a flood of collectible card games to hit the market in the wake of the phenomenal success of Magic: the Gathering. To their credit, the designers of On the Edge really made an effort to make their game as different as possible from Magic, in terms of both game play and content.

The game takes place in the same setting as the Over the Edge role playing game: the fictional Mediterranean island of Al Amarja, "home to all that is sinister and bizarre." With room for magic as well as technology, populated by strange characters of all descriptions and a slew of shadowy organizations all vying for control, it's a clever setting designed to allow for all manner of genre mash-ups, and a perfect home for a collectible card game.

On the Edge uses the basic structure of Magic as a starting point. Players assume the roles of behind-the-scenes puppet masters in control of a wealth of characters, locations and other assets. Resource cards, usually representing locations, are used to generate Pull points, which in turn are used to put characters, gear and permanent environments into play. Characters are "cranked" (turned sideways) in order to attack opposing characters, generate various game effects, or generate Influence points which are added to a running total; the first player to reach a pre-determined amount of Influence (based on the number of players) wins.

The game's main departure from Magic is in the way characters are deployed to the table in rows and columns. A character isn't vulnerable to attack if there is a friendly uncranked character in front of it, but it also can't make any attacks against enemy characters. So the basic strategy is to play your strong attackers in the front, with a middle row of strong defenders that you will try to leave uncranked and able to defend, and finally a back row of characters that can generate useful card effects or the all-important Influence.

Influence is another way On the Edge differentiates itself from Magic: generally, influence generated by your characters is added to your total, which is how you win the game. But it can also generate additional Pull points that are used to bring more cards into play, which gives players strategic decisions to make every turn. Do you build up an army of characters, or generate more Influence but leave your important characters vulnerable to attack?

Unfortunately, On the Edge does suffer from one of the main problems with Magic and many other similar CCGs: the main method of getting characters into play is via resource cards, and it can be frustrating if you don't draw enough resources early in the game. At the same time, resources aren't really good for anything else, so if you put too many of them in your deck you won't have enough characters and other cards you need in order to win the game.

Another issue for me is the artwork on the cards, which is wildly inconsistent and sometimes quite abstract. Combined with the genre-bending nature of the game's setting, the haphazard artwork makes it difficult for me to see the world of Al Amarja as a real place or get invested in the story.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) While quite inventive, especially for having come out in 1994, On the Edge has been left behind by too many newer, better-designed collectible games.

Date played: June 8, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

Pirate treasure

There are several reasons why I like board games better than video or computer games. One of them is the social aspect; sure, you can voice chat while playing World of Warcraft, but it's not the same as sitting around a table with friends. Another is the physical component of a table top game. I like manipulating real objects on a board, or shuffling cards and looking at great artwork.

Occasionally, a great game can rise above its shabby components, such as with Leading Edge's Aliens board game from 1989. More often, and as materialistic and superficial as this sounds, high quality playing pieces can elevate an otherwise mediocre game. The rules become an excuse to play with the pieces. Nowhere is this more evident than with Dread Pirate, a mediocre game with some fantastic components.

The lavishness of Dread Pirate is obvious even before you get the box open. It was published in two editions: one came in a beautifully carved and textured wooden bookshelf-style box, and the Signature Edition came in an even nicer wooden treasure chest. But the fancy doesn't stop with the packaging.

Opening the box reveals a treasure trove of high-quality game pieces. Where most board games, even the high end ones, give you cardboard counters, Dread Pirate contains metal coins, a beautifully illustrated cloth playing board, glass jewels, wooden dice, velvet treasure bags, and a metal pirate ship miniature for each player. Even the cards are printed on high-quality cardstock. The game looks and feels amazing, and you can almost imagine a crew of sailors breaking it out to fill the hours on a long sea voyage.

The game itself is...okay. It's balanced for exactly four players, with each player starting at their home port in a corner of the board. The object is to travel the board, visiting the other player's ports or attacking their ships directly to gather as much treasure as possible. Moving through the center of the board forces you to draw a card, which can be inconvenient, either for you or for one of your opponents. The first player to visit the center of the board becomes the Dread Pirate and gets an advantage in movement and combat until beaten in battle by one of the other players, who then takes over as Dread Pirate.

The game ends when all the treasure has been taken from each player's home port, at which time the player with the most treasure is the winner. It's a pretty simple game, with a lot of moving back and forth across the board. I found one of the game's more interesting elements to be an optional rule that adds a wind condition die which must be re-rolled any time a player rolls a 10, 11 or 12 for movement. Players get a bonus to the amount of spaces they can move as long as they are not moving directly into the wind. The movement bonus helps with one of the main criticisms of the game, that movement is too slow, and it gives players strategic decisions to make as they're plotting out their moves each turn.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) While the game play may be overly simple, Dread Pirate works great as a gaming experience thanks to the richness of the game components.

Date played: June 1, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Daleks conquer and destroy!

Hasbro has breathed new life (or at least, new sales) into its stable of Parker Brothers classics like Monopoly, Clue and Risk by making them into fill-in-the-blanks licensing vehicles. The first one I can remember seeing was Star Wars Monopoly, although there may have been others before that. I always liked that Marvel Comics Monopoly replaced the properties with important comic book issues.There's no denying that Lord of the Rings Risk was a good fit, and I'm intrigued by the 24 edition of Clue, although I've never had a chance to play it.

Doctor Who Risk seems like an unlikely choice, at least until you get to the subtitle: The Dalek Invasion of Earth. In the 1964 Doctor Who episode of the same name, the villainous Daleks do indeed conquer the Earth (they manage it again in 1972's Day of the Daleks and 2008's The Stolen Earth), and the game draws on that basic idea to justify its existence. The stroke of brilliance is that all the players play as the Daleks, with each player taking command of different warring Dalek factions.

That's all fine and good, but isn't it still just Risk with Dalek figurines? Well, yes, and that's really the point. It's not meant to be a new game, it's meant to allow Doctor Who fans an opportunity to play the classic game, with a theme that might be a bit more relatable than the original Risk's Napoleonic wars. And Doctor Who Risk actually does the game one better, in the way it gets the show's star character into the game.

The fundamental problem with Risk is that the game only ends when one player has knocked all the other players out of the game. Apart from creating a situation where you have eliminated players sitting around waiting for the game to finish, it means that it often takes a really long time to play. In Doctor Who Risk, the Doctor is represented by a time track along the edge of the board. At various random points in the game the Doctor "regenerates," moving the counter down the time track until it eventually reaches the Eleventh Doctor, which ends the game. This creates a much needed time limit, but not an exact one, so players still don't know exactly when the game will end, only roughly.

The game adds a few other elements which cleverly work in more content from the TV series. Mission Cards are dealt out to the players at the start of the game and give them a specific goal with a reward, usually involving defeating a classic Doctor Who monster by taking over a certain area on the board. Power Cards give one-time strategic advantages, but since players only get a few during the game they must be used sparingly. Perhaps the most thematic element is that every round the Doctor appears in a random area on the board, and no combat is allowed between players in that area while he's there.

Weirdly, this re-themed game of armies and world domination is one of the first Doctor Who board games I've come across that seems really true to the spirit of Doctor Who.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The Doctor Who theme and the addition of mission cards and especially a time limit make Risk a much more interesting, playable game.

Doctor Who Risk official website
Doctor Who Risk on

Date played: May 27, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mine is an evil laugh

Mwahahaha! is, according to the box, "a card game of mad scientists and global domination." Players take on the roles of comedic mad scientist supervillains such as Herr Ubervoldt, Baron Morbidodictus, or Professor Kontiki, and the game play consists primarily of accumulating resources used to power doomsday weapons with an eye towards using them to threaten ever-increasing population centers.

The game really seems to understand the circular futility of being a mad scientist: successfully threatening a population gives you more resources, so you can use to build a bigger doomsday weapon that you can then use to threaten a larger population, in order to get even more resources to build an even bigger doomsday get the idea.

Each player starts with a doomsday device to work on, such as an interstellar portal, a weather machine, or a giant robot, which requires a certain number of different types of raw materials to get working. Players gain a small number of raw materials each turn, and in order to get more they can either build up a criminal empire via location cards that represent front businesses, or they can hire minions to go steal what they need from the other players (or some combination of the two). The device's raw materials requirements are scaled depending on how large a population you plan on threatening with it, either a city, a state, a country, or the whole world.

Success or failure when issuing a threat is determined by the dice. If a city, state or country population refuses to be intimidated, you have the option of triggering your doomsday device, unleashing man-eating plants or blasts from a giant orbital laser, and failure to make good on your threat results in a Humiliation counter that reduces your effectiveness on future threat rolls.

However, if you fail to successfully threaten the World, you can't trigger your device, as it would destroy the world and you with it. But hopefully the population of the world won't call your bluff...

Mwahahaha! is a fun game with a light, cartoony tone that should appeal to fans of Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog or '80s James Bond movies. The game's main downfall, however, is its poorly written rule book, which makes it seem a lot more complicated than it actually is.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) A pretty fun game that gets its humorous tone just right, but it definitely involves more random luck than strategy, and the badly organized rule book makes it difficult to pick up and play.

Date played: May 27, 2014

Thursday, July 10, 2014

By the numbers: the middle 40

We're now two thirds of the way through our list, which means we've played 80 games since we started. Well, actually we've added 17 games to the list since we started (and quietly removed 4 without playing them), so the total number of games on the list is currently sitting at 133. But since the blog is called 120 Games, we're going to call this the middle third.

Out of the last 40 games we've played and reviewed, four of them have rated a perfect score of 5:

This list bears out several things that we already knew about our gaming habits: we like adventure games that offer worlds to explore, and we definitely favor games with nice components, whether they be sculpted miniatures or cards with great artwork on them. At least they're not all Fantasy Flight games this time.

13 games in the middle 40 earned a 4 out of 5 rating, 16 earned a 3, and there were only five with a 2 rating and only two with a 1 rating. The two lowest scoring games in this batch, Fight City and High Stakes Drifter, are both games that have languished in storage for many years, and now we know why.

Out of the games that received 4s and 5s, 11 of them were board games, mostly of the adventure game variety that we tend to favor, with Ingenious, Kill Doctor Lucky, and Forbidden Island being the exceptions.

All of the superhero games we reviewed (Heroclix, Marvel Dice Masters, and the Marvel Heroes Strategy Board Game) earned at least a 4 rating, as did all the H. P. Lovecraft themed games (Elder Sign, Eldritch Horror, and Mansions of Madness) so clearly we enjoy those genres, or maybe they're just over-represented in our game collection...

We reviewed seven Lord of the Rings games, and scores for those were all over the map, from a 5 for Lord of the Rings: the Card Game (so far the only CCG besides Call of Cthulhu to get a perfect score) to a 2 for the Lord of the Rings Dice Building Game, a disappointing variation on the better-rated Quarriors and Marvel Dice Masters.

We've been at this for eight months now and we've covered 80 games. I wonder what the final 40 (actually 53) will look like?

The Ripper strikes!

Jack the Ripper is without a doubt the most famous serial killer of all time, thanks as much as anything to the lack of real information about him. He was never caught, or even identified. What's more, his short murder spree took place in Victorian London, a time and place given mythic status thanks to iconic tales like Bram Stoker's Dracula, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, and countless others.

I sometimes wonder if a series of brutal murders is an appropriate subject for a game, but the Ripper's legendary status trumps any sordid reality, and as I mentioned earlier, there is precious little reality surrounding the crimes anyway. So why not, especially if games about the Ripper focus on the mystery rather than the carnage.

Mr. Jack is a two player board game in which one player takes the role of the Ripper, and the other player tries to catch him. The board is populated with a cast of eight possible suspects varying wildly from serious Ripper suspect William Gull to the fictional Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, illustrated in a cartoony style that undermines any possible morbidity and keeps the game's tone nice and light.

Players take turns moving the suspects around the board, with the goal of manipulating them so that certain characters are either in light or shadow at the end of the round. After each round, the Ripper player (who knows which suspect is the real Ripper) must declare truthfully whether the Ripper is in light or in shadow. This allows the detective player to use a process of elimination to figure out who the Ripper is.

To keep things interesting, on any turn after the Ripper was in shadow, the Ripper player can attempt to have him escape by moving him off the map. Both players have the ability to manipulate terrain features on the board in order to make it easier or more difficult for the Ripper to escape.

Once the detective player feels certain he knows who the Ripper is he can accuse, but if he's wrong, the real Ripper "escapes in the confusion"' and the Ripper player wins.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Mr. Jack is quite amusing and involves a surprising amount of tactical decision-making for both players.

Date played: May 27, 2014

Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper takes a more serious, scholarly approach to the material. As the title suggests, it is a rummy game, with a standard playing card deck's suits replaced by evidence cards supporting the different popular Ripper suspects: Montague Druitt, Prince Eddy, Dr. Gull, Dr. Pedachenko, George Chapman and Jill the Ripper, representing the idea that the killer could have been a woman.

Players play melds of evidence cards against the different suspects, along with cards representing the five victims and their respective crime scenes. At the end of the game, the suspect with the most evidence in play is revealed as the Ripper, and cards associated with that suspect are worth double. However, there is also an alibi card in the deck for each suspect, and naturally, the suspect can't be the Ripper if he has an alibi in play.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper adds some interesting extra elements to the standard rummy model, and the game's structure fits the theme particularly well.

Date Played: June 1, 2014

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

You can't win them all

Most board games (at least, most of the ones we play) tend to be pretty violent. The goals are usually to crush your opponents in some form of battle, or avoid getting shot, stabbed, or devoured, either by the other players or by the game itself. So when we stumbled across Morels, a game about gathering mushrooms in the forest, we were a bit intrigued. The only even remotely violent thing about the game is that your goal upon gathering your mushrooms is to cook them and eat them.

Okay, the real reason we even looked at this game is because Katherine's maiden name is Morel. If nothing else, we thought it might make for a good Christmas present for her side of the family. But we weren't going to give a game that we couldn't vouch for, so we picked up a copy for ourselves to try it out.

Morels is a simple card matching game. Cards represent different varieties of mushrooms, and the goal is to play down melds of at least three of a given type, with the catch that you have to play them to a frying pan, and you get bonus points for adding butter or cider. The game revolves around a line of eight cards that move towards a "decay" pile and eventually go out of play. The farther along the line a card is, the more expensive it is (cards are bought using "foraging stick" tokens that sets of mushrooms can be traded for), but if you wait too long for the card you want to get closer to the decay, you risk it going out of play, or your opponent grabbing it.

For additional drama, there is a poisonous mushroom that reduces your hand size if you pick it up, but it is actually pretty easy to avoid so it doesn't really add much to the game. And that really is the problem with Morels: there just isn't much to this game.

We have no problem with a simple game, if it gives me something to offset that simplicity like an interesting world to visit, spectacular artwork to look at, or at least some of the sharp humor that James Ernest often uses to spice up simple games like Kill Doctor Lucky or The Big Idea. Alternatively, a seemingly uninteresting theme can be brought to life with clever game play. Unfortunately, Morels has none of these things. There's just not enough to it to engage our enthusiasm.

Rating 2 (out of 5) Not a bad game per se, just not a terribly interesting one.

Date played: May 26, 2014

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Giant monsters don't come cheap

The makers of Godzilla Raids Again (1955), the very first of many sequels to the original Godzilla (1954), figured out that what a giant monster really needs is another giant monster to fight with. Nearly every Godzilla film since, right up to the most recent American version from earlier this year, has embraced this truth, and introduced countless giant antagonists for the big lizard to fight with. The real thrill of a giant monster movie is in the sheer scale of it all, seeing unlikely behemoths beat the tar out of each other and lay waste to whatever city was unfortunate enough to be their battlefield.

The makers of Monsterpocalypse, a collectible miniatures game first released in 2008, understood this, and the thing that makes Monsterpocalypse such a great game is the importance it places on the environment the game takes place in. Sure, almost every tabletop miniatures game has rules governing terrain to a greater or lesser degree, but the thing that sold me on Monsterpocalypse the first time I played it was the fact that destroying buildings was part of the game, and there were all manner of options for throwing your opponent's giant monster into structures that would then catch fire or explode in a cloud of radiation.

The thing that very nearly un-sold me on it, and kept me from keeping up with the game's later expansions, was the utterly absurd way in which it was released.

In my review of Marvel Dice Masters I defend the idea of collectible games, explaining that the thrill of chasing rare cards or figures is part of the fun. But I also point out that rising costs are what has drained all the fun out it, and Monsterpocalypse was a perfect example of that. The game's randomly packed starter sets and booster packs were very expensive, and it could easily cost $100 or more just to get enough pieces for two players to play with even the smallest bit of figure variety. The way it was distributed and priced, it was clear that the main target market was dedicated players who would buy in bulk from online discounters.

Was it too expensive? We didn't think so at the time, although I don't want to think too much about how much we spent on the game. I remember our first few games being utterly thrilling, with a sense of fast pace and excitement that you don't often see in a turn-based tabletop game, and this still held true when we got our figures out of storage recently to set the game up and play.

However, Monsterpocalypse falls down in a few important areas, mainly a result of it being designed for and marketed to competitive tournament gamers. One of the things that soured us on playing the game at our local game store was that the publisher released a strategy guide which included fairly detailed instructions on how to play each of the game's factions, what figure combinations to use, and so on. This meant that most the tournament players tended to play the same figures in the same way, which cut down substantially on the variety of challenges that is usually one of the main reasons to play in tournaments in the first place.

Another limitation, no doubt informed by the game's emphasis on tournament play, is that it is strictly a two-player game. There is nothing specific in the game's rules that would prevent it from working as a multiplayer game, but all of the different map boards allow starting areas for two players only, and each starter set only contains enough of the game's proprietary dice and counters for one player, so extra sets of dice (or extra starter sets) would need to be purchased for each player.

Monsterpocalypse is a blast to play, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it has so many barriers to playing it, barriers that are almost entirely a result of the very specific and exclusive community the publisher wanted to build around the game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The game itself is terrific, but the publisher's decision to market it to a very specific audience creates a few too many limitations, and stops Monsterpocalypse from being a truly great game.

Date played: May 26, 2014

Thursday, July 3, 2014

More than heroes

Superheroes seem to spend most of their time fighting, whether it's fighting with their arch-villains or each other. It is no surprise then that most superhero games tend to be player vs. player combat games such as Heroclix or the Vs. System trading card game. There appears to be little room for nuance in the world of superhero gaming, which is unfortunate because some of the best stories ever told can be found in the pages of superhero comic books.

The Marvel Heroes Strategy Board Game is something of an anomaly. Originally published in Italy, it was brought to the English language game market in 2006, when Heroclix was at the height of its popularity. Under other circumstances, Marvel Heroes might have received more attention for its 20 fully painted plastic miniatures of characters such as the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and Wolverine, but Heroclix had flooded the market with little plastic superheroes, so Marvel Heroes got lost in the shuffle and wound up having a very short shelf life, with the publisher unable to justify the high cost of the Marvel Comics license.

It is unfortunate that the two games couldn't coexist, because they couldn't be more different from one another. Marvel Heroes offers a welcome break from the relentless battles of Heroclix, with story-based game play focused on mission solving, and  players only tangentially in opposition to one another. Each player assumes control of a team of heroes, either the X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four, or Marvel Knights (a collection of the normally solitary heroes Spider-Man, Daredevil, Elektra and Dr. Strange). Players also control the arch-nemesis of one of their opponents, either the Kingpin, the Red Skull, Magneto or Dr. Doom.

The game combines resource allocation with a healthy measure of superhero combat. Players must spend their plot points to ready their heroes and play cards representing allies and other resources, and then send their heroes into New York City to tackle Headline cards that represent incidents such as bank robberies, earthquakes and kidnapped scientists. During each headline the player must fight a villain played by their opponent, and at certain times they must face their arch-nemesis directly.

It gets past the problem of "who gets to play the heroes" by having each player play as their own team of heroes as well as the arch-villain of their opponent, and so combines the best aspects of "race to the finish" type games and head to head battle games. Players are given plenty of strategic decisions to make during the game, as certain heroes are better suited to go after certain headline cards, and many have combat or support abilities that can help or not depending on what is happening in the game. And with your opponent actively controlling your arch-nemesis as well as the minor villains you face, it never feels like you're just up against a random assortment of cards. Different scenario cards offer variant win conditions to keep the game fresh and replayable.

Marvel Heroes reminds us that, while epic battles are fun to watch, it is the stories that make superheroes interesting.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A game with a lot of strategic and narrative depth, that scratches the superhero itch while offering a lot more than just a mindless slugfest.

Date played: May 10, 2014