Thursday, August 28, 2014

Controlled chaos

People who play Robo Rally usually either love it, or it drives them crazy. It is a game about carefully constructed plans which almost always go catastrophically wrong, and not everyone is able to adopt the somewhat zen attitude that is needed to enjoy it.

Each player is in control of a clueless robot running a race around a factory floor crowded with conveyor belts, laser traps, and bottomless pits. Players program their robots' moves five moves at a time using cards which detail moves such as move forward 1 square, move forward 2 sqaures, turn right, turn left, turn around, and so on. Conveyor belts on the board will also move your robot if it is standing on one after a move, lasers will damage your robot if it's standing in front of one, and if you accidentally move into a bottomless pit, you have to re-spawn at your starting space.

The goal is to move your robot to each of three or more numbered flags (in order), but there are several things going on that make moving your robot around more difficult than it sounds.

First, you have to choose your five move cards from a hand of nine, or less if your robot is damaged, and you don't always have the moves you need to get where you want to go. If your robot has taken a lot of damage (either from factory lasers or other robots), you risk locking moves in place, so you're stuck with the same "turn left" every turn. You can repair damage by skipping a turn, but since it's a race, you only want to do that when absolutely necessary.

More importantly, if another player's robot bumps into yours, it will knock you off course, and since you have to plan five moves in advance, it can be several moves before you can course correct. All it takes is one trip down a conveyor belt to put your robot hopelessly off coarse, and suddenly the moves you planned aren't taking your robot where you thought they were.

With a lot of players all trying to move their robots through the same flags in the same order, it can quickly devolve into barely contained chaos, which is what you will either love or hate about the game.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) We like the way Robo Rally forces us to think on our feet and not get to wrapped up in long-term planning, or at least not get upset when those plans go hopelessly wrong.

Date played: July 8, 2014

The best there is

Shadowfist was designed to be the best multiplayer collectible card game ever, and I think it delivers on that promise. It's a relatively simple game with a smooth combat system and a wonderful genre mash-up of factions including everything from street gangs to pulp adventurers to kung fu masters to battle-crazed cybernetic apes.

Maybe because of this focus on accommodating a table full of players rather than the more competitive two-player dueling format of CCGs, Shadowfist only really works if you have a community of dedicated and enthusiastic players.

Where games like Magic: the Gathering have always emphasized a formal tournament structure for most of their in-store gaming, the publishers of Shadowfist always seemed to be more interested in fostering their game's group dynamic. They encouraged regular league play rather than tournaments, with a host of interesting and unusual formats designed to keep players thinking creatively about the game. One great format was called "Rituals of the Unnameable," which required each player to chose three letters of the alphabet and construct a deck using only cards whose titles began with one of those three letters.

One of my favorite game formats (which I don't remember the name of) required each player to build a deck using the normal deck construction rules. At the start of the event, all the players' decks would be collected and randomly re-distributed, so you had to play with someone else's deck. Each player scored points when they won a game with the deck they'd been given, but also when the deck they brought to the event won a game for whoever it had been given to. That way, you had an incentive to build a deck that could win and was fairly easy to play, even though you wouldn't be playing it and might even end up playing against it.

For gaming conventions, the most pure source of community any gamer is ever likely to find, they had a format called "Who Wants Some?" At the start of the convention, each player was issued a badge indicating that they are participating. At any time during the convention, if a player spotted one or more people with a "who wants some" badge, they could challenge them to a game. The winner would be given a promo card or other token of victory, and at the end of the convention an overall winner would be determined based on who won the most games. It was a wonderfully free-form idea, with games spread out throughout the weekend rather than in one grueling block, and the format rewarded players who played the most games.

Unfortunately, we don't currently have a community of Shadowfist players in our area, so we hadn't played in eight years or so when we got our cards out to play a game for this review. Unlike the Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, which kind of fell flat for us without the group we used to play with, we had a great time playing Shadowfist. Yes, it works best when you have a community of players, but the underlying game is solid and wildly entertaining.

Rating 5 (out of 5) Shadowfist is simply the best game of its kind.

Date played: July 5, 2014

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Three card games that start with the letter S

Serpent Stones is a card game, but it really has more in common with chess or Stratego: it is primarily a game about making strategic moves with pieces on a board in order to outmaneuver your opponent. The game is played on a staggered grid, and players must place their warrior cards one at a time to form an unbroken line from their side of the board to their opponent's, while at the same time protecting their own side of the board from their opponent's advances.

In addition to warrior cards which are played to the board, there are also strike cards which allow players to either destroy or capture adjacent opposing warriors. Destroyed warriors are removed from the board to clear a path for new cards to be played, and captured warriors are turned around so that they join the capturing player's line of warriors.

There are also tactical cards that can be played for various advantages such as drawing an extra card, forcing an opponent to discard, or setting a card aside to be played along with a second card on the next turn.

The Warrior cards are divided between eagles and jaguars, which has no bearing on the basic game but comes into play in two different advanced variants. In one, each player assumes control of either the House of Eagles or the House of Jaguars. Players can still play warriors from either house, but attack cards can only destroy warriors of the opposing house, and capture cards can only be played on warriors that match the player's house, regardless of who currently controls the card.

The other variant moves this idea to the individual warrior cards, so that while players aren't affiliated with a particular house, they can only play strikes on opposing adjacent warriors that are different from theirs, and only play strikes on opposing warriors that are the same. For example, if your eagle warrior is adjacent to my jaguar warrior, I can play a strike but not a capture, but if your jaguar is adjacent to my jaguar, I can play a capture card but not a strike.

The game's Aztec theme is interesting but largely decorative, and has no real bearing on game play. Normally I don't particularly like games that are this abstract, but Serpent Stones is pretty engaging, especially with the two different advanced variants to keep the game play from getting stale.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A solid two player game which is easy to pick up and play, but engaging enough to hold your interest.

Set is unapologetically abstract. Billed as "the family game of visual perception," it has always seemed to me to have more in common with a perception or acuity test than a game. It consists of a deck of 81 cards printed with different abstract symbols that relate to one another in different ways. 12 cards are played out face up on the table, and the goal is to be the first player to spot a "set" of three cards.

A set is three cards whose symbols have exactly one element in common, and no more. As soon as a player spots a set they take the three cards, which are then replaced from the deck. If all players agree that no sets can be made from the cards on the table, three more are dealt. The game ends when either the deck runs out, or all the players agree that no more sets can be made from the available cards, at which point the player who claimed the most sets is the winner.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) There are no turns or strategy, it's just a contest to see who has the fastest pattern recognition, which to my mind means it's barely a game at all.

  • Set official website
  • Set on

We're both fans of Japanese samurai films (especially the ones by Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune), and at some point not too long ago, we realized that we didn't own any samurai-themed games. We weren't really interested in a huge, Risk-style area control game, which is what most games set in feudal Japan seem to be, and while I am intrigued by Samurai Sword (the samurai version of Bang!), we have enough trouble getting enough people together to play Bang!, so we didn't want another game with the same problem.

So we picked up Seven Card Samurai. The box had some nice graphic design to it, and described a game about using Samurai to defend rice supplies from bandits and ninjas. Unfortunately, what it contained was essentially a variation on rummy, with the same few pieces of unappealing artwork repeated in different colors across the cards.

Each player starts with a certain amount of rice bushels, represented by, admittedly, some very nice tokens. The idea is to play down samurai cards to defend your rice, while at the same time playing bandits to steal your opponent's rice. Additionally, you want to play your samurai in matching colors. The game ends when a player has seven samurai on the table, at which time each player is awarded points based on the number of samurai cards in each color set, as well as the amount of rice they've managed to hold on to or steal from the other players.

It's not a bad game per se (especially if you like rummy), but the artwork on the oversized cards is not very good, and the samurai theme is entirely irrelevant to the game play, as proven by the publisher's recent release of what appears to be the same game with a zombie theme.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Not an awful game by any means, but there are much more interesting rummy variants out there, such as Mystery Rummy, and Shitenno and Tokaido are much better games about feudal Japan.

Date played: July 5, 2014

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Epic adventure!

When I was a kid, one of my favorite board games was TSR's Dungeon!, a great little dungeon crawl game that I'm certain was intended to be a gateway to Dungeons & Dragons. It fell firmly into a category of adventure board game that I don't think has a formal name, but can be described as "move around the board and draw a card to see what happens," while usually playing as one of several different characters with different game abilities.

My affection for this sort of game certainly led me to the second edition of Talisman a few years later, and any number of similar games since then such as Arkham Horror or Fortune and Glory. But out of all of these, I think Fantasy Flight's Runebound comes the closest to approximating that sense of epic wandering, monster-slaying and treasure-gathering I got from playing Dungeon! as a youngster (with Talisman coming in a close second).

In Runebound, players assume the roles of characters roaming the colorful, Tolkienesque land of Terrinoth, facing dangers of increasing complexity and gathering weapons and magic items in order to strengthen themselves so that they can, hopefully, defeat the evil Dragon Lord Margath and win the game.

The game has basically two components to it. The first is the board, which is marked off with a hexagonal grid featuring a variety of terrain such as mountains, hills, grasslands, rivers, forests and roads. To move players roll five movement dice printed with different symbols matching the terrain types; each die determines what type of space can be moved into, to the player's first challenge each turn is to navigate a route to wherever he wants to move using the symbols he has rolled on the dice. It can make for some strategic decision making as you often may need to detour along a river rather than making a beeline for the nearest city to spend your loot.

The second element of the game is encountering monsters. Scattered throughout the board are adventure jewels, tokens representing encounters of increasing difficulty depending on the color of the jewel. Green encounters are fairly easy, while red are the most difficult, usually representing the colossal dragons that have returned to the land in the game's storyline.  Each time you land on an adventure jewel, you draw from the corresponding encounter deck, usually facing off against some kind of monster that must be fought.

Combat is divided into three phases: ranged, melee and magic, the catch being that normally your character can only attack during one of these phases, where the monsters can often attack in two or all three. Combat in each phase is resolved by rolling dice, with the winner inflicting damage on the loser until either the monster or the player's character is defeated.

Defeated encounters usually reward the player with gold, which can be spent in town spaces to purchase weapons, armor and equipment and hire allies, in order to make their characters more formidable in battle.
Additionally, characters earn experience points, and this is where Runebound differs from many adventure games. Players can spend their experience points to increase their character's combat abilities, thus strengthening them so that they will be more able to fight the much stronger monsters at the higher encounter levels and eventually working their way up to the red encounters which will win them the game.

There are numerous expansions that add everything from new boards representing different parts of Terrinoth, to new sets of encounter cards that replace the Dragon Lord story with tales of wandering cults or hoards of rampaging giants. It makes for an epic game with a tremendous amount of replay value, while at the same time being simple enough to just pick up and play whenever the mood strikes us.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A great epic adventure game.

Fantasy Flight jumped on the deck building game bandwagon made popular by the success of Dominion with Rune Age, a card game set in the same world as Runebound. Players each control one of the kingdoms of Terrinoth, either men, elves, necromancers or bloodthirsty barbarians, and attempt to build up their kingdoms with an eye towards accomplishing one of four scenario goals chosen at the start of play.

But where Runebound offers a well-developed world brimming with adventure, Rune Age seems kind of bland and impersonal. It may be due to the relative simplicity of the game; each of the four game scenarios only uses a handful of different cards, so deck building options are minimal and games tend to be pretty short, definitely not epics worthy of the world of Runebound.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Not a terrible game, and it features some nice artwork on the cards, but there are a lot of much more interesting deck building games out there.

Date played: July 4, 2014

Monday, August 18, 2014

Once more into Middle-Earth

I'm a big fan of both the books and the films, so a Lord of the Rings game is always going to catch my attention. However, the more games I have that take place in Middle-Earth, the more difficult it gets to talk myself into getting another one. I have to reach a saturation point some time, don't I?

I had been aware of Lord of the Rings: the Duel since its original publication in 2002, but I never picked it up and hadn't seen a copy in years. I thought it had gone out of print until I stumbled across an absurdly discounted, brand-new copy. I had always been curious about it, and it's a two-player game, which we're always on the lookout for.

The game concerns Gandalf's duel with the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad-dum in The Fellowship of the Ring, and consists of two elements: a deck of cards for each player, and a board with a stepped model of the bridge and a scoring track, along with a pawn for each player.

Each player starts with nine cards. The cards have four spaces for symbols down each side, with each symbol indicating either a hit or a miss; the pattern of symbols varies between each card. Players play their cards to the table one at a time, each card along side the last one the opponent played, attempting to match their card's "hit" symbols on the left side of the card with the "hit" symbols on the right side of the opponent's last card played. Every hit that isn't matched loses the player a point. Then, the opponent plays his next card, again trying to match the card's symbols so as to avoid losing points. Some of the cards have special game text that can affect the game in unexpected ways.

The first duel ends when both players have played six of their nine cards; the remaining three are set aside for the final duel. When the first duel ends, the player with the most points remaining moves his pawn forward on the bridge (the number of spaces is determined by the point margin). Then, the score tracks are re-set and a second duel is played, with nine new cards for each player and the winner advancing. This is followed by a third, and then the fourth and final duel.

The final duel is played using the cards the players have set aside during the previous rounds, so a major element of the game's strategy is in deciding what cards to use and what cards to save for the final duel. At the end of the final duel, the player closest to the center of the bridge is the winner.

It's a relatively simple game, but it has some interesting game play. The symbol-matching combat mechanic is similar to the Conan and Highlander collectible card games, and really does feel like the strikes and parries of a sword duel. There is a fair amount of strategic decision making, and all the games we played were pretty close, so it never felt like one player got the upper hand too early and closed the other player out.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A fairly interesting dueling game, and not really like any of the other Lord of the Rings games out there. The terrific John Howe illustrations certainly don't hurt either.

Date played: July 4, 2014

Who's Who in Westeros

Perhaps in response to declining book sales and the rise of the e-reader, many bookstores such as Barnes and Noble and even Portland's own enormous Powell's Books have added board game sections. This is great because it introduces our hobby to a much wider audience. An audience that many of the smaller game publishers have begun to notice. An audience that may be looking for something perhaps a bit easier to play than Arkham Horror. An audience that watches cable television...

New audience, say hello to Game of Thrones: Westeros Intrigue, a card game for 2-6 players, designed by the renowned Reiner Knizia.

The game is absurdly simple, consisting of four sets of tiles representing four of the great houses of Westeros from the Game of Thrones television series, with an image of a character from the show on each tile. The tiles are shuffled together and dealt out to the players, who must play them to the table one at a time until all their tiles are on the table or they are unable to play any more. The catch is that tiles can only be played in certain patterns, either in the first row next to another tile if there's room (there can only be eight), or in a higher row, in which case the tile must be played above two other tiles, one of which must be from the same house.

At the end there is a complicated scoring system, as there always is in a Reiner Knizia game.

It should be pretty clear that this is a game about colored tiles whose only connection to Game of Thrones is that it has been decorated with images from the show. I don't necessarily object to fill-in-the-blanks licensed games like this (see my generally positive review of The Lone Ranger Shuffle the Deck Card Game), but this one is particularly bland.

To be honest, the only reason I bought this game was so that I would have a set of tiles with the names and faces of the characters from Game of Thrones, so I can tell who's who when I'm watching the show.

Rating 2 (out of 5) Not actually a bad game, just an overly simple one, although I will be the first to admit that I am probably not in the game's target demographic.

Date played: July 4, 2014

Deep space

It should be pretty obvious by now that we love collectible card games. Most good CCGs offer a sheer depth of theme and strategy that is far beyond most "stand-alone" card games or even board games. The collectible aspect of these games can make them difficult to get into, even in the case of the not-so-collectible options such as Fantasy Flight's Living Card Games (Call of Cthulhu, Lord of the Rings) or the soon to be released Doomtown Reloaded. And if you play the more obscure CCGs like we do, is often difficult to find other players who are willing to put the time and money into buying cards and building decks. We even find it exhausting from time to time.

That's why Race for the Galaxy is one of our all-time favorite games. It has a lot of the strategic depth of a CCG, but it's a boxed game with only a few expansions, and players all draw from the same deck so there's no deck building, making it much easier to just sit down and play.

The game has an epic science fiction theme, with game play consisting of playing cards that represent discovered worlds and technological, social and political developments, and then using these resources in clever combinations.

Race for the Galaxy is a game about getting cards into play, and it has several intriguing mechanics for doing so. A game round is divided up into five phases where different things happen: a card-drawing phase, phases for playing developments or worlds, a resource-spending phase, and a resource-generating phase. In addition to his normal hand of cards, each player has a stack of cards representing each of these game phases. At the start of the game round, each player chooses which phase he wants to be able to play in by choosing one of these cards and playing it face down on the table. All players reveal their choices at the same time, and the cards revealed dictate which phases will be played that round. If no one reveals the card for a particular phase, that phase doesn't get played that round, so a big part of the strategy is in trying to determine what your opponents want to do each round.

Additionally, the game deals with the idea of card cost in an interesting way. Every development and world has a cost to put it into play, and that cost is paid by discarding cards from your hand. So if you want to play a world with a cost of 4, you have to discard four cards from your hand, which can lead to some agonizing decisions as you choose which cards you don't think you'll want to put into play later.

Many worlds generate resources which can be spent to draw additional cards into your hand, but spending these resources can only be done in a particular phase of the game, and resources can only be regenerated in another phase. This leads to a lot of strategic decision making as players try to balance which phases they will play in each round.

To add to the game's strategy options, some worlds can only be put into play via military conquest. These worlds have a military cost, which must be matched by the total military value provided by your other worlds and developments. All the worlds in the game are either military or non-military, so you have to decide which path to follow fairly early in the game.

Each development and world is worth a certain amount of victory points at the end of the game. There are many developments that give bonus points if your cards in play follow a particular theme, such as exploring alien ruins or developing worlds that provide a certain type of resource. Additionally, many cards offer the opportunity to generate bonus points throughout the game. The game ends when any player has put 12 cards into play, at which time points are added up to determine the winner.

Expansions have added new cards and new options to the game. The Coming Storm adds Goals which award bonus points for being the first player to put certain cards into play, or having the most of a certain type. The Rebel vs Imperium expansion adds some limited conflict between players, allowing them to attack and take over each other's worlds, And The Brink of War adds prestige as a second point and payment system. The most recent, Alien Artifacts, adds a strange and somewhat out of place sub-game involving the exploration of a maze-like alien structure that plays almost like a separate board game.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Race for the Galaxy offers all the deep strategy and complexity of a collectible card game, without all the extra work of collecting cards and building decks.

Date played: June 29, 2014

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Pretty dice, and a game to go with them

Quarriors is another ingenious idea from Wizkids Games, the masterminds behind Heroclix who are so good at coming up with games that are really justifications for adults to play with plastic toys. Not that I have a problem with that. I only gave up collecting action figures because Heroclix gave me plastic figures and a game I could play with them.

Quarriors replaces little plastic superheroes with custom dice, and is sold as a boxed game with expansions rather than in random booster packs (for the collectible version, see Marvel Dice Masters). It takes its game play cues from Dominion and other deck building games, where the idea is to customize your deck during the game by adding cards from a common pool.

With Quarriors it's a pool of dice each player is creating, starting with a few generic dice representing currency (called "Quiddity" in the game) and some low-level characters. A random assortment of additional dice representing characters and spells is made available in the center of the table, and players use their Quiddity dice to purchase new and better dice which they can use to attack their opponents and, if they survive, score Glory points.

Each player's dice are kept in an opaque bag, and each turn the player starts by drawing and rolling six dice. Dice faces can come up as creatures of varying strength levels, Quiddity that is used to purchase more dice, or spell effects that can allow for re-rolls, drawing and rolling additional dice, or making creatures stronger. After your creatures are put into play, they attack each opponent's creatures in turn. Then each oppoenent takes their turn, and at the start of your next turn any creatures you still have in play score Glory points, and are then returned to your pool of dice to be drawn and rolled again. The game ends when one player gets to a certain amount of Glory points (determined by the number of players).

The base set alone comes with 130 dice representing many creatures and spells, and in turn each creature or spell has three different versions, so the game has a lot of replay value, and a good part of the strategy is in using what's been dealt at the beginning of the game. You can't rely on that favorite creature or spell being available every time. Add several expansions which add tons of new dice and new game mechanics such as corrupted dice that have negative effects, or the ability to send your creatures on quests for powerful Quartifacts.

The game play is solid and engaging, and the dice are of reasonable quality and very pretty to look at. The only thing about the game that I don't particularly care for is the goofy theme they chose to wrap it in. The somewhat cartoonish artwork on the cards is fine (and in many cases quite well done), but the marketing material and even the rule book are written in an obnoxious style that makes me think of a television presenter shouting at an audience of five-year-olds. Luckily it's not enough to interfere with my enjoyment of the game.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A nice blend of strategy and random chance, with some lovely components in the form of custom printed dice.

Date played: June 22, 2014

Needs more dinosaurs

I like pirates. I think they work great as a storytelling genre, and clearly I'm not alone since pirates are well-represented in the gaming world.

I also like dinosaurs. Primeval is one of my favorite TV shows, and for all their flaws I'm a big fan of the Jurassic Park movies. Unlike pirates, dinosaurs are sadly under-represented on the board game shelves (but if you disagree I welcome your recommendations of good dinosaur games in the comments below).

I also like Arkham Horror. It's one of my favorite board games. So when I heard that Richard Launius, creator of Arkham Horror, was designing a game called Pirates vs. Dinosaurs, I thought "what's not to like?"

As it turns out, Pirates vs. Dinosaurs is not quite the epic struggle I was hoping for, but it's still pretty fun. It is essentially the classic pirate scenario of the treasure hunt on an unexplored island, where players control crews of pirates in a race to see who can be first to find the location of the hidden treasure, and then abscond with the most booty before the island is destroyed by a volcano. As if that wasn't enough, the island is also populated by bloodthirsty dinosaurs who will attempt to eat the pirates at every turn.

At the beginning of the game, after choosing a captain and first mate, each player chooses how to equip their pirate crew. Choices range from obvious items like shovels and rope to slightly more outlandish (but still pirate genre-appropriate) choices like a parrot or a cannon. They also choose whether to arm their crews with pistols n' pikes, which are more accurate but require more crew to use, or good old fashioned swords n' muskets, which are less dependable but give the player more dice to roll during combat.

After the crews are equipped, the hunt is on. Each player is assigned three tiles representing specific landmarks on the island. There are corresponding face-down tiles scattered throughout the island, and players must find the matching tiles for their three landmarks by spending time in different areas of the island, during which they are vulnerable to attack via Island cards, which are played on them by the other players.

Island cards represent mundane dangers such as mutiny or quicksand, and occasionally even positive effects players can play on themselves, like a trained monkey that will steal cards from the other players. More importantly, the Island cards include dinosaur attacks, from crafty velociraptors to stampeding triceratops to the dreaded Tyrannosaurus Rex. Naturally, attacking dinosaurs will trample or eat your crew, making them less effective in combat against further dinosaur attacks. Additionally, when you finally find the location of the treasure, you need crew to haul it back to your ship.

Once a player has located all the tiles on the board that correspond to their landmarks, they move on to the third stage of the game. From this point on, it becomes a risk management game: the player rolls the dice to determine how many tiles they draw from a randomized bag. Tiles can represent treasure of various values, but also ghosts which cumulatively cause crew and treasure loss, attacking dinosaurs, or an erupting volcano which counts down based on the number of volcano tiles that have already been drawn. How much treasure a player can haul away depends on how much crew they have left, and every draw risks ghosts, dinosaurs or volcanic eruptions, so players have to carefully decide when enough is enough and it's time to retreat to the ship.

The game ends when either all players have returned to their ships, or the island sinks as a result of the erupting volcano. At this point, the player whose crew survived with the most treasure is the winner.

As a pirate-themed treasure hunting game, Pirates vs. Dinosaurs is solid and entertaining, helped along by some excellent illustration and graphic design. However, the presence of the dinosaurs is a bit understated for me, with one exception being the Giant T-Rex, which is actually represented by a piece on the board and has an ongoing effect throughout the game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A perfectly good pirate game, but not a very good dinosaur one.

Date played: June 21, 2014

UPDATE April 20, 2015: Another look at Pirates vs. Dinosaurs