Friday, September 26, 2014

Plumbing the depths of space

When I was a kid, one of our go-to family games was Water Works, the original (as far as I know) pipe-laying game. Fun as it was, I have no actual interest in plumbing, so the theme was always a bit lost on me, although the game is abstract enough that it doesn't really matter. It doesn't need to be leaky water pipes, it could be anything.

It could be a space station.

Already a fan of Cheapass Games, I was instantly intrigued by Starbase Jeff, a game which takes the basic concept of Water Works and puts it squarely in outer space. Even better, it has my name in the title.

Each player starts with their own color-coded deck of square cards representing parts of a space station, including 3-way and 4-way junctions, corners, and end caps. They also start with a set amount of tokens representing money. The idea is to add tiles to the space station in such a way that you have as many tiles as possible in a row between your oppoents' tiles. They have to pay you in order to "play through" when they add a new tile to the station, one token for each of your tiles that lies between where they're playing, and their nearest tile in the station.

Money gets passed back and forth in this way, and it also gets paid into a "pot" in the center of the table whenever anyone plays a new tile (they each have different costs depending on how useful the tile is). The player who closes off the station, by playing a tile in such a way that there are no openings for further tiles, wins the pot. Play can continue over multiple rounds until one or more players are out of money, or no one feels like playing any more.

An advanced rule adds the use of symbols printed along the sides of the tiles which, when connected to a matching symbol, give the player who connected them a special advantage such as being able to play more than one tile, or collect more money from players playing through.

The core idea of building a starbase and gaining points when other players need to connect through your parts of the station is quite ingenious, but it's a game in search of an ending. Winning the pot by closing off the station feels tacked on and anticlimactic, and it means that games can vary wildly in length. I guess that's the point of playing multiple rounds, but I would prefer a more satisfying conclusion, rather than just playing until everyone is tired of the game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) An ingenious variation on an old classic, only slightly marred by a vaguely unsatisfying end game.

Date played: August 31,2014

UPDATE April 20, 2015: Another look at Starbase Jeff

To boldly clix, part 1

After years of using their patented clix dial system almost exclusively for tactical combat games, Wizkids Games finally decided to try it out on some board games. For their first, they paired what should have been a winning combination: the venerable Star Trek license, and renowned game designer Reiner Knizia.

Star Trek: Expeditions is theoretically based on the 2009 film that rebooted the franchise, but it clearly has its roots in the structure and tropes of the original series, to such an extent that one wonders if Dr. Knizia has even seen any Star Trek material made after 1969. It's fine if he hasn't, because it allowed him to get down to the essence of a classic Star Trek story, without getting distracted by the world building and technobabble of the later television shows, or the empty Hollywood action of the more recent films.

It's a cooperative game in which each player takes on the role of one of the Enterprise crew, represented by a nicely detailed miniature with a patented clix base. The majority of the board is split up into areas, each containing a face-down plot card, and the idea is for the characters to beam down to the planet and uncover the cards that will move the plot forward and gain the group the most points in the process. Along the way, players will face tests using the standard clix system of rolling dice and adding whatever ability is appropriate (in this case: command, science or support) in an attempt to beat a target number. Failed tests can cause the character to click down their dial, reducing their abilities and making future tests more difficult.

There is also a track along the top of the board where miniatures of the Enterprise and a Klingon ship do battle, with each failure pushing the Enterprise backwards along the track and losing the players points from their final score.

The clix dials seem a bit shoehorned in, but that's probably to be expected, especially with a designer like Reiner Knizia who is perfectly capable of creating a game without a weird plastic gimmick. In spite of that, it's a pretty neat game. I really like the way it gets all the classic Star Trek elements in: characters get involved with the unfolding plot on the planet, with their choices leading to greater or lesser degrees of success, while at the same time there are things to do on the ship in orbit, fighting the Klingons to a standstill but also performing various support tasks such as repairing the ship and scanning the surface. It's very difficult to win, but that's to be expected for a cooperative game.

Where the game fails is in the repetitiveness of the plot cards. They are semi-random: the same basic cards that move the game forward are combined with a selection of random "side-missions" that can give the players advantages upon success, but have no real bearing on the main story. It's a problem that could be solved with expansions introducing  new storylines, but that's really just a band-aid for a structural flaw in an otherwise terrific Star Trek game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The Star Trek theme is spot-on, but unnecessary clix dials and somewhat repetitive game play stop this from being a truly great game.

Date played: August 17, 2014

UPDATE May 12, 2015: Another look at Star Trek: Expeditions

Monday, September 22, 2014

The perfect Star Trek game

The designers of the Star Trek Customizable Card Game made a few missteps when it was originally released on the heels of Magic: the Gathering in 1994. They went a little too crazy with the random sorting of the starter decks; it's a game that relies heavily on having the right combination of cards, and frequently a starter deck wouldn't have all the cards one player needed to play. Additionally, they made all the television show's main characters rare cards that were difficult to come by, so you almost never saw Captain Picard or Commander Data unless you were willing to buy a lot of booster packs or pay high prices for single cards (my first games featured Doctor Crusher and Ensign Ro in starring roles).

Even though it was poorly distributed, the game was very well designed, and in spite of their mistakes the designers got two very important things absolutely right. First of all, in a massive wave of imitations, the Star Trek CCG was not really anything like Magic, other than that it was played with trading cards and sold in random booster packs. Second, and most importantly, the game's structure reflected the tone of the source material extremely well. Although there is an element of direct combat, it's not a fighting game. It's a game about assembling crews, flying starships to planets, and undertaking missions beset by plot complications.

Each player (the game is designed for two but can accommodate more with a little tweaking) constructs a deck composed of personnel, ships, equipment, and missions, as well as event and interrupt cards. At the start of the game, a spaceline is created composed of six mission cards from each player, laid out by each player one by one in a line. Missions require personnel to be present with specific combinations of skills (such as Engineering or Leadership), attributes (such as Cunning or Strength), and sometimes other requirements such as particular characters or equipment. Each mission is worth a certain number of points (generally from 20-50), and the first player to reach 100 points wins the game.

Of course, there is a lot more to it than that. Before the game begins, each player gets to place Dilemma cards underneath his opponent's missions in order to make the mission more difficult. Some dilemmas require certain skills to get past, and others will kill or incapacitate members of the crew. They represent unforeseen complications that players must try to be ready for when they send their personnel to attempt a mission.

Initially, the game was based on Star Trek: the Next Generation and offered players the chance to play as the Federation, the Klingons or the Romulans, with a sprinkling of "non-aligned" characters and ships representing the various other races encountered on the show. Later, the license grew to include the original series, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, with expansions adding the Cardassians, Dominion, and even the Borg as playable factions.

The game was very successful and there were a lot of expansions, each one adding more and more complexity. The First Contact expansion added the concept of time travel, which was later expanded upon with a set of cards that allowed players to travel back to 1984 San Francisco and "save the whales" ala Star Trek IV. Just about anything that happened on Star Trek in any of its versions could be re-created in the game. But the real fun was in casting your own Star Trek adventures: suppose Dr. Bashir and Garak were given command of the USS Defiant, or Chakotay's Maquis ship and crew survived to explore the Delta Quadrant on their own? What if the Borg succeeded in assimilating Earth? How about Captains Kirk, Picard and Sisko leading an espionage mission to Romulus? The Star Trek universe is so rich, and so well-represented by the game, that anything seems possible.

As compelling as all this was, unfortunately all these added elements eventually caused the game to became virtually impossible to get new players interested in, despite several repackaged starter products that attempted to make it more accessible. After eight years the publisher chose to "re-set" the game with a Second Edition, offering re-designed cards and streamlined game play, but it never really caught on the way the original game did.

It is a testament to how compelling the Star Trek CCG is that a group of fans have continued to create new "virtual" cards long after the end of the game's official life. However, I think it's an even better testament to how well the game reflects its source material that every time I watch the show I want to play the game, and every time I play the game I want to watch the show.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Despite being on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own complexity, this is the gold standard for Star Trek games.

Date played: August 17, 2014

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gaming in the final frontier

Star Trek in most of its forms is an optimistic story about the intrigue and adventure that go along with exploring space. More often than not it is a a character drama, with the vast majority of stories from the various television series concerning the interpersonal problems the characters encounter when they visit new planets. Even the shipbound episodes tend to be concerned with the characters solving problems and interacting with one another, with notable examples from the original series being The Doomsday Machine and Balance of Terror.

Nevertheless, Star Trek presents its characters as part of a decidedly military organization. That military flavor is a fundamental part of the series, so it's really no surprise that the majority of Star Trek games tend to be about combat between starships, taking their cues from naval war games. The most successful and long-lived of these is Star Fleet Battles, a game that is legendary for being hopelessly complicated, yet has a devoted following.

It also has an unusual (and likely relatively inexpensive) licensing deal that allows the publishers to use the starship designs, organizations, and setting from the original Star Trek series, but none of the specific characters. So the game includes Klingons, Romulans and even Tholians, but can make no mention of Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock.

I've always been somewhat interested in Star Fleet Battles, but its reputation for being overly complicated has kept me from ever playing it. This most likely makes me part of the market targeted by Star Fleet Battle Force, a card game based on the same concepts and set in the same universe. It's a game that tries really hard to be simple and accessible, but it occasionally stumbles over what I suspect are various attempts to make it mirror Star Fleet Battles.

Players are dealt a number of ship cards which begin the game in play, either on the front line or in reserve. They are also dealt a hand of action cards from which they mainly play attacks and defenses. The attack cards must be matched up with an attacking ship's weapons, so you can only play a phaser attack if your ship has phaser cannons, a plasma attack if your ship has plasma weapons, and so on.

This core game mechanic is straightforward enough, but for me it causes the game's main thematic flaw. Since all players are drawing from a common deck, you will often have a hand of attack cards that require a wide variety of weapons in order to use. But if your ships are all from the same faction (Federation, Klingon, etc.) they tend to have the same types of weapons, so a lot of the cards you draw aren't going to be usable.

The game compensates for this by having each player's starting ships dealt out randomly, so that all players will most likely have a mix of different ships with different weapons. This is great for game play, but bad for the theme as each player will have a mixed fleet of ships from different factions, which seriously disrupts the theme of galaxy-spanning empires going to war with one another.

Star Fleet Battle Force used to be our laundromat game, since it takes up relatively little table space and doesn't take too long to play, but it suffers when compared to less random and more thematically solid games like Star Trek Fleet Captains or the Star Trek Customizable Card Game.

Rating 2 (out of 5) The core game mechanic isn't bad, but everything about the game is too random to be immersive or strategically interesting.
Date played: August 3, 2014

Star Trek: the Adventure Game is another game from before The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager expanded the Star Trek universe into the vast place it is today. But what it lacks in scope it makes up for in theme, as it is a game about traveling to different planets and having adventures, where each decision is crucial to the welfare of the quadrant (or at least, the score of the player).

While it's great that this game is about exploration and story rather than just being another ship combat game, what it amounts to is a two-player Choose Your Own Adventure. As a player reaches a new planet, their opponent reads from a book that describes the situation for the encounter on that particular planet, and offers several decision points that are influenced by the abilities of the crew tokens present, eventually arriving at an outcome that will move the score tracker in one direction or another.

One thing we noticed with this game was that once a player had a few bad encounters it was really difficult for them to recover, so that by halfway through the game it was pretty clear who the winner was going to be, to the point that it barely seemed worth playing to the finish.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) We enjoyed the novelty of this game when we first tried it a few years ago, but it seems dry and superficial when compared to similar games like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective or Star Trek Expeditions. The relatively poor quality of the components doesn't help mattters any.

Date played: August 16, 2014

Star Trek: the Card Game is something of an anomaly for a licensed collectible card game. It was published during an unusual "break" in the licensing agreement for Decipher, Inc.'s Star Trek Customizable Card Game. While Decipher was renegotiating their Star Trek license, which at the time only covered The Next Generation, Another publisher managed to grab the rights to make a CCG based on the original series.

Whether by design or by accident, Star Trek: the Card Game is as different from Decipher's game as possible, opting for a much more abstract approach to game play. Players compete to construct stories from Mission, Plot and Discovery cards. Crew cards are used to overcome Challenges played by your opponent, and in an unusual twist for a collectible game, the three main characters are common cards played to the center of the table and usable by both players.

It has some interesting ideas, and I like the idea of playing cards to construct episodes of the television show, the game is seriously bogged down by a nearly incomprehensible scoring and payment system involving placing and removing counters, and it suffers from some poor design choices that make many of the cards difficult to read.

Decipher eventually renegotiated their license for their Star Trek Customizable Card Game, and even expanded it to include material from the original series, so this game was largely forgotten.

Rating: 1 (out of 5) Even without comparing it to many much better Star Trek games, and even with a few unusual ideas, this game is mostly an unplayable mess.

Date played: August 16, 2014

I reviewed the Doctor Who version earlier in the list, and I really don't have much more to say about Star Trek SceneIt. It's an enjoyable trivia game, with some fun visual puzzles in addition to the usual tests of knowledge. The Star Trek edition definitely has a lot more source material to work with (Doctor Who SceneIt only covers the first three seasons of the new series), but that can be a down side too, as it has a fair amount of material from Enterprise, which we haven't seen a lot of (we'll debate the relative merits of the different Star Trek series at another time and place).

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Probably the best Star Trek video trivia game out there, limited only by the fact that in the end, it is just a video trivia game.

Date played: September 1, 2014

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A collectible card game without all the work

The thing I like about Smash Up is that it takes a lot of my favorite elements from collectible card games and distills them down to their most simple. It manages to provide the kind of game play I go to CCGs for, but without the added complications like collecting cards, figuring out combinations and strategies, and building decks. It's a collectible card game without all the homework.

The game consists of a selection of 20-card decks representing common genre tropes such as pirates, zombies, and ninjas, as well as some not-so-common ones like dinosaurs with laser cannons. Each player chooses two decks and shuffles them together to form a single 40-card play deck. Locations called Bases are dealt out to the middle of the table, and the object of the game is to score points by having the most character cards present at each base when it "scores," which it does when a certain number of characters from all players are present.

Each faction has its own gimmick. Zombies play cards from the discard pile, pirates move cards around between the different Bases, robots "self-replicate" by allowing their player to play a bunch of characters each turn, and so on. The strategy comes from figuring out how to make your two factions' abilities work together.

The point of the game is to occupy the Bases while preventing your opponent from doing the same, so it's not about confrontational combat, but rather about strategic placement and manipulation. There are only two card types, Minions and Actions, and on a normal turn a player can play one of each so it's easy to teach new players. Like the best CCGs, Smash Up presents a simple framework of rules and then gives the players cards which allow them to break those rules, in this case by playing extra cards, moving minions between the different Bases, playing from the discard pile, and so on.

At the same time, Smash Up avoids the barriers that stop most people from playing collectible card games. There's no collecting involved; the base set contains enough cards for four players, and each expansion is self-contained, with four 20-card decks and complete rules for two players. Choosing your two factions is the only deck-building involved, but that simple choice offers a surprising amount of strategic decision making, as the different factions work together in surprising ways, so a zombie pirate deck is going to play quite a bit differently from a zombie wizard deck.

Smash Up manages to offer the complex strategy of a collectible card game while at the same time being very easy to pick up and play without any prep time. It's a breeze to teach new players, and the slick artwork will help hold their attention.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) With all the different card combinations, we could easily play this very accessible game all afternoon.

Date played: August 5, 2014

Friday, September 12, 2014

Hell-bent for leather

I enjoy most of the genres that fictional media tends to fall into, but I have an undeniable soft spot for historical westerns. There are a fair number of western themed board games out there, but the vast majority of them tend to be either shootout games that revolve entirely around combat (such as Bang!), or Euro-style resource management building games. I had never been able to find a western adventure game other than the Deadlands: Doomtown collectible card game, which has a very overt supernatural element to it and is really more of a location control game, which is typical of most CCGs.

So it didn't take much to convince me to back the Kickstarter campaign for Spurs: A Tale in the Old West. It appeared to be exactly the sort of game I was looking for, a "move around the board and draw a card to see what happens" game in the vein of Talisman or Fortune and Glory. I'm happy to say that Spurs delivers on its promise perfectly, and in a few unexpected ways.

Players take the roles of archetypical western characters such as the cowboy, the outlaw, or the gambler, and travel the board by rolling some really neat proprietary dice with horse icons on them. At any given time, eight spaces on the board contain a tile with a task to be performed, and this is where the game gets really interesting for a fan of western history. In addition to the expected showdowns with outlaws and desperadoes, players can advance in the game by prospecting for gold, hunting wild animals such as bears and cougars, and even by herding cattle or taming horses.

There is a terrific little mini game with its own board for cattle herding and horse taming. It's a hex board with 19 spaces on it, and for the cattle herding mini game, six cattle tokens are distributed randomly across the board. The player chooses a cow and then rolls a number of dice equal to his character's riding skill to. The dice represent different directions the cow can move; from each roll, the player chooses one die and moves the cow in the direction indicated, with the goal being to get as many of them as possible into a single group within a certain number of moves. The horse taming game is similar, with the horse running off in different directions and the player trying not to crash into nearby trees or rocks.

It is this inclusion of the more mundane aspects of life in the wild west that I find fascinating about the game. I love that it is just as viable a strategy (and often more interesting) to tame horses and sell them in town as it is to hunt for outlaws.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) There isn't much story to the game, but I think that actually contributes to the feeling of having the freedom to just explore the world of the wild west.
Date played: July 27, 2014

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Finally, a good samurai game

In my review of Seven Card Samurai I mentioned that we are fans of samurai films, an interest that has been rekindled thanks to a recent display of Japanese armor at the Portland Art Museum, and a friend's recent series of showings of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies on his impressive home theater system. We've been on the lookout for a good samurai themed game that isn't of the Risk-style army placement variety, which is a taller order than you might think.

We stumbled across a demo copy of Shitenno at our local game store, and gave it a try. After one play we were undecided, but we played it again a few weeks later and decided that we enjoyed it enough to pick up a copy for ourselves.

The game is a fight for control of feudal Japan, but rather than armies clashing, it is about clever use of resources to control strategic spaces on the board. The board is divided into eight provinces, each with four spaces for players to place their control tokens. Each player can place two tokens per turn, either by spending a specific combination of military or financial resources, with the spots costing more depending on how many control tokens are already there.

It is how players acquire their resources that is the more interesting part of the game. Each round, the player who was the first player on the previous turn assumes the role of Tairo and draws a certain number of military and koku (financial) cards, and also takes the four title cards, which determine turn order and also give a particular advantage for the next turn.

From these resources and titles, the Tairo forms a lot of as many or as few cards as he wishes, plus one title card, and offers it to the next player in the current turn order. That player can either take the lot or pass; if they pass, the next player can accept or pass, and so on until either the lot of cards has been taken or it comes back to the Tairo player, who must take it if no one else did.

Then the Tairo forms another lot of resources plus one title and offers it to the next player in line who doesn't have a lot yet, who can accept it or pass. This continues until everyone has some cards and a title for the next turn.

This is where much of the game's strategy takes place. Each province has a particular combination of different types of military cards that must be played in order to place a control token there, so the Tairo and the other players are looking at what's on offer, hoping to get the cards they need. The Tairo can't really make the lots too uneven or he'll get stuck with the worst of them, but he can try to fake out the other players by composing a lot with the cards he wants and a title he doesn't think the other players want. This can backfire, however, if he fails to correctly guess what the other players are after.

Play continues, alternating between placing control tokens and dividing up resources, until either any one player has run out of tokens or the koku deck has run out, at which point everyone gets to finish that turn and then points are added up based on how many control tokens each player has in each province, plus bonus points for koku cards still in hand as well as having the most tokens in a province.

Shitenno is pretty abstract, but at the same time I think it really conveys a sense of the political and economic wrangling that was common in feudal Japan, and it's helped along by some beautifully illustrated, high quality game components.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A conquest and control game that turns on resource management rather than combat, which sets it apart from similar area control games like Risk or Age of Conan.

Date played: July 27, 2014

Monday, September 8, 2014

Not so elementary

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is a game that's been sitting on my shelf for years, but which I had never actually played before it came up on our list. My father, a collector of all things Holmes, gave it to me after it sat on his shelf for even more years. Judging from the excellent condition the game is in, he never played it either.

It's not a traditional board game, but somewhere between a multiplayer Choose Your Own Adventure and a role playing game with no game master. There's a map, but players don't move around on it, it's just for reference. There are no playing pieces or dice. The game consists of a very short rule book (the actual rules description is only two pages), a Case Book with descriptions of 10 mysteries to be solved, and a Clue Book which describes what information is to be found at each of the locations on the aforementioned map of London.

The game can be played cooperatively or competitively. The goal is to solve the mystery using as few clues as possible, with an eye toward beating Sherlock Holmes' score for each case (given with the solution), or at the very least, the scores of the other players if playing competitively.

At the start of the game, the case is read aloud from the Case Book, giving information about the crime and the people and major locations involved. Players then take turns hunting down clues. An included London Directory booklet tells the players where to find the various characters and locations mentioned in the case; they then use the map to determine which clue to read from the Clue Book. Even more ingenious is a Newspaper Archive booklet containing faux newspapers full of stories that may or may not be relevant to the case.

Even in the competitive game, all the clues are read aloud. At any time, if a player thinks they have enough information to solve the case, they write down their solution and the number of clues that have been read up to that point, then wait for the other players to do the same.

When all the players believe they have enough information to solve the case, they refer to the Quiz Book, which contains a series of questions about the case that must be answered, and also three or four bonus questions that, if answered correctly, will improve the player's score. There is a scoring system based on the number of correctly answered questions and the number of clues that had to be read in order to arrive at the solution, and the solution gives Holmes' score as a benchmark for the players to compare theirs to.

It's a wildly compelling game in spite (or perhaps because) of the almost complete lack of game mechanics. Players simply use the various resources to decide which clue to read, and keep going until they think they've solved the case. The game lacks the awkward dice rolling for movement and non-story-related word puzzle clues of 221B Baker Street, or the simple process of elimination of Clue, and it is much stronger for it, keeping players immersed in the mystery and the Victorian setting.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Perhaps a bit dry by modern gaming standards, but nevertheless a compelling mystery game.

Date played: July 26, 2014

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Somebody save me

James Ernest's Kill Doctor Lucky is a well designed game, but like many of Ernest's games, its central theme is based on a joke. In this case, it's a parody of the Parker Brothers classic Clue. The fact that it's a more interesting game than Clue is what elevates it beyond being a mere curiosity.

What, then, are we to make of Ernest's Save Doctor Lucky, a game which appears to be both a prequel to, and a parody of, its predecessor? Is making a parody of a parody going a step too far?

The object of Save Doctor Lucky is to, well, save Doctor Lucky from drowning as the ship he is on sinks. The game seems to take great delight in being the opposite of its more homicidal cousin: where in Kill Doctor Lucky the goal is to use a weapon card to murder the hapless doctor while no one is looking, Save Doctor Lucky asks its players to assist the doctor by throwing him a life preserver, while in full view of at least one other player's pawn on the board. It really is the same game, but in reverse.

The one interesting addition is the concept of the sinking ship, which provides a way to limit the players' resources as well as putting a time limit on the game. The board is divided into four sections representing the four decks of the ship, and the cards players use to move and make saving attempts are divided into four equal piles, one for each section. When all of a section's cards are drawn, that section sinks, until eventually the whole board is gone and the game ends, whether Doctor Lucky has been saved or not.

I can't help but think that this sinking ship game mechanic might have been better served by being part of a more ambitious, or at least more original, game, rather than being a somewhat out of place element added to a game that worked well the way it was.

Rating 2 (out of 5) In the end this is just a slightly different (and somewhat more awkward) version of the more smoothly designed Kill Doctor Lucky.

Date played: July 26, 2014

Monster killing unplugged

I had never played any of the Resident Evil video games, or seen any of the movies, before I played the Resident Evil Deck Building Game. I hadn't played Dominion or and of the other deck building games on the market either, so I like to think I was able to approach it without any expectations or preconceived notions, either about the theme or the type of game it is.

A deck building game, for those of you who may not be familiar, is an offshoot of the collectible card game, but rather than building a deck ahead of time and bringing it to the table, players build their customized decks over the course of the game, starting with a small number of basic cards and adding more specific cards from the available stacks laid out on the table.

In Resident Evil, these cards represent weapons, ammunition, and actions that players will use while facing down hoards of rampaging monsters in a creepy old mansion. Each player plays as one of the characters from the video game, with one or two unique abilities that come into play after they've killed a certain number of monsters. On a player's turn, he or she can play any number of weapon and ammunition cards, buy one new card from the stacks at the center of the table (using gold values on the ammo and other cards), play one action card (although many actions allow the player to play additional actions) and explore the mansion once.

Exploring the mansion is the meat of the game. The mansion deck consists of  around thirty monsters of varying strength, plus one boss monster whose defeat ends the game. In a normal turn, a player can explore the mansion once, which consists of first playing as many weapons as possible from a hand of five cards. Each weapon has an ammo requirement that must be met by playing ammo cards in order for the weapon to be functional. Action cards will often provide additional card draws that can be played, as well as more ammo and bonuses to the amount of damage each weapon does.

One the player is armed to the teeth, the top card of the mansion deck is flipped over, revealing a monster that must be fought. Each monster has a health and a damage value; if the player's combined weapons do enough damage to wipe out the monster's health, the monster is killed and added to the player's stack of decorations, with more powerful monsters naturally being worth more points. Otherwise, the monster inflicts its damage on the player and their turn ends. After a certain amount of damage the player is killed, but they come back on their next turn with a reduction in health but no other ill effects.

Eventually, the boss monster will be drawn from the mansion deck. It is usually substantially more powerful than the other monsters, so as the mansion deck starts to dwindle in size, players are a bit more cautious about exploring, but at the same time, they should have more and better weapons and actions in their decks by then, making them more likely to be able to take down the boss.

When the boss monster is defeated, the game ends and players add up their decoration points to determine the winner.

I like the strategy involved in choosing what cards to add to your deck, and the added challenge of doing it on the fly as you play makes it more spontaneous than the often more deliberate and devious collectible card games. However, the random nature of the mansion deck leads to wildly inconsistent game times, with some games ending in 30 minutes and others taking several hours.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The game's fast pace and quick turns are somewhat undermined by its often lengthy play time.

Unfortunately this game is currently out of print, and it doesn't appear that the publisher has any plans for it.
Date played: July 16, 2014

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A planet by any other name

In 2012, Fantasy Flight Games decided they wanted to reprint the classic Dune board game originally published by Avalon Hill in 1979, based on Frank Herbert's novel. They were able to arrange for the rights to the game system, but, for whatever reason, were unable to get permission to use material from the novel. Rather than let the project die, they opted to re-skin the game, setting it in the universe of their Twilight Imperium game and re-naming it Rex: Final Days of an Empire.

Twilight Imperium takes place in a far future populated by numerous spacefaring civilizations, making it a reasonable substitute for the interplanetary intrigue of Dune. The planet Arrakis is replaced by the city of Rex, a hub of galactic politics and culture that is currently under bombardment by an invading army, with a fleet of attacking ships replacing the original game's board-clearing sand storm. The Twilight Imperium factions stand in nicely for Dune's political families, with one particularly interesting substitution being that Dune's native Fremen are replaced by the invading forces from Sol, with no change to their practical abilities in the game.

Like Dune, Rex is a game about different factions with unique game abilities vying for control of the board. Control is achieved via the placement of army units in strategic spaces on the board, but the real meat of the game is in alliances that can be made and broken between players. The real strategy is in looking at the situation on the board, deciding which other player has an ability you can take advantage of, and convincing that player to ally with you. The catch is that alliances can only be made and broken at certain points during the game, determined randomly by a shuffled stack of cards.

Apart from the necessary change in theme, the changes made to the game serve as an interesting illustration of the differences in tactical board gaming over the past 30 years. Dune includes a small amount of note-taking, where Rex keeps track of everything with cards and tokens. The army tokens in Rex are much larger than those in Dune, and feature printed artwork and faction symbols rather than being merely color-coded. The artwork in Rex is much more lush and colorful, almost to the point of feeling overproduced. Most telling is the reduction in the time it takes to play the game. Dune arbitrarily ends after 16 rounds, and Rex reduces this to 8, cutting Dune's play time of 4-5 hours down to a much more manageable two or three.

Which game is better? Opinion is divided on the subject. Personally, I prefer Rex's streamlined game play and nicer components, but at the same time, I'm much more familiar with Dune's story and characters, and I like the way the story plays out over the course of the game. It's a pity they weren't able to come to an agreement about the licensing.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Without comparing it to Dune, Rex: Final Days of an Empire is a solid game that combines some of the more interesting features of Risk and Diplomacy.

Date played: July 14, 2014