Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An expression of Risk

As I mentioned in my reviews for Seven Card Samurai and Shitenno, we're always on the lookout for a good samurai game, especially one that isn't a Risk clone as many games about feudal Japan tend to be. It may be a bit ironic, then, that I was drawn to Age of War, which started life as Risk Express, a Risk-themed dice game designed by Reiner Knizia and published by Parker Brothers in 2006.

Apparently, Risk Express didn't stay in print for very long, and for whatever reason, Fantasy Flight Games decided to give the game a samurai makeover, complete with new artwork for the proprietary dice and tiles that represent the different provinces of feudal Japan.

Each starts in the center of the table and is printed with one or more rows of symbols representing infantry, cavalry, archers, and generals, that must be rolled on the dice in order to conquer that province. The rows of symbols have to be matched one at a time, so it will take several rolls in order to conquer the province. If a roll fails to produce the symbols needed, the dice can be re-rolled, but each re-roll of a failed roll requires the player to remove one of the dice, until eventually the roll matches all the symbols needed and the province is taken, or the player runs out of dice.

In addition to conquering tiles from the center of the table, players can also attempt to take over their opponent's tiles, although it requires an extra "general" to be rolled. The tiles are matched by color in a group of four, two groups of three, three groups of two, and one single tile. If a player conquers all the tiles in a color group, they are worth more points and safe from attack, so an important element of the game is strategically choosing which tiles to go after, while keeping an eye on your opponents and preventing them from completing their sets.

If this sounds a little familiar, it's because it is very similar to Elder Sign, a Lovecraft-themed dice game also published by Fantasy Flight Games. Elder Sign adds a lot of elements to the game, giving it a more elaborate structure and adding cards that can be played to influence the dice rolls, but the core dice mechanic is the same.

I think that's all right though. Lovecraftian games need to be more complicated in order to fit the theme, and while I like Elder Sign, I also enjoyed the simplicity of Age of War.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Age of War is far too simple to be really compelling, but it's a nice simple game that can be played in a short amount of time, and the small box makes it a good travel game.

Date played: October 14, 2014

All pilots to your fighters!

One of the problems with using miniatures on a tabletop to simulate combat is the lack of continuous movement, especially if your game includes flying characters or vehicles. While some game systems may use clear stands to indicate movement through the air, most of the time fliers in tabletop games tend to "hop" from one position to another, without any real sense of fluid movement.

Star Wars: X-Wing solves that problem in a variety of ways. Ships move using templates that make movement a bit more fluid than using a tape measure or bouncing from square to square. More importantly, every player has to decide on the direction and distance of their move each turn at the same time, deciding in secret and revealing simultaneously. Once moves are revealed, ships move in order of the skill of their pilot, starting with the rookies and working their way up to the seasoned fliers like Han Solo and Darth Vader. After all the ships have moved, they get the opportunity to fire if they have any targets within range, this time starting with the best pilots and working their way down.

It's an excellent system that conveys a sense of constant movement while at the same time using the limitations of a tabletop miniatures game (the fact that the miniatures still need to be moved one at a time) to simulate an advantage that better pilots would have over lesser ones. Additionally, it can sometimes be difficult to envision exactly where your ship will end up after moving along your chosen template, which adds a great element of unpredictability to the game. It also means I tend to crash into asteroids a lot when I play...

Players choose their ships based on a pre-determined point system, with a choice of several different pilots for each ship as well as a host of optional upgrades such as extra missiles, co-pilots and astromech droids. Will you go with Darth Vader piloting his TIE Advanced, maybe with one or two wingmen, or will you opt for a swarm of TIE Fighters in an attempt to overwhelm the pesky Rebels? Would you rather have Han Solo or Lando Calrissian piloting the Falcon? This gives players a lot of strategic decisions to make before the game even starts, and ensures that the game is different every time.

The pre-painted figures are exceptional, with a lot of great detailing, and they are perfectly to scale with one another, giving larger ships like the Millennium Falcon their own advantages and disadvantages when compared to the smaller X-Wings and TIE Fighters.

Most importantly, the game really feels like Star Wars, so much so that you can almost hear the screaming engines and laser blasts.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Great looking miniatures and a game system that suits the source material perfectly.
Date played: October 5, 2014

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Star Wars, in miniature

Any time a product is wildly successful it is bound to spawn imitators, and WizKids Games' Heroclix was certainly no exception. Collectible miniatures didn't quite sweep the gaming industry the way collectible card games had in the wake of Magic: the Gathering, no doubt owing to the relatively high cost of producing pre-painted plastic miniatures. Most of the collectible miniatures games that did hit the market tried to approximate the Wizkids click dial (no mean feat since they were smart enough to file a patent for it), which makes me think that they may have missed the point.

Mage Knight and Heroclix creator Jordan Weisman had said that he got the idea for the game after seeing how difficult it was to get started playing tabletop combat games like Warhammer, and how complex the rules to those games were. He wanted a miniatures game that was easy to play but still offered strategic depth and the tactile experience of moving great-looking figures around an environment filled with obstacles. For him, the click dial was the way to help simplify tabletop miniatures, but it certainly wasn't the only way.

Enter Wizards of the Coast, the largest player in the hobby gaming market, owners of Magic: the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, and (in 2004, at least) holders of a license to produce Star Wars games.

Star Wars Miniatures was inevitable, but Wizards of the Coast were smart about how they went about it. They adopted Wizkids' distribution model of randomized blind "booster packs," But their packs contained more figures for the price. More importantly, they appeared to understand what the appeal of Heroclix really was: a tabletop combat game with relatively simple rules, using pre-painted figures and printed map boards rather than expensive 3-D terrain.

The designers of Star Wars Miniatures didn't try to come up with an alternative for the click dial, instead opting for a plain black base and a simple reference card that accompanied each figure, detailing its game statistics. This had the added bonus that the figures could easily be used with the Star Wars role playing game in addition to the combat game, and it made them a little nicer for Star Wars collectors who may not have been interested in playing either game, but have an insatiable appetite for figurines of their favorite Star Wars characters.

The game itself features a stripped down version of the combat rules from the d20 role playing game system, used by Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, and a host of other role playing games. The rules were modified somewhat to work as a tabletop game with no referee or game master, but players of the d20 role playing games would definitely find the core concepts familiar.

This basis in role playing is the main advantage Star Wars Miniatures has over Heroclix. Star Wars tends to be a much more story-driven game, with rules for things like firing around corners, hiding in trenches, or jumping through windows that Heroclix just doesn't address. Star Wars has more "wiggle room," allowing players to play out a story rather than just engaging in a mindless battle. Several products for the game even included a host of scenarios allowing players to play out scenes from the films as well as new stories.

The game's other main advantage, of course, is being set in the Star Wars universe. What Star Wars fan wouldn't want to demolish an army of Battle Droids with just a few Jedi Knights, or take command of the Rebel forces defending Hoth from the dreaded Imperial Walkers?

Rating: 5 (out of 5) The simple but versatile rules really put you right into the action, and the games feel more like stories than just mindless battles.

Date played: September 27, 2014

Sadly, Wizards of the Coast gave up their Star Wars license a few years ago, but there is plenty of Star Wars Miniatures product on the secondary market. Meanwhile, Fantasy Flight Games has Imperial Assault coming soon, which is planned to work both as a tactical game and a board game similar to Mansions of Madness.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In space, no one can hear you deck build

Back in 1989, Dark Horse Comics published the first issue of Aliens vs. Predator, an idea that seems inevitable now but was pretty radical at the time. It opened up a floodgate of comic book crossovers, with the ubiquitous Aliens and Predators in the thick of it, fighting everyone from Superman and Batman to Judge Dredd and the Terminator, and of course each other.

So it makes a kind of sense that Upper Deck Entertainment would release Legendary Encounters: an Alien Deck Building Game as an expansion to Legendary, their Marvel super hero deck building game, although it should be pointed out that Marvel never jumped on the Aliens/Predator crossover bandwagon in the comics.

Interestingly, Legendary Encounters is a complete, self-contained game which uses some elements from the Marvel game (enough that crossovers are possible) but plays somewhat differently. It's a fully cooperative game, not unlike Arkham Horror, which makes sense given the Alien universe's almost Lovecraftian atmosphere of doom and futility. Players work together against an encounter deck composed of Aliens and other plot complications, depending on what scenario elements the players choose to add.

The game consists of four different three-part scenarios, based on the four Alien films. Each part of each scenario consists of a set of story-specific encounter cards that are added to the deck. In an ingenious bit of game design, the scenario parts can be mixed and matched, so that, for example, you can put together a scenario consisting of the first part of Aliens, the second part of Alien Ressurection, and the thrilling finale of Alien 3. This increases the game's replayability exponentially, as does the fact that for each game, players are also required to shuffle in a random assortment of additional Alien cards.

Another wonderfully theme-appropriate game mechanic is what happens when a player is infected by an Alien embryo. In the films, Alien facehuggers implant embryos in hapless human hosts, who then give grisly, explosive birth, usually at the most inconvenient of times. In the game, if a player is unlucky enough to lose a fight with a facehugger, they shuffle a chestburster card into their deck. When the chestburster makes it to the top of the deck and is drawn, it's all over for that player, leading to some great tension as each card draw is a nerve-wracking experience. There are even a few (but not many) cards a player can play to choke down the little monster and keep fighting a little longer.

The designers seem to really understand the source material, even to the point that each scenario's tone matches the film it's based on. The scenario for the original film is tense and atmospheric, with very limited resources for the players to use in fighting the Alien. The second one is much more action-packed, with an emphasis on equipping the players with weapons and gadgets. The less said about Alien 3 the better, and the Alien Resurrection scenario is as bombastic and over the top as the film.

As if the near-endless scenario combinations weren't enough, the game also includes several optional elements such as secret objectives that can result in one or more of the players being a hidden traitor, and even an Alien player deck, so that a player who has been killed by a chestburster can play as the Aliens. Great stuff.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A terrific, engaging game that is ingeniously designed and very true to its source material. Can't wait to see the Predator edition...

Date played: September 14, 2014

To boldly clix, part 3

The release of Star Trek Heroclix: Tactics came as a bit of a surprise to me. Wizkids Games had already released Fleet Captains, so I wasn't expecting another Star Trek game from them, let alone one that appeared to use the same ship models. I was even more surprised when it turned out that Tactics used the regular Heroclix rules word-for-word, with no changes made to accommodate the fact that it's starships rather than superheroes. Powers and abilities were renamed on individual ship cards, but the rule book and reference card refer to ships having incongruous powers like Super Strength or Psychic Blast.

In all honesty I found the whole thing more than a little bit silly, and as the game did appear to use all the same ship models that had been included in Fleet Captains (although in Tactics they are fully painted, at least), I decided to give the whole thing a miss.

That is, until the first expansion came out. Tactics II introduced Romulan, Cardassian, and even Vulcan ships to the game, but the ship model that sold me on the game after all was the bright orange Ferengi ship, proving that human beings do indeed respond emotionally to bright colors.

We bought a bunch of ships and played a few games. I suppose it was nice that we didn't need to learn a new rules set, but it still seemed a little silly when the odd superhero term would come up during a game.

In spite of that, the Heroclix rules do lend themselves fairly well to the way space combat is depicted on Star Trek. Game pieces in Heroclix don't move fluidly so much as hop around the board from square to square, and they have to stop moving before making an attack, which is more or less what happens on Star Trek, with its ponderous starships slowly moving into position and then firing until the other ship is destroyed or surrenders.

While Heroclix is a tried and true game system, at the end of the day it reduces Star Trek to a simple fight, with none of the drama or intrigue offered by the various television shows, or even by the other two Star Trek clix games.

I still thought it was odd that Wizkids had two competing Star Trek starship games on the market, so imagine my surprise when the announced Star Trek: Attack Wing, yet another ship combat game that would use the same models from Tactics and Fleet Captains, but with the rules system licensed from from Fantasy Flight's Star Wars: X-Wing. I'm definitely not touching that one...

Rating: 2 (out of 5) While Heroclix with space ships works surprisingly well, Star Trek Tactics suffers in comparison to the more interesting Fleet Captains.
Date played: September 14, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

To boldly clix, part 2

The second Star Trek game from Wizkids Games, Star Trek: Fleet Captains has all the makings of an epic. Rather than go the route of a straight-up combat game, Wizkids delivered a surprisingly deep game about exploration and mission solving, with combat playing only a small part. Players draft fleets of ships and explore a cosmos made up of randomly sorted tiles. The ships you choose determine what types of missions you are given, anything from colonizing planets to scanning stars to conducting hit-and-run attacks into your opponent's territory.

As a player, you can tailor your tactics with the use of a semi-customized deck of Command cards, composed of characters, actions, and combat maneuvers. There are 10 mini-decks of 10 cards organized around themes such as engineering, warfare, or subterfuge; at the start of the game, each player chooses four of these to shuffle together, forming a 40 card deck.

Play centers around solving missions to score points, with bonus points available from random encounters as well as by doing things like building starbases. Play proceeds until one player reaches a number of points (10 in a normal game) determined by the size of the players' starting fleets.

The Star Trek universe is certainly well-represented. Each faction plays differently, with the Federation focused on science and exploration, the Klingons on battle, the Romulans on subterfuge, and the Dominion on brute force conquest. Ships and characters from the original series, The Next Generaition, Deep Space Nine and Voyager are all present, and there's even a Klingon ship from an episode of the animated series.

While it is very successful in terms of theme, the game itself is often bogged down by complicated game play. The game tries to be open-ended, but unfortunately that has resulted in a lot of rules that aren't always intuitive and are often difficult to remember. We have found that we have to refer to the rules very frequently, even after playing several times.

The Command deck is an interesting idea, especially with the ability to customize the deck a bit without spending time hand-picking all the cards. However, each of the mini-decks has too many cards that are only useful in very specific situations. You often find yourself with a hand of cards you can't use, which means you get in the habit of just ignoring them all together.

As with Star Trek Expeditions, the patented clix dial seems a bit out of place and tacked-on. Ostensibly it is used to track power adjustments to each ship, so more power to the shields means less power to the sensors, but the numbers on the dials are in a poorly chosen font that is very hard to read, and in any case all the numbers are also printed on each ship's card, making the dials pretty unnecessary.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The incredible use of theme goes some way towards making up for some clunky game play, but not enough to make Fleet Captains a great game.

Date played: September 1, 2014

UPDATE May 12, 2015: Another look at Star Trek: Fleet Captains