Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Festival of color

Lanterns: the Harvest Festival is a simple, relaxing game in which players collect lantern cards of different colors by playing tiles, and trade different sets of lantern cards in for points. The playing pieces are lovely to look at, contributing to the serene nature of the game.

Tiles have a color on each side, and are played adjacent to one another in a common grid. You can play a tile anywhere, but if you match a colored side of your tile to one already in play, you get a lantern card of that color. In addition, you get a card for whatever colored tile side is facing you, and your opponents get a card for the colored edge, so a major aspect of the game play is paying attention to what cards you are giving your opponents, and trying not to give them anything too useful.

Some tiles have illustrated platforms in their center, and if you play a tile with a matching color adjacent to a tile with a platform, you get a favor token. These can be spent to trade a lantern card for one of another color, which is an important ability when you're trying to put sets of cards together to earn points.

Lantern cards are traded in for points in one of three possible combinations: four of the same color, 3 different pairs of the same color, or one each of seven different colors. Points are represented by tokens whose value gradually decreases as they are claimed, so the first player to cash in a set of four gets more points for it than the second player to do so, and so on.

Play proceeds until all the tiles have run out, after which players get one final turn to cash in their lanterns before the scores are added up.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) a light, pleasant game that's good for an evening with non-gamers, or when you're not up for something more complicated.

Lanterns: the Harvest Festival official website
Lanterns: the Harvest Festival on BoardGameGeek

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Strange attraction

Most board games fall into one of two broad categories: they are either a race, where the goal is to accomplish something before your opponents do, or they are a fight, where the goal is to attack your opponents and defend yourself from their attacks. Player interaction in race games tends to be minimal, with players generally more concerned with reaching their own goals, and their opponents' progress acting as a clock to be beaten.

At its core, Gravwell is a race game, but every move depends on what the other players are doing. Players play movement cards in an effort to be the first to move their space ship along a linear path from the center of the board to the edge. It sounds simple, but it's not.

At the start of each round, players draft from an array of card stacks consisting of one face up and one face down card. Cards represent different elements that the space ships are able to gather on their journey away from the black hole at the center of the board. Most of the cards will move a  player's ship anywhere from 2-10 spaces along the board. The catch, however, is that ships must always move in the direction of the nearest other ship, wherever that may be.

A few cards allow movement away from the nearest ship, and two of them (out of 26 total cards) will move every ship on the board towards the ship of whoever plays the card. Each card is marked with a letter from A to Z. Cards are played face down and revealed simultaneously, then resolved in alphabetical order.

Additionally, there are two non player ships on the board whose positions can affect the direction in which a player ship moves.

There is a lot of backwards and forwards movement, but the game's real strategy is in anticipating what your opponents are going to play, and choosing a play of your own that will allow you to take advantage of what order you play in, and the position of the other ships on the board when you move. Once each round, you can use an Emergency Stop to cancel your movement, if a move would take you too far away from where they want to be, but each round consists of six card plays, so you have to be careful about when to use it.

Gravwell is a terrific game in that its rules are very simple, but there is a lot to think about while playing. You simply can't ignore what your opponents are doing, and you have to manipulate the positions of the other ships on the board in order to move your own closer to victory.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A simple yet engaging game, well deserving of the multiple game design awards it's won.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The great cardboard train robbery

The train robbery is a standard western trope, from 1903's The Great Train Robbery all the way through to the two spectacular train action sequences in 2013's The Lone Ranger. Joss Whedon even used a train robbery as the centerpiece of the first regular episode of his space western TV series Firefly.

But imagine the chaos if six different bandits all tried to rob the same train at the same time. I don't think that's ever been done before, but it's what happens in Colt Express.

The playing area in Colt Express consists of several train cars loaded with money and jewels, along with an engine that contains a box full of money but also an ornery Marshall who will kick bandits out of any train car he finds them in. Rather than a flat board, the game gives you a charming set of three dimensional train cars which allow players to move their pieces through the interior of the train, and also on the roof.

Players take the roles of individual bandits, each with a unique ability. Play consists of several rounds of playing move cards to a common stack, and then resolving those move cards in the order they were played. Since some cards are played face down, you don't always know what your opponents are doing, and some actions can result in your piece being moved unexpectedly, which can throw off the rest of your moves. The goal of the game is to have the most loot when the game ends after five rounds.

The predetermined moves aspect of the game invites comparisons to Robo Rally, but Colt Express manages to be a lot less frustrating and a lot more charming (I've played with people who hate Robo Rally but really liked Colt Express). I think the fact that you don't have to plan all your moves for the round at once is one reason. When playing your moves, you can react, in a limited fashion, to what your opponents are doing. The limited time frame is another plus; one of the main complaints I often hear about Robo Rally is that it can sometimes take hours to play. A game of Colt Express generally takes 30-45 minutes, and the pace is much faster. There is never a sense of being "stuck" like there often is in Robo Rally.

The playing pieces themselves are delightful, if a bit small for adult hands. The three dimensional train cars are beautifully illustrated, and the game includes pieces of scenery that have no bearing on game play, but can be scattered around the table for decorative effect.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Out of a few recent Robo Rally-like games, this one is a clear favorite, not just for the western theme (always a plus for me) but for the light, fun tone and fast-paced game play.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

For people who don't like Robo Rally

Robo Rally is a very divisive game: some people really love it, and others just cannot stand it, to the point where they'll get up and leave if it hits the table. Personally I've loved it since I first played it, but I definitely understand why it drives some people crazy, as their carefully constructed movement plans inevitably fall apart over the course of what are often confusing, non-linear turns.

VOLT: Robot Battle Arena appears to be an attempt to capture the intent of Robo Rally (robot races and battles with pre-programmed moves) while eliminating the frustrations, and it largely succeeds.

The game is played  on a simple grid map (the game comes with a few different ones to choose from), and each player uses a hidden player board to plan their three moves for the turn, with choices being to move forward, backward, left, or right, or to shoot in one of nine possible directions. The moves are planned using six-sided dice, but they aren't rolled randomly. Rather, the player chooses what numbered side to place on each move, with the number determining either the distance moved, or the severity of the attack.

The only catch is that you cannot do the exact same maneuver twice in one turn. For example, you can't move a number of squares to the left, fire off a shot, and then move left again. This makes strategic planning a bit more important.

Players earn points by occupying certain board squares at the end of a turn, or by destroying opponents' robots. The game ends when a player has scored five victory points.

An advanced game option adds module tiles that give players special abilities for their robots, as well as a few additional game variants such as team play and a best-of-three multi-game option for longer games.

By eliminating Robo Rally's randomized deck of movement cards, VOLT gives players more deliberate and useful options each turn. The reduced player count (2-4, as opposed to Robo Rally's 2-8) keep the games a little shorter, and the increased emphasis on taking out opposing robots means you have to pay a lot more attention to what your opponents are doing, where in Robo Rally you're just hoping they'll stay out of your way.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) I would give VOLT a 3.5  if we were doing half stars. It's a fun and engaging game that is simple to learn but gives you a lot to think about while playing, but that same simplicity keeps it from being something I want to play often.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Elegant in its simplicity

Love Letter is a wonderfully simple game consisting of a mere 16 cards. Each player (up to four) plays from a hand of two cards, with the goal being to either knock all the other players out of the game, or have the highest card when the deck runs out. The cards have different game text, most of them slanted towards figuring out what cards your opponents are holding and getting rid of them. Play continues over several rounds until one player has won four, or everyone is ready to move on to a different game.

The theme involves renaissance-style court intrigue, with different courtiers working to get a love letter to the princess, but the game's popularity has spawned several "fill in the blanks" licensed versions such as Batman and The Hobbit, as well as a slew of home-brew fan creations (I made an Aliens themed version for myself).

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Love Letter is a simple game wothout being overly simplistic, and works great as a quick fill-in game for gamers and non-gamers alike.

Western horror dungeon crawl

It may come as a bit of a surprise that when I first heard about Shadows of Brimstone, I wasn't terribly interested. Sure, I love an adventure game, I love a horror game, and I really love a western game, and this promised to be all three, plus it was coming from Flying Frog Productions, the publisher behind two of my favorite board games (Fortune and Glory and A Touch of Evil). But the setting looked like a rather appalling rip off of Shane Hensley's Deadlands, and at the time I was suffering from Kickstarter exhaustion, and not really interested in backing another expensive game.

I was resigned to ignoring this game, but then a very generous friend gave me a copy for my birthday, freely admitting that his motivations were somewhat selfish: he wanted to play the game, but didn't want to assemble and paint the miniatures (more on that in a moment). It looked like I would be taking a closer look at Shadows of Brimstone after all.

It's definitely a game in the midst of an identity crisis. The mash-up of wild west and unspeakable horror isn't entirely new (see the aforementioned Deadlands and its accompanying card game, Doomtown), but it adds elements of the classic dungeon crawl to the mix, setting the game in an abandoned mine represented by a board of interlocking room and corridor pieces.

More than that, Shadows of Brimstone can't seem to decide whether it wants to be a role playing game, a board game, or a tactical miniatures game, so it tries to be all three, and not entirely successfully.

At its heart, I think Shadows of Brimstone wants to be a "role playing game in a box" like Hero Quest, Descent, or Mansions of Madness. Players take on the roles of archetypical western characters, and go adventuring in the dungeon-like mine which may or may not contain a portal to a Lovecraftian other world, depending on the scenario being played. Unlike Mansions of Madness or Descent, the game avoids the need for a game master to control the villains, instead combining a basic scenario outline with a deck of randomized cards to determine the shape of the board and what monsters are encountered.

An initial, major turn off for me was the "assembly required" nature of the game's miniatures, which come in several pieces on plastic sprues and require several hours of assembly before the game can even be played. I don't mind painting miniatures or even a minor bit of assembly, but this was above and beyond, requiring a professional level of model making that is normally reserved for players of high-end tactical games such as Warhammer.

Perhaps because of the lack of a game master, encounters tend to be very combat-heavy and light on story, and this is where the game is most successful. The simple rules for determining the monsters' actions work well, and the combat system is pretty straightforward, although without a player controlling the monsters, their tactics tend to be of the "move into position and then keep hitting you until you or the monster goes down" variety.

The game's attempts to mix board game and role playing elements are less successful. It has a lot of the things you would expect from an adventure board game, such as cards and counters representing your character's possessions and abilities, but these are strangely incomplete, with no in-game way to track a character's money or experience points other than writing them down, which seems awfully low-tech. The game designers insist that this isn't a problem, but it's very telling that the fan community very quickly stepped in to fill this gap in the game's components, creating a variety of unofficial print-and-play money and experience tokens.

In a similar vein, the game has an abstracted feature that allows players to visit town between dungeon (sorry, "mine") encounters, with the result of their last encounter sometimes even having an effect on the town visit. While in town players can spend their money and experience to buy better equipment and improve their abilities, but there are no cards or tokens to represent these improvements. Players are expected to just write them down on a character sheet.

The problem I have with the game's reliance on a written character sheet is that there are actually very few character creation options available. Players starting a new campaign must choose from one of four different archetypes, and from there they choose one of three option cards, but that's really it. The addition of a character sheet really seems like a cheap way to make up for some conspicuously missing components.

One role playing element I do really like about Shadows of Brimstone is the idea of multiple games being linked as a campaign, with characters gaining experience and abilities as they progress across gradually more involved and difficult scenarios. It's a neat idea that gives the game a more epic scope than other, similar games. I just wish it either had more consistent board game components, or more open-ended role playing game options.

Rating: UNDECIDED. I want to like this game, but it has some weird shortcomings. I really feel like we need to play through a few more games before I give it a rating.

Friday, August 21, 2015

How I learned to stop worrying and love the DC Comics Deck Building Game

The first time I tried the DC Comics Deck Building Game was at a game convention in 2013, and I didn't really like it all that much. I thought it was overly simple and not very interesting.

This was about a year and a half after DC Comics launched the "New 52," a complete reboot of all their comic book titles. I had been an avid DC Comics reader since the 1980s, but I didn't really care for the changes they made to their characters and storylines with the New 52, so I wasn't really very happy with DC at all, and my dissatisfaction was probably leaking through and interfering with my enjoyment of the game.

A friend reintroduced me to the game in January of this year, and this time I enjoyed it quite a bit. Maybe it was the fact that I was playing it with friends instead of convention demo staff, or maybe my irritation with DC Comics had subsided. Maybe it's just that I got to play as my favorite DC character (Superman). In any case, I did like the game enough to pick up a copy of the base game and the Heroes Unite and  Forever Evil expansions.

I still think it's a simple game, but I don't see that as a negative. As deck building games go, this one is about as easy to play as it gets: Each player chooses a hero with a unique game ability to play, and starts with a deck of basic Punch and Weakness cards. The main deck is shuffled, and five cards are played out, which represent heroic allies, villainous opponents, equipment, and super powers, all of which are bought by playing cards from your hand for their power value (just like any deck building game). The object of the game is to use the cards in your hand to buy better cards for your deck.

Additionally, there is a stack of super-villains, each of which must be defeated, again by playing cards from your hand. The super-villains tend to cost a lot more power than cards from the deck, and as each new super-villain card is revealed, it attacks all the players with a negative game effect. I particularly like the super-villain stack idea, as it gives the players something to work towards (building up higher-power cards to defeat the super-villain) and it gives the game a time limit, as the game ends when the last super-villain is defeated.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Not a complex game by any means, but it's great for casual play with non-gamers, or as a light warm-up before settling in for something more involved.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

World conquest, Cthulhu style

Cthulhu Wars is the brain child of veteran game designer Sandy Petersen (creator of Call of Cthulhu), and it really shows off his lifetime of experience with games in general, and the Cthulhu Mythos in particular. It did over two million dollars on Kickstarter, largely due, I'm sure, to the game's incredible array of miniatures. However, credit is also due to the incredibly smooth and well thought out game design, a fact that was made very clear in the months Petersen spent demoing the game all over the country, in advance of the Kickstarter campaign launch.

One of the biggest problems with area control games like Cthulhu Wars is that once you start losing, it can be difficult to recover. Couple that with the fact that area control games tend to be elimination games that only end when one player knocks everyone else out of the game, and you often have a game where the early leader will run roughshod over the other players, who wind up just wishing the game were over.

Sandy Petersen must have been aware of this problem, because a lot of the game play in Cthulhu Wars addresses it, and for the most part eliminates it. All the players are in the game until the bitter end, and there is a built in time limit to keep the game from going on for too long.

Rather than playing as intrepid investigators on the verge of madness, as with most Lovecraft-inspired games such as Arkham Horror, players of Cthulhu Wars get to be the bad guys. Each player takes command of an ancient, god-like horror such as Hastur, Nyarlathotep, or even Great Cthulhu himself, along with an army of monsters and cultists. Cultists open gates which allow your monsters, and eventually your ancient one, to enter play, and the monsters guard your territory and attack the other players.

Each turn, players earn power based on the number of cultists and gates they have in play, and spend it to move their pieces around the board, summon new monsters and cultists, launch attacks, and eventually bring their ancient ones into play. One nice bit of balance here is that you always earn at least half as much power as the strongest player, so you can't really fall too far behind, even if you get completely wiped off the board.

 Players start the game with a stack of six spell book tokens specific to the ancient one they are playing, each with a unique ability. They have to earn these by accomplishing certain goals, also specific to their ancient one, such as occupying a certain amount of territory, bringing a certain number of creatures into play, or destroying so many enemy units in battle. A player can't win the game unless they've earned all six of their spellbooks. I particularly like this aspect of the game, as it gives each player a plan for what they need to do over the course of the game, and the different requirements and abilities serve to make the player factions even more different from each other.

The game play is deceptively and refreshingly straightforward, and I find that when we play we rarely need to refer to the rule book for anything more that a quick refresher, which is unusual for a game of this scale and complexity. The game round is divided up in such a way that you're never waiting long for it to be your turn to do something, which is also nice and definitely feeds into the idea that every player is there for the entire game, with very little down time.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A very immersive game with a lot of strategic depth, and smooth, intuitive rules. The only real down side is its high cost ($200 retail for the base 4-player game). The miniatures alone are worth it though.

Monday, July 27, 2015


Splendor is not generally the kind of game that attracts our attention, but I couldn't help noticing the number of "best of the year" lists it appeared on. I looked into it a bit more, and it still didn't look overly interesting to me, and I had no interest in trying it out. But then fate intervened in the form of a copy of the game being given to Katherine as a birthday gift.

We played it at her birthday party (who can resist a brand new game?), and again a few days later, but then we put it on the shelf and promptly forgot all about it. We definitely didn't dislike the game, but, as I said, it's just not the kind of game that normally attracts our attention.

When it came time to write this review, we finally got it out to play again, and I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. My memories of having played it several months ago were hazy at best; I didn't recall disliking it, bit I didn't recall liking it overmuch, either. Imagine our surprise, then, when we wound up playing for several hours.

We do like the odd abstract game like Ingenious or Set (well, Katherine likes Set), but for the most part, the games we play tend to be fairly literal, with players playing characters coming into conflict with plots and villains, and often complicated rules intended to allow for a fair representation of the various actions a character in a story might need to perform. Splendor makes for a nice break from that, with deceptively simple rules but a lot to think about during the game.

Put simply, the game is about manipulating resources in the form of jewels of different colors. The game starts with three rows of four cards, each depicting a cost in jewels, and a resource in jewels that the card provides every turn once it's been purchased. A limited supply of poker chips, representing the different jewel colors, is off to the side, along with some yellow chips that can be used as any color.

Each turn, a player can either: take two poker chips of the same color, or three of different colors; reserve a card by picking it up (that player also gets one of the yellow chips); or purchase a card, either from the table or one he's reserved, using a combination of jewels on cards he's already purchased and on poker chips he's picked up on previous turns.

Cards that are reserved or purchased are replaced from one of three decks (one for each row), so there are always 12 cards to choose from. Cards in the first row tend to be easier to buy, while cards in the upper rows are more expensive but are usually worth more points at the end of the game.

In addition to scoring points by buying cards, there are a number of tiles put into play at the start of the game, representing nobles who will award points to the first player who buys whatever combination of cards is depicted on the tile (i.e. four red and four black cards, or three each of several different colors). The game goes on until someone reaches 15 points, at which point everyone gets one last turn to try to catch up with the winner.

The secret to the game's strength is in the number of choices it gives players to think about on their turn. If I take chips from the supply, the colors I take might give my opponents a clue as to what card I'm trying to buy, in which case they might try to get it before I get a chance to. If I focus all my attention on getting the noble tiles, I risk overpaying for cards by using chips too often, rather than relying on purchasing cheaper cards to provide a good base of resources.

We found in playing that each turn we spent a lot of time thinking about what to do, going over the different options and possible consequences, but we spent almost no time referring to the rules.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) It's not a game that we'll spend a ton of time playing, and it doesn't fire up our imaginations the way games like Arkham Horror or a good CCG do, but Splendor is very engaging and makes for a welcome break from the more complicated games we tend to favor.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Another look at Mystery Rummy, Lost Cities, and Camelot Legends

For us, the current board game renaissance began in 2005, just as the final collectible card game boom was breathing its last. Prior to 2005 we had spend the vast majority of our time playing seemingly every CCG we could get our hands on, from Aliens Predator to Doomtown, but we had started to take notice of a few of the stand-alone card games that were filling game store space left by departing CCGs.

We may have been suffering from a bit of random booster pack burnout, so the self-contained nature of these games really appealed to us, as did their relative simplicity when compared to the complicated rules that most CCGs of the late 1990s are known for.

I don't recall where or when I picked up Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, only that the box artwork intrigued me, as did the fact that it was the first of a series of card games about famous crimes and criminals both real and fictional (although I never did pick up any of the other games in the series).

While relatively simple, the game works because it starts with the basic framework of rummy, which has been played in one form or another since at least the 18th century, and has proven its ability to stand up to multiple variants over the years. Mystery Rummy takes the basic rummy mechanic of playing melds of matching cards with an eye towards getting rid of all your cards before your opponents do, and adds a few twists and turns to make the game a little more thematic, reflecting the hunt for Jack the Ripper in 1880s London.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 3 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail): PASS

Lost Cities is a card game by prolific designer Reiner Knizia, first published in the US by Rio Grande Games in 1999. It has all the hallmarks of a Knizia game: deceptively simple game mechanics, a complex scoring system, and a theme that fits the game perfectly. In this case, the theme is 1930s-style archaeological exploration, with card plays representing investment in, and then progress on, expeditions to the far corners of the world.

Like Mystery Rummy, Lost Cities has its roots in a classic card game; in this case, double solitaire. The game play feels familiar enough that it is instinctively easy to play, but there is enough going on in terms of game mechanics and theme to give players a fair amount to think about while playing.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 3 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail): PASS

Camelot Legends was introduced to us by none other than Zev Shlasinger, founder of Z-Man Games, when we met him at a convention in Denver in 2004. The game's stunning artwork (and Mr. Shlasinger's charming sales pitch) may have blinded us to its ultimately bland game play, but I think it is more likely that the game was okay for the time. However, it doesn't hold up when compared to the current standard of board and card games, which may explain why Z-Man has never republished it.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 3 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail): FAIL

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Much more than Middle-earth Risk

War of the Ring is exactly the game I was hoping it would be. I was looking for something a bit more connected to the story of Lord of the Rings than just a Middle-earth re-skinning of Risk, and that is certainly what I got.

At its most simplified, War of the Ring is a Risk-style area control game, with the primary game play consisting of armies moving around the board conquering territory, with battles resolved by rolling dice and the side with the numerical advantage being given more dice to roll. However, the game designers have added a number of elements that help bring the game in line with the material it is based on.

The most obvious of these is Frodo's journey to deliver the One Ring to Mount Doom. The Free Peoples player (War of the Ring is primarily a two-player game) can choose to devote resources to moving Frodo and the Fellowship closer to Mordor, and can win the game by successfully destroying the Ring. Moving Frodo exposes him to discovery and possible corruption, and the more he moves in a single turn, the more likely he is to be discovered. Needless to say, if Frodo is completely corrupted by the Ring, the Sauron player wins.

A major story element in Lord of the Rings is the reluctance of the men of Gondor and Rohan to join in the fight against Sauron, and the game reflects this by way of a political track which traces how close the various cultures of Middle-earth are to declaring open war. The Sauron player can take advantage of this by avoiding open battle for the first few turns of the game while he gets his forces in a more advantageous position, much as Sauron does in the book. The Free Peoples player can try to galvanize Gondor, Rohan, and even the dwarves of the north into action more quickly by sending characters such as Aragorn or Gandalf to inspire the people.

A danger with games like this is that they will become repetitive, with the same strategies winning every time, but War of the Ring overcomes this by way of the action dice. At the start of each round, players roll a number of dice printed with different symbols representing possible actions such as army movement, political maneuvering, or character action. Since the number and types of actions available are different from turn to turn, players are forced to think on their feet, revising their strategy based on what actions are available each turn.

The game does a great job of rising above being merely a bunch of miniatures on a map, putting the players into the epic story. As the Free Peoples player, you'll agonize at the indifference of the dwarves as Sauron's armies roll over Rohan and Gondor. As the Sauron player, you'll wonder how close Frodo is to Mordor, even while cackling with glee as orcs swarm out of Mirkwood to overrun the elves where they thought they were safe.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Much more than just Middle-earth Risk, War of the Ring is truly an epic game that mirrors the action of Tolkien's classic.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Another look at Eldritch Horror

When we originally reviewed Eldritch Horror, it was still very new to us. Like most players, we approached it as an evolution of (and perhaps even replacement for) Arkham Horror, and we were dazzled by the streamlined game play and improved graphic design. At the same time, we praised it for being different enough from its predecessor that the two could peacefully coexist.

Having played Eldritch Horror several more times since then, we've got a better sense of what we do and don't like about the game. It is overall a much smoother game when compared to Arkham Horror, taking out some of Arkham's more tedious game elements such as needing to keep track of money to buy equipment.

However, in some areas it oversimplifies, such as with the character skills. Eldritch Horror gives players set skills with the ability to improve them, which takes time away from other, more urgent game tasks. Arkham Horror groups character skills into sets of two that relate to one another, such as Sneak and Speed, and allows players to adjust these somewhat at the beginning of every turn, with the catch that, for example, if you increase your character's Sneak it is at the expense of their Speed. This makes skill improvement into a strategic decision, where in Eldritch improving skills is semi-random and turn-consuming.

We played Arkham Horror recently for the first time since getting Eldritch, and one thing that struck me was how much more depth there is to the older game, almost overwhelmingly so. Granted, we have several hundred dollars invested in Arkham expansions, and to compare that to just the Eldritch base game isn't even remotely fair. But part of the point of this blog is to assess these games within the context of our game collection, so we have to look at the whole package. I have no doubt that Eldritch will soon have at least as much expansion content available, but do I really want or need to invest in all that content, when Arkham already has more expansions than I can handle?

The answer would be yes, if we preferred Eldritch to Arkham, even more so if we intended Eldritch to be a replacement, or truly found it to be different enough that we would play both regularly. But I don't think that is the case. For all its clunkiness, we are finding that we prefer Arkham. The games are similar enough that we're playing Eldritch instead of Arkham, and not having as much fun with it. Which isn't to say that one is a better game than the other, and in all honesty I would probably recommend Eldritch over Arkham for most new players.

One of the things we find frustrating about Eldritch Horror is its almost overwhelming sense of urgency. The game presents players with a detailed world with lots of places to explore, but then moves along at such a breakneck pace that you never have time to explore it. For example, the board features several locations featuring expedition sites such as central Africa, the Himalayas, and the Egyptian Pyramids, but in all the games we've played we've never felt like we had time to visit any of them, because we're given so little time to achieve the game's victory conditions.

This brings up another comparison, this one possibly less obvious: Fortune and Glory, Flying Frog's game of 1930s pulp adventure. Most online criticism of Eldritch Horror has focused heavily on comparing it to Arkham Horror, which is natural due to the games' common subject matter and publisher. I know this contradicts what I say in my earlier review, but in a lot of ways, Eldritch Horror has more in common with Fortune and Glory, with a similar early 20th century setting, and even more similar world-spanning game play. A major difference is that Fortune and Glory lets you slow down and enjoy the game's setting a little bit.

While it lacks a sense of impending Lovecraftian doom, Fortune and Glory does have a cooperative mode in which players team up against the Nazis or the Mafia, and with the Rise of the Crimson Hand expansion it even adds a sinister, Lovecraft-style cult for players to fight against. Additionally it's a bit more versatile, with a competitive game option where players race to be the first to recover a certain number of fortune points, and it's easily scalable for longer or shorter games by adjusting the amount of fortune needed to win, in either the competitive or cooperative modes.

The bottom line on Eldritch Horror for us is that, if it existed in a vacuum we would probably play it regularly. But we can't help but look at its similarities to Arkham Horror and Fortune and Glory, both of which we enjoy more.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 4 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail) FAIL

Thursday, June 4, 2015

New adventures in Tolkien's world

I have little doubt that Middle-Earth Quest started out as a Lord of the Rings version of Arkham Horror. It's a largely cooperative game in which each player controls a character, traveling around the board to put a stop to the evil Sauron's schemes, and exploring the world of Middle-Earth via encounters with monsters, evil minions, and helpful supporting characters, much as the intrepid investigators do in Arkham Horror.

While there is a goal the players are trying to achieve, and a somewhat urgent time frame in which they need to achieve it, the game's emphasis is solidly on exploration and story more than on merely winning. Where Arkham Horror combines elements from dozens of stories by Lovecraft, Chambers, Howard and others to ensure that each game is different from the last, Middle-Earth Quest sets its action in the  17 years between Bilbo Baggins' journey in The Hobbit and his nephew Frodo's epic quest in The Lord of the Rings, and players control original characters rather than the familiar personalities from the books, all of which keeps the game from seeming like simply a re-enactment of events we've already seen.

Middle-Earth Quest differs from Arkham Horror in a few important respects. The most obvious difference is the addition of a Sauron player, who works openly against the other players by controlling the forces of Mordor. The Sauron player acts almost as a game master, driving the plot forward by playing cards representing Sauron's nefarious schemes and moving monsters and minions around the board in a strategic manner. As a result, the game feels less random than Arkham Horror, and more challenging without necessarily being more difficult.

Another important game element that makes Middle-Earth Quest seem more strategic and less random is the complete absence of dice in the game. Cards still provide an element of chance that keeps the game from being the same every time, but conflicts rely on choosing the right card to play in order to outwit the Sauron player, rather than an arbitrary roll of the dice.

The world Tolkien describes in The Lord of the Rings is vast, and a comparatively small amount of it is actually seen in the books. Middle-Earth Quest gives players a chance to explore that world in more depth and detail, while providing an immersive story about the fight against Sauron.

Sadly, this game recently went out of print.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Not quite as smooth or expansive as similar games such as Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness, but an excellent Tolkien-themed adventure game.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Cowboys or Aliens?

Revolver is kind of a strange game, but perhaps a little bit less so if you know how it started out.

It's a two-player card game set in the wild west, with each player using a separate deck. One player is the fearsome Colty gang, who have just robbed the bank at Repentance Springs and must now escape to the Mexican border, pursued by Colonel MacReady and his horde of lawmen and bounty hunters. It seems like a pretty straightforward plot for a western, but once you set up the game and start playing, you begin to notice a few peculiarities.

The game begins with four location cards in the center of the table. The outlaw player has spend a certain number of rounds at each location, fighting off lawmen before moving on to the next location in the line. If the outlaw player makes it to the fourth and final location with at least one or two of his characters intact, he wins.

The outlaw player starts with 16 character cards in play, each representing a distinct member of the Colty Gang. Some of them have particular game text and/or a negative effect if that character dies, but many of them appear to be nothing but cannon fodder. The cards in the outlaw player's deck represent weapons and actions, most of which contribute firepower to the battle raging at whatever location is active.

The lawman player doesn't start with any characters in play, and in fact only has a few unique characters, with most of his deck made up of generic deputies, scouts and hired guns, who directly contribute firepower to the current battle (unlike the outlaw characters, who must play weapon cards).

At the end of each round, if the lawman player has more firepower in play than the outlaw player, one of the outlaw characters is killed and taken out of play. Each round that the lawmen fail to kill at least one of the outlaws, the outlaw player gets to remove a token from the "Mexican Border" card that is off to the side, and can win the game early by removing all the tokens from this card.

The game has a weird flow to it that doesn't make a lot of sense unless you are aware that it was originally an unlicensed, fan-produced game based on the second movie in the Alien series. It was re-themed as a western game when the designer decided he wanted to publish the game without paying for the Aliens license.

Now it all makes sense. The 16 outlaws are the human Colonial Marines, along with Ripley, Newt and Burke, being picked off one by one as they move through the different areas of the doomed colony, trying to escape from hordes of nameless, faceless Aliens, who have been replaced with nameless, faceless deputies and bounty hunters.

I must admit that I haven't played the Aliens version of this game, but it's obvious that the structure of the game is based solidly on the film, and it's easy to look at the Revolver characters and guess their Aliens counterparts. I suspect that this is a case where the game play suits the theme too well, to the point that changing the theme diminishes the game. All the game elements make sense when married to the Aliens story, and I can see the Aliens version doing a decent job of putting you in the action of the movie and making you care about characters you're familiar with.

Unfortunately, Revolver doesn't do a particularly good job of telling its own story, so you're left with ill-fitting game mechanics and a game about characters and situations you aren't given any reason to care about.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) The game play doesn't fit the theme, and doesn't hold up particularly well on its own.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Another look at Star Trek: Fleet Captains

I really wish Star Trek: Fleet Captains was a better game than it actually is. It has an incredible amount of potential to be a truly epic game, but is hampered by some clunky, overly complicated game play. A lot of this could be solved by a tiny bit of rules streamlining, but really the game just needs a reference card that clearly summarizes the rules and mechanics, so that players won't be forced to constantly refer to the overwritten and poorly organized rule book.

One of the core mechanics of the game is each player's assembly of a Command Deck of cards. For each faction (Federation, Klingons, Romulans and Dominion) there are 10 mini-decks of 10 cards each, grouped around themes such as "Way of the Warrior" or "Sensor Upgrades," or around particular characters like Captain Kirk or Worf. Each player chooses four of these to shuffle together, giving them a deck of 40 cards that they can use during the game. It's a neat idea in theory, and it adds a bit of CCG-style strategy to the game, but in practice I too often find myself with uninteresting cards that I can't use clogging up my hand. This could be solved by allowing players to further customize their decks by removing cards they don't think they'll use during the game.

An unfortunately under-utilized element of the game is the Encounter Deck, consisting of cards that represent things a starship might encounter while exploring space, such as Abandoned Outposts or Independent traders. Again, this is a wonderful idea that fails a bit in practice, since each unexplored location a ship moves into will only sometimes give up an encounter, and even then, only once per location. We've tried a few different house rules to make encounters happen more often, such as always having an encounter in a newly discovered location, and then checking for additional encounters each time the location is moved into again.

There are also a few superficial issues with the components, such as the unpainted ship miniatures, the poor font choice on the clix dials making them very hard to read, or the flimsiness of the cards and especially the location tiles, but these are easily fixed or ignored. The point is that there are just a few things stopping Fleet Captains from being a magnificent game, and I don't think any of them are insurmountable.

Most of the time I shy away from creating "house rules" or other improvements to commercial board games, my argument being that there are so many games out there that work fine without me needing to change them, so why should I spend my time picking up the game designers' slack? But in this case, the game is so tantalizingly close to being great, and there really isn't another Star Trek game like it...

Read the original review.
Original rating: 3 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail): PASS

Another look at Star Trek: Expeditions

With its generic game board and easily replaceable plot cards, Star Trek: Expeditions was clearly designed to be expandable with new missions and challenges for the Enterprise crew. But so far, the only expansion for the game has been a little box containing three new crew member miniatures and their corresponding character cards -- no new mission cards, which is what the game really needs. My suspicion is that the game failed to sell particularly well, and the double-whammy of the license for the Star Trek reboot film and game designer Reiner Knizia's no doubt higher-than-average royalties have made the game's continuation too expensive for the publisher to consider.

We dug the game out recently for a replay, and we enjoyed our game quite a bit, perhaps even more than we were expecting to given the noncommittal rating we originally gave it. We enjoyed everything you are supposed to enjoy about a cooperative game: working together to make decisions, dividing up the game's resources and challenges based on whose characters were best suited, and the feeling that we were struggling against difficult (but not impossible) story-driven game mechanics.

I can still see that my original assessment of this game holds true, in that the thing that will get old after repeated plays is the repetitiveness of the plot cards. While there are incidental side-plots that are randomized for each game, the core plot cards that move the game forward (and determine the players' score at the end) are always the same. Other co-op games like Arkham Horror or A Touch of Evil give players a variety of different enemies to fight, in order to add variety and increase replay value.

However, I honestly don't think the repetitive game play is too much of a problem for us since we only seem to play it every seven months or so, and we always have a good time when we do.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 3 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail): PASS

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Saving the CCG

During the collectible card game boom of the 1990s, I tried quite a few of the different games that hit the market, from mainstream games like Decipher's Star Trek and Star Wars, to some of the more obscure titles like On the Edge and Clive Barker's Imajica. I love the concept of building a customized deck of cards with different abilities that would work in combination, and I also enjoyed the way these games (when designed well) would immerse you in their worlds.

Unfortunately, the CCG business model demands a fairly large financial commitment from its players, and the market, combined with a flailing economy, just couldn't keep up with the sheer number of games that were produced. Additionally, many CCGs would continue to add layers of complexity in order to keep players interested, which usually put up a barrier making it very difficult for new players to get into the game. The CCG boom eventually collapsed under its own weight, with only a handful of games such as Magic and Legend of the Five Rings still being produced today.

Fantasy Flight Games pioneered the Living Card Game format in order to keep their Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones CCGs alive, and that has since proved to be a viable format that preserves CCG-style gameplay without the random booster packs. The games are much easier to keep up with in terms of the amount of cards you need to buy, but keeping up with evolving rules and strategy for just one of these games can still be a full-time job.

Enter the deck building game, a sub-genre of card games that is also helping to preserve CCG-style game play, but with the strategic focus on building your deck during the game with what happens to be available, rather than chasing rare cards to build the ultimate card-gaming machine. It's a lighter and much more accessible type of game.

All of which brings us to Star Realms, a science fiction themed deck building game created by a group of professional Magic players. Unlike most deck building games, which tend to involve players racing to achieve a certain number of points or other goal, the object of Star Realms is to knock your opponent out of the game by directly attacking him.

Much like in Magic, each Star Realms player starts with an amount of Authority points, which are whittled away at by opponents' attacking ships. Cards in the game represent ships and bases, with ships making attacks and bases providing defense, as well as other resources. Cards also generate trade, which players use to buy more and better cards for their decks. The universe of the game consists of four spacefaring factions, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Ships and bases from the same faction will often work better in combination, but the factions can be combined as needed.

It's a lot like Magic in a lot of ways, but what makes Star Realms such a great game is its simplicity and accessibility. The rules are incredibly simple, with a loose turn structure and easy to understand game text on the cards, and only a few different card types to keep track of. It's easy to play, easy to teach, but still has a surprising amount of strategic depth, with lots of decisions to be made by players during a game.

Best of all, a base set containing enough cards for two players is only $16 retail, well below the entry point for almost any other game on the market. $5 expansion packs add a few interesting extras like hero characters, event cards that affect all players, gambit cards that give players unique abilities at the start of the game, and even outside threats that make it into a cooperative game, with all the players working together against hordes of pirates or unfathomable space monsters.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Star Realms is very quick to pick up and easy to play, and offers a lot of the strategy and entertainment value of a collectible card game for a fraction of the time and money.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Another look at Starbase Jeff

We recently had a chance to play Among the Stars, an interesting space station building game that reminded me of a cross between Race for the Galaxy and Starbase Jeff, so much so that it made us wonder whether we need a game that combines the two.

We love Race for the Galaxy, but our original review of Starbase Jeff was a bit lukewarm, which is a little surprising because I've always had a lot of affection for the game. I like the basic "Water Works in space" idea, and I feel that it improves on Water Works by having all the players build on a common pipeline, rather than each building his own and racing to see who can finish first, with the only real player interaction being the occasional "take that!" play of a leaky pipe on your opponent's pipeline, forcing him to spend time and resources fixing it. Among the Stars had a similar lack of direct conflict with the other players, relying on card drafting at the start of each round as the only real way players interact with one another.

In Starbase Jeff, the goal is to earn money, primarily by being the player that closes off the station and wins the pot, but also by building long, unbroken strings of station tiles and forcing your opponents to connect their tiles to them, paying you for the privilege. There are a lot of decisions to be made during the game regarding when and where to play your tiles, in an effort to both build the station to your advantage, and control when the game ends. Each player's randomly shuffled stack of tiles provides just enough chance to keep the game from being predictable.

As I mentioned in my previous review, the only part of the game that is a bit of a let-down is the end game. The game keeps score in a poker-like fashion, with counters representing money being paid into a central pot when tiles are put into play. Playing an end cap pays one from the pot, and the player who eventually closes the station off so that no more tiles can be played wins the entire pot. It's meant to be played over several "hands" like a poker game, with the game ending when one or more players run out of money, or just get tired of playing.

One thing that definitely enhanced our enjoyment of the game was printing out the full color print-and-play edition available at the Cheapass Games website. The color artwork is much nicer than the kind of drab, black and white on colored paper tiles that came with the original edition, and it gives you enough different colors for six players.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 3 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail): PASS

Another look at Pirates vs. Dinosaurs

In my original review for Pirates vs. Dinosaurs, I summed up the game as being "solid and entertaining" and "A perfectly good pirate game, but not a very good dinosaur one." Having had a chance to play it a few more times since then, I feel the need to revise my opinion a bit. It's still not a very good dinosaur game, and additionally, I'm finding that the pirate part of it is just too random and lacking in strategy to be interesting over repeated plays.

What can I say? I was distracted by the game's great artwork and graphic design.

The first part of the game involves each player taking their chosen crew and equipment and searching the island for randomly placed landmark tiles that match the map tiles they have been randomly given. This is done via a random dice roll. compared against an arbitrary number based on what part of the island the player is currently searching. There aren't really any clues as to where to search, so you're really just guessing until you find all your tiles.

During this part of the game, complications arise in the form of the other players playing dinosaur attacks and other obstacle cards on you, forcing you to roll dice based on the number of crew you currently have, and the weapons you chose at the start of the game. This gives the game a "take that!" style of play similar to Munchkin, a game I have never cared for.

The only strategic decision a player really gets to make is at the very start of the game, when choosing what weapons and equipment to use, and even that is only really a question of whether you want to be better at fighting off dinosaur attacks, or finding your location tiles quickly.

Once a player has found all their location tiles, they move on to the second part of the game, which is a very simple "press your luck" game mechanic, drawing a number random tiles out of a bag based on the amount of remaining crew. Most of these tiles are worth random amounts of treasure, but some can be dinosaur attacks, ghost encounters, or volcano eruptions. Ghosts and dinosaur attacks cause the player to lose their hard-earned treasure, or worse, their remaining crew, who are needed to drag the treasure back to the boat. The volcano has escalating effects based on the number of times the volcano tile has been drawn, eventually sinking the island and spelling doom for any player who hasn't retreated to their ship. So the endgame is really about guessing when you think you have more treasure than your opponents will get, and then withdrawing from the island.

The majority of the game revolves around guesswork and random chance, with very few strategic decisions to make. Pirates vs. Dinosaurs is really about the experience of manipulating the game's components and looking at the nifty artwork, which wears thin after a few plays.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 3 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail): FAIL

Monday, April 13, 2015

A world fit for a CCG

Frank Herbert's Dune series of novels are about a universe populated by many different factions, each with its own distinct personality and flavor, using every resource at their disposal to fight for control of the most powerful planet in existence. It's a concept that sounds tailor-made for the type of epic strategy game that most collectible card games published in the 1990s tried to be.

The Dune CCG was originally published in 1997, and it has a lot in common with the majority of games published at around that time. The structure of the game is very complicated, with an elaborate system of battle comprising four different types of conflict and numerous, highly structured windows of opportunity to play cards that will affect the battle's outcome. The game's core mechanic revolves around the buying and selling of spice, for which there is a constantly fluctuating exchange rate. It also requires players to keep track of their numeric influence value, which changes throughout the game and can be used for various game effects.

Players use location cards to generate money, which is used to buy spice and pay for cards, but even getting those into play has an added layer of complexity. Locations (and other resource-generating cards) and main characters are played from a side deck, and when a player attempts to play one of these cards, the other players have an opportunity to bid the cost of the character or resource up higher in the hopes of making the card too costly to play, or at the very least causing a drain on their opponents' finances.

The mainstays of a player's deck are the persona cards, representing the unique characters working for the player's faction, and holdings, representing the player's income-generating property. All of these cards are unique, so a player's copy of a particular persona or resource card can't be played if another player already has it in play.

Over the course of the game, players put their personas and resources into play, bolster them with equipment and enhancements, and use them to attack the other players' cards via one of the four different methods of conflict: dueling, intrigue, battle, or arbitration. Each type of attack can only target certain cards, and each has its own rewards for success and penalties for failure.

One thing I definitely like about the game is that characters tend not to be as disposable and replaceable as they are in other CCGs. Here, when a character loses a battle they are turned face-down, and can be re-purchased by their player on a later turn; a nice touch that reflects the indefinite nature of death in the Dune books, where characters frequently return to life as ghola clones, or simply turn out to have narrowly escaped certain doom. It also helps the game feel like one of long term strategy rather than short term cost-benefit analysis.

All the action is in the service of helping the player get 10 influence points, and accumulate 10 spice. Neither is as easy as it sounds, as there is only a finite amount of spice available at the start of the game, so more has to be generated via game effects, and influence can be spent to help with card costs, or lost as a result of losing battles, so it can be difficult to hold on to.

It's a lot to take in, and a lot to remember while playing, but somehow this level of complexity seems in line with the tone of the Dune books, and doesn't seem out of place.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Honestly I don't think we've played Dune enough to give it an accurate rating, but  we're intrigued enough to keep playing, in spite of the game's complexity and the difficulty in finding cards for an 18-year-old collectible card game.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

So what have we learned?

We started out in November of 2013 with a list of 120 games. over the course of the year we picked up 21 new games, got rid of 20 old games, and quietly removed four games from the list without playing or reviewing them (they were clearly marked for death). This leaves us with a final tally of 137 games reviewed, 117 of which made the cut (for now).

Our favorite games

We rated 19 games a perfect score of 5:
  • Age of Conan
  • Arkham Horror
  • Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game
  • Call of Cthulhu: the Card Game
  • Firefly: the Game
  • Fortune and Glory
  • Legendary Encounters: an Alien Deck Building Game
  • Lord of the Rings: the Card Game
  • Mansions of Madness
  • Pirates of the Spanish Main (aka Pirates of the Cursed Seas)
  • Race for the Galaxy
  • Runebound
  • Shadowfist
  • Smash-Up
  • Star Trek Customizable Card Game
  • Star Wars Miniatures
  • Star Wars: X-Wing
  • Talisman
  • A Touch of Evil
Eight are adventure board games and six are collectible card games (or the CCG's descendants, living card games and deck building games). While in theory Race for the Galaxy is a stand-alone card game, its game play is similar to many collectible card games despite the lack of a deck-building element.

Three are tactical miniatures games, although you could argue that Pirates of the Spanish Main has many elements of collectible card games as well. There was only one strategy game, Age of Conan, but it has an element of the adventure game to it. Our favorites seem to fall largely into either the adventure board game or collectible card game categories. Some of the games that scored a four take us outside of that comfort zone a bit, with CastellanIngeniousSerpent Stones, and Tokaido being good examples.

Eleven of the top games are based on pre-existing properties such as Conan, Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars. Three of those are based on H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, as popularized by the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game.

Eight were published by Fantasy Flight Games (nine if you count the current version of Talisman, although our copy is the second edition published by Games Workshop), and only three (Pirates, Star Trek CCG, and Star Wars Miniatures) are currently out of print.

The only games in the top 19 that we're not playing regularly are Pirates of the Spanish Main and Shadowfist, both of which really need an active player base that we don't have right now. We enjoyed both of these games best when we were part of a group of regular players.

They seemed like a good idea at the time

28 games on the list scored a two, and another 6 scored a one. Out of those, 19 have been removed from the collection, and it's probably only a matter of time before most of the rest go.

It is my belief that many of the low-scoring games suffer from comparison as much as anything else, and were probably perfectly entertaining when we didn't know any better. Many, like Wings of War or Star Fleet Battle Force, have simply been replaced by similar, better games.

So what's next?

Since finishing up the list with Zombies!!! in late November 2014, we've added seven new games to our collection, which we will review soon. We'll continue to review new games we pick up, as we get a chance to play them.

Additionally, we're going to play through all the games that scored a three, as well as possibly some of the twos that we haven't let go of yet. This time through we're going to rate them with a simple pass/fail, with an eye towards getting our collection down to just the games we really enjoy playing.

All you zombies

The zombie apocalypse genre has exploded in the past few years. It seems like every hipster from Portland to Brooklyn has a zombie apocalypse survival plan in place, The Walking Dead is a successful show on a mainstream cable network, the novel World War Z was a bestseller, and game store shelves are absolutely choked with zombie board games.

Zombies!!!, first published by Twilight Creations in 2001, has the distinction of being one of the first zombie-themed board games to hit the market, and while it may not be the most complex or nuanced game, it is still one of the more playable.

Game play is refreshingly simple: each player's figure starts in the center of town square, with a handful of life and bullet tokens, and three cards representing special actions. On each turn, a player draws a random tile and places it adjacent to one of the tiles already in play. The nicely illustrated tiles represent the eerily quiet streets of a town in the grip of a zombie apocalypse. Buildings on the tile might contain life tokens, which keep you alive longer, or bullet tokens, which make it easier to shoot zombies. Unfortunately, as each tile is placed, a number of zombie figures are added to it.

Players have to move their figures across the tiles, evading or destroying the hoards of zombies in their path, biding their time until the Helipad tile (randomly shuffled into the bottom half of the tile stack) is placed. The first player to reach the center of the helipad tile is the winner, but they'll have to fight their way through a lot of zombies to get there.

The base game includes 100 plastic zombie figures, and it's not uncommon to run out over the course of a game. Seeing 100 zombies on the board, even if they're only an inch tall, is a pretty terrifying sight. It is in this way that the game really succeeds at recreating the tone of the George Romero zombie films of the 1970s, with hoards of undead making our heroes' plight seem pretty hopeless.

Expansions add standard zombie film tropes such a military base (with glow-in-the-dark "government enhanced" zombies) and a shopping mall, among others, and players can also buy bags of additional zombie figures for those all too frequent times when 100 zombies aren't nearly enough.

Rating 3 (out of 5) A fine game that is true to the source material and really puts you in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, but a bit simple to be really engaging.

Date played: November 27, 2014

Welcome to the jungle

Xeko was a great idea for a card game that was, sadly, very poorly formatted and marketed.

The game itself strikes a fairly good balance between being entertaining and educational. Players play cards representing different species of animals and plants into a grid on the table, representing the ecosystem. Cards must be played by matching colored symbols along the edges of the cards already in play, and when a card is first played, it comes into conflict with any adjacent opponent's cards. Interrupt cards can be played to affect the outcome of the conflict, but the eventual loser only loses cards from the top of their deck; the species card remains in play, symbolically representing the idea that every species finds its niche.

The game play is fun, and the educational element is there without being overbearing. The game introduces large concepts like ecological balance, as well as offering details about the particular species depicted on the cards, many of which are endangered. This would have been a great game to sell in gift shops at zoos and natural history museums (and maybe it was, I don't know).

The problem was that the game was released using the random booster pack model, in a fairly obvious attempt to grab the attention of kids playing Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh. This model works if there is a regular tournament community in place, giving players a place to visit and buy cards regularly, a steady stream of opponents, and a reason to keep up with new cards. But even the market of available customers for that type of game has shrunk to the point that it will only support a few games, rather than the dozens that were on offer throughout the 1990s.

Contents of the Xeko Mission: China starter set
Xeko didn't need to be a collectible card game, and I think it would have been a lot more successful at grabbing the attention of its intended audience if it hadn't been. They had some really nice starter products, with unusual and eye-catching box shapes: the one representing China's ecology was in the shape of a pagoda tower, and the one for Indonesia came in a really nice wooden box shaped like a crate.

If the game's publishers had focused on a self-contained game rather than trying for the largely tapped out collectible card game market, Xeko might still be around today.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Xeko is a game that always takes us by surprise when we play, and manages to be very engaging despite its simplicity.

  • Xeko on BoardGameGeek.com

Date played: November 27, 2014

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Whoever eats the most food wins

Evolution takes some of the basic elements of the ubiquitous resource management game and applies them to prehistoric evolution rather than the usual farming or civilization building. Players attempt to build up their species by giving them survival traits such as hard shells, long necks, or defensive herding, and also by increasing their size and population.

Cards representing these traits are the primary resource in the game. They can be played (in a limited number) on a player's species, or discarded to add to a species size or population. Each species is represented by a small board that tracks the species' size, population, and amount of food it's eaten that turn. A larger size protects the species from carnivores (but also provides more food for them), and a higher population eats more food, which is ultimately what wins the game.

In addition to evolutionary traits, each card is printed with a food value. At the start of each round, players secretly choose a card to play into the center of the table. The food values on those cards are added up, and the total is the amount of herbivorous food available for the turn. Players take turns taking food tokens from the center of the table until all their species are fed or the food runs out. Each species can eat food equal to their population, and if they don't get enough food, the population is reduced.

Among the trait cards players can assign to their species is carnivore, which allows that species to attack other animals (either the opponents' or, if necessary, the player's own) for food. Animals provide meat equal to their body size, and each carnivore attack reduces the population of the species being attacked.

The theme is interesting, and the cards and components are gorgeous, with great artwork and high production values. The animals pictured on the cards are often similar to those you might see on a trip to the zoo, but are unusual enough to evoke the idea of long-forgotten species at some ancient stage of evolution.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The game play is a bit on the simple side, but the unusual theme and excellent presentation make up for it quite a bit.

Date played: November 22, 2014

Thursday, January 8, 2015

An educated guessing game

I am usually attracted to a game either by clever game mechanics, a compelling story or theme, or ideally both. I tend to particularly enjoy theme-heavy games that transport me to another world, like Fortune and Glory or the Star Trek CCG, but I can also appreciate an abstract game like Ingenious if it has compelling game mechanics. I don't particularly like Set because it has neither.

Timeline: Diversity is extremely thin on game mechanics, being really just a guessing game. Each player is given four cards depicting particular events in history, such as important inventions or the publication of important works of literature. In turn, players must choose one of their cards and try to guess whether it falls before, after or in between the cards already played to the center of the table. A correct guess is added to the timeline, but if a player guesses incorrectly, their card is discarded and replaced with a new one. The first player to get rid of all of their cards is the winner.

Other than knowing your history, the only real strategy that I've been able to discover is to try to get rid of the cards you're not sure about first, saving the ones you definitely know for last. It's a very simple game.

Timeline does have a few things going for it. The artwork on the cards is great, making the game fun to look at. There are several different versions of the game, which narrow the focus to things like Music & Cinema, Historical Events, Inventions, or Discoveries, so you can pick the subject you're most interested in. It's also very easy to play, so it's a good game for distracting situations such as parties, pubs, or waiting at the airport. Plus, the different moments in history depicted on the cards can be a great conversation starter.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Timelines is more engaging than the simple gameplay and broad theme might suggest.

Date played: November 22, 2014

Monday, January 5, 2015

Flying around in circles

Wings of War was a great game until Star Wars: X-Wing came along.

The game's unique card-based movement and diceless combat made for a welcome change from the "roll dice to hit a target number, move on a grid or along a tape measure" sameness of most other tabletop miniatures games. The pre-painted airplane miniatures were top-notch, but it was nice that the game could be played without them, using cards to represent the planes and making it easy for people who wanted to try the game out without spending a lot of money.

The genre made for a nice change too, with World War I biplanes replacing the elves, orcs and superheroes that still tend to dominate tabletop gaming.

Players control their planes via cards representing different maneuvers. Each type of plane has its own deck of maneuver cards, representing differences in handling and performance. Moves are plotted out three cards at a time, with an opportunity to fire at enemy planes after each card is resolved. Firing is a simple matter of checking to see if an enemy is in range; if so, the opposing player draws from a deck of damage cards that indicate numerical damage points (often zero points for a miss), as well as special effects such as injured pilots, damaged engines, and the dreaded explosion that will knock a plane right out of the sky.

It's an elegant and relatively simple game that does a great job of reflecting its theme. However, it does have one major drawback.

There is a fair amount of stuff to keep track of for each plane, enough that it's fairly clear that the game was designed for each player to control a single plane, or two at the most. This means that unless you have a fair amount of players (at least two or three for each side), your game is going to be a dogfight between two solitary planes. While this might sound fine in theory, in practice it tends to turn into a lot of flying around in circles, trying to anticipate where your opponent's plane will be so you can take a shot at it.

The game attempts to make up for this by providing a series of scenarios, offering specific goals for the players to meet in order to win, such as destroying a barrage balloon or flying over a trench formation with a spy camera. These can be interesting, but usually one side's goal is to destroy the other side's plane, so you are still left with a somewhat tedious end game.

We tried the WWII version without the miniatures, using just the cards from one of the starter sets. The flow of the game has been changed to reflect the much faster speeds WWII jet fighters were capable of, but our end game was still much the same as with the WWI version, with our planes flying in circles, never quite able to get in a good shot.

Since the starfighter battle scenes in the original Star Wars film were inspired by old war films, it's appropriate that the developers of Star Wars: X-Wing clearly used Wings of War as a base. They replaced the maneuver cards with dials and templates in order to make it easier for each player to control a group of fighters, and added customization cards to allow players to come up with unique combinations of ships, pilots and enhancements such as co-pilots or extra weapons.

X-Wing keeps what works about Wings of War, gets rid of what doesn't, and as a result it is a much more playable game. But every once in a while I do get nostalgic for the simplicity of two biplanes flying in circles, each one trying desperately to line up a shot on the other.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Wings of War really is a pretty good game in its own right, but it just suffers a little too much when compared to X-Wing.

Date played: November 11, 2014