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

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