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.