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