Monday, December 19, 2016

Top 10 games of 2016

It's the end of the year, which means it's time for all the inevitable top ten lists. I thought I'd jump on that bandwagon with a quick look at the games we spent the most time playing in 2016.

10. Tokaido

10 plays, 10 hours (average play time 1 hour per game)

We picked up Tokaido on a whim, without having played it before. Our decision to buy it was based entirely on its spectacular artwork and graphic design, plus at the time we were looking to add more asian-themed games to our collection. It turned out to be a good move, as Tokiado is a terrific game. We find that it is a particularly good game to play with non-gamers, thanks to the relatively simple game play and aforementioned beautiful artwork.

Read the full review.

9. DC Comics Deck Building Game 

6 plays, 10.25 hours (average play time 1.7 hours per game)

I'm a big fan of DC Comics and deck building games, but the first time we played this one (at a convention demo) we were a little underwhelmed. But, we played it again a few years later with a group of friends and enjoyed it a lot more, which illustrates the point that any game is only as good as the people you're playing it with. We find that we pull this game out fairly often when we're looking for a lighter game that still has a bit of depth to it.

Read the full review.

8. Leaving Earth 

5 plays, 16 hours (average play time 3.2 hours per game)

Leaving Earth is a game that involves a lot of math. Players control space agencies that have to buy and test rockets and other space ship components, and then carefully calculate the weight of the components they're launching into space, and the thrust provided by their rockets, to ensure that they can make it to the moon, Mars, or even just into Earth orbit. It sounds complicated and dry, but it is actually very compelling (we've spent entire days playing it).

Read the full review.

7. Lord of the Rings: the Card Game 

13 plays, 19 hours (average play time 1.46 hours per game)

We've always enjoyed customizable card games, and this one is particularly fun for us because it's cooperative, with players playing against an assortment of quest decks that have wildly different requirements for winning. Normally, constructing decks for games like this is a solitary process, since you don't want to let your opponent in on what you're planning, but in this case, building decks together is almost as fun as playing the game.

Read the full review.

6. Mansions of Madness Second Edition

6 plays, 19 hours (average play time 3.16 hours per game)

The first edition of Mansions of Madness was a lot of fun, but required one player to act as the Keeper, a game master controlling the monsters, cultists and strange events to be investigated. The Keeper's job involved keeping track of a lot more information than the other players, and the game's extremely complicated setup process had almost no margin for error, with one mistake often upsetting the whole game.

For the second edition, the Keeper has been replaced by a free tablet app, eliminating all the complicated setup without really sacrificing any of what makes the game fun. It's a compelling mix of video, board, and role-playing game.

Read the full review.

5. Conan

15 plays, 22 hours (average play time 1.46 hours per game)

It's a little surprising that this game made the list, since we've only had it for about six weeks. It's a pseudo-roleplaying game like Mansions of Madness, but in this case the game master's job is much simpler, to the point where it's just as much fun  to run the villains as it is to play as Conan and his companions. The game has had a bit of a troubled road to publication, with a year-late Kickstarter delivery and numerous issues with unclear rules, but despite all that, it's an incredibly fun adventure game. I'll be surprised if it's not number one on this list next year.

Read the full review.

4. Legendary: A MARVEL Deck Building Game

19 plays, 23 hours (average play time 1.21 hours per game)

Although this position on the list is just for the Marvel version, Legendary is proving to be an incredibly diverse game system, with Aliens, Predator, Firefly, and even Big Trouble in Little China versions that all fit flawlessly into the game's structure. Even looking at the Marvel version on its own, it has an incredible amount of replay value, with all the different combinations of heroes, villains, and dastardly schemes that are possible.

Read the full review.

3. Age of Conan

6 plays, 24 hours (average play time 4 hours per game)

The long play time may be inflating Age of Conan's position on this list, but we do dearly love this game and we've gotten a lot of mileage out of it over the years. It does have to be said, though, that the reason we've been playing it so much this year is due to the excellent Adventures in Hyboria expansion, which gives players more strategic options and greatly expands Conan's role in the game.

Read the full review.

2. Firefly: the Game

9 plays, 31.5 hours (average play time 3.5 hours per game)

Firefly remains the gold standard for games based on licensed properties. I can't think of very many others that so perfectly capture the spirit of the material they're based on. This game's combination of open world and scenario based play makes every game a little different, and I'm sure it will occupy a similar position in our top ten next year.

Read the full review.

1. Star Wars: X-Wing

21 plays, 39 hours (average play time 1.85 hours per game)

I'm tempted to disqualify X-Wing since most of its replay value comes in adding more and more ships to your collection, which adds up to a pretty massive cost. But it's such a well-designed game that I think the cost is at least somewhat justified, and collecting the beautifully sculpted and painted ship models is definitely part of the fun.

Read the full review.

Honorable mention

Jarl: the Vikings Tile-Laying Game

5 plays, 7.5 hours (average play time 1.5 hours per game)

An interesting chess-like abstract strategy game based on The Duke. The Vikings theme is largely tacked on, but at the same time it does call to mind the battle scenes from the television show.

Read the full review.

Tiny Epic Western

6 plays, 7 hours (average play time 1.16 hours per game)

A great western themed worker placement game that gets extra points for using an embedded poker variant and bullet-shaped dice to resolve player conflicts.

Read the full review.


7 plays, 5.5 hours (average play time 0.78 hours per game)

Not the sort of game I normally enjoy, but there's a reason this abstract resource management game won so many awards. And this total doesn't even include the amount of time I've spent playing the tablet version...

Read the full review.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Scrounging in the snow

I get information about new (and new to me) games from lots of different sources. I spend a lot of time lurking on BoardGameGeek, I subscribe to the Facebook feeds of most of my favorite game publishers, I watch Wil Wheaton's Table Top, and I'm a recent convert to Beasts of War's Weekender show, just to name a few.

I also spend a lot of time browsing the shelves at my local game store (Guardian Games, a huge and well-stocked shop). Occasionally, a game I've never heard of will jump off the shelf at me, and this is how I discovered Arctic Scavengers.

Recent films Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Snowpiercer, and especially Mad Max: Fury Road had rekindled my interest in the post-apocalypse genre, and the artwork on the box for Arctic Scavengers intrigued me. Combine that with my deep love of deck-building games and you have an easy buy.

In the game, players represent groups of survivors scavenging the frozen ruins of a near future earth for food, equipment, medicine, and useful people to add to their pool of resources. As with most deck-building games, each player starts with a deck of cards representing basic resources, and slowly builds them up throughout the game.

There are a lot of interesting strategic choices to be made on an average turn, chief among them being what to have your survivors spend their time doing. You can mind your own business and dig through the junkyard for cards representing run-of-the-mill resources (and sometimes useless junk), but you may want to hold some of your people in reserve to fight over the much better cards in the contested resources pile. You also need to play some of your cards to generate food and medicine, which is used to buy face up cards from the center of the table representing more effective personnel such as thugs, saboteurs and snipers.

The pacing and tone of the game are a little on the somber side, which definitely enhances the theme of post-apocalyptic survivors wandering a frozen wasteland, but player turns go quickly, and the limited number of contested resource cards act as a game timer, so games don't take too long to play.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) It's not the most high-octane deck-building game out there, but it's simple and self-contained, which makes for a nice change of pace from more complicated games like Legendary.

Monday, November 21, 2016

This may seem familiar

Folding licensed properties into games has been standard practice for about as long as there has been a modern gaming industry, and it generally comes in two types: games created with the licensed property in mind, and games where the property is "painted on" to a pre-existing design. Both types can be wildly inconsistent in terms of quality, from the exceptional (Firefly: the Game) to the surprising (The Lone Ranger Shuffle the Deck Card Game), to the downright appalling (Doctor Who: the Game of Time and Space).

In many cases, a re-skin of a game using a familiar license can make me try a game that I may not have been particularly interested in otherwise, such as with Jarl: the Vikings Tile-Laying Game, a re-skin of The Duke which I only noticed because I'm a fan of the Vikings TV show.

Star Trek Panic falls squarely into this category. I had played Castle Panic once or twice, and while I enjoyed the game play, the cartoon-fantasy theme didn't really interest me so I never bothered picking up a copy of the game. A Star Trek version certainly caught my attention, and the idea of defending the Enterprise from Klingons and Romulans is a lot more interesting to me than defending a castle from orcs and goblins.

To be honest, I don't recall too many details of Castle Panic's game play, so I'm not entirely certain if there have been any major changes or additions for the Star Trek version. I can say that Star Trek Panic is a fun and relatively simple cooperative game. Each player has a hand of cards representing various tactical moves the ship can make, and they must work together to solve a series of missions, each with a specific in-game requirement such as reaching a starbase or evading a giant space amoeba. All the while, pesky Klingon and Romulan ships appear in random spaces on the board and gradually wear down the ship's shields and hull.

The cardboard components are a bit on the cheap side, but are nevertheless well-designed and very effective. The model of the Enterprise at the center of the board trails fire and smoke as it gets progressively more damaged, which does a great job of building tension and is, perhaps ironically, more dramatic than most of the model effects on the  original television show.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Quite a bit lighter, both in tone and complexity, than most of the other Star Trek games in our collection, which makes for a nice change of pace.

Archer: Once You Go Blackmail brings the world of irreverent super-spy Sterling Archer to Love Letter, a game that certainly hasn't been shy about re-skinning itself. This version adds a "hidden identity" card to the mix, and changes several of the traditional Love Letter card effects so that they interact with the hidden identity card in various ways.

 I'm not sure than any version of Love Letter is really better than any other, but it's great that there are so many to choose from. You should be able to find the Love Letter that's right for you.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) It's still a dirt-simple game, which is part of its charm and makes it ideal for groups of non-gamers, or situations where it might be too loud or distracting to play a more complicated game.

Legendary: Big Trouble in Little China follows the structure of the Marvel Legendary game rather than the more complex scenario-based Encounters series. Players choose a plot and a villain from among those featured in the film, add a few groups of minor villains and henchmen and a selection of the film's well-meaning if barely competent heroes, and try to work together to foil the villain's dastardly plot.
Upper Deck's Legendary series has proven to be a pretty robust game system, with the Aliens and Predator franchises being just as at home in it as the core Marvel property. Legendary: Big Trouble in Little China is no exception; the somewhat ridiculous adventures of Jack Burton and the Pork Chop Express fit right in.

In an effort to reflect the bumbling nature of the Big Trouble heroes, the cards in this version of the game often interact in surprising and not always helpful ways, making the game more random and silly, and quite a bit lighter in tone than the other games in the Legendary series. Originally I was excited about this release because of the possibilities of mixing it up the other Legendary games (Jack Burton vs Predator seemed like a shoo-in), but on playing I find that it holds together so well on its own that I'm reluctant to try add anything to it.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) another great addition to this series that stands so firmly on its own that, if you're familiar with the other Legendary games, you may want to think of this one as a new game that you already know how to play.

Friday, August 5, 2016

What took you so long?

I'm not really sure why it took me so long to buy into Legendary: a MARVEL Deck Building Game. I'm a big fan of the superhero genre, and of deck building games in general. It could be that I already had several editions of the DC Comics Deck Building Game, although the two games aren't really very similar. I picked up Legendary Encounters: an ALIEN Deck Building Game on the first day it was released, and it remains one of my favorites. I also bought the Predator edition, and have plans to pick up the forthcoming Firefly and Big Trouble in Little China editions as soon as they are available. Maybe that's what finally got me to pull the trigger on the original Marvel edition.

It's interesting coming to the original Legendary game after playing both Encounters versions. They are recognizably the same game with only minor structural changes. Where Alien and Predator both use scenarios based on the films to structure the cards that players play against, Marvel uses different combinations of super villain masterminds, lower-level villain groups, and plots pulled from decades of comic book storylines.

Legendary's basic approach is a little abstract. Rather than each player taking control of a specific hero or a team of heroes, they instead start with a simple deck of cards representing SHIELD agents. Players then gradually add cards to their decks representing signature moves from a pre-selected group of superhero characters (usually five), so the game isn't so much "I control Wolverine and you control Spider-Man" as it is all of the players orchestrating Wolverine and Spider-Man's battle against the various villains menacing the city.

Plot cards provide all manner of interesting variants on the basic rules, creating different win conditions and sometimes making the villain cards behave in different ways. Each plot is presided over by a Mastermind villain who brings his own henchmen and tactics to the game, and with near-infinite combinations of plots and Masterminds, you can guarantee that no two games will ever be alike.

The Marvel version of Legendary really puts you in the middle of a superhero battle, so much so that it's all the more interesting that the game system seems so well suited to the Alien and Predator franchises too. Best of all, since the core Legendary game is more or less compatible with the Encounters editions, you can have the Avengers try to fight off an invasion of acid-blooded Aliens, or see how Wolverine matches up against the Predator...

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Legendary is a robust game system with a huge amount of replay value, especially if you're brave enough to start mixing and matching the different editions.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Space Race

Leaving Earth is a somewhat dry but oddly compelling game, and it's not really like any other game I've played.

I say dry because at its core it is a game about mission planning. Players are put in charge of a nation's space program starting in the 1950s. The goal of the game is to score points by accomplishing missions on cards that are randomly dealt at the start of the game, and scaled based on the players' desired difficulty. They can be as simple as getting a capsule into orbit, or as difficult as putting a live astronaut on Mars (a recent expansion even includes missions to Jupiter and Saturn).

Each turn represents a year of game time, and during that time players get a fixed amount of money to spend on developing technology and buying space ship components such as rockets, capsules, supplies and astronauts. Each piece of technology comes with three random outcome cards, which can either be success, minor failure, or major failure, and each time that particular piece of technology is used, the cards are shuffled and one is flipped over. After an outcome, a player has the option to "buy off" the card, removing it from the stack for that piece of technology, so eventually, with enough testing, the technology will always work. The challenge is balancing when to play it safe and thoroughly test, and when to move quickly (it is a space race after all).

The second part of the game involves assembling spacecraft and launching them into space, and this is all about managing thrust and weight. Rockets generate a certain amount of thrust, depending of the difficulty of the maneuver you are trying to perform. However, each rocket can only be used once, so your craft will need to have multiple rockets to fire at various stages of your craft's journey, and each of those additional rockets is more weight you have to launch into space.

Planning these missions is very tricky, since you have to figure out how many rockets you need to get through each step of the spaceship's journey. The game offers a mix of simple and complicated missions, which are randomly drawn at the start of the game, so every game will have a different mix. The first strategic decision a player will need to make is whether to try for a bunch of easy, low-point missions, or spend the whole game working towards a high-value mission like putting a permanent base on Mars.

In addition to the brain-stretching game play, Leaving Earth features some truly gorgeous artwork and graphic design, which makes looking at the game a joy, even if you're scratching your head trying to figure out how many rockets you will need to get to the Moon and back.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) This game is gorgeous, utterly engrossing, and unlike any other game I've played.

The fight has commenced...

I really enjoy Bang!, but it's often a struggle to get together a large enough group to make the game interesting. Additionally, I find the game's "guess what role everyone is playing" aspect to be less interesting than the combat mechanics and spaghetti western theme.

I love the idea of a two-player version of Bang!, emulating the classic showdown at high noon seen in so many western films, so I was happy to see that it has become a reality with Bang!: the Duel. The choice to make it a separate game rather than an expansion or rules variant is interesting; the game is similar enough to the core Bang! game that I'm certain it began as a variant, with the designers eliminating cards and game features (such as the hidden roles) and adding others to support the two-player format.

Players choose to either play as the Law or the Outlaw, with a separate deck of cards for each. Unlike most "separate deck: games however, cards played go to a common discard pile, and as soon as one player runs out of cards this is shuffled together into one deck, representing the idea that as the battle progresses, each side gets more desperate and starts using the other's tactics.

As with Bang!, the game features character cards with unique abilities, but in The Duel, each player plays with a stack of characters (four in a normal game, but this can be scaled for shorter or longer games). Each player has two characters in play at a time, one "active" and one "rearguard." Only the active character's abilities are in play, but they can switch places during the player's turn or as a result of game effects. If a character is killed, the next one in the stack steps up, and the game ends when one player runs out of characters.

It's a fast-paced, simple game that is recognizably still Bang!,while making the game system work as a two-player duel, and it retains the spaghetti western flavor that drew me to Bang! in the first place. I kind of wish this version could be played with more than two...

Rating: 4 (out of 5) An easier-to-play version of the spaghetti western classic.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

It's a game-eat-game world

Back in 2013, we decided to play through all the games in our collection as a way to assess which ones we actually enjoyed, and which we were keeping for sentimental reasons or for no reason at all. The process has eliminated nearly 40 games from our library, which would be great if we didn't buy new ones just as quickly...

One of the criteria we've been using to help decide whether a game stays or goes is the question, "does playing this game take time away from playing another, similar game that we might enjoy more?" A perfect example of that was Eldritch Horror, a game we initially liked quite a bit. But after a few plays we found that we enjoyed Arkham Horror or Fortune and Glory more, and saw no need to spend time playing a similar game that we didn't enjoy as much.

This brings us to the latest round of games that are getting the boot, and why we don't think we'll miss any of them.

Battle Yahtzee: Alien vs. Predator. It may be AvP, but it's still Yahtzee.
  • Original rating: 2.
  • What we'll play instead: for Aliens and/or Predator action we have the Aliens board game, the Aliens Predator CCG, and Alien & Predator Legendary Encounters (separately or mixed together). See Quarriors below for other dice games that are a lot more interesting than this one.

Castellan. I love the idea of this castle-building game, but in practice there is very little variation between games, so it gets a little dull after a few plays.
  • Original rating: 4.
  • What we'll play instead: Through the Desert and Samurai are similar strategic place-and-control games, although they are also very similar to each other. hmmm...

Longhorn. I love a western-themed game, but Longhorn's cattle rustling theme is largely tacked on to an abstract numbers exercise. The only thing this game really has going for it are the nifty cow meeples.
  • Original rating: 2.
  • What we'll play instead: Spurs is an excellent western adventure board game.

Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation and Lord of the Rings: the Duel. We bought both of these in response to our passion for both Lord of the Rings and two-player games, but we're finding a lot more of our gaming time is social these days, making two player games something of a liability when we want to include more players in our gaming. And after these two are gone, we'll still have 6 LOTR games in our collection, so I don't think we'll be spending any less time in Middle-Earth.

Marvel Dice Masters. We were originally charmed by this game's Marvel Comics theme and blind booster collectibility, but we're finding that the game's emulation of the CCG/LCG model (where you put together your "deck" of killer combos before the game starts) is a bit of a turn-off. We want a game we can just play right out of the box.

Quarriors. While the clever game play and pretty dice were what attracted us to Quarriors, the goofy cartoon-fantasy theme was always a bit of a turn-off, and even with all the expansions condensed into as few boxes as possible, the game is a major shelf-hog that doesn't really justify the amount of time we spend playing it.

Race to Adventure. There's nothing wrong with this simple game about using shared resources to complete a collection of objects, it just repeats the theme and game play of a few other games that we enjoy more.
  • Original rating: 3.
  • What we'll play instead: Relic Expedition is extremely similar on a lot of levels (1930s adventure, treasure hunt), with much more lavish components. Fortune and Glory is a more complex and engaging game with the same theme.

Zeppelin Attack! This small deck-building game has some original ideas in it, but the lack of depth makes the game play pretty similar from game to game.
  • Original rating: 3
  • What we'll play instead: Star Realms and the DC Comics Deck Building Game are both similar in terms of game complexity, but have a lot more replay value (and better artwork). 

Friday, April 29, 2016

This time it's Battle Yahtzee

Fill-in-the-blanks licensed versions of games like Monopoly or Clue are tie-in products first and games second, and Battle Yahtzee: Alien vs. Predator is no exception. If you're a fan of Yahtzee and the Aliens vs Predator franchise you'll probably enjoy the game, but it's not going to change your mind about either.

That said, the game does add some interesting elements to the game in deference to the confrontational nature of the AvP license. Rather than just trying to score more points than your opponents before the game ends, Battle Yahtzee allows you to use some of your rolled combos to attack your opponents and take away some of their points. It also adds a "battle chance" die that you can roll on your turn, that will either add or subtract from your score depending on how it rolls. Additionally, each player gets to play as a character, either the Alien, Predator, Marine, or Scientist, each with a unique once-per-game special ability.

The additional rules don't really make the game that much more complicated, and it is still recognizably Yahtzee. Players can easily use the included dice and score pads to play by the standard Yahtzee rules, which are included on the rules sheet.

The components are slick and nicely designed, but the dice are a little hard to read, and the included score board is too small for its score tracking pieces, so the board tends to get crowded when player scores are close, and the pieces can get bumped easily.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Not bad if you already like Yahtzee, but there are a lot of more compelling AvP games out there. AvP Clue looks interesting though...

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Dracula is FURIOUS!

Like its title character, Fury of Dracula is a game prone to death and resurrection. It's been released in three different editions over 28 years, with each edition offering substantial changes to the game's structure and rules as well as its graphic design. We played the second edition once or twice, but most of our experience is with the third edition (released in 2015), so we'll look at it on its own merits, rather than comparing it to the earlier versions of the game.

It's a "one against many" game like Mansions of Madness or Middle-Earth Quest, but rather than one player commanding the forces of darkness against a group of hero players, here the Dracula player is on the defensive, attempting to hide his location for as long as possible while he matures nests of vampires throughout Europe. The hero players, taking the roles of characters from the original Dracula novel, need to balance their efforts between finding Dracula himself, and rooting out his hidden lairs.

Since there are four heroes (regardless of the number of players), it would seem that they have the advantage, but that definitely isn't the case. They will still need to apply a good deal of thought and strategy to finding Dracula in the time available. The game's clock is ticking in the form of Dracula's influence track, which increases when vampire nests aren't found and destroyed. Game rounds are represented by days on a calendar, and if Dracula isn't found after three weeks, the influence track starts advancing much faster until the world is plunged into darkness.

It's a neat game that really captures the tension, for both the Dracula and hero players, with Dracula often narrowly eluding discovery, and the heroes desperately scrambling to find him in time.

The third edition, published in 2015 by Fantasy Flight Games, boasts updated graphic design and illustration as well as streamlined rules. The design is very well done, keeping with FFG's house style but adapting it to the gothic horror theme. The rules are fairly smooth and elegant, with a straightforward turn structure that makes for quick turns, adding to the game's sense of tension and urgency.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A complex but elegant game that gives players a lot of strategic decisions to make, and evokes the gothic horror theme very well.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A tile by any other name

Jarl: the Vikings Tile-Laying Game is a re-skin of The Duke, a tile based combat game with an abstract medieval theme. You could be forgiven for assuming that the Vikings theme has been tacked on in order to make an easy piece of tie-in merchandise; in spite of the photo of Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok on the box cover, the game has very little connection to the History Channel television show. Or does it?

Theme aside, it's a very ingenious game system which can perhaps best be described as "chess with more variables." It is played on a grid, and the object is to protect your Jarl (king) from being captured by your opponent.

The playing pieces are tiles etched with a simple diagram describing what moves that tile can make relative to its current position. Some pieces can jump over others, some can attack from afar without moving, some can move other pieces or prevent them from being captured. But here's the catch: after a piece moves, it must be flipped over to its opposite side, which has a different set of possible moves.

So a huge part of the strategy is keeping track of how a piece's new position on the board, combined with its new set of moves, will affect the game.

Unlike chess, where you start with all of your pieces and watch them gradually get whittled away, here you start the game with just three pieces on the board and the rest in a bag. On any turn you can forego moving a piece to instead place a new one, randomly drawn from the bag, which must be placed adjacent to your Jarl. Each turn is a decision whether to use what you have on the board, or call for reinforcements.

The Jarl is no slouch when it comes to defending itself and capturing opposing pieces, and it can't be cornered as easily as the king in chess. This, combined with the fact that the pieces have such dynamic and varied movements, makes for an energetic and vital game that really reminds me of the battle scenes on the Vikings television show. As a fan of the show who probably wouldn't have given the game a second look otherwise, it's a smart bit of licensing.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) a deceptively simple game that is very compelling and gives players a lot to think and strategize about, and the fact that it reminds me of a favorite television show is a nice bonus.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Secrets of the manor

With its Edward Gorey artwork and PBS branding, Mystery! Motive for Murder is clearly intended to appeal to mystery fans and new gamers, and it's a little self-conscious about its own complexity. It is presented as a series of five games, the first three of which are really "training games" designed to introduce the various elements of the game a little at a time.

Game One introduces the core concept of laying down tiles representing murder suspects in a particular pattern by lining up arrows on the edges of the tiles. Relationships can be either love or hate, and the tiles are then scored depending on their position relative to the victim tile, and the nature of their relationships to the other tiles.

Game Two adds the concept of a second murder victim who enters play midway through the game. Tiles can now be placed, and score points, in relation to either victim. Game Three adds a small number of Motive Cards, which can be played to alter the relationships between the tiles, score bonus points, and other game effects. Each player gets two cards at the beginning of the game, and can play one of them (discarding the other).

Game Four is where the full game comes together. Each player gets to start with a full hand of 3 tiles and 3 cards, and has to choose one action to perform on their turn: either play a tile, play a card, draw the top card or tile from the deck and play it immediately, or draw a tile and a card to add to their hand. Each player only gets three turns before the case is decided, so you have to decide carefully how to spend your turn. At the end of each round, points are given to the players who played the tiles worth the most and second most motive points. A case is played over three rounds, with the points awarded increasing a bit for each round. A full game includes three cases.

Game Five is an advanced game that adds Second Interview tokens that allow players to guess which suspect will be worth the most points at the end of the round and score bonus points if they are correct. It also adds some additional motive cards, and each player plays as a particular detective archetype with a unique game ability.

Playing through the three training games is a little tedious, as they aren't all that interesting on their own. But once you get to the full game it's quite interesting, with a lot to think about as you struggle with a limited number of turns, tiles and cards. The artwork and design is utterly charming, and combined with the game's structure it definitely calls to mind the scene at the end of every mystery story where the detective explains whodunit by eliminating the room full of suspects one by one.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) a nice, light game, but the artwork by Edward Gorey is more of a draw than the actual game play.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Not conquering any new territory

Samurai is a pretty typical example of a Reiner Knizia game. The game play is abstract and deceptively simple, featuring a complex scoring system that is more than simply adding up points, and the theme is, for the most part, a tacked on afterthought. That said, the game still manages to be fairly engaging.

The game board, which scales based on the number of players, represents the islands of Japan. Cities and villages are marked out on the board, and at the start of the game their spaces are filled with tokens representing religion, commerce and military. Each player has a collection of tiles of varying values and symbols that correspond to the tokens on the board. Players take turns placing on the board, and as soon as a city or village is surrounded by tiles, the player whose surrounding tiles add up to the highest value claims the token or tokens that match their tiles' symbol. Some tiles have special abilities, such as allowing placement of an additional tile, or moving a tile that's already on the board.

As usual with a Reiner Knizia game, there is a little more to it than that. While the primary strategy lies in placing your tiles in such a way that you control when a village gets surrounded, you also need to think about which tokens you're claiming. The final scoring depends on how many of each type of token each player has collected, so you have to make decisions on which tokens you are trying to collect, based on what you have and what your opponents have taken.

The beautiful graphic design in the new edition published by Fantasy Flight Games helps to make up for the fairly inconsequential feudal Japan theme. In any case, there's enough going on to keep the game interesting, if similar to many of Knizia's other games such as Through the Desert and even Ingenious.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A pretty good game when taken on its own merits, but it is very similar to a lot of other games from the same designer.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Pulp fiction

I recently had occasion to investigate Spirit of the Century, a role playing game set in an extremely stylized 1930s world that calls to mind larger-than-life characters such as The Shadow or Doc Savage. While ultimately I found the world described in the game to be a little too over the top for my role playing tastes, I did enjoy the two spin-off board games set in the same universe.

Race to Adventure is, as the title implies, a race, with players competing to visit 9 location tiles and return to home base with the stamps to prove it. It get pasts the usual lack of player interaction that is typical of race games in a very novel way.

Each turn, each player selects one item to use, things as mundane as a magnifying glass and as outlandish as a jet pack. Many of the location tiles require use of one of these items in order to gain that tile's stamp, and there is only one of each item available, so strategy revolves around choosing whether to take the item you  know you need, or block the other players by taking the item you know they need.

Additionally, there are only two items that allow movement between: the jet pack and the airplane. As long as someone takes the airplane, every player gets to move once, but if you need to use one of the other items, you're hoping one of the other players will take the airplane so you can still move. conversely, when you take the airplane to use yourself, you're giving  everyone else a free move. It makes for a really interesting dynamic in a game that is otherwise a bit too simple.

The board is made up of tiles, so it's different every time, and an expansion includes suggested tile layouts beyond a basic 3x3 grid. Other expansions add a lost island that sends flying dinosaurs out to cause trouble, and a sinkhole that collapses one of the location tile into a subterranean world with its own unique challenges.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The base game is a bit on the simple side, but the expansions add just enough extra depth to keep it interesting.

Zeppelin Attack! switches the focus to the villains of the Spirit of the Century world. It's a small scale deck building game that manages to be quite different from most other deck building games. Where most games of this time attempt to keep player's interest by including hundreds upon hundreds of cards, Zeppelin Attack gets by with a mere 112 and accommodates four players.

Players assemble fleets of zeppelins armed with outlandish weapons, in an attempt to outlast the other players. Launching successful attacks via weapon cards gains you victory points and usually some kind of card advantage, and successfully defending against an attack with a matching defense will usually give you some kind of in-game benefit such as extra card draws.

All cards (attacks, defenses, and operations) have to be played from one of your zeppelins in play, so there is some resource management involved beyond just buying more cards for your deck, and like Race to Adventure, Zeppelin Attack adds a lot more direct player interaction than you normally see in games of this type.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A little to small scale to be really engaging, but a good simple game nonetheless, and the small size of the box means it travels a lot better than most deck building games.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Table for two

As a gaming couple, we are always on the lookout for good two-player games. Granted, many multiplayer games work perfectly well with two, but more often than not they are designed with a larger group of players in mind.

We recently picked up a few new two-player games:

Star Wars: Empire vs. Rebellion is for the most part a re-skin of Cold War: CIA vs. KGB, and an entry into an emerging sub-category of games based on popular licensed properties and marketed more for their status as tie-in merchandise than for their game play. That's not necessarily a criticism, as it's easy to see that Star Wars is a much easier sell than 1960s global intrigue.

The game makes the transition from cold war to star war fairly easily, with a few minor changes and additions. Each round, an event card is played to the center of the table, representing an event from the original trilogy of Star Wars films such as "Duel on Cloud City" or "Locate the Rebel Base." Players secretly choose a strategy card to use for that round, which either gives them a boost towards winning the event, or an advantage in the following round. Players then attempt to score points for these events by playing cards that add up to a pre-determined value without going over.

Each player plays from their own deck of cards, which includes either the heroes or the villains of the Star Wars saga. These character cards have unique abilities that can be used when they are in play, and their value towards the total required to win the event is different depending on whether they have used their ability or not. Whether or not to use a character ability (and change your total) becomes one of the main strategic decisions in the game. Influence tokens, which are awarded upon winning an event and can be spent to re-use a card's ability, are another component that feeds the game's strategy and makes it different from Cold War.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Not quite as simple and elegant as Cold War, but the Star Wars theme will most likely have a much wider appeal.

I'm a huge fan of Jurassic Park, Primeval, and all things dinosaur, so Raptor was a pretty easy sell for me. It's a two-player tactical movement game in which one player controls a team of scientists trying to gather baby velociraptors for study, and the other player controls the raptors and their outraged mother.

The board is made up of 6 square tiles, each with a 9x9 grid of spaces, plus two 1x3 end tiles on each side. Each tile has a different pattern of empty spaces and obstacles, so the board will be different for each game. The game starts with the mother and 5 baby raptor figures on the board, one on each tile, and four scientist figures, two on either end of the board.

Each player has a deck of 9 cards, each with a number from 1 to 9 and an action that player can perform. Players start with a hand of 3 cards, from which they simultaneously choose and reveal one card, comparing the two. The player with the lower number performs the action listed on the card, which are things like hide in the jungle or scare the humans for the raptor player, and reinforcements or move by jeep for the scientist player. The player with the higher number gets a number of action points to spend equal to the difference between the two cards. Action points are spent to move and attack.

Not knowing for sure what you're going to be able to do each round is the key feature of the game, and strategy consists of trying to anticipate what your opponent is going to do based on the figures' placement on the board. It's got a nice balance of randomness and strategic decision making, with simple, intuitive rules.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A nice mix of tactical movement and card-playing, and I love the dinosaurs vs. humans theme.

Longhorn is another game we picked up on impulse based mainly on the genre. In this case, the wild west theme is largely tacked on, and the game itself is pretty abstract.

The board consists of 9 tiles, each with an effect and a random number of cows of different colors on it. There is a single pawn which represents both players. On each player's turn, that player takes all the cows of one color from the tile he is on, and then moves the pawn a number of spaces equal to the number of cows taken. Then it's the other player's turn to take cows an move the pawn. If a player takes the last cow from a tile, that tile's effect is resolved, with different effects including things like taking cows from adjacent spaces or the other player, getting extra points at the end of the game, or having to put cows you've taken back on the board.

It sounds simple, but as usual there is a bit more to it. The pawn can never be moved to an empty tile, and if there are no populated tiles to move to, the game ends. Cows are worth points based on the number of cows of that color still on the board at the end of the game, which means there is quite a bit of strategy involved in deciding which cows to take, and where to move the pawn so that your opponent's choices are limited.

It is interesting to note that Raptor and Longhorn are both by the same designer, Bruno Cathala (Raptor was co-designed by Bruno Faidutti).

Rating: 2 (out of 5) It's almost more of a puzzle than a game, and its one of the few games that we strongly disagree on; I think it's okay, but Katherine finds it really uninteresting.

Check out some of the other two player games we've reviewed.

Friday, January 29, 2016

It came from another planet for the thrill of deck building

Upper Deck's Legendary series of deck building games is proving to be a pretty versatile game system. My experience with the Marvel superhero version is limited, but it seems to reflect the idea of a big super team battle very well. Legendary Encounters: an Alien Deck Building Game absolutely nails the feel of the Alien franchise, with the different scenarios even allowing for the differences in tone between the four films.

Legendary Encounters: A Predator Deck Building Game is another success for the series. It manages not to be just a simple re-skin of the Alien version, but its own game with a tone that is in line with the first two Predator films. It's really two games in one: players can choose to play a fully cooperative version as the humans in their struggle to survive the Predator's hunting expedition, or they can play a competitive game as Predators, seeing who can hunt the most humans and occasionally getting into duels with each other.

"Instead of complaining, maybe you should help."
The cooperative version is arguably more difficult to win than any of the Alien scenarios. There is a much greater emphasis on teamwork, with many cards that are only effective when played in coordination with the other players. It calls to mind the scene in the first Predator film where Dutch and his crew are setting traps for the Predator, and even naysayer Dillon and prisoner Anna are drafted to help. The idea of military camaraderie is further reinforced by cards that encourage players to draft a variety of different cards rather than focusing only on cards associated with a particular character.

In the competitive version, players get to play as Predators carving a path of destruction through either the jungles of Central America or the streets of Los Angeles. It manages to be recognizably the same game but also completely different. Game play is mainly focused on hunting human characters, beginning with no-name thugs and minions and working your way up to the main characters from the films, with the game ending once someone has defeated either Arnold Schwarzenegger's character from the first film, or Danny Glover's from the second.

Each kill is worth honor points, with bonuses for heavily armed characters or disarming traps. Additionally, several cards allow the players' Predators to duel, swiping away at one another in an attempt to directly knock out the competition. An advanced game variant adds Test cards which award extra points for meeting certain conditions such as healing damage or wiping out multiple humans in a single turn, and Challenge cards that give each player a personal goal to work towards (other than killing everything in sight).

It's clear that the game's developers put a lot of thought into making this game feel uniquely like the Predator films, while at the same time fitting it into the established rules framework of the Legendary series, and I think they succeeded admirably.

The game can be freely mixed with Legendary Encounters: an Alien Deck Building Game, allowing the characters from Predator to jump into the Alien scenarios, and vice versa. It's even easy to mix different scenario elements: imagine a South American jungle crawling with Aliens, or Predators descending on the doomed colony from the second Alien film.

This mix and match is definitely part of the fun of having multiple games with different licensed properties using the same game system. The next two announced games in the series are Firefly and Big Trouble in Little China. Now imagine the Serenity crew stumbling across a derelict ship full of Aliens, or Jack Burton going up against the Predator...

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Another terrific game in the series, it manages to be its own game while fitting seamlessly in with what has gone before.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Missing the point

Games based on pre-existing properties such as movies, TV shows, or books can be a mixed bag to say the least. More often than not, the point of a licensed game is to cash in on the popularity it's based on, which tends to result in a lot of mediocre games with "pasted on" themes, such as Doctor Who: the Game of Time and Space or Game of Thrones: Westeros Intrigue. However, occasionally a licensed property will fall into the hands of a game publisher who understands and cares about the material, and you get Firefly: the Game or the Star Trek Customizable Card Game.

Chew: Cases of the FDA, a card game based on the comic book by John Layman and Rob Guillory, falls somewhere in the middle, but it leans more towards the "pasted on theme" end of the spectrum.

The comic book is quite brilliant. It's about a world where chicken has been declared illegal, the FDA operates like the FBI or DEA, and there are numerous characters with food-related supernatural powers, such as the main character, Tony Chu, an FDA agent who can tell the history of any object by eating it.

The designers of the game chose to focus on the criminal investigation aspect of the comic, which is by far the least interesting thing about the story. Players start with a crime card and a suspect card, and throughout the game they are required to play a number of clue cards between the two by matching color patterns on the edges of the cards. Players also have a hand of investigation cards which can be played for fairly standard game effects such as drawing extra cards or stealing them from your opponents.

It's not a bad game, it just doesn't reflect any of the outrageous humor or bizarre plot elements that make the comic book great. Other than images from the comics on the cards, and an ill-conceived optional variant that requires players to take a drink or eat something unpleasant as a payment for playing certain cards, it could just as easily be a generic crime investigation game.

The most amusing thing about the game is the bag of miniature Chogs (frog-chicken hybrids that feature prominently in the comic) that are used as currency.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) An unremarkable, overpackaged game, and a missed opportunity to do something fun with a unique property.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Not for vegetarians

Apex: Therapod Deck-Building Game is a game about dinosaurs eating other dinosaurs, designed with a very specific audience in mind: solo gamers. It's not exclusively a solitaire game (it can be played with as many as 8), but there is very little direct player interaction, and the game is essentially a race to see who can take down the most fearsome dinosaurs before the inevitable asteroid strike.

That said, it is an immensely enjoyable and challenging game, with mechanics that, while fairly complex, run pretty smoothly and fit the theme extremely well. And the artwork on the cards is fantastic.

Each player chooses a species of carnivorous dinosaur to play, with choices ranging from classic favorites like Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptor to lesser known beasts such as Sarcosuchus (a giant prehistoric crocodile). Each species plays somewhat differently, with their own strategies, strengths and weaknesses. Like most deck building games, each player starts with a relatively weak deck of cards, in this case eggs, hatchlings, and carcasses. Each player has their own unique Apex deck of stronger versions of their particular dinosaur species, cards which must be purchased over the course of the game.

The game starts with a row of cards called the game trail representing prey, and another representing evolutionary advances. Game play consists of playing out cards to hunt prey from the prey deck, and then spending the points gained to buy better cards for your deck, either general evolutionary advances from the table, or specific apex cards from your apex deck, which are made available by playing egg cards. The goal is to populate your deck with stronger cards, enabling you to hunt larger prey and eventually fight the boss dinosaurs and their minions, that are shuffled into the hunt deck.

At the start of the game, a certain number of boss dinosaurs and their minions are shuffled into the deck of prey, so that they appear randomly throughout the game. When a boss appears, all the other prey scatter (are discarded), and the clash of the titans commences. You have to play a lot of high-value cards over multiple rounds to have a hope of beating a boss, and failure results in trauma cards which are added to your deck and produce negative effects when drawn.

Much like the age of the dinosaurs, Apex has a built-in time limit in the form of a deck of environment cards representing tropical storms, droughts, dinosaur stampedes, and the Asteroid Strike and Extinction cards that signal the end of the game. Players score points based on the amount of prey they have consumed, but no player can win the game unless they've defeated at least one boss monster.

There is a lot going on, but it stops short of being overly complicated. The flow of turns and rounds is pretty smooth once you get accustomed to it. There's a brilliant press-your-luck ambush mechanic that allows you to set aside cards from your hand for later use, but forces you to place an Alert card in your discard pile where it will eventually get reshuffled into your deck. If you draw the Alert before you've played your ambush cards, they are discarded without effect and certain effects on cards in the game trail will trigger. It's a great idea that really translates the idea of an ambush predator coldly observing its prey before striking.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) An extremely well-designed game with a lot of deep, complex, and thematic game play, and gorgeous artwork.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Relic hunting in style

My decision to buy Relic Expedition was based almost entirely on its graphic design. Normally I try to try out a game, or at least read some reviews, before buying, but in this case an ad included in the box for Lanterns: the Harvest Festival and a quick look at a demo copy at my local game store was all it took.

Granted, the game's 1930s adventure theme is one of my favorites (see Fortune and Glory), but beyond that, I found its typography, iconography, and color palette to be very appealing. Imagine my relief when it turned out to be a pretty good game, too.

Players race to explore the jungle and be the first to leave with the right combination of relics. The jungle is made up of random tiles that are placed as the players move; some tiles reveal relics or villages, while others unleash pits of quicksand or wild animals ranging from panthers that send you back to base camp, to mischievous monkeys that steal random items from your inventory.

Inventory management is a major part of the game. Each player can hold eight items, so early on it's easy to load up with helpful equipment such as machetes to cut through the jungle, bullwhips or vines to swing over quicksand, or bananas to distract those pesky monkeys, but eventually all that equipment has to give way to make room for relics. It calls to mind the greedy explorer who leaves all the food behind so he can smuggle out gold and jewels.

Deciding which relics to pick up is a crucial part of the game's strategy, since each player needs to collect a particular combination. In the base game it's either four of the same color, or four of the same type, but an expansion adds cards which give each player a more specific goal. So as you're wandering the jungle picking up relics, you have to decide which pattern you're going to go for, but also have the flexibility to change based on what you're finding. Every relic you carry means discarding a piece of equipment, which can lead to some agonizing decisions since most of the equipment either lets you move through the jungle more quickly, or avoid the wild animals which are the game's main obstacles.

The animals are easily the game's most charming components, consisting of meeples (wooden pieces in silhouette) of panthers, boars, snakes, and monkeys. Animals are placed on the board when certain jungle tiles come into play, and as part of their turn, each player rolls a die which allows the movement of all the animals of one type. Since the players control where the animals move, anyone who gets too far ahead will usually find themselves stalked by panthers or menaced by snakes.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A delightful, if a bit simple, game with engaging game play and beautifully designed components.