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.