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.