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).