Thursday, December 21, 2017

Top 10 games of 2017

These are the games we spent the most time playing this year (not necessarily games that were published in 2017).

Last year the list was strictly in order of how many hours we spent playing each game. We did more or less the same this time, but we disqualified any games that we didn't play at least five times over the course of the year.

10. Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game

6 plays, 8 hours (average play time 1 hour and 20 minutes per game)
Position last year: 4

The Legendary game system has proven to be extremely robust, with several new flavors coming out in 2017 including Big Trouble in Little China, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the notoriously poorly illustrated Firefly, along with an expansion for Legendary Encounters: Alien that allows one player to play as the Alien Queen. But for sheer variety and replayability you really can't beat the original Marvel version. We haven't even come close to playing all the different possible combinations of heroes, villains and plots the game has to offer.

Read the full review.

9. Raiders of the North Sea

5 plays, 8.25 hours (average play time 1 hour and 40 minutes per game)
New to the list this year

Raiders of the North Sea combines some really smooth and deceptively simple game play with absolutely stunning artwork and graphic design, making it a great experience on every level. I fully expect it to make our top 10 again next year.

Read the full review.

8. Steam Park

6 plays, 10.5 hours (average play time 1 hour and 20 minutes per game)
New to the list this year

Steam Park is a game that we've always enjoyed but hadn't bought our own copy of until recently. It's got one game element that I don't particularly care for (a speed-rolling segment at the start of each round), but I was able to come up with a few variant options to fix that and the game remains one of our favorites.

Read the full review.

7. Cthulhu Wars

7 plays, 14.5 hours (average play time just over 2 hours per game)
New to the list this year

We've always loved Cthulhu Wars, and our enthusiasm for it was rekindled this year when a huge chunk of Kickstarter expansions arrived for the game. The miniatures are what most people talk about (and they are spectacular), but it's also a great "armies on a map" conquest game with very smooth rules and a surprising amount of depth.

Read the full review.

6. Wasteland Express Delivery Service

5 plays, 16 hours (average play time just over 3 hours per game)
New to the list this year

A "pick up and drop off" mission solving game that is probably responsible for knocking Firefly: the Game off the top 10 list (it was #2 last year). Its world isn't quite as immersive as Firefly's, but the Mad Max-style post apocalypse theme is fun and still a little underrepresented in board games. Plus, it comes with the best in-box storage system I have ever seen.

Full review coming soon. For now, check out the official website and BoardGameGeek page.

5. Champions of Midgard

11 plays, 22.5 hours (average play time just over 2 hours per game)
New to the list this year

It's surprising that two Viking-themed worker-placement games are in our game library at all, let alone both in our top 10 for the year. But Champions of Midgard is actually quite different from Raiders of the North Sea: a little more complex, a little more random, and a lot more fantastical, with players competing for the opportunity to defend the village from trolls and other mythical beasts.

Read the full review.

4. Star Wars: Rebellion

7 plays, 29 hours (average play time just over 4 hours per game)
New to the list this year

A two player game that takes 4 hours to play has understandably limited appeal, but it's perfect for a couple who are Star Wars fans and frequently spend entire weekends playing games.

Read the full review.

3. Mansions of Madness (Second Edition)

10 plays, 29 hours (average play time just under 3 hours per game)
Position last year: 6

Mansions of Madness continues to be one of our primary go-to adventure games, and a great example of how to integrate an app into a physical board game the right way: the app supports the game and makes it easier to play, but doesn't turn it into a video game.

Read the full review.

2. X-Wing

15 plays, 29.75 hours (average play time 2 hours per game)
Position last year: 1

We didn't spend quite as much time playing X-Wing this year, but it wasn't for lack of trying. The steady flow of new ships has kept the game fresh, and the older models have had some new life breathed into them by our recent (admittedly late-to-the-party) discovery of Heroes of the Aturi Cluster, a fan-made fully cooperative campaign mode with an ingenious AI for controlling the opposing ships.

Read the full review.

1. Conan

26 plays, 31.5 hours (average play time 1 hour and 15 minutes per game)
Position last year: 5

Last year I predicted that Conan would take the number one spot this year, and it's easy to see why. It is an extremely compelling game that is easy to play and incredibly immersive. In spite of a confusing Kickstarter campaign and a somewhat muddy rule book, the game is well supported with a regular flow of new scenarios, and I'm sure we'll be playing it regularly for years to come.

Read the full review.

Honorable Mention

There were a few games that would have made the top 10 if we were going strictly by hours spent playing, but fell just short of the minimum of five plays that we decided on for this year.

Leaving Earth

4 plays, 22.5 hours (average play time just over 5 and a half hours per game)

We really do love everything about this game (utterly unique game play, top-notch graphic design), except for maybe the incredibly long playing time, which is what prevents it from hitting the table more often.

Read the full review.

Marvel Heroes Strategy Board Game

4 plays, 10 hours (average play time 2 and a half hours per game)

We started playing Marvel Heroes regularly again out of frustration over how tedious Heroclix has become. We've even created some new characters and villains in an effort to freshen up the game a little.

Read the full review.

Star Trek Customizable Card Game

4 plays, 9.5 hours (average play time 2 hours and 20 minutes per game)

It's amazing how often we dig out this old CCG from the 1990s. It was one of the first games we played together, and we still enjoy it from time to time. There are a lot of good Star Trek games out there, but this one is still the best at evoking everything that was great about the show.

Read the full review.

Most anticipated games for 2018

There are a few games that just arrived or haven't arrived yet, that I have particularly high hopes for. I think these three might make the top 10 list next year.

Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks

Doctor Who has had a somewhat troubled board game history, but this one is from Gale Force 9, who proved with their excellent Firefly board game that they understand how to incorporate theme into their games rather than just "painting it on." I've only read the rule book so far, but it looks like it gets to the heart of what Doctor Who is all about: travelling through time, having adventures and fighting monsters.

Official website

Dinosaur Island

A game about building a dinosaur zoo, from the creators of Wasteland Express Delivery Service and Dead of Winter? Yes, please. Although the '90s style graphic design is a bit obnoxious (way too much pink) the game looks solid and I'm really looking forward to trying it. I fear it may replace Steam Park in my amusement-park-building-game affections.

Official website

Mythic Battles: Pantheon

I was on the fence about this one, but the Kickstarter campaign took place when I was in the full flush of euphoria over how awesome Conan was, and not only does Mythic Battles include a Conan crossover element, it looks like a pretty good game in its own right.

Official website

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

War in space

At their core, the Star Wars movies are about the journey from adolescence to adulthood, with characters such as Luke Skywalker and Rey learning about their abilities and place in the world, Anakin Skywalker finding his ultimate destiny as Darth Vader, or even Jyn Erso finally finding a cause worth dying for. It's the human drama that really makes the Star Wars saga as compelling as it is.

But it's also about a whopping big war in space, and that's the part that Star Wars: Rebellion successfully translates into a board game. The box says it's a game for 2-4 players, buttthe four player option just splits each player's duties, and isn't really worth considering. This is definitely a two-player game, as befits the Star Wars saga's rather black-and-white struggle of Empire vs. Rebellion.

What's interesting about the game is that it isn't just an armies-on-a-map Risk-style game with both sides starting out equal. Each player has different goals: the Empire, which starts with a lot more resources, must use a combination of deduction and brute force to find and wipe out the hidden Rebel base, while the Rebel player has to accomplish hit-and-run objectives to drive down the Empire's popular support and undermine its credibility.

Game play involves using the personalities of the Star Wars universe such as Han Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, and even Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt, to attempt missions and lead attacks into enemy territory. Missions can be a simple as using diplomacy to convince a planetary system to join the Rebellion (or the Empire), or as complex as leading an attack on the Death Star, the destruction of which will seriously undermine the Empire's credibility.

The characters available to each player are revealed gradually over the first half of the game; no game is ever exactly the same, as you never know whether you will end up with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, or lesser known characters like Wedge Antilles to work with. Additionally, the mission and objective cards vary from game to game, which keeps the game fresh over multiple plays.

Rebellion is a very complex two-player game that takes about four hours to play, so it definitely isn't going to be for everyone. But if you like rich, deep strategy games and you like Star Wars, it can't be beat.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) The limited number of players and long play time prevent it from getting to the table on a regular basis, but this is usually the first game I think of if I want to play a Star Wars game.

Viking roundup, part 1

I'm not really sure why Vikings are so popular lately. Likely it has something to do with the success of the Lord of the Rings films and the Game of Thrones television series: swords and armor are at the front of the public consciousness, and the historical Viking era provides a ready-made setting without any accompanying copyright issues. Let's take a look at the inordinately large number of Viking games that have made their way into our game library over the past year.

Raiders of the North Sea is an entertaining and great-looking worker-placement game. It's part of New Zealand designer Shem Phillips' North Sea series, which also includes Shipwrights of the North Sea and Explorers of the North Sea. I'm not sure what order the series was originally published in, but Raiders looked like the most interesting of the three so that's the one we picked up first.

Most worker-placement games give players a set number of workers, which are then placed on various spaces on the board in order to gather the resources needed to accomplish the game's goals. Raiders does something a little different: each player starts with one worker, and a normal turn consists of placing that worker on an available space (activating it to gain whatever resource it provides), and then picking up a worker from an occupied space, activating that space as well. So rather than just competing with the other players for available spaces, your second move is limited to spaces that other players have played on. It's a unique twist on the worker-placement game mechanic that I don't think I've seen in any other game.

The second part of the game involves raiding settlements. Part of the board is divided up into areas of varying difficulty, each containing a random assortment of plunder such as gold, iron and livestock. Raiding the more distant settlements requires more resources and larger crews, but they also give more victory points. Raiding also continues the "place one worker, then pick one up" game mechanic -- you still have to place a worker in order to raid, but part of your reward is a more advanced worker (in a different color) that gives you access to different resources and allows you to raid the more distant and lucrative settlements.

It's a relatively simple but quite ingenious game. It gives players a fair amount to think about, but the rules are quite simple. Additionally, the game play is fairly non-confrontational and so should appeal to less competitive players.

The engaging game play is helped along by some truly spectacular artwork by Mihajlo Dimitrievski, as well as top-notch graphic design by the game's designer, Shem Phillips.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) a game that's easy to play but still challenging, with stunning graphics and high-quality components.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Robots need amusement too

I'm a huge fan of engine-building games, where the goal is to assemble a combination of game elements that will let you do whatever it is you need to do to win, and the main source of competition is that it's a race to see if you can build an effective engine before your opponent does. It's the main reason the Star Trek CCG continues to hold my interest after all these years, and it's why I like Steam Park.

In Steam Park, the goal is to build an amusement park consisting of rides and support buildings. The rides are occupied by randomly drawn robots of different colors, and only robots that match the color of your rides will ride them and give you the income you need to keep your park going and eventually win the game.

Aside from filling up your rides, the other major element of the game is cleaning up the mess visitors leave behind (apparently robots are just as messy as humans). Visitors to your park provide you with income, but they also leave dirt that must be cleaned up, otherwise you lose points at the end of the game. So game play is a balance between building more rides to attract more visitors, cleaning up their mess, and adding support buildings that make it easier to do both of those things.

Player actions are determined by rolling dice with different symbols representing tasks such as building, cleaning, and attracting visitors. At the start of each round, players roll their dice as many times as needed to get the actions they want for the turn, but the first player to finish rolling their dice gets to go first for the round, and the player who goes last generates extra dirt that needs to be cleaned up, so you don't want to spend too much time trying to get exactly the dice rolls you want.

Other than the sometimes frantic scramble to grab the first player token each round, the game involves very little direct interaction with opponents, with each player building their own park and trying to gain as many points as possible before the end of the sixth round. This "speed rolling" phase is really the only thing I don't like about the game - I don't enjoy games with any kind of speed or timed element - but there are a couple of variants that replace this with a turn-based rolling phase (including one I came up with myself, see below) or a drafting phase where all the dice are rolled together and the players take turns selecting the ones they want for the turn.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) An entertaining game with a goofy but fun theme.

Steam Park variants for the roll phase 

These two variants are designed to eliminate the "frantic rolling" part of the game in favor of something turn-based that gives players time to think about what they're doing. I came up with both of these after reviewing a lot of similar ideas on the BGG forums.

Roll in turn
  1. Each player rolls their dice once and examines the results. In player order from the previous round (choose a random first player for the first round of the game), players choose to add some or all of their dice to their pig board.
  2. After all players have decided which dice to keep and which to reroll, any player whose dice are all on their pig board may take the lowest numbered Turn Order token available. If two or more players are in competition for the same Turn Order token, the player who went later in the previous round wins (resolve ties randomly for the first round).
  3. Players who still have dice not on their pig board now roll again, placing dice they want to keep on their pig board. Return to step 2 and repeat until all players have a Turn Order token.
A player using the Planner Park Director (from the Play Dirty expansion) does not reroll their dice in step 3. Instead, that player places any dice they want to keep on their pig board during the first step 1; if they still have dice during step 3 they may change the facing of one die and place it on their pig board, then return to step 2.


Create a dice pool consisting of 6 dice per player (plus 1 espionage dice per player if using the Play Dirty expansion). The first player from the previous round rolls all these dice into the center of the table.

In reverse turn order from the previous round (choose randomly for the first round of the game), players take turns doing one of the following:
  • Choose a die from the pool and place it on their pig board.
  • Take the lowest numbered Turn Order token available.
  • Choose a number of dice from the pool equal to the number of players in the game and reroll them, then add one of the rerolled dice to their pig board.
Continue until every player has 6 regular dice, 1 espionage die (if using the Play Dirty expansion), and one Turn Order token.

A player using the Planner Park Director (from the Play Dirty expansion) may change the face of any blank die they choose from the pool, as they add it to their pig board.

Why isn't this a game yet?

If you're a gamer and you've ever seen Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, you've probably watched the scenes where Kambei reviews his map of the village and crosses off the circles representing the enemy raiders and thought, "how is this not a board game?"

Well, you're not the only one. And fortunately, at least one game publisher thought the same thing, and the result is a small but still fairly epic game.

7 Ronin is a small 2-player game that attempts to capture the feel of Kurosawa's film. One player controls seven individual heroes with different abilities, who must defend the village from the other player's hoard of faceless bandits. Players plan their moves in secret, with the hero player trying to anticipate which approaches to the village the bandit player will attempt to use, while the bandit player tries to guess which areas will be left undefended.

The seven heroes have individual abilities which resolve depending on whether or not they end up with bandits in their space, and the bandits gain game abilities based on which areas they are able to occupy, either by fighting their way through the heroic ronin, or by attacking an undefended area. The number of areas the bandit player can attack increases each round, so that much like in the film, the heroes find themselves spread more and more thinly.

As the game progresses, both players find themselves needing to manage dwindling resources. The bandit player has to commit a minimum number of units to the battle, a number which increases each round. At the same time, the heroes take damage as they fight off the bandits, and eventually they will succumb to their injuries. Managing which heroes die, and when, is a major part of the hero player's strategy.

The only thing I really don't like about the game is how small it is. The main board is only 7 by 10 1/2 inches, the individual planning boards are half that size, and the playing pieces for both sides are tiny, especially the bandit tokens. I would love to create a large-scale version using 28mm miniatures, although painting 50 bandits might be a bit daunting.

With the bandit hoards making increasingly bold attacks against the dwindling group of heroes, the game really does capture a lot of the spirit of the film. The illustration and graphic design are serviceable, but they're a bit colorful and on the fantasy side of things, lacking the movie's somber contrast.

It's unfortunate that a license couldn't be secured to use the actual Seven Samurai characters and their images, but even without it, this game will call the film to mind.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The tiny size of the board and pieces are the main thing keeping this game from a higher rating, but it's still a fun game.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Making room, part 1

Part of the point of this blog is to critically assess all the games we've felt compelled to buy, for several reasons. One is that every game we play is taking up time that we might be spending on another game, so we should really make sure we're spending that time as enjoyably as possible. Another, more practical reason is that we live in a one-bedroom apartment, and just don't have the space to store hundreds of games.

We will occasionally take a hard look at our collection and decide that some of the games in it are too similar to other, better games, or just aren't as fun as they originally appeared to be. Luckily for us, our local game store takes in used games for trade, so we have an easy funnel to drop unwanted games into.

Here are a few that failed their performance review and had to be let go:

Bang! the Duel If I'm honest, I think I love the idea of Bang! rather than the reality of it. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the game, but the high player count needed means it's a struggle to get it to the table, and at the end of the day I think I enjoy the artwork and the western theme more than the actual game. I was initially excited about the two player version as something I would be able to play more often, but in reality it just never seems to hit the table.
  • Original rating: 4
  • What we'll play instead: Tiny Epic Western is our current go-to wild west game, and Spurs is one I would like to spend more time with.

D6 Shooter A Kickstarter game that dazzled me with some very slick graphic design, and another with what is turning out to be my Achilles' heel, a wild west theme. We played it several times, and the theme and design just couldn't disguise the fact that it's a very basic, dull and repetitive press-your-luck dice game.
  • What we'll play instead: In addition to the above western games, if we want to play a dice game we have Discoveries, Elder Sign, or even Age of War if we want something simple and quick, and Dino Hunt Dice is a more engaging but just as simple press-your-luck game. 

Doctor Who Risk: the Dalek Invasion of Earth The Doctor Who theme is fun and addresses some of the issues I have with Risk, but it's still Risk. There are many similar but much better alternatives if you want an "armies on a map" game, and I'm hoping that Gale Force Nine's upcoming Doctor Who board game is going to fill my need for a good Doctor Who game.
  • Original rating: 3
  • What we'll play instead: Age of Conan, Star Wars: Rebellion (review coming soon), and War of the Ring are all much more interesting games that do Risk better than Risk does. Unfortunately there still aren't any good Doctor Who tabletop games...yet (I'm looking at you, Gale Force Nine).

Get Lucky My review of this game says it all: it's so similar to Kill Doctor Lucky that I can't see any reason to have both games.
  • Original rating: 3 if you don't have Kill Doctor Lucky, 2 if you do.
  • What we'll play instead: take a guess.

Helionox I love deck building games, and it's nice to see one that doesn't have 600 cards and come in a gigantic box, but this game's built-in time limit means that the game ends just as it's getting interesting.
  • Original rating: 2
  • What we'll play instead: Star Realms has a similar sci-fi theme, and there are plenty of other great deck building games out there. 

Rex: Final Days of an Empire This Twilight Imperium re-skin of the classic Dune board game is an excellent update of the game, fixing some of what makes the original a little on the slow and dry side. However, it only shines as a game with 5 or 6 players, and getting that many people to play a game set in a universe they know nothing about is next to impossible, so Rex just never makes it to the table. It's a pity the publisher wasn't able to get the Dune license.
  • Original rating: 4
  • What we'll play instead: Dune, if we can get enough players. Risk-style games like Age of Conan or Star Wars: Rebellion scratch some of the same itch, or even Battlestar Galactica (especially with a Cylon Leader player) if you're looking for a game with uncertain alliances.

Star Trek Panic In my original review I hailed this game's lighter tone and less complex game play when compared to other Star Trek games in our collection, but that's probably what's preventing it from getting to the table. Star Trek Expeditions is a great cooperative game with a bit more depth to it, and while it is ostensibly based on the 2009 Star Trek reboot, the game's story and structure play out like an episode of the original series.
  • Original Rating: 4
  • What we'll play instead: If we're in the mood for a cooperative game we usually want something more deep and immersive like Mansions of Madness or Legendary Encounters, and if we want something lighter we'll lean towards Star Trek Expeditions, or the Reiner Knizia Lord of the Rings game.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Days of high adventure

Conan, by French game publisher Monolith, merges board gaming, tactical miniatures and even role playing into what is probably the best adventure game I have ever played. The game uses a "one vs. many" structure similar to Mansions of Madness First Edition, Descent, and the legendary Heroquest, with one player taking the role of Overlord to control the villains and monsters, and the rest of the players working together to accomplish the goal of the particular scenario being played.

The game uses an ingenious resource management system to govern player actions. The hero players each get an individual character with a set amount of plastic gems that are spent for actions such as attack, defense, movement, opening treasure chests, and so on. This gives the players a lot to think about tactically: spend too many gems running across the grounds of the ruined fortress and you won't have enough for an effective attack, and there's a pack of vicious hyenas right around the corner, so be sure to save some gems for defense. Players are given the choice at the start of each turn whether to stay active and only recover a few spent gems, or to rest, which recovers more gems but means you don't get any actions for the turn.

Conan hero sheet with resource gems

The Overlord, in control of the forces stacked against the heroes, has a similar system of spending gems to activate the monsters and villains at his disposal. Depending on the scenario, the Overlord is given a row (called the "river") of between 4 and 8 tiles, with each tile representing a group of minions or a single (usually more powerful) individual. The cost in gems to activate a tile depends on its position in the river, and once a tile is activated, it moves to the end making it more expensive to activate. The Overlord's strategy lies in managing the river and his gems so he'll be able to move the right adversary at the right time to prevent the heroes from succeeding at whatever their goal is.

The Overlord's control panel with tiles representing his forces
The game is entirely story-based, with the particular scenario dictating the game's setup, including the heroes' equipment, the setting (the game comes with 4 different boards) and the goals for the Overlord and the heroes. There are a great variety of different scenarios to choose from, some of which put the heroes on the defensive, charged with keeping a non-player character alive or defending a position, while others put them on the attack, requiring them to rescue a princess or defeat an evil sorcerer (or often both).

The relatively simple mechanics make it an easy game to learn and teach (despite an often confusing rule book that suffered from numerous errors when translated from its original French language), and unlike the first edition of Mansions of Madness, the Overlord's game play is just as simple and fast paced as the heroes. The game does favor action and combat over story, but that just makes it true to the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard.

Conan has had a somewhat troubled release, with a confusing and over complicated Kickstarter campaign, limited retail availability, and incomplete rules for integrating the game's large number of add-on components. But the core game design and quality of the miniatures and other components is so solid that I'm willing to forgive all that, as none of it really interferes with my ability to enjoy this fantastic game.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) a great tactical action game that puts you right into the middle of Conan's adventures.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Send lawyers, guns and money

At its core, Tiny Epic Western is a game about controlling commercial real estate in the wild west.

The game consists of six mats placed in a circle, with locations on each that offer different resources or game abilities. Players use worker placement to secure those locations to secure the resources they need, either money, law, or force (or lawyers, guns and money for you Warren Zevon fans). These resources are used in different combinations to buy building cards from an available pool, which then give victory points as well as additional locations that can be used on future turns. Play goes for six turns, at which time the winner is the player with the most victory points.

That may not sound particularly wild or western, but if you think about it, the struggle in the American West was entirely about controlling land - land for farming and settlement, land for mining gold and silver, land for building towns to exploit the new found wealth of the people mining the gold and silver, land to build railroad tracks, and so on. The famous gunfight in Tombstone was the result of a power struggle between two factions trying to control the town, and the range war that Billy the Kid found himself involved in was started by two competing mercantile companies. So really, nothing could be more wild western than fighting over who controls the general store or the post office.

In order to convey the sense of struggle and lawlessness, Tiny Epic Western adds some very clever game play to the standard worker placement game model. In most worker placement games, you place your worker to either get a particular game effect (usually a resource of some kind), or to prevent your opponent from getting it. Tiny Epic Western does that too, but many of the spaces on the board only give a reward if the player wins a hand of three-card poker, either against the other players who have placed their workers on the same mat, or against a non-player rival.

The way the poker works is particularly interesting. As already mentioned, the main play area is made up of six mats placed in a circle. In between each mat there is a poker card drawn from an abbreviated deck made up of cards numbered one through five in four suits. At the start of each round, players are dealt a "hole card" from the deck, and after all workers are placed, they must play a round of poker against the other players who have workers on the same mat, using their own card and the cards on either side of the mat to make the best poker hand they can. The winner earns an overall reward, and additionally many of the spaces on the mat only pay out to the poker winner.

To prevent a player from winning simply by virtue of being the only player on a particular mat, there is a non-player "rival," a card which is dealt face down at the start of each round and revealed to provide an opponent when no other players are fighting for control of that particular mat.

It's very thematic, and it adds an air of strategy and uncertainty to worker placement, when in most games the advantage always goes to the player who places first.

As if that weren't enough, it's also possible to duel other players for placement in a particular space. If another player's worker is in the space you want, you can challenge him to a duel, which involves rolling dice, spending resources for re-rolls, and possibly using your hole card to give you an extra advantage. The winner of the duel gets control of the space, and also gets the "wanted" card, which provides extra resources, and is also worth victory points to whoever is holding it at the end of the game.

The game is tense, exciting, involves a lot of strategic decision making, and the only real random element is the dice-rolling during gunfights. It's very engaging, and the western theme is fully integrated rather than just painted on. Not bad for a game about real estate...

Rating: 5 (out of 5) It's everything it says on the box: an epic power struggle of a game with a strong western feel, and it comes in a very small box.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Wargaming in the world of cult TV

Before playing 7TV, most of my experience of tactical combat games was with collectible miniatures games like Heroclix and Star Wars Miniatures, which really play more like 3D trading card games, where killer combos and extensive knowledge of what each piece does usually win the day. I've also played quite a lot of X-Wing, which is a bit of a hybrid in that, while the pieces aren't actually collectible in the blind-box sense, the game does hinge largely on upgrade card combos and knowing what to expect from your opponent's ships.

7TV is a more traditional miniatures skirmish game of the type favored in Britain and Europe, where painting the figures and constructing the terrain to play on are at least as important as actually playing the game. There are skirmish games based on every imaginable genre, from straight up historical warfare to Tolkien-style fantasy to far-future combat; this one is based on 1960s and '70s cult television, and draws its inspiration (and many of its figure designs) from British "spy-fi" TV shows such as The Avengers, Doctor Who, Danger Man, and The Prisoner, to name a few.

Some of 7TV's Future Freedom Fighters
We decided to jump into 7TV because we are big Blake's 7 fans, and the game's Future Freedom Fighters bear more than a passing resemblance to Blake, Avon and the crew of the Liberator. We ordered a bunch of figures and, after lovingly painting them, sat down to play. Since we didn't have any of the fancy terrain that most miniatures wargamers use, we decided to play on a poster map from the Star Wars Miniatures Game, as many would argue that Blake's 7 was the BBC's answer to Star Wars anyway.

We enjoyed the game quite a bit, but we did agree that we needed some proper terrain to play on, so we put the game on the shelf until we could get some (in our case, the excellent modular sci-fi terrain from Battle Systems). Our second play-through was a lot more enjoyable, which got me wondering: I never minded playing Star Wars minis or Heroclix on flat maps, so why did having 3D terrain seem to make this game so much better?

2D vs 3D - a huge difference
Our conclusion, reinforced by a recent game of Heroclix, was largely that the structure of the games is so different. The rules for Heroclix are significantly more complicated, which I think is intentional. Played at the in-store tournament level, Heroclix is a very competitive game where a player's knowledge of the rules and ability to manipulate them is the key to victory, so they need to keep changing the rules in order to keep those high level players interested (and buying figures).

On the other hand, I think the point of games like 7TV is really the tactile pleasure of moving hand-painted miniatures around in an evocative environment, so the job of the rules is to provide a framework for that, and then get out of the way.

That said, the rules for 7TV do have some very interesting elements in the form of two decks of cards that are used while playing: the Gadget deck and the Countdown deck.

Gadgets are one-time use cards that a player can use to spice up the game a bit, providing relatively simple effects such as free moves, re-rolls and extra victory points. They can only be used by a player's main character minis, which gives some incentive to avoid swarming the board with tons of low-level troops. And of course, mad scientists get extra Gadget cards.

The Countdown deck is probably the aspect of the game that provides the most flavor. It adds quite a bit of randomness to the game, which may be a turn-off for more serious-minded gamers, but we thought it was a great way to keep us from taking the game too seriously. The deck is populated with a number of random event cards based on the size of the playing surface, broken up into an equal number of relatively mild "act one" cards, slightly more significant "act two" cards, and game-changing "finale" cards.

Each player draws a Countdown card at the start of their turn, and the game ends when the cards run out, so in addition to random effects, the deck provides the game with a built-in time limit. Effects range from temporarily neutralizing figures on the board to bringing back dead characters, and players have the option to draw 2 in one turn if they wish, which gives them more of the currency the game uses to move figures, but also accelerates the end of the game.

All in all we had a great time playing 7TV, which in a way is unfortunate because it has set us on a path to one of the more expensive and time-consuming aspects of the gaming hobby. But it might also be one of the more rewarding.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) It would have to be, given the amount of cost and effort involved in playing any game like this.

  • 7TV official website
  • 7TV on BoardGameGeek (not much activity here)
  • 7TV Action! Facebook page

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Return to Madness Mansion, this time with an app

The first edition of Mansions of Madness is a great game. It really is a role playing game without all the extra work, however, it does have some issues. It requires one player to play as the Keeper, in charge of unfolding the plot and controlling the monsters, and that player's role is much more difficult and often less rewarding than that of the other players, who just have to bumble around in an old house until they either die, go insane, or (very rarely) solve the mystery.

Its nature as a board game requires it to have a very strict structure, where a "real" role playing game is much more free form, and one mistake during the game's complicated setup can ruin the whole experience. It's also extremely fiddly, with tons of cards and counters on the table -- a strong breeze or curious house cat could end the game in a moment.

For Mansions of Madness Second Edition, the game's designers set out to solve the game's problems by introducing a companion app to take over the Keeper's job, managing the storyline and a lot of the fiddly bits and allowing all the players to work together as investigators.

When this idea was first announced, there was a lot of resistance among players of the first edition, mainly of the "you got video game in my board game" variety, but I believe most of those fears were put to rest. While the app is a vital component of the game, it functions more like a story book, keeping track of the timed release of the game's story elements. What it doesn't do is make Mansions of Madness into a video game. Players still track the majority of the game's progress using a board, miniatures, and counters, but the app has allowed that tracking to be greatly simplified, allowing the players to concentrate on the game's story and atmosphere.

The game play has been modified enough that most of the components from the first edition aren't of any use, but the designers did include a "conversion kit" consisting of monster tokens and character cards that allows owners of the first edition to use the older miniatures and location tiles with the new game. A new dice mechanic for accomplishing tasks (borrowed, with a few changes, from X-Wing) replaces the old game's boring old 10-sided die and counter-intuitive "roll low" system.

It's a very rare case of a game being simplified without losing any of its depth. All the rules changes make the game easier to play, and the app isn't intrusive at all -- on the contrary, its artwork, sound effects and music add greatly to what is already a very atmospheric game.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A vast improvement on an already great game.

Read our review of the First Edition.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Return to Lucky Mansion, this time without the mansion

Taken on its own merits, Get Lucky: the Kill Doctor Lucky Card Game is quite amusing. Players take turns trying to kill Doctor Lucky by attaching motive, opportunity and weapon cards to characters, and then manipulating the position of those characters in order to make repeated attempts on the life of poor Doctor Lucky, whose presence in the game is represented by a pawn that moves between the characters. It is up to the other players to foil the murder attempts by spending cards from their hands, which are valuable and finite resources.

The cards are peppered with the usual great graphic design and biting humor that we've come to expect from James Ernest's Cheapass Games, and they are further enhanced by a series of word puzzles that have no direct bearing on the game, but give players something to talk and think about while playing, which enhances the 1920s drawing room flavor of the game.

The game does a good job of being a card game version of Kill Doctor Lucky -- perhaps too good. The game play, flavor and overall experience of playing both games is so similar that I can see little reason to choose one over the other, and I can't even say which is the better game. When looking at both games, Get Lucky doesn't really seem like its own game so much as it feels like a variant of Kill Doctor Lucky where you play without the board.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) if you don't already have Kill Doctor Lucky, 2 (out of 5) if you do, or if you just prefer board games to card games for whatever reason. They really are so similar that I don't see much point in having both games.

Not quite so masterly

Reiner Knizia's Modern Art is fairly typical for the prolific game designer, with a fairly simple game mechanic, clever scoring system, and a theme that is tacked-on but still makes sense. It's generally a fun game, especially if you're playing with non-gamers who might be turned off by complex game play or a preponderance of elves and goblins.

Where it falls down is on the artwork, which, while clearly intended to poke fun at the 1960s pop-art movement, is also very hard to look at. So it was nice to see the game re-skinned as Masters Gallery, using classic (and copyright-free) paintings by such masters as Monet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Vermeer.

Players play cards representing masterpieces by the five different artists in the game. At the end of each round, the artist with the most cards in play is worth the most points, and players score based on how many cards by that artists they played during the round. Strategy involves attempting to manipulate the "market" by recognizing as early as possible which artists are going to be worth the most points that round, and trying to play cards by those artists.

The game play actually makes more sense in a game about up-and-coming artists than it does in a game about established masters, but at least you get to look at better artwork while you're playing. Except...the design of the cards is such that a heavy border takes up almost half of the available space on each card, so the actual artwork is very small. The brightly colored borders aren't doing the works of art any favors either.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) The clunky graphic design isn't quite enough to kill the game, but it is a pity that, in a game about amazing works of art, the art itself doesn't take center stage like it should.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Rushing toward the last sunset

I picked up Helionox: the Last Sunset some time ago on a whim. The artwork on the cover reminded me of one of my favorite current comic book series (the excellent East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta), the science fiction theme is one I enjoy, and it came from the publisher of Spurs, a game I enjoy quite a bit. Additionally, the price was under $25, which is a good way to get me to try a new game without too much "should I buy it or not" agonizing.

We played it a couple of times and enjoyed it, but then it went in the "small games" cabinet and we pretty much forgot about it. Clearly the game play wasn't quite compelling enough to make us want to keep playing, but at the same time, the box is small enough that it escaped the last few recent game purges.

Just recently I had occasion to take another look at Helionox - it was next on the list of games to review that I'm woefully behind on, and the creator had launched a Kickstarter for a deluxe edition and expansion of the game.

At its core, Helionox is a game about averting disasters. The playing field consists of five locations representing planets of the solar system, and players get extra abilities in the game depending on where their spaceship token is currently located. Each turn an event card is drawn that details a crisis befalling one of those systems, and if the crisis isn't dealt with in two turns or less, the location's extra ability is neutralized. Players earn points by overcoming event cards, and the game ends when the deck of event cards runs out.

The game uses standard deck building game mechanics, with players starting with a deck of relatively weak cards and using their resources to buy better cards for their deck. I like the relatively non-competitive theme of averting disasters rather than just attacking the other player, and I like the idea of moving between different locations for different game effects, but the problem I have with this game is that the event cards run out (ending the game) before I feel like I've had a chance to build up a deck of interesting cards to play with.

We had a similar problem with Eldritch Horror, which is one of the reasons we eventually removed that game from our collection. The game presents an interesting world, but the time limit and often abrupt game end means that you never really get a chance to explore that world.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Really not a bad game, but the short built-in time limit makes it less fun than other deck building games such as Legendary or Star Realms.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A few more that didn't make the cut

I reserve the right to change my mind about games. Occasionally, I'll sit down to play a game that I've always enjoyed in the past, but this time I see the game's fatal flaws. Or maybe the novelty of the new just wears off. We have way too many games anyway, so deciding on a few that we don't want to play any more (for whatever reason) won't do us any harm.

Dungeon Quest (3rd Edition) In my original review, I said "a relatively simple game that gives players plenty of decisions to make, but with enough randomness that the game doesn't ever get boring." However, in our most recent play, I found that very randomness to be egregious and irritating. Additionally, the game's card-based combat system always seemed out of place, and while the Revised 3rd Edition attempts to simplify, it's still awkward.
  • Original rating: 4
  • What we'll play instead: I originally bought this game thinking it was an expansion for RuneBound, so why not just play Runebound?

Legendary Encounters: Firefly We got rid of this game so fast, I never even got around to reviewing it. I love Firefly, and I love the other Legendary games, and this one added some interesting game play involving keeping the crew's ship running, which was very much in keeping with the source material. So why did we decide we don't want to own a copy of this game? It may sound shallow, but we just couldn't get past the abysmally poor artwork. Seriously, the card art in this game is so bad it was taking us out of the game and interfering with our enjoyment of it.
  • What we'll play instead: Gale Force Nine's Firefly game is still the gold standard for licensed games. Plus we have several other flavors of Legendary (Aliens, Predator, Marvel (with a ton of expansions), even Big Trouble in Little China), all of which have artwork that, while not always spectacular, at least isn't distractingly bad.

Raptor I liked this game, but my wife did not, and we really have no use for a 2-player game that only one of us likes.
  • Original rating: 4 (wishful thinking?)
  • What we'll play instead: there's no shortage of good two player games in our collection. Additionally, we just got Cretacea, a set of dinosaur-themed miniatures rules.

Star Wars: Empire vs. Rebellion This game is a simple re-skin of Cold War: CIA vs KGB, with some minor changes to the rules. We like Cold War better, and we have enough other Star Wars games.
  • Original rating: 3
  • What we'll play instead: Well, Cold War, obviously, but if we want to visit a galaxy far, far away we have X-Wing, Star Wars Miniatures, Rebellion (review coming soon), and Fantasy Flight's excellent Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

Volt: Robot Battle Arena This is a fun little game, but honestly, we just found ourselves never taking it off the shelf. We're more likely to want to play Robo Rally.
  • Original rating: 3
  • What we'll play instead: Robo Rally is the obvious choice, but our current go-to move-programming game is the excellent (and not nearly as infuriating) Colt Express.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

What the flock?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that 4theBirds! was designed by a good friend of mine.

4theBirds is an abstract game similar to Pente or Connect Four, in which players attempt to place their pieces on the board in a specific pattern, either four in a row or in a square. There are, of course, numerous catches: not all of the spaces are connected to each other, players can displace some (but not all) of their opponent's pieces, and there are non-player pieces that can be added to the board, affecting player pieces in various ways.

The game's theme is a simple one of various birds jockeying for position in a tree. The tree is represented by the game board, a somewhat dizzying grid of numbered spaces, some connected by "branches" and others not. Each turn, a player rolls two dice to determine his choice of  two different spaces into which he may place one of his birds. Once he's rolled, he can choose to either place a bird on the board, or play one of six cards that do things such as move other birds around, place new non-player birds (Hawks and Crows), or re-roll the dice.

The game establishes a "pecking order" which allows each player to displace the birds of the player to his left, which makes for some interesting choices as players attempt to get their four birds in a row while at the same time pushing other birds out of the way and disrupting the other players' bird placements.

The aforementioned Hawks and Crows add a bit more chaos to the mix: the Hawks play on certain spots in between regular spaces, and cause all the nearby birds to scatter to other spaces, which in turn can cause further displacement. Crows play on regular spaces but are at the top of the pecking order, so they can displace all the player birds and get in the way of further placements. All it takes is a well placed Hawk or Crow and suddenly your careful plan is scattered like, well, like a bunch of birds.

It's a very simple game, but fun, with just the right amount of strategy set off by random chaos. And the colorful graphic design is a joy to look at.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A little too simple for us to want to play all that often, but great for when we want a lighter, shorter game to play.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Random discoveries

Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis & Clark is one of two games that came to my attention at around the same time, by the same designer, featuring artwork by the same artist. Due to my enjoyment of Manifest Destiny (a terrific comic book series that features the Lewis & Clark expedition encountering all manner of supernatural monsters during their journey), I had decided that I wanted a Lewis & Clark game.

I spent a little time researching Discoveries and Lewis & Clark: the Expedition, and for reasons I can no longer recall, I decided on Discoveries.

It's a charming little dice-placement game, an emerging game style that combines common Euro-style worker placement game mechanics with dice rolling, so that the roll of the dice determines how limited your choices for worker placement are, rather than competing with other players for available spaces on the board.

Over the course of the game, players use their dice in various combinations to purchase Tribe cards, representing various native tribes encountered by the expedition, and Discoveries cards, depicting terrain features as well as plants and animals to be cataloged. The Tribe cards provide additional options for dice spending that make it easier to purchase Discoveries, which are ultimately how each player earns points towards winning the game.

Spent dice are placed on a board at the center of the table, either to the right or the left depending on what they were used for, and this generates one of the more interesting decision points of the game. Each player has 5 dice of their own color, as well as a number of neutral dice that can be picked up in various ways. A player can forego their normal turn in order to replenish their supply of dice, and when they do, the have two choices: they can either pick up all the dice, regardless of color, on either the left or the right side of the board, or they can pick up all the dice of their color, regardless of whether they are on the central board or in use by another player.

Picking up dice from the board can potentially net you more dice to use, giving you more options on your turn. However, using dice of your opponent's colors is risky since they could take them back at any time. This can be a problem as some of the tasks you spend your dice on need to be carried out over multiple turns, and progress on those tasks is lost if an opponent decides to take back a die that you are using.

I find the game very appealing, and reasonably unique among the games in my collection both in terms of game play and theme. However, I'm still curious about the other Lewis & Clark game...

Rating: 3 (out of 5) It's a fairly simple game, but with some interesting decisions to make and some beautiful artwork to look at.