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 players 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.