Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Do we need another hero?

As an avid player of Legendary, I wasn't all that interested when Fantasy Flight Games announced that they would be publishing Marvel Champions, the latest in their line of Living Card Games that has included Call of Cthulhu and Lord of the Rings. As it is I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of the available content for Legendary, so why would I need more than one Marvel super hero card game? And besides, I really don't have time for another game where you have to build decks.

However, as I started to find out more about the game, I got more interested. It looked like the structure would be similar to FFG's Lord of the Rings: the Card Game, but refined and streamlined, and the deck building could be reduced to simply choosing a hero and what the game calls an "aspect," a theme such as aggression, protection, leadership, or justice. I was intrigued enough to give it a try.

The game's similarities to Lord of the Rings are very apparent, with the focus on narrative and the primary player decision being whether to spend your turn fighting adversaries or progressing the story (in this case, thwarting the main villain's evil scheme). It's cooperative, with each player taking on the role of a hero and teaming up to foil one of a variety of villains whose actions are controlled by the game. The cards are divided into allies & support cards that stay in play and events that have a one-time effect, and there's even one card, Nick Fury, that is clearly a direct translation of the Gandalf card from Lord of the Rings

Despite the similarities, however, Marvel Champions has enough unique elements to make it more than a simple re-skin. The game uses an ingenious system to reflect the classic "secret identity" trope: your deck is built around a single character with a double-sided card: hero on one side, and civilian identity on the other. Many cards will only work with one side or the other, with attacks and other proactive actions associated with the hero side, and recovery and support actions with the civilian side. The way the villains behave also depends on which identity is active -- if you're in heroic mode they'll attack you, but if you're hiding out in your civvies they'll work on progressing their evil scheme, which if completed will cause the heroes to lose the game.

In addition to the main villain and his assorted thugs, each hero brings their own set of cards representing their arch-enemy and personal obligations, which may be shuffled into the villain deck at various points during the game, which really adds to the sense of story.

So how is it different from Legendary? Well, apart from being a somewhat different style of game (Legendary is a deck building game where players build a deck during the game, while in Marvel Champions players begin the game with a deck representing their chosen hero), the sense of story is more developed and personalized in Marvel Champions. In Legendary, players choose five heroes at the start of the game, and then spend the game buying cards associated with those heroes, looking for useful combinations of cards but not necessarily focusing on a single character -- the sense is that the players are unseen tacticians guiding the action. In Marvel Champions, you are playing as a particular character such as Spider-Man or Captain Marvel, using their unique allies and abilities to foil the villain. I enjoy both games for different reasons, and don't see a reason to choose one or the other.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) a unique and compelling game that plays well right out of the box but also supports a level of expansion and customization that should keep most collectible card game players happy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Miniatures on a board game budget

I love miniatures games. I enjoy the strategic and tactical thinking involved, but even more, I love the tactile nature of moving the figures themselves around in an environment, whether it's fully realized three dimensional terrain or just a printed map.

I also love a wide variety of different genres and intellectual properties, so unfortunately the work and investment that most miniatures games require means I can't play in every world I want to. That's why I'm especially intrigued by miniature/board game hybrids such as Monolith's Conan, with their potential for the depth of a miniatures game contained in a much more manageable (and affordable) box.

This is what drew me to Judge Dredd: Helter Skelter. I'm a big fan of  2000 AD (the weekly comic book that Judge Dredd appears in), but not quite willing to commit to a full fledged Dredd miniatures game, although the new one from Warlord Games has some great looking figures. As a self-contained boxed game, Helter Skelter looked like a great alternative.

The game takes some inspiration from an old Judge Dredd comic book story for it's background: holes have been opening in the fabric of reality, allowing characters from other dimensions to converge on Judge Dredd's Mega-City One. It's a clever idea that allows the game to include four player factions, each based on a different cast of characters from 2000 AD comics.

The game design is terrific. It uses a printed board with irregular areas marked out to handle movement, rather than using a grid or needing a tape measure. The board artwork is functional, clearly indicating important concepts such as cover and line of sight, and it's also beautifully designed and gorgeous to look at. The miniatures, while not fully pre-painted, come with a wash applied, so it's easier to see the figure details, and colored rings for the bases making it clear which figures belong to which faction.

At the start of the game each player is given 10 location cards that match up to the numbered spaces on the board. Five of these are secretly chosen and assigned to the player's five characters, to determine where on the board they will enter play. The other five cards are given to an opponent, and determine where they place their five "shards of reality," colored tokens that can be collected for victory points. 

Movement and combat are handled using cards. Each player uses a deck of cards unique to their chosen faction, with cards representing actions their different characters can take such as moving, attacking, or defending. The bulk of the game is managing your cards so you can move your figures to where they need to be, make effective attacks against opposing characters, pick up shards of reality tokens, and still have cards left to defend with when it's your opponent's turn. Collecting a shard of reality or eliminating an opponent's character are each worth one point, and the first player to get to five points wins.

It's a great rules system, providing all the core elements that a miniatures game needs without getting bogged down in the complicated exceptions and situational rules that can plague games like Heroclix or X-Wing. But there's one thing missing: a sense of narrative, an interesting story that unfolds on the tabletop. Most games of this type (such as Monolith's Conan or Leading Edge's Aliens) have this firmly ingrained by being scenario driven, and that's something that's missing here.

Sure, Helter Skelter provides a back story that explains why the different groups of characters are there and what they're doing, but there really isn't much story once the game starts. Collecting a shard of reality or eliminating an opponent's character are each worth one point, and the first player to get to five points wins. There aren't any additional scenarios offering different victory conditions, so most games tend to be pretty similar, with the only variety being which faction each player is using and which of the two boards they're playing on.

The lack of story certainly isn't a deal-breaker. The extremely elegant design and excellent graphics go a long way towards making up for it, and it's something that could easily be added by official expansions or even house rules. I certainly hope so; a game design this good deserves some more depth.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A great design and beautiful production that's a bit let down by a lack of variety and replayability.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Die Hard, but not any harder

There are a lot of possibilities for a game designer when presented with the challenge of creating a game based on a pre-existing property such as a book, film or TV series. The easiest option (and the one we see the most) is to re-skin an existing game, such as with all the licensed versions of Clue, Risk, and especially Monopoly. This is an easy way to get a tie-in product out there, but it's rarely very satisfying when assessing whether or not the result is a good game. Of course, there are exceptions; Legendary has proven itself to be a very resilient game system, supporting multiple licensed properties such as Marvel Comics, Alien, and James Bond while making each property seem a perfect fit, and I will go to my grave defending The Lone Ranger Shuffle the Deck Card Game as one of the best fits between a licensed property and a pre-existing game system ever.

The design choice that should render much better results is when a game scratch built to fit a particular theme, but while this approach occasionally gives us an amazing game like Firefly, it all to often results in something that is too focused on the nuances of the property it's trying to simulate, to the point that the end result is a game that, while successfully evoking whatever film or TV series it's based on, doesn't actually come together very well as a playable game.

This is definitely the case with Die Hard: the Nakatomi Heist Board Game. According to the designers, the intent of the game was evoke the experience of watching the movie, and it definitely does that. If you're a fan, the game will certainly call to mind most of the film's iconic moments such as John McClane running across broken glass or Hans Gruber plunging to his death.

The game is played out over three acts, with one player acting as McClane and the rest as the thieves (remember, they're only pretending to be terrorists). The McClane player has to use cards and dice rolls to move through Nakatomi Tower completing various objectives starting with finding a gun and a radio, and finishing with pushing Gruber out of the window. The thief players have to work together to slow him down, while at the same time playing cards in the right combination to open the vault and win the game.

In many ways it's similar to Leading Edge's Aliens board game, which asks players to recreate the action from the film, but sets them the challenge of doing better than the characters did in the film (according to the game's victory conditions, they lost). It also allows for several "what if" scenarios outside of what we see in the film.

Die Hard uses cards, dice and playing pieces to provide a framework that lets players re-enact the film, and then asks them to do just that. And this is the problem. While the game mechanics are reasonably entertaining for a lightweight tactical move-and-shoot game, the players are given objectives based on what happens in the movie, and the only way to accomplish them is to do what the characters did in the movie. There's no flexibility to try different strategies, and there are no alternative ways to win. The game forces the players to use their random card draws and dice rolls to recreate the film, which means it plays the same way every time.

With little to no replay value it's not likely that we will play this game very often, but I'm thinking we might lean into the old "is Die Hard a Christmas movie" debate by storing it with our holiday decorations and playing it once a year on Christmas eve...

Rating: 2 (out of 5) More of a simulation than a game, giving players the tools to recreate the movie but no flexibility to do anything beyond that.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Roll west, young man...

"Roll and write" is an emerging style of game that seeks to reduce production costs by eschewing cards, tiles and tokens in favor of players simply marking changes to the game state on a piece of paper with a pencil or pen. This allows these games to be sold at a much lower price point, which can only be an asset in the increasingly crowded board game market.

Actually, roll and write games have been around for many years, with Yahtzee usually pointed to as the first commercial example. But the genre has exploded in recent years, either as a way for game publishers to increase their visibility in stores by putting out simplified versions of games like Settlers of Catan or Patchwork, but just as often with off-the-wall ideas that might not support a $60 board game.

We picked up Rolled West on a whim, having not played any roll and write games (other than Yahtzee), and also having not played Gold West, the full board game it's based on,. So we should be able to judge the game on its own merits without comparison to its parent game or other games in the same genre.

Each player is given a dry-erase board showing what initially looks like a dizzying array of icons. But once you play a few times it's pretty straightforward. The icons represent banked resources, boom town buildings, shipment routes, and mining contracts and claims. On his or her turn, the acting player rolls 4 dice showing symbols that equate to copper, silver, gold, and wood. The player chooses one of these to represent the terrain for the turn, and the other three are resources that can either be spent or banked for use on a future turn.

Players spend combinations of resources on the aforementioned buildings, routes, contracts and claim, with an eye towards maximizing their points at the end of the game. There are a lot of options, so clever players will quickly identify a particular strategy, such as staking claims and building mining camps, developing shipping routes, or saving up resources to buy expensive but lucrative contracts, and then staying with that strategy over the course of the game's six turns. Trying to do a little of everything, or changing strategies mid-game, can be disastrous, as the points tend to rack up the farther along you go on a single track, such as staking claims in the woods or developing a shipping line for silver ore.

Boom town buildings confer bonus points based on the other things you've developed in the game, which can be tricky since you don't want to invest in a particular building before you've figured out what your strategy is. At the same time, as soon as one player buys a building it is no longer available to the other players (the corresponding icon is crossed off on their board), so you don't want to wait too long either.

Players also have the option to bank one resource each turn for future use. Banking resources is really the only way to save up for high value contracts that generally require four or five resources but are worth a lot of points at the end of the game, Additionally, in between each of a player's turns they can bank one of the resources rolled by another player. This doesn't prevent the other player from using it, it just allows you to use it also. This is one of the more interesting decision points in the game, since it can only be done once between each turn -- you're always running the risk of banking a resource, only to have someone else roll a more useful one before your turn comes around again.

As you can see, there is a lot going on here, especially for a game that consists of four dice and what amounts to a 4x6 card for each player. My only complaint about the game is that the iconography on the player cards can be a bit difficult to remember, causing frequent referral to the rules to answer "what does this mean again?" questions. It might have been better to make the player boards larger and include gameplay reminders and tips.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) It's got a huge amount of depth for such a simple game, and yet it can still be played in 30 minutes or so.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

May the dice be with you

When Fantasy Flight Games first released Star Wars: Destiny in 2016, I wasn't particularly interested. It appeared to be a collectible dice game similar to Marvel Dice Masters, which I had stopped playing and sold the year before. I thought Dice Masters was a fun game, but the customizable aspect (building a "deck" based on powerful or interesting dice combinations) was failing to hold my interest, while at the same time making the game difficult to play right out of the box.

However, after seeing The Rise of Skywalker in December and really enjoying it, I found myself wanting to play a game with content from the most recent Star Wars trilogy, which neither of our go-to Star Wars games (Rebellion and Outer Rim) has. Combine that with a bargain priced two-player into set and I was willing to give Star Wars: Destiny another look.

As it turns out, Destiny is a fun, simple game that isn't really anything like Dice Masters. It uses a combination of cards and dice for a straightforward dueling game that manages to remind me of everything I like about collectible card games, while doing away with some of the pitfalls of the format.

Where Dice Masters was a dice game that emulated the structure of a dueling CCG, Destiny is a card game that also uses dice. As such, deck construction is a lot more interesting, while at the same time being simpler than the complex CCGs of old thanks to a lower card count (30 cards per deck rather than the usual 50 or 60 cards) and the fact that your primary cards start the game in play, so the rest of the deck consists of support cards built around two or three main characters.

The goal of the game is to eliminate all of your opponent's characters by inflicting damage on them, while at the same time keeping your own characters safe. Roughly one third of your deck's cards will add dice to the pool started by your main characters; dice are rolled at the start of each turn and used mainly to make attacks and generate resources that are used to pay for additional card plays. The rest of the cards in your deck are played for various game effects, which balances the game between card plays and dice rolling.

A few weeks after we started playing, the publisher announced that the game would be ending, which we're not seeing as the bad news you might think it is. Really, it eliminates one of the primary down sides to collectible games: the expense of buying random expansion packs and keeping up with a steady flow of new product. Since the game is "over," we've been able to get product at very low prices, allowing us to build up a decent collection of cards and dice quickly, which keeps the collecting and deck-building aspect of the game enjoyable.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) This will be a good game to pull out when we're in the mood for Star Wars without wanting to dive in to a more complicated game like Rebellion or X-Wing.