Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Predictable results

We've all been there: I was $10 away from free shipping on an online order, so I bought Doctor Who: Dalek Dice on a whim.

Expectations should be low for a $12 dice game, especially one based on a popular licensed property from a publisher with a somewhat spotty track record for this particular IP (Cubicle 7's Doctor Who role playing game is terrific, but their Doctor Who: the Card Game didn't really utilize the license well, and their Time Clash game died right out of the gate.

On the other hand, Dalek Dice was designed by Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello, the team who has done such a great job with other games based on licensed properties such as the epic War of the Ring and the more recent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I suppose I was holding out hope that they would come up with something more interesting than the usual press-your-luck dice game.

What they delivered was...the usual press-your-luck dice game. Nothing clever, no unique Doctor Who twist. Just a game that's boring even in comparison to other dice games like Dino Hunt Dice or Age of War. Not too surprising I suppose, but still a little disappointing.

Rating: 1 (out of 5) We will probably never play this game again, especially since we have similar alternatives that are much better games.

You, too, can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs

Star Wars: Outer Rim turned out to be our most played game of 2019, which took us completely by surprise because it didn't even come out until October of last year, and we hadn't really been planning on getting it at all. A friend bought it and brought it over for us to try, and we were instantly hooked, buying our own copy a few days later.

Not only did we play it 11 times in less than three months, but we've found that it's a big hit among most of our gaming friends. The Star Wars theme is a pretty easy sell, but on top of that it's a really engaging and accessible game, without the direct confrontation in most Star Wars games like X-Wing or Rebellion.

Each player chooses a ship captain to play as, with choices ranging from well-known stalwarts like Han Solo or Boba Fett to more obscure characters like Dr. Aphra from the comic books or Ketsu Onyo from the Star Wars Rebels animated television show. The time frame that the game takes place in is intentionally vague, but is roughly between the prequel trilogy and the originals, a little after the time of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Characters start with a choice of generic ship and a starting mission or bounty, and the goal from there is to achieve fame points by travelling between planets, delivering cargo, catching bounties, and eventually upgrading to a better ship. Each character also has a unique personal goal they can try to complete to gain extra points and unlock additional special abilities.

What's great about the game is how open-ended it is. Players have numerous options when visiting a planet and can do anything from hiring contacts to having random encounters after they've delivered their cargo, turned in their bounty, or completed whatever errand they've been hired to run. Success or failure is determined by a simple dice roll system, with rolls modified by the various skills and abilities of the player's captain and crew.

It's a "pick up and deliver" game similar to Firefly or Wasteland Express Delivery Service, but where Firefly strains under the weight of its expansions, Outer Rim gives a similarly epic play experience in half the time and taking up a fraction of the table space.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A terrific adventure game that avoids the epic good vs. evil battles of Star Wars in favor of exploring its rich, textured setting.

Monday, April 6, 2020

It makes sense if you've read the book...

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: a Board Game of English Magic probably seems like a really weird title for a game, at least until it's explained that it's based on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke's novel about high society wizards operating in early 19th century England. It may sound like a good idea for a game, but despite a 2015 BBC television adaptation, the novel remains relatively obscure.

Broadly speaking there are two main components to a game: theme and mechanics. Both carry a lot of weight, and a great theme can prop up a mediocre game design (see Grimslingers) just as easily as a good game design can transcend a less interesting theme (see the Resident Evil Deck Building Game or the surprisingly good Spartacus board game, soon to be reprinted without its original TV show decor).

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell errs on the side of theme over mechanics, and any fan of the book who enjoys mid-weight board games will probably like this one. It does a good job of referencing the novel's strange blend of supernatural menace and powdered-wig high society, and presents a game design that fits that theme very well, rather than feeling tacked on after the fact like games based on licensed properties so often do.

Each player plays either the titular Jonathan Strange or Mr Norrell, or as one of two secondary characters from the book. The goal of the game is to accumulate enough magicianship to be able to confront "the gentleman with the thistledown hair" (the novel's main villain) before the game ends. This is done by accomplishing feats of magic in the form of playing out cards from your hand that add tokens of different types to the cards on the table in front of you. The catch is that only certain symbols can be played out each turn, so the game becomes an interesting combination of thinking several turns ahead but also madly scrambling to get enough magicianship points to beat the villain and win the game.

Game play is complicated by two additional types of card plays: "invitations," representing social events such as parties and concerts, and "introductions," meeting famous characters of the age such as Lord Wellington. Both types of cards can only be played at certain locations, requiring moving around a board depicting London and Europe of the early 1800s. Invitations are played to draw additional cards (either introductions or additional feats of magic to work on), and Introductions move you along a Prestige track, eventually unlocking powerful game play advantages.

The game as written does have one major issue: it is very difficult to win, so much so that the designers admitted that they made a last-minute change to the game design without playtesting it thoroughly, and have since released a simple variant (described here) to re-balance the game. A rookie game design mistake that should never have happened, but at least the designers have recognized the error and taken steps to correct it.

The game mechanics fit the theme well, and I suspect that the designers (Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello of War of the Ring fame) are fans of the book, or are at least very familiar with it. Unfortunately this doesn't necessarily work to the game's advantage, as for the most part the references to the novel assume that the players have read it. I don't think the game does enough to explain the setting and characters for those who haven't, and the game play isn't really remarkable enough to sustain interest in the game on its own.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) if you've read the novel, but probably only a 2 (out of 5) if you haven't. But it's a great book, so go read it and then play the game afterwards...

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Tiny epic disappointment

I've enjoyed most of the games I've played in the Tiny Epic series, with Tiny Epic Western being my favorite (go figure) and Tiny Epic Galaxies coming in a close second. Not all of the Tiny Epics have appealed to me, however: their core line of fantasy games has a cartoony style that doesn't appeal to me, and Tiny Epic Zombies, while a decent game, fell victim to the general burnout that makes me hyper-critical of any and all zombie games.

Having grown up with Battletech as my first combat/skirmish game, I had high hopes for Tiny Epic Mechs, so I backed the Kickstarter campaign for it without really looking at it in too much detail. I was seduced by the publisher's ITEMeeple system that features little plastic weapons and armor that attach to an otherwise standard-looking meeple, a set-up that they've used in some of their other games to varying effect.

Alas, backing a Kickstarter game without knowing anything about the game play is usually a recipe for disappointment. It turns out that Tiny Epic Mechs is definitely not the arena combat game I was hoping for, but rather a programmed movement game similar to Robo Rally or Colt Express, although its small scale makes it much less chaotic than either of those games. Unfortunately, in this case "less chaotic" also means "less interesting."

The game is played in a series of six rounds. Each round, players secretly program 4 moves from their hand of eight cards, and right away this is problematic and awkward. Each move card has an arrow that needs to be pointing in the direction you want your playing piece to move, which means the orientation at which the cards are placed is critical. You ca't just play your secret moves face down, as turning them over might change the orientation of the card. Cards need to be played with another card covering them, which makes planning your four moves awkward an difficult unless you're playing solo (which the game does support).

Resources and points are gained by controlling areas, which means the mech combat in this supposed mech combat is secondary. You will often find yourself needing to run around taking control of tiles in order to catch up on points and gain the resources you need to upgrade your weapons and armor, and a few well-placed moves by your opponents can lock you out of being able to do anything effective.

Your playing piece starts out unarmored, with a single weapon. Over the course of the game you need to "power up" into armor and upgrade to better weapons, and this is where the ITEMeeple plastic bits come in. Each weapon you equip slots into your meeple, which in turn fits into a clever little suit of power armor, showing exactly what your warrior is armed with, which should be really clever. However, the game also uses cards to represent your weapons and armor, even down to the placement of the cards showing where the weapons are equipped, which renders the plastic bits superfluous and unnecessary as anything other than decoration. The whole thing seems really gimmicky.

Lastly we come to the actual combat system, for those rare occasions when two mechs actually fight each other. The game uses a variation of rock-paper-scissors, where if you follow an opponent's attack with one that "counters" it, your attack will be more effective. It sounds neat in theory, but the rules use some counter intuitive verbiage that makes it difficult to teach, and it's a little to fiddly for a game this simple.

At the end of the day, Tiny Epic Mechs is a programmed movement game that wants to be an arena combat game, and it ends up being mediocre at both.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) A disappointing entry in the Tiny Epic series that manages to feel over-engineered and too simple at the same time.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The same only smaller

I'm not sure what I was expecting from 13 Days: the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. I had heard that it was similar to Twilight Struggle, but I wasn't prepared for how similar it is -- the two games are virtually identical in their game play. They both use the same core mechanic of cards being allied to one side or the other, and being played either to place tokens on the board, or for an in-game effect. They both use a scoring system based on the number of locations each player controls in a particular region. They even both have the same theme: the Cold War between the United States and Russia that lasted from roughly 1945 to 1990.

The only thing different about 13 Days is the scale, both thematically and mechanically. Where Twilight Struggle covers the entire cold war and can take 3 hours or more to play, 13 Days focuses in on a particular event (the Cuban Missile Crisis), and plays in 30-45 minutes. The production value is a little bit higher, with better graphic design and nicer components (wooden cubes instead of cardboard counters), but with games taking less than an hour to play, 13 Days feels rushed and anticlimactic, with no time to really soak up the theme.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) 13 Days is in every way a shorter, lighter version of Twilight Struggle, a game that doesn't need to be shorter or lighter.