Tuesday, December 11, 2018

It's about time...

Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks is essentially a re-themed Elder Sign, but I think I'm okay with that. Thematically, Elder Sign is a game about tweedy academics solving problems intellectually rather than with brute force, and that is absolutely what a Doctor Who game should be about.

Like Elder Sign, the core gameplay in Time of the Daleks involves rolling dice and matching their symbols in order to complete tasks. Each player plays as a particular Doctor, with assistants and gadgets that allow him to manipulate the roll of the dice in order to get the right combination of symbols. Each successfully completed task moves that player closer to winning the game.

Also like Elder Sign, there is a villain at work, essentially trying to outrace the players and prevent them from winning. In this case it's the Daleks, and their presence is felt in the game in several ways. Failing at a task will generally move the Dalek saucer forward on the scoring track, and of course they win if they beat all the players to the end. Additionally, any failure will also result in a Dalek figure being placed on the board, where they reduce the number of dice the players get to roll. Too many Daleks on the board will also lose the game for the players.

There are a few ways in which Time of the Daleks differs from Elder Sign (enough to keep Reiner Knizia's lawyers at bay, anyway). The dice-rolling tasks that players must accomplish are determined by a combination of two different tiles on the board: a location and a dilemma (usually a villain from the TV series' long history). This makes for a great deal of mix-and-match variety, as Silurians may threaten the planet Karn in one game, and the Time Meddler in another.

Combine that with a randomly shuffled deck of companions, and the game can tell a multitude of what if stories as Leela teams up with Sarah Jane Smith and the 11th Doctor to stop the Cybermen from invading Clara's apartment, or the First Doctor and Nardole foil the Master's Trap at the Bank of Karabraxos.

Another way in which it differs from Elder Sign is that it is only partially co-operative. Players are in competition with each other to get to the end of the score track first, but they all lose if the Daleks get there first. If a player is having a tough time solving a dilemma, he can ask one of the other players for help, which they may be inclined to do if it will slow down the Daleks. Additionally, the assisting player shares in the reward for completing the dilemma. It reminds me a lot of the multi-Doctor stories where they fight and bicker but end up cooperating for the greater good.

If you read the online chatter about this game, the main complaint about it seems to be that the announced expansions for the game have not yet materialized, a year after the game's release. Part of this frustration no doubt comes from the fact that the game was originally intended to feature six Doctors rather than four, and was scaled back in order to get the asking price down. The game's coverage of the world of Doctor Who does feel a little thin here and there -- clearly there is room for a lot more content.

Nevertheless, it's a solidly designed game with some beautifully designed components (The Expanse Board Game could learn a lesson here). Most importantly, it feels like Doctor Who, which is something no other board game in the show's 55 year history has quite managed to do.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A good game that could be a great one. It captures the feel of Doctor Who, but not quite the depth.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Building a better dinosaur

Dinosaur Island is almost exactly the game I wanted it to be. I really like engine-building games, where the goal is to use the game's options to build up a point-generating mechanism. This game lets you do just that, offering meaningful and thematic choices in the process: do I focus on tons of different dinosaurs, or do I balance them with other attractions like carnival rides and snack shops? Do I play it slow and safe with plenty of security, or do I allow the occasional dinosaur to escape its pen and eat a visitor or two, hoping to mitigate the damage later?

The game structure is complex but not complicated; I find that we rarely need to consult the rules while playing, which to me is a sign of a well-designed game. Each turn is broken up into four phases: in the first, dice are rolled to determine which DNA strands are available for the turn, then players go through a few rounds of worker placement, deciding whether to research new DNA, increase DNA storage so more can be stockpiled, or grab dinosaur "recipes" in order to create animals for their parks.

Next comes a buying phase, where players spend their cash on equipment upgrades, staff specialists, and secondary park attractions such as restaurants and gift shops. After that is the game's main worker placement phase, where players clone new dinosaurs, build larger habitats for them, increase security, and gather investment capital.

Finally comes the park phase, which is a delicate balancing act of attracting visitors and making sure they all have something to do in the park. Each dinosaur has an excitement value, which determines how many visitors line up outside your park. You gain income from all these visitors, but you only get points for the ones that find something to do in the park, whether it is actually looking at a live dinosaur, or thrilling to carnival rides with amusing names like "Jurassic Whirled."

Some dinosaurs (generally the large, carnivorous ones) are more exciting than others, so if you have a lot of these you will find yourself with more visitors than you have space (which is why you need thrill-rides and gift shops). Additionally, the visitors are drawn randomly out of a bag, which contains a number of "hooligans" who don't pay admission and take up valuable space in your park. And if you don't have enough security, dinosaurs will escape and eat your paying customers, which loses you points.

Event cards provide different global game effects, and the conditions that end the game are drawn randomly as well, so no two games are much alike. Even frequent players are forced to try out different strategies depending on what the global effects and end conditions are, and what resources are available from turn to turn,

You may notice that at the beginning of this review I stated "almost exactly the game I wanted it to be." My only quibble with Dinosaur Island (and it is a minor quibble at that) is the obnoxious graphic design. It's intended to evoke the early 1990s when Jurassic Park was first released, but I find all the pink and yellow just a little bit off-putting. Not enough to stop me from enjoying the game though.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A terrific game with a lot of meaningful decisions to make, and a ton of replay value. And I guess the graphics aren't that bad...

Friday, October 26, 2018

A $30 game in a $50 box

It's always especially disappointing to me when a great (or even a merely adequate) game is let down by sub-standard production values. You could argue that it shouldn't matter that much, as long as the playing pieces work your imagination can do the rest, and that may have been true in the '70s and '80s with games like Dune or Aliens that have some great game play but fall short on component quality.

In the current board game renaissance, however, the bar has been significantly raised, so much so that a game that doesn't look good is at best embarrassing, and at worst difficult to find players for. The Expanse Board Game, published by Wizkids and based on the television and book series, is such a game.

The game itself is fairly good. Players control the planetary governments that hover in the background of the TV series, manipulating events in order to control the solar system. The core of the game is a row of action cards which are purchased by players using their victory points, and then used either for their printed game effect, or spent for more general actions such as moving fleets around the board. There are several scoring cards shuffled into various points of the deck, and when one of these comes up, players score points based on the number of planets and moons they control, with ties broken by the strength of a player's fleet.

It's a fairly basic area control game, with two important elements that make it feel like the TV show it's based on. One is that each player has a series of tech cards that are earned at various points throughout the game, which serve to escalate the conflict between the planets; early in the game there is an uneasy truce in which players are not allowed to openly attack each other, but this quickly escalates into open warfare, much as it does over the course of the show.

The other interesting game element is the Rocinante, the misfit ship whose crew are the main characters of the show. In the game, James Holden and his crew change their alliance from turn to turn, with control of them going to whichever player is in last place. I particularly like this touch, as it reflects their shifting alliances and also their tendency throughout the series to support the underdog.

The aforementioned poor components -- mainly muddy images on the cards, a bland board that is sometimes difficult to read, and too-small cardboard counters to represent each player's mighty warships -- stop just short of actually being distracting, and might be acceptable if the game's asking price were a little lower.

On the other hand, maybe that's appropriate for a game that takes place in the Belt, where resources are scarce and everything is more expensive than it should be.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) A decent game that would probably rate higher if either the production quality were better, or the price point were lower.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Delivery drivers of the wasteland

Wasteland Express Delivery Service has a little bit of everything. At its heart it is a pick up and deliver game where each player attempts to be the first one to complete three "priority first class contracts," usually a multi-step process involving several pick ups and deliveries across the board. At the same time, players need to play the cargo market, a supply and demand system that requires them to purchase resources and then sell them on for a profit. This money is then used to buy upgrades for their trucks, in order to be able to play more efficiently.

On top of all that, what would a lawless wasteland be without raiders? The game includes three raider trucks that move around the board and attack the players, or at the very least get in their way, forcing them to take longer routes to get to their destinations. Players move the raider trucks depending on where their own trucks end up after moving, which introduces some additional tactical decisions ("if I move there, I can move that raider out of the way, and/or have it land on my opponent") and also a bit of "take that" player interaction.

Depending on how you decide to use your truck's limited upgrade space, you can even make a viable income out of chasing and attacking the raiders. Each raider truck carries resources which are won when they're defeated, and those resources can then be sold on for cash to use for further upgrades.

The game uses a ton of tokens and cards which make it seem more complicated than it actually is. There is a lot to take in, but the game play flows well, and we have found that once we get going we rarely need to refer to the rule book. And the amazing component trays that come with the game (a rarity these days) do a great job of keeping things organized.

It's a lot like Firefly: the Game, with the pick up and deliver mechanic and the non-player raiders wandering the board, but in some ways I like Wasteland Express better. While Firefly does an excellent job of immersing its players in the world of the TV show, and provides solid game mechanics, it can also fall victim to a "supercrew" situation where a player with the right combination of crew cards is pretty much unbeatable, and that removes a lot of dramatic tension from the game.

Wasteland Express doesn't take place in quite such a well-developed world (although it does a lot with the flavor text on the cards), but it does a better job of retaining the tension: combat with the raiders is always at least a little uncertain, and the cargo market can drop out from under you, suddenly devaluing all that water you were planning on selling for a massive profit.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A great game that's easy to play but with a good amount of depth, with a fun theme and very well-made components.