Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Crime pays, as long as you don't get caught

Burgle Bros. is an entertaining and well-designed game about robbing an office building. Players take on the roles of a colorful cast of criminals (I'm sure they're well-meaning) and work together to find a hidden safe on each of three floors of the building, and then escape to the roof. If anyone is caught by a wandering guard, the whole team loses the game.

Each floor of the building is represented by a 4x4 grid of face down tile. Players reveal them by moving onto them, or they can play it safe by spending extra movement to peek ahead at an adjacent tile before moving. Movement between tiles is somewhat hampered by wall pieces that are placed between certain tiles (depending on the game setup). The tiles represent different locations in the building, some helpful and some not. Alarms can be tripped, computer rooms can be hacked, but the ultimate goal for each floor is to find two tiles: the safe, and the stairs to the next level.

Once the safe is found, the combination needs to be cracked by rolling dice and matching the numbers to those printed on the tiles in the same row an column as the safe (so even if you get lucky and find the safe and the stairs right away, you still need to explore at least some of the other tiles). The player who opens the safe draws a loot card, which will most likely do something to make movement more difficult, and a tool card, which generally gives a helpful ability.

Lest this all seem too easy, each floor has a wandering guard and a deck of cards that randomly determines his destination. The guard takes the shortest path to his destination tile, then draws another destination and continues moving. If a guard moves onto a player's tile (or vice versa), the player has to discard a stealth token or be caught! Players start the game with three tokens, and once they're gone, if the guard catches you again the whole team loses the game.

It's as much a puzzle as it is a game, with the primary strategy being how to move around the tiles without being caught by the guard. Some tiles set off an alarm when you move on to them, which can be used tactically to change the direction the guard is moving (when an alarm goes off, the guard immediately changes his destination to the tile with the alarm). The characters chosen by the players each have a unique ability as well -- some can move through guards or slow them down.

The graphic design and artwork have a refreshing retro 1960s look, and the "crime caper" theme makes for a nice change from fighting orcs or being driven mad by Lovecraftian horrors.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) You know it's a good cooperative game when after you lose you immediately start talking about what you could have done differently, and then set up to play again.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Not just another pretty game

A good board game should be a perfect marriage of game design and graphics. You could argue that the game design is more important, but in today's world where desktop publishing makes graphic design and layout relatively easy, there is no excuse to skimp on the graphics (I'm looking at you, The Expanse Board Game). At the same time, great artwork and graphics will only take you so far before the reality of a mediocre game design starts showing through (Grimslingers, for example).

Often a game will rely on excellence in one of these areas to make up for shortcomings in the other, but that is not the case with Yamataï, a terrific board game graced with some truly gorgeous artwork. I will admit that the artwork is what immediately caught my attention, but there is a good, solid game underneath, with an interesting combination of resource management, drafting, and board placement elements.

The board depicts a densely packed collection of islands, upon which players must build structures such as palaces and trading posts, strategically placing them to best advantage. Placing the structures involves moving ships of various colors into position around the island you want to build on -- each structure requires a particular combination of ships to be adjacent. At the same time, your opponents are trying to build their own structures, moving ships around or worse, building on an island you were planning on using on a future turn.

The game's complexity is heightened with a drafting mechanic. At the start of each round, players choose from a selection of tiles that give you different ships to use on your turn as well as a special ability such as rearranging ships on the board, blocking particular islands to prevent others from building there, or allowing structures to be built with fewer resources. There are ten different tiles, but only five available on any given round, so players can't repeat the same moves over and over. These tiles also tell the players what order they'll go in on the following round -- generally the better your tile is, the closer to the back of the line you'll be on your next turn.

Additionally, there are specialists that can be hired (payed for with the game's currency) that give more specific special abilities tailored to particular strategies, usually offering different ways to gain more currency to spend, or more points for scoring at the game's end.

The game play is interesting, with a lot of decisions to make, and even though there isn't much direct conflict between players, there are still a lot of reasons to keep an eye on what the other players are doing, which eliminates tuning out when it's not your turn.

And did I mention that the artwork is gorgeous?

The game play is fairly abstract and there isn't much in the way of a story, so the Asian theme is largely painted on -- it could just as easily be set in the wild west or ancient Greece. The artwork, design, and components are there to hold the players' attention in the place of an immersive story or setting, and it does its job extremely well.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A great game design without being too complicated, with fantastic artwork and graphics.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

In space, everyone can hear you

I like a good deck building game, but they do tend to get a bit repetitive after a while, with different themes grafted on to what is essentially the same game. Most games of this type use the familiar "buy cards, use those cards to buy better cards" formula, and attempts to innovate usually involve adding additional currencies, such as with the Legendary series or Star Realms, where players need to balance the ability to buy better cards with the ability to combat villains (or other players).

Clank! In! Space! goes in a different direction entirely. The deck building mechanics are the same as with any deck building game, but this game adds a board and an additional currency in the form of  movement, with players moving their pawns around the board in a press-your-luck style treasure hunt similar to games like DungeonQuest, where players can go for safer, lower-value treasure or risk it all for the big score.

On top of that, there's one more thing to keep track of: noise. The premise of the game is that players are essentially burglars sneaking around a giant space ship, and certain card plays will produce noise in the form of clank tokens. At various points during the game the clank tokens are drawn randomly from a bag, and if yours are drawn they are added to a damage track. Ten or more damage knocks you out of the game, so in addition to everything else you need to take opportunities to heal damage so you can stay in the game.

A few simple additions to the standard deck building game formula makes for a more interesting game overall, but also provides a wider variety of game effects for the cards. Buying cards isn't just a matter of "does it generate money to buy more cards, or combat to defeat monsters," they can also generate movement effects and add or remove clank tokens.

The artwork and graphic design are top notch. The theme is a light science fiction parody, with cards referencing pop culture mainstays such as Star Wars and Star Trek, which is fun but also stops it from being really compelling. It doesn't generate a unique world of its own, but not every game needs to.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) An entertaining game that brings some much-needed innovation to a game genre that may be getting a little tired.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Spy world

There are good reasons why the Cold War (the period between the end of WWII and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991) is such a compelling genre for stories and games. The massive distrust between America and Russia combined with a fear of all-out war, plus the rapidly advancing but still largely analog stealth and surveillance technology made it a unique time in world history, both thrilling and terrifying.

Covert, designed by Kane Klenko and published by Renegade Game Studios, does a good job of evoking the cold war with what on first glance seems to be a disparate group of game mechanics. The goal of the game is to collect sets of cards representing spy gear like listening devices, travel documents and hidden escape kits, and then turn those cards in for points, but as usual there's a bit more to it than that. The sets players are going for are determined by mission cards that will sometimes also include the need to have a pawn in a particular spot on the board.

Movement around the board is also one of the principal ways of gaining more cards, either by having a pawn in a certain part of the board when it's time to draw cards, or by following other players around and collecting clue tokens that they leave behind as the move from city to city on a board representing Europe during the Cold War.

But that's not even the most interesting part of the game. Player actions are determined by a dice placement system where at the start of each round, each player rolls 5 dice and uses them to determine what of 6 possible actions they'll be able to do that turn. The first player to choose a particular action can do so freely by placing a die showing any number on that part of the board, but the next player who wants to be able to do the same action has to place a die that comes either before or after the dice that are always there. For example, if your opponent plays a 2 on the "draw a card" action, you have to play either a 1 or a 3 in order to also do that action.

If the numbers just aren't cooperating and there's nowhere on the board you can play, you can spend a die to draw a random token that gives you a one-time special ability, such as being able to switch the number on a die or play two in a row. You can also just end your turn early, which guarantees that you'll get to go first on the next turn.

On top of all that, there's a code-breaking phase consisting of two rows of random numbers, and a deck of equipment cards with 3-digit codes on them. If you can manipulate the numbers so that any 3 of them match the code on your card, you can either use that card as part of a set of equipment (the main way of scoring points), or cash it in for bonus points at the end of the game.

Covert is be complex without being complicated, and it manages to make all of its different abstract game mechanics work together well, and also feel like they're intrinsic to the theme. When I play this game I really feel like I'm getting a sense of what it must have been like for those Cold War spymasters, managing tons of moving parts, manipulating events to work out in their favor, and taking advantage of situations they might not have control over.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A very entertaining game that combines theme and mechanics well.