Thursday, January 26, 2023

Lost Ruins of Arnak: the days of hybrid adventure

Like Dune: Imperium, Lost Ruins of Arnak is a hybrid of two game types: worker placement, where each player is given a set number of pawns, which are placed on the board in order to gain benefits, and deck building, where players start with a deck of relatively simple cards, and then add better and more effective cards to their deck over the course of the game. 

The two games are similar enough that they get compared on a near-constant basis, and debate over which one is better is both extensive and inconclusive. We started playing both at around the same time, and quickly concluded that yes, they are similar, but they are also different enough to justify keeping both in our collection.

The game consists of three elements: a worker placement board representing explored and unexplored locations; a card row populated by two different types of cards for players to add to their starting decks; and a research track, where players spend resources in various combinations to advance along the track, gaining bonus points and other benefits. What makes the game especially fun is the way these three elements interact with one another.

There are several different types of resources: coins and compasses, which are used for buying cards, and tablets, arrowheads, and jewels, which are used in different combinations to advance along the research track. Placing workers at locations is the main way to gain resources, but the more lucrative locations are unknown quantities until someone places a worker there for the first time. A temple tile is revealed, which tells you what treasure (resources) you find there, but there is also a guardian tile, a monster that must be defeated by discarding a particular combination of resources. If you don't defeat the guardian by the end of the turn you gain a Fear card, which goes in your deck and is worth negative points at the end of the game. Defeating guardians will gain you various one-time benefits as well as additional points.

In order to place a worker, you have to play cards from your hand with matching travel symbols -- the more remote the location, the more travel symbols it costs to get there. Most of your starting cards also provide either coins or compasses, which are used to buy better cards, but you have to choose whether to use a card for travel or for its resource, you can't do both.

The thing that makes the card-buying row more interesting than in a lot of deck building games is that there are two types of cards: tools and artifacts. Tools tend to have simple, practical game effects, while artifacts are more powerful and worth more points, but also cost more resources to use. At the start of the game, the card row consists of 1 artifact and 4 tools, but each round the number of artifacts increases and the number of tools decreases, substantially changing the nature of the available cards over the course of the game.

It's a great example of a game whose different elements interact with each other in such a way that you have to pay attention to everything that's going on, but the game play is smooth enough to keep this from being overwhelming. There are only five rounds in the game, which doesn't seem like enough in the early rounds when you're only able to do a few actions, but the point of the game is to build up your deck so your cards give you longer and more efficient turns. It's very satisfying, and sufficiently different from Dune: Imperium that I don't see a problem with owning and enjoying both games.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Lost Ruins of Arnak has been a huge hit for us: it hits the table regularly (which is a struggle when you own 200+ board games) and we always have a great time with it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Splendor Marvel: everything is better with Spider-Man

Everything I said in my original review of Splendor is still true: it's a great game that never would have caught our attention if it hadn't made so may "best of" lists, and we probably still wouldn't have bought it on our own. The theme is just...well, let's just say not very interesting. A friend got it for us as a gift, and we played it quite a bit and really enjoyed it, but the theme is still...well, let's just say not very interesting.

Reskinning old games with new, flashy properties is nothing new, but it can be a bit of mixed bag in terms of success. The game play in Revolver, for example, doesn't make any sense at all until you realize that it started out as an unlicensed game based on the 1986 film Aliens, but on the other hand, the Legendary card game series has adapted itself extremely well to multiple genres and properties, and there seems to be no end to the viable versions of Love Letter (I even made my own unlicensed version based on the aforementioned Aliens film, thus bringing us full circle). It tends to work particularly well with games whose themes are a little on the thin side, which brings us neatly to Splendor: Marvel.

The game play is more or less identical to the original Splendor, with only a few minor variations: one dictated by the need for a sixth gem color in order to keep with the Infinity Gauntlet theme, and the other an interesting but not obtrusive Avengers team theme, where a bonus point tile goes to whichever player has the most Avengers characters in play.

I would argue that, unless you actively and passionately dislike Marvel, the re-theming makes the game better, or at least more accessible. The replacement of the original game's renaissance gem cutters with comic book characters shouldn't really matter to players who enjoy the game's abstract strategy, and the  much more exciting artwork might better hold the attention of younger (or young-at-heart) players, although as a lifelong fan I often find myself going after favorite characters even if they don't particularly help my strategy. The vast majority of the characters featured are ones that have appeared in the movies and TV shows, but there are a few deep cuts like Beta Ray Bill and Spider-Woman.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) the Marvel re-theming doesn't quite bump this game up to a 5, but it makes a solid, simple game that much more interesting (for us, anyway).

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Dune Imperium: worker placing and deck building to keep the spice flowing

The vast majority of deck building games use a simple economy at their core: the cards you play generate resources, which you then use to buy better resource-generating cards from a common pool, repeating until you've generated enough resources to accomplish the game's end goal. Competition tends to be indirect, with players vying for the same cards but not directly attacking each other (although there are a few exceptions to this, such as Star Realms).

The structure of most worker placement games is nearly identical: players compete to place their workers on the most advantageous spaces on the board, which then generate resources that are used in various combinations, ultimately earning the points that will win the game when it comes to an arbitrary conclusion, usually a pre-determined round limit or the accomplishment of a game-ending goal.

It was only a matter of time before someone had the bright idea to combine these two popular game mechanisms. I don't think Dune: Imperium was the first to do it, but it does it very well, creating a game that gives players enough strategic decisions to make them feel like they're at the head of an interstellar political family.

Like most deck building games, players start with a deck of fairly mediocre cards, with the goal of using them to buy better cards that will give them the resources they need to have more efficient turns. And like most worker placement games, players start with a few workers that they take turns placing on the board in order to generate resources. What makes the game especially interesting is how these two separate mechanisms work together during play.

In order to place a worker on the board, you also need to play a card with a symbol that matches the space you want to play to, and which will often have an additional effect when you play it. The spaces on the board generate the world of Dune's much- needed resources such as spice, water, money, and political influence, and also troops which are used in a conflict phase later in the turn. Any cards left in your hand after you've played out all your workers can be used to buy new cards, but some will instead give you other of the aforementioned resources, or increase your strength during the conflict phase.

At the end of each round, players compare the number of troops they managed to generate over the course of the turn, combined with any bonuses from leftover cards, with the winner gaining a prize, usually more resources, control over the board's locations, or the victory points needed to win the game.

The game gives you a lot to think about, but the different resources and economies all flow together in a very elegant game design, with rules that rely on smoothness and consistency over the dozens of sub-rules and exceptions that can plague games of this complexity. Add to that some well-produced components and beautifully illustrated cards that still manage to be easy to read, and you have an epic, satisfying game.

Since the game's release there have been two expansions that do exactly what expansions should: they make the game better without making it more complicated. In this case, some of the underdeveloped and less interesting sections of the worker placement board are replaced with new game mechanisms, and of course more cards are added to the deck building selection.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A great variation on both the worker placement and deck building genres that fits the theme like a glove.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Tiny Epic Dinosaurs: because you can never have too many dinosaur cloning games...

It took a little convincing for me to pick up Tiny Epic Dinosaurs. I already have two dinosaur-themed worker placement games that I like quite a bit (Dinosaur Island and Dinogenics), and I didn't enjoy the last Tiny Epic game I bought, Tiny Epic Mechs -- I thought it was overly gimmicky and possibly a signal that the series had jumped the shark. But, my affection for dinosaur-shaped meeples won out, and I ended up buying Tiny Epic Dinosaurs after all.

It's definitely a triumphant return to form for the normally very clever Tiny Epic series. Unlike most of the other games in this oddly crowded sub-genre, this one isn't about building a dinosaur zoo. Thematically it's about catching and breeding the animals and then selling them off, so it could just as easily be based on the 1962 John Wayne classic Hatari!, although that game might have a harder time finding an audience.

The worker placement mechanisms are straightforward and easy to understand, but still offer meaningful decisions as you agonize over what type of dinosaur to try to breed first, or struggle to to have enough food and space on your ranch for your expanding population. An interesting wrinkle that I haven't seen in other games of this type is that your resource collection is based on how many empty spaces you have on your ranch board, so the more dinosaurs you have standing around, the fewer units of food you're going to collect each turn. This makes the game a balancing act between saving up larger groups of dinosaurs for a better payday, or going for a quicker trade-in that might be worth fewer points but clears much needed space.

One of the main selling points of the Tiny Epic games is their compactness, and that is definitely true here -- this is a lot of game for how little space it takes up on the table. We recently played Tiny Epic Dinosaurs and Dinogenics back-to-back, and it was a little difficult to justify the fact that Dinogenics takes up easily ten times as much space for what amounts to a very similar game experience. However, I did find myself wishing that the Tiny Epic Dinosaurs components were maybe 25% larger than they are, especially the tiny print on the tiny cards that my aging eyes are starting to struggle with.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) This is easily my second favorite in the Tiny Epic series (after Tiny Epic Western), and the relatively low price point and shelf footprint make it easy to add to any game collection.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Detective: finally a great mystery game

I've been on the hunt for a mystery solving game that's not as random and egregious as 211B Baker Street but with more game to it than Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, which is very story-driven but feels more like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure than a board game. A few years ago I thought I might have found it with Deadline, but that turned out to be a little too "gamey," offering up the worst of both worlds.

Several years later, my patience has finally paid off with Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game, a game that combines just the right amount of compelling storytelling and light but effective game mechanisms.

The core game consists of five linked cases in which a stolen watch blossoms into a multigenerational murder mystery. Players work cooperatively, with a relatively small pool of resources that must be stretched to the limit in order to read as many clues as possible. However, some clues can lead up irrelevant blind alleys, so the players need to be analytical and careful about where they let the investigation take them.

The main game mechanism is a small board that tracks the hours of the day, the total number of days spent on the case, and the various locations that the players will need to move between in order to chase down clues. Time is an important resource in the game: following up on clues takes time, and so does moving between locations. Players can go into overtime, but it will negatively impact their final score.

Most of the clues are read via cards, but the game also has an online element, a website that players must use to log forensic evidence and answer a series of final questions about the case once all the available time has been used up. Additionally, the cases in the core game include clues that require players to look up background information and maps of the area where the story takes place. Normally I don't really like board games with a digital component (if I want to play a computer game then I'll play a computer game), but in this case it's not too obtrusive and can actually improve the immersion, as it's easy to imagine actual detectives using online resources to help solve their cases.

Of course, the fact that the game is intensively story driven means that there is little replay value (unless you have a very bad memory), but honestly I think the experience of solving the five cases is well worth the cost of the core box. The core game is a little intense as a starting point, but the publishers have since released a lighter introductory set (Detective Season One) and there are several additional cases available to add value to the game, as well as a few reskins: Vienna Connection (set during the cold war) plus Dune and Batman themed versions.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) a great mystery solver with a deep story and just the right amount of game.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Oltréé: the sweet spot

There is a sweet spot with cooperative games. Once you've removed competition with the other players, the challenge comes in successfully ganging up on the game itself. If the game is too easy there's no challenge, but if it's too hard it can be frustrating -- no one likes to lose all the time. Of course, difficulty is subjective, but the best cooperative games occupy that narrow Goldilocks "just right" zone.

Oltréé is just such a game. It's a fantasy adventure game co-designed by Antoine Bauza (creator of Tokaido and rapidly becoming one of my favorite game designers), based on a French roleplaying game first published in 2013. Players take on the roles of rangers charged with reclaiming the land after a devastating war, with tasks including rebuilding a central fortress and wandering the nearby countryside investigating strange incidents and assisting the local inhabitants. At the same time, the events of a predetermined scenario play out, giving the players additional tasks to perform and also acting as a built-in timer for the game.

At the start of the game, the players each choose a unique Ranger character to play, and are then given an Assignment which gives them a series of tasks to perform and determines the particular mix of Incident cards that will come into play throughout the game, offering further challenges and rewards.

Central to the game is the Adversity marker. At the start of each player's turn, they roll a die to see how far the marker moves along it's circular track. The space it lands on determines what new challenge awaits -- it can be an Incident that needs to be investigated, a Problem that needs to be solved, an Event that has a global effect, or the next chapter in the Chronicle, the ongoing story that plays out over the course of the game. 

The game then becomes a study in crisis management, similar to Arkham Horror or Pandemic but without quite so much stress and panic. Players need to move around the board, managing the number of Incidents and Problems in play -- too many unresolved incidents will result in a loss of Prestige, which loses the game for the players if it drops to zero. Problem cards limit the resources available to the players, which are needed to add buildings and fortifications to the fortress, which in turn make solving Incidents easier.

All the while, the players' efforts are occasionally interrupted by events from the Chronicle, which usually require tasks such as a dice test or the construction of a particular building. The Chronicle builds to an eventual conclusion in the form of an especially difficult dice test, made easier depending on the amount of progress that has been made on the original Assignment card. It is the interaction between different combinations of Assignments and Chronicles that should lead to a level of replayability that story-driven games like this usually don't have.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) With its simple but elegant components (including some gorgeous illustrations by Vincent Dutrait), intuitive game play, and compelling stories, Oltréé is a joy to play.

Tapestry: three games in one

Tapestry, designed by the prolific Jamey Stegmeier (whose game reviews and cat pictures always seem to be at the top of the feed whenever I open Instagram) caught my attention due to its beautiful cover art and nifty fully painted plastic buildings. I took a chance on it without really reading any reviews, so imagine my relief when it turned out to be a solid, engaging game. Actually, three solid, engaging games that feed into each other in interesting ways.

First, you have a variation on worker placement, where you spend resources to progress along four tracks representing aspects of civilization such as science, technology and warfare. The farther you move on each track, the more expensive each movement becomes, so a key decision point is whether you want to focus on moving as far as possible along one or two tracks, or move along all of them evenly, which gets you more but smaller rewards.

Several spots along these tracks reward you with either small income buildings or larger monuments (the aforementioned nifty prepainted miniatures), which you then place on a 9x9 grid representing your capital city. It has certain squares pre-filled, and the goal is to fill up your city as efficiently as possible, with rewards of additional resources when you fill up a 3x3 portion of the grid, or an entire row or column. These resources are then used to move you along the civilization tracks described above.

Additionally, the center of the board is occupied by a hex map representing the unexplored land around your city, which is used for exploration and conquest. As you move along the exploration track, you draw tiles and add them to the center map, with each new tile giving you a one-time resource gain. As if that weren't enough, when you progress on the warfare track you can conquer previously explored tiles, with each conquest giving you resources or points, and also the chance to slow down your opponents' progress.

It can sometimes seem like you're playing three separate minigames, except that they feed into each other to such an extent that you can't really afford to focus too much one one or the other (with the possible exception of conquest, which does provide a good way to gain points and resources but doesn't really directly affect the other two aspects of the game.

To add even more variety, each player starts with a specific civilization style such as alchemists, entertainers, or craftsmen (to name just a few), which gives a unique ability or benefit. On top of that, at various points in the game you play a new tapestry card, which gives you additional benefits and can help steer you towards a particular strategy. This is particularly helpful as the game gives you a lot of options for what to do with your turn, and can sometimes trigger the dreaded analysis paralysis.

The game may seem complicated but it runs very smoothly, with only four pages of rules, and graphics on the board and cards that serve as great reminders once you get the iconography down. We have found that after a couple of plays we rarely need to look anything up in the rulebook or online -- the game does a great job of explaining itself.

Of course the full color buildings especially stand out, but all the components are bright, colorful, and extremely well made, with some really nice artwork on the cards and tiles.

Rating: 5 (out of 5)Tapestry is one of those rare gems, a game that is both simple and complex, easy to play but with a lot of variation and replayability.