Session Review: Darkest Night, 2nd Edition from Victory Point Games

Session Review: Darkest Night, 2nd Edition from Victory Point Games

As a fan of cooperative games, I’ve been interested to try Victory Point GamesDarkest Night for a while. The sub-genre is one of my favorites and I find it hard to believe it’s almost a decade on since Pandemic made its splash onto the board game scene and inspired the hobby to get on the cooperative game train. Sure, it had predecessors but Matt Leacock’s tightly-designed end-of-the-world wonder introduced a larger audience to the sub-genre and we’ve had a lot of great ones and many not-so-great ones since then.

DN‘s publisher is run by Alan Emrich. Alan is a genuine hero for Southern California gamers, as one of the guys responsible for the Strategicon series of conventions while making many other contributions to the hobby even before he launched VPG. I was glad to hear they were doing a new edition of the game with updated rules, gorgeous new miniatures and stretch goals-a-go-go. Having recently gotten interested in the design work of local designer Jeremy Lennert anyway (his Hunt: The Unknown Quarry was recently brought into digital form thanks also to a Kickstarter campaign), I thought it was finally the chance to give it a go. Jeremy was kind enough to explain the game for me and ‘referee’ a play of the title at a recent game event, which I partially Periscoped while we got the rules explanation if you’re inclined to give it a look.

Darkest Night is a fantasy-themed cooperative game but it’s no Pandemic clone (that’s Defenders of the Realm). Instead, Darkest Night draws more from the feel of adventure-oriented co-ops that give players more of a chance to develop their character (think Runebound or Return of the Heroes). This is welcome because one of the problems with co-ops is the tendency for one player to kind of take over everyone’s roles (“The Director,” they are often politely called). Darkest Night gives players an opportunity to develop themselves out with powers from their own deck of 10 cards (13, if stretch goals happen). I’m also in love with the statistic the characters have. No typical “Strength” and “Dexterity” stuff here. Instead, you have “Grace” (hit points) and “Secrecy” (how hard you are to find). The way Secrecy works is intriguing since this value will govern how easy it is for the Necromancer to find you. Kind of like Fearsome Floors, he’ll move to the closest player he detects when he moves.

The new edition has gorgeous miniatures that you can buy as an add-on plus some expanded rules. While this was my first play of the game and I cannot compare the new rules to the old, it would appear the updates expand the options available and make the game even more flexible. As with many games, it’s the cards that bring the variation to life. The new edition adds even more event cards, which are drawn from most locations. These cards can lead to conflicts, bad mojo stuff happening that will provide you misery and, occasionally, something not terrible. While the different cards are welcome, they do feel very 80’s Games Workshop, as they usually have a die roll to see what happens. I’m of two minds on that one. While the additional variation of cards not always doing the same thing can be enjoyable, there are times when you get results like “nothing happens.” Kind of a yawn but okay if it happens rarely. In our game, it happened more than that.

The Event cards also trigger some interesting elements to add to the board, including Quests. These are opportunities for characters to complete a task to gain an advantage but they also come with timers. The urgency and interest these provide make for a richer game and it’s a welcome mechanism. There are also Artifacts and Mystery cards that provide some other opportunities for interaction with game mechanisms that help players along. We played on a prototype board so it is hard to judge it but there are a lot of things that can show up on the board and it can get a bit crowded, but all of these elements work well for the game.

Then the bad guy gets a turn (notably, after all players get a go – not like Pandemic where it happens after each player). Blights (or the ‘infection cubes’, if you like) that get dropped out onto the board are implemented in an interesting way as they turn regions of the board into startlingly difficult places to be. Instead of just stacking up to show their threat as in Pandemic, Blights provide a specific penalty to the players at the location where they sprout. They’ll hit you for a combat or evading penalty or some other problem. Blights works well – in fact, my only issue with the Blights is the design of the tiles. While you are usually defending against or evading them, those values are quite small. Near the bottom, in a MUCH bigger font is the value you need to roll to defeat them (and the penalty for failure), but this is less often used. Were I their graphic designer, I’d switch those immediately to increase the ease of use because we kept having to squint to complete the action we did the most with these guys.

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Session Review: Darkest Night 2nd Edition from Victory Point Games (continued)

Session Review: Darkest Night 2nd Edition from Victory Point Games (continued)

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While Blight works well, I do wish I could see the effort help us manage the threats. While removing them reduces frustration, I had a hard time tracking how our efforts were helping in the battle against the Necromancer. Once in a while, something we did reduce the ‘Darkness’ (a marker not unlike the Knizia Lord of the Rings tracker, or the Minion Hunter –  the precursor to all of these games – track that all four threats live on), which felt like we were striking a blow. Too often, though, our efforts felt like they were just us swatting flies away from our efforts to get enough artifacts to get enough clues to do…something. While the turns were short, a lot of times, it just felt like we weren’t doing very much and yet turns have a lot going on from an administrative perspective. You start with that event card, which can often turn into multiple event cards. Then you do your action: moving (again, a whole turn to travel makes sense in the name of the mechanisms but not in the name of players feeling a sense of accomplishment), taking a single swipe at a Blight (miss the roll and the turn is over, bub, which could mean another event or just lost Grace), or do something with one of the cards on the space. You can also just rest to restore Grace. Then, you need to deal with any monster Blights (either fight them off – notably, not killing them – or just evade them).

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 12.42.40 PMThere are just an awful lot of turns. The length of a turn is a challenging problem. As a eurogamer, I’m no fan of lost turns. While the Web (a Blight that makes a player lose a turn when they leave a space with it) is manageable because you can opt to fight and remove Blights, it is less appealing to go to the Monastery and pray, only to find that you get absolutely nothing for it with bad rolls. I won’t make a religious joke here but I will say that I’d rather see the devotion do you good regardless of the dice. Darkest Night has that war-game sense of resolutional luck rather than situational luck. I’m sure that’s a lot of the appeal for RPG players and the huge community of fans the game enjoys (which has led to many expansions).

Unfortunately, the storytelling is not as strong as the interesting mechanisms. The names are all generic and the board is made up of a handful of locations that have functional names “Monastery” and “Swamp,” that are descriptive but not evocative. While the Necromancer is a threat somehow, it’s not something that comes out in the game much. In Pandemic, you’re saving the world (real places with city names) from the disease and the paths to a loss make it clear what is happening. This is even more powerful and effective in the truly awesome Pandemic Legacy. In Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, Knizia benefits from the legendarily intriguing Middle Earth, which is abstracted out but there is a definite sense of location with the unique characteristics of the areas.

It’s an interesting problem. Is it more appealing to let players imagine their own names with the characters to tell their own story? Sure, I buy that idea. The 29 characters and their unique 13 card decks provide players with a chance to experience the game many different ways, adding to the replay value of the game. Yet, I can’t say the same for those generic name for the locations on the board. There’s nothing particularly inspiring about going to The Forest or The Castle. That’s where the storytelling would be welcome. Even the Necromancer seems to want a name to make him seem more grounded and real. As a double-size cardboard standee, he looks imposing but without a backstory or more visible signs of the impending doom, Darkest Night’s story didn’t hold my attention for the full length of the game, even though the mechanisms are strong.

Darkest Night plays in two to three hours but it was a first game for our crew so it ran longer. I think my recent forays into three-hour games of Star Wars: Rebellion may have given me a false sense of my stamina for over two-hour games. I believe the storytelling strength of Star Wars: Rebellion is why three hours with that game feels like not enough time. Of course, familiarity with almost, ahem, forty years of Star Wars in my life means there is a built-in level of interest there. Still, I think the rich theming is what makes it all the more compelling and keeps players deeply engaged.

Darkest Night 2nd Edition is good fun for RPG cooperative board gamers and is available now on Kickstarter. It’s already funded but a bunch of excellent stretch goals await. I recommend you check it out because if you like this kind of game, you get a whole lot of fun in this new edition. The campaign runs through June 11 and the details can be found here.

Boardgame Babylon Rating

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (Play It Now) TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Session Review: Fisticuffs by The Nerdologues

Session Review: Fisticuffs by The Nerdologues

Fisticuffs was a successful Kickstarter from a parallel universe to the one where gamer boardgames exist. Like Cards Against Humanity or The Oatmeal’s Exploding Kittens game, these titles are a lot about the humor and creativity of the individuals involved – sometimes at the expense of game play. While apologists will defend the titles as ‘a fun experience’ and ‘crowd-dependent,’ serious gamers just need to know what they’re getting themselves into.

I approached Fisticuffs with that thought in mind, especially since the game ‘sold’ me on the designers being ‘a bunch of people you don’t know but could totally be friends with.’ That’s good marketing and I admire it.

I also love party games and I’m fine with including lighter games that sometimes include a take-that feel as part of a day of gaming. Heck, I played Red Dragon Inn more times last year than any Feld game except Die Burgen Von Burgund (the booze helps).

Fisticuffs is one such game, playing with 4 to 6 players in just 20 or so minutes. The idea of the game is like Brawl, TKO and JAB before it – let players essentially duke it out over a few rounds Board Gameuntil you can declare a winner. While the Brawl and JAB do the realtime thing (which some find overwhelming), Fisticuffs plays like a normal card game but allows people to join in the fray even when it’s not their turn.

The rules are simple. Players choose a character, all of whom have funny names but some of whom have special powers you’ll never use. Players get cards of different colors with various punches and attacks on them. On your turn, you play a card to attack someone. They can block it with the same named card (e.g., an Uppercut blocks an Uppercut). If you don’t block, other players can. If a block happens, a card of the same color can be used to counter-attack. And so on, but now you can target any other players who got involved. Yes, everyone at the table can potentially join in. Yes, it gets a bit confusing – which is part of the fun? When a blow finally goes unblocked, the person hit loses some of their twelve starts hit points. Then, the same thing happens next turn.

Once everyone gets a turn, you can reload cards and you get some defensive cards from a secondary deck. These “Round” cards (not round like BB-8 – you get one each round) have more ’tactical’ options. This all continues until you’re down to two players and then the rules simplify further. Someone wins, it’s over.

Needless to say that despite the mild amusement from the humor (primarily from the character cards), our players didn’t find much to engage them in Fisticuffs. After the first turn, people were more conservative with getting involved in brawls. The artwork is basic but not so much so that we thought it was being intentionally bad for comic effect. The simplicity likely helped keep costs down for the Kickstarter and that makes sense.

I’m glad the Nerdologues got the backing to make their game a reality because I love crowdsourcing to help creative projects. I hope the 600 or so folks who backed it have a great time with Fisticuffs. But it’s just not for me. While Brawl is the be-all, end-all fighting card game, TKO gets you the theme for less money (Brawl costs per deck, TKO is ludicrously cheap) with a limit of two players. If you love the theme, Fisticuffs does get this experience with a multiplayer option and the funny back story (which you can enjoy in the video above) is worth a look.

This copy of Fisticuffs will be donated to the Strategicon Game Library so you can give it a try at Gamex 2016 (and beyond) to see if it’s more to your taste than mine.

Boardgame Babylon Rating

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (Play It Now) TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Copy provided by the publisher for independent review.

Session Review: Knit Wit by Matt Leacock

Session Review: Knit Wit by Matt Leacock

Most modern gamers love beautiful components. Maybe it’s a reaction to our excessive screentime these days, where we travel in magical, wondrous worlds that we can see and hear but cannot touch. For me, that’s a lot of the appeal of board games. Having physical pieces to handle while looking at the faces of friends and family. We’re even funding crazy-gorgeous deluxe versions of games (hoping they arrive SOMEDAY). So, it was just a tiny bit surprised when someone at our table commented that Knit Wit, the new game from Matt Leacock, was ‘really overproduced.’

Sure, microgames have shown us that exceptional game experiences can come in small packages. Heck, there are some really cool print and IMG_7906play games. That doesn’t mean fillers cannot come in big ones. Knit Wit is indeed a short yet enjoyable game that comes in a big box that might make some players think it could have been produced for a lower price. Okay, maybe that’s true. We’ve already seen Flick ‘Em Up downgraded to make it more affordable. I say that’s a bummer but people are usually on a budget so is Knit Wit worth your $35 (MSRP)?

Knit Wit is one of those word games that feels immediate both because it is familiar and good. The elevator pitch is “Scattergories with Venn Diagrams.” Yeah, that’s a solid description I wish I’d used initially when explaining it rather than talking about how to place spools. Players essentially set up a bunch of spools, clothespins, and strings in patterns on a table. The clothespins get small cards with words added to them. Then, based on where the spools get placed, everyone gets a Scattergories list going. The word for each spool needs to take into account the strings that surround it. Thus, Spool Number 5 (there are 8) might be inside the string with a clothespin that has the word “Bad” as well as the one that says “Boring.” So, players would write a word or brief phrase that is both “Bad” and “Boring” (i.e., Superman vs. Batman or post-Nirvana 90’s Rock or maybe Krysten Ritter’s performance in Jessica Jones).

Speed matters, too. Those who fill out their answers quicker (or fill out as many as they know) can stop writing and grab a bonus button, of which there are four, with descending values (simply, elegantly denoted by the number of holes on the buttons). Players then share their answers, with any matches (same answer for a spool) being lost. Like Scattergories, it helps to go a little obscure. But don’t push it; players can challenge your questionable answers and put them to a vote. Then, you total up scored answers with bonuses and it’s over. Until you immediately play it a second time. This is even encouraged by the double-sided score pages, which are on black paper with white pencils to write on them. Love it.IMG_7925

 

Final Word

Knit Wit is definitely a good time and was liked by all of our casual gamer friends. More serious word nerds may wish for there to be something more but I say that it’s a pleasant game for all and a likely closer for us in the future.

So what about those components? Well, they’re lovely. The spools are sturdy and pleasing to hold. Buttons, clothespins and other components, especially the unexpectedly rigid (in a good way) word cards are all thematic and fun to hold, even if you wonder whether Z-Man Games hit a JoAnn Fabrics closing sale or something. The box itself is pretty nice, although the slip cover is the only serious misfire. The box closes fine but the slip cover (which, seriously, gamers can’t throw away) is just a pain to put back on. Didn’t they learn to stop with the box innovations after the Lords of Waterdeep fiasco?

In the end, I’m glad to own Knit Wit but I also think that it’s $35 price tag might prevent some sales. If the Z-less Man (had to be said) had found a way to produce the game for $20 in the way that Codenames did, they’d have a mass-market possibility. As it is, it’s a welcome addition to my collection and gamers who love pretty word games that play quickly will enjoy it. Fans of Matt’s other games should know from the packaging that they’re not getting another world-on-fire cooperative game and may indeed be happily surprised to see him turn out a cool little word game like this one.

Boardgame Babylon Rating

BIN (Buy It Now)   PIN (Play It Now)   TIF (Try It First)   NMT (Not My Thing)

Preview Review: Pack O Game 2 is on the way and it’s more gum-sized fun

Preview Review: Pack O Game 2 is on the way and it’s more gum-sized fun

I love the microgame. While shorter games with minimal components have been around for a long while and the term ‘microgame’ meant something a bit different back in the 80’s, the modern microgames hit the US with Love Letter from Alderac Entertainment a few years back. Like so many others who hadn’t been privy to the movement in Japan that had been brewing for some time, I was immediately charmed by the little velvety red bag that Love Letter was packaged in. Better yet was the delight I experienced when I discovered the quick game play involving a slim deck of cards and small red cubes to track who was winning. The game, which has been developed into other titles, has its naysayers but the genius of designing with minimal components as a limitation produced a wonderful little diversion – and inspired US players to get interested in the many microgames that Japanese players were already enjoying.

Flash forward a few years and the microgame is huge. You can buy Oink Games on Amazon, the BGG Store is so lousy with them that some are on clearance and a funny Californian game designer (yes, ‘haha’ funny) named Chris Handy has a gaggle of them. Last year, he mounted a successful Kickstarter for eight different microgames that all looked like packs of gum but varied widely in game play. The ‘gum cards’ are narrow decks that are used all kinds of interesting ways in Handy’s collection of amusing and clever titles. They play quickly, make excellent use of the design limitations he set for himself, and cover a nice cross-section of themes, too.

Now, Handy and his Perplext Games are back with a set of four new games as Pack O Game 2. While fans of the past series (your author included) might be wondering what happened to BOO and NUT (to games mentioned in the campaign but not published), the new titles are welcome additions to the collection. (UPDATE – You get to vote on which one is the first stretch goal. Need I say: GO BOO).

(Disclosure: This reviewer received pre-release copies of the games, as he did with most of the Pack O Game 1 titles but he expects to support the campaign like he did last time. Also, these reviews are based on a pre-production prototype. Components, art, and rules may have been updated before publication. Also, maybe I missed a rule. It happens.)

 

New Pack O Game Goodness

RUM Card Game

My favorite of the lot is RUM, a 2-4 player game where players are trying to collect sets of rum bottles of different colors. The gum cards are mostly rum bottle cards with different color bottles on each end. Players draft cards from the table to build up enough cards to take control of the similarly colored Captain cards (of which there are seven, and all are apparently thirsty). When you draft cards, you take them into your hand for future use and replace them. The other option is to play cards from your hand and choose which side you’re using. Once you’ve played them, if you have the most of that color, you gain the Captain. That element feels a bit like the old Ticket to Ride Card Game (itself a bit like Crazy Chicken/Drive from Michael Schacht) but this plays quicker, has a Parrot card to scare off hoarders, a tricky way to steal a Captain, and a simple clock mechanism to keep the game running just a quarter of an hour. RUM has a winning combination of mechanisms and more game than you’d expect to get in 15 minutes. We really enjoyed it and will play it a lot more.

Cat not included. This is a microgame, after all.
Cat not included. This is a microgame, after all.

ORC card

ORC was also a big hit with us. A two-player wargame abstracted to euro goodness, it feels a little like Schotten Totten/Battleline but with its own character (and I don’t just mean orcs filling in for the Highlanders). ORC plays in just minutes as the two players quickly dole out their gum cards with different tribes of orcs. The limitation is that they are orcs and so they can only be played on land that doesn’t match their origin (GET IT: Orcs aren’t peaceful so they don’t care about fighting for their own land – they want the other guy’s). So, while each player is battling with the same orc tribes over the same land, my set of blue orcs must battle my opponent’s different colored orcs on land that is also a different color. Play varies because playing a single orc vs. a double orc card designates whether you add one or two cards to your hand. You play through the cards and then tally up orc totals to see who wins. It’s a great little restaurant game to play while waiting on your food since it sets up quickly and playtime is just five minutes or so. ORC plays like a satisfying abstract that takes five minutes – until you immediately want to play it again.

This ORC shot was staged. My wife didn't want her loss recorded for posterity.
This ORC shot was staged. My wife didn’t want her crushing loss recorded for posterity.

GYM Card Game

Despite its silly theme of coaching kids playing sports in school, GYM is actually the most strategic of the initial four Pack O Game 2 titles. Clocking in at 20 minutes (and our first game took even a bit longer), the game plays in two parts: first drafting a team of kids and then allocating them to four of six possible sporting events in the second portion.

Kid cards have two sports in which they add value to the team (just like in real life) and you draft them based on coming up with a good cross-section of players. Weaker cards are actually Bullies but they give you the power to help decide which sporting events will happen in the second half of the game. After the draft, players then allocate their players to the four of six sports that were selected by Bully in the first part. Play will trigger manipulation of the ranks but this is mitigated by Coach cards (flipped over from the two sports not being played), which can bring some stability to the proceedings. GYM has some clever choices in both parts of the game and is much more thoughtful than it might appear. It’s the least appealing of the themes in this set for me but it’s quite a good little game..

SOW card game

Lastly, SOW takes the gum cards to the garden with a mancala-style mechanism to spread seeds. The setup has the cards spread out with each player set up behind a wheelbarrow that is hiding the color of flower they want the most. On each player turn, the active player moves a stack of seed and/or flower cards around the circle until the run out. That usually triggers either seeds turning into flower or flowers being put into the bouquet (score area) of the player whose wheelbarrow they are below. There’s a gopher and a windmill that controls the mancala direction but they didn’t move much in our game. SOW ends when all stacks have one or no cards left, at which point flowers are counted and those that match the player’s secret color are worth more. We had a couple of players who felt they didn’t have as much control as they would have liked in SOW but they still did fairly well and enjoyed the game.

SOWing The Seeds of LUV
SOWing The Seeds of LUV (Handy better pay me royalties if he publishes LUV)

Pack O Game 2 is Live Now

The four titles mentioned above are now available on Kickstarter and I can tell you I will be supporting them. I’m hopeful that the campaign will include even more games in the series as the last set included some real winners, including GEM, HUE, SHH and TAJ. I love the design aesthetic Handy has brought to the series, both in the game design and the marketing/packaging of the series. We still bring the original Pack O Game series (in the lovely satchel they came with) on game days and when we travel because they are wonderful opening and closing games to get you going or to wind down a fine day of tabletop fun with friends and family.

 

Review: Battlestations 2nd Edition from Jeff Siadek and Gorilla Games

Review: Battlestations 2nd Edition from Jeff Siadek and Gorilla Games

Jeff Siadek has been a local hero game designer for a long time here in Los Angeles. Listeners of the podcast may recall he’s joined me on the show before when he was the Guest of Honor at a past Strategicon but I’ve known Jeff for decades. He’s a good guy that I always enjoy visiting with when I go to Strategicons thrice a year.

Yet, somehow, I hadn’t played one of his most popular and beloved games, Battlestations, despite knowing there was a huge community of players that loved the game. Gobs of online scenarios exist for the game and there’s a forum with a strong, involved bunch of gamers who have been loving this game for the last twelve years.

Now, in fairness, I’m not the kind of guy who normally goes in for the RPG/Ameritrash style of play. The game is not just about spaceships, chock full of rules and various scenarios, but it also has character creation like an RPG where you keep the same persona game to game. Not exactly my cup of tea. That is, until fairly recently, when I started to play more thematic games to get my teenage son more deeply into the hobby (which has worked!). Those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook the last couple of years may have been surprised to see games like Mice & Mystics, X-Wing and Imperial Assault show up in the feeds. More on that in the future (yes, a book is on the way).

The opportunity for me to try Battlestations! finally came up because of a new Second Edition that is now available on Kickstarter. A fan of the game (and another local designer friend), Joey Vigour, helped Jeff produce this new version of the game and bring it to the crowdfunding site. Despite the longer-than-usual-for-Eric play time and the style of play, I wanted to give it a go since I’d be asked to record a podcast to talk about it (and I like talking to these guys). Besides, my horizons have opened up on this style of game more in recent days. They say getting out of your comfort zone is how to really experience life and I don’t think that concept is limited to business, travel and dining.

For those who don’t know, Battlestations! is a space combat game that plays at two levels – both in space as a ship-to-ship combat game and it includes play within the ship as the Captain and crew interact during the battle. One of the aspects of the game that has made it so popular is this two-level approach to this kind of game. While some have marveled at the spaceship command experience delivered by the electronic game Artemis, I’m a bit more excited by simulations that are not purely digital.

So, how does Battlestations! play for those with a eurogamer soul? I’m not going to lie; the game has a large rulebook with exceptions and rules-a-go-go. However, Jeff and Joey have introduced a new quick-start rulebook that can get you playing much quicker than in the past. With that 30ish-page rulebook, you have what you need to play. The 200 page rule and scenario book that comes with it then becomes more of a reference guide for additional weapons, equipment and adventure variants.

Battlestations! starts with some prep work and someone being the GM/Overlord. You create characters with races and abilities to begin. In our scenario, we were given some pre-created characters that were marines, scientists, pilots, etc. We then populated a modular ship board with our characters. The usual spaceship rooms were present – a small bridge, engine rooms, weapons and science centers to be manned by our characters and some freebooter guys. On the other outer space map, you pilot the ship in contact with other ships, planets and such. Jeff (our GM) also had an enemy ship we were supposed to chase off, destroy or capture, which was also built out completely with modules and bad guys roaming around.

The ship in motion.
The ship in motion.

Gameplay itself is pretty straightforward for this kind of game. You can move and act (including attacks) each turn, then the enemies try to thwart you. Weapons, equipment and character have various abilities to help them shoot the bad guys, pilot ships, and perform various feats. We had the luxury of the game designer there so I mostly didn’t pay too much attention to the rules. Since the game has someone running it like an RPG or an RPG-in-a-box like Descent, most players can do this comfortably since really the GM is the only one who need to be up on the minutia. While I had a grip on what I needed to do turn-to-turn, when I needed a clarification, Jeff provided it.

Combat is a lot of die-rolling of the old style – hit an armor class and do damage that gets through. Lots of skills rolls and such are based on character attributes and players do need to read up on what they can do in order to use their special abilities to their advantage during the game. I frequently forgot about how hardy my alien skin was when battle damage came calling, to my detriment.

In our game, our freebooters ended up being traitors, so we had to dispatch them before we encountered the enemy ship. We did so mostly (my own three-armed alien scientist ended up being a better warrior than my brother-in-law’s Marine) before we launched a boarding missile at the enemy with two of our player characters inside. We proceeded to have a ship-to-ship combat as our guys tried to take over the ship from the inside. Heavy damage from the enemy blasting and then ramming our ship led to our last two characters also

My (headless) figure takes out a traitorous freebooter.
My (headless) figure takes out a traitorous freebooter.

abandoning ship for the other vessel. We joined the carnage and won the day by dispatching the foes at close quarters with our lasers. We almost lost the foolhardy and grenade-happy (yes, grenades in a spaceship are as bad an idea as they sound) Joey but we managed to revive him in time to win the scenario.

I’m glossing over rules a bit and focusing on the story for a simple reason: that’s what matters most. The rules are longer because they need to be so in order to give players the flexibility to have adventures. There are luck tokens to give you the chance to play a little wildly because that’s what you want – Star Wars-style risks and derring-do. Joey understood this much better than the other three players, we bunch of eurogamers trying to optimize our turns. Silly, we were.

The story element is a big deal, though. What I’ve started to get excited about in Ameritrash games is exactly that. The stories you experience and get to tell later tend to be much more fun than a detailed description of the last point-salad you consumed from Chef Feld. We had a great morning of it and the stories will stick. BGB listeners will know that before anything else, I’m a storyteller, so maybe it’s bizarre that I took this long to come to this realization. Whatever. I’m here now and having a great time.

Battlestations! Board Game
Taking the battle to their ship.

Our group had a blast playing Battlestations and if you’re looking for a game that will give you the sense of the Star Wars (and maybe Star Trek, depending on the scenario) style of ship combat and adventure, this is the game you’re seeking. There are plenty of scenarios for exploring planets and other kinds of encounters, plus solo play options. With the new edition, you also get upgraded components, including marvelous miniatures courtesy of Joey’s expertise in this space. Those who have seen his gorgeous alien figures in his game Chaosmos will love to see Battlestations’ races come to life again in plastic mini form. It’s a wonderful package of extensive gameplay and excellent components.

The game is up on Kickstarter now and already funded, including many stretch goals with additional scenarios from well-known game designers like Richard Garfield (Magic: The Gathering), Jay Little (X-Wing) and Rick Loomis (Mr. Flying Buffalo). I heartily endorse this whiz-bang box full of fun times.

Review: Fabulous Beasts from designers George Buckenham and Alex Fleetwood

Review: Fabulous Beasts from designers George Buckenham and  Alex Fleetwood

When I heard the name Fabulous Beasts, I like most Harry Potter fans, expected to hear something about the upcoming movie or slim volume produced by JK Rowling. But no – Fabulous Beasts is instead a new board/electronic game from publisher Sensible Object that combines a physical stacking game with an app experience that brings some additional strategy and fun into the mix.

After a note from the publisher, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the designers, George Buckenham, at Game Haus Cafe here in the L.A. area. The team behind Fabulous Beasts hails from the UK and you can see their video introduction of the game way down below.

In fact, that’s not all the chatting that happened. I recently spoke to George online through the magic of Blab, a cool new online conversation platform that I recently wrote about on my company’s blog. I tried it out myself and while you can see the video of the recording, I’d must rather direct you to my upcoming podcast of the chat once my new podcast home becomes available. But I digress.

Fabulous Beasts has a lot of the charm of Animal Upon Animal, the classic Haba stacking game that I can’t stop recommending to parents with kids because it’s awesome and kids love it. Adults usually like it, too, unless they’re boring people you don’t want at the game table.

Fabulous Beasts Pic
Designer Ta-Te Wu joins George in a game. Photo credit: Umm, me.

Happily, you can capture a lot of that fun with Fabulous Beasts while also playing with the puzzle-like mechanisms to maximize your score. FB is a cooperative game, meaning that the players are working together in order to build out a ‘world’ that is reflected physically in the stacking of plastic pieces and electronically on your nearby iPad. Like Animal Upon Animal, a player’s turn consists of stacking a new piece on the electronic platform. Before stacking, players need to scan their piece so the platform knows what piece is being placed, which is zapped over to the nearby iPad and the piece placed will appear there. It takes just a moment and then you can keep stacking.

Unlike wooden stacking games, however, these pieces interact with each other in the electronic world. Animals are the primary pieces in the game and they’re pleasantly odd in shape so as to make for variable stacking options. They’re also categorized as air, sea and land animals that will change and adjust on the app when they’re stacked up. Once you have managed to place them without toppling, the app will update you on their ‘fabulousness’, which goes up sometimes and down when other animals get a boost (often with elemental pieces that correspond to their type), causing jealously. We all know being jealous is definitely not “Fabulous” and those creatures lose some value. Collectively, points are awarded as pieces are added but those bonuses are mitigated somewhat by the losses in fabulousness.

While the stacking bit is enjoyable, especially when you try to expand the space with longer pieces that cause animals to migrate and combine, the app adds a lot of interest to the game. Not only are players challenged to manage animals losing their fabulousness due to the rise of other animal types (which can lead to extinction, which is apparently what happens when one ceases to be sufficiently fabulous) but there are mini-games that arise from placement of certain pieces that distract players or further challenge them on their normal turns. This can include time limits as well as interaction with the iPad that has to happen while also stacking (one such mini-game includes the need to keep touching a full moon that moves across the screen while you are conducting your turn).

These elements certainly add to the experience of playing Fabulous Beasts, which my friends and I quite enjoyed. It’s likely to generate lots of laughing and joshing of your teammates for failing to stack properly or manage the menagerie on the app. Families will surely enjoy the experience of the physical game as well as exploring how the animals change when they migrate and combine through placement of the abstracted pieces that also come with the animals and elements. The elements are things like fire, water, air, etc. While it makes sense that these will affect the animals that correspond to those types, it might be more fun if those elements were actual items rather than concepts. A minor quibble, but it could help develop the story more and offer kids more option for free play with the components.

One more quibble: While I like the way the electronic side works, it’s a little plain as far as the animation goes. Here’s hoping a successful Kickstarter will give Sensible Object some funding to beautify the app. The pieces are certainly very nice and they deserve an electronic counterpart that looks great, too. An update in the future could do that, of course, so I’m glad they focused on getting the physical components right first.

Another appealing notion that is related it the option to update the app to include additional modes of play and challenges in the future. More board games need to take advantage of this idea. Only a handful of products are realizing the potential of this combo but more should because it’s a great way to extend replay value.

Fabulous Beasts is a clever idea well done and it’s available on Kickstarter now. To hear a bit more background on the making of the game on my podcast, OR LISTEN NOW JUST BELOW.

Another Baker’s Dozen of Board Game Capsule Session Reviews

Another Baker’s Dozen of Board Game Capsule Session Reviews

The review of the game-cation continues with more wonderful games we played.

Level X 61r1VVgh1WL._AA160_

This pleasant EasyPlay game got played once on Friendcation and it’s a favorite opening filler. I actually have four EasyPlay and Schmidt titles in a Ligretto Dice box (adding Finito, Level X, Numeri) that I always bring on holiday with me. Level X is a winner with a fair amount of luck but there are definitely some good choices and strategies. As it happens, this is the first game I’ve played with no bonus tiles awarded in probably 15-20 plays. Sadly, I think it’s out of print now – even Amazon.de has it for about 45 euro. It’s good but that’s quite a chunk of change for a twenty-minute filler.

Loopin’ Louie x10 A1cDZGmhpqL._SL1500_

It’s a kid’s game, you say. Sure it is. But I can tell you that most of the smartest gamer designers I know also have a great time playing this hilariously fun and silly game.

During my game-cation, we played two tournaments with the family, neither of which I won despite them happening on my birthday (Louie was not kind). Tournament play means you must win with a single chicken disc left – if you win with more, you play the next and remaining rounds with one fewer disc each time until you win with only one or the others catch up and win instead.

looping-chewie-2-teaser_largeI’m glad to hear that the US is getting Loopin Chewie later this year and I kind of love that they’re making it three-player only. That keeps the original Louie to four (and Barn Buzzin’ Goofy as the woeful two-player version that could get tedious). Yeah, I know there was this ‘bee’ version but it’s said to be awful on pure physics. Loopin’ Louie is available in the US currently, but that could change quickly so order now.

Love Letter – Batman619McEzHqhL

Despite the bone-headed marketing fail of promoting “LOVE LETTER” on a game themed to Batman, at least this version adds an extra rule (gain a token when capturing a ‘bad guy’) which is most of the cards. Enjoyed by the pool quickly and I could see enjoying it again. That rule could easily be applied to the other editions of the game, moving it along even quicker. Still a small wonder of a design.

Lowendynastiepic202855_t

This wacky Adlungspiele trick-taker didn’t go over super well (its marriage tricks a unique idea) but I was glad to play this quirky little item again during Friendcation. The marriage tricks let you add a second trick to a round by matching an ‘opposite sex’ card when it is your turn to play (sorry, folks – the lion world of Lowendynastie doesn’t have same-sex marriage yet – although it’s an idea for a variant!), which can also resolve the round. A terrific little game for which I just increased my rating.

The Majority 81tLjhSPr+L._SL1500_

A small press pass-draft game with some interesting elements. It was played while we transitioned from gaming in our room to a pool while on Friendcation but I still found more to like in it. Ninja Star Games did a good job with this one, featuring distinctive art and clever game play that I’m still finding intriguing (and I haven’t even touched the many expansions). Essentially, you partner with another player with four (where it shines) and try to garner second place in each of three suits through careful play that includes a variety of special cards. The game feels familiar with also new. You can find it on Amazon.

Numeripic586429_t

The only other EasyPlay game we broke out during the Friendcation, Numeri ended up showing its potential for randomness ruining the day but, to be fair, the most experienced player who knew the strategy won so…

Palastgeflusterpic260102_t

A minor item for the Adlungspiele world, PG is an okay set collector that feels a little like Guildhall. Alas, it’s more of the same kind of collect cards and use their abilities to manipulate how you collect them. Guildhall is a bit more interesting (also more expensive and there are more pieces) and I think PG is going to hit the trail pile. The art is nice, though. 

Pass-Ack Words 2Q==x3

We played this once on Friendcation and twice with the kids at home. A simple twist on Password (with you giving the ‘worst’ clues to your opposing team), we had a lot of fun with it and are still playing it with the kids now the following week. It’s on Amazon – get it!

pic249632_lgPool Position

An older FX Schmidt game I picked up specifically for Friendcation, Pool Position has the trappings of its time: some random elements that can frustrate despite their balance, not a lot of choices, etc. Still, it was amusing to play while we were fighting for pool spots in real life. Not sure we need it but it may earn a place on the ‘seasonal games’ shelf.

Red Dragon Inn91PV9W4v5jL._SL1500_ (1 & 2)

As always, this game was amusing but longer than expected. Might need to house rule it down to 30-40 minutes so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. As a take-that, goofy-themed, and decidedly American-style game where (horrors!) you draw cards at THE BEGINNING of your turn, this shouldn’t work for me. But I like it – maybe mostly because it’s a natural drinking game since the object of the game is actually to, um, drink your friends under the table. Sadly, despite playing on Friendcation, we played without booze! The whole series is available on Amazon.

Red781wbjYrCXjL._SL1500_ x3

Received this welcome gift and then played it twice while celebrating birthdays, then again at Duck Club. Simple and it takes 5-10 minutes but it’s a clever one where you need to be winning at the end of your turn (during which you can play up to two cards – one to your tableau and one to potentially change the rules). Remember how I lamented the set collection/do something with the cards thing on Palastgefluster up above? Scratch that here. Red7 is a delight. BUY IT NOW ON AMAZON.

Roll For The Galaxy81LLUVpgb0L._SL1500_

After years of play testing it, Roll finally came out and Wei-Hua did a great job shoring it up. As the last game of our birthday celebration, we enjoyed the nice components, simple rules (especially for Race players), and a quick play-time suggests this could replace Race For the Galaxy in my heart (maybe).

In a way, Roll to Race feels a bit like Steam to Age of Steam. My take is that it’s a bit more flexible, less punishing for mistakes, and even though the luck of the roll may seem harsh, I find ways to manage it pretty well. Of course, I love Race and I’ve played it hundreds of times so it may partially be the newness factor (I’ve only played Roll a dozen times, perhaps) but it certainly feels like a winner. Available now on Amazon.

Solitaire for Two9k=-1

Silly title but this six-suited version of Solitaire works with groups up to four. I liked it, but mainly for the chunky, Mahjong-y tiles and since I played it mostly solo (my son was looking on and making suggestions), I’ll need to check and see how the cooperative version works. Also, did I mention those smooth, wonderful tiles? #componentlove

It’s quite reasonably priced on Amazon.

Review of Five Tribes (Days of Wonder) by Dale Yu and the OP

Review of Five Tribes (Days of Wonder) by Dale Yu and the OP

BGB says:IMG_3325

The rogue’s gallery of reviewers at The Opinionated Gamers discuss the new game from Bruno Cathala and Days of Wonder, Five Tribes. Like Dale and most of the OP gang, I’m fond of Five Tribes after two plays, including a tie for the win this last weekend at Gateway 2014. This is actually kind of a new things for Days of Wonder, a venture in real Gamer’s Games (although some might say that Small World is a bit beyond their normal market, too).

Cathala’s excellent use of the Mancala-style mechanism that is the basis for Trajan (one of my favorite games of the last few years) as well has resulted in a good game that is at once pretty intuitive and also sufficiently detailed to engage serious gamers. Dale astutely points out the big knock on the game – players can fall into analysis paralysis with the often huge decision tree on the board (which, admittedly, dimishes as the game progresses). The challenge is not just that the board changes each turn (making it harder to plan), but you have to suss out the actual options you can take, and you are subject to following someone who just isn’t very good at finding the patterns who may leave you with great moves. In fact, in my game this last weekend, a guy spent five minutes trying to find the way to perform a move. It was right there and I could see it but heck if I was going to point out the thing he kept missing. Next, it was my turn and I made the move. He seemed a little annoyed but, seriously, am I supposed to play your game for you (he was accepting of it in the end – but maybe not all players will be.

Speaking to Tom Rosen’s point about the added need to bid points/money (they are one in the same) for turn order, the first time I played the game (earlier this year at the Gathering of Friends), we completely missed the turn order mechanism for a sizable portion of the game. I mean, it was a prototype and we just forgot. It happens. But the game moved like lightning and we were having fun. Is there a potential lighter version where you just skip turn order and the need to balance your bid against how many points you will score that turn? Notably, on the final turn of our game, one of the players took almost ten minutes to make his final bid for turn order. As I said, this isn’t for the AP players.

Anyway, I heartily recommend Five Tribes as an excellent game. I actually just had an email from Bruno Cathala a week ago and he noted he feels this is one of his finest games. He’s right – Five Tribes is going to be heavily played and, I think, loved in the days ahead. Glad to see the recently-acquired (by the excellent folks at Asmodee) Days of Wonder back on top with a winner that I will be buying as soon as it becomes available.

 

Designer: Bruno Cathala Publisher: Days of Wonder Players: 2-4 Time: 40-80 min* Ages: 13+ * recommended time is what is printed on the box, our games proved to be closer to 120 min for a 4p game Times played: 3, with review copy provided by DoW Five Tribes is the new Gen Con/Essen 2014 release…

 

Read on, gamers… at Opinionatedgamers