Team Play had significant buzz coming out of The Gathering of Friends 2016, seeming like it was this year’s Strike. Like Strike, which had been overlooked for a few years, GOF attendees seemed to have racked up multiple plays over the course of the event. While that’s not hard to do with shorter games, players obviously kept playing because they were having fun and I ordered a copy immediately. I was not disappointed.
While this quick-play Schmidt Spiele game from Johannes Schmidauer-König has a rummy feel with the draft-and-collect mechanism at its center, the game that came to mind on our first play it Take It or Leave It. In both games, players draw variable goal cards and compile the means of fulfill them. While the latter does the job with dice, Team Play has players collect sets of cards and adds partnership to the mix.
How Does Team Play…play?
Setup provides players with a single goal card and a variable number of hand cards, with the start player receiving one and the number increasing around the table. Then, players draw two cards each turn (draft-style from a three face-up cards and the deck) to collect cards that meet the requirements of private or one public goal card. Goal cards range in value from 1 to 6 points with more points awarded for harder sets of the same rank, runs, flushes – sometimes a combo of those elements. I admire the iconography on the cards, which I find easy to explain. Completing goals gives your team points, which is how you win.
The regular hand cards come in two colors (red and blue) and range in rank from 1 to 8, with three of each variation appearing in the deck. Each turn, you draw two, complete any goals you can from the cards in-hand (which are discarded). Then, you can pass one or two cards to your partner. While you are not allowed to discuss card passes, card-playing partners know how to do that with cards – both in actual passes and observation of your partner’s actions. This is one of the elements that makes Team Play work so well. I’m pretty aggressive in my passing. If I don’t need it for the goal I’m working right now, off it goes to my partner. Who knows when it will be helpful?
The game ends when one team collects eight completed goal cards. While players only keep one goal card at a time, they have the option to discard the first one drawn. This is a key point since it helps players optimize their plans. I also like that you can rush the game by completing easier goals to put pressure on the other team. While this isn’t always possible, I like the strategy because it throws the over-thinkers off their guard. Those people need to move along so I always like when a game includes that option (particularly for fillers that are SUPPOSED TO BE fast).
Final Analysis of Team Play
We’re big fans of Team Play around here and it’s already hit the nickel list. While it has appealed to my family with the quick play time, partnership opportunity, and the simple but planning-friendly rules, we’ve also had enormous success showing it to other people. I see this becoming one of our opening fillers for a day of games or a lovely twenty-minute closer. While the game kind of made me yearn to get my own copy of Take It or Leave It (I played the Strategicon library copy), Team Play‘s compact box means it will probably remain the choice of these two when packing up for game day.
Boardgame Babylon Rating
BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (Play It Now) TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)
As a fan of cooperative games, I’ve been interested to try Victory Point Games’ Darkest 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.
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 KniziaLord 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).
There 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)
Unboxing videos for board games have been popular for years. I’ve never watched one. For some reason, I figured maybe I’d start to understand their appeal by recording one. My kids think I’m nuts and they’re probably right. But who cares? Conveniently, I had two boxes handy to open up. I received the Geek and Sundry Nerdblock (only about two weeks after they said it was shipped) and recently grabbed up Star Wars: Rebellion. So, here’s a quick (hmm…maybe not quick but more like twenty minutes) video of me talking through the opening up process.
Do I understand why unboxing videos are appealing now? Maybe. If you’re keen to see all those new components (SW: Rebellion is wonderful here), this is cool. I guess if you were on the fence about Lootcrate or another subscription service, it might help show me what’s what in the latest versions that might have skipped out on ordering. To be honest, I’ve avoided those subscription services because I feared mostly remaindered, clearance geek crap no one wants.
Is that what happened with my unboxing experience? Well, check the video below (streamed on Periscope to a very small audience) to see how the Nerdblock turned out.
Star Wars: Rebellion is the second half but I mostly just open things up to see what it all looks like. I’m excited to play the game with my son tomorrow and give this monster but very interesting game a shot. The double-board setup is so massive that I expect we’ll need to set up a second table to fit it. That sheer scale has my son excited – he’s already a bigger Star Wars fan than I am so this is right up his alley. I’ve had more luck getting him to the table with Imperial Assault and X-Wing than almost any other game (yeah, he loves Smash-Up, too).
Anyway, so maybe I kind of get unboxing. It’s not what I call ‘full-attention entertainment’ (FAE). In other words, I’m expecting you listen/watch it while doing at least one other thing. I had fun recording it and hope other people will do so, too. We’ll see if it happens again.
Fisticuffs was a successful Kickstarter from a parallel universe to the one where gamer boardgames exist. Like Cards Against Humanity or The Oatmeal’sExploding 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 until 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.
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 play 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.
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)
More than a few fans of the old podcast and some close friends noticed a significant shift in my game plays sometime in 2014 but not all of them asked the obvious question directly. Most were coy about it, trying to find a casual way to say what was surprising them about the type of games they saw being featured on my social media feeds. “That doesn’t seem like a game you’d be interested in playing,” said one Facebook friend after I posted pictures of my third play of Mice & Mystics last year (and after three the previous year).
The observer was correct; anyone who has been listening to my podcast during the last decade or following me on Twitter, Instagram or other social channels with any regularity could say the same thing, “You’re a dyed-in-wool eurogamer – how is it that you’re playing all of these Ameritrash/Experience games? Have you gone born-again Ameritrash?”
The answer is essentially ‘no’ but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I will endeavor to do that now.
A few years ago, I was playing a game with my family and yet I was feeling like a failure as a ‘gamer dad.’ The reason for my feeling was simple – even though I was playing a fun family game with my kids, it was WAY below their age range.
We were playing Qwirkle and, while I love that game, I was realizing that my teen and preteen had been stuck in a loop playing games that were too young for them. Now, Qwirkle is good enough for anyone to play but the truth is that my kids were old enough to take on more challenging games but I’d failed to introduce them to the next step in more meaty games and so I was left still playing casual and younger-audience games with my kids.
Some time before, my good friend Devi Hughes, the man behind the Orange County Board Gamers (he and his wife), had talked about playing Le Havre with his kids who were younger than my own. Le Havre! Meanwhile, I was sheepishly playing 6+ and maybe 8+ games with my kids who were both three years older than his two kids. How did I let this happen?
Now, any gamer dad is happy to play games with their kids, almost regardless of what it is. That’s just being a good dad. But I saw the potential for my kids to play more serious games and felt like I’d missed some invisible shift from kid games to something more substantial. Sure, I played with friends and my wife will take on just about any game as long as she gets a play or two in with me first. But I wasn’t bringing my kids fully into the hobby like all gamers plan to do on one level or another.
I’d done so well with them at a younger age. They had played over 200 different games before they ever played Monopoly – and, even then, we only played it when I bought a stupidly cheap copy of it during the holidays and gave it to them as a joke Christmas gift. To my eternal delight, they hated it and my daughter actually uttered ‘It’s stupid that you just roll a die to move in this game.’ Seriously – be still my eurogamer heart.
None of the joy in their derisive attitude towards the hallmark of bad board games could change that I’d missed a transition somewhere. I decided I needed some dire measures to get things back on track.
Soon thereafter, I declared that, as a family, we’d be playing through the complete Alea series in order to kickstart the eurogamer souls I was supposed to be inspiring into my offspring. My daughter had grown less interested in games in the last year but she was sort of pressured into participating. I will say that once she got to the table, she would always have a good time and get into it (she’s a trifle competitive – actually, they both are. Good.)
As we were proceeding through this gauntlet (chronicled elsewhere), my son asked about Dungeons and Dragons. I explained that I’d played the game from elementary school to high school off-and-on but hadn’t played any role-playing games since the 80’s (I guess I’m dating myself there). I had no interest in role-playing games and when I moved on to purely board games (which had played before I ever tried RPGs), my personal group of gamers moved on with me. Other than my friend Clark occasionally complaining, everyone was fine with the move and no one suggested we go back to GURPS, Champions, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller and D&D.
Yet, as I say, a good gamer dad encourages any kind of games (even video games, which I produced for many years so I was happy with that, too) so I sought out my friend Devi again, who was raising his kids on both board games and RPGs. He was kind enough to run a game of Dungeons and Dragons for us. As it happens, my longtime friend and fellow gamer, Chad Smith (who develops and designs with me sometimes), brought his own son to the game as well. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one whose offspring wondered about the game we had so enjoyed in our youth.
Soon enough, we settled down in our game room and played a massive 4th Edition game of D&D with a few adults and a bunch of kids. While Devi did a great job running the game, it wasn’t my cup of tea. It was about six hours of play for a couple of combats against some kobolds and some time walking down a road. My eurogamer mind imagined how much delightful cube-pushing, auctioning, trading, and negotiation play I could have enjoyed during that one long afternoon. I calculated the mix of fillers, meatier games, maybe a middle-weight or two thrown into the list. That would have been a better day than this excursion to kill kobolds and goblins while teenagers fussed about whose turn it was and wanting to go to town to ‘buy new boots.’ While that wasn’t my RPG experience in the 80’s, I’d always avoided players who did that sort of thing. The lengthy process of resolving battles felt flat to me. I wondered how some of my friends had so strongly embraced 4th Edition when it came out. Devi was a competent DM. The kids were a bit rambunctious and all but the whole thing just fell completely flat. I thought that clearly these experience games and Ameritrash just weren’t for me but I wasn’t done trying.
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
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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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.
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
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.
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.