Review: Call to Adventure from Brotherwise Games

Review: Call to Adventure from Brotherwise Games

Call to Adventure is kind of a revelation. I have been increasingly interested in games that effectively tell a story while also having a tight set of mechanisms that make for a clean game. Brotherwise Games, previously best-known for the video game nostalgia-fest Boss Monster, have delivered on this combo in spades. While their Kickstarter was a hit, the game is now widely available. I believe it deserves your attention.

Let’s be clear: I love eurogames. I’m a proud eurosnoot—that term is hilarious and I embrace it (mostly because I think our hobby sometimes takes itself too seriously). But I admit that the appeal of story-driven games is compelling, especially as a storyteller myself. I have also been intrigued by games that encourage low-effort creativity and we’re seeing more of them these days. That’s not necessarily a bad term—we are in an era when people enjoy building on existing stories. Call to Adventure (CTA) engages this notion well, giving players a chance to add a bit of themselves into the game. While you the game plays effectively with smart mechanisms, (and it just sails), you also build a story that you can tell at the end of the game.

Gorgeous artwork, enjoyable game

Answering the Call

CTA starts with some cards dealt and selections made to seed the basics of your character. That’s an Origin, Motivation and a Destiny. You get two of each and get to pick one for each stage of your character’s life. Right from the beginning, this gives you a strong sense of how your character will develop over time. This can help drive the choices you make about increasing your experience and skills. Each turn, you select one of four or five face up cards for the stage you are on, with an option to discard one by spending Experience tokens.

Some cards just add characteristics and you can just claim them. Others represent challenges you need to achieve and give you two options, a top or bottom choice. Usually, the bottom one represents something harder, but the reward will be greater, too. Depending on which path you take, you’ll place an acquired card showing the top or bottom of the card to show off your reward, usually the ability to do more or a story element that can rack up points when you gain multiples of them. How do you take on those challenges and add to your skills? Well, you ‘throw the bones.’ Well, runes – that is.

The Runes from Call to Adventure: Chunky and fun to throw

Rune-Throwing

The game comes with runes that are kind of like a coin toss but they are so much nicer than that. First of all, there’s a standard set you always roll, which might also give you a Hero or Antihero card (more on that later). Then, there are different runes to line up with six attributes: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity…you know the rest. You earn the right to throw more as you gain experience, using the appropriate ones depending on whether its a challenge for your military prowess, knowledge, or perhaps your guile. This simple system has just the right amount of sophistication to make it not merely a coin-toss-fest, but still quick enough to keep the game moving and under an hour from beginning to finish.

When you fail at a Challenge, it is discarded but you get an Experience token to help you in the future. So, you did learn a little something.

One of the Four Player Boards with cards mid-game.

Hero and Antihero cards can be acquired and played during the game, from both runes and cards you collect. However, your tendency to goodness and not-so-goodness are tracked with a sun/moon token (shown above left). When you’re in the middle, you can play both. However, when you go to the extremes, it can help you gain points (or lose some heroic points). This adds pleasant nuance to your character story. This is a smart design.

Each of the Attribute and Challenge cards (that you achieve) are added to your character board in one of the three slots. The next section opens when you have three from the current level. They each give you some advantage or special ability, helping you along your journey. You can double-back for a lower-level cards if you want, but this could keep you from staying on pace with your competitors, as the game will end when one player gets three Level 3 cards on their board. After a final turn, players count up their points to see who won, with totals including cards you won, played Hero/Antihero cards, Experience tokens (that are often used in the game), and any bonuses from your Destiny card.

An Individual Call to Adventure

Enjoyably, the designers built a good solo mode right into the game’s basic mechanisms. Adversaries are special challenges that lack two options but can become an integral part of your character’s story. In solo mode, one of these is pulled out and setup as a final battle for the character – giving you something to built toward for that ultimate showdown. This feature works with the cooperative variant as well.

There’s more to it, including some Ally cards that add interest to the game. But mostly, the rules take a backseat to the clever story-construction the game engenders. While you don’t have to do it, at the end of the game, you are encouraged to tell the story of your character to the table. This inspired idea helps elevate the game a bit more. Engaging the creativity of players is one of the most appealing new features of modern games that I’ve started to notice in recent days.

I’ve sung the praises of Four Against Darkness for similar reasons. While that game is fun for its mechanisms, the true joy is in writing out your dungeon with your own decorations and artwork. The upcoming Cartographers from Thunderworks Games also inspires players to not just roll and write, but roll and create their maps. More designers are coming up with intriguing ways to include some creative energy into the genre and I love it.

Recommended: Call to Adventure

Call to Adventure is utterly gorgeous, too. If the appropriately 8-bitty artwork from Boss Monster made you think they were going to go on the cheap for this one, put it out of your mind. Quite the reverse, the artwork in CTA is fantastic and evocative. I expect to play a lot more Call to Adventure and look forward to their future expansions, which include one based on Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller series (although maybe they should hold it hostage until he finishes the third book…).

Call to Adventure is a unique gaming experience that I really enjoyed and I think you will, too. It’s family-friendly and absolutely worth your gaming dollars. Get it on Amazon or at your FLGS, and answer the call!

Review: Time Breaker from Andy Looney and Looney Labs

Review: Time Breaker from Andy Looney and Looney Labs

Time Breaker is another wacky game from the mind of the great Andy Looney. In the game, which is perhaps a spiritual sequel to Andy’s earlier Chrononauts, players are part of the Time Repair Agency chasing a Time Breaker through time to bring him to justice. But this is not a cooperative game; players want to be the officer to bring the Breaker in, meaning that you may actually try to stop some of the other players in their pursuit.

Time Breaker
A lot of time stuff in that little Looney box…

What’s a Time Breaker, you may ask (especially with the way Avengers: Endgame recently threw out much of what sci-fi geeks ‘know’ about time travel)? The game defines it as a criminal that is attempting to cause issues in a timeline rift. Thus, the players need to chase this temporal hooligan through a game board made up of a 25-tile grid, each representing a specific spot in history. The tiles each show a previous place in history from which you can come into the space and a secondary time you can jump to from there (denoted by red and green arrows, respectively).

Players start at the center of the grid, in the Time Repair Agency spot and they are each dealt a hand of three cards. Each turn, the active player draws a card and then does one of three things: Plays a card to move their agent or the Time Breaker, uses the green arrow to jump to the next time spot, or they do a Hail Mary option of drawing the top card and doing whatever it suggests. That last option is called a Wormhole and you get what you get.

Most of the cards that allow movement do one of two things: Either let your agent move one space vertically or horizontally, or jump to a specific time tile. The Wormhole is really only for those moments when you have no other useful option.

Time Breaker
The Time Breaker is a cube of time-busting clear plastic.

Time Breaker Cards

Some cards allow players to move the Time Breaker himself. This is helpful if one of your opponents moves onto the space with the Time Breaker to arrest him. They simply need to verbalize that they are arresting him (creativity welcome) and then the Breaker will go with them when next they move. Now, if you get to the space where your opponent has actually apprehended the Breaker, you have the option of also placing them under arrest and the first player to move away from that space will take the Breaker with them. But it’s much easier to simply move the Breaker with a card.

Breaker cards are easy to spot since they are black, and most let you move the Breaker token. Some Breaker cards actually close a time gate instead. This removes the tile from the 5 x 5 grid and flips it over. Now, if you jump to that space either from a card or tile path, you are sent to the center of the board instead. This is a welcome mechanism as it pleasantly speeds up the game as you go since getting the Breaker back to the center space is the winning condition.

These closures create gaps in the board which are traversed as if they were just not there, allowing you to move directly to the adjacent space and with the added fact that the game allows for wraparound movement from one side to the other. This movement flexibility is welcome and it grows as the game board gets smaller. Players are able to immediately walk between spaces based on using the green arrow cards and move cards. This eases up one of the game’s challenges: Movement cards directly to you want to go to scarce and the real challenge of the game is figuring out clever ways to navigate to the Breaker and bring them to justice.

Forward to the Past

Time Breaker was popular with the players at our game table. They enjoyed the fast play and movement around the board and the opportunity to foil each other’s plans just as they were about to make their way back to the Time Repair Agency with the nasty Breaker in, presumably, temporal cuffs. The efficiency of play is a factor, with serious gamers perhaps ending the game much quicker. As a result, Time Breaker has a wide timeline for play, noted on the box as 10 to 40 minutes. This is a similar time commitment to the other Looney Labs games which have can wild swings of luck on the basis of card play and options that you don’t have a great deal of control over. That isn’t a slight on the game, in my opinion, because that speed works well for casual players looking for a Fluxxy experience..

Time Breaker
The tiles have a lot of art!

If we had any concern with the game, it’s the graphic design, which crams a great deal of information onto every single one of the game tiles. In an effort to allow people to use either visual or numeric cues, the individual tiles, which aren’t so large, feature both the image associated with a certain time tile and the actual date. This makes for a kind of messy tile that can be difficult for people discern. I would hope that if Looney Labs does a second edition of the game, they might simplify the tiles. Rather than helping, the visual searches slow the game a bit.

Time Breaker is for 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up. For its portability and ease of play, I do recommend the game, especially for Looney Labs fans. More serious gamers may find Time Breaker enjoyable as a quick filler and to enjoy the artwork, which is charming.

Charming Art – quite Looney, too

In my view, Time Breaker is an excellent encapsulation of the Looney Labs brand, and fits well into their ludography. I enjoyed the game and expect to play it again as it becomes available in the Strategicon Library at Gamex 2019. The game is available now at your Friendly Local or Online Game Store and on Amazon.com.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a copy of this game for independent review, which is now being donated to the Strategicon Game Library.

Review: This Game Goes to Eleven by Gamewright

Review: This Game Goes to Eleven by Gamewright

With a name like This Game Goes to Eleven, this title from Gamewright is trading on the association with the classic cult film This Is Spinal Tap. For the uninitiated, the reference is to an immortal scene in the film where fictional metalhead rocker Nigel Tufnel explains how his amps are just better because of their dials tracking to 11 instead of just 10. Trust me, it hilarious and this game’s title will inspire a smile for anyone who has seen the film.

Haven’t seen it? Go directly to your TV. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

This casual-weight game comes with 72 amp-backed cards and a guitar pick (or “plectrum,” as the delightfully erudite Mr. Mike Siggins noted on my Instagram recently) does evokes this wacky scene with some artwork as well. Playing with 2-6 players of ages 8 and up, it’s quick one, running just about 15-20 minutes. As a filler to begin or end a game night, Eleven, can succeed in filling in the game between longer games, or to appeal the very casual player.

This is a straightforward game of playing cards to get to a certain point in value in the discard pile. Players are dealt three cards of varying values from zero to 11 (no 10 because how sad would that be?). The zero and 11 cards are something special, but most of the cards simply have a number and a hue that corresponds across the same rank. On your turn, you play one from your hard to the discard pile and draw back up three afterward.

The Power of Eleven

When the values of the cards in the discard pile hit 11 or more, the entire stack is given to a player to add to their points pile in front of them. In this way, the game plays like a variety of other cards card games including Reiner Knizia’s Escalation and Poison (now ‘Friday the 13th‘ from iELLO).

Rocker and librarians and amps, oh my…

Who takes the cards? That’s determined by whether the active player hit the number 11 exactly or if they exceeded it. Hitting 11 exactly is the goal; if so, the active player gets to choose who takes the stack of cards that added up to the total.

If the active player exceeds 11 in the discard stack by their play, they are forced to take those cards. That’s the basic game. Once the cards have been passed to the appropriate player, play continues with the next player. However, there are a few additional rules that had some interest to the game.

Librarian Versus Rocker

First off, there are those zero and 11 cards. The 11 card, which features artwork of what looks like a Motley Crue reject, directly sets the current stack at 11, giving the active player the opportunity to be able to handover the cards to whomever it is they want. Rock on, indeed.

The zero card has a picture of a Librarian and she will shush the value of the current stack down to a zero. She also has the power of being able to be played out of turn to cancel an 11 rocker card. What the designers were thinking when they figured that a librarian can shush a loud hair metal rocker, I don’t know. But that doesn’t give the Librarian a great deal of power in the game. The Librarian can also make for prodigiously large stacks of cards which ended up getting handed over to a player in a single go.

Split Stacks

One more interesting rule is that players may not play a card of the same rank directly on top of a card of the same rank. If you do opt to play a card of the same rank on top of one that matches it, you will split the stacks. For example if the stack currently has a five on top of it and you opt to play five card, rather than adding the five to the total that is currently in the discredit pile you will make a new discard pile.

This option is probably the most interesting part of the game since you can use it to avoid exceeding 11 on your turn. Instead, you start a new second discard pile that is also being played to 11 or more. I am fond of this rule since it reminds me of the under-appreciated Adlungspiele game Lowendynastie, which allows you to create a secondary trick with a split matched ‘marriage’ card. Eleven isn’t as intriguing as that game, but this little flash of an intriguing rule is welcome.

Winning

As you may have surmised at this point the game is going to end when you get through the stack of cards and the player with the fewest cards is going to win. Thus, it helps to simply avoid cards there’s no real difference there and it makes for a simple goal that all players can understand. The value of the cards themselves or any of the special cards like a librarian and the guitarist don’t have any special significance, at the end again it’s just about how many cards you have. While it lacks the ladder-climbing feel of Escalation, the intrigue of the three stacks and shoot-the-moon scoring options of Poison, This Game Games to Eleven fits the bill nicely of a six player game you can play with just about anyone.

Plectrum Variant: A must for us

Pick this variant…

One more note: the plectrum included with the game isn’t just for amusement, it provides a variant that I like. The plectrum is giving to the starting player and, when someone hits exactly eleven on the discard stack, the one with the plectrum gets the pile of cards. Some will say this make for less strategic options, it does dial down (pun intended) the ‘take-that’ feel of the game. This variant doesn’t change anything about the active player getting the cards if they exceed that number and I think it makes for some interesting choices when you need to minimize card intake while possessing the plectrum. For our group, this option is a lot more appealing as we are not terribly aggressive players and liked the idea that the game was instead more evenly distributing the cards and allowing us to make the difference in the skill of play.

If you are a local, this copy of the game will be showing up in the Strategicon Game Library in time for the Gamex 2019 convention in May. Play it there to get your rock and roll on.

This Game Goes to Eleven
The whole shebang.

Final Word

This Game Goes to Eleven was liked by our casual gamers and if that’s your audience, this is a winner. Serious games can enjoy it as a lighter version of fare they normally play and it’s a charming filler that can round out theme nights, too.

iOS Review: Hardback by Tim Fowers

iOS Review: Hardback by Tim Fowers

Hardback is the delightful sequel to Paperback, the deckbuilding word game from always-interesting designer Tim Fowers. This is a sequel worth having 

As a second-generation bibliophile, I do love games with a book theme. I had the pleasure of playtesting Tim Fowers’ delightful Paperback (which originally had a longer title that might have gotten him in trouble with The Beatles’ record company) so I knew this excellent twist on the deckbuilder genre was going to be a hit.

While I like the physical game, in iOS form, Paperback is one of my most-played games. The game captures the wonderful feel of Scrabble with the clever mechanisms of deckbuilding optimization. This is a tight design that delights this wordsmith. I really enjoy coming up with the best word for the letters I’m dealt.

With that in mind, I was delighted to hear that Tim decided to return to the concepts of Paperback with a sequel. The game takes the deckbuilder concept and refines it to give the game a different, more open feel.

Hardback versus Paperback

Hardback plays like Paperback on a basic level. You are building words with the cards you draw in deckbuilder-style (if you’re reading this blog, I’m going say, you get it.) Points are scored by playing letter formed into words that give you enough money to buy additional letters that may have special powers. While the letters are in rows (Ascension-style), you can also buy victory point cards that act as wild cards and big words get you a bonus card once in a while. Also appealing: your change can be used to ‘Buy Ink.’ This lets you flip cards without losing their benefit. No more leftover change with no value, which was a gripe with Paperback.

The difference is that Hardback lets you turn every card into a wild card if you would like to do so. This gives you a lot more opportunity to come up with the words you really want to create. But it’s not a free-for-all or something. Turning the individual cards into wilds actually sacrifices the benefits of the card, which may be gaining cash to buy more cards or it might be awarding victory points.

Hardback

Genre Cards

Hardback also includes Genre cards, much like the faction cards in Clank!, are cards that interact with each other when you have more of them. Thus, having more Horror or Mystery cards in your word will get you some bonuses, as stated on the cards. So, instead of a restriction based on only the letters you have, your choices are about what you sacrifice to get the right combination of letters and benefits. As much as I love Paperback, this is a really interesting implementation of the original concept.

Hardback played solo has the same addictive quality of Paperback. As much as I can enjoy the game in person with other players, like Dominion, it’s really competitive solitaire. Thus, they both work better (for me) as solitaire experiences. The gameplay is compelling and it’s one of those peanut games (i.e., you can’t play just once).

Graphic Design Challenges

If I have a complaint about Hardback, it’s that the digital version is rough on the eyes. While I admire the excellent artwork of Ryan Goldsberry, whose delightful visions have appeared in all of Tim Fowers’ games, Hardback feels like a slight misfire from the logo page onward. While his development of the snappy style of Paperback takes the feel backward in time, it has also gained an ornate look that makes it hard to read.

Capturing the mood of the different book genres with different fonts is a good idea. Yet, in practice, it makes the game look less appealing. Some of the genre fonts (the Romance font is probably the worst) are hard enough to see on my iPhone 7 Plus that I’ve bought a different letter just to avoid it. The flashy letters are even less appealing when contrasted with the tiny size of the iconography (including the Flip spot).

The cards aren’t the only problem. The game has so many fonts elsewhere that are hard on the eyes as well, including the Submit button that is on a kind of flag or something and the various stylized but oddly large card names elsewhere. Worse, the score marker is so subtle that I didn’t notice it at all my first game. When you do notice it, it’s hard to tell numbers – you can just basically say you are winning or losing. That’s fine for me, but players with a more pointed need for precise will suffer at the colorful and perhaps overly-stylized score tracker.

The Final Word

Hardback is a delightful offshoot of the original Paperback that absolutely deserves a spot on your shelf. As a solo game players on you mobile device, it’s a winning title that well suits my ask that games be playable in a 5-8 minute timeframe. This is about as long as I want to really hold the device while playing. Longer games are fun but I need to use the iPad for them.

Lovely but squinty art aside, Hardback is a winner. The game is definitely worth the money to add this compelling little word game to your digital collection. Here’s hoping that Softcover, eBook, or perhaps Limited Edition is the name of the inevitable third game in Fowers’ trilogy.

Hardback is available now for download to your iOS device.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Hardback

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

Disclosure: A complimentary copy of the app was provided by the publisher for independent review.

Film Review: Game Night is Game for Gamers

Film Review: Game Night is Game for Gamers

Board games and movies have had a rocky relationship. I recall loving the film Clue from the beginning, even though it got terrible reviews when it was originally released with three separate endings. You had to check the newspaper listings (yes, we had those), to see which version was at your local theater (I saw A and B, C wasn’t playing locally). Other board game movies that are out there are few and far between from the truly terrible Battleship movie (I can’t bring myself to link to it) to mostly children’s fare. But Game Night sounded intriguing to me as the (overlong) trailer had a few good laughs in it.

Game Night doesn’t really move into the realm we tabletop gamers would hope; meeples and a Settlers of Catan city piece get a cameo in the opening but what’s played thereafter in the game sessions is purely mass market stuff. Let’s pause for a moment to say that these people should not be bringing old copies of Life to parties. They’d definitely be doing Settlers, Cards Against Humanity, and maybe Dixit. My gosh, these things are at Target and Barnes and Noble now.

Game Night

But whatever. Game Night delivers on the promise of its trailer by providing 90 minutes of brainless fun. Two overly competitive people meet and marry (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams – funny and charming people), establishing a regular game night with their friends. One finally goes awry when Bateman’s older brother sets up a more involved murder mystery game, which bleeds into real life. Jesse Plemons is funny as the guy you are happy to let drop out of the Game Night. Really, all of the cast is good, the jokes (too many of which are shown in the trailer) are solid, and things proceed along quickly. Even some amusing issues with unwanted guests, problematic details getting revealed and the like get highlighted, which adds to the theme of the film. I do wish there was more game humor, but I guess I’ll just have to write that movie. 😉 Bateman remains funny as ever (he’s still immortal to me because of “It’s Your Move”, a classic short-lived sitcom) and McAdams is charming and lovely, if a bit young for Bateman.

No one is going to talk about how Game Night was robbed when those Academy Award noms fail to come through, but I enjoyed the film enough to recommend it for gamers seeking a silly night at the movies. It’s R-rated for language mostly, but it’s not too bad and probably could have been softened to a PG-13 with some unnecessary F-bombs excised.

Boardgame Babylon says: Rental is fine unless you have MoviePass, which is completely awesome.

Photos: Property of New Line Cinema

PREVIEW: Edge of Darkness from John D. Clair and Alderac

PREVIEW: Edge of Darkness from John D. Clair and Alderac

When playing Edge of Darkness, I immediately thought about the fact that I don’t play Dominion anymore.

While the brilliance of the deck-building concept was thrilling when it came out, many of the games that followed it improved upon the original Donald X. Vaccarino design. The most compelling, in my view, are those that use it as a mechanism within a more significant game like Reiner Knizia’s Quest for El Dorado or, more magnificently, Concordia.

Edge of Darkness has done that for Card Crafting, the clever mechanism introduced by designer John D. Clair and Alderac Entertainment Group. Thankfully, it didn’t take a decade for them to follow the title that introduced this concept, the still-excellent Mystic Vale. But if that first game introduced us to Card Crafting in a simpler format of deck-building to VP glory, Edge of Darkness explores fascinating new applications of the mechanism in a satisfying game that has significant depths to explore.

Edge of Darkness, in fact, brings many much-loved mechanisms into its story of perhaps morally ambiguous Guild Masters seeking glory by defending their city. There’s worker placement, drafting, hand-management, semi-collaborative deck-building, and even a fricking awesome cube tower reminiscent of Wallenstein. It’s a complex and interesting game with a ton of variation, likely to provide long hours of enjoyable play. I’m excited for it to launch to Kickstarter this week after playing it at Strategicon‘s Orccon 2018 this weekend.

Guild Masters Get Ready: Overview

In Edge of Darkness, each player is a Guild Master trying to be the greatest leader in town through control of a central deck of cards, training their staff, and defending the city against incursions by evil folks. For some reason, this city was built right near a means of big baddies coming in. Did they learn nothing from Tolkien? Thriving cities in earshot of Black Towers are a bad thing. In real estate, it’s ‘location, location, location’. Yet, these folks built their city in a spot wherein some game designer could come by and tell the tale of their plight in a game called Edge of Darkness. What a bunch of chuckleheads.

But I digress. These Guild Masters want to defend the city but mostly they want to win. While there are various ways to do that, sometimes the bad guys come through, they hit everyone and sometimes they hit just one guild. So, you need to be ready.

As played, your Guild Masters draft cards from the board, upgrade one of them, and then play them out to take actions. Some of these actions require you to send an agent to the location to provide an advantage or take an action that might be immediate or setting things up for a future activity or event.

Edging Into The Game

The drafting is straightforward. Select the first card in line or play Influence markers (one of the game’s currencies) to skip it and take the next one. Interestingly, when those Influence markers are claimed by a player in the future, they aren’t just reusable. They flip over and transform into Good Will, a third currency which is really just a 1/4 victory point. I rather like this concept because it doesn’t have the utility of money normally used in this kind of mechanism, but it also isn’t entirely stripped of value. In many cases, players will skip cards that are highly desirable to their competitors so this prevents Influence from overly-sweetening the selection for the card. It’s a very nice touch.

Edge of Darkness

The opportunity to upgrade is another point where Edge of Darkness shines. While my one game (thus, this is a preview and not a ‘review’) was played with a standard set of ten upgrades, Clair has five times that number ready in case Edge of Darkness takes off like it should and it hits all the stretch goals. In the game, these upgrades are done without cost but only one is generally taken and it has to go on one of the cards in your hand into an open slot.

Primer: Card Crafting

If you aren’t familiar with Card Crafting, quickly: You acquire cards that you slide into sleeves so their attributes are added to a card already in the deck. It’s a development of Keith Baker’s Gloom mechanism where transparent overlays affect cards, but it’s elegantly done with a three-slot concept Clair created. Cards begin with one or no slots open and develop over time as you upgrade them. You can also find this mechanism in the second game Card Crafting game, Custom Heroes, which is a bit like Tichu with cards you can upgrade.

Edge of Darkness amps this up further because the upgrades are double-sided. More on that later.

Drafted cards have ownership as well. While each player has a certain number they own, there are also generic cards they can acquire in the game. When playing them, your own and generic cards are free to use. If you draft another player’s card, you’ll need to pay one gold each to use the (up-to-three) actions on the cards.

Edge of Darkness

This concept makes for another intriguing part of the design. Ownership gets you more income (which normally requires actions), which offers versatility and 1/4 victory points at the end of the game if you don’t spend it all or convert them more efficiently with one of the actions.

After upgrades, you play your cards and potentially use the actions on them. These often require agents to be played to the location associated with the action type, worker-placement style. Some are simple enough to just let you take money or Influence, make your guild agents usable (some begin the game untrained), or to take arms against the bad guys. Others are more subtle, helping you acquire ownership of generic cards in the central deck or trading gold for VP, or even increasing your hand size. Managing the preparations for war isn’t all there is but it’s a key component so let’s talk about the bad people coming out of the mighty Threat Tower.

The Threats Keep Coming

Next to your board when you play Edge of Darkness is the great Threat Tower. Evoking Tolkien’s Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower of the 80’s board game and also the Cube Tower used in Wallenstein, Amerigo, and other games, this edifice holds three bad cards at once and has an opening up top where players drop cubes of various player colors. Players acquire new cubes to drop in each round based on the cards in their three-card hand. When eight cubes drop into the area for one of the three cards, that baddie attacks the player who has the most cubes in there. Notably, there are also a fair number black cubes in the bag from which players draw them. If black has the majority (ties count), then all players are attacked.

The bad guys, interestingly, are cards from the deck. The back of the transparent upgrade and action cards are attacking hoards of evil. This clever idea helps increase difficulty as you build up powerful up the cards in the shared deck.

If you take the attack, you lose points on a personal track on your guild board. Attacks can be mitigated by some spaces where you have agents and defending successfully awards points. Some actions let you kill these guys as the cubes built up, as well. Hunting the threats can let you use the normally worthless Citizen actions (one that is common on the starting cards) to go kill a threat that might have too many of your cubes in it. Efficiently done, you can prep and hit them in the same turn but the subtleties of how this and some similar concepts work is another one of the strengths of the game’s design.

Played over eight turns, Edge of Darkness clocks in about two hours but it didn’t feel that long. While the game plays 2 to 4 players, I would expect a head-to-head game to last less time and be less compelling than playing with three or four. The components with which we played were not final except for the art. The work, done by Alayna Lemmer-Danner, is uniformly excellent and powerfully ties to the theme.

Final Thoughts

Edge of Darkness is a winning use of Card Crafting and an elegantly wrought game. Without a doubt, it’s the most satisfying of the Card Crafting games so far, maybe because of its sheer grandeur but also because it allows this innovative concept to work well with others. I see Edge of Darkness as the fulfillment of the promise of Card Crafting and expect it to be extremely popular with gamers seeking a satisfying experience with some coopetition built-in (one of my favorite things).

Edge of Darkness

While new players might be slightly overwhelmed by the number of cards, those that are used to Dominion and other deck-builders should take easily to the various mechanisms available. In our game, the most lost player had it down by turn three and was raring to play again after we played it. I narrowly lost EoD but I know what I’d do differently next time I play and I’m looking forward to it. That is a very good sign indeed.

Official Boardgame Babylon rating pending for more plays but will likely be on the top end. Edge of Darkness launches on Kickstarter February 20th.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Edge of Darkness

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

Disclosure: Designer John D. Clair personally taught our game and images are of a play-test copy of the game.

Review: Kokoro by Eilif Svensson and Kristian Amundsen Østby via Indie Board and Card Games

Review: Kokoro by Eilif Svensson and Kristian Amundsen Østby via Indie Board and Card Games

Take It Easy is the game I always associate with the ‘draw and everyone place’ game mechanism. What each player can make of the options as they come out is an interesting way to resolve things. Whether it is done for pattern-matching like Take It Easy, Mosaix and Wurfel Bingo or path-building like in SDJ nominee Karuba and Kokoro designers’ own Doodle City, there is a lot of mileage in it. The new Kokoro from IBG takes on the path-making concept in Karuba, turning that concept into a different and possibly more satisfying game.

Kokoro plays 1-8 players, with each one claiming a dry-erase grid map with gardens and sanctuaries on it. Five of the six sanctuaries on the board will score based on the number of objects (caterpillars and flowers, for reasons unknown to this writer) the paths connects to them. Each turn, a tile is drawn by the Caller (ahem, the oldest player) and all players draw the path on it right on their board. These paths are simple lines or pairs making various curves that connect two sides of a tile. Once a tile is covered, you cannot overwrite it so players need to be cautious about building their connections effectively for this scoring round and future ones. This is key and a good warning to everyone early on; while it is easy to just write in any old shape on a tile, it’s important to take a longer view about how it might isolate caterpillars and flowers you want to score later.

The current sanctuary is your focus, but the other option for players is to not draw from that tile and take a peek at the next sanctuary. This way, if a particular tile is no help at all, players can use this option to plan ahead. Ideally, when drawing, players try to not just plan for the current sanctuary but look ahead to connect to others. This is a good idea for general efficiency but also because the game requires increasing success. Each sanctuary score must be higher than the last one or the player suffers a -5 point penalty. Tiles are drawn until four gold tiles come out, which represent about 1/3 of the tiles in the stack. As a result, some sanctuaries will get outsized opportunities to score versus others. This element makes the planning a little more serious than this cute game would imply. I find it to be a great feature and it’s a lot of the appeal of the game, in my view.

kokoro

The basic game is that, but the box comes with two more expansions and I recommend playing with those unless you have extremely casual players. They aren’t too difficult to incorporate, really just adding some basic variations to how to score the game. These options open up the game even more, giving players more choices when a tile comes up than just isn’t right for the current sanctuary. Kokoro is a bit unforgiving, however. If you screw up early, it can be difficult to recover from initial bad choices. I do think the game should have some kind of mulligan option to let you remove a single tile that could help you get back on track. We had one cranky player during one of our sessions who played improperly early and fussed through the whole game. It’s only a quarter of an hour, of course, so a fouled-up play isn’t a real tragedy. On to the next game, I say.

That said, Kokoro wins big points for scaling wonderfully from 1 to 8 players and offering an enjoyable time in 15 minutes of play. The components are nice, the artwork is utterly charming, and the box is compact enough to pop into the bag whenever you go gaming. Kokoro is a winner in my view and I think it belongs in the collection of gamers who want a filler for the big crowd to play at the beginning before breaking into other games.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Kokoro

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

Review: Kaiju Crush by Tim Armstrong and Justin De Witt via Fireside Games

Review: Kaiju Crush by Tim Armstrong and Justin De Witt via Fireside Games

Kaiju Crush is all about monster battles in an urban area. The richness of the monster smashing cities theme is probably not in dispute. While I cannot count myself as a fan of films about the subject, I played plenty of Rampage (the video game) and see the appeal of these massive, fantastic creatures wreaking havoc on cities and the like. There is even a film coming out that looks loosely based on the video game. Certainly Pacific Rim (for all its flaws) reminded us of the appeal of giant monsters breaking up cities (if Cloverfield didn’t already do that for you).

A few years back, Rampage (later retitled “Terror in Meeple City”) from the always-interesting Antoine Bauza, would become one of the best matches of theme and mechanisms for this kind of game. A dexterity-based game that still had many euro stylings to keep it strongly constructed, Rampage is a treat. It’s just about ideal for the theme, but Kaiju Crush has helped me see another style that could work with this theme. This game comes to us from the successful husband-wife team that runs Fireside Games, makers of the hit Castle Panic series, the excellent Hotshots (which we love) and the amusing Bears!, working with designer Tim Armstrong.

Kaiju Crush tells us the story of a group of large, unruly monsters controlled by the players that decimate a city. Players are trying to cause more destruction than the others to win the honor of being the best monster (winning the game). Turns are focused on a creative action system that allows players to use one of two moves each turn, either the one they are dealt (currently hold) or a community option that sits between players. If players use their own, players switch it with the communityKaiju Crush option but if they use the community choice, it stays there. I quite like the way this mechanism works and although it sounds familiar, I cannot place it. This restricts movement in an interesting way, allowing for choices between adjacent moves, leaps over a spot or two, or a Chess Knight-style move.

Beyond that, Kaiju Crush is about using those moves to claim buildings on the board, which have various values between 1 and 4, as well as a set icon that can add up to bonuses later. This move for your monster lets you take a space over (claiming the tile) and repositions you for next turn. In this way, the game has the feel of a more nuanced Hey, That’s My Fish, with players claiming buildings both for points and for how it positions them to claim additional spaces with the options available next turn. As the game progresses, fewer and fewer options are available as the map of buildings is turned to rubble and claimed spaces. This positioning is important because players still only have those two options for your monster has each turn. The end game is maximizing how you can claim as many spaces as possible before the city is decimated. Players collect points for buildings, sets claimed, and any other bonuses. The winning monster is the one with the most points, naturally.

That’s not all there is, though – the monsters get to fight if they land on the same space or an adjacent one. This kicks in the battle process, which is like a paper-rock-scissors game you play to 3 out of 5. Each player gets a handful of five cards per battle. Using the five-option system, each monster in the battle plays a card and resolves it by comparison. This is where the monsters’ special powers kick in, as each one either wins ties of some type or gets to optimize cards a bit. This match of cards is fun, with 3 of 5 being the perfect amount to give people a chance for each battle to have its own life. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t routinely killed by my wife 3 in a row because she can zone in on my brainwaves. But you’ll have a great time with it, I’m sure. Winning the battle gives you a bonus chip (worth 1-3 points) and if you’re on the same spot, the winner will take it.

The game has a couple of additional elements that add to the experience. All players get a special one-time use power. They are hit-or-miss, but can help in a key moment. Additional, there are four other ways to score points based on the spaces on the map you collect, the building types you claim, and some options that even crop up in the game. These extra concepts add replay value and some variability to the game.

In the end, Kaiju Crush is a fun game for families, but I wouldn’t recommend playing with only two. The game is less interesting with just a head-to-head game, offering fewer options all around. I think the game shines best at four players, with a full complement of gamers. Components are solid, as is the norm with Fireside, although younger players might enjoy replacing the cardboard monsters with miniatures to up the toy factor. Gamers will admire the intriguing aspects, but might wear out the game play quickly with the options available. I still recommend giving it a play to see the interesting moving mechanism and to have a good time with the quick battles you get into with your kaiju. The game is certainly ripe for expansions featuring new monsters, moves and special powers, too.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Kaiju Crush

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

Disclosure: Publisher Fireside Games provided a copy for independent review.

Review – Azul by Michael Kiesling via Plan B Games

Review – Azul by Michael Kiesling via Plan B Games

Azul, I will admit, is a game that I judged by its cover. Good thing it’s a wonderful game. The design drew me in immediately. I’ll admit to being a sucker for gorgeous package design and when the components are also premium wonders, you’re already halfway to my approval, folks. Now, I don’t mean Boris Vallejo-esque sword-wielding ladies. I mean design like what you see in Oink Games, all of which have conscious elements that add directly to the mood of the game experience. Quality work isn’t the only way this is achieved; way back in the pre-euro days, we had Cheapass Games here in the US and their powerfully simple black and white envelopes appealed to me for both keeping costs lower and letting head Cheapsser James Ernest save time in coming up with overly expensive colored boxes, he put it into the game design and those hilarious rules.

So, with that longer-than-planned caveat, let’s talk about the game. Azul is a game at once familiar and exciting in its unique feel. The game is a design by Michael Kiesling, a two-time SDJ winner and frequent collaborator with the mighty Wolfgang Kramer, but this one is all his own. Based on Azul, I definitely look forward to his next solo game design.

In Azul, players get a board on which they will place the gorgeous, chunky tiles that are a hallmark of the game’s production. They will place them according to a set of clean, elegant rules that are straight out of 90’s Schacht and Knizia. When you select tiles from the one of the selection discs, you take all of one color, pushing the remaining tiles on that disc to the center market. Once this has happened during a round, another option becomes available; now, players can also take all of one color from the center of the table. While the discs are dealt only four pieces from the (lovely) bag, once the excess tiles start piling up in the middle, players are likely to get more of them.

When you claim tiles, you need to place them on your board. This is done by selecting a row for completion, with the first row scoring with just a single tile and each row below it taking one more until you reach five at the bottom of the board. Thus, each turn, players will want a different number of tiles for each row. While the prep area of a row has a certain color tile in it, no other colors can go into that row.

This means players sometimes obtain excess tiles that need to be stored at the bottom of the board. These each inflict a penalty that rises with each additional tile. Also, the first player to fish tiles out of the center of instead of just off one of the distribution discs gets to select first in the next round, with the unhappy addition of a -1 tile that gets to drop into the first slot in the little holding pen for overflow tiles (which some gamers are apparently throwing away? It should have been a proper tile anyway). I find this mechanism quite appealing – that tradeoff of the loss of a point for the first shot and the first pick next turn. That says this game has been tuned.

Sound intriguing? Maybe not. The theme of Azul isn’t really there; it’s just a game of placing tiles into the right sequences to score points and marveling at how pretty they are. But that’s not it – this is a wonderfully elegant design that we so rarely see today. Azul goes down like Azulfreshly-made lemonade – it feels like it’s made of the real thing and not just rehashed mechanisms from other designers’ work. Kiesling has taken a solid selection mechanism and added interesting scoring. It’s such a clean, empirical design and Plan B’s excellent production complements it beautifully.

With the advent of Kickstarter and the crazy influx of underdeveloped and messy games into the marketplace, it is kind of glorious to see a lovely design like Azul come out, especially since we see fewer titles from the twin masters of this feel: Reiner Knizia and Michael Schacht. Kiesling is no slouch here, although most of his ludography was constructed with Kramer, a bigger name. But let’s not Garfunkel him entirely – Vikings was also a winner. With Azul, Kiesling could be on track for a solo SDJ. I’d call it a contender for one of the coveted slots later this year.

Even so, with the fast-food nature of game designs these days, I think players should give it a go first. While serious eurogamers will appreciate Azul’s charms, those who are seeking a thematic experience may balk at the simple beauty and sparse rules. That’s my only caution in reducing the rating to a Play It Now. I love it, but modern gamers may need to develop a palette for it.

Oh, heck – never mind. Azul is awesome! Buy it Now!

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Azul

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

Review: Hotshots from Justin De Witt and Fireside Games

Review: Hotshots from Justin De Witt and Fireside Games

If Matt Leacock, designer of Pandemic, is the modern king of cooperative games, perhaps Justin De Witt is the Prince. Justin created the extraordinarily popular and really very fun Castle Panic.  Like Pandemic, Castle Panic has now seen a number of different forms, including Dead Panic, Star Trek Panic and, inevitably, Munchkin Panic. But he hasn’t stopped there. His new game, Hotshots, is another attempt to create an enjoyable cooperative game experience with mechanisms not normally seen in games of that type.

Hotshots, which we asked about once before, is a game about fighting fires in the forest with a press-your-luck dice rolling mechanism at its core. 2 to 4 players take on the roles of firefighters (each a special role like the Swamper or Spotter) on the front line of a blaze in a wooded area. The board is a modular set of hexes that can be set up a variety of ways. The tiles have various functions, including an association with the powers of the players or housing additional equipment the team can use to combat the fire.

Hotshots

On your turn, you move your firefighter one or two spaces and attempt to put out a fire. Each of the spaces has a unique element as well as a set of six die faces that you must roll to combat the fire there. Each face of the six sided dice has a different firefighting symbol on it, from the regular fireman to a hose to a Pulaski, which is the name of that ax thing you always see firefighters carrying. No, I didn’t know it was called the Pulaski either, but I did learn that from reading the rules of Hotshots (same thing, the MacLeod). I love it when I learn something new from a game. Anyway, if you roll and get three matches, you can place a firebreak on a side of the hex, four will knock out a fire, five will knock down two and all six will put out three fires. This last accomplishment means a big bonus, including a special chit with a rule-breaking power and placing a firebreak as well.

A key element here though is to stay close to your comrades, because they will give you an extra chance in case you blow it. What does blowing it mean? This is a press-your-luck game so players need to decide after each roll if they are going to continue or stop and apply what they have rolled to the fire. Every time you roll the dice, you need to lock a die that matches one of the remaining symbols. If you roll and fail to find a match, you lose out and the fire gets stronger. If you have another firefighter with you, failing once is okay. Your partner allows you a second shot and gives you a better chance to get all six dice to match.

Hotshots

Other map elements help, like the station where a one-use helicopter can knock down a big fire and trucks and planes can help knock our blazes and create firebreaks. Others are tied to player abilities, which are lost if the space is wiped out.

The firebreaks are key because, like all cooperative games, the game gets its say. After your turn, you draw a fire card to see how the blaze spreads. In a clever mechanism, a wind sock tracks the direction of the gusts and certain cards will push the fire out into adjacent hexes based on it. Firebreaks help protect against the fire spreading by wind.

Board hexes are lost when they reach their burst number, which is the amount of fire it can contain without going up in flames. This value ranges from 2 to 5, and this plays into the Fire cards. This can be specific hexes, increases based on the current burst point of certain spaces, or simply the way the wind is blowing. The fire can rage out of control and players lose if they allow eight hexes to be burnt out. Alternatively, you win if you can knock down all the fires throughout the game board.

Let’s talk about the fire pieces. The components in Hotshots are nice but the clear highlight is the fire pieces them self. They look like little plastic flames and they’re distributed on the board early on and represent fire that is burning at the game’s beginning. They kind of outshine the cardboard standees for the firefighters (bling alert) and other pieces. Pleasantly, the box is appropriately sized for the components and easier to pack for travel.

Importantly, everyone I have played this game with has had a lot of fun. While the subject was a little grim as we watched the recent fires in Southern California, we did enjoy the act of putting out the fires together. While the beginning game has a standard setup, you can also use the guidelines in the book to simulate famous parks. This allows the terrain to abstract out things and makes for enjoyable replay value. Our second game was in the Grand Canyon and one of the largest blazes was remote and through a craggy terrain hex that made it hard to reach. That endeavor colored our whole game, which made for a different experience and a hard-fought win. Hotshots is the kind of game where you get high-fives and a story tell after a big win. That’s satisfying.

The game also includes variants to make the game somewhat easier to beat for younger players who want to win more often. I note this because the game can be hard! But it wouldn’t be much fun if there wasn’t a struggle. We’ve won most of our games with six or seven burnt hexes, and lost a couple as well. More importantly, we have wanted to play it again and again because of the quick game play and satisfying experience of Hotshots.

In our view, Fireside Games has another winner on their hands that plays well with younger players and yet it’s interesting enough for gamers to play. Hotshots is also approachable for casual gamers who need an introduction to cooperative games. While there is no useful way to keep from having someone take over the game (no secret info), it’s a fine gateway title.

In case you missed it, Justin was on BGB’s podcast in the past when he and his cool also-a-game-designer wife Anne-Marie, visited us for Strategicon.

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Hotshots

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

Disclosure: Publisher Fireside Games provided a copy for independent review.