Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dave Reviews: The Wonder War

Mare Nostrum: Empires

What is it good for?
Bragging to your friends about how you can lead an army of both real and legendary heroes to victory in the battle for the ancient Mediterranean!
Say it again now!

In Mare Nostrum, you control an ancient civilization, ruled by one of its real-life leaders, though in some cases those leaders are dragged substantially out of their time frames to partake in the conflict. Caesar and Cleopatra lived at the same time, obviously, but Hannibal, Pericles, and Hammurabi are dragged from way out of the past. No big deal, though; along the way you'll get to hire heroes like Hercules and Perseus, who didn't actually exist, so it's not like they're pretending this makes sense. This is a title that wants to give you maximum ancient name recognition with your war game, and in that it absolutely succeeds.

Like any good war game, Mare Nostrum is about resources first and armies second. In fact, managing your resources is in many ways the entire game. Every empire starts with access to nine resources, a mix of coins and various commodities. Once resources are collected, whichever empire is the trade leader (Carthage starts in this role) decides how many resources must be traded by each empire, from zero to five. Everyone places that many resources on their player boards, face down; this can include coins, not just commodities. Then everything is flipped up, and the trade leader takes one thing from the person of their choice. Then that person takes an item from someone else, and so on, until all trade commodities are taken. (Two people can only go back and forth one time each, then they must move on to a different person.) If there's a trade imbalance at the end, whoever has an extra good gives one of their choice to whoever is short one, so that everyone has the same number of resources they started with.

Then you spend those resources, and here is where what you picked up matters. Normal units and buildings cost either three or six resources; heroes and wonders start at seven and go up from there. To buy something, you must spend either commodities or coins, and if you spend commodities, they all have to be different. At the end of the buying phase, all your commodities are lost, and you can only keep up to two coins. Therefore, when you trade, you have to keep an eye on what you want to buy and make sure you don't end up with multiples of the same commodity unless you plan on using them in different sets. If you're going to have unspent resources, you want them to be coins; wasting as little as possible is critical to the early game, and only becomes less of a concern later if you take over enough territory that you can outspend your rivals even if you have some unused resources.

There are four different ways to win, all of which require good resource management.

  • Build the Pyramids. This requires spending twelve commodities (there are only thirteen types) or twelve coins. Because you can't end up with more resources through trade than you started with, this means you have to gather at least twelve resources on your turn and then get exactly what you need through trade. This is more doable than it seems if your opponents don't notice what you're doing and stop you, or if they attack the nearest neighbor who isn't anywhere near the point of collecting that many resources (TOM).
  • Build five heroes or Wonders. You start with one, so you only actually need to build four, but they cost seven, then eight, then nine, then ten resources. In theory you could pick one up on each of the first three turns, but then you would need to expand to have the resources for the last one. That's after your opponents already see you're near victory, so this requires a bit of craftiness. It's more plausible if you have one or more of the heroes/Wonders that let you acquire extra resources or keep unused commodities, but even then it requires that nobody attack while you build no troops or defenses or... anything else, lest you lose some of those resources.
  • Hold four capitals or legendary cities. Each empire has reasonable access to one legendary city, but this still requires smashing opponents and likely taking one capital and another legendary city near someone else's territory. If you can build after your opponent and pull together several legions while they have few defenses, this can work, but against someone who is in control of the turn order (the culture leader), or if the culture leader simply doesn't want to give you the chance to run someone over in this way, it's quite difficult. You will lose troops, and troops are costly.
  • Holding all three leader titles (military, culture, trade). If you can do this, you're basically dominating the game and can throw resources at whatever you want. It's most likely to happen if you're able to hold a lot of territory—again, requiring numerous resources—but the other victory conditions are somehow stalemated.
Mare Nostrum is not a long game, at least as war games go. If several evenly matched opponents act carefully around each other, cutting off each other's routes of advancement but not willing to really push out of concern that it will give someone else an opening, the game might stretch out, but it's not designed for that to happen. For those who are really into the drawn-out planning of a war machine, it may feel a bit unfulfilling, because the bulk of these forces frequently never see the board. If you're not willing to fight, or at least to build a force that will scare your neighbors out of taking more territory, gathering the resources for a relatively quick Pyramids victory is very doable (especially for Carthage). 

But we're in an era where two hours is a long game to many people, and this is the type of game that might draw them into the idea of something more fleshed out (e.g. Game of Thrones 2E). It's well-built, as long as you understand exactly how it works and make sure everyone knows how to plan their resources (TOM). If you want a war game that doesn't require planning an entire night around getting the people together to play it, this may be a good choice.

Score: Four defeated ancient empires out of five (fifth, of course, is the glorious victor Cleopatra). 

Dave Reviews: Denmark Tetris


For entirely unknown reasons, my brain laid a bit of music under the name of this game, and now it's an earworm.

Copenhagen! Copenhagen, Copenhagen!

This has nothing to do with the game itself. I just want to see if sharing it will help the sound go away.

Copenhagen is a game about making buildings. Contrary to the box art—the filthy liars—not every block of your buildings will have a window. And why not? Look at the city itself:

Windows! Nothing but windows! Why don't you give us more windows? Yeah, if everything was a window there wouldn't be any gameplay and everyone would have the same score and there wouldn't be any challenge, but it's so purdy!

Alas, we have mostly but not entirely windows in Copenhagen: The Incorrect Game. You have a tall, narrow space in which to construct your building—the dimensions are pretty accurate, at least—and your goal is to entirely fill in rows and columns of the building with no gaps. This isn't too difficult for anyone even passingly familiar with Tetris, and it's made easier by the inclusion of single-square windows that you can place with the bonus actions you earn by covering shields on the board or completing certain rows of the structure. Alternately, if you don't need that terrible crutch, you can earn different types of additional actions that can help tip the balance in your favor.

Constructing the building itself requires pieces, and getting pieces requires cards. A set of seven colored cards awaits your perusal, from which you can take two that are next to each other. Your default extra action lets you take two cards not next to each other, but you can only do that once unless you refresh your extra actions (the third and final option you can take when earning a bonus action). Alternately, you can buy and place one of the building pieces—purchases are made with the cards matching the color of the building piece. If the piece will touch a piece of the same color, it costs one card less. Other than that, the only real placement rule is that the piece has to sit on the ground level or on top of another piece. Balance is irrelevant; you can shove a five-block-long piece where only one block on the far edge supports it. Furthermore, if you have the space, you can build underneath placed tiles (they don't drop from the top like Tetris pieces, regardless of the two games' other similarities).

Scoring is simple: you get one point for a complete row, two if it's all windows. You also get two points for a complete column, four if it's all windows. These are the only ways to score points. The game ends when you hit the mermaid near the bottom of the deck (a nod to the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, which is a nice touch), or when someone reaches twelve.

Here's the thing, because there's always a thing—your building space is nine tiles high and five wide. Therefore, if you notice that fact, it becomes pretty obvious that you want to build up rather than out, since you can get equal points with fewer tiles. Getting the bonus actions from completing certain rows is all well and good, but since you don't need to complete the rows underneath, all you need is to leave a space to build on and save the cards to buy a long piece that will finish the row despite only having, say, two columns going up. Two columns full of windows is eight points; finishing the right rows gives you extra points and extra bonus actions, and unless someone else is pulling off the same strategy, it's probably enough to win.

Because the very long tiles you need to maximize this strategy are in short supply, it's not guaranteed to work, so thankfully knowing this doesn't solve the whole game. You still need to think around what color cards you can get, what your opponents are taking, and how you can beat them to the punch, or if you can find a way to thwart their plans. It's very difficult to stop people from building columns, however, due to the larger number of cheaper, smaller pieces available, so once everyone knows how to play, a victorious strategy is built around the margins rather than being able to take substantially different routes through the game.

Is that a problem? Depends on you. It's not designed to be a heavy game, and sometimes you just want to play something familiar. It's a very good game to introduce to relative board game noobs, who need something more controllable (and probably enjoyable) than Catan but really just want a relatively relaxing experience that still gives their brains some work. It's good for a few plays no matter who you are; beyond that depends on whether Copenhagen speaks to the gaming centers in your brain and the tiny nerds who control them.

Score: Seven windows out of nine building blocks.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Dave Reviews: Fuck Your Goddamned Werewolves


Ted Alspach makes the Werewolf games. He can do what he wants with werewolves.

How often does "he can do what he wants" turn out well?

That's a dire beginning, so let me be fair up front and say that Silver isn't a bad game. It's a game where the concept is very, "Wait, what?" Then you play it and it's OK.

So, let's begin with the concept. There's a deck of 52 cards with ranks from 0 to 13. There are two zeroes, two thirteens, and four of everything else. The number on the cards could very reasonably represent the strength of the characters, but your goal is to tank your village's score as low as possible, so it needs to mean something else. And it does.

The number on a card represents the number of werewolves that have followed your villager home.

How, exactly, does this situation not end up with all villages scoring zero because everyone gets eaten immediately? Are the werewolves turning into anthropologists, and they're more interested in studying villagers who live in a constant state of terror? Has all the predatory behavior been bred out of them? Is this the game with werewolves that are like real-life raptors, and they're all the size of turkeys?

Anyway, you start a round of Silver with five cards face down in front of you. You get to look at two of them at the start, but different effects you'll encounter let you look at others or turn them face up. All the cards numbered zero through four have abilities that work when they're face up in your village; you want to keep these cards for their low score, but it's for you to judge whether to try and keep them hidden (face down) or turn them up when the opportunity arises for their extra abilities.

You have three options on your turn: draw a card from the deck, pull one out of the discard pile, or call the round early and hope you'll have the lowest score after each of your opponents takes one more turn. Most cards have an ability you can only use when you draw it off the deck (all the cards five through twelve), and it's the most common way to find cards that will let you replace high cards in your village, so this is what you'll do on most turns. If you don't like the ability, you can discard the card without using it, so you're never hosed by pulling a card and having it force you to do something you don't want to do. Because you draw the card face down, you place it in your village face down, even if you replace a card that was face up.

If a low(ish) card hits the discard pile, you can take it off the pile and put it in your village. Again, because you draw it face up, you place it face up, even if the one it's replacing was face down. For this reason, discarding anything 0-4 is rare and usually to be avoided, but occasionally it has to be done. The final option, calling the round early, is risky; you're usually not 100% sure where your opponents are on score, and if anyone's score is lower than yours, you have to add ten to your score (which hurts a lot). On the other hand, no matter your village score, you take no points if you have the lowest, so it's great if you can call it early and it works.

There is one other aspect of calling the vote early: if it works, you get the silver amulet. Winning the amulet in this way means that, until someone else calls a successful vote and takes it away, you can place it on a card and protect it from being looked at or moved. That's pretty good. However, the rules have you do other things with the amulet that make no goddamned sense at all. Why am I putting it on the table near somebody if they can't use it? If the amulet is on your last card—is that the last card in the village, left to right, or the last card I placed? Later in the rules, it clearly states that whoever gets the low score for a round receives the amulet and is the next starting player. That's great, but then, why does it keep saying earlier that the amulet is placed "in front of them near the deck of cards"? Just say they get the damn thing, and the circumstances under which they can use the special ability.

Once you understand how Silver works, it's fine, especially if you enjoy card counting and sussing out what your opponents have with incomplete information. The mechanic of letting you exchange multiple matching villagers for one new one lets you pop off some massive combos if you get the right cards, as long as nobody calls the end of the round before you can get there, and creates some strategy outside of hoping to draw low cards and using the abilities you come across as effectively as you can. The rulebook needs to be set on fire, though.

Score: Nine tiny werewolves out of thirteen.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Dave Reviews: A Year of Trees (and Dickhead Squirrels)


I keep wanting to call this game "Bork", and instead of trees I keep seeing this guy in my head:

Ah well. On to the forest.

Bosk is the most peaceful, meditative game about land domination you're likely to find. Each players on the... role?... of a type of tree—maple, oak, etc. It takes place over four seasons; this breaks down into two play rounds and two scoring rounds, making for a pretty quick game. You get eight trees to use in the spring, and eight giant leaves to use in the fall, each with a different numerical value.

The board has a piece of forest divided into eight sections. During spring, players, in turn, place one tree at a time on an intersection among the grid lines that cover the board. Everyone has two trees numbered 1, two numbered 2, and so on up to 4. The summer scoring season involves adding up the value of the trees on each row and each column, and giving points to whoever's in first and in second.

During fall, a wind board comes into play; the leader after the summer season decides which side of the board it goes on, and thus which direction the wind will blow the leaves off the variously numbered trees. Then players play their giant leaves, one per turn. The leaves have the values 2 through 8, and one with a squirrel. Playing a number means you place that many leaves on the ground, scattering them in the direction of the wind. You want your leaves to end up on the top of any piles, but if opponents have their leaves in a space you want, you have to throw out one of the ones you're placing for each opposing leaf you'll be covering up. Squirrels sit on top of piles and act as a top leaf that can't be covered or moved, but you only have one. Finally, in winter, players score points based on who has the most and second most top leaves in each region of the board.

That's the whole game. It's very straightforward, and the design offers a very forest-y feel—the trees are nicely made and take up a good amount of space, and the board is set up so that about one-third of the grid intersections are filled by trees, which gives it the aesthetic of a forest's actual denseness. (You can grow trees in the river, which is... not real common in the wild, but it's doesn't throw off the game's vibe.) You dive very quickly into the strategy of figuring out how to block opponents from taking over certain lines, whether you should challenge them or go for second place points, or just leave particular lines alone so other people can fight for them. Likewise, leaves are very valuable in the second half, and the board gives you plenty of space to spread out... for the most part. But there will usually be pockets where you need to decide if it's worth fighting for control or finding a way to win by simply maxing out the number of leaves you actually place on the board.

If you're looking for a chilled out but not ultra-casual game to satisfy three or four players, Bosk is good. If you want something relaxing for you and your significant other, Bosk... might be good. It really depends on how you value aesthetic and theme versus more engaging gameplay.

The issue is the scoring system. Whoever has the most of a thing (tree value on a line/leaves in a region) gets first-place points. Second place points, though, vary depending on if there's only one person in second or more than one, and that's not adjusted for the number of players. Therefore, in a two-player game, if someone puts down a single point tree or a single leaf, that's enough to score the second place points. It throws the strategy of the game off, since you're not constantly struggling to balance just how much of a presence you need in a given spot. If it doesn't look like you're going to win something, abandon it with the minimum resources expended. The strategy, as it were, is really to bait the other player into overspending resources on areas, since margin of victory on each line/in each region is irrelevant. But that's less fun than trying to win.

Bosk is indicative of early 21st century board gaming in general. It's well-crafted, aesthetically pleasing, solidly designed (no glaring gameplay flaws), will make people happy if it scratches their particular itches on theme or style, but not extraordinary for the era or something that is a near-universal recommendation for board gamers. Play it if you can, buy it if you like the concept, but if it's not something that seems like it's for you, there are other games you can find which will be a better fit.

Score: Vanilla 7.5/10.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Dave Reviews: Three-Quarters of a Good Comic

Nomen Omen

Someday I'll find a comic to review that doesn't do the thing that makes me go RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

This one was so close, too.

Before I go in on this, I want to be clear that I really liked most of Nomen Omen's first issue. I did. It's legitimately good. The story kicks off with, you know, story. Nobody explains anything. The characters are off and running, and they just go until they run into the inciting incident of the rest of the issue (and the series, I suppose, for as long as it goes). Even when it gets weird—and if you didn't think a comic with the name Nomen Omen was going to get weird, I'm a little curious what you did expect—the creators let you sit with the weirdness and wonder what the hell is going on.

The first part of the comic takes place in the past. The next scene is "Today". However, to their credit, they don't just let "Today" hang there and make you figure out approximately when the story is going on. You get real contextual clues so you can determine when the story is actually happening. I'm a fan of that, too. You've got at least four characters who matter running around, you don't know anything more about them than you need, but you know enough to make them worth following.

Then the villain comes in and explains it all.

Now, if you've read it, or if you read it after this, you might very easily say, "I don't know if that's the villain." You'd be doing it, however, on the basis that it seems a little too obvious for that to be the actual villain of the story. This person is very much an antagonist and is very clearly being set up as the villain for now, regardless of whether or not the story hews to that idea forevermore.

If you've read my other (few) comic reviews, you'd also realize that's not the point. The villain (?) is just talking, talking, talking. Explaining through exposition is awful, despite the fact comics seem addicted to doing it, and it's even worse in this case because there's all this exposition and what's going on still isn't particularly well explained. If you're not going to get the point across, make the characters shut up and keep it weird.

This also leads into another crack in the writing. At one point, there's a "so-and-so has been in an accident" phone call. It's a familiar trope, so I don't necessarily fault someone for using it to move a story along. I do, however, fault a writer who uses it when what happened is pretty obviously not an accident in any way, shape, or form. Like I said, the story gets weird, so if I'm trying to figure out what a hospital staffer making that phone call is going to say, there isn't a clear answer. An incident? An attack? What it definitely is not, however, is an accident. But it's a trope, so it gets tossed in. Meh.

And all of this sucks so much because, again, the comic was rolling along quite well most of the way through. There was a piece of poetry that... look, I'm biased. I know some top-percentile poets, and I can't expect comic writers to be on that level. But after knowing those poets, this poetry made me think, maybe not with the poetry? It's not terrible, and I feel like I'm being too harsh picking this out for criticism. It was the only shaky bit before the villain came in, though, so I'm bringing it up.

Here's the thing—I feel like there must be some aspect of the comic business, of selling comic-style stories, that I don't understand. The blurb on Image's website says, in part, "Enter Becky Kumar, a geeky twenty-year-old from New York City who is about to cross the veil between our reality and a realm of otherworldly truths." Becky Kumar, by the end of this issue, should not be alive. You might assume she is just because killing her so fast would seem like very awkward storytelling, but if you look at exactly what happens to her... it's not possible. Yet, if you see the blurb, your expectations of what will come after this issue are entirely different. You know she must, so you'll read the comic in a totally different way.

I like Image. I know they care about telling interesting stories, and more often than not they do a good job of it. This may well become one of them. But how do you tell a story—a serial story, no less—with marketing that can change the entire reading of that story? Marketing that someone can easily miss? And how much of that marketing influenced the writing of the script, or at least where they chose to break between issues? Was my experience of reading this comic partially damaged because I didn't read the marketing until afterwards, and thus was unprepared for something which made no bloody sense at all?

One more time... I did like Nomen Omen. I'll read the second one and see if I can stick with it. I think most people who like weird, world-bending stories will be able to get into this, whether or not I can.

Score: The strangest 8/10.

Dave Reviews: 2012


The way the Mayans kept track of years was quite intricate, and also misunderstood dramatically enough to prompt the creation of very subpar cinema. Tzolk'in does the culture a little more justice, at least in terms of making them the basis of enjoyable modern entertainment.

Is that a compliment? Let's... just say it is.

Tzolk'in is a game of eating and waiting. It's weirdly accurate to the Mayan heyday, where everything took forever to accomplish (by our modern standards, and also across every society in the world at that time), and most labor went into making food so nobody as few people as possible starved to death while waiting for anything to happen. Your goal is to gather resources which you can use to create buildings and monuments that will earn you the points you need to win the game, but underscoring all of that is making sure you always have enough food for your villagers when it comes time for them to eat. If you don't, you can beg for food, but that will anger the gods and cost you points, which are as real as those gods.


Pretty much everything happens on three giant dials that connect like gears and turn together as the days pass. Each dial has a bunch of person-sized spaces that villagers fit into; as the dials turn, they move your people from space to space on the resource circles. The farther along they move, the better the resource(s) they'll gather when you finally bring them back home, but in general that means leaving them on the dial for longer before they come back. Alternatively, you can jump them ahead if all the earlier spaces are taken, but then you have to immediately pay food equal to the number of spaces they jump (leaping into the future is hungry work).

One of these resource dials, as you might imagine, focuses on food. But it's not quite so simple as getting on and riding to the food number you want. First, there are trees on top of the food that need to be cleared. That's fine, really, because you need wood, but if you're desperate for food and all the land is still under the trees, you can burn the trees down. The wood is gone, though, and alas, you've angered the gods. In addition, for all but the first couple of resource spaces, there are only four wood/food tile piles; once those are gone, you can no longer use that space to gather resources, making food harder to come by later in the game, when you'll almost always have a larger population to feed.

Fortunately, the farm upgrades that reduce the cost of feeding your villagers aren't too hard to come by. That's a huge deal, considering that you just take the first pile of upgrades, shuffle them together, and flip them face down in a chunk. If farms were too rare, you could end up with games where everyone was struggling just to feed their people, which is a level of realism that tends to make games less fun very quickly. In addition, if your people are permanently fed by farms, you can ignore food, or you can keep collecting it in order to use it to jump ahead of people on various resource dials. Farms in Tzolk'in, as in real life, add flexibility to your society in terms of letting your people live better than a subsistence life.

Tzolk'in is a really good game, amazingly balanced in terms of allowing just about any strategy to win as long as you can be efficient with it. There's probably a way to say "the hell with farms" and make that work, even though I'm not sure what it is—I adore my passive upgrades too much to really go for a plan like that. It will, however, bend some people's heads in half and not let go until they walk away from the table on a promise to sacrifice a dozen virgins to Tzolk'in's dark gods. If everyone really knows how to play, it shouldn't take an excessive amount of time, but the number of games it takes to reach that point is such that you should probably expect it to always take longer than the game's ninety minute estimate.

If it sounds interesting after all this, you should definitely play it. If it doesn't... you'll know. Listen to the voices that warn you away.

Score: Ten crystal skulls out of twelve.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Dave Reviews: Rock 'N' Roll


If it's got a Japanese name and it's made for two players, the track record of quality is solid. You've got Onitama, Hanamikoji, and now Shobu, the only one of the three without cards and with polished rocks.

The best way to explain Shobu is this: it looks more complicated than it is, then when you learn how it works, it's more complicated than it looks.

Shobu is played on four, 4x4 wooden boards. Each player (black and white) has four stones lined up on each board. A rope divides the two boards closest to one player from the two boards closest to the other player (horizontally). The four boards are also two different colors, split vertically (ie. one each on either side of the rope). The goal is to knock all of your opponent's pieces off of one of the four boards.

On your turn, you take a passive action and an aggressive action. Your passive action has to take place on one of the boards on your side of the rope. You move one of your stones one or two spaces in any direction (orthogonally or diagonally). You cannot move into a space with one of your opponent's stones, however. Then you replicate the move with a stone on one of the opposite colored boards. It can be any stone, and the board can be on either side of the rope, as long as it's the opposite color. This is the aggressive action, and with this you can shove an opponent's stone. This is how you achieve your win condition—make passive moves that enable aggressive moves which let you shove enemy pieces off the board.

If that explanation was hard to visualize, well, it takes a second to get your head around it when all the boards and pieces are right in front of you. Once you do a couple of legal moves, it's pretty easy to conceptualize how that works, but then you'll make some kind of strategic mistake that you would have never noticed without actually making the mistake (or seeing someone else make it). For example, maybe you decide to make your aggressive moves on your own side of the rope, essentially meaning you focus on moving stones on both boards on your side. It might put your opponent in a difficult position initially, but then most or all of those stones are moved up and now you can't use them to move stones on the other side of the rope forward. There are a decent number of ways for a new player to approach the game that involve shooting themselves in the foot, but it also creates a very obvious learning curve that can be enjoyable to traverse. Likewise, there's so much going on with the possible combinations of passive and aggressive moves that it's very easy for a new player to miss potential critical moves, either advantageous ones for themselves or an opponent's moves they need to avoid.
So, on the scale of two-player games, how does it rate? The combinations can become complex, but the game itself isn't super-heavy in terms of strategy you need to learn. That's the main benefit to the game, offering both a learning curve and the challenge of your opposition while not requiring that you spend hours mulling over possible tactics in order to maximize your chances of winning. It's also very aesthetically pleasing, On the other hand, its replayability is entirely dependent on how much you enjoy the core game, since the game plays the same way every time. It has no changing factor like Onitama's tactic cards, and there are no variants in the rules.

But the core game is quite good. When you're in the throes of deciding your best move from the two immediately available, then you see three, then six, then eight, you quickly realize you're looking at a game that's done a considerable amount of work with a very limited rule set. Consider this highly recommended for fans of games that rely on the strategy of working against one's opponent rather than the challenge of understanding the game itself, and who enjoy perfecting their play within a single set of rules rather than dealing with small curveballs thrown at them each time they break out the game.

Score: Fourteen shiny rocks out of sixteen.