Friday, July 13, 2018

Dave Reviews: Death and Luck (and Death)

Bloodborne: The Card Game

From Software is known for basically one thing: the Dark Souls phenomenon. In addition to the three Dark Souls games, this includes Bloodborne, a faster-paced affair still predicated on knowledge of enemy patterns, a high degree of skill, and grinding out some levels and items if your skill isn't quite there.

The Dark Souls board game, for better or worse, stayed fairly true to these ideas, especially grinding through the same level to get stronger if you ran into a roadblock. Does Bloodborne in card form manage the same feat?


The Bloodborne card game looks like a psuedo-coop affair, where players work together to defeat monsters but try to end up with more blood echoes than their fellow hunters by the end of the game. 'Pseudo-coop', however, is overstating the cooperative nature. In reality, the monsters are something of a filter through which you fight each other. Non-boss monsters are either killed in one round or run away; boss monsters, including the final boss, stay and accumulate wounds until they die. If you damage a monster during the round in which it dies, you earn blood echoes and trophies in accordance with what's printed on the card. Trophies lead to bonus blood echoes at the end of the game. If you can work it so you help kill a monster and someone else doesn't, you gain an advantage over them.

Bloodborne is a hand-building game—you don't have a deck you draw from, you just hold all your cards in your hand and discard them after use. One of those cards is the Hunter's Dream; when you play it, you take half damage for the round, stash all your blood echoes, collect your discards, and choose an item from the three on display. Usually you go to the dream when you're concerned about dying, because death makes you lose all your unstashed blood echoes, but it can also be beneficial to go when a strong item is available, especially if your absence will make it difficult or impossible for the other hunters to kill the current enemy.

Battling the monsters is pretty straightforward. Every card has an amount of damage that it does, an ability, or both. If the damage done amongst all hunters is enough to kill the monster, it dies. Of course, some items screw with other hunters if they use a certain type of weapon (ranged or melee), does damage to all other hunters or all hunters including yourself, or otherwise goofs with the math everyone is doing to figure out if they'll survive the fight. After all, the monster swings first, and you only have eight health at most; you need to not just survive, but survive with enough health to make it back to the Dream on a following turn, unless you have a way to not lose your blood echoes if you die.

And this is where the game starts to collapse. Bloodborne is predicated on walking the line between life and death and being good enough not to cross over, or at least not too often. Damage is done via dice rolls, which is the polar opposite of this.

Now, a bit of unpredictability is ok. Calculating the odds may not be exactly how the video game works, but it's a skill. How safely can I play this without letting my opponents back into the game? How poor are my odds if I make this risky play? Do I have to take that risk anyway because I can't win if I don't?

Bloodborne, however, amplifies this by putting faces on the dice with plus symbols. If you roll one of these faces, it does that much damage and you roll again. If a die has two faces with plus symbols, you have a one in three chance on any roll that you'll roll again. One in nine times, you'll roll three damage dice. That's potentially once per game, depending on the dice of the monsters in the deck.

In addition, each die has a zero. So if you roll a red die for a monster, you have a one in six chance of it doing no damage, and a one in nine chance of it doing almost certainly half your life in damage. Yellows are slightly less bad in terms of top end damage, but you can still take a major hit, or no hit at all. But you have no way to plan for the damage any given monster will do. That's part of what Bloodborne is about, knowing your margin for error and using it to the greatest possible extent. This game gives you none. It's very unlikely you'll take eight damage in a round, but that doesn't really matter; if you get knocked down to two from full or high health, the next round you could easily die while trying to get into the dream. And taking four to six damage is liable to happen at some point, so you either play ultra safe or get lucky, neither of which are satisfying methods of play.

There's an expansion out called The Hunter's Nightmare. It adds many more monsters and end bosses, which are fine. You get two special abilities at the start of the game and choose one to keep; these are pretty fun. And it adds death tokens, so when you die your maximum number of each trophy type gets capped lower and lower depending on what killed you. I'm sure there are maniacs who think the game is too easy, but it's neither too easy nor too hard—you might play better than your opponents, but how much you die is highly luck dependent, so being punished for death is the worst idea possible. You can leave it out, but holy hell, what was this guy thinking?

Maybe with a more lighthearted, screw-your-neighbor theme, this game would have come off better. As Bloodborne... it doesn't give the sense of being Bloodborne at all.

Score: Two out of four umbilical cords.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Dave Reviews: No, Not That Train Game

Chicago Express

What is the fascination board gamers have with trains omggggggggggg


Chicago Express is kind of the anti-Ticket to Ride. There are no cards, no pre-determined track lines where your trains can go, and you don't even have your own set of trains. Instead, you buy stock in train companies and receive dividends at various points so you can turn around and buy more stock, or just sit on your cash like Scrooge McDuck. And the train companies pay for everything!

The way it works is thus: Each player can do one of three actions per turn. You can start an auction for one stock certificate of your choice, build up to three trains along the line of a company in which you own stock, or build a house in an area to increase the value of any train lines running through there. Running lines and building houses comes out of the money put into a company via stock purchases, so at the start you can only auction stock. This gives ownership stakes to players so they can use the other actions, and money to the companies so they can afford the other actions. However, only so many of each action can be used per turn (different number per action type), and they don't reset until two action types are maxed out.

Once those two action types are maxed, the round resets, and dividends are paid. Dividends are equal to the value of the company, and you receive a percentage of those dividends equal to the percentage of the purchased stock you have in that company. If you have the only stock that anyone's bought, you get it all; if you have one and another person has one, you get half; if you have two and another person has one, you get two-thirds. Early stock ends up being the most valuable, since it's purchased when players don't have much money, but gauging what something's going to be worth at that point is harder. In other words, you need to buy something early, but it's hard to know what to buy.

Chicago is, for the most part, the most valuable city on the map. (A couple others can become worth slightly more, but they require either time or spending on upgrades; see below.) Not only does it add a ton more value to your company than any random town, mountain, or forest, but when a company gets there, its shareholders get an extra dividend paid to them right away. Every train company wants to reach Chicago, but the game doesn't usually last long enough for that to happen. However, roaming a bit with your line to increase its value can be helpful, as long as you make it to Chicago eventually.

There are a few quirks thrown into the game. Detroit acts like a round counter; it slowly increases in value, and once it's worth eight money, the game is in its final round. It can be a good boost to swing one of the northern lines to Detroit before taking it to Chicago. Reaching that final round is unusual, however, and you have to get to Chicago before the game ends.

Pittsburgh and Wheeling can be repeatedly increased through building houses, unlike other areas. Pittsburgh is sometimes worth it; there are usually better options than pumping Wheeling up one dollar at a time, which largely plays to how West Virginia is treated in the real world. And, once a company reaches Chicago, the Wabash company opens up. It only has two shares, but it starts in Fort Wayne and can reach Chicago pretty quickly.

The quirks don't overtake the main concept, though: everything is balanced around how well you judge the value of a company's stock, and how well you improve that value once you have a stake in it. Wabash is special because it comes into the game late and has a short path to Chicago, but that doesn't make it more valuable than the other companies; bidding wars can easily happen because there are only two shares, and that's often a mistake. Getting half of fourteen is not as good as getting one-quarter of thirty-six. (The answers are seven and nine.) It's a nice change from the automatic, whatever opens up last is best idea that games tend to have. And it's not really a secret from new players; the logic may not be immediately obvious, but if you're cognizant of how value works and can see what's possible or probable before the game ending conditions are met, you can take advantage.

I'm not a huge fan of this game because I'm bad at it. If it turns out you're not bad at it, you'll probably have a swell time.

Score: Six broken-down mining towns out of seven.

Dave Reviews: City of Normalcy

Metropolys

Semi-unique mechanics! Average gameplay! Excitement abounds for all!


Metropolys brings an old-school, semi-steampunk look to a tower placement game, which is like worker placement except with towers.

This is high-level analysis, folks. Feel the rush.

The city board is split up into several districts, each of which has a various number of smaller sections. Each player has a set of towers numbered one through fifteen. Players can hide the numbers of their remaining towers, but they're in three sizes according to value (1-5, 6-10, 11-15), so opponents can always get at least a rough idea of what you have remaining. This is probably the most interesting aspect of the game, the way they've made what is effectively card-counting something you can use to get an edge but also a manageable task.

The first player chooses one of the small sections of the city and places a tower on it. From there, play continues with players either placing a higher number tower on an adjacent spot or passing, until all but one player has passed or no one else can make a legal play (this includes not having a space on which to play another tower because all adjacent ones have been taken). On all subsequent turns, the player who chooses the section is the one who won the previous auction.

Different tokens are placed on the city sections as bonuses or, in the case of one token type, penalties. Forcing players away from (or towards) these tokens is useful, although the secret objective each player gets may make them perfectly willing to absorb a small penalty in order to win a bigger bonus at the end of the game.

The main strategy of the game is figuring out which sections you want to target and how to ensure you get them. If you need to chain sections along a lake for your secret objective, there's a section in the middle of the board where it might be worth dropping your biggest towers early because there are two lakes touching the same areas, so you'll get double the bonuses. If you wait and try to finagle your way into them without committing as many resources, there's an excellent chance you'll lose them; should it work, however, you could end up with a major advantage. Likewise, cornering areas so you can take them with your smallest tower (by making sure there are no free adjacent areas) is a big part of winning.

As a game, it's... fine. It's adequate. You'll probably play, finish, and say, "Yeah, that was alright." It's the type of game more likely to sway you after your first run based on how you finished, because it's not so bad that you'll feel like it was a waste of time even if you win, and it's not so good that you'll be dying to try again even if you get smashed.

Of course, it's not my place to say how you'll feel. That's rude. I'm running on probabilities. This is an older game, so telling you to find a friend with it isn't a suggestion to save your money; it may be the only way to see it. It used to be playable online, but that's apparently no longer the case. It's worth one playthrough, at the very least. You might adore the game. Just don't set your expectations excessively high.

Score: The most mundane 7/10.

Dave Reviews: The Slowest Fastest Dungeon

5-Minute Dungeon

Five minute games are great. You can play multiple rounds at a sitting, learn the game and evolve new strategies in a very brief time, and...

It doesn't matter. This isn't one of those games.


To be clear, the rules of 5-Minute Dungeon are set up so that it takes five minutes to play. There is a five minute timer that ticks down until you finish the dungeon or time runs out and you lose. The title isn't a lie.

You start with a dungeon deck, put together with a boss and a number of cards as stated on the boss board. Cards require a certain number of symbols to defeat—shields, swords, arrows, sprints, or scrolls. Non-boss or mini-boss cards are either obstacles, people, or monsters, and there are special cards which automatically defeat each of these enemy types.

Each player chooses a class and the corresponding colored deck of cards. Each deck has its own strengths in terms of symbols available, special cards, and so on. When the round starts, players take cards from their hands (hand size determined by player count) and play them as fast as possible to beat the monster. If you play a card, you draw a card, up to your initial hand limit; some effects make you draw extra, at which point you would just play down to your initial hand limit (you can hold as many as you want).

You have five minutes to get through all the enemies and beat the boss. If time runs out, or everyone is out of cards, you lose. So it's a five minute dungeon, right?

Yes. Technically.

Each dungeon is five minutes, barring a special effect like a divine shield that lets you stop the clock (which is usually a welcome extension). The idea, though, is that you'll beat all the dungeons back to back. It's a board game roguelike. If you lose, you can always just restart at the level you lost on, but "beating" the game means blowing through them all back to back. Even if you do it in different sittings, you're supposed to beat all five dungeons without losing, and it's pretty unlikely many people will do that one five-minute game at a time.

The game itself is pretty fun if you like chaos. There isn't a ton of strategy until you've played several times, with other people who have played several times, to the point where you know when and how to communicate your hands to each other fast enough to be useful. Think of it like hyper-speed Hanabi—if you can't find a way to work together beyond what normal-length explanations and planning can accomplish, you're not going to beat it.

There's nothing wrong with Hanabi, though, and there's nothing wrong with this. It's for gamers who want to lock in hard for a short time, breathe, then do it again. If that's you, pick it up.

Score: Five minutes out of the six you friggin' need.

Dave Reviews: The (Weather)Man of the Hour

The Weatherman

Whoa, more not-games.


Here's the blurb for The Weatherman off Image's site:

"Nathan Bright had it all: an awesome girlfriend, a kickass dog, and a job as the number one weatherman on terraformed Mars. But when he's accused of carrying out the worst terrorist attack in human historty—an event that wiped out nearly the entire population of Earth—Nathan becomes the most wanted man alive and a target of a manhunt that spans the galaxy. But is Nathan truly responsible for such a horrific crime? And why can't he remember?"

The first issue of this comic is out, and I liked it. The method of storytelling isn't wildly groundbreaking—there's a slacker whose boss is screaming at him to get out of bed and get down to the news studio to do the weather, we learn about the world through blurbs of the other news being read while he's getting ready and heading to the studio, and then he comes out and crushes it, which explains why they put up with his bullshit. There's a girl, a date, guns, and a cliffhanger. From a broad-spectrum view of first-issue comic storytelling, this is all fairly standard.

And it's done pretty well. Nathan's lackadaisical approach to getting ready even after being awoken while the news show he works for is on the air gives a better sense of his character than a lot of comics pull off. He admits to the woman he's been calling endlessly that he doesn't get many second dates, but the overall story gives us an idea of why she does go on that second date before we can question what's wrong with her. The motivations of the bad guys are unclear, but they're definitely after Nathan, and that balance feels right.

It's a perfectly good comic. What throws me off is the way it's being sold. By reading the blurb above, you've learned more about the story than the first issue tells you. It's a little hard to fault Image for the decision; the series as a whole will go far beyond this blurb, and they need some kind of sales pitch. In fact, maybe you're being helped—you'll see the comic on a more basic level and be able to decide how much you like the way it's crafted, not the way it surprises you.

I'll put one idea out there as a way to measure how good the comic can potentially be: Nathan's 'girlfriend' is the woman he's gone on two dates with. At no point would you reasonably think of her as his girlfriend. When he calls her his girlfriend—I won't spoil when or why it happens—it felt, to me, like a gorgeous bit of timing, a way to show what he wants and how clueless he is all at one shot at a moment chosen for maximum impact.

If that type of thoughtful writing holds up, this series could be fantastic. If it was a lucky break, like they had a terrible idea in mind and it happened to look good, the whole thing might fall apart. I'm staying positive for now; at the very least, the first issue is worth a read.

Score: 99 red weather balloons

Monday, May 28, 2018

Dave Reviews: The Failure of Medieval Politics

Council of Four

Short review: Council of Four shows the fallibility of the monarchy and why it was destined to fail as a form of government.

Game's not bad, though.


Council of Four, much like owning a multinational corporation, is a game about being a merchant, using people in government for personal gain, and replacing them if they don't suit your interests anymore. The board consists of fifteen cities split into five different regions. One of your goals is to put a merchant in every city in a region before your opponents do to gain a bonus; alternately, you can put a merchant in every city with the same color, which spread across regions and are usually not connected, to earn different bonuses. The more efficient you can be with your merchant placement, the better, as you'll be able to earn more bonuses. Getting to them quickly matters too, though: Queen's Rewards go to the players who earn bonuses the fastest, and they drop precipitously in value as the game goes on.

You get merchants into cities by influencing the noble councilors of the three regions, or the councilors of the queen herself. There are four councilors assigned to each region and the queen, determined randomly. As an action, you can push a new, unused councilor into one of those groups, pushing the one in the end out of favor and changing the set. Often this is done to earn money (you gain four gold for doing this with your main action). Sometimes it's mainly done to adjust the council so it fits your cards. Rarely, since it's usually hard to tell what another player needs, you'll change a council to try and mess up someone's plans. However, usually you can only tell what a player needs when they assign someone to a council. Because a newly-placed councilor has to cycle through all four council spots before getting booted, it's unlikely you'll be able to kick that person off before the player doesn't need them anymore.

To influence councilors, you need to collect cards matching the set currently on the council. The cards relate to the six colors of councilors (related to how they dress, it's not a racist thing... I think). You start with four cards and draw one per turn. This makes set-gathering slow; however, if you don't have a full set, you can pay to make up the difference (you need at least one card of the set). Early on you'll usually be able to get a merchant placed for free or cheap. Overall, however, part of your task is to minimize how much you spend per city on average while getting your merchants into as many cities as possible.

If you build a set for a regional council, you take one of the two available business tiles for that region. Business tiles have bonuses that are immediately earned. They also have a letter or letters on them; these refer to cities that start with the same letter. If you take an action to buy a business tile, you can take another action (usually on a different turn) to place a merchant in one of the cities on the tile. Should other merchants already be there, you have to spend one servant per merchant in the city to place yours.

Servants, by the way, serve numerous purposes, most of them revolving around taking a secondary quick action after your main action. Think of them like Five Tribes'... fakirs.

Alternately, you can collect a set aimed at the Queen's Council. By spending the cards and then two gold per city the queen must travel through to reach the one you're interested in, you can bribe her into letting you place a merchant there (servant costs still apply). You don't get a tile, which means no tile bonus and one less tile to potentially boost your endgame scoring a little bit. However, bribing the Queen means you only need one turn instead of two, you need a different set of colors (so you can work around the hand you have more easily), and you can place your merchant in a city even if there's no tile for it immediately available.

When you place a merchant, you earn a small bonus connected with that city (except the capital, where the Queen starts). As the game progresses and you place more merchants, you get bonuses from merchants in cities connected to new placements. It's not just adjacent ones, either; for every adjacent city, you also earn bonuses for each city another remove away. So, if you spread around the board and then drop one of your last merchants in a central area, you can earn a boatload of bonuses.

Bonuses come in a few varieties. First are the aforementioned city bonuses. In addition, if you're first to hit every city in a region, you earn the region's five-point bonus. There are also four colors of cities: blue, orange, purple, and yellow, with two, three, four, and five cities of these colors, respectively. Blue's fastest and worth five points; yellow is hardest, but it's worth twenty. Orange and purple are eight and twelve. Nobility bonuses exist if your nobility increases far enough, but that's something of a side bonus—you can read about it if you play.

Biggest of all, however, are the Queen's Rewards. These are so big (at first) as to seem out of line with the game's general balance. The first person to finish any regional or color bonus gets the first reward, which is an extra twenty-five points. The second to do so earns eighteen. The rest are, I think, twelve, eight, and three. This puts a major impetus on playing for the first Queen's bonus, which gives a major advantage to people who have played before over those who haven't. Even if you explain its importance, a newbie may not realize what they have to look for to try and get that bonus. (It's pretty much always going to be whoever finishes the two blue cities first, barring a nutty tile draw.)

However, if you go for that bonus and miss, then you're behind in going for #2 if anyone else decided chasing that one made more sense. If you don't get either of those two, you almost don't have a choice but to go for yellow, but if someone's already got a head start on that... you have time, but you're still working from behind.

******

That explanation of the game took longer than usual. Let's discuss what makes the game good or bad.

First off, the balance between the actions and how they effect your play is very polished. It's easy to throw down your cards and spend your money to gain a few quick cities, and if they're the right cities/business tiles, that may be able to propel you forward. But there's no combination that leads to an outright snowball unless your opponents are paying no attention and let you take all the best stuff. There's an optimal way to proceed, turn by turn, but with enough randomness between what tiles are available, what the councils look like, and what your opponents do that you can't autopilot anything.

Finding the right city bonuses to connect to each other is somewhat dependent on how the game goes, but making a nice chain and then maximizing the resources you get out of it is a good feeling. It's hindered slightly by the difficulty you sometimes run into when making those chains, but in some ways that makes it all the sweeter when you do connect several merchants.

The scoring mechanisms, though...

Let's go back to the Queen's Rewards. If you're careful/lucky, you can snag the first two blue cities by turn three, maybe four. In doing this, you earn a five point bonus for the blue, and twenty-five for the first Queen's Reward. It feels insane to watch that many points go out that fast. In pure balance terms, it's not as bad as it looks; if the eighteen goes with the three city bonus, that's twenty-six, and if you can get all the yellows, that's twenty plus whichever Queen's Reward you can manage, if any.

However, winning that blue bonus early still gives you the single biggest bonus in the game, and getting those blue cities is effectively a question of luck. They're spread apart, so you either need business tiles for both or one tile and then use the queen for the one near the capital. The first strategy takes longer, but is a little more reliable. The second is faster, but only if you get a perfect set of cards. The skill is more in recognizing whether or not you'll actually be the one to complete that pair first. That's a legitimate skill, but because it happens so early, there really isn't anything about winning that bonus that takes what we might think of as a 'gamer skill'—planning ahead, setting up your moves ahead of time, etc. Plus, watching those bonuses go away so fast lends a sense of inevitability to the outcome, even though it's not inevitable at all.

Furthermore, the larger the group of cities you need, the harder it is to collect them. You can only rely on the queen so often; you'll need business tiles for most of all of the ones you want. They're not always available, so you have to be ready to grab them when they are. In addition, the yellow group is worth a pretty good number of points, but the regional bonuses are only five. This is supposed to be offset by the fact you're getting many more gameplay bonuses from connecting your merchants. However, they toe this weird line of not being worth the effort, yet being tantalizing because we all like bonus points. There is real value in getting bonuses from connected cities, but it's almost like they added regional bonuses because having four colors and three or four Queen's Rewards didn't seem like enough.

******

In the end, calling Council of Four 'good' seems correct, but too safe. The gameplay is very good, and as mentioned, the balance between actions is spot on. The variety of cities and bonus types mean that, while everyone's going for the same basic goals, the way you set up your actions to get there needs to be flexible. In that vein, it's almost comparable to classics like Terra Mystica (though not quite there).

The scoring, though, makes everything feel out of whack. This is a game best played with four people, but there are only three truly major bonuses available. VPs can be earned as the game progresses, and by the game's end, before bonuses are added, scores can vary quite a bit. However, the bonuses are most of the overall scoring, and the impetus on taking them takes away from the options a player can pursue without borking their chances at victory. It's not a fun experience to watch all of them get snatched up and feel like you're dead in the water. And there's no obvious fix; changing the values would merely change the importance placed on them. When you house rule stuff like that, then whether the changes are good usually depends on the whims of the players unless you hit just the right note.

I'm sure the designers think they hit that note here. I think they're wrong. But play it, because it's fun enough to check out once and see which side of this you fall on.

Score: Three angry, yet dapper, councilors out of four.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Dave Reviews: Picture Association

Codenames: Pictures

Codenames: Pictures is an offshoot of the original Codenames. In fact, it serves as the basis for as many Codenames spin-offs as the original (the Disney and Marvel versions).

But is it as good?

Well.

Maybe.


You can find my review of the original here; the core gameplay is unchanged. There's still two teams, each with a codemaster who associates as many things of their color as possible with a clue and hopes their team makes the same connection. The main difference, as the title should give away, is that now it's done with pictures rather than words.

Before playing, there may be a trap of thinking that this is a dumbed-down version of the game. After all, picture books are considered to be at a lower level than purely text books (though numerous comic series put the lie to that idea, but that's a story for another time). Figuring out what associations your team will make, however, is the name of the game, and the pictures here do not make that easy. Each tile has multiple elements that could be drawn on for clues. Thus, the codemaster has to work around misunderstandings that could lead their team to the wrong tiles, and also ones that could lead them to disregard the correct tiles because they're focused on the wrong parts of those tiles.

In short, the pictures work out very well as association devices. The game is about equally challenging for both codemasters and players, but in a different way that refreshes the experience.

If there's a problem with the game, it's the way the board is set up. Instead of a 5x5 grid like the original, Pictures uses a 4x5. This does not come with a commensurate reduction in spies per team; instead, there are far fewer neutral tiles. The result is a slightly quicker, but swingier game. If you get something wrong, you're much more likely to hand your opponents a freebie. Combined with the slightly fewer spies per team needed to win, and any error is now far more likely to push your opponents ahead. Codemasters are thus incentivized to be a little more conservative with how many clues they tell their team, which... it's not bad, per se, but the threat of losing your turn (and potentially hitting the assassin) already leads teams to not go crazy with the number of clues they go for on a given turn.

Given the quality of Codenames in general, I'm assuming they started with a 5x5 grid and determined 4x5 made more sense for some reason. Maybe their playtesters liked the potential swings. Maybe players disliked neutrals in general—they'd rather the game move towards a conclusion with each guess more often. I don't know. The change probably won't matter to most people. This is a purely personal gripe with the game, but this is my space, so I'm going to make it.

Even with that, though, it's still good. Go play it.

Score: 8/10 (wouldn't make sense to have an extra gripe and score it higher, would it?)