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?



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?)

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Dave Reviews: Post-Death Syndrome, The Book

A.D. (After Death)

Ooooh, it's a review about not a game!

Maybe I shouldn't sound that excited. This isn't an excitement book.

Jonah's a thief. Lots of people are thieves, but Jonah's a good thief. He strategizes on the Internet with other thieves, and people who give the thieves ideas of what to steal. Eventually he meets one of those idea people (Head of Table), who asks him to steal something very special: a forty-year-old woman with a disease that has kept her physiologically a child.

Yes, it's kidnapping. They don't call it that. It's just stealing something else to them.

The book jumps between Jonah's memories of the past and the book's present day, which is over eight centuries in the future, since the cure for death was found. Jonah's reached a point where he blames himself; he was, after all, instrumental in acquiring the basis for that research via the aforementioned kidnapping. Why would he blame himself for it, you may ask? Is this another story where immortality is found to be something unwanted, filled with people tired of life but too scared to finally off themselves?

I'll leave that question unanswered, in an effort not to spoil too much.

What's important to know: Jonah is an easy-to-understand protagonist/narrator, from the story about his family vacation and the fate of his family to how he ended up in the position of making the most important theft in human history. He's complex in the sense of having enough layers for him to be a whole person, but not in a way that's likely to lead to dramatically different readings of his character.

The blend of text storytelling and graphic novelization is well-handled. It's mostly text, while the graphic sections mainly refrain from a lot of dialogue (and it makes sense where it shows up). The book would have come off much differently if it were fully text; had it been 100% graphic novel, it probably would have still had much of the text laid over the art, so this was a good way to reduce production time while still having basically the same story, whether that was the intent or not. From a purely artistic view, the back-and-forth between the styles is done well enough to be worth studying and learning from, beyond simply being enjoyable.

A.D. was originally released as three smaller books; as is too often the case with compilations, it's easier to see when the story starts going off the rails a bit. The first two have a pretty solid narrative arc, even if you're not really sure where it's going to end up. The third, in theory, should have this as well; this was developed as a full story, not a series that become surprisingly popular and required the writers to dream up more of an arc than they initially anticipated. But the explanation of the fate of the world gets a little weird. It's explained as an outcome with causes that aren't really set forth; that's fine if the causes are fairly obvious, but in this case they're not. You assume the outcome is due to the cure being found, but then Jonah says the rest of the world didn't know about the cure, which makes their behavior more curious and harder to understand. The ending is similarly unexplained; although the drama of the final scene is quite good, there will probably be a wide variance among readers regarding whether they like the way it wraps up, because it's not closed off neatly.

However, A.D. isn't a book that leans heavily on the power of its storytelling. It has a good story, but the aesthetic (both of the art and the narration), the mixed-genre style, and the concept (what would a world without death look like?) are the draw. It's worth a read, although at $25, you might want to wait for a sale.

Score: Seven walking, talking undead (THAT'S WHAT THEY ARE) out of nine.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Dave Reviews: Chokepoint Hell


Some games are good. Some games are good, but hard to like because they don't suit us. Some games are bad, but we like them because in some way they're just what we need.

Some games are just shit.

In the interests of fairness, this is currently rated 7.5 at BGG, which is pretty good. I acknowledge, therefore, that most people feel better about this game than I do. That's fine. I respect their right to be wrong.

Downforce is a racing game that isn't just about pushing your car to the finish line. Players bid points (money) before the game to own cars, and earn points at the end of the game if their car(s) finish anywhere except last place. Each car has a randomly drawn power associated with it; if you buy multiple cars, you only keep one of the powers, but it's applied to all your cars.

Just as important is the mechanic of betting on which car will win. There are three betting checkpoints; after any turn where someone passes a checkpoint, everyone bets on a car. If it finishes in the top three, you win points, and the earlier the checkpoint, the more points that bet earns you. If you pick the winner all three times, that's 18 points, which is a big chunk of a winning score.

You start with a hand of cards, the size of which is determined by the player count (all 42 cards are dealt, so that divided by number of players). Each card has anywhere from one to seven colors on it: one for each color of car, plus white for wild. These cards are used for bidding—show a card with a given color and you bid that number of points for that color car, white is zero—and during the game, where you move each car on the card the printed number of spaces, in order from highest to lowest.

You keep the cards you bid with, which means you'll usually buy cars for which you have at least one good card; in theory this could be a downside because your opponents see your cards, but everything jumbles into each other so much that remembering enough cards to gain a strategic advantage is unlikely. When you take a car, you also get an 8 card, good for one eight-space move. (This is both a good way to incentivize car purchases and the mechanic that winds up fucking the game. More on that to come.)

From there, the game simply proceeds in turn order. The first player is the one who buys the car in pole position, with play proceeding to the left from there. Your goal is twofold: use your cards and powers to push your own car(s) out in front while creating a cluster behind you that gets jammed into chokepoints and loses movement (e.g. if a green six is played and green can only move one before running into other cars, green effectively loses five potential movement).

And this is where the game starts to fall apart. The only strategy, really, is to decide when to prioritize pushing your cars forward and when to throttle your opponents. If you can create a serious enough roadblock, opponents may be forced to move you ahead more than themselves. In doing so, however, they'll often make it easier for other people to pass them, but if nobody moves you, you're still in the lead when it gets back to your turn, and unless all your cards are garbage, you can fly ahead of everyone else from there.

That doesn't sound so bad, right? It sounds strategic. And it is strategic. However, the implementation leaves a fair bit to be desired. First, movement per car is relatively limited. There's enough in the deck to get everyone around the track, but it doesn't take much wasted movement before a car literally cannot make it to the finish line anymore. While this is functionally not awful—whether you're last to cross or the only one not to cross, you're still last—it's an unfulfilling way to end the game. "I lost" is not as bad as "I didn't even finish", unless the reason for not finishing makes for an incredible story. But it's too common in Downforce.

Secondly, while forcing people into difficult choices often makes for a healthy strategic game, in this case those choices are frequently no-win situations. Playing a game where, if you don't get into the lead, you're spending the game making least-bad choices rather than good ones that can improve your position is a disheartening experience. It feels fine when you're winning and bleh when you're in the pack, watching someone race out into the lead.

Thirdly, because it's so easy for one person to jam into the lead, the betting process is too often cut and dried. You know who's going to win barring a serious strategic misplay, so everyone knows who to bet on. The real problem here is that the winner can bet on themselves; while there's no reason they shouldn't be able to, if you get winner prize money and also bet on yourself at all three betting points, you've maxed your score and can't lose. Unless someone else does well enough with multiple cars that is, which leads to...

The fourth point. A six player game is ok, since everyone owns one car. Two or three players is theoretically good; the cars don't need to be evenly split, but can be. In a four or five player game, though, some player or players will have more than one while the rest have just one, and that ends up being a serious drawback without a gin hand that has huge numbers for all of your cars. The special 8-card, for example, is supposed to be the thing that jumps you ahead at the right time; if you have multiple cars, though, playing one eight means you leave your other car(s) in the dust along with everyone else. It's harder for any of your multiple cars to succeed as well as a single one unless you hard focus on one of them, and if you do that it's likely your other cars will finish far enough back that they won't make up the points you spent on acquiring them unless you grabbed them super-cheap. So the potential balance of multiple cars doing well and competing with a one-car winner doesn't really pan out.

And, finally, the sign that the designers definitely did not put enough time into solving this game's issues: Track #2. The board can be flipped to play one of two tracks, which is great. However, on Track #2, the first single-space checkpoint can be reached on a move of eight. Therefore, the race basically revolves around who wins the pole position car. Is it red, and you only have a 2 as your highest point total for red? GG. Unless the pole winner doesn't realize the situation, all they need to do is play their eight for that card, get into the gap, and let everyone else crowd in behind them. They're off to the races, playing every big card they can for that color immediately if they're smart, and unless their hand is total garbage apart from the eight and whatever card they used to win the car, no one's going to catch them. It's a dumpster fire of a race, and the fact nobody on the design team realized that is gaming malpractice.

It's not like the single-space chokepoints are great in general; it's a take-that mechanic writ large. The game would have made substantially more sense if it was designed like Formula D, where there are always multiple avenues of movement and blocking only happens if multiple people happen to line up side by side. It's an aggravation, but a rare one, enough so that it can be called 'part of the game' and not take away from the enjoyment. It could easily be argued that Downforce needs that space even more, since the relatively low values on the cards (as compared to Formula D's dice rolls) make it easier for cars to pack together. Granted, the Downforce track offers a very F1 feel—if you've ever watched an F1 road race, you've undoubtedly seen the tight corners where passing is impossible—but the designers needed to take the time and realize mimicking that aesthetic was a terrible decision for their game.

The art's really good, and the overall look of the game components is solid. It feels like a game that should be good, and it plays like a game that should be good. Having only played larger games, I'll even allow for the possibility that it is good at small player counts. But at four and five, it's a rolling dumpster fire. Avoid it as you would any dumpster fire.

If you like dumpster fires, well... here you go.

Score: 4.5/10 (it doesn't even deserve a marginally thoughtful scoring mechanism)

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Dave Reviews: Wonder Twins, Fight!

7 Wonders Duel

More Wonders per capita: how we truly make America great again.

7 Wonders Duel is a few years old now, but it still sells, and it's earned those sales by being a legitimately good scaled-down version of the original. Part of the reason is that the designers didn't feel compelled about making it look like 7 Wonders. They remembered the first rule of spin-offs: all you need is the name on the label and the theme in the box. The game itself (and this goes for movies, TV shows, any type of entertainment) doesn't have to work the same way at all.

You'll recognize all the bits and pieces from 7 Wonders. There are three ages, card drafts, coins, differently colored buildings you put on your side for resources and bonuses, and the Wonders you build for extra bonuses. However, they all go together differently. First, there's no passing cards; you set up the all the cards for each age in a particular arrangement, with some face up and some down. From there you pick one that is both face up and not covered in any way by another card. Early on there are some resources you can get for free, but most have a cost. In the original, you give money to the people you buy resources from, but here you can pay the bank for a base cost of two coins per resource. If your opponent collects some of that resource and you have to buy it, you still don't pay them; you just pay more money to the bank. In this way, coin management remains an important component of play.

Some card types work differently, mainly science. There's no more bonuses for sets of science symbols at the end of the game. Instead, if you get a pair of one symbol, you can take a token that gives you some sort of fair to extremely powerful bonus (depending on how the game is playing out), and if you get six different symbols, you just straight up win the game. Likewise, military doesn't score you points on a per-age basis; there's a track that lets you push a shield back and forth, wiping out some amount of your opponent's money if you push it far enough (this can happen twice per player), or win the game outright if you get it to the end of the track.

For the rest: blue cards were always just points, so they're not particularly different. Brown and silver cards are still the same resource types. Yellow cards offer some different bonuses (ie. 1 coin for a given resource, which also can't be increased by the opponent holding that resource).

Wonders work similarly to the original, in that you draft a card, then flip it face down under the Wonder and spend the resources necessary to build it. Some of the rewards are different, however, most notably the ability to take an extra turn and the ability to break something your opponent has (a resource or some money). In addition, there are four Wonders per player, but only seven can be built per game, meaning more emphasis must often be put on getting them completed, especially if your opponent has some with extra turns and can theoretically knock them out back to back before you can respond.

Spoilers were at the start, but once again, 7 Wonders Duel lives up to the name. Highly recommended for couples who haven't found time to go see their friends anymore, you know who you are, you poor sods.

Score: Seven Wonders, a marketplace, and two plazas out of all that plus a caravan and a bar where the people in the caravan get so drunk they forget to set up their tent the next day.