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


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