Monday, December 31, 2018

Dave Reviews: Traindrawing

Railroad Ink
Choo choo, goes the train. Vroom vroom, goes the car. Rattle rattle, go the dice. Squeak squeak, goes the dry-erase marker. Mailing in the opener, goes the review writer.

That box looks pretty big, but Railroad Ink is a tiny little thing from Horrible Games that is weirdly entertaining if your brain functions like mine. I don't wish that on anyone, but still, there's an audience for this.

Each player gets a 7x7 dry erase grid to draw on. The even numbered squares (2, 4, 6) along all four sides have either a highway or a railroad track on their edges. There are four dice rolled each round (seven rounds total) that have highway and/or railroad tracks on them; players all use the same rolls each round, and new roads and tracks being drawn either need to come in from a matching type on the edge or connect to something already on the grid. Each of the tracks coming in also counts as an exit point; your goal is to connect as many of the exit points together as possible, preferably with one set of tracks and roads, no matter how convoluted it may look at the end.

Game boards unfold into the dry erase surface and a small guard that protects some of your drawing surface (it doesn't need to protect everything; the only useful information would be if opponents could see your whole map clearly) and shows both the possible dice rolls and special tiles you can use once per game. There are six specials in all, of which you can use three total. These are especially important because they're the only reliable source of stations—black squares that serve as the only way to connect highways and railroad tracks.

There's no interplay between players, unless you want to talk shit or draw on each other. All you're trying to do is score the most points via connecting the most exists, having the longest contiguous set of highway and rail lines, and using as many center squares as possible, while having the fewest dangling roads and rails on your grid. It's basically competitive solitaire, which allows it to function as a single player game, where your goal is to simply do better than you did last time. A common complaint with games is when players don't get to affect what happens to each other, and if you're a person who feels that way, this is not going to be for you.

But, if you're fascinated by games where everyone gets the exact same resources, has to do the best job they can with them, and victory is decided by who plans the best (and gets a little lucky if they take a chance on certain dice rolls hitting), this is a great little game. Once again, the core theme of these reviews comes into play: whether you like it or not, Railroad Ink is doing exactly what it's trying to do.

Score: Ten happily biased choo choo trains out of eleven.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Dave Reviews: Furry Cash 'N' Guns

You dirty rat! You actual dirty rat! Wash your fur, you're disgusting!

Goodcritters is a pseudo-bluffing game very much in the spirit of Cash 'N' Guns, but without the nerf guns and with slightly fuzzier gangsters. Each round there's a boss and a selection of loot set to be passed out among the criminals, and victory depends on your nerve, your ability to figure out what your opponents are doing, and how well you can maximize your take on every round. How the looting works is how the two games most differ.

One player starts as the boss. A number of loot cards are drawn equal to the number of players plus two, as opposed to the flat eight per round of Cash 'N' Guns. (There's a larger deck of loot cards with a Fuzz card slipped into the bottom third, so the end of the game is harder to predict.) Rather than players trying to brave their way into the heist so they can split the loot, the boss hands out the loot herself. The players get a vote, though; if more people vote no than yes, the loot is put back in the center and the next person becomes boss, passing out the same loot however he sees fit.

Of course, nothing's ever as simple as a vote.

After the loot is distributed, everyone gets an action. Voting yes or no are only two of the options. The others are to rob another player; guard against a robbery; or skim money off the top of the deck. Skimming only works if you're the first person to do it, which makes it great for the boss and a more chancy proposition the farther down the line you are. Robbery can only be done if you put your threat token in front of somebody else, which means if you do try and rob someone everyone knows who it will be already. It also means that if no one is threatening you, there's no need to guard yourself.

Therefore, if you're the boss, passing out the loot isn't a simple matter of making enough people happy with the split to keep you in charge. It's also a question of not giving people a reason to vote against you. Since not everyone has to use their threat token, the game ends up leaning more towards the politics of getting people to do what you want rather than calling their bluffs when guns are pointed at you, and the money split is a major part of that.

There are optional rules that involve bribes and payoffs, and each loot card as a type of loot attached to it (jewelry, paintings, etc.) which are currently irrelevant but should be put to use in future expansions. However, none of this affects the main drawback of the game: no catch-up mechanism. Not every game needs one, but it's pretty important in a game with a light tone that's designed to be an enjoyable experience.

For example, in Cash 'N' Guns, it can be difficult to make up ground if you're behind, but you do have an option—stand up and take part in every heist no matter how many guns are pointed at you. No, it may not work, but you can at least try. It's possible that other players were constantly throwing bullets at you, so that you never had a chance, but in most circumstances falling behind happens because you sit out a heist when the people threatening you were bluffing. Even if your decisions made perfect sense, at least it was your decisions that created the situation.

In Goodcritters, unless you're the boss, you have no control over the loot split. You can't make anybody give you anything. You can rob people, but that only gets you one random card from their stash (if they don't guard against it and rob from you instead). You can vote no, but even if it works, you don't make up any ground, you just stop everyone else from getting their loot. The balancing factor is supposed to be that if you're a good boss, you can keep the troops happy while also making more profit for yourself than you're giving to them, and it's better for the boss to give you money if you're behind because you'll vote for them while also being less of a threat. In theory, that should work, and with a group that knows how to play, it probably does. However, if everyone's just chucking loot splits in a way that will get them votes, it may keep going to the same people. If you're not among them, it leaves you pretty helpless, as you don't have the tools to do much about it.

There's also the question of what they plan to do with the loot types. In theory, there are ways to do set collection that function as a way to have fewer cards but more value, which may go a long way towards fixing the catch-up problem. But selling the game with aspects that don't come into play right away—especially when they're so prominently featured on the website—is some shenanigan behavior. When whatever expansion makes use of the loot types comes out, this game might be great. Not giving us that game is not OK.

Score: Six moderately valuable paintings out of nine in the stash.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Dave Reviews: Blenderized Egypt


War games about the ancient world are obviously not designed to re-enact every aspect of conquest in the ancient world. Warfare back then was mostly about not letting your troops fall prey to disease and boredom, and determining travel routes well in advance because it could take weeks to reach a destination.

But there's skipping the boring parts of army management, and then there's adding teleporters.

Kemet is a game for two to five players about armies, monsters, territory control, and eventually smashing the ungodly hell out of your enemies (unless you don't). Players pick a city, stick their armies and pyramids in the city, and set out a huge array of abilities to choose from. You have several actions per turn (the number varies depending on if you purchase abilities which give you bonus actions), and your goal is to balance things so you have enough energy/mana/Ankh Bucks to buy the things that will make you strong enough to hold temples for points (which can be taken away if temple control is stolen) and defeat your enemies in battle (which gives you permanent points). Focusing too much on the army will stifle your economy, and focusing too much on the economy will handicap your army.

So far, so normal. Here are the tricks in a fight: barring an ability that lets you expand the army, you can only move five troops together at once. However, if you hire a monster, that monster can move with an army on top of that five max. This can dramatically alter the strength of the force you bring to bear. Once battle is engaged, you play one of your battle cards, which can cause casualties, protect you against casualties, and/or just add to the effective strength of the army. You can also play other special cards, if you have any, that impact the fight. You attack and win, you get a point. (If you defend and win, you don't get a point, which strongly incentivizes aggressive behavior.)

What's possible—and not exceedingly rare when non-max strength armies fight—is that an army can be wiped out but still win the battle. If you attack and lose all your troops, you still force the opponent to retreat. This is most likely to give people a reason to take a miracle shot at dislodging an enemy from a temple when they're about to win the game, but it's still a little weird. In a slight nod towards logic, if you attack and win, you still need someone alive in order to earn a victory point.

The wide array of abilities you can buy are based not just on if you have the Ankh Bucks for them, but also if your pyramids are high enough level to get the abilities you want. Some abilities let you ramp up your pyramids faster so you can get better stuff! Of course, you need the Ankh Bucks, and you still need your army to be big and strong enough to win battles, and you can't quite do everything before things wrap up. It's one of those games where you start to get an ability engine going, and the game ends before it really gets steaming.

However, while in most games you can sort of see why the game ends when it does, even though you want it to go a little longer, Kemet really feels too short. Maybe an experienced player understands exactly what to do, and how to make the time limitation work in her favor, but when you're in the learning process it feels like you have the potential to get some really interesting things going when the game gets cut out from under you. A game of all new people who don't play very aggressively might actually be a lot of fun, as I'm sure a game between very experienced players is a quick, brutal affair, where any mistake is horrifically punished.

If that latter description is something that sounds like fun, Kemet's probably your kind of game. It does not allow for mistakes, or at least it doesn't allow you to make more mistakes than your opponent and still have a reasonable chance to win. On the bright side, if you do make that mistake, the game doesn't take as long as most war-type games, so the beating will be over relatively quickly. Bonus!

Score: Twelve functional pyramids out of fifteen.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Dave Reviews: Third Generation Creeps

Arkham Horror

Arkham attempts to not get transformed into Tentacle Ground Zero for the third... seventh... twelfth... however many times across however many games. Because, in the end, barring the greatest luck, no matter if you're playing Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, or whatever other Cthulhu game is out there, Arkham, and the world, are destined to fall.

But cheer up! You usually find an interesting way to die. Just look at Old Man Henderson.

This is the third edition of Arkham Horror, and it marks a massive departure from the first two. Gone is the massive board displaying the glory of Arkham, the kind of board that (along with the many, many peripheral pieces) requires a legit gaming-friendly table to play. In this game, Arkham consists of five hexagonal tiles, each representing a neighborhood. Like the neighborhoods in the other versions, each one has three locations, with encounter cards for each neighborhood split into the three locations, so this edition manages to basically maintain the number of places you can go while containing it to a much smaller area.

However, the game's functions are largely similar to previous Fantasy Flight Cthulhu games. You take two actions per turn, performing no action no more than once; movement is limited to two spaces, though there are ways to extend that; and monsters are a roadblock unless you manage to evade them. The game moves in phases, investigators first, and if your character dies, you pick up a new one and keep going.

The main changes (besides the style of the board) are with the characters and the storytelling. Every character still has a familiar set of stats, albeit familiar from Eldritch Horror, not the slider system of old Arkham Horror. However, improvements to stats are called focus, and boosting a stat through focus doesn't require a special event or item; you just take the focus action and raise a stat. The limitation is that almost every character has a limit on how many focus tokens they can have, and almost every character can only have one focus boost in a given stat. Still, the ease of ramping up your character is nice. Furthermore, focus tokens can be discarded for rerolls, which adds to the strategy in their use.

The storytelling is... different. It's better, mainly, since the old game didn't really try to tell a story at all. In this version, there are story cards that see use depending on the scenario you're playing. The scenario card tells you which cards to start with, but from there you have to dig into the deck to find whatever the initial cards say you need, which is generally dependent on game state. Did the investigators complete their goal? Take one card. Did too many doom tokens pile up before that? Take a different card. Some goals can both happen, and eventually you'll get the cards from both sides of that equation. Each scenario has its own set story, so if you play one through, you'll see the same one coming next time you run it. But it adds a nice flavor to the proceedings, especially on your first run through any given scenario.

Like all FF Cthulhu games, there are a TON of cards and tokens that you need to keep track of for potential use. If you didn't mind it before, it's no worse; if you hated it before, it's no better. What does suck is that there is basically nothing to help you sort or organize all those pieces. There aren't nearly enough baggies to keep you from dumping a bunch of stuff into the box loose, which makes finding everything the next time a huge pain in the ass. It's a relatively small problem, at least in the sense that you can fix it with a handful of your own baggies, but it's a dumb oversight.

The game itself is a definite improvement from the old Arkham Horrors. Mind you, that's on the most objective level possible—the storyline aspect means it's basically impossible to wind up in the six-hour slog that a big game of old Arkham Horror could become. The game runs like other Cthulhu games in style and pace; if you enjoyed those games on a basic level before, you'll probably like how this one palys as well.

Minimizing the space taken up while not carving off any substantial part of the game is extremely impressive. I saw back of the box and immediately questioned what kind of nonsense they were pulling, but it works, and it definitely feels like Arkham Horror. That said, the smaller physical space taken does mean that a bigger (5-6 player) game can get cramped with stuff. The same concept with bigger hexes would have also taken up much less space, but with room to place everything you need in any size game, not just 2-4 players. It's more a quality of life issue than anything with the game itself, but unlike the baggie problem, this isn't anything you can change.

Basically, this is an updated Arkham Horror that makes some things better and nothing worse, unless you require an epic board to have fun. If that's a need of yours, I can't help you.

Score: Seventeen wriggling tentacles out of twenty.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Dave Reviews: Markered for Death

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space

This game has it almost everything: heroic, capable humans; vicious, hungry aliens; and no guarantee that your escape pod will fire, if you're able to reach it at all.

It's only missing one thing.

Escape from Etc. is a competitive team game... mostly. Kind of. There are human and alien sides, at least. Everyone has a secret role, however, and nobody knows who's on what team except through contextual clues during the game. Only the aliens are a team—the humans are all competing for the escape pods, so helping each other isn't useful except in edge cases, while the aliens are all trying to eliminate the humans—but it's entirely possible for one alien to kill another.

Quick overview: each player gets a dry-erase map and a marker. They keep track of their own movements step by step, and track the enemies in whatever way they want. Humans move one space per turn; aliens move one or two. Ending your turn on a silent (white) sector doesn't trigger anything. Ending it on a dangerous (gray) sector makes you draw a danger card, which could force you to reveal your location (or not, or give a false location). Aliens who aren't careful can give away their identities by moving multiple sectors on early turns and then giving away their locations. That's not necessarily bad; only one human role, the soldier, can attack during the game without an item card that allows it, and aliens don't want to kill other aliens. Having the other players determine your location is a bigger problem than your identity, which sort of makes sense (OH GOD IT'S THE ALIEN RUN).

There are roles for each human and alien, with a special ability assigned to each role. In addition, there are items that can be collected, though only used by humans (aliens keep them to mask their identities). Combined with the eight different maps, this game has a ton of replayability; it's unlikely in the extreme that you ever come across an identical, or even similar, combination of roles and items in any two games. It's Alien Blood Battleship, and it's set up to be awesome.

What's missing is the awesome.

The concept is great. The ideas put into the concept are great. But the game is, at best, amusing; it's not really much fun.

Here's why, as far as I can tell: in every piece of media that depicts this kind of situation—group of humans versus invading force of others—the goal of the humans is to work together to overcome or escape the enemy. Anyone who goes against this goal, preferring instead to save themselves at all costs, is the traitor. In games, the traitor's success depends on the players, but in movies the traitor almost always dies, because the traitor is an asshole.

In this game, everyone is a traitor. It's philosophically correct to say that because everyone is working for their own benefit and nobody has a reason to team up, there are no traitors, but that doesn't matter. You're thrown into a situation where we're all trained to think of the humans as needing to band together to survive, not flee like selfish roaches. Sure, it's funny when the aliens eat each other, and it's nice to escape and win, but if you lose as a human, there's no sense of moral victory, there's no team goal you were a part of. You were the food. Period. And while that may play truest to how this type of scenario would run with real people and real... aliens, it's a depressing game experience.

What about if the aliens lose? Well, grasshopper, one other strange thing is that it's extremely difficult for the aliens to lose. Or, maybe it is. That's not a question which should have an unclear answer.

The aliens live "when the last human dies". What's strange about this definition is that, taken literally, if it's 4v4 and the aliens kill the last human after the other three escape, they win (as do the three humans who made it out). However, if the aliens kill three humans and the last escapes after that, they lose. Was that intended? If so, it makes no sense. If not, then it basically means the aliens win if they have any people to feed on. If it's 1v1, there's a winner and a loser. If it's 4v4, there are the people who escape and the aliens who almost certainly will meet some version of their win condition.

You bust this game out and it seems like it has to be a good time. Then it might be. Or not. Meh.

Score: Five winners out of eight whatevers on the ship.

Dave Reviews: The World's Cleverest Board

Dice Forge

Sadly, the world's cleverest board doesn't come with the world's cleverest board game.

Dice Forge is a game more literally about forging dice than you might think is possible. At its core, though, is a resource management game. Rolling dice and taking spots on the board earn you gold, sun shards (red), moon shards (blue), and of course the ever-important victory points. Spend some shards and you can get cards that help you towards victory. Collect some points and you get points. Spend some gold...

And this is where a game of resource management tries to do better than just making you collect different, more, or better cards/dice/cubes/insert abstract resource symbol here. Spending gold improves your dice. Not gets you better dice, but literally improves your dice. In much the same way that you improve your cards in Mystic Vale rather than add to your deck, you pull faces off your dice and replace them with better faces. It's viscerally fun, there are strategic choices with what you need better odds of rolling, and the game stays relatively casual—all you can do in a dice-based game is maximize your odds of winning, not shut out your opponents completely.

Plus, the way they set the board up is fantastic. There are a bunch of fiddly bits that have to sit in the board, and setting them up initially is kind of a pain in the ass. But rather than make you dump them all out after the game and put the pieces in baggies, there's a sleeve for all the board pieces to go in that keeps them locked down tightly, making sure the fiddly pieces stay in place. You only ever have to replace the parts you use in a given game. It's brilliant, and it's something other games should emulate if possible.

And... yeah. That's Dice Forge.

Short review, right? Here's the thing: Dice Forge is a good game. It has clever bits, it has functional bits. It has a more complex design than you'd expect from the cartoonish aesthetic, but board game veterans shouldn't have a problem figuring it out. New players may get a little hung up on some of the rules, but by the end of their first game they should understand how it plays.

But these days, in what has been an extended golden era for board games, good is the expectation. Good is normal. Good is the average. Understandable game? Check. Nice art? Check. Unique selling point? Check. An experience that creates makes you anticipate the next time you'll get to play? Not so much. Play, enjoy, play again, enjoy. This is a game that will win many fans but relatively few true admirers. It's a shame, but it's the truth.

Score: Three glowing celestial bodies out of four.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Dave Reviews: Key Creation Simulator


Keyforge is hailed as a game where "every deck is as unique as the person who wields it".

To that I say... have you met people?

Keyforge comes straight from the mind of Richard Garfield, creator of Magic, and Fantasy Flight Games, publishers of card games that aren't really like Keyforge at all. The premise is simple: most competitive card games have an effective entry cost, where you can't expect to do much at even small tournaments unless you spend a certain amount of money building your deck. Keyforge attempts to do away with that scheme, selling full-fledged decks for $10 a pop and—most importantly—making them unalterable. The deck you buy is the deck you play with. Every deck is procedurally generated by a system that's supposed to make them relatively balanced against each other, maximizing player agency and minimizing cost in the competitive scene.

Let's cut to the main question: Does it work? Did they succeed?

The answer: Yes...?

Better answer: It mostly seems like it, though we're early in the game's run and that could change for better or worse.

By and large, as far as I can tell, not many decks stomp hard or get stomped hard. Given the breadth of the card pool, it makes sense. The number of potential deck combinations is bonkers, and mathematically only a tiny percentage of decks will roll over everyone (except similarly powerful decks) without the player needing to be better than her opponent. Likewise, rare is the deck that's hopelessly outmatched by almost everybody. There will be small advantages for some decks over others, but it seems that you're as likely to find those advantages because one deck matches up well against another as you are because one is simply stronger.

More importantly, to the designers' credit, they're implementing methods of curtailing the power of those oddly mighty decks on the competitive scene. First is the deck-switch method. Players play each other, then switch decks and play again. If the match is tied, if they each would prefer to play the same deck for a tiebreaker, they bid chains for the right to use it. This is a very useful way of keeping competition balanced, but may suffer from game length (more on that later).

Another method uses the game's chain system. Normally, the chain system is similar to the overload mechanic in Hearthstone—play a card that's very strong, but suffer consequences on later turns, in the form of reduced card draw. Competitively, however, chains are also used to handicap decks that overwhelm all the others.

On a small-time level, if a deck wins a local competition (going 3-0, for example), that deck is tracked and given a chain for its next competition. If it wins again, it gets another chain, because it's clearly too strong for the available competition. If it doesn't, the chain goes away, because maybe it's only slightly stronger.

At larger competitions—and this is through the grapevine, nothing solid is written and posted—decks that keep winning will have chains added during the tournament. At a glance, this may seem unfair, like success is being punished. However, if a serious, large-scale competition didn't have this in play, one of two things one happen. First, the slim percentage of powerful decks would run everyone else over, making serious competition feel like it requires either a lucky draw or buying the deck from whoever has it, killing the entire goal of making Keyforge a minimally pay-to-win game. Alternately, if decks were tracked and chained going into the tournament, it would incentivize players to never take place in trackable events and instead test decks on their own, which would hurt community events and participation.

In the long run, Keyforge's viability will depend on the competitive scene's foundations, which makes these questions of paramount importance. Let's set that aside, now, and briefly talk about the game itself.

The system of play, where you choose one of your three houses and are free to play or use any cards from that house on that turn—but you can only use cards of that house, barring some special effect—will offer a welcome sense of freedom for some and a weird sense of limitation for others. Players who are comfortable using and manipulating outside energy sources in CCGs (mana in Magic, mana crystals in Hearthstone, wind stones in Force of Will, etc.) may find it awkward figuring out how to play efficiently with this system. The simplicity will be a major draw to some, though, and given time most players who are used to maximizing efficiency will adapt to Keyforge's mechanics.

The games tend to run longer than other games, though. Things speed up once you're comfortable with the game, but the mechanics combined with the fact you're less likely to be familiar with what your opponent is playing compared to a Magic tournament (where the same relatively small subset of cards keeps showing up) slows down the proceedings. A best-of-three finishing in fifty or sixty minutes is less likely than in other CCGs, which is unfortunate since the aforementioned best-of-three style has the best odds of creating a strong competitive format. The game is young, though, so game speed may increase more and more with time, rendering this issue moot.

Finally—and this isn't about the function of the game itself, but man, did it irritate the hell out of me—Keyforge is advertised as a game that doesn't require anything besides a $10 deck to play and compete. Technically, that's true. However, where cards on the battlefield in Magic have two states—tapped or untapped—that's not the case in Keyforge. Tokens are necessary for a number of things, including stuns on creatures (stuns can add up, so keeping it tapped isn't enough), embers (I'm not calling them 'aembers', bite me Garfield), and keys. You need something to represent these things. Unless you buy the starter set, the game doesn't provide any of them. You can use whatever you want, be it coins, dice, whatever, but that still requires having those things available. Someone new to the game isn't going to know that and is unlikely to be appropriately prepared, making the whole "buy a deck and play" not exactly how it works.

All that being said, if the biggest complaint I have is about peripherals, the game can't be that bad. The biggest concern about Keyforge as a gaming experience is if long games (30+ min.) are the norm or outliers. In addition to the previously mentioned issues, because Keyforge is a game where the deck cycles its discard pile, you see the same cards again and again, which can become tiresome when the game just won't end. But if the game matures and game times shorten to twenty minutes or so, I think that problem will be largely alleviated. Then it's just a matter of whether or not they can sort out the competitive scene.

Short version, Keyforge needs work in some spots, but it's better than I expected.

Score: Twenty EMBERS out of twenty-four.