Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dave Reviews: The Wonder War

Mare Nostrum: Empires

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave Reviews: Denmark Tetris

Copenhagen

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

Copenhagen! Copenhagen, Copenhagen!

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: Seven windows out of nine building blocks.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Dave Reviews: Fuck Your Goddamned Werewolves

Silver

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: Nine tiny werewolves out of thirteen.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

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

Bosk

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


Ah well. On to the forest.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: Vanilla 7.5/10.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Dave Reviews: Three-Quarters of a Good Comic

Nomen Omen

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

This one was so close, too.


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

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

Then the villain comes in and explains it all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: The strangest 8/10.

Dave Reviews: 2012

Tzolk'in

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

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


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

HEYO!

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

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

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

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

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

Score: Ten crystal skulls out of twelve.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Dave Reviews: Rock 'N' Roll

Shobu

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


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

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

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

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

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

Score: Fourteen shiny rocks out of sixteen.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Dave Reviews: Being Turned Into A Playtesting Newt

The Village Crone

The witches of Wickersby have a nice selection of familiars. Snakes, bats, ravens (ok, crows, but I like ravens better), little critters run around the town stealing away their resources and bringing them back for the witches to use in their spells. So many, in fact, that one wonders why anyone still lives in Wickersby. 

Well... if they didn't, there would be no game. 

And it's that attention to detail that marks The Village Crone.


The Village Crone revolves around two things: collecting spell ingredients and casting spells. Through these two activities, and moving your familiars and the villagers around the board, let you fulfill the witch schemes that score you points. Thirteen points, of course, gives you the win.

There are six boards, each with a different village location, that can be set up in different configurations to change the game a bit each time you play. The Forge, Mill, Farm, and Lord's Manor are where your familiars can collect ingredients (two at the end of each round); the Tithe Barn is where you put one ingredient at the start of each round, unless you have a familiar there; and the Village Green has no specific effect, but it's where your new familiars show up. If someone binds the area, nothing can enter or exit, and so your familiars might be stuck there or not be able to enter the game at all.

The spells you cast are quite stereotypically witchy. You can magically create a romance between two of the villagers, turn them into frogs, summon villagers to certain locations or swap the positions of villagers and familiars, and even counter the spells of other witches. The witch schemes—worth one, two, or three points, and requiring you to meet the same number of objectives in one turn—generally work around these spells. You may be required to summon a given villager to a certain location, make them fall in love with someone, turn them into a frog, etc. One of the entertaining aspects of the game is that the schemes fit the concept of the evil witch well—you might bring two people together, then turn one of them into a frog (or both if they're in love, since they share fates), then bind the area so they can't leave.

In fact, the game's aesthetic is quite good. It has a gloomy feel, though not to the point of being depressing, and the fact they don't go away from what everyone connects with witches isn't a problem. If you expect witches to do hexes and love spells and such, you get that, and it's well done.

The game itself, though, has some real issues. There are numerous games which advertise themselves as being suitable for a wider player count range than is really true, and this is in that category—do not play this with six people, and probably not with five—but the problems run deeper than that. Sure, there's a lot of downtime when the game is big, and that's not fun, but the designers didn't even create enough scheme cards to accommodate the realities of a larger game. With six people, not only are you almost guaranteed to run out of level three schemes, you may come close to running out of schemes entirely unless someone runs away with the game.

Furthermore, although the schemes are very much in line with the theme, and often inherently tell a quick story (which is great), there isn't much variety. To some extent, this is a result of the decision for each scheme to have one requirement for each point being scored. It makes sense, but combined with the "witchy" aspect of the schemes, it limits the number of ways to differentiate them, at least mechanically (ie. a bunch of switch-spell requirements will ask the same thing even if they require different pairs of characters to be switched).

Fixing the issue of repetitive schemes would take a little imagination, so maybe they tried but couldn't find a better method. OK. What I wonder, though, is if they limited the number of scheme cards overall because of the repetition. If that's the case, they screwed themselves twice at once, because including enough scheme cards not only would have allowed a larger game to look like it made sense, but repetition in the schemes may have been more expected. "There are so many schemes, you're going to see them a few times," that kind of thing.

It's unfortunate that the point scoring becomes a problem, because the rest is pretty good. It's complicated trying to make sure you have all the ingredients you need for the plan you want to hatch on your next turn, which can then be changed by someone else frogging/unfrogging/teleporting/enforcing romance in a way that makes you do even more to get your schemes to work. It makes the game take longer than you might want, which is another issue for new players, but it's not bad.

Really, just stick to a three or four player game of this and you should have a reasonably good time. It's quite OK. ...yeah.

Score: Eight frogs out of thirteen.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Dave Reviews: A Comic with Good Art and... Good Art

Pretty Violent

As comic stories go, Pretty Violent has lovely cover art.


Pretty Violent tells the story of Gamma Rae, a would-be superhero who somehow keeps doing the wrong thing. The wrong thing, in this case, is murdering the actual heroes and letting the bad guys get away, at which point she's blamed mercilessly for her error by the populace even as the bad guy starts wreaking havoc.

The selling point, apparently, is that this comic gets very over the top with its blood and swearing in a comical way. And, as a selling point, that's fine. As the selling point? Not so much.

The comic starts with Gamma Rae erring terribly and helping a sneaky villain. This quickly appears to be an excuse to draw the colorful obliteration of lots of bodies. Then that happens again... and again... and it doesn't take long before the question arises: you know this is silly and purposefully out of control, but still, how many issues until they depopulate the whole city? Or will they keep going from place to place, with endless superheroes being destroyed by Gamma Rae's pure incompetence?

Then, at the end... maybe it's not incompetence after all! Oho!

But it's hard to care at that point. You have to really enjoy silly amounts of violent art and swearing for their own sake, because if you took those out, there would be basically nothing to lean on. I'm really trying to meet it the comic where it's trying to be, in a place where story doesn't matter and it's all about spectacle, but even then it wears out quickly.

Meh.

Score: The most meh five out of ten.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Dave Reviews: Caring for Your Burninator

Trogdor!! The Board Game

Trogdor was a man
No wait, he was a Dragon-man
Or maybe he was just a dragon
....
But he was still TROGDOOOOOOOR


Trogdor (!!), otherwise known as Strongbad's Greatest Drawing, is burninating fields and chomping villagers. But, because Strongbad made him, he needs your help to succeed. You and the other players cooperate to guide Trogdor (!!) to a successful burnination of the land around him before he gets chopped and shot to death by knights, archers, and his arch-nemesis, the Troghammer.

Trogdor (!!) is a simple game. Each turn, you have an action card and draw a second, then choose between them. These tell you how many times Trogdor (!!) can move on your turn, and any abilities that will affect your turn. Then Trogdor (!!) acts. He can move, chomp villagers, burninate tiles, burninate villagers who run around burninating tiles, and burninate other villagers if they run into them, who then run around burninating more tiles. After that, movement cards are drawn for the knights and archers, who damage Trogdor (!!) by running into him (knights/Troghammer) or pointing their shooty things at him in a straight line (archers). Each player also has an item card that can be used on their turn and recharged (only on their turn) if certain conditions are met.

After that, it's just a matter of burninating the countryside and obliterating the peasantry. If things start going wrong, the answers are equally simple. Losing health? Chomp villagers! In a dangerous spot? Hide in the mountains! Not close enough to the mountains to hide? ...probably die!

Trogdor (!!) is good if you remember Trogdor (!!) from Homestar Runner, or you like absurd games with enough thinking to make you feel like you're not totally in debt to luck. It's less good if a high degree of luck bothers you, because this is a 5x5 grid with either three or four enemies running around (there's no way to get rid of the knights/archers/Troghammer), who each move four squares after your turn, and you never know what their directions will be. It is extremely difficult to stay safe without hiding in the mountains, so you're either largely guided by the whims of fate or playing so carefully that Trogdor (!!) will be displeased with your strategy.

It is a reasonably good board game that almost no one would care about if not for Trogdor (!!). Let us tremble before his might.

Score: Six burninated peasants out of eight.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Dave Reviews: Party Insanity!

Mountains Of Madness

Yeah man! Let's get the gang together, get a couple cases of Bud, and head down to Antarctica! Woo!


If you're reading board game reviews, chances are you know that Mountains of Madness is a Cthulhu reference. So, what's up with that intro? It's just a funny (arguable) way to lead into a gloomy Lovecraft-style game, something different, right?

Mm.

Here's how the game works: There's a mountain your group needs to climb. At the top is the ancient city that is not only your ultimate goal, but the only way for you to leave. The mountain consists of a pyramid of tiles—two rows of coast tiles, two smaller rows of mountain tiles above that, a few city tiles at the top, and then the "Edge of Madness" from which your plane takes off, if you make it that far. When you move to a tile, you flip it over and play cards which, combined, need to match the target types and value on the tile. Succeed and you get the reward. Fail and suffer the consequences. Partially succeed (each tile has at least two goals) and you'll get both the reward and some consequences.

So far, so Cthulhu. Of course, it's not so simple, and the teamwork aspect is complicated by a few factors. One is that everyone plays their cards face down. Two is that nobody can talk to each other once they start playing cards. Three is that you're working on a thirty second timer to play all the cards (this can be lengthened with leadership tokens, which can create its own hassle). And four is the various forms of madness people suffer during the game.

Madness is a core component. Everyone starts with a basic (level 1) form of madness, and this will nearly always get worse as the game goes along. Depending on the players, some higher level madness will be less problematic than lower level ones, but generally they're more difficult to manage.

Here are a few examples of the madness you might have to play out:

  • Speak with an accent
  • Drum your fingers on the table
  • Describe the value of the cards in your hand via the coinciding month of the year (1 = January, 2 = February, etc)
  • Say "you" anytime you want to say "I"
  • Don't speak unless you're touching someone else's head
This, good readers, is a party game. Cthulhu madness involves flipping out and dashing naked into the snowy wilderness to be nommed upon by curious penguins. This madness, while arguably a different view into how crazy things can get while traveling the Mountains of Madness, is really the kind of thing you would find in a party game when you combine it with the teamwork of the cards.

If you imagine this as a low-key party game, where people are a few beers in and following personal rules (rather than madness cards) and playing cards with different values of cocktails, hard liquor, etc., rather than crates and weapons, it makes complete sense. Mountains of Madness, on the other hand, twists the concept into three or four knots to make it work with the Cthulhu theme.

Cthulhu sells, so from a business perspective the decision makes sense. Slapping "Mountains of Madness" on the box guarantees ten times the sales as compared to Goofy Party Game #326. But it's severely misleading in terms of what kind of game you're going to get, to the point that even when you take this all into account, the visual theme still screws with the fun of the game itself.

TLDR: Meh.

Score: Craaaaaaaaaaazy Eight (out of fifteen)

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Dave Reviews: Point!

Punto

It's... tiny.


That's not much of an intro, but there's not much in this tin. That doesn't mean it's bad; it's just... tiny.

Punto comes in a little tin with a bunch of square tiles. The tiles come in sets of four colors, with one to nine dots on each card. Players draw a tile off the top of their deck and lay it down, in order, until someone has four in a row of their color. The limitations:
  • The grid can't get bigger than 6 x 6. The upshot is that if you can't block someone directly, sometimes you can do it by placing a tile where it makes the grid go six wide or long and your opponent can no longer has an empty space for the tile.
  • You can place tiles on top of your opponents', but your number has to be higher than the one you're placing it on.
Initially I wanted there to be a mat, something to actually play on, but the shifting dimensions of the board are part of the strategy. Plus, it's really quite impressive to have a very playable game come in such a small package at such a low price (MSRP around $8).

Of course, it has limitations. I imagine they playtested it with players holding all their cards and trying to use their numbers strategically rather than pulling one off the top and hoping they got something useful (or, occasionally, hoping they got a low number because they didn't need a high one at that moment). Maybe they also tried holding a limited number of tiles, say three, and choosing from those, then replacing it at the end of the turn. If that's the case, then the draw mechanic was apparently deemed more fun. I can see that; this is a little pocket game that you bring somewhere as a diversion, not high strategy. As long as you're OK with a couple unlucky draws dooming you, especially in a two-player game, it's fine.

And that's really it. It's fine. The biggest compliment I can pay it is that the designer clearly accomplished his goal of making this a small, cheap, playable game. I've seen many other little games that are the board game equivalent of the candy bars they sell in the supermarket checkout line, and this is better than most. There just isn't much to say about it beyond that.

Score: Siete puntos de diez.

Dave Reviews: Gladiatorial Trumpiness

Gorus Maximus

It's basically Hearts. With... hearts.


Gorus Maximus is a trick-taking game, not about being a gladiator, but about being one of those patriots who run gladiator battles for the pleasure of the populace. (The money is just a bonus.) There are up to five schools of gladiators, each with fighters ranked from 0 to 15. Each player gets a hand of ten cards; this is the whole deck being dealt, and what the deck consists of depends on the number of players in the game.

Each round, one player starts by playing a card. The color of the card becomes both the preferred school and the initiating school. This is where the game gets a little more complicated, and frankly fun, than your average game of Hearts or Spades.

  • The preferred school set at the start of the first round remains the preferred school for the whole hand (in theory). The preferred school is the trump school.
  • The initiating school is only the initiating school for that round. Once each player puts down a card and the trick is taken, the person who takes the trick starts the next round, and their card sets the new initiating school.
  • Players must play a card from the initiating school if they have one.
  • The exception to all of the above is that a player may play a card of the same rank as the one played immediately before them in that round. This is a challenge. (For example, if I play the blue 4, the next player can play a green 4, regardless of the initiating school.) A challenge not only lets a player use a different color, it also sets the preferred school for the hand to that color—until another challenge comes, of course.
In theory, players can count how many cards of each suit, and which ones, have been played, just like a good Hearts player would. However, unless it's a full eight-player game, the deck doesn't consist of all the cards of each color, and it doesn't use all of them in order up to a point. In most games, the 0 card and the 4-12 cards are put into the deck. Can those be counted? Sure. But it takes a little getting used to in order to do so proficiently.

In addition, points are scored by the points listed on each gladiator card, and most cards don't score anything. Simple enough, right? Set it up so you catch the point cards. Well... just don't get stuck with one of the cards that take away points. Most games only have one such card—the 8 of each color—but that's a huge hit at -4 when nothing else scores more than two. Expanding the game to six players adds a -2 card, and going to seven adds another -1, so more caution is warranted than simply "don't get the spades".

I've criticized games in the past for allowing too large a player count, and at first I was going to at least partially do so again. Whereas some other games have no business trying to accompany a large group, it makes sense to at least try with something that plays as fast as this, with such a fun (if bloody) theme. It has that drunken party game feel. My critique was going to be that, as with many trick-taking games, catching up is hard if you fall behind, and because it takes three crowd support (three round wins) to end the game, big games can become a slog for someone who's losing. 

But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that's unfair. It does have the potential to suck for that person, yes. But the only way it becomes a major problem is if lots of other people are picking up round wins, which means overall the game is competitive, and that's good. I suppose the warning to offer is that if you're going to want to quit if it looks like you're stuck in a game that you're very unlikely to win, you might want to avoid six-plus player games of this, but that's not enough to really knock the game itself.

In short, this is surprisingly fun, even if you're very neutral about trick-taking games. If you think you can get your Spades-playing grandpa to throw back a shot of whiskey and try something with actual pictures, this could even be a hell of a family bonding experience.

Score: Fourteen blood puddles out of sixteen.

Dave Reviews: UberLand

MegaLand

I was going to title this with 'Uber' and then whatever the German is for land, but it's just "land". So, we're off to a grand start.


MegaLand is, at its core, a press-your-luck game with mechanics that will be familiar to deck builder fans, even though there's no deck to build. It's also very easy to learn (maybe too easy). You play the role of what is, effectively, a video game character, starting with four health and needing to collect treasure by exploring places with loads of terrible monsters. Each monster will do one, two, or three damage to your character; the game is very explicit about how many of each card, including the ones that don't hurt you, is in the deck. In other words, each round is designed for you to count cards and determine what the best play is based on the odds.

After each draw, you decide if you want to stay in or take your treasures and run. If you leave, you get what you've collected; if you stay and get KO'd, you only get one (unless you buy effects that let you keep or take more). Part of the challenge is not just collecting more treasure, but collecting the right treasure. If you want to buy cards that give you points (technically coins, but you don't buy anything with them) and other abilities, you need sets of different treasure types; if you want to buy more health, you need sets of the same treasure type. The challenge in buying more expensive cards is thus amplified, since it gets harder and harder to collect treasures you don't already have, a challenge mitigated by the fact you can store one treasure on each card you've bought along the way. As with the monster deck, game is explicit about how many of each treasure is in the treasure deck—it's printed on each card—but the deck is sizable and makes card counting very difficult.

The abilities are varied but easy to understand. Some of them also require you to strategize in a certain way or have a certain read on your opponents. For example, one card lets you draw an extra treasure from the deck if you're KO'd. If you buy a few of those, it can be more valuable to risk a KO, or even push on when a KO is guaranteed, if you don't have a usable set of cards and drawing more might let you buy what you need. Another gives you bonus points if an opponent is KO'd, which is great if your opponents go for a self-KO strategy or simply take too many risks, but is a bit of a waste if they play safely.

On the downside, there are cards which give you guaranteed points every night (end of round). They instantly put the game on a timer, and if one person gets one ahead of everyone else, the other players are immediately playing catch-up the rest of the way. They're not a guaranteed win, but really, the timer aspect is the part that damages the fun. Most of the cards score points anyway. Why is it necessary to let people get freebies? When somebody has a lead, there's a certain enjoyable tension in wondering if they'll get those last few points they need to win, or if you might have a chance to catch up. The nightly point cards take that away. And, because of the treasure system, if three players each gather four treasures in the first round, it's quite possible only one of them will have the right treasures to buy a guaranteed point card.

It's really unfortunate, because the only other real criticism is that there was room for this game to have a few more cards and a few more good choices for what to buy. Right now, the game plays so fast, sharp people can do the math and either pull their character or press their luck in a couple of seconds. There's potential here to give players something that will make them slow down and think a bit, at least sometimes, about what they want to buy. That's not a game-breaking problem, though; all it does is reduce replayability. The timer cards may not be game-breaking, per se, but they put a major damper on the experience.

It's still not bad, still worth trying. If you're a fan, awesome. If you end up feeling similarly to what I've described, play again without the automatic point cards, see if you like it any better.

Score: $3.25 out of $5.00.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Dave Reviews: So Much Fucking Colonialism

Pax Pamir

I've lodged the odd complaint here and there about games which treat colonized nations of yore, and the people especially, as pieces in a board game when they were effectively treated the same way in real life during those periods of time. Pax Pamir puts players in the role of Afghans during the nineteenth century, deciding whether join a coalition with the British, the Russians, or to put their own people first.

To which I say: LOOK! LOOK! IT'S NOT THAT FUCKING HARD!


Pax Pamir is a tableau-building game that works with a pretty small tableau (you only keep three from turn to turn without cards that let you hold on to more). There's a central market of cards, most of which are people who will be part of your tableau, or court, and provide various benefits. Many of them are allied with one of the three factions at work in the country. You start the game allied to the faction of your choice; however, odds are this will change during play, because as soon as you hire someone from a different faction, you essentially declare loyalty to that group and discard everyone from your current faction.

This sounds like a punishing effect to be carefully weighed, and it can be if you've started to rely heavily on certain faction-specific cards, but there are a couple of fairly common reasons to do it. One is if it looks like you've blown through a lot of cards for your faction and it looks like you're going to see different factions for the most part from this point on. Because not all the cards are used every game, this is somewhat unlikely, but an experienced player can get a sense of when they probably won't see many more cards of a given faction unless the deck got stacked hard in their favor.

The second, and more important one, is the dominance mechanic. Each faction has a couple dozen small towers that can hit the board, either standing to represent allied tribes or laying down to act as bridges between provinces. Transport and military might are the keys to power; therefore, if any faction has managed to get at least four more of their pieces on the board than both of the other factions, that faction is dominant and allied players receive VPs.

OK, so you chase the dominant faction, right? Not necessarily. If you've allied with the British, and the Afghans are pulling ahead, you might be able to score better if you switch sides. However, if no side is ahead by four, then scoring is based on personal power, so it may be better to see if you can keep the British just close enough so that the Afghan-allied players can't get their dominance points. It's an intriguing blend of not just risk vs. reward, but which risk you need to take vs. which type of reward you're chasing.

The one thing that breaks the theme a bit is that when one faction is dominant, all the pieces come off the board and players effectively start rebuilding with their current courts and allegiances. This is clearly necessary for game design—without it, early dominance would just turn into a snowball with everyone racing to join the winning side—but it's a little weird given the game's context. The rulebook says they come off because the region settles into an uneasy peace. I mean... whatever explanation you want to give, I guess. It feels like whichever side is dominant would start painting the other towers their color.

But that doesn't particularly matter for the gameplay itself. This is a game that's quite deep without being confusing (though you might forget some rules at first, like the connection between your tribes and your cards—if you lose all of one, you throw out all of the other). Setups are almost always fragile, but breaking them takes work on the part of your opponents, so you can usually defend yourself if you don't have greater priorities. And knowing what to prioritize takes experience, so your first game is probably going to feel ugly, even if everyone's new and you win. There's a good chance that, after one game, you'll feel a little 'meh' about it, or like you're missing something. But if you're even a little intrigued by how it plays, it's worth having another go, because there's a lot of play here.

One last soapbox moment: Though I've griped about games where you play as a colonizing force, it's possible there's some context in this game that is also problematic or could have been handled better. Some people might not like the fact this game is about European powers trying to meddle with a yet another nation, regardless of the role the player takes. But I think it's important to acknowledge the difference.

We tend to reward media that portrays people who defend their homes because there's something relatable at a very core level in that situation. We also often elevate conquering heroes, but nearly always in the context that they've fought for their nations, or gods, or some other higher purpose. A game where players act as the colonizers feels weird because, although colonization was done in the name of God and country, we now understand it to have been thoroughly fucked up. We understand that there was never any glory in it, nothing worth exemplifying. Playing as the people of the nation in question, even in a scenario where it's often wisest to work with the foreigners, at least puts you in the position of someone trying to make the best of a fucked-up situation in their home country.

I'm sure I'm in a minority, possibly a small minority, of gamers who legitimately enjoy a game more on that basis. But I am, and I get to pass out the scores, so bonus points to this one.

Score: Twenty-one out of twenty-four dominance towers (they're not goddamned cylinders, they're square).

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Dave Reviews: Smol Bird Lyfe

Wingspan

It's a bird party! And I am super late to it!

Wingspan is a game about birds, birds, and more birds. Birds in the forest, birds on the plains, and birds near the water. Birds that are smol, and birds that eat the birds that are smol. Feed your birds, play your birds, and watch your birds barely survive in the wild, because "take flight" is both too cliche and too positive for what nature does to things living in it.

It's simple to play. You have a hand of bird cards and a pile of food. Feed the birds and play their cards. Except... do you have the right food? What kind of nests do the birds make? Can some of your birds help other birds with the same nests? Do your birds want to eat other birds? Can your birds find more food for your other birds to eat? Do your birds do something right now and then just sit there like lazy buggers, or do they keep working as long as you pay attention to their habitat? How many eggs can they take care of? Who wants to eat the eggs? Should you—

AAAAHHHHH

The pieces of the game make sense. They're not hard to learn or use. Making them work together, though, takes some knowledge of what cards you might see, how much food you might need, and so on, and that makes it a trip for first-timers to learn. If everyone's new, it works out fine. If some people are and some aren't, the noobs better learn quickly. There is time to suss out a strategy, thankfully, so you aren't stuck finishing out a game that you've started to understand but need a second play to make that understanding work for you. But the learning curve exists.

The actions don't take much explaining. You can play a bird to any of the areas in which it can live, if you have the food. If you can't or don't want to play a bird, you can use an action in a given habitat. Taking an action in the forest gives you food. The plains give you eggs, and the water gives you cards. The more birds you have in the habitat, the more of each of those things you have access to with a single action. Playing towards your specific goal(s)—you start with one and can get more during the game—and the competitive goals for each round (ie. have eggs on the most different birds when the round ends) is important for winning, but if you can find a point combo that doesn't require those things, it could still be enough. Understanding the game, and not the "meta" strategies or the few things that will actually work amongst knowledgeable players, is how you do well, which is excellent.

Really, it's so good. It's hard for a game to make someone (ie. me) go from grouchy and lost to realizing what's possible to almost winning in a single playthrough, but this one did. It's very smoothly designed, with a lot of detail about the birds that technically weren't needed but make the game more engaging for their presence. I usually always want to play something new, but I won't mind a second go at this one.

Score: Seven hungry owls out of eight.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Dave Reviews: The Fairest Robbery

Escape Plan

A handful of high-end thieves try to escape the city with remarkably equivalent piles of money! News at 11!

Escape Plan is a game about, yes, trying to escape a city where the local cops have called in their SWAT teams and the FBI in an attempt to finally take you down. You've set up stashes across the city, and you need to collect as many as possible before the ways out of town are closed off. Mislead the cops to get a free run at your money, push them into the paths of your fellow thieves, and make it out with the most cash! Woo!

There are a few ways to collect your money. Most of the options involve going to the businesses and safehouses where you've put the largest collections of cash and throwing them in your car. Everyone gets a card with a different setup at the start of the game, meaning everyone has different businesses to target if they want to get the largest stashes. Other businesses have ready cash on hand for you; you might only get a few thousand dollars, but you can spend it on items or assistants to help you on your escape quest.

Why you can't just open the briefcases full of cash and spend some of that money goes unexplained.

You also get bonus money for hiring contacts, because... reasons? You can have up to five people on your side, and the bonus goes up to 100k if you fill all the slots. There are stash slots on your player board, which can be used for items that help you fight the cops or lockers from the convenience store that have extra money in them. And those lockers are full of money too, but they have different requirements to get into them—you need almost nothing but a key to open the easiest ones, while you need a bunch of contacts and a certain level of notoriety to open the hardest.

There are other aspects to the game, such as getting wounded and losing money if you're hurt at the end of the game, but those are sidebars to the main point: This game might be too balanced.

The cards each player gets at the start of the game have sums of cash available, from 100k down to 50k, by tens, and three locations where they can get spendable cash. Collecting contacts earns the same money. All the assets you unlock are worth the same money. The lockers, in fact, are extremely weird—why should your contacts and notoriety determine whether you can unlock a different safebox? Shouldn't that be based on the fact you need a different key?—and there's only a 20k difference between the highest level locker and the lowest, but because everything is so equal, that 20k can mean winning or losing.

Difficult but engaging balance involves giving players different ways to maneuver through the game while ending up at around the same spot. Simplistic balance is having them all do basically the same thing and just making the rewards for everything about the same. Escape Plan has the latter.

This type of game can work, but it relies more heavily on the mechanics matching the theme, and unfortunately that breaks down too. If you escape, why does being notorious cost you money? Why does being hurt cost you money? Why do these thieves, who are familiar enough with the businesses and safehouses in the city to invest in them and hide their money there, not know where all the places are until the third day?

It's a set of mechanics that's basically fine, with a rewards system that works well enough, but it's hard to see how this differs from game to game outside of people getting screwed by their two best stashes not becoming available until the last round and being placed where they can only get one or the other, or possibly neither, before they have to run for the hills. Players who are equally good at the game should finish relatively close in score, so you're less likely to have blowout games, and that's a positive. But it would be nice to see a theme that really worked with the mechanics in play.

Score: Five collected stashes out of nine.

Dave Reviews: Fun Greek Dice

Corinth

Corinth is a roll-and-write game about ancient-world trading with people who look friendlier and much, much cleaner than their probable real-world counterparts. Yay washing!

Corinth's twist on the roll-and-write style of game is this: Each turn, the active player rolls the dice and puts them on a board of goods. There's a set method to this; the player does not choose where the dice go. Instead, all dice of the highest number rolled go into the gold section at the top, and all dice of the lowest number rolled go into goats, at the bottom. The rest of the dice are likewise sorted by number rolled and placed in ascending order in each of the four goods districts. Each player, starting with the active one, picks a set and marks off a number of goods equal to the number of dice in that section.

This has a couple of effects that go against gamer (or math) reflexes.

  1. Although goats get the lowest dice and gold the highest, goats are not inherently less valuable, because you can as easily have fewer goats available during the course of the game than gold. It's just a matter of how many dice end up in those sections each turn.
  2. It takes substantially fewer items to collect all the sets of goods in the higher districts, but it's easy to underestimate how few shots you'll get at them. To have any dice available in the highest district, all six numbers must be rolled on the nine dice (though up to three extra dice can be unlocked, which increases the odds a bit). This means that not only will it be fairly unusual to hit the highest district, there will rarely be more than two dice available, and if it's not your turn it's quite likely someone else will grab them first.
It creates, not a whole new road of thought, but more of an off-ramp on to a highway that leans a little bit away from strategy as we tend to think of it. You roll dice for the whole game, decide what to do with those dice, and the value of the dice never matter. It's not complicated—once you understand that aspect, the game becomes much clearer—but it requires something different from the player, and that's pretty cool.

As for the game itself, it plays in a pretty straightforward fashion. You get your goods, or spend your gold and goats on buildings, or move your steward around to get you bonuses. Each section has its own way to score; you also get bonus points if you're the first to fill all the goods slots in a district, and the game is otherwise balanced enough that someone who locks up multiple bonuses stands a very good chance of winning. In four-player games, it forces people to decide if they're all going to race for the easier districts or take a shot at picking up the more difficult ones and hope they finish their bonuses by the end of the game.

It's a clever little game with good artwork and a requirement to think, if not totally outside the box, then over the open flap. 

Score: Seven out of nine fresh new rugs.

Dave Reviews: A Moderate Failure of Balance

Village Pillage

Welcome to rock-paper-scissors-CROSSBOW!

Village Pillage is an addition to the growing collection of games that is marketed as being for a wide array of possible player counts, but doesn't play equally well over all of them. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Village Pillage is a light, medieval-themed game running on "advanced" rock-paper-scissors mechanics. Everyone starts out with one each of the four categories of cards: Farmer, Wall, Raider, Merchant. Each class is identified by its color (green, blue, red, and yellow, respectively). You'll get more cards as the game progresses, but each connects to one of those four colors. Each card has different effects depending on what the opponent plays against it; most cards have some kind of effect against all four card types, but some (e.g. Raiders) don't. If the Raider is played against the Farmer or Merchant, for example, she steals four turnips (money) from the opponent, which is very powerful; however, against a Wall or another Raider, she gets nothing, which is the risk.

Each turn, players play two cards, one against each neighbor. Then they'll generally collect some turnips, based on the abilities of their cards. The goal is to buy three relics, which cost 8, 9, and 10 turnips (less in a smaller game). Some abilities let you put turnips in a personal bank so they can't be stolen, but even that maxes out at five, so the more turnips you have vulnerable, the more dangerous thieves are. And red cards act near the end of the action order, so if your green or blue cards brought in a bunch of turnips, they can be stolen the very same turn. This makes raiders a threat from the start, and gauging when your opponents will use them is a big part of succeeding in the game.

After each round, players reset their hands and have all their cards to choose from, with a few exceptions that keep a card out for one round. Players can add to their options, generally through Merchant-class cards, for minimal or sometimes no cost. In theory, this could function somewhat like a deck-builder, where you construct a turnip engine that gets you all kinds of cold, red cash, but in reality the game ends too quickly. That's fine; it's light, it's supposed to be short, you get it over with and it's all good.

The issue is when the game grows to larger player sizes. I understand that offering a six-player expansion is a great sales tactics, but it borks the game. The reason is that someone is going to get a lead, and the number of players impacts how things play out after that happens.


  • With two or three players, everyone interacts with everyone else every round. If someone gets ahead, the other(s) can pick cards directly against that person with an eye towards reducing their lead.
  • With four players, there's only one player each person doesn't impact. You might end up with an awkward situation where two people across from each other pop off and the two in the middle are stuck trying to stop them both while also catching up, which can suck. However, if one person gets a lead, two people can try to stop them, and they only have to watch one other player who might try to take advantage of that.
  • With five and six players, if someone gets ahead, only two people can stop them, and there are multiple others who can safely build (or steal) their way to the top if the initial leader is thwarted.
In all cases, if the initial leader doesn't get stopped—and because the game is so short, there is a point where they can play pretty safely and have little chance of losing—they're going to run away with the win. But in larger games, unless the turnip levels stay fairly balanced (which is harder with more people), someone's going to end up in a situation where they need to stop the leader while not being able to impact the rest of the table enough to catch up themselves.

It's light, it's fun, just don't play it with more than four people unless you're a group that doesn't care much at all about who wins at games. (Is that a thing? I don't understand this thing.)

Score: Seven moldering turnips out of ten.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Dave Reviews: Suburban Hell

Welcome to Your Perfect Home

If there's a nightmare scenario in life, it's living in a community where every house is exactly the same, all of you have to follow rules about keeping your home "clean" and your lawn "tidy", and you swear that every one of your neighbors have a not-insignificant amount of Stepford blood in them.

Selling those houses, though... that's a win.


Welcome to Your Perfect Home puts you in the role of a real estate developer with three long blocks of houses to fill—one of ten houses, one of eleven, and one of twelve. A fat stack of cards is split into three piles, each with an action on one side and a number on the other (with a small icon of the action on the flip side of the card in one corner). Each round, one card is flipped action side up, so each pile has a number and an action visible. Players choose one of these combos, put the number on one of the houses, and choose whether or not to use the action.

The goal is to fill all the blocks with numbers going in ascending order, while also pulling in enough points through putting pools in yards, investing in neighborhoods of certain sizes, and meeting other various goals to outscore everyone else. The game ends when somebody has a number on every house, or when someone marks off three stop signs (three instances of not being able to develop a house on a turn with any of the available numbers). It's a roll-and-write game, although with cards rather than dice. Apart from fences, which you use to create smaller neighborhoods within each block, you mark off a spot for each action you take, which (potentially) earns you more points by the end of the game.

The first time I played this, I put together a flawless game. I mathed out how many numbers I would have available to fill in the number of spaces that would be left if I put number X on house Y, and did not waste a single turn. The game ended when all my houses were full, and all three of my opponents had one empty. Given that real estate bonuses for the blocks you have completed only count if all the houses on the block are full, that's a nice edge to have.

I lost. Not by a couple of points, but by twelve (112-100). And that's why I think this is a pretty good game.

Here's the reason: when I saw I played a flawless game, it means I did not make any errors in figuring out what numbers to place where, and when. I strategized towards making sure all my houses were tagged, which is the end goal, and it worked perfectly. Yet I obviously did not play a perfect game, because I got noticeably beaten.

The nature of the card draw means you're always playing the odds. There are enough cards in each deck that you can't really card count effectively (if you can, you will be godly at this and you don't need any strategy tips). But you have to take into account how many points you're likely to score with each move. If you put a palm tree up in six houses across all three blocks, you'll get twelve points. But if you fill them up on one block, the same number of palm trees will earn you more in sum because of the finishing bonus. You'll probably have reason to take real estate bonuses before you've started forming your blocks, so do you choose a number and let that guide how you build? Will you build towards bonuses? Can you see what bonuses your opponents are going for, and can you beat them to the punch?

There's probably some perfect strategy to the game that's most likely to win as long as you get the cards you need. That last part is the key, though. Unless that strategy is the best under any circumstances, and you'll only lose if you're desperately unlucky—and, while unlikely, this is possible—you'll need to know how to adjust. That's where you get gameplay rather than rote memorization, and that's what makes a game good.

Score: Twenty-eight filled houses out of thirty-three (good profits).

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Dave Reviews: The Art of Weaving

Azul

Let's make a quilt! Or a rug. Or... whatever. Tile wall! That's it.


Azul is a classic game, re-released two years ago, and it's still selling well. That's because it's good. Spoilers.

So, let's talk about how and why it works. You have a board with a five-by-five pattern you're trying to fill in the most cohesive possible way. There are five colors, represented once each per row and column (they show up as a diagonal pattern, it's quite nice). Each round, seven little platters are loaded with four tiles randomly chosen from the bag, each in one of the five colors. Players choose one platter, take all the tiles of one color from it, and put the rest in the center. A player may also take all the tiles of one color that have been placed in the center instead; the first one to do this takes the first player tile, which counts as a penalty tile at the end of the round.

Those tiles go on one of the horizontal lines to the left of the wall pattern. Those lines have one, two, three, four, or five empty spaces, going down. All tiles on a line must be of the same color. Take too many to fit the line where you want them to go? Extras go on the penalty row. Forced to take a color you can't place? Those tiles go on the penalty row. The first couple of penalties aren't major, but they escalate quickly, and you want to avoid them in any case.

When you fill one of those lines, at the end of the round one tile moves over to the matching spot on that row of the wall. If you've filled a spot, that color can't be readied for that row anymore. So, as the game progresses, your goal is to keep targeting colors you need, but only as many tiles as are required to fill a pattern line and get the color into that row.

However! You also want to get tiles on the wall next to each other. The first one you place scores you a point. Every one you place after that scores a point, plus one more for each adjacent tile on the wall (orthogonal only). This means you're gauging who needs what color, how many you need of each color, what colors will score you the most, how many tiles you need to put that color in the right place, and sometimes when you need to absorb a penalty to max out the scoring power of your wall.

It's one of those games with basic actions that are easy to understand, but which lead into a game that runs fairly deep on strategic level. It's also an example of good, professional game design. Quite a number of games give you a basic set of mechanics that lead to engaging play. Sometimes the mechanics are deceptively simple; Onitama gives you five pieces and a bunch of cards, and while the designers would have needed to spend plenty of time with the cards to make sure the game was balanced, overall it doesn't take much to create an excellent, quick strategy game.

Azul, on the other hand, is a game that is either the product of a tremendous amount of iteration, or amazing luck (and still an awful lot of iteration). Filling the five-by-five wall is simple enough, but why are the pattern lines designed in a one through five fashion? They could have all been the same length, for example, and within that idea they could have reasonably been anywhere from three to five lines long. Why are the penalties structured as they are? How come there are seven platters of tiles, rather than six or eight. or a number based on the players in the game? Why do players get to take tiles from the center of the table, rather than only from the platters? Why is scoring exactly one per tile, including adjacent ones? Why are the adjacency bonuses orthogonal only, not diagonal?

Designers who don't take enough time to playtest their games and figure out just the right balance points make mistakes on questions like these. Sometimes this happens because they need the game on the shelves and selling; sometimes, if they work for a larger company, they have bosses pressing them for a product; sometimes they just don't see the fault lines in their creations. Azul sidesteps the potential errors, and we wind up with something on the short list of players everywhere for "that game you should totally get". Maybe you already knew how good it was, but let's take a moment to respect how much time it takes to put a game on that level.

Score: 9/10. Nice and simple.

Dave Reviews: Broken AF Timelines

Bronze Age Boogie

Look at this cover.


There's a lady with a sword looking freaked out in front a lady with a fro and a dude with sideburns, each looking like they're in a fight. Then there's a wild old dude and a monkey. If the goal here was to create a cover with enough going on to make someone pick it up and say, "What the hell is this? I should find out," it worked. At least with me.

Here's what we're looking at, spoiler-free: The comic starts in the 1970s. Boogie, fros, sideburns, OK. That all makes sense. There's an open question as to what the fking Bronze Age has to do with it, but we'll get there, right? Right.

And we do. It doesn't take long to shift almost 4,000 years in the past, where the young lady pictured (Brita) is at war alongside the tribe led by her father against some enormously powerful wizards who do a number on their forces. Along the way, we find out she's been plagued by visions of a strange woman, who we instantly recognize as the lady with the fro. Then [REDACTED], and the timelines come together, in a fashion.

At this point you're about halfway, maybe 60% of the way into the physical comic book. Then there's an ad, which generally signifies the end of the comic. But there has to be more, right? There is... a scene that takes place in the 1950s.

I realize that the serialized nature of comics can make a series difficult to start. You have a lot of groundwork to lay, and not a lot of space to do it in. Maybe the answer is super-sized first issues. Even a change as small as adding 20-25% more content, then charging $4.99 instead of $3.99, would be a huge step. Bronze Age Boogie might end up being wildly entertaining, but it's trying to do so much in so many different places in this first issue that I have no idea what story I'm theoretically about to follow.

I'll give it credit for serving up minimal background through character exposition. For the most part, we get into the comic and go. But we go all over the road (probably not unlike someone high on coke in a '75 Chevette). We might need a full volume of comics to appreciate what this gives us, but for now there's not enough material to have confidence this thing is going anywhere at all.

Score: Six tight fros out of ten.