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.

Dave Reviews: The Zombie Promise That Doesn't Follow Through

AuZtralia

Australia with a 'Z'. Boy, that couldn't mean zombies or anything, could it?

Actually...


AuZtralia is a game with everything it shows on the front: blimps, old-timey gun trucks, soldiers, and the dusty hell that is the Outback. Does it look old-school? It should, because it takes place in late-19th century Australia. The 'Z' is, indeed, a reference to zombies, but they only play a bit role in this game, because it's really about Cthulhu!

Are you wondering what the hell is going on yet? Don't worry, everyone who opens this game not knowing what it is beforehand goes through the same thing. What you get here is a semi-cooperative strategy game between players working together to stop the hordes of Cthulhu from swarming through this overblown penal colony, and working to do it better than everyone else because when it comes to saving the world, you've gotta keep score.

Everyone starts by setting up a port along the coast. From there you spread into the Outback, mostly via railroads you build, ferrying troops to clear out nests of zombies, cultists, and otherworldly monsters, collecting resources to keep creating railroads and troops, and building farms to feed the citizens of this... fine land. Farms are important; there are three types, and there's a benefit to having at least one of each type, but each one requires different land to be built. Some of that land runs a little close to the nasty things, and eventually the nasty things wake up and start walking around.

What makes AuZtralia work is the time mechanic. Although you can be limited by a lack of resources, it's usually possible to collect what you need; the question is how much time it takes. Each action takes a set amount of time, and turn order is determined by who's furthest back on the time track (ie. who's used the least time so far in acting). Furthermore, time ties (which are common—nothing takes more than three time to do) are broken by whoever's token is on top of the stack, and you go on top of the stack if you get there last. So, spending three time to build that railroad you so desperately means another player might get three turns before your next one. Is that worth it? Quite possibly! But you need to make a decision about using a resource that everyone has in exactly equal quantities.

Cthulhu's forces are locked into the time mechanic as well. Whenever it's Cthulhu's turn, his token goes forward one time space, and on every other time space from the moment he starts (about halfway along) until the end of the game, he acts according to a pre-determined list of rules. At the start of the game, his forces start face down; his actions affect those which are face up, and those most frequently turn up because players investigate the spaces. If you don't remove any threat which is present, now Cthulhu's going to start running over you harder. You always have some semblance of control over what you do before he acts, but you can only do so much, even amongst all of you.

Then he eats your food! And your cattle. And your farmers.

If you stay on top of things and keep winning your battles—dice are involved, so this is never quite a given—the game can almost seem like a walkover. But it has the capacity to snowball out of control fast if you get the wrong event with the wrong monsters walking around at the wrong time. If there's something that might seem unsatisfying, it's if you end up playing a game and it feels too easy or too hard. There's some chance involved, but you have a lot of control over the outcome. For a game that used Z for Zombie messaging to get attention, then barely even followed through with the zombies, it's surprisingly good.

Score: Nine shattered fnarglflaghns out of twelve.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Dave Reviews: There's An App For Your House of Horrors

Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition

Holy hell, how have I not reviewed this yet? Have I reviewed this? I feel like I must have, but I can't find it anywhere on the blog.

Fuck it, let's go!


Mansions of Madness is a Fantasy Flight Cthulhu game, which means it's going to take your character's insides and throw them all over the floor. (Also, "Cthulhu" doesn't trigger the blog spell-checker. Awesome.) This one does it a little differently than your Horrors, Arkham and Eldritch alike. Mansions of Madness puts you in a very specific location, for a very specific reason, and you need to figure out what's going on and what to do about it before whatever's lurking drags you into a shadow or attic or under the sea.

The concept isn't substantially different from the original Mansions of Madness. The difference now is that there's an app you can put on a tablet or laptop (or phone, but the screen's too small) that guides you through the game. You're responsible for tracking where the characters go and making sure you follow the core rules, but when something goes bump or you want to investigate that creaky dresser in the corner, the app tells you what comes next. It takes one of the worst parts of all these games—the administration—and puts most of it on the computer. All you're responsible for, really, is not cheating.

And holy hell, you will probably be tempted to cheat, because it damn sure seems like the game is. Even the first mission, at a mere two-Elder Sign difficulty, doesn't offer much room for error. I've played it multiple times, taking a backseat in later games so the new players can make the choices, and it's hard to see how a group can win without knowing what's coming. Other players have made similar statements. It's not that we're against hard games—I mean, right now I'm playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and I haven't quit even though I can't go any farther until I beat one of four bosses blocking various paths—but we have difficulty envisioning a winning strategy for a mission nobody knows that doesn't involve stumbling across the right clue or item.

Which sounds like a crap game, right? Except... gods, it's fun. It's really fun. You get your asses kicked and it's usually fun. Your friend gets turned into an acolyte of the Black Goat and stabs you to death to win while everyone else loses, it's ludicrous and fun. You win, you go out and buy a lottery ticket. And it's fun. The app's music and sound effects are simple but set the atmosphere well, waiting for the app to throw another challenge at you makes it feel like the bad guys are truly out of your control, and for as hard as they are, the scenarios are well-designed. You might say, at some point, "How the hell was I supposed to know that?" But the connections generally make sense once you know what they all are. It's just tough when you're desperately trying to survive and you're missing the plus sign that makes two and two equal four.

The basic FF Cthulhu stuff is all here—the same characters, oodles of tokens, and cards beyond the counting capacity of most small children and some adolescents. You only have eight characters to choose from; it's enough to play the game, but for those of us who have been able to pick just the right character rather than one of the two who are strong or smart or whatever, it feels a little light. If you have the first edition of the game, though, you can bring those characters over to this one. (Yeah, we choose characters. Fuck random drawing, this game's hard enough as it is.)

More unfortunate is that the base game only comes with four missions, and teases you with fifteen more available if you pick up various expansions. For a $100 game, that's kind of shitty. I don't begrudge the company their expansions, but at least start the players out with enough to make it feel like a full experience. Seven or eight would have been more reasonable—say, the ones that use the base game's tile set but are sold on Steam for $4.99 a pop.

As for the difficulty, people house rule various things to make the game more playable. My suggestion is this, as a minimum variant: Allow anyone who takes a move action to move two spaces, even if they take another action in the middle. Only moving one space because the thing you need is next to you, even though you want to keep going (or move right back), is too common. You don't know what you're going to see when you enter a room, and without that flexibility, your action economy often tanks, leaving you needing more turns than you have to get the job done.

It's weird to be able to spell out this many flaws this clearly and still deeply enjoy a game, but that's the deal here. It's so good. Between the price, the need for expansions, and the difficulty, it may not be for everyone, but this is pretty much what FF Cthulhu is, and they did a great job.

Score: Seven writing tentacles out of eight on the octopus face (I punched one).

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Dave Reviews: Likelihoods Among Friends

Drunk, Stoned, or Stupid
PARTY GAME! PARTY GAME! PARTY GAME! PARTY GAME! WOOOOOOOO!!


Drunk, Stoned, or Stupid is a re-title of Who's More Likely To? and still a rip-off of Cards Against Humanity. One player draws a card and reads the trait, things such as "Gets Convinced Strangers Are Celebrities" and "Would Survive In The Woods With A Hatchet". The judge decides which of the other players best matches the description, "aided" by other players convincing them of who it should be. If you get seven cards, you lose.

Which... what? This is designed to be a party game, nothing serious, certainly not serious enough for judges to throw the game by giving people cards when they don't have many. But that's still a trash design. Weirder still, they suggest that if you have new people in the game, play so that seven cards is a win, and that seems like a much better game. Everyone has to argue for themselves as the person who does the ridiculous shit on these cards. I suppose it depends on the group, really.

Either way, the judge can make choices based on who's winning and not on any real game skill, which can be a fun experience but is by design a bad game.

Score: Six beers in the twelve pack (add two for fun if you finished the first six yourself).

Dave Reviews: Quacks That Don't Duck

The Quacks of Quedlinburg

Quacks, historically, are pseudo-scientists often pretending to be medical professionals (some so thoroughly they even fool themselves). They sell snake oil treatments, false cures to any and every ailment in existence. This game fits that theme.

But I still wanted the "doctors" to be ducks.


Every good quack has a cauldron to brew their mixtures in, and this game is no different. You start with a pouch of ingredients and pick them out, one at a time, and throw them in. What could go wrong? Well, in Quedlinburg, there are so many of you fucking lunatics that it's not enough to brew a potion and make a claim unrelated to its efficacy. It has to have bubbles, which means cherry bombs go in the mix as well. Too many cherry bombs, though, and your mixture explodes.

Each round, you pick ingredients one at a time and put pieces down farther up the points path in the cauldron equivalent to how many of the ingredient are on the token (ie. if you pick a 2 cherry bomb, it's placed two spaces ahead of the last piece). If you get more than seven cherry bombs in the pot, it explodes, and you have to choose between the ability to buy more ingredients or take victory points. The highest number of cherry bombs on a token is three, so you're safe until you have at least five cherry bombs in the cauldron. From there out, it's a question of risk management—how much farther do you need to go to stay up with your opponents? How many more turns will you take, risking that you'll pull the piece that ends your round early?

And thus, the problem.

If you get a bad set of ingredients in a round and quickly build up your cherry bombs, you're generally incentivized to keep going. After all, most of the bombs are out of your bag, and you have a better chance of pulling normal ingredients. But if your luck stays poor, and you bomb out early, now your opponents are immediately pulling ahead. They'll have the ability to buy more regular ingredients, which improves their odds of a successful run next round, meaning you'll have to take a bigger risk to keep up. And if that doesn't pan out, you fall further behind, and so on.

Basically, this is a game about risk management which is nonetheless substantially based on luck. If you fall behind, you have to play carefully and get lucky or hope your opponents screw up in order to catch them. You don't really have a way to actively make up ground. The catch-up mechanic—moving you farther ahead in the cauldron if you're far enough behind the leader—only makes it so you stay within range if your opponents screw up. And if you fall behind, it's just not fun.

That's the real killer. A game can be difficult, it can be a little unbalanced, it can be somewhat frustrating, and none of that is good, but it can remain entertaining as an experience. This does not. If you fall behind, none of your options are good, and all you can do is wish ill on your opponents (most likely your friends). The game's fine when you're winning, but it feels quite bad if you're losing, and that means in most games someone is not having a good time.

Combined with the wonky theme—are these people really so stupid that they risk blowing up their concoctions for bubbles?—and even though it's pretty popular on Board Game Geek, I can't get on board.

Score: 3 busted cauldrons out of five.

Dave Reviews: MURDER MURDER MURDER

Crowded

I try to keep my reviews relatively apolitical, but it's hard to read a comic about legal, crowdfunded murder and not immediately think of all the bullseyes lighting up across the world.


In Crowded, a crowdfunding platform called Reapr allows groups of people to pool money in an effort to get someone whacked, legally. Most campaigns don't accrue enough to take off, but Charlie Ellison is an unlucky exception. From an old lady's pistol to an army of devoted murder fans trying to run her into an ambush, Charlie's million-dollar-plus bounty has her squarely in the crosshairs of every bounty hunter, psychopath, and desperate housewife for the next thirty days.

The one thing she does right is hire Vita, the worst-rated bodyguard on Dfend. It looks hopeless, but as it turns out, Vita's poor ratings are because she doesn't like to kill anyone. They want to see her spill blood, and she's focused on keeping them alive. That's what Charlie needs, especially when she continuously undercuts Vita's efforts by finding ways to get them tracked. Of course, Vita's question is what Charlie did to earn such a massive bounty, to which she never quite receives an answer no matter how many times she asks...

Crowded toes a line of being perhaps too direct in its satire of the modern day, but never quite crosses it. Christopher Sebela does a good job of creating a world where everything that's going on is explained, and even that's done with a nice bit of self-aware expository dialogue. The end is reminiscent of Death and Glory, and not just because they're now the two most recent comics I've reviewed; both are designed with a story that blasts through the first six issues, then ends with the world opening up to the main characters and many more things becoming possible compared to what we've already seen.

The question, then, is where does the comic go from here? Almost all stories have to open up as they continue, especially if they're serialized like comics, but Image uses the expanding universe concept fairly consistently, and not always to the best effect. Even great comics like Saga and Low can struggle to maintain their energy as the characters roam into new parts of their worlds (or galaxies) and need time to see what's going on. Whether Crowded avoids this in part depends on how much we'll need explained going forward; presumably Charlie and Vita will at least be in the United States, and maybe the story remains strong throughout. For a first volume, though, it's good, definitely worth picking up, and especially so if you prefer a lot of women or queer characters in leading roles.

Score: 16 dead murder hobos out of 18 sitting outside your house.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Dave Reviews: When Chickens Became Oxen

Spirits of the Rice Paddy

In preparation for this review, I learned that the conical hat worn by rice farmers in China is called a douli. Of course, those hats exist in many other Asian countries, and have different names in each. There are also English names, but we're going to leave certain ones aside for very good reasons.


Spirits of the Rice Paddy is like Farming Simulator, played with cardboard and set in old-school China. Your board is your field; you start with one of ten fields planted and fenced off, with five others ready for planting and the last four full of rocks you need to clear in order to use them. Planted rice grows the next season, when it can be harvested and sold at market for the money you need to keep the place running. Of course, if your crops are diseased or loaded with bugs, they won't sell for nearly as much.

Most of the farming is done by workers you hire. You start with ten and can hire ten more at increasingly absurd rates; the last couple must be proper supervisors, considering they don't actually add more than the other workers but cost several times as much. You also buy livestock which can do work (oxen clear fields, for example, while geese eat bugs that can infest your crops). It's important to note that you're buying livestock, not certain types of livestock. These come on flippable tokens, with an ox on one side and a goose on the other. You can only have six livestock max, but they transform into whichever one you need, which sounds like the way to push back against factory farming in America. (That's a joke, of course. If you buy/hire more than one thing at the end of each round, you get charged a tax that no corporate farm will ever have to pay!)

There are also spirits you can call upon to help. They're not hard to find or use; apparently they need something to do as much as the workers you hire. These spirits are not designed to have approximately equivalent power levels. The higher the number on the spirit card, the stronger it is, but the later it might make you go in turn order (which is determined by the highest number spirit card each player has). Even so, the higher-number ones are sometimes so good you just want to get them on the table ASAP and deal with going last or second-last. That's saying something because a farm only works if it has water, and turn order decides who gets it.

At the start of each round, a rain card is flipped up which determines how much water is available for the season. All of it goes to the first player. That player releases whatever water he or she needs to get rid of (can't plant or harvest a soaked field), which filters down to players in turn order. Once the planting/harvesting is done, the new water comes through. Players near the top of the turn order get basically whatever they need; those near the bottom might have very nice spirits helping them, but they'll need to manage their water much more carefully to avoid rotting fields.

The theme of this game is great if you need to relax while thinking very hard during your entertainment hours. There's no reason to cuss out your workers or your oxen; they all do their jobs perfectly well, so if things go wrong, it's because you bollixed it up. (Not that bollixing things up is relaxing, but it's easier to improve yourself than the performance of your cardboard.) The way you have every decision under your control—the shape and size of your fields, your work force, your livestock count, how to ration your water—gives a sense of having total control over the outcome, which makes it that much more of a wrench in the works (in a good way) when someone plays a spirit that brings the locusts upon your lands or convinces your workers to run away from home.

That said, the theme is really what carries the game. If you're 'meh' about rice farmers or pretending to hire a bunch of them, there may be a lot of equally good games that will better suit your tastes. It is, as is so often said in this space, a well-crafted game that entertains but does not rise above the crowd in a design sense. But if you like this aesthetic, you should have a good time.

Score: Ten happy workers out of thirteen workers on-site.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Dave Reviews: Why Isn't It "Rumble for the Galaxy"?

New Frontiers

Seriously, the move from "Race" to "Roll" was aesthetically pleasing. Who cares if you don't fight the other players directly? You drop space marines on rebels and aliens. That's rumbling. It counts. "New Frontiers" my ass.


Rumble for the New Frontiers (that's my name for it now) is another game about getting your feet on some planets, developing handy inventions, and turning that sweet, sweet cash into sweet, sweet VPs. Some aspects will seem more familiar to Race fans than others. You have a board representing your galaxy-traveling people, with a home planet on the front and slots for eight more around the board. You fill those by exploring planets (pulling them out of a bag) and then colonizing. The middle of your board has twelve slots for development upgrades, along with small marks for your money, colonists, and VPs.

A round consists of each player taking one of seven possible actions, each of which allows everyone to act but offers a bonus to the player who picked it.

  • Explore: Pull seven planets from the bag, pick one, pass them around. (Bonus: pick a second planet after everyone has made a selection.)
  • Settle: Use colonists to settle a planet, or take two colonists to use later. (Bonus: take a colonist first, which can be used to settle a planet.)
  • Develop: Buy a technology. (Bonus: costs $1 less.)
  • Produce: Planets without goods make a good. If it goes unused for a round, $1 is put on it, taken by the next person who chooses this action. (Bonus: Put stuff on a windfall planet without a good. Windfall planets make a good when colonized, but don't normally during production.)
  • Trade/Consume: Sell a good. Also, use any Consume keywords you control. (Bonus: 1 VP.)
  • Take first spot in line and 1 VP.
  • Go into isolation; take $2
The entire game is about combining these actions with the abilities you gain from developed technologies and colonized planets. Making sure that as many actions as possible will have their maximum effect, no matter when they happen (ie. having the money/military and colonists to settle one of your planets when someone takes the Settle action) is the key to winning. 

Of course, there's no single way to win. Build a military and take over a bunch of military-required planets? Sure. Military's relatively easy to build up and those planets tend to be worth a lot of points. Get a high-money economy rolling? Hey, those planets tend to have good abilities you can combine for points, and there's even a tech that lets you buy military planets. There aren't a lot of different combos—your only options for points are planets, techs, and things which give you VP chips, so you have to get those things one way or another—but the ability combinations are almost endless.

I'm not a huge Race fan, but I like this. Does that mean Race fans will adore it? Mmm... maybe. It has a Race feel, but it really depends on what you like about Race vs. what you'll enjoy in this. It has complexity without feeling overwhelming; your second game will almost certainly go better than the first, but the first shouldn't feel hopeless unless you're in with a bunch of experts. It's basically good and playable, in that vein of games with the quality to sell like mad in a less crowded market, but not quite on the level that it should be held aloft above all comers in this day and age.

Score: Seven settled planets out of nine.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Dave Reviews: German German Clever!

Ganz Schon Clever

Did you know the word for "clever" in German is klug? Google Translate told me, so it must be true. Would we be looking at this game if it was called "Ganz Schon Klug"?

...probably. It has an English translation right underneath. Hell, we'd probably have fun shouting it at each other, with both arms firmly at our sides.


Ganz Schon Clever is the version of Yahtzee you would make if you were twelve, bored, and not challenged enough in school. It's a game of efficiency in the name of randomness, of synergy and cascading points with a pool of resources unknown until they're rolled, that is likely to let you feel very smart and die a little inside when you don't get that last roll you need in the same game.

Each turn has one person as the active player. That person rolls the dice and picks one to fill a square of the matching slot on their scoresheet. (White has no spot; it's wild and can be used as any color.) Any dice lower in number than the chosen die goes on the Silver Platter (a picture of a dish inside the box they included because organization is EVERYTHING) and can't be used by the active player again that turn. All remaining dice are rerolled, a second die is picked, then the dice left over after that are rolled again so a third can be picked. After that, the remaining dice (usually three of them) are open for the other, passive players to choose from and put on their own scoresheets. All passive players choose at the same time, and can pick the same die. A round consists of each person getting a turn as the active player, and the game length is in number of rounds, determined by player count.

The first round is generally straightforward. You're just getting started filling in the sections, and each section requires at least a few entries before they start offering bonuses. This goes on for part of the second round, but soon enough you fill in a box that lets you fill in a different box. Later, you fill in a box that lets you fill in a box that lets you get an extra reroll that you use later to make sure you get just the right die to fill in another box that lets you fill in yet another box. In addition, some of the bonuses let you use an extra die at the end of someone's turn, which lets you fill in a box which can let you fill in a box that lets you fill in a box which lets you fill in yet another box.

It gets a little bonkers.

For as much as we might look at the title and say, "Yeah, good job Hans, call yourself clever, you arrogant prick," it... really is clever. Here's why: the game is based around understanding the odds of various outcomes, but none of it is complicated. If you realize it's harder to get high numbers than low ones (because of the dice choosing rules), and that for the blue section (which adds two dice) it's harder to get 2, 3, 11, and 12 than the ones in the middle, you can form a basic strategy for choosing dice and picking which boxes to fill in with your bonuses. From there, everything depends on how efficiently you can get from bonus to bonus, and how much you can limit your reliance on very specific die rolls in order to make your strategy pan out. You can easily play without wasting dice or feeling like you've horribly screwed up, but you will also never fill out the whole sheet, so it always seems as though you might be capable of just a little... bit... more.

I think I have a German chip in my brain, because I adore these types of efficiency-based games. Even taking that bias into account as best I can, I think this is really well done. Basic gameplay that keeps people from getting too frustrated, and the sense that there's always a better way to proceed, both matter in the replayability of a game like this. Just like with 13 Clues, I can see the scorepad running out of paper at some point (albeit probably with a different group of players).

The only question mark is, why is there room on the back of the scoresheet to score all four players? It's probably to make overall scoring easier, keep it on one sheet, etc., and it doesn't affect gameplay, but everyone who's played looks at it funny. The fact you have to flip it from vertical for play to horizontal for scoring is awkward. But as problems go, that's a small one. Get this game.

Score: 243 out of 280 points needed to be a "genius" (fuck you, Hans).

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Dave Reviews: The Two Worst Unlocks

Night of the Boogeymen Scheherazade's Last Tale

Unlock! is back with a new trio of pseudo-puzzle rooms for you and your friends to solve. Why does this review only handle the first two of them? Two reasons.

1. The first two were readily available for play and review, whereas the third was not.
2. If the first two are any indication of the third's quality, I want no part of it.

Spoilers, btw.


If you're familiar with the Unlock! games, the basic gameplay needs no introduction. (If you're not, there are numerous explanations online; all you need to know for now is that some of them are quite good, and this review is not indicative of the series as a whole.) The storylines of these two are pretty much what the box art suggests.
  • Night of the Boogeymen puts you in a position to help a young boy defeat the boogeymen around his room and finally get some sleep.
  • Scheherazade's Last Tale shows the famed Scheherazade in need of one more tale, just when she's run out. She needs you to find her artist friend and bring back the one story she needs to be free.
They start out fine. You have basic puzzles, hidden numbers, all the normal design elements of an Unlock! game. As has become common with these games, Boogeymen has another piece: a flat sheet of paper with some colored dots that look like gems, and teeth. (Scheherazade sticks with the old formula of cards with numbers and letters, and nothing else.) Most puzzles are pretty doable, some are tricky, a few are aggravating, but that's not the problem; one person's incomprehensible mess is another person's easily-sorted problem, which is why you play with friends.

However, both of these suffer from a flaw so massive it signals either a change in designer, a severe drop-off in playtesting, or both: the ability to reach a point where you need a certain item or set of clues to proceed, and you simply... don't.

Again: spoilers. As minimal as possible, but on some level spoilers.

In Boogeymen, the end-game scenario takes you away from the normal app and on to a new screen. It's kind of cool; that part isn't the problem. The problem is that in order to make sense of the final puzzle, you need another set of clues, and you can skip those clues by deciding to use the pieces that lead you to the final puzzle first. Once you're on that last screen, you can't go back to the app, so you can't even look for hints on other cards you might have left. By all appearances, you have to go after the final puzzle with what you have, and you can very easily not have what you need.

Scheherazade, to my disappointment (because I like the tale), is worse. There's a puzzle where you can go in a few different directions (ie. take a few different cards). The way the puzzle is set up, you have one correct answer; if you've ever played an Unlock! game before, you know that wrong answers are penalties. If you solve the puzzle, you have no reason to pursue the other answers.

However, you come across an obstacle for which you need a certain item. If you know anything about these stories, there's an excellent chance you'll figure out what type of item you need. However, you have to get that item from one of the "wrong" answers to that previous puzzle. It could be clever, if done well; setting forth a section where there appears to be only one thing you need, then hiding something else inside it, is nicely tricky and not a bad idea at all.

Scheherazade, though, asks the players to do a couple of things that don't make sense. First, it makes them go "backwards" in the game timeline. You do the puzzle well before you come across the obstacle that requires this hidden item. The way the story progresses, it does not at all appear like you should be able to run away from the obstacle, get the item, then come back. Furthermore, people are risk-averse; giving them a situation that looks for all the world like a penalty, then making them figure out it isn't, is a hard pull. There's an excellent chance that if people figure it out, it's only through hints, having literally no other options, or both. 

On the other hand (speaking broadly, not about this puzzle specifically), if you put an obstacle down that the players can't pass, then give them the puzzle with the item they need hidden within, there's a much better chance they'll make the connection. Maybe they felt that made the game too easy; it's a 2 out of 3 in difficulty rating. But making people jump around incoherently through the storyline you've built doesn't make for good puzzles. It's just confusing.

Boogeymen isn't bad, especially when you play with the paper. Scheherazade is a mess. Get someone else to buy both of them, if you can.

Score: 5.5/10 (Boogeymen), 4/10 (Scheherazade)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Dave Reviews: The Glorious City of Chamber Pots

Bruges

The thing about games set in places like fifteenth-century Belgium is that they glorify these beacons of the medieval era without acknowledging all the fucked up places that people had to poop.


Bruges is a decently heavy strategy game based on two of the most random pieces of game design—dice and cards. At a glance, it's like, "Hey, game! Why you do this? This no good!" But it works out.

Let me explain.

The thing to understand about Bruges is that its strategy is not nearly as much of the plan-ahead variety as it is of the react-to-circumstances variety. You start each round with five cards, drawing (usually) four and having one left over from the previous round. You don't know what the cards are, but you do know their color from the back. There are five colors and five dice (one of each color). Each card has a person on it, but the people are frequently irrelevant. Not only is this OK, it's actually quite a good thing—since most of the cards you draw will only be used for their color, you can wait until you find people you really need to fill the houses you build, which dramatically lessons how luck of the draw affects you.

Furthermore, a big chunk of the strategy is dependent on having sufficient cash, which itself depends on the dice. Although some cards earn you money (and if you can get a good money-making engine going, it's often worth the effort), quite frequently you'll discard a card for some coins. The money you receive depends on the number on the die. There's more luck involved here—dice are rolled after cards are drawn, so you don't know what will be worth the most—but even so, there are enough action options that you can generally wait until cards are worth the most (five or six coins each) before using them for cash. Get some workers, build some canals with the cash you already have, build some houses for the new folk... if you have to take one or two coins with a card, it's rare that bad luck truly left you with no other option. It's much more common for it to happen to someone who takes a risk that doesn't pan out.

Mostly the complexity of Bruges revolves around how to get the points you need to win. Spend your money on reputation? If there are some cheap hits early, it's a good plan, but you might price yourself into getting the higher levels of rep when you need the money for other things. Hire high-VP people? That's straight cash, homie. Build canals? That's a lot of cash too. Build majorities? Not so hard early if you focus it, since you only need to have the majority in people, canal sections built, or reputation points once during the game. But if you have to catch up, or if you're trying to stay ahead to deny one or more opponents a chance at those points, it can get pricey. Given how clear most of the point options are to your opponents, it's often finding synergy among the point bonuses some people hand out that can be the difference, which means getting those synergistic hires and then finding more people who work with them. There are a lot of options, but that goes further still towards reducing the luck factor.

Bruges is out of print right now, but if you get a chance to play it—or better yet, find it cheap at a garage or estate sale—go for it. Very much worth the time for the hour-long strategy game fan,

Score: Thirty-one of the thirty-six points that would have let me win my very first game.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Dave Reviews: The Racing, Robbing, Not-Yet-Murdering Lady (But It's Coming)

Death or Glory, Vol. 1

Death or Glory sounds great as the name of a comic revolving around a death-defying car racer named Glory. Then again, in this context, who's not picking Glory...?



Minimal spoiler version: Glory was raised on the open road by parents who dedicated themselves to living free from the trappings of modern society. They found a small society of like-minded travelers and stayed as far from the world as they could while still living with, you know, cars and trucks and electricity. To some degree her background comes off as a libertarian fantasy—the joy of living in the world unfettered—but it's balanced out by the difficulties they face, including the one that puts Glory's story into motion.

The first issue goes all-in selling you on a world and a character that will be, at minimum, entertaining as hell. It's not uncommon for comics to craft this sort of high-octane opener to keep people coming back for at least a few more issues, then diving directly into the slower part of the story and killing their momentum. Death or Glory avoids this, keeping the pace up while still finding time to tell us the things we need to know about the world around Glory and how she got to the point where someone's trying to cryo-freeze her to death.

One thing we don't get much of after the first issue is Glory's car-racing skills. She bootlegs her way into heroism, fulfilling the promise of the cover as we watch her juke fools out of their lanes, but while the other issues are fairly heavy on action in general, there's not so much of her driving her way to victory over her antagonists. Is that bad? Eh, depends on what you want. If you just like the promise of action and the type doesn't matter much or at all, it's great. If the draw of the lady with the race car was what got you, there's reason to think we'll get back to that, but it's not as present as you might hope across this volume.

But the way Glory is dragged into the problems around her is done as well as you'd expect Rick Remender to do it. Even the hard problems are never simple, and Glory finds her situation devolving from an almost impossible series of heists, nearly certain to get her killed, into something far worse. It's a transfixing ride, and by the end of this volume, the story starts to open up, leaving any number of players able to get into Glory's business—for good or ill.

How it compares to some of Remender's other work:

Better than: Tokyo Ghost
About equal to: Seven to Eternity
Not as good as: Low

Score: 87 (which would be the number on her race car, if she had a race car) out of 100.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Dave Reviews: Gadgets? No. Widgets? No. Uh...

Gizmos

Whirlygigs? Don't tell me...


I said don't tell—goddamnit.

Gizmos is a two to four player, engine building game about... building engines, really. You start with a board listing the types of cards and one starting card that lets you draw an energy sphere blindly out of the thingamajig they all go in. From there you can file away cards from the board (only one, unless upgrades improve this capacity) or build cards that give you more and better abilities if you take the action associated with them on your turn. Those abilities are File, Pick, Build, or Research.

File and Build are obvious; Pick is choosing one of the energy spheres in the thingamajig chute; and Research is drawing cards equal to your research level from one deck, choosing one, then either filing it or building it right away. What's important about these, especially as the game goes on, is not so much the abilities but the chance to trigger all the gizmo cards underneath the ability you used that turn. The right engine with the right energy can take two black and build them into a card that takes four yellow to make, all on one turn.

The balancing point is that the game ends when someone has sixteen cards in their play area. Is it better to balance your cards in each category, so you get a decent benefit no matter what ability you use? Or should you pile them in one or two abilities and find a way to lean heavily on those all game? This depends on what's available, especially at the start, and understanding how to build an efficient engine early. Whatever that engine can build, you run with to the greatest extent possible, and hopefully that's enough to carry the game.

What all of that means, to the engine-building veterans out there, is that the game becomes substantially easier once you know what's available or likely to be available for you to build. Watching a bunch of people try to figure out what they're looking at and how it fits together on the fly is almost painful next to that one person who knows exactly what cards they're looking for and how to best fit everything together. The game is fine when everyone knows what they're doing or no one knows what they're doing, but a mixed group is going to create a pretty imbalanced experience.

One thing I still haven't figured out is the reason for building the thingamajig for the energy spheres. Did they see Potion Explosion and decide it was a fun concept to swipe? There isn't much reason to limit the energy that can be taken with the Pick action. It's not uncommon for it to be loaded up with two colors. Although it doesn't happen often, someone's engine can get throttled by not having access to the energy colors they need. Did it need this element of randomness to keep the game from playing the same way all the time? Gizmos is pretty good, it doesn't seem like it should need that. It mostly seems like they felt the need to put something "cool" in the box.

Short version: If you like engine building games and you're willing to play a couple of rounds to learn what's available, you'll have a good time with Gizmos. You might even like the thingamajig more than I do.

Score: Thirteen barrels of energy out of sixteen.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Dave Reviews: Rolling Dystopia

Euphoria

I just noticed the picture on the box front has plebes rolling walking-wheels around like little hamsters. Whether or not it's an allusion to the dice you roll as your workers or not, I'm taking it as such. Well done.


Euphoria is a worker placement game where your dice are your workers and your soul is a liability. Workers are rolled and then placed with one of the factions (Euphorian, Subterran, Wastelander, or Icarite); if you roll doubles, those dice can be placed on the same turn. You start with two dice and can get up to four. That's pretty normal for worker placement games. What's less normal is the fact you can lose those workers, and especially how—if they get too smart, they might run away.

The basic breakdown is this: Euphorians make energy, Subterrans make water, Wastelanders make Food, and Icarites make all the drugs. The first three groups are stationed on the ground, and can construct buildings (contributing your workers and resources to these buildings let you earn points and avoid their negative effects immediately). The Icarites are in the sky and do things totally differently, because hey man, that's what they do, and it's cool man, it's so cool, get blissed out man. You can take resources from the factions, and what you get depends on the total of the dice in that area (yours and others). If there are enough, you can get an extra of their main resource, but your workers get smarter.

With regards to worker smarts: When you pull dice off the board and roll them, if they total sixteen or more, you lose one. At the start of the game, that's impossible. However, if you roll three or more dice, it becomes possible, and if the intelligence of your workers has risen too far, it's possible to lose one even when you just roll two dice. Fortunately, when you remove workers, you choose how many to take off; unfortunately, those you leave on can often be bumped out of their spots by opposing workers. Since you always roll all available dice together, this can leave you rolling a risky number of dice (3+) even when your plan involved rolling a safe number (two or less).

It's a neat tactic, a way to create strategic play against opponents without a mechanism of direct conflict (appropriate dystopian theme). In fact, much of the game involves playing "with" opponents while still trying to beat them. You nearly always team up with others to make buildings, construct tunnels, and push the power of each faction ahead so you earn more resources and get access to your backup recruit (assistant character). There's almost never a reason to cut deals with people, but you have to be aware of what they're doing and figure out how to turn it to your advantage, such as finding locations other people will need and getting a worker there first so they bump it off the board and you get to reroll it for free (rather than paying in food or morale to take it off the board).

However, this aspect also leads to the main downside. You largely have to go along to get along in this game. If you refuse to help make buildings, other players will, and you'll be left with repercussions and no points. If you don't work to improve the power of the faction your main recruit (and later the secondary) belongs to, other players eventually might, but there's value in pumping it up sooner rather than later, especially if someone else is helping. Winning is a matter of working with people while finding edges before they do.

The issue is this: working together is necessary enough that people whose recruits don't belong to the same faction as anyone else's are at a disadvantage against multiple players whose recruits do faction-match. The game is relatively good at not letting anyone really snowball out of control, but being part of the group activities is so important that if you're shut out by unfortunate turn order (e.g. buildings keep going from zero to built before you get a turn, or you get one turn but don't have a worker/necessary resource), or you have to put all the work into raising up one faction while other players can split the effort, you end up falling behind for reasons you had little control over.

Once you play a few games, you start to see the time to go for buildings, which buildings might get people on board sooner, etc., which helps. The recruit faction issue is always potentially present, and while it should be less of an issue in larger games, if you find yourself the only representative of a faction despite having six players, it hurts even more.

Euphoria is pretty good, but it's not good throughout the 2-6 player range. Board Game Geek suggests 4-5; I don't know how it plays on the lower end of the spectrum, but I agree that six players seems to throw the game out of whack.

Score: 11 IQ out of the 16 needed to run for your life.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Dave Reviews: Regrowing Australia's Greatest Natural Landmark

Reef
There are games which involve underwater life, where you escape big fish with big teeth or spawn salmon or escape from an island which is about to become underwater life, but rarely do you get to be... the plants. And not even the soft green plants, but the rocky crap we step on and it hurts.

Although pretty soon there won't be any of that either.


Reef is something of a puzzle game. Everyone gets a 4x4 board and four pieces of coral, one of each color, set in the center four squares however you wish. This isn't done blindly; everything revolves around cards, and you get to see a display of three to choose from right away, as well as having two in your hand, and you can use these to determine good starting positions for your coral.

The cards are key, so here's how they work: each card has a top and bottom. The top has two pieces of coral, often (but not always) of the same color. When you play a card, you take those two pieces out of the stockpile and place them on your board. You can put them anywhere you want—different spaces, stacked in the same space, stacked on top of other pieces already there, etc. The only rule is that stacks cannot go above four high. Once a stack is four high, it can no longer be changed.

The bottom has a scoring mechanism. This is some pattern the coral must follow to score the points on the card. Only the top-most color on each stack matters for these patterns. Some of them are easy—for example, score one point for each top piece that's green. Some are more complicated, requiring two different colors diagonal to each other on stacks at least two high. The more complex the pattern, the more point each matching set is worth, but the simpler the pattern, the more times you may be able to score it when you play the card. Therefore, depending on how your board looks, any card may end up being able to score a good chunk of points.

One tricky aspect is that the colors a card lets you play don't match the colors the card lets you score (apart from a handful that let you score any color). A winning strategy involves playing as many cards as possible that let you score points while also playing corals that will let you score points on a future card. You don't need to score every card; if you can combo well enough, taking a zero on one card to score ten on another is better than two three-pointers. But comboing off big time isn't as important as scoring consistently while looking for a big combo. Putting too many resources into setting up a big score will usually leave you behind people who consistently grab points, because if you're thinking a few cards ahead (no one can take cards out of your hand, so you know what you have), you can always set up good combos.

Basically, it's not a question of small scores versus one big score. It's a matter of who can land bigger small scores or more big scores. The game runs for a reasonably high number of rounds, so if you can't pull anything that nets points right away, you still have time to set up something nice for yourself if you keep an eye out for the right cards. Variance can mess things up, of course, especially in a four-player game, but usually the cards come for you to create some nice scores.

And... that's pretty much it. It's a perfectly good game. Like so many games, it will find a niche crowd that adores it, a handful that really don't like it, and a large majority that find it an acceptable way to spend some gaming time. In theme, it's fairly unique; in form, it's reasonably different from most other offerings; yet it doesn't feel hugely different from a lot of perfectly good games that have crossed the gaming landscape in recent years. It's a game with a very pretty box designed to draw you into a game that you'll probably tell your friends is fun. So, if it sounds like a cool concept, by all means pick up a copy. If you're looking for a game that will blow your hair back with its unique greatness, this isn't quite it.

Score: Eleven punctured feet out of fourteen (family vacation).