Thursday, January 31, 2019

Dave Reviews: The Glorious City of Chamber Pots


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...


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


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

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).