Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review: End of the Triumvirate

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, while not a huge Roman history buff, I still am cringing at the thought of Titus Pullo sinking down to play Frank Castle.


The Overview:

End of the Triumvirate is a three-player quick, light war game set during the late Principate era of the Roman Republic where Gaius Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) and Marcus Licinius Crassus had formed an unofficial triumvirate of power. The game plays out the break down of the alliances in the first Roman Triumvirate and represents a three-way civil war between these figures (a historical "what if").

The players represent one of the members of the Triumvirate, either Caesar, Pompey or Crassus. Each of the players is trying to obtain one of three possible victory conditions:

1. Political Victory: A player is elected Consul twice (elections are held at the end of every "year" or 8 turns. Or a player has been elected Consul prior AND has 6 citizens supporting him in his Forum section.
2. Military Victory: A player controls 9 Provinces.
3. Competence Victory: A player has his Military and Political competences each up to Level VII.

The map is laid out to represent 15 provinces of the Roman Empire around the Mediterranean and at the start, each leader controls 5 of the provinces. The provinces are broken down into three types Political, Military and Competence. The type dictates what resources will be gained there. Resources are generally gained every other turn of the controlling player (based on the governor's position) and the resources are placed in the province it is gained in. A large flat wooden square represents the position of each character on the board.

There is also a "Battle Bag" which is seeded with 2 weapons from each player. Weapons are represented by little colored cubes and really only signify a battle advantage. During the game more weapons can be seeded into the bag from a player, giving them more of a chance of drawing their cubes in battle, giving them more of an advantage.

Each player's turn is broken into three phases:

The first phase is Supply. Each territory that a player controls has a governor marker in it the same color as the player. If the governor is inside the supply box, it is moved out of it. If the governor is outside of the box, it is moved into it. If there is a Civil Servant chit in the province, the governor does not move and remains outside of the supply box. A Civil Servant essentially ensures that the province will be supplied every round instead of every other round. Then, any province that has their governor outside of the box (so that the supply icon is visible) receives supplies to that territory. Political provinces give 2 gold, Military provinces give 2 legions and Competence provinces give 1 gold and 1 legion. Afterwards, the player gets supplies from Rome in the form of either two gold, two legions or one of each.

The second phase is Movement. Each player gets 4 movements. Legions and Civil Servants cannot move on their own, but can be taken along for free with the character's movement. Each movement into an adjacent province or sea zone costs one movement point. If a character moves across a sea zone without legions, it costs a total of one movement point less. If you have a Civil Servant with you, you can leave it in the province, and the governor immediately is placed on top of it. If you enter a territory that you control that has gold in it, you pick up the gold and place it in your reserves in front of you. You can only enter a province controlled by another player if you have at least one legion with your character and you initiate an attack.

Attacks are resolved by the following: Weapons are drawn from the battle bag. You draw a number of cubes equal to the number of legions that the weaker side has, to a maximum of three cubes. For each color of the attacker drawn, a defending legion is eliminated. For each color of the defender, an attacker is eliminated. If a neutral color is drawn it counts towards the number pulled, but is placed back in the bag. If the defender's character is in the province, then the attacker loses 2 legions. Then, finally, an equal number of legions are removed from both sides until at least one side is reduced to zero legions. If there are any attacking legions left, the attacker controls the province and replaced the governor with one of his own.

Compensation is given to the defender if he lost a province (seeding the bag with more of his weapons, or, if multiple provinces are lost, adding to their military or political competence track). This actually strengthens a character in some ways, so it makes choosing your attacks a much more strategic decision since you could be pushing your enemy towards victory.

Because each player gets four movements, they can attack up to four times each round.

The third phase is Actions. A player can take up to three actions. The first one costs 1 gold to execute, the second costs 2 gold and a third costs 3 gold. So it would cost 6 gold to execute 3 actions.

The actions you can take are dependant upon which kind of territory you end up in (adding to the strategy of your movements and possible conquests). If you are in a Political Province, you can either move your Political Competence up the track by one or you may EITHER move one Citizen into your support area in the Forum or move Citizen out of the support area of another player (moving Citizens costs two extra gold if you do not lead in the Political Competence track). If you are in a Military Province, you can either move your Military Competence up the track by one or seed the battle bag with two weapons of your color (this option costs 2 extra gold if you do not lead in Military Competence). If you are in a Competence Province, you may either move your Political or Military Competence up one on their respective track.

Finally, when the calendar marker reaches Elegio (after 8 turns), a Consul is elected. Whoever has the most Citizens supporting them in the Forum wins. If it is a tie, then the player who had their turn least recently is elected Consul. Since being elected Consul twice is a victory condition, the game will never continue past 4 years. After the Consul is elected, they give a short speech to herald in the new year, remove three Citizens from their support area and the calendar marker is returned to the beginning and play continues.


The Theme:

This is a light war game with different victory conditions giving a range of strategies to employ to try to win. It presents a three way civil war with a very interesting dynamic with the different objectives to victory. As a result, each player will most likely have to ally with the other players at least briefly from time to time throughout the game to ensure that another player does not pull ahead and win. At the same time, they have to be sure that their own attempt to stop another player does not aid the other one too much, giving them an advantage or chance for a quick win.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of this game is very easy. The rules are short and simple. In fact, in my habit of being overly verbose with rules, I pretty much laid out every thing you need to know to play the game in the Overview. There are a couple of little things that can easily be over-looked for a new player, such as remembering your reinforcements from Rome, knowing that at the end of your turn you may only have 6 legions in any province and realizing that attacking does not necessarily end your turn, provided that you still have movement left. The only other thing that may take a little bit of time to fully grasp is looking at how close each player is to fulfilling any of the victory conditions. Sure, there are three ways that you can win, but since it is a three-player game, you need to be fully cognizant at all times that there are six ways for you to lose.


The Components:

There is nothing overly fancy about the components, but they are solid and excellent for what they are. For the most part, you are dealing with colored wooden cubes (legions and weapons), colored wooden cylinders (for the governors and smaller ones for the Citizens) and colored wooden planks (for the characters). There are a few markers which are thick, sturdy cardboard (for the calendar / turn marker and gold coins). And the reference cards for the game are all of a sturdy thick cardboard (character cards, Compensation cards, Consul cards and Escape card).

The board is small, but not too small. It is really an efficient and elegant set up. I like the look and feel of the board a lot. There really isn't the need for a bigger board for this game.


Playing the Game:

The game is a rather interesting strategy game. It is looking for the opportunity to get ahead along one of the victory routes while at the same time, watching both of your opponents to ensure that they do not get ahead as well. The game is designed to avoid bashing too much on one player, since there are some rewards to losing provinces.

I am sure that the game can lend itself to those who would play kingmaker, but with the different paths to victory available, I think it would be a more rare game in which someone felt that they were so far out of it as to not have a chance. It is a very interesting concept to be playing for both balance of your opponents while at the same time moving ahead yourself.

I have not played this game enough to really delve too deeply into differing strategy, but I have already gained enough of a respect for the game that I wanted to talk about (and recommend) it. I think that it fills a niche very nicely as well. It is a three player strategy/light war game that is played in an hour. Plus, it does it well and entertainingly.

I think that the three different victory conditions are all achievable as well, giving the game a lot of variety when it comes to strategy. However, while this opens up a lot of strategy, it still may not be filling if you are really looking for a war game. While at the same time, it may have too much direct conflict and "screw you over" moments to really appeal to someone looking for a strategic Euro game.


Scalability:

The game does have the option to play with just two players, changing the initial set-up and removing Crassus from the game. Don't do it though. The game is easy enough to learn that I would not waste the time to play it with just two-players just to learn the rules. The game is meant for three players and really does not scale well otherwise.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group. Despite being a cunningly deceptive strategist, she tends to not like war games or games with too much overly direct conflict. Alas, this game falls into that category. She does not hate it, per se, but she is by no means a fan of it. Fortunately, the game is short enough that she can be persuaded into playing a game of it, though it means that she has more leverage in whatever we pick to play next. And it isn't like she doesn't "get" the game. She has won and has employed different strategies to try to fulfill different victory conditions. But ultimately, this is a game where you will get directly attacked and screwed over by other players, so I think that turns her off from it, no matter how good she really is at the game.


The Pros:

*How many other three-player light war games that can be played in an hour are there?
*Different victory conditions offer different strategies.
*Quick, but deep enough to be filling for a perfect gaming snack.


The Cons:

*Perhaps not as deep or lengthy for some gamers.
*May be not meaty enough for war gamers, while at the same time, involve too much direct conflict for Euro-gamers, narrowing the selection of those who would really enjoy it.
*Does not scale, so expect to only play it if you have three players.


Overall: I happen to have found End of the Triumvirate to be a perfect little gem in my collection. Being a three-player game, it will only come down off of my shelf in certain situations, but my core group is small. However, since it is short, it is a great game to get going while waiting for others to arrive.

I happen to find End of the Triumvirate to be an elegant game that gives me just enough satisfaction on the conflict / strategy department to hold me over until I have the time and group to sit down and play something a little meatier.


8/10

Monday, December 1, 2008

Review: Space Alert

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I am often rather leery of gimmicky add-ons to games as most are more flash than substance. However, that does not mean that I am not won over from time to time on a bit of extemporaneous shiny flash. Oh, also, I do not mind losing games and often times I am very amused and entertained by a massive train wreck.


The Overview:

Space Alert is team cooperative game set in the future where the players are crewmembers aboard a recon space ship that hyperspaces into an uncharted sector, records data and (hopefully) hyperspaces back. The actual mission is played in "real-time" and the sector scan should only take about 10 minutes before you hyperspace back to safety, at which point you evaluate your actions and find out how well you did (and if you survived). My friend describes the game as a classic "communication and command exercise". That's terminology that he picked up while serving in the military. However, his time in the service has not necessarily helped his Axis and Allies game, so I don't know if it is useful here.

The ship itself is broken into three sections. To make it convenient, each section is color coded. The left section is red, the center section is white and the right section is blue. Each of the three sections has an upper and lower deck as well, giving the ship a total of six areas. Each deck section has its own weapon system, most of which draw energy from the reactors. The top decks control the shields for that section of the ship and the bottom decks house the energy required to power the equipment in that section of the deck.

In the game, the players each choose a crewmember pawn to represent them on the board. Then, the players each decide on roles in the game. There is the Captain, who, in theory, dictates the agenda and order of the crew. If you have someone in your group who uses terminology such as "communication and command exercise", he's probably a good choice for Captain. The Captain also is the first character to resolve their actions each round during the evaluation phase. There is the role of Communications Officer who is in charge of managing and maintaining all of the external ship threats that arrive. They should also let people know important things like if said threat can't be hit by missiles or if it is likely to drain all of the shields or destroy the ship by its next move. You know, the minor details. There is the role of Security Chief, which is a lot like the Communications Officer, but is in charge of managing and maintaining the internal threats. Finally, there is the Tactical Officer, which is really just a fancy title for the person who moves the counter during the evaluation phase.

After roles are assigned, everyone is dealt three random hands of action cards (one for each of the three phases of the Action Round). The action cards each have two actions on them, though when you play a card, you only get to take one of the two actions. There are movement actions (left, right and going either up or down on the gravolift) and the other actions are denoted by A, B, C or attacking with the Battlebots. A actions are used for firing the weapons system in whichever compartment of the ship you are in. B actions are used for powering the shields in the upper decks and recharging the power supplies in the lower decks. C actions vary dependant upon which section you are in and range from firing missiles, to toggling the screen saver off, to activating battlebots, to looking out the window. And, of course, the "Attack with the Battlebots" action lets you attack with the battlebots.

Players should then be ready for the start of the Action Phase. At this time, the CD is played corresponding to whichever mission the players have chosen. The CD represents the ship's computer, which announces threats and timing as well as other things that may occur. The computer will announce threats such as a threat appearing along the red trajectory on turn 3. At that point it is up to the Communications Officer to draw a random threat card and place it on the red trajectory and signify that it will not be there until round three. Each threat has its own movement speed, and damage that it does to the ship, as well it's own hit points and shields to determine how, when and if it is destroyed by the crew. And each subsequent round, the threat moves closer to the ship, possibly triggering one of its attacks.

During this time, the crew will be running around and dealing with the threats by laying out their action cards. Each crew member can take up to twelve actions and timing is important. Threats do not appear until certain rounds and shooting along a trajectory on round 2 when the threat doesn't appear until round 3 is a waste of an action, card and energy. Each player lays their cards face down as well, so you cannot look over at another player's action, you need to be able to communicate exactly what you are doing and when. Also, resource management is key as well. If a section's energy is depleted on round 4 and you try to shoot a weapon or charge the shield on round 5, nothing will happen. Then, insult is usually added to injury as another crewmember then recharges the energy on round 6. That is where communication is very important in this game.

The CD will tell you when the time is up and you hyperspace back. This signifies the start of the Resolution Round. The board is set up as it was when you started and threats are checked to make sure that the Communications Officer and Security Chief set them up right (and along the right trajectory and at the correct time). Then each player goes through and each of their actions are played and resolved in order. The Action Round is kind of the chaotic directing and in-the-moment phase. The Resolution Round is kind of like the movie playback of what really happened. And a lot of the time, what really happened is nothing like what you wanted to happen.

If at any point during the Resolution Round any section of the ship takes 7 points of damage, the ship is destroyed and all of the crew die. If the crew is able to make it back alive, then you award points on how successful you were by determining which threats were defeated and which you survived and so forth.


The Theme:

The theme of this game is communication through pure chaos. The CD and real-time aspect really are immersive as you get a sense of tension and chaos of being a crew in a 10 minute life-or-death situation where every action must be precise and well timed or else you will be responsible for the horrible deaths of yourself and all of your crewmembers.

That being said, those deaths are usually incredibly funny.

It does not matter how well coordinated and what your coolness-under-fire rating was during the Action Round. When you get to the Resolution Round and actually play out your cards and actions, almost invariably, you discover that you or someone else in the crew made even the smallest error which threw everything off. There is nothing better than seeing that a crewmember was in the lower deck looking out the window as their action (to get more points for visual confirmation) when firing the cannons down there would have stopped the threat screaming towards them. Also, I have discovered that I become amnesiac as soon as the Action Round is over. As soon as I flip over my first action on the Resolution Phase, I blink and wonder, "Damn. Did I really mean to do that?" I am surprised every time at what I thought was a well planned round. Even if it ended up being what I had planned to do, that bit of memory is stripped from my mind the second we start the Resolution.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of the game is not too difficult. However, I would definitely recommend playing through the tutorial missions even if it is a veteran crew with one or two new crewmembers. The tutorials work excellently in keeping the theme while gradually introducing new elements so as not to overwhelm players.

The rulebook is well written and very clear. It is also rather amusing and worth the read on its own. And, for continuity buffs, Space Alert is set in the same game universe as Galaxy Trucker, even though the games could not be further separated in feel.


The Components:

The version that I have is from Essen and has what I believe are limited edition glass translucent colored components. These will be replaced in later editions with standard wooden cubes. They are pretty, but do not really matter much in the long run. It is just cosmetic. I imagine that they will not create anywhere near the same level of desire as limited edition animeeples did.

That being said, the components are good. The board is efficient and the pieces are good. There are a lot of little bits in the game, but I don't have a problem with that.

My only complaints with the components are that the action cards are small and thin and there are a lot of them. This makes shuffling them difficult to do. Also, there are three power markers than are cylinders. The glass ones have rounded, softer edges, so they tend to topple over and roll over the board a lot. I actually think wooden cylinders would have a better edge to stand up better. But those are very minor quibbles on what are otherwise good and very efficient components.


Playing the Game:

The game really is an exercise in trying to control and maintain a chaotic situation. And communication. You need to communicate and be aware of what other players are doing at all times. And it is very, very fun because of that. I happen to enjoy the chaos and destruction and finding out that someone misstepped and threw everything off. It makes the resolution much more entertaining when a player flips over their card and blinks and says, "I move to the lower deck... Wait... Why the hell did I move to the lower deck?!?"

Our group has a good attitude when it comes to losing. None of us mind it as long as the game play is enjoyable, be it a co-op or team or single player losses. However, I could see for win-oriented players how this game would be an exercise in frustration. You will probably lose. A lot. Some times it will be your fault, some times it will be someone else's fault and some times it will be a colossal group cluster-f***. So far my biggest blunder was as Communications Officer, I told everyone that the huge asteroid was coming down the blue sector, when, after the round I reviewed and found out that it was coming down the red. So our crew ran over and diligently fired at nothing on the blue track, while the asteroid hit our red hull and destroyed us. Apparently during that game, I was not a very efficient "Computer Repeater". I could see certain players see someone make a mistake and get angry with the player who made the error. For my group, I giggle when a player inexplicably decides to look out a window or walk into a wall when an interstellar octopus is about to rip through our already damaged hull. For others, it may turn into yelling and harsh feelings. Make sure that you have the right group and attitudes when playing this game!

The game can also play off of those who are perfectionists. Because the missions are short (about 20 minutes for the Action Round and Resolution Round to be completed) you can play a number of games back to back. This may play on those who feel the need to "get things right this time" and play again. And again. And again.


Scalability:

I've decided to add this section to my reviews as a lot of our games get played with just me and the wife, then get played again at our weekend gamer meetings. Anyhow, the game is designed for 2-5 players. I have played it a number of times with with 2, 3 and 4 players so far. When you have less than 4 players, you still play with 4 crewmembers, but the non-player ones are "androids" who are communally controlled, meaning that any player can lay cards on their action spaces.

The game shines with 4 players, as it was designed. There is usually an additional threat or so added in a five-player game (though I have not yet seen how that plays out). Four players seems to be the right amount as well. More players means more chaos and more voices talking over one another (and more people for the Captain to try to manage and maintain), but everything seems to click best with four.

Three people still makes for a very good game, but you have one android player. While it is less to keep track of when it comes to other players, it is actually more confusing since you have three people trying to throw cards onto the android space. While still immensely fun, I think the ordering works out better with four.

Two player games are less chaotic, but still fun and entertaining and worth playing to get used to the rules, but also for fun. We usually have one player each be responsible for one android, so it minimizes the cross-card chaos.

Four definitely is the sweet spot for this game, but it is still very much playable and fun with less.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group. Her level of frustration builds quicker than mine and she is not as big of a fan of laughing at our own train wrecks as I am. Since a good portion of my game playing involves her either 2-player or as part of a larger group, her opinion tends to affect how often I get to play a game on my shelf.

Despite her frustration when she loses, she has surprised me by liking this game as much as she does. She's still not as big of a fan of it as I am, but she's actually been the one to suggest playing it a couple of evenings. She doesn't have that bit of perfectionist that some of our core group does, so she does not want to play various missions one after the other like we do. But perhaps this is for the best. If not for her stepping up and saying, "Let's do something else," we probably would have easily played Space Alert well into 5 am trying to get a perfect mission.


The Pros:

*An incredibly innovative and fun game that pulls you into the hectic chaos of it all.
*Immersive and fun.
*A great atmosphere of tension and chaos.
*Enough variation of the random cards and trajectory tracts to make the 8 supplied mission tracks notably different every time you play.
*Well produced and efficient pieces.
*The CD / real time tracks are innovative and an amazing mechanic.
*With the right group, you will be laughing your asses off during the Resolution as you watch and wonder why the hell you took that action.


The Cons:

*With the wrong group, you may have someone angrily shouting at you at you during the Resolution as they watch and wonder why the hell you took that action.
*Reliance on a CD / real time track can be difficult to play at a convention or another area where you would need a player and have to worry about background noise.
*The action cards are small and difficult to shuffle (yeah, I had to reach that far to come up with another con)


Overall:

I have been very impressed with this game. Reading about it online before it came out, I thought that it might appeal to me and my group, but I had no idea of how good of a game I was going to be getting. It really is an interesting and innovative game and I can see how this mechanic could take games in a different direction. I know that the availability is scarce right now, especially in the U.S., but I would definitely highly recommend this game to anyone who thinks that this kind of communication and chaos would appeal to them and their group.

Even though it is still relatively new, it will take a lot to bring this game down from its position among my favorites.


9.5/10

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Review: Galaxy Trucker

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and gameplay is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, when I first started to see this game around, a bit of snobbery hit me and I didn't think that I would like it and I avoided the game for a little while. I thought that it would be silly and too light for me to indulge my gaming time in. It took a while for me to give in, but I finally checked the game out much later than I was aware of it.


The Overview:

In this game you play a member of Corporation Incorporated who has signed on to build a ship from pieces in the warehouse and to fly to a destination where they will use the pieces remaining in your ship to build plumbing and sewer systems. Along the way, you are free to try to make as much profit as possible by picking up cargo to sell from any planets you may pass, by rummaging through and derelict space stations you may come along and by defeating any space pirates for their bounty.

Really, that's all just insignificant back story for a game in which the plot does not matter much. You are building a ship and trying to ensure that it is able to survive any challenges that come its way during flight and trying to make as much money as possible en route.

The game is broken into three rounds. Each round the player builds a new ship, with each round's ship having the potential to be larger then the last, but each journey being longer and potentially much more dangerous, but with more rewards potentially available as well.

Each of the three rounds is broken into two parts. The first part is where you build your ship. This is done with a blank board with spaces for each of the ship components to be placed in. The components used to build the ship are on a bunch of tiles which are scattered face down on the table in front of everyone. Players all simultaneously rummage through the tiles trying to get the right components needed for their ship. A brief summary of the components is as follows:

Cabins: For holding crew members. Each cabin holds 2 crew members or 1 alien, provided that the cabin is also connected to the right kind of alien life support component.

Engines: The number of engines that you have determines your ships speed. Double engines add 2 to your ship's speed. But cost a battery each time that they are used as such.

Cannons: The number of cannons that you have contributes to the fire power of your ship. Also, they can shoot large meteors that are headed towards that line of your ship. Double cannons add 2 to your ship's fire power, but cost a battery each time they are used as such. Cannons that point to either side or the rear of the ship only at +0.5 to the ship's fire power, but can still be useful in defending against meteors coming from the sides.

Shield Generators: Protect the ship from smaller meteors and light cannon fire on 2 sides (tile orientation determines which two-sides the generator protects). Each time that a shield is used to protect a ship side, it uses one battery.

Batteries: Batteries store either 2 or 3 cells (uses). They are used to power Double Engines, Double Cannons and Shield Generators.

Cargo Holds: These components store 2-3 units of any combination of yellow, green or blue goods that you will come across. Good that you come across and make it to the end with can be sold for money.

Special Cargo Holds: These components store 1-2 units of red goods. Red goods are more valuable to sell than the other goods (and tend to be rarer). The special cargo holds can also carry yellow, green or blue goods as well. But regular cargo holds cannot carry red goods.

Structural Modules: These components don't do anything other than offer a variety of connectors and can be useful for building your ship.

Purple Alien Life Support Components: If connected directly to a cabin tile, it allows purple aliens to reside in the cabin instead of 2 human crew members. Each purple alien that you have adds +2 to your ship’s total weapon strength, provided that you have at least one cannon.

Brown Alien Life Support Components: If connected directly to a cabin tile, it allows brown aliens to reside in the cabin instead of 2 humans. Each brown alien that you have adds +2 to your ship's total engine strength, provided that you have at least one engine (and therefore speed).

Each tile has one of these components on it with various connecters along some or all of its edges. There are three types of connectors: Simple Connectors, Double Connectors and Universal Connectors. Simple Connectors connect to Simple Connectors, Double to Double and Universal Connectors can connect to either or another Universal Connector. And when laying tiles, you cannot have any connector against a smooth tile side (that does not have a connector on it).

Now, each player is simultaneously picking from face-down tiles and placing them on their ship from the same pool. If they pick a tile and decide not to use it on their ship, they can return it to the pool of tiles face up. Once a tile is laid down, it is locked in place and a player cannot change the tile or its orientation. This can be rather hectic since every player is picking from the same pool of tiles and each is racing to complete their ship first AND racing against a timer. The timer is player-determined, however, and is flipped over at any point by any player. So, if you are almost finished your ship and want to screw the other players, flip it over. Once the time runs out of the last timer flip (it is player-flipped once in round 1, twice in round 2 and three times in round 3), all building stops. You need to launch with whatever you have built, even if you are missing components.

After each ship is built, everyone does a spot check of each other's ships. Illegally placed tiles are removed, and everyone prepares for launch. The players place their ships in order on the flight day track in order that they finished building their ships. This gives a bit of an advantage to whoever is in first place.

The second half of each round is based on whichever player is in the lead (originally determined in order that people finished their ships) flipping over an Adventure Card. There are 3 sets of Adventure Cards, one for each round and each round potentially more dangerous, but potentially more rewarding. The first round consists of 8 Round One cards. The second round consists of 8 Round Two cards plus 4 Round One cards (making a total of 12 cards). The third round consists of 8 Round Three cards, plus 4 Round Two cards and 4 Round One cards (for a total of 16 cards).

When a card is flipped over, the person in the lead resolves the card first. The Adventure Cards vary in what can happen. If the players are lucky, a card with planets and available cargo will appear. Anywhere from 2-4 planets are listed on the card listing the available cargo on each planet. The first player gets their choice of planet and cargo, and the next player must choose out of the remaining planets and so on. It is possible that all planets and cargo will be taken by the time it is your turn to choose. However, if you stop, you move back a set number of flight days as listed on the card, possibly losing your position on the track to someone behind you.

Without listing all of the card types, there is a wide variety of things that can happen, both positive and negative. Some decisions that players will need to make on the card can cost resources, such as crew members. Others may cost you some of your precious cargo that you've collected.

However, the most interesting (and, in my opinion, fun) detriments that can happen come in the form of meteors and cannon fire that strike along your ship. The card will list which direction a threat is coming from (front, right, left or rear) and two 6-sided dice are rolled to determine which component along that axis is affected. Some threats can be blocked by using a shield generator that blocks that side of your ship. Some can be blocked by having a cannon aimed along that specific row of your ship and some are blocked merely by making sure that your ship does not have any exposed connectors along that row. Some threats, however, have no defense.

If your ship is threatened and cannot defend against the threat along the row rolled, then that component tile is lost and removed from the ship. Then the ship rechecked to see if removing that piece caused any other tiles to no longer be connected to the ship. If so, they are removed as well. Any items on the tiles are lost as well, be they crew members, aliens, cargo or batteries.

Once all of the Adventure Cards have been turned over, whichever ships still remain, make it to the destination. Bonus credits are given to each ship depending on the order that they arrived. Also, the ship with the fewest exposed connectors gains bonus credits as well. Any cargo that the ship still has is sold. Any, finally, any tiles lost along the way have to be paid for at the rate of 1 credit / tile lost (though each round has a cap on how much can be lost).

The process of building a ship starts again for the next round until all three rounds have been played. When the three rounds are finished, each player totals up the credits that they have accumulated and whoever has the most, wins.


The Theme:

Theme is generally a very important part of a game for me. While I can enjoy something abstract, theme makes me really get into a game and want to play it again and again. However, Galaxy Trucker does not really have a lot of theme in the actual game play. The rules have more theme to them than the game play itself. The rules are written with a sense of humor to them and seem to be in the line of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. However, while an entertaining, light read, none of it translates into the actual game play.

But I don't care. I still enjoy the game. The theme doesn't really pull it together, but watching my ship crumble and fall apart and hoping the other player's ships get it worse than me is fun. Perhaps I am a closet masochist, but I really enjoy watching my ship get beat to hell and I like watching my components fall off and trying to see what I can make it through to the end with.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve is low. There is a 16 page manual that uses a large font and has lots of pictures in it. The artwork is cute and silly, but, uh, not quite worthy of a Golden Geek nomination for best artwork. Anyhow, the rulebook also walks you through your first round of play and does an excellent job of being a tutorial. And after one playing, there really is no reason to ever look at the rulebook again. The game play is that intuitive. It is also very easy to explain to other players as well.


The Components:

The components are rather nice. While the bulk of the game consists of heavy cardboard tiles and cards, they are durable and efficient. Little colored wooden cubes represent the cargo that you can pick up on the various planets, and, well, who doesn't like more little colored wooden cubes? For extra fun, you can pretend that the cargo that you are transporting is actually the different diseases from Pandemic that you are going to unleash on the destination planet, or that you are rushing to deliver more support cubes to Nixon and Kennedy as their campaigns near an end.

Other components are little plastic figures to represent your ships on the track, little beaded green battery cells to place on your battery tiles to record how many you have and how many you have used and little plastic figures to represent your crew. The brown and purple alien figures are fine enough representations and serve their purpose. However, I have to admit that I am a thirty-five year old adult male and I find the little plastic human crewmember figures absolutely adorable. I love those tubby little astronauts.

Uh, anyhow, the components are good.


Playing the Game:

I had a lot of hesitation with the game and avoided it for a while for no reason other than I was being kind of snobby. But since I finally gave in and played it, it has impressed me with the amount of fun I have each time.

It is a game that you cannot take seriously. Sure, experience helps in knowing how to build a ship and how to build one quickly, but really there isn't too much strategy in this one. I am also a player who usually lets my gaming experience live and die by theme being incorporated into the game well. It is not in Galaxy Trucker, but that has not made me enjoy the game any less.

I almost prefer to lose at Galaxy Trucker. Well, that's not exactly true. But if I am to lose, I want to lose DRAMATICALLY. And that has happened to me many times. This game is not for every one, but if you have the right mindset, it really is a hell of a lot of fun.

It is not the kind of game that you can worry about winning or losing. It all comes down to the randomness of cards and die rolls. If you can live with that, you will do fine with this game.

My biggest problem with the game comes from the fact that you have so many chits and tiles. It wouldn't necessary be that much of a problem, but you begin with a large pile of tiles in the middle of the table, then have to push them aside for the second portion of the round, then put them all back and flip them all back over again at the start of the second round, only to push them aside again and go through that process once more. It isn't a big deal, but it is a mild annoyance that slows down an otherwise quickly paced game. It does also slow the game down even more if you have small table space and need to move everything off the table as you switch between phases of the rounds.


Does the Wife Like It?: The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group. Since a good portion of my game playing involves her either 2-player or as part of a larger group, her opinion tends to affect how often I get to play a game on my shelf.

While not nearly as much of a fan of this game as I am, she still tolerates it enough to indulge me in my desire to play when I pull it down from the shelf. Plus, I've indulged her in enough games of Pandemic to have built up enough capitol to pick this from time to time. I also can also suggest that I am in the mood to play either Galaxy Trucker or Cuba and I know that she will eagerly jump on this one due to her inexplicable hatred of Cuba. Marriage is all about the subtle manipulation combined with indulging in the other's likes enough to get enough capitol to then play the games you like. And, since she'll be reading this, she knows that I am joking.

The problem with her and this game is that she does not really seem to appreciate seeing everything that she has worked hard to build fall apart and crumble by the draw of a card and the roll of a die. For me, that is gangbusters and I enjoy seeing large sections of my ship destroyed. For my wife, not so much fun.

She actually wins most of our games, but I think the actual random destruction during the game play tends to be just a bit too frustrating for her to really like it.


The Pros:*Easy, intuitive quick-to-learn game play.
*Random destruction is good and fun, even if it happens to your ship.
*Adorable tubby little astronauts.
*Quick, good-paced fun.
*Finding out your wife's surprisingly expansive curse-word vocabulary when you turn over the timer before she is finished with her ship.


The Cons:

*The randomness can be frustrating for some players.
*Experienced players have an advantage in knowing what kind of ship building methods work better (though there are some viable fixes for this mentioned in the rulebook).
*There are a lot of chits to manage in the game.
*Realizing that your wife's expansive curse-word vocabulary is directed at you when you turn over the timer before she is finished her ship.


Overall:

I did not think that I would like this game as much as I do. And, while not a deep game at all, I wanted to try to convince others like me who thought that they were better than this game to rethink it and give it a try. It is definitely a light game, but I find it lots of fun. There really isn't much theme in the game play itself, but that has not stopped me from enjoying it every time that it has hit the table.


8.5/10

Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: Battlestar Galactica

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and gameplay is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, while I never liked the original "Battlestar Galactica" teevee show as a kid, I believe that the new "Battlestar Galactica" is one of the best teevee shows out there now, and this is despite the slight writing decline in past seasons and the fact that even as humanity teeters on the brink of annihilation Lee Adama cannot get over his daddy issues. I am also the kind of person who does not hide from spoilers, but will still do my best to avoid bringing up any that might be involved in this review (although the game only really covers events from the miniseries and the first season).


The Overview:

The game is based on the television show "Battlestar Galactica". No, not the one with Muffit, but rather the reimagining of the series. In this version, humanity is on the run from the Clyons, which have all but destroyed the human homeworlds. What is left of humanity is fleeing in defenseless civilian ships protected by the only known remaining warship, or Battlestar. The Battlestar Galactica is guiding these civilian ships which hold all that is left of humanity aboard them towards the planet Kobol, which will lead them to their final destination: Earth. Now, the Cylons are not just metal robot kill-machines... They have evolved and have created certain models that appear human in most every regard. In fact, some have be programmed to believe that they are human until their programming goes off and their true nature is revealed. The Cylons are attempting to eradicate humanity completely and outright attack the humans, but also have infiltrated the ship with Cylon agents who may or may not yet know their true heritage and programming. The humans win by reaching Kobol through a series of Faster-than-Light (FTL) jumps. The Cylons can win by any of three means. They can win by reducing any of the humans' resources to 0. These resources are Population, Morale, Food and Fuel. They can win if a heavy raider activates and boards Galactica, and the boarding party track moves up to the end before they are repelled. They can also win by destroying Galactica, usually through combat with the Cylon basestars.

In the game the players each choose a character to represent. The characters come from three character career paths with three characters in each of them. The paths are political leaders, military leaders and pilots. Now, in order to maintain a well balanced group, you may only choose a character from one of the most plentiful groups at the time of your choosing, so that you cannot end up with 2 pilots, 3 military leaders and no politician. There is also the support character which does not fit into any of these three career paths and can be chosen at any time, regardless of the most populated career paths. Each character has a different set of skills, primarily determined by their career role, but with some variation between characters. Each character also has two positive abilities (one that can only be used once per game) and one negative ability. Between skills and abilities, each character has a different feel for play, making it a unique experience. And all seem relatively balanced as well.

Characters are then assigned roles. A character in the Politicians track (determined in order from a list in the rules which is based on the show history) is given the title of President and receives the powers associated with the role, which include sole ownership over the Quorum cards, which is a political deck that allows for special actions to be taken or played. One of the Military Leader characters (again determined form a list) is given the title of Admiral and receives the sole control over the ship's only two nuclear weapons and control of the Destination deck, which determines where the battlestar is after each FTL jump. This can be vital as it shows how close to Kobol the players are getting and what resources are lost along the way.

At this point, loyalty cards are dealt out. The number of players determines the number of Cylons. If there are 3-4 players, then there is one Cylon. If there are 5-6 players, then there are two. There is also a "Sympathizer" card, which is added in the 4 and 6 player games, but more on that later. The loyalty cards are not quite that simple, however, as more "Human" cards are added to ensure a second round of loyalty cards being given at roughly the half-way point in the game. For example, in a 3 player game, there is 1 Cylon card and 5 Human loyalty cards. They are shuffled and each of the three players is dealt one card and the remaining three cards will be dealt after the humans are at least half-way to their objective. This means that one of the other players might be a Cylon, but it is also possible that no one has been dealt that Cylon card yet and all players are human. It also means that you only think that you are a human and when the second round of loyalty cards are passed out, you find out that you have been a Cylon sleeper agent and are no longer working for the humans to win. This mechanic is a great way to increase the tension and suspicion throughout the game. Even though every player may, in fact, be loyal in the first half of the game, you do not know this for sure and may start second guessing everyone’s actions. Then, during the second half of the game, you know that someone is a traitor, but do not know who. Someone who acted completely in the best interest for the Humans and that you trusted completely during the first half may now suddenly turn against you. And, if you happen to have received a Cylon card in either phase, you have TONS of opportunity to cast suspicion on other players if you are crafty enough and then you get to sit back and watch the last bit of humanity turn on one another.

Play involves each player taking their turn drawing skill cards based on their character's skills. Each skill type is color coded and each card drawn has a number on it from 1 to 5 and has an effect that can be played. The player then can move his character and then take an action. Actions consist of using an action on one of the skill cards in the player's hands, using a character's action from his character card or employing the action of the location that they are in. Now, there are a couple of other things that a character can do. A pilot in a Viper can attack a Cylon ship and whoever is currently the President can play or draw a Quorum card.

At the end of a player's turn, a Crisis card is drawn which generally will provide a challenge that the group needs to resolve. The challenge comes most often in the form of a skill check. Failing a skill check usually will reduce one or more of Galactica's resources by one or more points. This is rather critical, as these resources are very rarely regained. Successfully beating a skill check usually just means nothing happens. Skill checks are managed by players putting in their skill cards face down and shuffling them together. Two skill cards from the Destiny Deck (which is made up of 2 cards from each skill set) are also added to the mix. Any cards that come up matching the required skills add their point value to the total. Any of opposing skills subtract from it. In this way, a hidden Cylon player can put cards into the mix. However, if you put in too many cards to reduce the skill check by a significant amount, you risk revealing that there is a Cylon aboard the ship. Since the Destiny Deck only adds two cards to the mix, if there are ever three or more opposing cards, then you know that you have a traitor on board. Usually a clever Cylon player will wait for the optimal moment to reveal themselves, only marginally helping skill checks or trying to appear helpful by putting in a lot of help in skill checks that do not matter much.

Besides just skill checks, some crisis cards mark the arrival of Cylon ships that arrive to harass and attack Galactica. The card shows how to set up the board and where to add ships, including the helpless civilian ships that Galactica is trying to protect. If one of them is destroyed, you turn it over and the human players loses the resources listed on the back of it (usually population, but occasionally one of the other resources is lost as well). This sets up a situation where pilot characters can jump out in Vipers to attack the Cylons and protect the civilian ships, or non-pilots can move to the Command location on Galactica and order around "unmanned" Vipers to attack and defend. "Unmanned" is a game term, meaning that one of the player's is not piloting it; just assume it is just a random extra from the show piloting it. Character pilots are much better than unmanned ships, so it makes sense to get them out there to help if possible.

The bottom of each Crisis card also resolves which of the Cylon ships activates and moves and/or attacks and it also notifies the players if Galactica's FTL drive cycles or not. Galactica will automatically jump (moving closer to Kobol and winning as well as removing any Cylon ships from the board) once the FTL drive has cycled five times. However, after three cycles, the humans can try to jump early, but they risk losing 3 population. After four times, they risk losing 1 population. That can be a tough loss, but there are times where it is strategically necessary to take the risk.

As an action, a hidden Cylon player can reveal themselves on their turn. By doing so, they lose the abilities on their character cards (which, in most cases, can be used effectively to help OR hinder the humans, depending on the application), but gain a host of other abilities. A revealed Cylon character still takes their turn, but their move is limited to four Cylon locations. Each location allows the Cylon player to take an action that will affect and hinder the humans in a different way, from making them resolve more Crisis cards to activating portions of the Cylon fleet to attack. These present a host of strategic options for a Cylon player to use and do not leave the Cylon player with just one rote mechanic to stymie the human players.

Some of the actions that can be taken (through Quorum cards, successful (and failed) skill checks and locations on the board) can be used to restrict and restrain other characters that you believe may be a hidden Cylon agent (or, a hidden Cylon agent can do it to the human to delay and hamper their useful characters, usually exposing themselves by the nature of their action, unless they've successfully cast suspicion on other characters prior). Characters can be sent to the brig, where they cannot move out of unless they pass a skill check, though the other players and Destiny still adds to the check. If a character is in the brig, they can only put one card towards each skill check. So, if you suspect a Cylon sabotaging the checks, putting them in the brig really hampers their ability. However, if you are wrong, putting a human in the brig limits the amount of help that they can give and it means the Cylon player will have fewer cards to play against to lower a total.

Finally, there is the "Sympathizer" card. This is added to the mix of loyalty cards during the SECOND round of loyalty cards being passed out in the four and six player games. Whoever gets the Sympathizer card reveals it immediately and is placed in the brig. They are human (unless their first card revealed them to be a Cylon) and their ultimately loyalty is determined then. If the human players are doing poorly (in game terms, they have already been reduced to less than half of one of their resources) they side with the humans. If the humans are doing well (they still have more than half of each of their resources), then they side with the Cylons. The do not have quite all of the powers as a Cylon does, but they can still hamper and harass Galactica effectively. This mechanic basically evens out the game at the half-way point, ensuring that neither side runs away with it.


The Theme:

Theme is usually one of the more important traits to a game for me. Battlestar Galactica really sets a great atmosphere of tenseness and suspicion. The characters are all from the series and the Crisis Cards each deal with a situation from the miniseries or first season of the show.

That being said, if you are not familiar with the show, the cards do not really do much to bring you into the plot. You have a picture and quote from the show, but really not much more to bring you into what exactly is happening. The card might be titled "Rescue Mission" and have a quote from an episode, but that is really it. I suppose that is enough to get the gist of what is occurring, but really Crisis cards just seem to turn into a glossing over of the plot and simply looking at the skills required and the penalties. Being a fan of the show, I'm familiar enough with everything that is going on and what it represented. I am curious how it would play out with a couple of gamers not familiar with the show. Would it detract from the game for them? I am not sure. For me, the story-telling theme is lost a bit, but the tension and suspicion more than makes up for it.

To me, that is what this game is really about: Suspicion and lack of trust. I love it when I am a Cylon and can make others believe that someone else might be a Cylon. I love being a human and not knowing who to trust and who to turn to at any time to trust to make the right move. And that is the thing about this game. There are MANY points during it when things have gotten so tense that a move might be required on someone's turn, but you can never fully trust if they will act in the interest of the humans or if they will take advantage of the situation and turn on humanity.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of the game is relatively low. The rulebook is 32 pages of large type and riddled with pictures for examples of gameplay.

The wife and I played a couple of two-player games (which does not really work thematically or mechanically as far as traitors are concerned) to familiarize ourselves with the rules before presenting it to our gaming club weekend play. That helped us out a lot, as I hate having to refer to rules so often while learning a new game with a bunch of other people playing. In our trial games, we referred to the rules a couple of times, but gameplay went smoothly and easily our first time out. The only bad part about that was that it had whetted our appetites to play it for real and we still needed to wait a week and a half to play it with a full group. Even without the full mechanics in place, we enjoyed playing 2 players enough to do it a couple more times for fun before playing it for real.

Since playing it with more, however, and seeing all of the mechanics in play, I would not be able to go back to the shallow 2-player game that we tried out. The glory of this game is the suspicion and the accusations.


The Components:

It's from Fantasy Flight, so the components are excellent. The board is efficient, but just a little bland with a bunch of open spaces (yes, I know that those big open spaces are supposed to represent, well, space). However, those spaces fill up pretty quickly and nicely with enemy ships, so as a human player, you start to miss the blank open spaces.

The characters are represented by thick cardboard standees and they work well enough. I almost prefer them to plastic figures. Unless painted, figures all tend to blend into one another's appearance and it is difficult to tell who is who. The ships are represented by plastic ships and are of good, detailed quality.

The chits are color-printed thick cardboard and are study and efficient. Everything is about what I would come to expect from a Fantasy Flight game.

The printing edition that was available at GenCon has a few minor printing errors on it, but they are already being corrected (with replacements handed out by FFG at GenCon).


Playing the Game:

Wow.

I have been impressed with this game on every game play. With the exception of one play, every game that we have played has been remarkably close and ended in the final moments. The Cylon players seem to win about as often as the human players. Each time it has come down to the wire for the finish. Well, except once, but that seemed to be just the perfect storm for the Cylon wins. Two of the most experienced players were dealt Cylon cards in the first round of loyalty and Crisis card after Crisis card brought out more and more Cylon ships and activated them one after another. The Cylons, seeing how hurt Galactica that early, revealed themselves right away to add to the pile on (since the ship was being pounded, there was no need for subtlety this time around). I think Galactica made one jump before it was destroyed. But I have played enough times now that I can pretty safely say that that was a rare anomaly.

What makes the game work is the hidden Cylon treachery. The first half of the game, accusations may be made and discussed, but it is fully possible that everyone is human. Still, you over-analyze everyone's moves and every step they take. You also have to be worried about the moves you make. Despite what the consensus of other players believes, I think I know a better move to make. But if I make it, will they think that I am a Cylon and going against them? Perhaps a hidden Cylon player has convinced them that the wrong move is better and I should make my move anyhow, even if it adds suspicion to me. And, as a hidden Cylon player, the gaming could not be sweeter. I love playing against one another and gaining other player’s trust only to smash their hopes and faith when I finally am in the position to make the best possible move.

Unlike Shadows over Camelot, which has a similar traitor mechanic, the gameplay works much better for the traitors. I was afraid that BSG was going to be a simple retheming of SoC, but it is not. In SoC, you remained hidden as the traitor not because it necessarily was the best optimal move, but because you wanted to play along with the theme. Then, once revealed, you primarily spent your time adding catapults. BSG offers a LOT more options to the Cylons. There are a lot of reasons to remain hidden as a Cylon on Galactica. You can wait for the perfect opportunity to use your character ability against Galactica before revealing yourself. And you have more influence over skill checks. And once revealed, you have a host of options available to you, each one just as useful depending on the situation at hand.

The Sympathizer card balances the end game well and, as I've said, each game has been a squeaker victory for either side. And as far as resources go, that varies as well to which ones will be a primary concern. There may be one game where the human morale is teetering on the edge, but the next game, it is fine, but fuel or food is the primary issue.

There are means of looking at one of another character's loyalty card, which is fun as well. You can trust someone, at least until the next cards are dealt out. Or you only get to see one of their two cards if it is in the second half. As a hidden Cylon, if I see a human loyalty card, then I could accuse them as being a Cylon and try to place the blame and heat on them while I position myself better. But it is all well balanced since you do not get to see all of the cards that a player has at once. Either they have not been dealt the other yet, or you only get to see one of their two cards. So, even if you see a "human" card, you can still never be completely sure.

Now, there have been a couple of times where no enemy ships arrived for long stretches and the only challenges were just skill checks at the end of the rounds. This can drag and be a little slow, however, the shadow of doubt on your other players is still there and it tends to keep things just interesting enough as to not drag on. This, however, could be affected by player types. If you sit there are your group just takes an action, then flips a Crisis card to resolve without much chatter, then it will drag. However, the game is made to be played vocally. Speak your thoughts. Suggest who you think is a Cylon and why. Scrutinize their actions and call them out on it. That dialogue gets interesting and ensures that there is enough going on at the table that the tension level never really drops.

The game also plays well with three players, but you do lose a bit with the supicion, which is such a large portion of the game's fun. With more players, there are more people to suspect (or to accuse, rightly or wrongly) and it really adds to the amount of fun. It is still very playable with three players and just as challenging, but it lessens the accusations and table chatter, which makes it that much more fun.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group. She's not really a wargame fan and games with a lot of direct conflict are often hit-or-miss with her (despite the fact that she is deceptively good at them). Since a good portion of my gameplaying involves her either 2-player or as part of a larger group, her opinion tends to affect how often I get to play a game on my shelf.

Fortunately, I married a geek. She watches "Battlestar Galactica" with me and really loves the show. This was not a hard sell at all to get her interested in it. And once played, even in our limited trial versions to learn the rules, she fell in love with the game.

Part of the fondness she has for this game may be attributed to her crush on "Chief" Tyrol, but even on the games where she's been convinced to play someone else instead, she still has enjoyed herself immensely playing it.

This currently is her favorite game (surprisingly surpassing Arkham Horror) and she will usually quickly suggest this to play if there are 3 or more gamers around at any time.


The Pros:

*Well-produced game pieces.
*Great involvement of the Cylon/traitor mechanic.
*Incredibly balanced as far as humans vs. Cylons.
*A great atmosphere of suspicion and tension.
*You have an excuse to look at a friend of yours and say in your best Saul Tigh voice, "He's a frakking toaster, throw him out the airlock."


The Cons:

*The Crisis cards are a bit minimalist as far as theme and story presentation.
*Could drag on at points if your group is not the kind that likes table chatter accusations.


Overall: Since this is a newer game, I don't want to say that it is my favorite game just in case the "newness" will wear off a bit. However, I can easily say that this game is firmly in my top three. I have been impressed with the gameplay and it is one of those games that fits very well into my gaming group. I foresee this being a gaming favorite for a long time to come.


9.5/10

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Review: A Touch of Evil

My biases first: I'm a role-player first and foremost, so theme and story add a large amount to the entertainment factor of any game that I play. I'm also a huge Arkham Horror fan and the game remains in my top three all-time favorites (right now Dune and Battlestar Galactica are also sitting in that lofty top-three position). That being said, it is impossible for me to review this game and be completely objective without tying in all of my experiences with Arkham Horror and the fun-filled world of Cthulhu.


The Overview:

I won't get too in depth with the rules because I want to get into the idea and feel of game play, rather than just the mechanics. The mechanics themselves are simple and rather uncomplicated, so they probably don’t need too much time on them anyhow.

The nutshell version of the game is that you are one of eight characters investigating the town of Shadowbrook, a village set in early nineteenth century that is being plagued by a terrible villain whose evil is influencing the town and its surrounding countryside. As you play the game, your character investigates various sites to try to track down and hunt the villain who is plaguing the town to free it from its evil and corrupting forces.

The game can be played cooperatively or competitively, which is a fun little twist. Either the players can be working together to stop a more powerful version of the villain, sharing resources and all joining in for the final showdown or the players can try to hurry and grab enough resources to take down the villain before any of the other plays have a chance to, claiming the villain's head (with the notable exception of the Horseman's lack of head) as their prize for a solo victory.

Each of the eight characters that the player can choose from consists of an early 18th century character with different stats including Combat skill, Cunning, Spirit and Honor, as well as a set amount of health indicating the number of wounds that they can take before they are knocked-out in combat. Each character also has one or two unique abilities as well. All of this is presented very nicely on a well-produced character card, similar to the high quality of Last Night on Earth's components.

The characters move around the board to different locations, trying to collect investigation markers (the currency in the game) and try to collect useful items and event cards to put into their hands for later play when encountering the Villain's minions or the Villain himself. Cards are collected after the character moves to a specific location and draws the card associated with that area. Some areas are more dangerous than others and you may find yourself prey to a horrible event instead of drawing that weapon you wanted or a useful item. After all of the players have taken their turn, a Mystery card is drawn in which the Villain unleashes some of its evil and influence over the town of Shadowbrook, harming or hampering the characters and possibly moving itself closer to the Villain winning and all of the characters losing.

That is a general overview of the game play. Now, let me take that same paragraph and make a couple of word edits:

The characters investigators move around the board to different locations, trying to collect investigation markers clue tokens (the currency in the game) and try to collect useful items and event cards spells to put into their hands for later play when encountering the Villain's minions monsters or the Villain Great Old One himself. Cards are collected after the character investigator moves to a specific location and draws a card associated with that area. Some areas are more dangerous than others and you may find yourself prey to a horrible event instead of drawing that weapon you wanted or a useful item. After all of the players have taken their turn, a Mystery Mythos card is drawn in which the Villain Great Old One unleashes some of its evil and influence over the town of Shadowbrook city of Arkham, harming or hampering driving insane the characters investigators and possibly moving itself closer to the Villain Great Old One winning awakening and all of the characters investigators losing being devoured in some horribly perverse way.

As you can see, the game seems to borrow heavily from Arkham Horror. This is not necessarily bad. I like Arkham Horror. I also think that the re-theming could be very interesting as the early 1800's are rarely touched upon as let late 1800's seems to steal all of the gothic glory.

Now, there are a few other mechanics in the game that make it stand out from Arkham Horror. For example, there are six town elders in Shadowbrook. But no one is ever completely who they seem to be and everyone has a few secrets that no one knows about, especially in the days before viral videos, YouTube and TMZ. Each town elder starts with one unrevealed secret beneath them. Now, when you are ready to fight the Villain, you call two of the town elders to join you as you muster up pitchforks and torches to hunt down the scourge and they lend aid with a unique special ability in the fight. At this point, you reveal the secrets beneath the town elders. Perhaps they have a drinking problem, perhaps they have committed war crimes in the past, but there is evil afoot and they rise about these flaws to join you in the fight. However, it is also possible to discover that the town elder you asked to join you is actually in league with the Villain and will betray you and join him in the fight. This is an interesting and unique mechanic and one that I enjoy in theory. Throughout the game, the characters can spend their investigation markers to look at and read the secrets beneath the elders, finding out a little about them and knowing who they can and cannot trust before knocking on their door and passing out torches and pitchforks.

Skill checks are very simple in the game. If you need to make a Cunning check, for example, you look at your Cunning on your sheet (a rating between 1 and 4) and look over your items to see if any add points to your Cunning. Then whatever the total is, you roll that many d6 and usually succeed on any die that comes up a 5 or 6 (some checks need a 4+ and some need a 6+). Combats between the characters and the minion or Villain are also very simple. You roll a number of dice equal to your modified Combat skill. Every roll of a 5 or 6 hits. The Villain or minion does the same based from his Combat skill, then you apply the results simultaneously. So this means that you could defeat a minion AND get knocked out as well.

Penalties for being knocked out can be rather harsh, but it is implemented almost too randomly. If you are knocked out, you roll d6, and then you lose that number of Allies, Equipment cards and/or Investigation markers. So, its possible that you lose just 1 Investigation marker, or that you have to find a means of paying off up to 6 of those items in combination.

While gathering investigations markers and collecting resources and equipment, there is a Shadow Track which moves closer to darkness as the cards dictate. If it ever reaches 0, the Villain has won and all of the players have lost, cooperative or competitive.

There are also four areas outside of town that have their own decks of cards associated with them. Investigating these areas can yield greater rewards, but the risks in the decks are greater as well. There is also a Town Item deck which represents the items available for purchase at the town blacksmith. These items add to your stats and abilities, but are in a limited supply. So, in a competitive game, you need to try to get the items you want before the other players, while at the same time, not hindering yourself too much by spending all of your resources on items and letting someone else get the jump on the Villain first.

And finally, to fight the Villain to win the game requires purchasing a Lair card. Lair cards cost Investigation based on how close to Darkness the Shadow Track is. Then once you bought one, there is another cost associated to it and possibly something else that would affect the battle based on the location. This mechanic is easily dull in the cooperative game, as everyone can pay to tag along to the final battle. And as far as the competitive game, I would almost like to see a way for other players to pay or be able to react to try a last minute cutting off of the character to stop him from getting to the Villain first.


The Theme:

Theme is usually one of the more important traits to a game for me. A Touch of Evil has a good setting and a good theme in theory. However, somewhere along the line it comes off a little too light.

While in any game it is up to the players to embrace the theme to make it word, A Touch of Evil does not go out of its way to make it easy. There is not enough variation in cards and too many cards break into the same mechanic:

Flavor text telling a vague story.
Game mechanic, often just Roll X stat. Gain 1 investigation for every roll of 5+.

That would even be alright, I suppose, if the flavor text story was presented a little better. Here is where I like Arkham Horror's presentation better; it forces you to read the flavor text as the mechanic is listed in it (something like: Make a speed (-1) check as you run though a collapsing archway). With the breakdown on the cards in aToE, it separates them too much. Small print italics for the flavor text is begging to be ignored for the larger print mechanic beneath it. Personally, I prefer the mechanics being included in the descriptive text, making the roll and mechanics more a part of the theme of the card and drawing the player further into the event.

Now, the thing that I like the most about this game is the town elders and their secrets. I think that this is a really good idea. However, you can look at each secret for the cost of 2 investigation markers each. There are times during this game that you seem to be swimming in investigation markers with no real place to spend them, so you just decide to burn off a few of them and read 3-4 town elder secrets (though admittedly, this occurs more in the cooperative game than the competitive game, where you are not racing quite as much to complete everything). We've yet to have a game where anyone fought the villain and didn't already know at least a couple of town elders that were "safe" to bring. To keep the elder mechanic and the secret mechanic a little more important to the game, in my opinion, the secrets should either cost more or you pay for a chance (making a roll) to reveal a secret.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of this game is very low, which is nice. The rulebook is 24 pages of large type, lots of spaces and Flying Frog's usual knack of throwing in well-produced pictures whenever possible.

Our first game went very quickly and easily with little pauses to check rules. The game really is that easy to pick up. So, in that respect, it might be better for non-hardcore gamers, since playing it with our group of experienced gamers, it started to feel a little weak after a couple of plays when our game turns flew by so quick. Then again, I suppose some may see that as a positive.

I do not necessarily find that to be a problem in many games, but it feels weak here. I still love Last Night on Earth, which has a similar easy mechanic and quick game play. It fits the game well. Here, it does not carry the same sense of a hectic quick hunt or any sense of urgency throughout most of the game.


The Components:

Typical to Flying Frog productions, the components are very nice. The cards are of their typical heavy stock (perhaps a little over glossy, but that is really just nitpicking). They use the same type of artwork as Last Night on Earth, with real pictures modified to create a unique (well, since LNoE uses it, no longer exactly unique) feel for the artwork of the game. The cards, the plastic figures for the characters, the heavy cardboard tokens are all well produced and live up to Flying Frog's usual excellent components.

However, the playing board is abysmal. It is small. Granted, I am glad not to have an Arkham Horror monster board taking up the table, but it is a small board. And it is just visually the least aesthetically pleasing board that I can think of. The effect that they were going for was to make it look like a parchment background with a map drawn on it. However, it just looks too monochromatic. And the small board with the bland background makes the text smallish and harder to read than is necessary. I was really surprised at the board when I first saw it. It really looks like it is a prototype board that was just thrown a mix of otherwise high-quality finished pieces.

But, again, everything else offered is of remarkable quality and is quite sturdy and resistant. And this is coming from a gamer with two box-loving cats and a two-year old who wants to sit and "play" with Mommy and Daddy and needs her own character board and figure and a couple tokens to play with. I have no fear in these pieces being easily damaged by my daughter. So I thank Flying Frog for their consideration in making strong boxes for those of us with cats and sturdy components for those of us with toddlers who want to play with pieces and occasionally call out "My turn!"


Playing the Game:

I wish I could get more into this game. It really seems like a lot of work and production on something that could almost be a lighter, quicker version of Arkham Horror and fill that gaming void when you want to play AH, but it's already past midnight. However, the game just feels too light.

After one or two games, the mechanics are so down pat that you just fly through the turns. As mentioned before, the cards and such are not devised in such a way to force you into the theme. And the flavor text on the cards is just not interesting enough overall to draw us into it alone.

In the cooperative games and competitive games in which I have played, the Shadow Track just didn't seem like enough of a threat for me to worry about losing to it. When playing Arkham Horror, there are many times when you feel the anxiety of the players rise as the Great Old One's track is about to fill up or you are just one or two gates away from awakening him. Perhaps it is a little unfair to keep comparing it to Arkham Horror, but the game play lends itself too much to it. In fact, it is common at our group to have to consciously correct ourselves whenever we collect Investigation Markers from saying that we get Clue Tokens and I cannot count how many times we’ve finished movement and someone said, "Okay, Mythos Phase," instead of calling it the Mystery Phase.

One of the other flaws is the mechanic of the character just being knocked-out at the end of fights. Since you cannot die, it generally means that you are more worried about your character's current gear than the character themselves and you do not get that self-preservation instinct with battles. In the first couple of game rounds when you have no items and few investigation, you may realize that it would make more sense to lose a fight and wake up fully healed than to win the fight with one health left. And as long as you have 6 investigation, you know that you do not have to worry too much about losing your equipment no matter what you roll in the later game. That kind of takes away from the theme and feel of the game.

And I mentioned in the Overview some of my problems with the Shadow Track. I would almost like to see the Cooperative game require more physical planning. Such as one player starts the fight at the Lair and after each fight round, the other characters not involved in the fight need to roll to try to reach the Showdown location on the map, making the fight harder for first rounds until the cavalry arrives to join in the later rounds, unless they planned ahead and were laying in wait. And the competitive game would be better if you could make that last ditch attempt to stop or hinder another player, either by bidding Investigation on the card when one plays it, if the one who played it wins, then they go, otherwise the others pay their Investigation, but no one goes. Or a character vs. character duel to stop the battle. Just a couple of ideas to add to what feels like a soft theme here.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play a lot of games without her, but I really enjoy when she joins us at the table and can get into a game. She's less a strategic player, but really enjoys a good theme. With that said, she is not exactly enthused about this game as well. Arkham Horror is one of her favorites (if not her favorite, but I won’t know unless I can convince her to create a profile her on BGG and rank her game opinions) and she is always itching to play it. I had hoped that as AH has become more and more difficult to play with just 2 players since Kingsport was added on, that A Touch of Evil would satisfy that craving and fill that opened void.

Unfortunately, it has not. A Touch of Evil comes close on a lot of ideas, but does not exactly execute them well enough. My wife likes Last Night on Earth and actually ends up getting more into that than this game, which is odd knowing her preferences and knowing the theme of each of these games. In fact, in LNoE she has small back stories for each of the characters in her head. I know when she plays certain combinations of heroes, which one likes the other and who is dating whom and where all of the crushes are. None of this is spoken aloud, but I know my wife and by watching her play her characters against my Zombies, I know what she is doing as a Hero character will rush back to make a bad strategic move to protect the female character that in her mind she has him like. A Touch of Evil does not do that for her. And it is a genre that she should like better than LNoE.

We've played cooperatively and competitively and with more players than just us and in no real combination of plays has the game shined in her mind. She'll play it, if asked, but I do not think she will ever suggest it. And, unfortunately, other than my last couple of times of asking to play it to try it again before reviewing it, I do not think I'll be asking her to play it much.


The Pros:

*Incredibly well-produced game pieces.
*The box has stood up intact after my two-year old stood on it to reach something on the table.
*A very easy mechanic to learn to play, even by non-gamers.
*A quick play when compared to beasts such as Arkham Horror.
*A few innovative and interesting ideas, such as the secrets for the town elders.
*You can play competitively OR cooperatively.


The Cons:

*Despite almost being there in so many facets, the theme just doesn't quite jump out and grab me like similar games have.
*There just doesn't seem to be a sense of threat and doom in the game. It's not terrible in the competitive game, since you have to worry about someone else beating the Villain before you, but in the cooperative game, it is a rather leisurely stroll before you decide that you probably have enough stuff to fight the Villain now.
*Sometimes it really feels like you are swimming in Investigation markers with nothing much to use them on.
*The board is terrible. I really had no clue that something like that could detract so much from a game, but it is just so plain and dull to look at in a game where everything else is so well produced.


Overall:

I like Flying Frog Productions and I enjoy Last Night on Earth. I think that perhaps had I not played Arkham Horror before this (and fell in love with it), I would have liked the game better. I really wanted to like this game and it still has potential and I can see that it still probably has an audience. However, it just feels too light with little immersion into the game for me to fully embrace.

The one last thing that I will add before my rating is that I have not played this game with a full table of players. Perhaps that is where the mechanics would shine a little more. But my group tends to be smaller for most games and that is what I am rating this for.


6/10

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Review: Pandemic

Playing a Doctor from WHO.

Please excuse the mixed pun from the World Health Organization in my title. Thank you.

Here is a quick rundown of my biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind digging deeply into bit and chits for some of my favorite AT games, but I do enjoy a number of non-confrontational Euro games as well. While most of my favorite games are meaty, long games, I also find that a good, fun and lighter game that plays with 2 players well is perfect for an evening alone with my wife. Also, while I have no major issues with doctors or the healthcare industry, I do get a little squeamish if I watch them draw blood from me.


The Overview:



Basically you and the other players take on roles of highly developed members of an unnamed organization (akin to the CDC or WHO) who travel the globe trying to combat, treat, cure and eradicate four major deadly diseases which are spreading across the world. The players need to research the cures while trying to treat and keep the diseases from spreading too far and causing world-wide outbreaks.

This is a truly cooperative game. Now, by truly cooperative I mean that it takes it several steps beyond other cooperative games like Arkham Horror, in which you can trade items with the other characters and you all have the same goal, but really interaction is limited and everyone can do their own thing and you can still win the game. With Pandemic, you interact more directly with the other players. In fact, you need to. If you do not, then you will soon see the world overtaken in little colored cubes that represent horrible diseases and that means you will have more bits to clean up and put away when you quickly lose the game.

The game turn is simple and effective, making it an elegant little thing. When it is a player's turn they take 4 actions (the actions available are movement, building a research station (if the conditions are met), discovering a cure (if the conditions are met), treating a disease in an area that they are in or sharing knowledge (which is trading cards with another player, if the conditions to do so are met)). A player can take any 4 actions that they wish, or may pass on any number of their actions. After that, they draw 2 cards to their play hand. Then they draw the number of Infection Draw cards equal to the current infection rate and place the new disease cubes as indicated on the cards drawn. That's it. Simple and easy to learn and pick up on.

The players will when all 4 diseases are cured (though the diseases can be still running rampant across the board... to win the cure is important, not the treatment). However, players lose when the 8th Outbreak of a disease occurs, when the players run out of Player Draw cards in the draw deck or a player needs to add another disease cube to the board, but there are none left (so treatment is important so you do not lose, but it is not a condition needed to win).


The role that you play in the game changes how you play if you want to take advantage of each role's specific advantages.


Each player draws at random a role to play for the game. While each player has the same basic actions available to them, your role dictates which special abilities you have. This is where gameplay and tactics vary heavily based upon what role you draw.

The Dispatcher is able to move the other players' pawns on the board on his turn as part of his action. He can move them with normal movement options as if it were his pawn, or he can move any pawn immediately to a city that contains another pawn in it.

The Operations Expert can build a research station in any city that he is in without having the required city card in his hand to build it. Research stations are required to cure diseases in, but also aid in quick travel across the globe as a player can move from station to station as an action.

The Scientist only needs 4 cards of a color to cure the corresponding disease instead of the usual 5, giving a strong edge in getting a quick cure to diseases.

The Medic has a big advantage when it comes to treating diseases in cities. He can remove all of the cubes of a single disease color in a city with an action instead of only 1. If the disease is cured, then all of the cubes in a city he is in are removed without him having to expend an action.

The Researcher can trade cards with any player he is in a city with without having to meet the requirements for trading cards. Typically, if you wanted to give the Atlanta card to another player, for example, you would have to be in Atlanta with the other player to do so. The Researcher can trade cards regardless of what city they are in.

Playing each of these roles changes the game dramatically. Your strategy needs to be dependent upon which role you are and which roles the other players have. Because of this, players also need to interact and discuss strategy and plans together as the game progresses.



As you can see, the yellow disease is overtaking Africa, while the black disease is making a presence in the Middle East and Kennedy is leading in state support in Europe.


Diseases are represented by four different colored cubes and are placed on the board by means of card draw. Each city can only have up to 3 cubes of each color in them. If ever a disease cube needs to be added to a city with 3 cubes in it, it instead causes an Outbreak and each connecting city gets a disease cube of that color placed in it. This also increases the Outbreak counter by 1 (and 8 Outbreaks loses the game for the players). This makes treating diseases a very important part of play.



Drawing this is never a good sign.


A number of Epidemic cards are mixed evenly throughout the deck. When one is drawn by the players, things usually start to get bad. While drawing an Epidemic card means the infection rate (which dictates how many Infection card locations are drawn) goes up and three disease cubes are placed on a location, what really makes things get nasty is that the discarded cards from the Infection deck are shuffled and placed at the top of the deck. This means that the locations already with cubes on the board are more likely to be drawn again and cause Outbreaks.




It looks like someone is about to kick some nasty blue disease ass.


Diseases are cured when 5 cards of the same color are played when the holding player is in a city with a research station. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially because of the restrictions that most players have with trading cards. Anyhow, once this is done for each colored disease, the players win.

There are also a 5 special action cards that can be drawn from the Player Draw deck and placed into the player's hand to be used later. Each of these cards is useful in its own way and can really help a group when time is essential to stop an outbreak or to race for a cure.

Finally, diseases that are cured can still appear on the board. In fact, I've played a game where we ignored a cured disease to focus on the other diseases and we eventually lost because we placed the last of our red cubes out during a chain-reaction outbreak and could not place any more that we needed. So, cured diseases can still affect you and hurt you. However, if a disease is cured and you treat all of the cities with that disease in it so that there are no cities with that color disease on the globe, then the disease is eradicated. This means any time you draw a card that would have you place that disease on the board, you ignore it. This can be important to give you a bit of breathing room during the Infection card draw.


The Theme:

While there is a strong sense of theme in the game's concept and well-defined and diverse roles to play, a bit is taken away by the generic nature of the diseases. They are never identified as anything other than the blue disease, the red disease, the yellow disease and the black disease. I understand why this is though. By bringing in real diseases, you touch on and focus on what really is the dark nature of the game. Things are kept light and fun when you are removing red and blue cubes from the board. However, some people might shift uncomfortably if you were instead constantly talking about treating HIV, SARs or H5N1. By doing that, you bring in a sense of people are dying and some people might feel a little awkward, especially if they know of someone who has suffered from anything that you are supposed pretend curing. So, despite the fact that the color diseases take away from theme and realism, I think that ultimately it adds to the fun and enjoyment of the game. Ultimately, I think that is more important anyhow.

Also, part of the game theme is that it is cooperative in nature. This is very true in every respect. Players interact and discuss strategy throughout the game because you can assist one another throughout play and you need to work together to beat the game. This also means that while the other players take their turns (which are rather quick moving), there is not really a feeling of downtime, since a good group is working together and planning throughout.

Learning the Game:

This is a quick, easy game to learn. The manual is only 8 pages, but minus examples of play, set up and components lists, the actual instructions are only 4 pages long. It is also a very intuitive play that is quite easy to pick up on. By my second turn I was not referring to the rules. The only bit to learn is how to make each role most effective. But that is where the fun of replay comes into it.

The games are quick as well. Gameplay is listed at 45 minutes and I do not think that we've had a single game that has run over that amount of time. When my wife and I first played it, we played 4 games back to back, exploring the different roles and seeing how each game played different with the role combinations.


The Components:



Everything that comes in a very sturdy box.


The bits are very simple. There are 6 cardboard markers, 6 wooden research stations, 5 wooden pawns, 59 player cards, 48 infection cards, 5 role cards, 4 reference cards, 96 wooden disease cubes (24 of each color), an 8-page instruction book and one gameplay board. Every piece is necessary and nothing is really superfluous. Everything is nice quality as well. The board might be a little lackluster, but it is efficient and effective. The cards are printed on a good stock and everything is polished pretty well. A few of the disease cubes are not exactly cubes and are skewed on a corner, but despite all of my gaming OCD, that did not bother me one bit.

One other thing worth commenting on is that Pandemic comes in one of the thickest and sturdiest boxes that I have seen in a while. While it does not affect gameplay at all, I do appreciate the sturdy box as I live with a toddler who loves to stand on Daddy's game boxes for no reason and two cats who try to make anything cardboard with 4 walls into an impromptu bed.


The Pros:

*A quick, easy to learn game that does not insult intelligence or sacrifice gameplay to be quick and easy to learn
*A very cooperative game that has players focused on working together and interacting to plan, making the brief downtime in the game still active and eventful in strategy discussion for the players
*A game that plays well with just 2 players for evenings with the wife
*Good components in a strong toddler and cat resistant box
*Different roles make individual strategies based on not just what role you've drawn, but also the roles the other players have as well


The Cons:

*Some might think that the nameless diseases take from the feel of the game
*It is a card driven game, so some may be turned off by the randomness and luck (but in a players vs. the game setting, you need to have this type of element for replay-ability)
*Winning is actually rather anti-climatic; laying down the final cure is simply one player playing cards and the players win, regardless of how many nasty disease-filled cubes are covering the globe


Overall:

Pandemic is an excellent game that really is a quick, fun play. The learning curve is minimal and the play is very intuitive. The game draws in game-related conversation during the play as players devise the best routes and strategies to take, so you always feel involved in the game. While winning the game is rather anti-climatic, there is a lot of suspense whenever an Epidemic card is drawn and every time an Outbreak occurs. The game really plays well with 2 players as well as 4 players. The more players make it a bit more challenging, but the 2 player game is not lacking in challenge as well. It's not a game I would pull out all the time when sitting with heavy-play craving wargamers, but it's still one that most would appreciate for a quick, light game.


8/10