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