Thursday, August 27, 2009

Review: Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus

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’m also a huge fan of the Battlestar Galactica game, and it is one that has seen very heavy rotation in my core game group. I’m also a big fan of the reimagined teevee series (or at least the first two and a half-seasons of it, which covers this expansion nicely), though I had always secretly worried that a reimagined Muffit would appear.


The Overview:



The exact dimensions of the original Battlestar Galactica box.



Game lay out with the original board and components as well. 



Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus is an expansion for excellent Battlestar Galactica which is, in turn, based off of the reimagined series. The events portrayed in the base game via cards and mechanics covered the first and part of the second season. This expansion covers the second season and into the first few episodes of the third season. If you are afraid of spoilers, you may not wish to pick up this game, or for that matter, read any reviews on it (this one included). I won’t go heavy into elements of the show, but many of them will seep into the review since game mechanics are based around them. Also, by the fact that the expansion covers the series up to a certain point, it is obvious that FFG intends on continuing the line of expansions after this one. This especially seems to be the case with the modular set-up of the Pegasus expansion. As such, it does seem that some mechanics are not yet fully fleshed out, but are laid out to set up future expansions.

I will also assume that you are familiar with the base game at this point, so the review will primarily focus on what the expansion brings to the game.

Pegasus is still primarily designed for 3-6 players, but the rules introduce rules for playing with a 7th player. Adding to the threat of the humans (and possibly salvation) are Cylon leader characters, which can be chosen by a player and are played from the beginning as revealed Cylons. A Cylon Leader draws an Agenda card, which determines their ultimate loyalty as well as motivation, and complicates the requirements for them to be victorious.

The small board representing the Battlestar Pegasus is included in the game, giving the human players more firepower and locations to interact with. The Kobol destination is replaced with the New Caprica destination and a board that represents a new end-game condition. And, of course, more characters from the series now are playable and are represented in the expansion with a character card.



The Theme:

Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus multiplies almost everything about the base game, which is to say that it adds significantly to the highs but also adds to a couple of the flaws of the base game in that manner. For those familiar with the series, the players will recognize event pictured on the Crisis Cards and see how the skill checks or decisions on the cards play so well into the scenes from the show, making it exciting from time to time to draw a card and get the "tough choice" feel of some of the decisions in the show reflect so well when your character has to make the same choices. The mechanics of the new characters feels like the characters from the show and are portrayed elegantly using game mechanics. And the New Caprica board and mechanics really work in making it the exodus feel tense and dramatic, forcing the Admiral to make hard decisions that could instantly lose the game for the humans.

That being said, however, the expansion is not forgiving to those who are not familiar with the series. Crisis Cards are still only illustrated with a picture and a single line of dialogue from the series, not giving significant back-story to the crisis at hand. The Pegasus board does not need much explanation to someone not familiar with the show and even the Cylon Leader mechanic is rather intuitive. However, for those not familiar with the show, the New Carprica board is rather confusing plot-wise. For most series-naïve players of the base game, they could just be told that the humans are trying to find Earth and most just assumed that Kobol was Earth. That worked fine. However, introducing a mechanic where the players suddenly are on a Cylon police-state planet with human secret resistance groups suddenly and no Galactica requires a much more in depth explanation. I don’t necessarily think that this is bad, but it is a warning for those who have not watched the series: Do not include all of this expansion for the first few plays. Get to know the base game, and then bring in this expansion. I would imagine that otherwise you would just have some baffled players trying to figure out why they are suddenly cohabiting a planet with the people who were just trying to kill them for the first three-fourths of the game. A mechanic which seems natural and representative to those familiar with the series seems jarring and a sudden and stark change to those unfamiliar with the series events.

And with that being said, the true core theme of the game remains the same: Suspicion and lack of trust. There are new mechanics behind the game as well, giving sneaky Cylons new ways to hide and frame others, while giving humans new means to ferret out their traitors. It is here where the original game has shined brightest and this expansion has not diminished the glow of the best part of the game.


Learning the Game:

If you are familiar with the base game, the expansion is easy to pick up. The rulebook is 20 pages of large print and many pictures and examples, so it is an easy read.

Perhaps one of the toughest thing to learn are the couple of changes that were made to the rules of the original game, just because if you are well-played in it, the rules are second nature. However, now the President can only have a hand of 10 Quorum cards and, perhaps the most powerful of the human cards, Investigative Committee, has been weakened to only reveal player's cards and not the cards from the Destiny Deck anymore. This has appropriately weakened the humans who, with an experienced group, had a much stronger advantage in the base game using heavy Quorum draws and Investigative Committees. Also, a few other location changes have occurred, and the Cylon locations on the Galactica board have a new overlay describing their new game effects and handing off excess loyalty cards is done fluidly now, instead of as an action.


The Components:

The components are minimal in the expansion other than new cards and boards. The Pegasus board seems rather small, considering its firepower and strength in the show. And the New Caprica board also seems a little small. But then again, considering how much table space playing Arkham Horror involves, I have to say that I do not mind the smaller boards. Two new sculpted basestars have been included in the expansion to replace to cardboard cutout ones from the base game, and that’s a nice touch.




Pegasus board and New Caprica board respectively. Both boards are each about 6.5" x 11". 


All-in-all, the components are sturdy and strong and fit into Fantasy Flight’s usual high quality. And also, for those who have played the base game a lot and worried, like I did, that the new cards would be very distinguishable from the well-worn cards from the base game; this has not been the case for me. You can pick out the bright white of some of the new cards along the edge of a stack of cards, but the top card is not noticeable as to if it is new or old. That is a testament to the good choice in card stock and strength of the base game. I’m not a huge fan of sleeving, but I doubt that anyone was able to sleeve the odd sized skill cards. And my cards at least, have held up well enough that no one can distinguish if you are throwing in a worn Strength 5 Tactics card from the base set or spiking the check with a new, crisp Strength 3 Treachery Card.

The only other thing to be aware of when it comes to the components out-of-the-box is that they have update / corrected Louanne "Kat" Katraine’s character card in the Pegasus Errata and FAQ on the website. Her "Stim Junkie" flaw is printed on the card as moving her to Sickbay if she ends her movement turn in the same location or space area that she began her turn in. However, the Errata changes that to if she ends her action turn in the same space. This has a significant impact on the play of this character.


Playing the Game:

The theme and feel of the game have not changed much, which is a good thing. And the new mechanics are easy to manage in the scope and scale of the expansion. So I’ll write out a bit about some of the bigger changes from the expansion and how the mechanics seem to affect the game both intended and possibly unintended.

The Pegasus Board: The Pegasus board adds four new locations that can be accessed in a similar manner as accessing Colonial One (discarding a card to travel to or from it). Each of the new locations is very useful in certain circumstances. The "Main Batteries" of Pegasus almost completely ensure that the already rarely used "Weapons Control" will do nothing but collect more dust. The "Engine Room" location lets a player discard 2 skill cards to treat the next Crisis Card as if it had the prepare for jump icon on it. This is situationally very useful, but could easily be a resource dump if not strategically used. The "Pegasus CIC" gives the humans a chance to damage a basestar and the "Airlock" location lets players use one of the new mechanics: Execution. Execution can cause the character to be discarded. The player reveals if they were a Cylon. If they were, they do not discard the character, but they are revealed and go to the Resurrection Ship without drawing a Super Crisis Card. However, if they are human, they discard the character and draw a new one into play and the humans lose 1 Morale. It may seem easy and tempting to execute characters with a bit of suspicion, but it really does hurt the humans more than it seems on the surface. Finally, one of the big, but subtle changes the board brings in is that there are 4 more locations that can be damaged before Galactica is destroyed. This means that it is much less likely that the humans will lose from their ship being damaged, and the new Cylon location inlay no longer gives that as a Cylon action.

Treachery Deck: Also included is a new set of skill cards for the skill set of Treachery. They are negative cards that count against almost every skill check (though their values only run from 1 - 3). Many of the Treachery Cards have an effect that is triggered if someone plays a human beneficial card prior to the check that makes it "Reckless". The Reckless cards can help the humans out a lot, but there is substantial risk to trying them. One of the added influences of this deck is that it offers more of a chance to throw in suspicion in skill checks to savvy players. If everyone is human (or pretending to be), then it should be much easier to card count the 2 Treachery Cards in the skill deck. But if a third one shows up before Destiny is finished, then there is a traitor among the group. Many of the Crisis Cards force players to draw Treachery Cards into their hands, giving unrevealed Cylons a lot of opportunity to add suspicion to any character by tossing in one or two into a check. However, in games with fewer players and fewer Cylons, it is not much of a factor and Treachery Cards easily are dispensed by discarding them as travel cards or Crisis Card discards. And essentially, once all the Cylons are revealed, there is no worry whatsoever on the choices or failures that make you draw a couple of Treachery cards into your hand.

New Caprica Board: New Caprica gives a new ending condition to the game that is very thematic and well-produced that builds a race and tension for the endgame that sometimes could be lacking as you just casually waited for the final jump if your resources were good or there were no Cylon ships out during the last FTL cycle. The locations on New Caprica can be used by humans and Cylons (with differing effects) and represents the struggles of the Resistance against the Cylons on the New Caprica colony. The civilian ships that made it this far are placed on the board, face down. The human players are scrambling to prepare them for space turn-by-turn, while the Cylons are trying to destroy them turn-by-turn. If one is lost, the humans still lose the resources and can lose this way. After one cycle of Galactica’s FTL, it returns and the humans need to move the ships up to Galactica one-by-one, where they sit out in space and need to be defended from the raiders and basestars also on the board. The Admiral can jump at any time, leaving behind any ships not yet moved up yet and losing the resources for ships left behind. However, sometimes it can look so hairy out there that this is the best option. The unintended consequence of this mechanic, however, is that it is almost beneficial for the human players to lose civilian ships early, before reaching New Caprica. This way, their resources are more manageable and it is easier and quicker to prepare the ships and move them up to Galactica. Even if it means the human population is at 3, I would rather only have to worry about protecting and moving 4 civilian ships and having a population of 8 and having to worry about preparing and moving 9 ships. A lot can happen in those extra 5 turns.

Cylon Leaders: There are three Cylon Leader characters that can be played in games with 4 or more players. The Cylon Leader is a revealed Cylon from the beginning and has powers and flaws that are on their character card that they can use like the human players can. However, a Cylon leader draws an Agenda Card instead of a loyalty card at the beginning of the game and it states which side they are on and the conditions of their victory. They do not simply win if the humans win or the Cylons win. They need to have their side win and meet the conditions. This makes playing them a bit more complicated. For example, you may win only if the humans win AND all resources are 3 or lower. In this case, you will be attacking the humans, but keeping them away from the killing blow and trying to stop the other Cylon(s) from trying to finish the job. Or you may win if the Cylons win AND 6 or more units of distance have been travelled, making you favor the Cylons, but trying to assist the humans until a certain point, then crushing them before they make that last jump. It is a good and interesting mechanic, but a little weak compared to some of the other game, especially because the Cylon leader abilities seem to be a bit unbalanced. I think that this is set up to be expanded more upon as it follows the shows and the politics of the Cylons becomes more apparent and more involved later in the series.

And one last point that I would like to make: It is too early to necessarily tell where the advantage is now. With the base game, our first games were heavily skewed towards the Cylons and only after experience did the humans start to catch up, and eventually surpass the Cylon win ratio. This expansion has weakened (justifiably) some of the standard strong human strategies and introduced a lot to the game. It will be a while again of the new mechanics working against the players again before we start to get a truer feel of where the balance is. It won’t take as long as the first time, but still, expect more Cylon wins on your first games.


Scalability:

Pegasus keeps the same scalability of the base game, but includes rules for playing with a seventh player (which I have not done yet). Also, in a move that should make many happy, the Sympathizer mechanic for 4 and 6 player games have been changed somewhat, forcing the Sympathizer to take an Agenda Card, just as the Cylon Leaders would have.


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 and my most frequent game partner. She’s a huge Battlestar Galactica fan (both of the game and the show), but at the same time, she sneered whenever Admiral Cain was on the screen and had no issue with telling me how much she despised her at every turn, so I was a little worried that some of the stuff from this era of the show would ruffle those feathers again. However, she loves the expansion. After our first weekend playing the game, we returned home and she was trying to come up with 2-player mechanics to keep playing the expansion (and for the record, she did not come up with one. I instead got her to play 2-player Middle-Earth Quest instead.). She’s also very excited to play it again this weekend.

Battlestar Galactica is among her favorite games (with Arkham Horror being the contender for the #1 spot) and she really seemed to get into the expansion. And, truth be told, our core group has played the base game somewhere between 40-50 times, so we had finally started to slow on it. However, the expansion has breathed a lot of new life into the game and we are all eager to jump back into the roles again (making my task of getting Middle-Earth Quest and Chaos in the Old World, when it is released, onto the table a much more difficult task).


The Pros:

*More characters with more variety.
*Keeps the level of suspicion and tension very well in the new mechanics.
*New strategies for play, as well as new strategies for avoiding suspicion and casting it on others.
*New mechanics fit well into both existing game mechanics and theme of the show.
*Minor rules tweaks to bring down some over-strengthed human strategies.
*Introduces play for a seventh player.
*New Caprica adds tension to the end-game, which sometimes could just be a rote playing of the last few rounds waiting for the -3 jump because you knew you had the population to spare.


The Cons:

*Not a good expansion for those not familiar with the show.
*New Caprica does add time to the game length.
*Some Agendas seem unbalanced and the Cylon Leader mechanic seems the least fleshed out.
*Some of the Cylon Leader abilities seem a little unbalanced when applied to certain sides and Agendas.
*It came out at a time when there are so many other games that I want to get to the table as well.
*Some groups may have to deal with that awkward guy in their group who is just a little too excited that he is playing and pretending to be Caprica Six.


Overall:

Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus has breathed a lot of life into a game whose breathing had slowed a bit, but was nowhere near needing resuscitation . There is a lot that I like about what the expansion adds to the game, but at the end of the day, it is still your group’s play-style that will determine how good your BSG board game experience is. If your group sits and plays in silence with no debate or accusation over motives, the game is a dull rote in skill checks. But if your group openly analyzes and accuses other players moves and motivation, this expansion shines. Since now when you do your Saul Tigh impersonation and suggest that someone is a frakkin' toaster and should be blown out the airlock, you can follow through on the threat! While most of the major mechanics introduced are excellent, it seems as if some of them are introduced simply to eventually be better expanded and fleshed-out. If you are a fan of the base game AND a fan of the series, then this is an obvious must-have and I’m sure you’ve already pre-ordered or made plans to buy it well before you read this review. However, if you are a fan of the base game, but never saw the series, it is a good addition, but you may want to read some spoilers just so that you understand what the end game is about. And if you have never played BSG or seen the teevee show, do not buy the expansion. Familiarize yourself with the base game at first and possibly the series before you consider picking this up with the base game, as you may be wondering too much what the hell is happening at the end of the game. Someone grabbing the base game cold can still very much enjoy it, but someone grabbing the base and the expansion cold will likely be confused and possibly put off.


8/10

Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: Middle-Earth Quest

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. The Lord of the Rings trilogy are the first "grown-up" books that I read as a child and helped establish and cement my love for D&D and role-playing games. Also, I have a three year old daughter who loves watching the Peter Jackson movies with me and loves to run and stand in doorways to block me and will bellow out in her three year old’s voice, "You shall not pass!" So I’m probably pretty biased as far as theme goes with this game.


The Overview:


Same size and thickness as FFG’s War of the Ring box.



Contents.



Middle-Earth Quest is a blandly, if not accurately named adventure game that takes place during the 17 years between Bilbo’s birthday party where he leaves the Shire and the return of Gandalf who urges Frodo to leave the Shire with the One Ring. This period of time when Gandalf researches the history of the ring and Sauron extends his power is not well documented. Not even the extended extra bonus director’s cut scenes in Disc 15 of the Collector’s Edition of Peter Jackson’s "Fellowship of the Ring". However, that does not mean that interesting things were not happening during that time.

The game is for 2-4 players, and I’ll answer what will likely be a common question right now: No. It’s not really suited for solo play adaptation. Anyhow, one player plays the role of Sauron, who is trying to spread his influence and achieve dark plots to gain power and end the War of the Ring before it ever even starts. Sauron does this by playing plot cards which advance one of three of his markers. The markers each represent a different line of influence that Sauron has to potentially end or win the game. In fact, I believe this mechanic was first mentioned by Tolkien himself:

One Marker to discover the Ring, One Marker to corrupt the Leaders
One Marker to represent the strength of the Armies of Sauron
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Besides advancing markers via plots, Sauron has Shadow Cards to play against the Heroes and needs to spread influence markers across the locations of Middle-Earth to make travel more perilous for the heroes. Sauron also controls dark minions, such as the Ringwraiths themselves, to stymie and hinder the heroes, as well as the ability to place and move lesser monsters to try to slow down and wear out the heroes.

The remaining players take on the roles of lesser known heroes who saw Sauron’s early influence growing and stood to cut him back, leaving open the glimmer of hope that the Fellowship and Ringbearer would one day need to succeed. They heroes need to coordinate their efforts and work together to stop the influence, creating a group of some kind... a fellowship of sorts... to combat Sauron. The heroes do this by halting Sauron’s influence on the board, cutting off his influence from extending from the dark strongholds that exist. They also need to fulfill their own quests by encountering locations, while at the same time building up their strength and prowess to combat the monsters and minions that arise. Heroes will have opportunity to encounter some of the grand heroes of the War of the Ring and learn and train from them. This, and other ways are important to the heroes to gain favor tokens, which can be spent to force Sauron to discard his plots, slowing the advancement of his markers.


The Theme:

Middle-Earth Quest is dripping in theme. It may seem like an unusual choice of time frame, but it is refreshing as it is so poorly covered. For those who know enough about Tolkien’s works, you can see certain plots and events occur that frame and set up the grander events in the story, such as the capture and torture of Gollum. Playing on the hero’s side, there is an almost role-playing feel to the advancement of your character.

There are only a few minor complaints that I have in reference to the theming of this game, and they are minor as the theme has been very well executed and you feel it in every play. However, the five hero characters are minor unknown characters. You can tell that the characters are drawn from the histories of the regions they are from, but there is no background information on the character cards. That little touch would have added so much more in the theme and pulling in hero players into the roles of their characters. Also, as much as I loved Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" his prose could be kind of... over-verbose and under-descriptive for use as quotes on the cards for the purposes of explaining a game event. Many of the flavor quotes used on the cards work and work well, but there are a number of them that sound less descriptive and almost gibberish out of context on a card.

Still, I find both of these to be very minor issues with a game that pulls you in everywhere else with an amazing presentation of theme.


Learning the Game:

This is a game from Fantasy Flight. When you open and sort the piles of bits and break all of the cards into their separate twenty-five decks, it all looks quite intimidating. However, once played, it becomes quick, easy and intuitive. I do strongly recommend to anyone who has the game and will be teaching it to play a single round by themselves as both heroes and Sauron to learn the mechanics. I played one turn by myself in the morning and was fully prepared to teach it to my group in the evening.

The rulebook is very well written and the single page game overview listed inside the rulebook was enough to play the game from. I would still recommend following through the "In Detail" turn explanations for the first turn, however, just so that the little things are not forgotten. By our second game, there was hardly any referencing to the rulebook and every turn was run from the small "Turn Reference" box on the board.


The Components:

Most Fantasy Flight games have components that are impressive and show well. This is the case with Middle-Earth Quest, with a couple of caveats.



It is a large board that consists to two pieces that take up about 28.5" x 40" when placed together. 


The map is beautiful and very functional. Those who have played War of the Ring often will be the lucky players who will find locations much quicker than everyone else due to familiarity of that map. While finding locations may seem a little difficult at first, once you get the color coding system down, it is quite easy. The only problem with the board is that two locations were mislabeled on the board according to the preliminary FAQ. "Sea of Udûn" on the board should be "Plains of Udûn" and "Lake Esgaroth" should be "Esgaroth". In the plays that I had with the game, neither of these were issues, but it is a little disheartening when a board has an error instead of just a card.


The figures of the heroes. 



The figures of Sauron’s minions. 


The figures in the game were very beautifully cast and created and look impressive on the board. The Ringwraiths are actually three horsemen on one base and look suitably impressive and sinister. The only problem is that the initial run of minis are brittle and a number of them shipped broken (this was my case as well... Poor Gothmog needed to beat people upside the head with a stick in our games because his battle axe head is not attached). FFG has corrected this problem through the distributors of the game, so it is not a big issue, just a minor inconvenience. However, my copy did not come with a figure for Beravor. It’s not a big issue gameplay-wise, because we are still able to substitute another mini for her in the game since at most only 3 of the 5 heroes are used, but it is another inconvenience. However, I know FFG's track record and know that it will be resolved.


Playing the Game:

I almost didn’t get this to the table with my group. We also have the Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus expansion (which I’ll review later) and it was a diplomatic effort on my part to get this to the table. However, I think everyone in my group was glad that I did.

As I stated earlier, the game looks more intimidating than it really is, but that often is the game with Fantasy Flight Games products. The play is smooth and easy to learn. I won’t go in a full rehash of the rules, but the play offers several very interesting mechanics.

As Sauron, you have limited actions each round and you always want to do so much more. But with your two-actions, you can only do so much. Also, there is a diminishing returns mechanic incorporated in the game to weaken repeat attempts to use the same tactics one after another. Sauron's play also becomes a bit of a balancing act, as you only have 2 actions per round and each can be one of three things: You can place influence to slow heroes and extend your reach, making locations perilous for the heroes to encounter. This is important because the heroes have the opportunity to move far across the board and you want to stop them from doing this. You can draw Shadow Cards and Plot Cards. This is important because the Shadow Cards are a powerful means of hindering and harming the heroes and Plot Cards advance your Markers across the board. You can also place and move monsters and minions. This is important because you can wear down or defeat heroes in direct combat, but monsters need to be placed where there is influence, so that first option is important again. Plot cards can often only be played if there is a certain amount of influence in an area or if there are monsters or minions occupying a space, so the actions are all inter-related as well.

As the Heroes, the most interesting mechanic is the managing the deck of cards. Each hero has a deck of cards that they use in combat and in movement and are used as their life pool for damage. This results in difficult choices for the heroes. Sure, you may be able to move really far by discarding the cards in your hand, but then you will have few cards in your hand to play in combat should you encounter a monster or minion. When used in combat or travel, or removed as damage from an opponent's attack, the hero discards the cards into different piles. When the cards run out, the hero is defeated. The hero can shuffle the piles back into the draw pile to renew their deck, but every time they do so, Sauron can advance one of his markers on the track, so the heroes need to manage the need to rest or heal.

I had mentioned the three story Markers earlier, but there is a fourth that represents the Heroes story. It automatically advances two spaces each round. So, there is a race for whose Marker is in the lead because it shows who has dominance and therefore if the better or worse cards from each card is played.

The other mechanic that determines game winner is the "Mission Card". Each side draws one and it will give an overall goal that the heroes or Sauron will want to complete to ensure that their side has the best chance of winning. Missions for Sauron may be making sure that a specific Marker has reached the third stage of the track and the Heroes missions include things such as making sure they have a certain amount of favor or very little corruption. These are interesting mechanics that further the story and gameplay along beyond just completing the quests that the characters start with and, since they are hidden to the opposing team, create more depth and strategy as you try to anticipate what they have and cut it back.

Once one of the Markers reaches the end of the track, or all three of Sauron's markers reaches the mid-point of the track, the game end is started. Whoever's Marker is advanced the furthest reveals their mission. If they completed it, their side wins and there is much rejoicing. If the Markers are tied in advancement, both missions are revealed. If one team completed their mission and the other did not, then the team that completed their mission wins and there is much rejoicing.

However, if the lead team did not complete its mission, or if the Markers are tied and either both or neither team completed their missions, then the game is determined by a final battle. One hero spars off against the Ringwraiths minion for final victory. This has not happened yet in our games (thankfully), but I really think that this would be a dismal way to win or lose a game that took two plus hours of strategic depth. That is my only major complaint in the game thus far. And endgame should not be so random. Depending on who is ahead, the minion is either strengthened or weakened, but it still seems like too odd of a mechanic to end a game that is long and in depth and most likely, not a complete toss-up at the end.

Another player in my group mentioned that he did not like the artificial end timer in the game (the auto advancement of the Heroes story Marker), because it places a set ending before the game may necessarily feel resolved. I disagreed, just because it puts urgency and a time limit on completing missions at the end of the game and builds that sense of tension. However, I do agree with him if the result of the timed ending results in a final showdown battle between a hero and minion for the stakes of the entire game.


Scalability:

The game scales surprisingly well from two to four players. There has been talk of one player playing multiple heroes in a two-player game, but they probably haven’t played it the other way yet. However, there are certain missions that seem easier or much harder for just one hero player which can throw off the balance and force the final battle ending. But there is nothing stopping a single hero player from playing two characters, but it is not necessary to make two-player work. FFG was correct in setting it up as they did, but it may just need a few small tweaks to get the mission mechanics right for two-player.


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 and my most frequent game partner. However, she was perhaps by biggest opponent in getting Middle-Earth Quest onto the table instead of Pegasus. She also does not like learning new games for the most part. Once learned, she’ll enjoy them, but that first game is always dicey. That being said, she really enjoyed the game. In fact, I even got her to quickly accept a two-player game after a long car ride when we were both already tired.

In fact, my wife brought up an interesting comparison that is rather adept, but it wasn’t one that any in my group thought of until she mentioned it. She said that the game was in some ways a retheming of Arkham Horror. The Heroes (investigators) run around the board and try to collect favor tokens (clue tokens) then rush to locations to use them to discard Sauron's plots (close Gates), all the while having to deal with Event Cards (Mythos Cards) every turn and resolving Encounter Cards (um, Encounter Cards) at the location you are in, where some of them are more dangerous than others.

While I will admit, the retheming is painted with a broad brush; it does fit into that category. Though in this case, the GOO is Sauron who can actively try to attack players and defend himself rather than letting the game mechanics automatically do it.


The Pros:

*Excellent components, but most likely even more excellent in the next batch
*Great theme and feel
*Incredibly absorbing play
*Great representation of Middle-Earth during a lesser explored time
*Cameo appearance from Tom Bombadil on one of the cards (a pro for my wife)
*Excellent scalability, especially since not many games really are suited for 3 players well


The Cons:

*Early component issues
*The Finale mechanic can lead to a single fight to determine the winner in a 2+ hour deep strategy game seems too random for an outcome.
*A few very minor areas where theme and setting could have been better expanded
*In some senses, feels like the game was put out a bit too early. Errors on the board, errors on the cards, first run minis are brittle. Plus, the final battle end mechanic and two-player mission imbalance problems seem like things that should have been better worked out in playtesting.


Overall:

Middle-Earth Quest is an amazing game that offers a lot of depth in a game that the mechanics are surprisingly intuitive despite the number of components and bits. I’ve really enjoyed this game a lot more than I thought I would. There is no one way for Sauron to win, so there are so many different strategies to play. Heroes may seem less open to multiple plays because of the limited number of Quests, but their play is really based on stopping Sauron’s strategy. The game offers some interesting new mechanics and is a great game to find its way to your table if the theme or the love of a good strategy or adventure game is what you like. Despite some of the issues I have with the end battle result of the finale and some possible unbalancing two-player missions, I have yet to actually encounter them in the game and they are only suspicions of cons. After ending a two hour four player game with a final battle, my rating may drop, but for now, I am completely enamored with the mechanics and depth of the game.


9/10