Monday, December 14, 2009

Review: Stronghold

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, I love the mix of Medieval/Renaissance and fantasy themes to create great dramatic battles, such as those from the Lord of the Rings books (though the movie expanded on them; the siege of Helm's Deep/Battle of the Hornburg takes up a good chunk of Peter Jackson's Two Towers movie, while in the book, it is resolved in just a couple pages). And further still, I do have some very fond memories of playing Crossbows and Catapults as a kid. So I would say that I am rather biased towards the subject matter at hand.


The Overview:


The box depicts a scene from the siege already in progress. 



Box contents.



Stronghold is a deep fantasy battle game that involves a bit of resource management and a sort of abstract form of worker placement as well. Players are on opposing sides, playing as either the Defenders of the stronghold, or the monstrous Invaders. However, the clash isn't exactly the classical siege with an ending determined by attrition, but rather this is a quick and brutal clash as the invaders try to quickly force their way into the stronghold.

The game is for 2-4 players and takes about 90-120 minutes to play. However, the game ends as either 10 turns pass or as soon as the Invader breaches the stronghold and enters. So, if the Invader breaks into the castle quickly, the game can be dramatically shorter. More players would also extend the game time, but 2 hours seems to be a good estimate to figure your play time from, adding or subtracting time based on experience with the game and number of players.

The game runs over 10 turns, each with 6 action phases followed by an assault phase. During each phase and turn, the Invader will be preparing and readying an assault on the Defender and the Defender will be reacting to it. This makes the roles in the game very different. The Invader will be playing a long strategic game, while the Defender will be reacting to each of the Invader's moves throughout, focusing more on the immediate.

Each side has units of comparable strength (The Defender has Marksmen, Soldiers and Veterans at a strength of 1, 2 and 3 respectively, while the Invader has Goblins, Orcs and Trolls of those respective strengths). The Defender's units begin on the board placed along 9 different wall sections of his Stronghold, each beginning with 2 stone wall sections each that add to their defense. There are also a few more units that are inside of the stronghold at special locations within the building. The Invader does not begin with any units on the board, but starts each turn by drawing random units. He then needs to take actions to move them from the camp (off of the board), to one of two foregrounds (which act as gathering areas which are outside of the range of most of the Defender's attacks), then from the foregrounds to one of the ramparts (which are closer to the walls and a staging area that is in range of the Defender's marksmen), and finally from the ramparts to one of the nine sections of wall (where they engage the Defenders units on that wall section, in hopes of breaking through and invading the castle).

Each round, the Invader collects resources to use to produce the siege machines or equipment available to him (such as catapults, ballistae, shields, ladders) and can train his troops for certain bonuses and can have his shaman sacrifice some of his goblins to complete rituals that affect the Defender. However, each of these actions takes time, which is not on the Invader's side and gives the Defender more time to prepare a defense. This is represented by the Invader's actions costing resources and units, and each unit spent gives the Defender one "Hourglass". The Defender then can bolster his defenses, train his troops or send out scouts to lay traps along the Invader's paths by spending the Hourglasses he has accumulated. It may sound a little abstract, but it isn't really. It is a genius little mechanism that represents the urgency for the Invader to make a quick, hard assault. The more preparation work he takes, the longer the Defender has to prepare. The Invader may really want to create another ballista before storming the wall. however, that may give the Defender just enough time to finish crafting a cauldron of boiling oil that would take out all of his goblins along a wall section, so the Invader decides to press ahead quickly to try to catch the Defender more off-guard. I really enjoy this mechanic of the game.

This continues for ten rounds, or until the Invader breaches the wall and storms the stronghold, ending the game. Each round that ends where the Invader has not breached the stronghold, he gives one of his 10 starting Glory Points (the game's victory points) to the Defender. Even if the Invader breaches the stronghold's walls and ends the game early, victory is determined by who has the most Glory. This, again, presses the Invader for a quick assault, as he gives away his victory points each turn. It may seem a little odd that the Invader may break through the stronghold's defenses to end the game, but still lose if it took them too long (meaning the Defender has more Glory Points), but consider it that the slow assault gave the Defender enough time to retreat his lord and villagers out of the stronghold, so while the stronghold was lost, the Defender's men survived. Or, think of it as though the Defender lost, he retained his honor and glory throughout and the battle becomes something of legend which rallied the rest of the nation's forces. To the Americans, the battle of the Alamo was lost, but remains a historic piece of American legend because of the perceived glory of those who held their place and has been a long-standing rallying cry.



The Theme:

Stronghold has a lot of theme for a strategy game. It's not like your usual fantasy game where you are focused on and playing a character and get into that way. Instead, this is a siege and assault of a castle. You feel the pressure mounting as the Invader when time passes and you haven't breached the walls yet. There is a palatable tension there. And as the Defender, you feel the intensity of the attacks as you have to rush to defend the various wall sections under assault, trying to determine which is under more threat when you divide up your limited resources and defenses. You may know that this section of wall will eventually collapse, but can you hold it long enough to get enough Glory to still win?

And here is where the strength of the game really shows. You get this sense of theme and urgency from the roles while playing with little cubes to represent your figures. They aren't sculpted minis with dynamic poses and faces, but little wooden cubes. Still, the intensity of the game is strong enough that the Defender's cubes are archers and militia men, fighting valiantly and holding a section of wall that is doomed to fall. The Invader's forces are small cubes, but they turn into hordes of orcs and goblins rushing up to the ramparts and walls, cheering as a few powerful trolls make it past the Defender's archers to join them at the assault on the wall.

My powerful ballista and catapults aimed at the walls are just a deck of hit and miss cards with a cardboard counter on top of them, but the theme of the game still makes it appear menacing as it sits there. My battering ram is nothing but a few cardboard counters at the front gates of the stronghold, but I dare a player not to chant "Grond! Grond! Grond!" when he gets all of the sections laid out and ten strong orcs and trolls positioned around it.

Don't expect the components and bits to pull you into this game like a Fantasy Flight game does. Instead, it is pure game play that will pull you into this one and make you feel the theme.

There are also other means of gaining glory for the Invader and Defender in the game that are interesting game mechanics, but also create so much more theme for the game. For the Invader, they range from such actions that make for such a glorious siege, such as completely destroying two sections of wall, having four trolls at any one walls section, having units at seven different wall sections at one time or having sacrificed 12 goblins in rituals during the course of the game. He also gets bonus Glory Points for breaking through the gates with the battering ram and for breaking through the stronghold. The Defender, on the other hand, begins with 4 bonus Glory points on each of 4 inglorious actions. He can, however, sacrifice the glory by being less than honorable and taking those actions. Barricades gives the Defender +4 Hourglasses to use in his Workshop and allow him to use the actions in the Workshop twice that turn. Shameful Negotiations buys the Defender some time (+3 Hourglasses), but at the dishonor of raising the white flag to try to talk to the monstrous hordes of the Invader. On Last Legs lets the Defender choose a building and lets him take the actions there a second time and reduces the cost of everything there by one Hourglass, but shamefully overworks his men and commoners in the process. Lastly, the Defender can Open the Dungeons, shamefully releasing prisoners from the dungeons, but gaining a Veteran and Soldier to use in defense. These aren't just a means of gaining some extra resources, but a moral decision that will cost you Glory as you give up a bit of honor to perform them.

And finally, the defender starts with two soldiers defending the stronghold's banner. They are the Guard of Honor and they are in the middle of the courtyard, instead of on the walls defending the stronghold. After the sixth turn, the Defender gets one bonus Glory Point at the end of every round that they remain there. The Honor Guard do nothing. They are there simply guarding the banner of the castle. The castle walls are being taken down by catapults and trolls are tearing through the marksmen on the walls, but they stand there at the banner, holding their position. The Defender can at any time move them out to defend the walls, but then sacrifices the extra glory they would get at the end of the round. This is such a beautiful mechanic to the game and pulls everything of the theme together. There is glory in protecting the banner and flag, but does the necessity of protecting the walls take precedent? Do you stand proud as the defender, holding up your glorious banner in pride, even at the risk of losing the castle? War is a dirty business. But is the glory of being honorable worth it at the cost of losing the castle? This is what makes the game's theme so strong, in my mind. These little mechanics add so much thematic depth to an already great strategy game.



Learning the Game:

Ah, if there is one flaw in the game, this is it. The rulebook is terrible. There are some timing issues that aren't well described and the dispatch actions explains the specific order in which units move from the ramparts to the wall, then from the foregrounds to the ramparts, then from the camp to the foregrounds; then the example in the book shows this happening in the reverse order. And regardless of the example error, the who dispatch order is a little confusing at first. I strongly suggest printing out and reading the most recent FAQ for the game and keeping it handy during your first couple plays.

There are reference cards included in the game that explain what the symbols for the Invader and Defender's actions are and are very important to make early games move swiftly. However, the Invader's icons are on one side of the card and the Defender's icons are on the other side. This means the card will get passed back and forth a lot during the game. There are three 2-sided reference cards included in the game each in a different language. I think it would have made more sense to alternate the language on the sides, so that the English Invader reference has the German Defender reference on the back and the English Defender reference is backed with the Polish Invader, that way everyone could have their own card in front of them at all times. It's a minor problem though. If you use BGG, I would assume and suggest that you would probably have printed out one of the uploaded reference cards there.

Still, once you've gotten all of the mechanics down, the game plays intuitively. Learning the specifics of the mechanics takes a game play or two. After that, things run smoothly. I imagine with the way the rules are written, most experiences will go like this: Play your first game. The Invader has no chance whatsoever of winning. Reread the rules and read the FAQ with context now in your mind. Realize what you did wrong. Replay the game and have a good game. After that, recheck the FAQ and find maybe a minor point or two that needs to be refined in your next game. Even after my first game of playing a few things wrong, the game made an impact on me though. I still wanted to play more and it gave me incentive to figure out the small issues.



The Components:

The components of this game are fully functional, if nothing to write home about. Units are represented by white, green and red cubes. Cards are language independent and completely understandable with their symbols. The board is beautiful and has a lot of set up information on it and it is very functional as well as attractive. All of the Defender's actions are listed on the board, as well as spaces for them to "spend" their Hourglasses to purchase more defenses.



The board is both beautiful and fully functional. 



The units may not look like much, but once on the board in the middle of a full siege, you'll be living and dying with a few cubes as they hold back the enemy. 




Cards like this detail what the Invader can create each phase... Unfortunately, a wheelbarrow is not listed among his assets. Then again, neither is a holocaust cloak. 



Now, while the components are functional and work completely fine for the game, I do need to bring up an issue that I have with them. There is a game pieces break down, but no illustration of which is for what. It took us a little bit to figure out the that the brown cubes that the Invader uses for his resources are the same cubes that the Defender uses for his wooden walls that he builds. They are identical in appearance, but you get 21 brown cubes in the game and need to deduce from the game pieces list that 16 of them are Resources and 5 of them are among the 28 total wall components for the Defender. This is further confused by the rules referring to the wooden wall components as tiles. Also, there is no component to mark the current strength of the gate on the gate's toughness track. These are minor issues, but are further confused by the poor wording in the rulebook.



Playing the Game:

After muddling through the rulebook and FAQ and your first game, everything then starts to come together. There is a larger learning curve for the Invader in the beginning because all of the pressure is on him and the timeliness of his success. The Defender just needs to react. This makes an interesting dichotomy in the roles. The Invader plays a heavily strategic game, while the Defender plays more of a tactical game, reacting to the current issues and threats. Through experience, the Defender will start to see ahead and can plan out his defenses based on what is available to the Invader, but there will always be a large level of reacting in his role.

Part of the Invader's strategy will be based on how to maximize his resources based on what he has available in each phase. There are six phases in each turn. Phase 1 and Phase 6 are set actions, but for each of the phases from 2-5 the Invader draws a random card (from a set of 5 for each phase) to determine the actions available to him in that round. That means that with this game, you may not have the battering ram available to you. You may be able to build a catapult, but not a ballista. You may be able to train goblin archers, but not be able to provide cover for your archers. This makes every assault different and the invader needs to formulate a strategy from the available actions to him.

The learning curve in the beginning is steeper for the Invader, especially since the available actions change every game. The Defender's actions are set in what is available, though some of them may not be used since they are reactionary to the actions and the availability of actions of the Invader. Still, there is a learning curve as the Defender, as you need to know the best reactions to the Invader's options. But the Invader needs to see the big picture while the Defender just needs to holds out. Early on, the game will favor the Defender. But it begins to level out with experience of both players. I would suggest introducing new players in the role of Defender first. A more experienced Defender and a less experienced Invader is much more unbalanced than the other way around.



Scalability:

The core of the game is a great two-player game. You can play it with 3 or 4, but the game really is best as a two-player game. In a three-player game, two players take the role of the Invader, each assaulting a separate side of the castle. This game more strongly favors the Defender because the Invaders really need to coordinate their assaults and actions. The four-player game has two Invaders and two Defenders. However, the Defenders' need for coordination is even more demanding than it is for the Invaders. The Defenders each have their own sides to protect and their own Hourglasses, resulting in that one Defender can block the actions that the other defender needed. This set up strongly favors the Invader. So the game scales, but with favoring one side or the other. This may still work, however, if you have players of differing experience and skill levels. Still, I would consider this game as what it shines as: a two-player game.



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 is not a big fan of direct conflict games, however, and this game is all about direct conflict. Still, out of the games that I play that have direct conflict, this one probably bothers her the least, but she is also a fan of the medieval/fantasy setting. She prefers the reactionary tactics of the Defender and dislikes the longer strategic thinking of the Invader. But still, she has a good strategic and tactical mind, despite her dislike for direct conflict. She plays a good defender and has even come up with a few very devious strategies to use against me.

She doesn't mind the game, but doesn't love it like I do. So my evenings are laid out with me deciding exactly how many games of Pandemic or At the Gates of Loyang (her current top choices) that I need to play with her before I've accumulated enough capital to get her to play Stronghold with me one more time.



The Pros:

*Beautiful board that is also incredibly functional.
*A good flowing gameplay once the rules are fully understood.
*A theme that does not ebb and flow from the components or figures, but rather from the gameplay itself.
*Attention to small details, such as the Honor Guard, that make the theme so powerful.
*The variation in Phase Cards for the Invader means that you cannot just use one set strategy every time you play and also creates different games with each play.
*Gripping and intensity of the turns is felt on both sides: the Invader feels the pressure of needing to rush and breach the castle quickly, while the Defender feels the threats pulling him to many different small holes in his defense.
*The game's roles differ; one is strategic and one is tactical, giving players with different preferences a means to satisfy their desire.
*Just a great game setting.



The Cons:

*Poor rulebook makes what is really a rather intuitive gameplay broken and awkward for your first play or two.
*Poorly described component list (part of the overall rulebook complaint).
*Some people may dislike that the different sides have different learning curves.
*Some people may think the components aren't flashy enough (though drawing Invader's pieces blindly from a bag means they need to be uniform in shape and size), even though they are fully functional.
*Game length may be a little long for some.
*Euro players purchasing the game simply because it contains 262 wooden cubes, 35 wooden disks, 23 stone markers and no dice will be sorely, sorely disappointed.




Overall:

Stronghold is a beautiful game experience. It is a deep, action-filled conflict game. There are colored cubes, wood and stone resources, no dice and a rulebook that comes in three languages, but it is not a Euro game. This game is a longer battle game and it is fully glorious in its presentation of what it is. For the Invader, it's not just about breaching the stronghold; it's about doing it quick and harsh enough with as many brutal assaults as possible to gain as much Glory for your conquer to become a siege of legend. For the Defender, it's not just about keeping the Invader out; you can still win if breached, provided that you hold out with as much honor and glory in tact during the assault, being remembered and heralded throughout time as Glorious heroes who never lost their honor even as the worst happened. If this game is on your radar, you are probably the kind of player that will enjoy this. It has been a long time since I've played a game like this one that has me thinking about strategies well after my last game has been played and rethinking what I could have done better. I am making plans to play games that my wife enjoys just to get this one to the table again quicker while still getting it to the table with my other frequent game partners. I strongly endorse this game and hope that you remember, regardless if you are the Invader or the Defender, it is about the glory of your actions and securing your place in history.


9.5/10

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: The Adventurers: The Temple of Chac

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, while I enjoyed half of the Indiana Jones movies (meaning 2 of them, not half of each), I really consider the first one to be an example of a really good film. And even though I enjoy finding context to grit my teeth and exclaim, "It belongs in a museum!", I never really understood the difference between selling an artifact for personal gain and putting an artifact on display in a museum, because either way, you are desecrating the ancient and holy burial grounds of some forgotten culture.


The Overview:


The box cover shows the same style of artwork inside the box. 


Box contents, or, a Do-It-Yourself Mayan temple. 



The Adventurers is a fast-paced adventure game in which you and the other players each play rival adventurers exploring an ancient Mayan temple with the same goal: make it past all of the deadly traps to escape alive with the most amount of archaeological treasures buried in the belly of the temple. Essentially, the game plays like the first 15 minutes of an Indiana Jones movies, minus any atomic resistant refrigerators.

The game is for 2-6 players and takes between about 20 minutes for 2 players to about 45 minutes for a full 6 players. The game is played through a number of turns in which the players determine how many actions their character receives, then takes the actions. There is an innate timer in the game which is represented by a large boulder that rolls through the corridors of the temple, threatening to either roll over and crush any adventurer who delays too long, or crash against the exit and deal those left behind in the temple forever.

Each turn is easy and basic. First, all players adjust their load levels, then roll dice to determine their number of actions. On your turn, you roll five six-sided dice and every die that is equal to or greater than your target number grants you one action. The more treasures you are carrying, the higher your target number is, so that is why you may want to adjust your load level and drop a few treasures at the beginning of your turn to make sure you can move faster than the rolling boulder behind you.

Each player in turn then takes their actions. Each action can be used to move one space, to pick up a treasure, to use your character's special ability, or to take a special action depending on where in the temple you are (I'll get into some of them later).

After each player has had their turn, cards are turned over to see if and how much the walls in the opening corridor move together, threatening to crush anyone who tarries to long in them. Then dice are rolled to see how many spaces the boulder moves. At the end of the first turn, one die is rolled and the boulder is moved one space if a three or higher is rolled. At the end of the second turn, two dice are rolled and it is moved for every die that is a three or higher. This continues until all five dice are rolled on the fifth and all of the subsequent turns. This starts the boulder slow, but it soon moves quickly, and often faster than any adventurer carrying too much treasure.

The turn is finished and first player passes the player on the left and it starts over again.


The Theme:

The Adventurers is very heavy on theme. In fact, the well sculpted and crafted components really add to the feeling and get you into the theme. Each of the sections of the temple have traps or perils that are very thematic and come from the pulp genre. There are sliding walls threatening to crush you, a floor with trapped tiles that may break out from under you and drop you into lava, a raging river with a waterfall looming just beyond your only chance to exit it, a decrepit old bridge whose planks may fall off from any step and, of course, the big rolling boulder.

The theme feels so much like it is the first 15 minutes of an Indianan Jones movie. You jump right into the action, you get into it, there are dangers and traps at every turn, there is a quick grab of artifacts then a frantic race out before the boulder comes and crushes you... Now imagine that the first Indiana Jones movie ended right there. Sure, there was pulp theme, action and danger, but it just seemed... short and then it was over and you kind of expected more. That's where I feel with the theme of this game. It is the pulp movie opening, but without the meat of the story and intrigue.

I suppose that isn't necessarily bad. It is thematic. Very thematic. But it is quick and light and isn't much more than a quick filler before you break out the "meat" and "story" games for the rest of your evening.


Learning the Game:

The game is quick and easy to learn. The set up is a little extensive for the quick game play, but after one play, the set up and the game play are both very intuitive. Probably the only tricky part is that each of the different sections of the temple have their own rules attached to them as far as what you can do with your actions.



The Walls Room. They move closer together a random amount each turn, threatening to crush any who take too long. 



The walls about to crush a few adventurers. 



The Walls Room: When you first enter, there are walls that are closing. You can race through them to ensure safety from being crushed, or hang around and pick up treasures along the way, which may slow you down, but they are among the quickest and easiest of the treasures to get in the game. Also, at each step, you can take the action to "Decipher a Glyph". There are four of them in total and taking the action allows you to pick up a tile and study it for five seconds. These are the four tiles that will be trapped in the lava room and you have a chance to take a peek and try to remember their intricate designs to ensure your safety through the upcoming lava room.

The Boulder Corridor: This is the main passage through the temple. However, the adventurers share it with a rolling boulder threatening to crush any in its way. Along the way, there are a few alcoves that are locked and have treasures within them. Adventurers can try to pick the locks, but unless they are lucky, it can end up being a time consuming process... and that boulder won't wait for you before rolling your way.



The lava room. 


The Lava Room: The lava room consists of 14 tiles, four of which are trapped. As you step on a tile, you flip it and compare it to those along the Walls Room. If it matches one of those tiles, it is trapped and your adventurer falls into the lava below. If it is not trapped, you can move onto it and claim a treasure on it (for another actions). When you first reveal the tiles in the lava room, you will notice how intricate they are and you may really need to test your memory if you looked at tiles in the Walls Room. Still, for those not sure, you can go around the room, but it is a longer path (and the boulder moves down it). But for the adventurous, there is a lot of treasure to be found here.



The underground river is a quick, but risky exit. 


The Underground River and Waterfall: You can make a quicker exit by jumping into the underground river. You can only move forward in the river, but can claim one treasure per square as an action. When you reach the end, you need to roll dice based on how many treasures you are carrying to try to exit before falling off the waterfall. If you roll any 1's, you can discards three treasures per 1 rolled and reroll those dice. If any of them come up as a 1 again, you failed to escape and fall off the waterfall.



The Wooden Bridge. 


The Wooden Bridge: Sometimes you need a quicker route when the boulder is right behind you. There are five planks and whenever an adventurer crosses it, you roll one die per plank left on it. You compare the dice to your load level and remove one plank for every die that rolls under your load level. If you lose the last plank, then you fall to your death.


The Components:

I've been using a lot of pictures in this game to show off the beauty of the components. They are gorgeous. However, there is something potentially misleading about the pictures. The figures and components in the base game are not painted. A pack of painted figures and components was available for purchase at release of the game. But do not think that your game will have the painted figures.



These are the painted figures. 


This is how the figures come in the game. They are still gorgeously crafted though. 



The components and style of artwork in the game are really just amazing. The character cards are very stylizing in their artwork and do play a bit on stereotype, but not in a particularly offensive way (and I love the caricature of the pistol-wielding, beer gut toting, wife-beater and cowboy hat wearing American). The only thing that disappoints me a bit is that all but one of the female figures is showing an unnecessary amount of cleavage. If one of them were to do so, I wouldn't mind, especially as a nod/parody of the unnatural cleavage of Lara Croft. However, looking at the character card of Lea Rice, I think that the only reason why her top is unbuttoned that much is that her breasts are too large to contain and button it at all.



Who needs a flashlight, when you have headlights like these? Sorry. That was bad. Apologies to my wife when she reads this review. 


Playing the Game:

The game is quick and very light. There is so much style and flash to this game, that the substance that comes with it just doesn't feel quite filling enough for how beautiful it is. Still, it is fun for what it is and with lesser components, it might not even feel as thematic or fun as it is now. It is easy to learn and the play is very intuitive. For the most part, you don't have to worry too much about what the other players are doing (unless you are following someone who seems to know their way through the lava tiles). Player interaction is minimal, and since treasures obtained are hidden, you do not know the values of the treasures your opponents have, just the quantity of cards.

I would have liked a little more player interaction. Since you are rivals, it would be better if you could sabotage one another further, if not even attempt to steal treasures from one another. But then again, the temple itself is dangerous enough without that.

Finally, I haven't mentioned to this point that everyone chooses two characters in the beginning of the game and only sends one in. If he or she dies, they can bring in a replacement character once the boulder has moved past the lava room. I haven't mentioned this because it is pointless and part of the game that I just don't understand. Your second character doesn't claim the treasures that your first character had. You basically just need to race out before the boulder blocks the exit and maybe grab a couple of treasures on the way. However, you will almost never have anywhere near the amount of treasures of the other players who did not die. The game is quick enough that if you do die, you won't have that long to wait before the game is over. This just seems like an attempt to reduce player elimination, but the second character is not competitive at all. In my opinion, I think it should have just been one character each. If one dies, you are out. The rest of the game would move quicker with fewer characters anyhow, instead of slowing it back down with non-competitive characters.


Scalability:

The game scales well from 2-6 players. More players make the treasure grab a little more intense since people are racing to grab a more limited resource. There is not a lot of downtime even in 6 player games because the turns move quick enough. I think 2 players plays almost too quickly though. After setting everything up, it feels like you are already finished the game. Having more players does not really add to the game play, but just adds to the length of time and the competition, but that is the only thing it does to the scalability of the game.


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. I originally thought that she would like the flash and fun that this game seemed to have and it would be a nice two-player game for us to play together on weeknights. However, she and I are both of the same mindset, I believe. We are luke warm on it. It's not a bad game, but neither of us would suggest this with just one another. There's not enough depth even for just a two-player light game for something to do other than watch mindless teevee. Still, with more people and the right attitude, the game can be entertaining, if just for the additional table-chatter.


The Pros:

*Beautiful artwork and amazingly well produced components.
*Quick, easy game play that has enough flash to draw in casual or non-gamers.
*Great presentation of theme in the game.
*A decent press-your-luck mechanic right up front when deciding how much treasure to hold before rolling your action dice.
*Gives you the context to shout, "It belongs in a museum!" to other players.
*The above gives other players context to reply with, "So do you!"
*Light fun filler that is in no way a brain burner.
*Really feels like the first fifteen minutes of an Indiana Jones movie.


The Cons:

*Feels like the first fifteen minutes of an Indiana Jones movie, without the rest of the movie's plot, story or substance.
*Feels a little too light for all of the flash and glitter of the components.
*Second/replacement character mechanic feels unnecessary and slows the game down with non-competitive characters.
*Probably too light and too dice-y for a lot of players.


Overall:

The Adventurers is a light, fast-paced game that is well produced, but will never be more than a quick, light filler game. It almost seems overproduced for the game play that you get out of it. However, the flash and components from this game will quickly attract the attention of non-gamers or casual gamers who can be lured in with this game and then introduced to something else. While the ages listed on the game are 10+, I would probably say 8+ and it is probably a much better family game than a game for a group of gamers. Still, there is a bit of charm in the presentation of the game, even if the substance behind it isn't the strongest.


7/10

Monday, December 7, 2009

Review: Automobile

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. And while I am a fan of many of Martin Wallace's games, cars do nothing for me. To me, they are little more than a means of transportation from Point A to Point B. But then again, it is refreshing to see a form of transport that is not trains that is being modeled.


The Overview:


The box cover. While not amazing, it does have a certain elegance to it. 



Box contents: a board, a cloth bag, paper money and oodles of wooden bits. 



Automobile is an industry/manufacturing economic game based around the early automobile industry. There are no victory points in this game. Whoever makes the most amount of money at the end wins. However, there is a speculation mechanic in which anyone who produces more cars than they can sell through that turn's demand will be penalized and end up losing money on their endeavor.

The game is for 3-5 players and takes between 2-3 hours to play. The game is played through four turns and each turn allows a player only three actions. So at the end of the game, every player will only have had taken 12 actions. Each turn, however, some actions are almost a given, giving the players even fewer "unscripted" actions. However, despite the limited number of actions a player can take, there is a variety of difficult decisions to be made and a variance of strategies and reactions that a player must make.

Here is a bit of a lengthy breakdown of the game's turns. Feel free to skip over this section and move onto the next if you do not want a breakdown of the game's turns:

At the beginning of each turn, every player randomly draws "Demand Tiles" that are numbered from 2-5. These are hidden from the other players and at eventually all of the players tiles will be put together to determine the total amount of demand for each kind of car in a round.

Players then each select a character in player order. Each of the characters offers a special ability and also determine the play order for that round. The characters offer additional actions or abilities that make an impact on that round's play, although players need to factor in the importance of player order as well as the abilities offered by a character choice. Choosing a character each round may seem odd, but I see it more as taking that industry leader's tactic that round. In other words, my company is not run by Ford this round and Chrysler the next, but rather my company is adopting Ford's tactics this round, then modeling their business practice after Chrysler the next.

After character are chosen, each player takes turns taking actions, one at a time until every player has taken three. Available actions include Building a Factory (which can later produce cars of a specific type (High, Mid or Low Range) depending on the space it is built), Placing Distributors (which are guaranteed to purchase cars directly from you, allowing you to make and then sell more cars with less fear of overproducing and creating waste), Taking R&D Cubes (which can be spent when building factories to develop a factory further along the track), Produce Cars (which lets you build cars at each of your factories; you need to pay for the cars you build, but if you are able to sell them, you make a profit on each car spent) and Closing Down a Factory (which lets you reclaim some of the money spent on building the factory, but, more importantly, cuts down on losses as factories back further along the track are considered to be inefficient and collect loss cubes that cost money throughout the game). Now, most turns will involve building a factory and producing cars. This leaves you really with just one "unscripted" action in most rounds. This shows the importance of character selection, as some of their abilities can essentially give you a "free" action. Also, it shows the tightness of this game, which seems to be almost a signature of Martin Wallace's games.

When each player finishes their three actions, the players can then sell some of the cars they produced. Whoever has Howard as their character that round can sell two cars directly through him. Then whoever placed distributors can sell cars directly to them. If you do not have enough cars to sell to your distributors, you remove the distributor and take a loss cube for each one you cannot satisfy. The cars remaining unsold will be sold later in the round, but only to a number based on the demand for that kind of car in that round.

Next, players take "Executive Decisions" in player order. This continues until everyone has passed. Player order for the next turn is determined by the order in which players passed. There are only a limited number of these decisions available as well. Players can opt to Close One Factory (this allows the player to immediately close a factory, but only one of this option is available), Purchase Bonus Sales Markers (These markers let multiple cars be sold from a factory each round, but cost R&D cubes) or Take Reduced Price Markers (which let you sell multiple cars from a factory, but at a reduced price).

Finally, the Demand Tiles are revealed and players take turns selling their cars, one at a time from each factory in order along the track until the demand has been met. Any cars that remain unsold at the end of the turn are removed and the player takes a loss cube for each car unsold.

At the end of the turn, players have to pay money for each loss cube that they have, and the penalty for each rises each turn. Then the board is reset, leaving distributors and factories in place, and everything starts over again.


The Theme:

Automobile is an economic and manufacturing game, so the economic engine created is really the theme. I don't feel like I am running General Motors in a tense CEO simulation, but that isn't the game. For creating a tense, tight economic model, the game succeeds greatly. Because of the limited actions, there is a tenseness in your decisions and every action you take is that much more important. The game is designed so that newer models of cars sell before older models and there is a mechanic to show the inefficiency of older factories. In that respect, I find this to be one of the best market models in any of the economic games that I have played.

Having only a portion of knowledge pertaining to the upcoming demand is the only mechanic that fails to simulate something in an inventive way, in my opinion. Since every player has a demand tile numbered from 2-5, you only know a fraction of what the total demand will be. In a three-player game, you have one-third of the knowledge. In a five-player game, you have one-fifth. So there is a bit of an advantage in three player games. However, in three-player games the other players tiles could total 4 or 10, so even then there is a huge difference that is there. It's not a bad thing per se, to have a portion of the knowledge of the upcoming demand. However, it seems to be all but pointless in its effect. I think our games would play roughly the same even if we didn't draw Demand Tiles prior.


Learning the Game:

The game is actually fairly easy to learn. A few rules are easy to make errors on a first play, but overall, the rules are presented very clearly and defined and there is an extended example of play that illustrate two turns of a four-player game... That's pretty good considering it's a four turn game, so the game play example plays out over half of a game.

While the game is easy to learn, repeated plays are necessary to pick up on the intricacies of the game and its strategy. For a game that has few actions and even fewer "unscripted" actions on top of that, there really is a lot to learn and a lot to figure out what exactly to do to maximize your potential, while at the same time, minimizing your inefficiencies and loss.


The Components:

These are the wooden cars pieces. Most everything else is a disk or cube.



Cars and factories.



What I have is the Treefrog edition of the game. I do not know what, if anything, will change in later editions. The wooden bits are fine and functional. The cars that are produced each round are modeled to be little cars and the distributors that you can sell to are modeled to be little silhouettes of a head and shoulders. Everything else is a disk, cube or flat rectangle (representing the factories). While I appreciate the sculpted cars for each player, I would have been content with little cubes to represent them. That being said, I wonder why the decision was made to sculpt them, but leave the factories as just flat rectangles. It does not affect game play at all, but I just wonder why one would over-produce one component and under-produce the other.



The paper money is nothing to write home about. 



Wooden money is currently available at treefrog's site. 



Also, the game comes with paper money. It is the standard one-sided printed paper money. It is of similar quality of any other game's paper money. I know this bothers some people, but I would prefer to use cheap paper money rather than have to pay more for each of my games to come with their own set of poker chips. But Warfrog is offering wooden money that can be used with the game for those who it really bothers. The wooden money costs $22. That is a cost that I am glad was not added to the price of the game initially and I'm happy to use the paper money.



Is the board ugly and busy, or is the color scheme of pink on mustard genius? You decide. 


Finally, I need to comment on the board. While it is completely and fully functional. It is ugly. The color schemes marking High, Mid and Low Range cars are terrible and altogether the board looks less like a finished product and more like a play tester's board. I suppose the color scheme backgrounds for the cars is useful for the patterns for colorblind players, but overall, it is not aesthetically pleasing to look at.


Playing the Game:

The game play is very tight and tense. For the limited amount of actions that you have, you realize how important and decisive each one is. This makes for a strong game, but also can bring out the AP in players who are normally not that bad with it. I highly suggest having a calculator or two available at the table for less mathematically friendly players to use. It will speed up their turns considerably as you need to determine how much money you can spend on building cars, buying factories and so on throughout your turn. The math is basic, but for some people it can slow it down when they have $1100 and are trying to figure out how many mid range cars at $70 each to build and how many low range cars at $50 each to build, when the mid range cars sell at $150 each and the low range cars sell at $100 each to figure out the mix that will best maximize their profits while minimizing the risk of losses.

This is also a game where you need to watch the other players actions throughout. What they build, which factories they open and close and their turn order all impact your profits and losses. I don't mind the downtime of other players turns because for the most part, I need to be watching what they are doing at all times.

In the end, you really feel the tightness of the game and I do not find a single action that I take to be automatic or thoughtless. Even the "scripted" actions, like producing your cars (it is scripted because you know that you will be taking that action each round since it is how you make money) is still thoughtful as you have to try to guess at demand while at the same time calculating either how many cars your opponents have produced or will produce to minimize losses.


Scalability:

More players makes the game a lot tighter and a lot more intense. However, even three player games are incredibly tense and tight. I've played a two-player variant of the game posted on boardgamegeek to try to learn the game with my wife before introducing it to others and I enjoyed it. We played it twice two-player before playing it with more. Since playing it with more, however, I realize that you really need more to make the game shine. Still, I would not hesitate to grab this game to play if I only have three players, so I think it scales well from 3-5.


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. Unfortunately, she's not a huge fan of the game. She doesn't like a lot of tense, "thinky" games like this one. She burns out from the heavy math and planning throughout the game. Still, she tends to win most every game that we've played. Her strategy is pretty basic and straightforward, but it works. Despite her aversion to most economic games like this one, she does have an innate knack for them.

However, when the group is in the mood for a tight manufacturing/economic game (and we do so love them) and the suggestions for games like Chicago Express, Steam, Wealth of Nations or Brass come out, she will usually pick Automobile over the others. So while not her favorite genre, this is probably one of the ones she minds the least in it. Though Power Grid will usually be chosen by her before this one if it is included in the mix.


The Pros:

*A very tight, tense game play.
*You really feel that every decision you make is so important.
*Very function components and board.
*A surprising depth of strategies despite the few actions.
*Plays nearly as tense and scales nearly as well with 3 players as it does with 4 or 5.
*It is refreshing to end the game with money making the winner, not victory points.
*It's a game about a mode of transportation that isn't trains.


The Cons:

*While functional, the ugly board feels like it is a play tester's design.
*Can create AP in players who are usually quick and decisive.
*The Demand Tiles process is a little pointless and does not give a good enough look into the final demand to make it feel anything but random.
*Can be too mathy for some who don't like the economic model.


Overall:

Automobile is tight, tense economic and manufacturing game that has some innovative ways of modeling the appeal of newer model cars while at the same time showing the inefficiency of older factories. While there are few actions that a player can take in a turn, each one is vital and important. Out of the games that fit into this genre, Automobile is my favorite of them. It is also my favorite of Mr. Wallace's games. Although it really shines with more players, I still have no hesitation in trying to get it to the table with only three-players. And even though there are limited "unscripted" actions that you can take in each game, I have found each game I've played to be vastly different and see the game with a vast amount of replayability in it.


9/10

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review: Monsterpocalypse

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, when I was younger, I went through a phase where I was really into Godzilla movies and played with my Shogun Warriors. And now, I am a huge fan of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Lords of Cthul Faction was one of my deciding factors in finally purchasing this game. However, I'm also not the type who collects toys or figures and there are no little models standing next to my computer monitor.


The Overview:


It starts with a starter set which contains a few units, a monster, dice, a health tracker, a map and the childhood fantasies of a twelve year old boy watching Godzilla movies. 



This is the break-down of a battle map.




An idea of how beautiful these figures are, as well as the relative sizes of the Monsters and Units. 



Monsterpocalypse is a collectible miniatures battle game based on the giant monster "Godzilla-style" genre. Factions are based off of popular genres of giant-monster city-being-attacked stories from film, cartoon, comic and books. They range from prehistoric creatures running rampant, giant robot defenders and their teams, Martian invaders akin to those from "War of the Worlds", to demonic armies with ancient gods leading them. Each new set of figures introduces new factions as well and at this writing, there are 12 different factions available.

The game is for 2 players, but there are rules out to try to play a clunky game with 3 or 4, but the game is meant for, and played best with two. Each player creates an army that they will battle with consisting of one giant monster and up to 15 smaller units to support their monster. The units do not have to be from the same faction, but there is usually a synergy among same-faction forces that makes them more powerful. Once the armies are chosen, players create the battle area by choosing a map and taking turns placing buildings on the available spaces. Buildings can be taken over by units, usually offering advantages and powers to that player's team. They can also be destroyed and used as damaging areas to throw enemies into. Usually, the more buildings in a battlefield, the more options and more interesting the battle will be. This adds a collectible factor to the buildings as well as the actual monsters and army units.

Once the teams are assembled, each player takes turns activating and moving either their units or their monster on any one turn. Actions and activating costs "dice" and there are a finite number of dice in the game that transfer between unit and monster "dice pools". For example, if at the start of my turn, I have 8 dice in my monster's dice pool, I can use them for movements, actions and attacks. If I used 6 of the dice, then they move to my unit dice pool. On my next turn, I will only have 2 dice left in my monster dice pool, so I would probably want to move and activate my units since there are more dice there and to "use them up" to move them back into my monster pool.

Each unit and monster is unique in the abilities that they have. Monsters have two forms. Their starting "Alpha" form, and their "Ultra" form. When one of its forms is reduced to 0 health, the monster changes to its other form. This gives the monsters more "staying power" and also creates a bit more strategy, since the Alpha and Ultra forms of most monsters differ in some of their abilities. If both forms are still available, a monster may switch between forms on its turn (though it costs dice to move from a monster's Alpha form to its Ultra form).

Units do not begin on the map, but may be brought in on your unit turn by paying their cost in dice and placing them on the spawn point spaces on the map. While you can only have 15 units in your army, if one is destroyed, it comes back to your reserves and can be placed out on the map again by paying its cost once more. And while monsters have two forms with multiple health levels for each, units all only take one hit to destroy them.

Buildings are secured when three or more of your units are adjacent to it with no enemy units or monsters next to it. They give your monster extra Power Dice to roll in attacks and offer special abilities to the team controlling it, depending on the building. If attacked by a monster directly, the monster gains power dice for the rampant destruction according to the amount listed on the building. If it is destroyed, it is removed from the map and a hazard tile is placed in its location. Most building hazards are simply rubble which slows movement, but depending on the building, some may be flaming rubble, radiation hazards or chemical spills, which can cause extra damage depending on what it is.

Each unit or monster only gets one attack per turn and can only roll a maximum number of dice depending on the figure and attack type. Monsters are much more powerful than units and can roll large numbers of dice for their attacks. Units are weaker, but can group their attacks to try to hit something tough, or each unit can make a single attack as long as you have the dice to allot to their attacks. While unit attacks tend to be more straight-forward, monsters have a variety of attacks available to them, including throwing opponents, body slamming them, rampaging through any obstacles to ram the enemy and a multitude of others. Each monster remains in the battle until both its Alpha and its Ultra forms have been reduced to 0 health. The game ends when only player has defeated both the Alpha and Ultra form of its opponent's monsters.


The Theme:

Monsterpocalypse is all theme. Even though I was nowhere near as into Godzilla and the like as some of my friends when I was 12, I still recognize most of the factions and what they are meant to represent. Depending on what faction draws in a player at first, you can tell what they used to watch as a kid. My friend's first play was using my SunShadow Syndicate figures and I could tell that he watched "Ultraman" as a kid. Looking through the factions, they appeal to me because of the fond memories of some of the stories that they came from.

Though, honestly, the theme is also what kept me away from the game for this long. I kept looking at it and thinking that it's just playing with little toy monsters. It seemed childish to me. Sure, I looked at all of the pictures people posted and secretly wanted to play with them, but at the same time, something in me kept telling me that I was too old for it and shouldn't be playing with little toy monsters anymore.

Finally, I made a trade for enough figures to play a couple factions against one another just to see what it was like and to finally give in to that draw that I had whenever I saw the pictures posted on BGG. I opened up the figures and saw how beautifully sculpted and designed they were and I fell in love with them. But I was right. I felt like a 12 year old boy again playing with his toys. But you know what? I forgot what a great feeling that was. Playing the game made me realize that there was a lot more strategy and depth than playing with my Shogun Warriors in my friend's basement, but I still had that feeling and excitement that I had when I used to play with them.

Part of my excuse for getting into the game, was my daughter. Although there was no rational reason for it, I did initially have some embarrassment about getting into the game. My three year old daughter loves monsters, so I thought it would be something that she would enjoy the figures as well and would like "helping Daddy" play and win, like she does with so many other games. This way, I could justify my getting into an embarrassing game by saying that I did it because I thought my daughter would also like it. Well, my daughter likes the figures. But she likes to set them all up in a row and pretend that they are watching a movie. She's also had a tea-party with Ulgoth, Armodax and Krakenoctus and their Ultra forms, then laid them down to nap. So I lost my opportunity to say that I got the game for my daughter, but have come to accept that it isn't embarrassing. Yeah, they look like the little toys I had when I was 12, but who cares? Am I really more "grown-up" when I am pretending to by a Cylon in BSG? The game is fun. Who cares any more than that?


Learning the Game:

The basics of the game are very easy to pick up on and learn. Turns are set up very well with an easy to follow structure and order to them. Using the dice and transferring them between pools is very intuitive and an interesting mechanic. As long as you have a cheat sheet for the types of power attacks a monster can make (the maneuvers available to all monsters, such as head-butting, throwing, body slamming, stomping, etc), you should have no problems with the basics of combat.

However, each unit and monster has a number of special abilities, powers or traits. Every building you secure during your turn offers additional powers or abilities. Some units or monsters transfer their powers onto others on their team. And all of this is determined by non-intuitive icons on the base of each figure. Expect that you will forget abilities and miss things that would help your team out immensely until you've played enough that you are very familiar with your armies or the abilities as a whole. There is a lot and it can be overwhelming. It does not make the game less fun in the beginning, but if you are inexperienced and playing against someone who is very familiar with their army and its abilities, then expect to get smashed royally. So many of the abilities act well with one another and with available buildings, that building your initial army to interact well together and support each other is a huge part of the game's strategy. Just don't expect to get this all down in your first few plays. Once you have it down, you realize the depth of the strategy in this game that comes from not just what you do on the battle map, but in the preparation of your monsters, unit and even setting up the map with the buildings you want where you want them.


The Components:

Beautiful. The figures are really well produced and have a great feel of what they are supposed to represent. The Ultra form of each monster is just a translucent colored form of the monster and look less than exciting, but have the same sculpting. You can tell that this was done for production and painting purposes and it makes sense on that level, but when my giant King Kondo ape gets mad and switches to his ultra form, it is a little disappointing to see the beautiful sculpture replaced with a plain white ape of the same sculpt and missing out on all of that glorious detail of the Alpha's painting. This is also saying nothing to see the great Lords of Cthul, demonic representations of the unspeakable Elder Gods of the Cthulhu Mythos, turn into to translucent pink sculptures of their demonic forms. Then again, I suppose that is an unspeakable horror, just a different one than I think most of Cthulhu Mythos were referring to. Still, the painting and sculpt formats makes certain factions, like the Martian Menace and UberCorps look great when they are partially painted and let the translucent base show through in some areas for effect.



The Lords of Cthul really do not wear pink well. The Ultra forms are the translucent unpainted forms of the monster figures. 



King Kondo is much more glorious when he is not in his translucent white Ultra form. 



Even the units of the factions are well rendered, with the elite units having a different paint scheme than the regular units. The maps are functional, but are folded poster-like, so I would recommend laying down Plexiglas over them. The buildings, while functional and not bad, seem to lack a lot of the detail of the monsters and units. But really, the buildings are just there to be smashed anyhow, so it's not that huge of a deal.

There is also the collectible nature of the game. Figures have different rarity and there are promotional units and figures that you can obtain. Many of the monsters have promotional "Mega forms" that you can use instead of the Ultra forms. If you miss the give-away for them, you can find them on eBay and other places for high amounts. However, they are collectible and rare, but not necessarily better than the Ultra forms; they just have different abilities. So you do not necessarily have to worry about someone with tons of cash creating the best uber-army. Where the money and rarity comes into play is with the units. A good group of units gives an army a HUGE advantage. Some of the units are rare and can be costly in trade or purchase as individual figure sales. The distribution of the units and figures in the booster packs is rather costly to get a full army. If you are interested in getting into the game and building a good faction army, I would suggest trading or purchasing. Some sites sell starter faction sets, which is a great introduction into the game. This makes the game as collectible as you want it to be, but if you dive in head-first, it is costly.

I would suggest going to www.teamcovenant.com for their starter faction packs for a new player. From there, look around and expand out your armies. And don't forget buildings. Even rather generic buildings are important in the game, so I would consider buying a few extra buildings as well. I believe that they have building packs too to get you started. More buildings make for better battles.


Playing the Game:

While the game flow is elementary and intuitive, many players will either forget a lot of their abilities or slow down the pacing of the game a lot by constantly checking icons and looking them up. I highly suggest downloading the player aids and especially making sure that you have the small cards that list each unit and then their abilities, writing them out. Since I printed them out for each unit and keep them with the units, the players lay out their cards for their units and always have them in front of them during play. This speeds up game play considerable. Unless you do this or are very familiar with your army's abilities and know them all offhand, game play will slow down a lot while icons are constantly looked up.

So there is a lot to take in, but once you get around that, the game play is fast, fun and entertaining. Most games are over quickly, but sometimes you can end up with a combination like UberCorps and Lords of Cthul monsters and units that can heal or repair and it can extend the battles considerably. But this is the minority and most games seems to be in the one hour range.


Scalability:

The game is made for two and plays best with two. There are rules for three or four players, but they are clunky and don't really work that well. I would love a three player free-for-all, but it would require a whole new set of maps. As it is, the game is meant for two and plays best for two.


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. Unfortunately, she does not like it. She is one of the people I was embarrassed to profess my interest in this game to. I knew should would not like it. She's not a fan of the genre and doesn't have that experience with it from her childhood. She'll play it, but the icons and variety of power are overwhelming for her disinterest in the genre and it does not work.

She played a couple games with me, but just tolerated it for my benefit. However, when I introduced the game to a male friend of mine who was my age, I still harbored that embarrassment until I mentioned a few of the monsters and abilities to him and mentioned the "morphers" that come in one of the expansions, describing how they are small units who form together to create a large monster figure for its Ultra form, like Voltron. He had a natural reaction of blurting out, "Wow. That's so cool!" It was at that point I realized that my embarrassment was silly and I shouldn't feel weird about it anymore. My wife still may play on occasion with me, but it would only be for me and not for her getting anything from the game. It really is something that draws on those who know and enjoyed the genre. If you are not a fan of the old monsters attacking a city genre, avoid this game.


The Pros:

*Beautiful miniatures.
*Surprising depth of strategy.
*Diverse play of each of the factions.
*Good, fun battle game that is complex, but not overwhelming and does not take too much time.
*Simple, but deep army building in finding what figures work best with one another.
*It is fun to look over the ruined city at the end of a battle and bask in the destruction you've wrought.
*It strikes that part of you that reminds you why being a 12 year old boy watching Godzilla was so great, while at the same time, simulating the 30-something mind of yours into creating a great strategic battle.
*Made me realize that if something is fun, why does it matter if it looks like little toy monsters?
*Made me remember exactly how much fun little monsters really are.


The Cons:

*Only two players.
*Collectible. And it is a costly collectible, especially if you do not have others to play with and need multiple faction armies to get games going.
*You may have to face the embarrassment of your father-in-law seeing you looking at one of the figures and asking you, "What is that? One of your daughter's toys?"
*Ability symbols are not intuitive and need a strong familiarity or a lot of pauses to look them up.


Overall:

Monsterpocalypse is a fun, furious miniatures battle game. The minis are absolutely beautiful and I've spent more time than I'd like to admit just looking at them and admiring them. While I thought it seemed embarrassing at first, it took that first jump in for me to realize that it didn't matter. The game is fun. It appeals to the child in me, but it is not childish. The rules are innovative and creative and balance out game play so that you cannot focus wholly on one aspect of your army. It is a costly endeavor, but there are options to get in with a leg up instead of purchasing blindly (which I do NOT suggest). The 12 year old boy in you really wants you to play this game. If your budget can afford it, I say you indulge him wholly.


8/10

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Review: The Isle of Doctor Necreaux

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 a fan of the "reality-based" spy based movies, though I do still have a soft-spot in my heart for any henchman who collapses from one Judo chop to the shoulder and any arch-villain who can stand the heat and humidity to have a base inside an active volcano.


The Overview:


A small box, though it does not make Dr. Necreaux any less deadly. 



Box contents: Cards, dice and a few cardboard markers.



The Isle of Doctor Necreaux is a cooperative game in which you and the other players are part of an elite search-and-rescue team saddled with the responsibility to rescue a group of kidnapped scientists and escape with them before the volcanic isle where they are held is destroyed. However, they were kidnapped by the nefarious Dr. Necreaux, who has forced them to create a doomsday device and he has them hidden deep in the belly of his lair, which is guarded by traps, security devices and horrible monstrous creations. Oh, and of course, there is a countdown until the isle is destroyed, which will destroy the doomsday device, but will destroy your team and the scientists if you have not found them and escaped before the timer goes off.

The game is for 1-5 players and it is a fully cooperative game and is playable in 30-45 minutes. Each player takes the role of a team member whose ability and role is determined by a card draw of three Character Cards. These traits include things such as being an Empath, being Tough as Nails, being a Gadgeteer and being a Ninja. Since your character's traits are a sum of three cards, you may find yourself being something as a Lucky Robust Pyrokineticist. Each of the abilities has different effects and makes each player's role unique.

Once the team is assembled they need to enter Dr. Necreaux's lair. The lair is created by taking the Adventure Cards and splitting them into thirds. The Scientists Card is shuffled into the middle third of the cards and the Escape Shuttle is shuffled into the bottom third of the cards, then they are placed on top of one another to create a single deck. Depending on the number of players, the countdown clock is set to a specific number of turns. From here, the actual gameplay is incredibly easy and intuitive.

As a team, the group decides if they will rest or move on their turn. Resting heals some of the character's wounds and recharges some of their abilities. However, then the turn ends and the countdown moves down on click. If the group decides to move through the lair, they determine their teams speed (the number of cards they will resolve before stopping and moving the countdown clock down one step). If they move at a speed of 5, they will draw and resolve 5 Adventure Cards in order.

Adventure Cards can be traps, events, rooms, monsters or items. Item cards are put to the side as "Pending Items" and can be gained after later Monster encounters. All other cards are resolved as they are listed on the card. Monsters must be defeated with combat and have a Combat Value listed on them. Monsters need a number of hits equal to the number of players to kill. If a player's roll is higher than the Combat Value (modified by their character card abilities) they hit. If it is less than that number, the team takes damage. If it equals that number, it is a push. After every team member has rolled, the group determines how to distribute their damage, if any. The person who rolled poorly does not have to take it, but anyone else in the team can. If you take one damage, you flip over one of your character cards and can no longer use its power. They can be flipped back over by healing or resting. If you have character cards already flipped over in front of you and take damage, you can discard one of your character cards to resolve the damage. However, that means you won't get it back by healing or any other means. Your other option is to retreat from Monsters, but then everyone takes one damage. Traps and Events are usually direct die rolls against a skill check modified by the abilities or the speed of the players.

Finally, after the players have moved through all of their cards based on their speed, the countdown moves down one step and the players start a new turn deciding if they need to rest or move. There is always a pressure to keep moving and move quick though, which means potentially taking a lot of damage along the way before having the option to heal. There are 77 Adventure Cards in the deck (including the Scientists and the Escape Shuttle). A three-player team only has 10 turns to rescue the scientists and escape. This means, they would need to average 7.7 cards drawn each turn to ensure that they find both the scientists and shuttle. And that average is only accurate if they do not take one or more turns to heal. So there is pressure to rush through and risk damage to make it, but some traps are harder to avoid if you have a high speed, but others are difficult if you go too slow.


The Theme:

The Isle of Doctor Necreaux is built from top to bottom with theme. The Character Cards are diverse and unique and give a great "super team" feel to them. Some of the Character Cards are a little more low-end super hero in ability, but most of them seem to fit a good, pulp feel for ability and personality. The Adventure Cards are very fitting as well for an evil mastermind who has a lair on a volcanic isle that houses his doomsday device. I would have personally preferred more generic henchmen types to encounter, but then again, pulp heroes easily dispatch them, where would the challenge be? But they do have a Cyber-Shark Pit with laser beam mounts on them, so all is forgiven.

The theme really just comes from Character Cards with abilities on them and Adventure Cards with encounters on it. A bad group of players can just look at them and turn it into stats, but really, why would you be playing with these people? It's much more fun to play with someone who has the Mentalist ability and presses his fingers to his temples and goes "woo-ooh, woo-ooh, woo-ooh" before using the ability and flipping over the top three Adventure Cards to see what they are and telling the rest of the group before deciding what to do at the beginning of a turn. The game shines when you have a player puff out his chest and outstretch an arm to hold back another character as they say, "Stand back, I'll take that damage... I'm Robust."


Learning the Game:

The rules are incredibly easy to grasp and very intuitive. The Reference Sheet on the back page of the rules lists everything you need to know once you've given the rules a read through. The only tricky part of the rules that was easy to miss was in combat. Rolling below the Combat Value of a Monster damages your team and rolling over the value means you damage the monster. However, tying the Combat Value is a push. The monster does not take a damage and neither does your team.

A couple of the cards are a little confusing on when it comes to charging and when to charge them (such as if a card says it is charged at the beginning of a combat, can you also charge it when you rest). However, they are minor and all of them really are just easy and intuitive to figure out. Marking the teams Speed was also a little tricky at first because all you have is a little counter that says "Speed" on it, but after a couple of plays, our groups figured an intuitive way of marking our teams speed on any turn. But these are such minor things in an easy to learn, very intuitive game.


The Components:

The game is essentially cards with only a few cardboard tokens to track charges and the Countdown Clock. The cards are of a good stock and seem to hold up well. Any thicker and they would be difficult to shuffle.





There is a pulp style to the artwork for the cards. 


The artwork on the cards is excellent. Very thematic and very fitting for the theme. It reminds me of the old school Flash Gordon pulp comics, even down to the look of the Escape Shuttle. It is always great when the artwork and finish of a game like this note only matches the feel and style of the game, but shows that they cared about it.


Playing the Game:

Gameplay is intuitive and easy to learn and pick up on. This is a cooperative game, however, and one that relies on consensus more than a lot of cooperative games. At the beginning of the turn, the team as a whole decides if they want to rest or move. If they move, then the team as a whole decides what their Speed is and how many cards they therefore draw. If the team takes damage, the group decides who takes it. With the wrong person or people in a group, these can each be 20 minute arguments. Fortunately, our group doesn't have those players in it, but I know they are out there and I can see it ruining the experience. Personally, I don't know why people play with players like that in any game, but if you have one, be warned about this game. It is full teamwork and consensus.

Most of the fun for me comes from the Character Cards and taking on the role placed in front of me. When I have the Leader card, I love to put on a swarmy smile and tell the other players on my team who rolled poorly, not to worry and just follow my example and they can add one to their roll.

There are only 75 different Adventure Cards (excluding the Scientists and Escape Shuttle), so with multiple plays, you start to have an idea of what is in the deck. It doesn't matter too much, though, since the combination of Character Cards makes for each outing to have such variety, that you rarely have teams that are similar. But the limited Adventure Cards may put off some people who are looking for dozens of replays in a short amount of time.



Even Luke and Laura from "General Hospital" have battled an arch villain bent on controlling the world with his doomsday device from his hidden island lair. Yeah. Seriously.


This is also a light, fun game and is easy to introduce to non-gamers. The cooperative nature of it makes it less intimidating for someone afraid that they will do the wrong thing and you are not hurting anyone by helping them with their decisions. And the theme is of a genre that most everyone knows. Anyone whose seen an old James Bond movie knows the genre. Anyone who has seen Austin Powers knows the genre. Anyone who has read a comic book knows the genre. Anyone who has ever seen anything that had a villain holding the world ransom from his remote island base knows this genre... That includes people who watched "General Hospital" in the 80's and saw Luke and Laura stop the evil Mikkos Cassadine who tried to throw the world into a new ice age with his doomsday device unless all of the nations submitted to his rule from his island lair. Yeah. This genre is THAT accessible. And, uh, sadly, I knew about that General Hospital storyline...


Scalability:

The game scales well with combat dependent upon the number of players. If there are two members in a team, the monsters need two hits to kill. If there are five members, monsters take five hits. There are more abilities (and potential damage to be absorbed) by more members in a team, but the timer starts with less time for each member in the team. The only issue I have with scalability is when it comes to solo play. Monsters scale fine, though you could end up with a bad combat draw of Character Cards and have to retreat more than most teams would. However, not all of the traps scale well. Their damage remains constant. Taking five points of damage, for example, hurts any team, but the damage can be broken up between players. However, in a solo run, a player would flip all of his cards and then discard two of them , leaving him with only one flipped card left. Sure, there are Character Cards designed to absorb damage, but chances of having one in the team are much less since there is only one player. Still the jump from playability from one player to two player is huge. With two players it is a fun, feasible game. I would simply suggest that this game should be played with 2-5 players instead of 1-5.


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. Despite its accessibility, my wife is not a huge fan of this genre. So, yes, it was actually me who knew about Luke and Laura fighting an arch villain on his remote island base, not her. Still, she enjoys cooperative games and will play this with me. She's a little less daring and often resists the faster movements in the lair, but she will usually go along with our decision if for no other reason than to say "I told you so".

Still, she does not hate this game, but is not enthused about it. I think it is because the genre doesn't do much for her. But everyone else that I have shown the game to who does enjoy a bit of the theme has really liked it. So, going by her, I would say that the genre and theme matter a lot in the enjoyment of this game. She loves cooperative games, but is only luke warm on this one. So keep that in mind when making your choice.


The Pros:

*Great theme and artwork that has a perfect pulp feel to a quick-placed game.
*Cooperative gameplay requires teams to make decisions as a whole and work together.
*Fun and light and is an excellent filler game.
*Good introduction game that is accessible and easy for non-gamers.
*Very intuitive play with a very well outlined Reference Sheet.
*Character Cards are diverse and unique, making each team member useful in specific roles and situations.
*Good scalability from 2-5 players.
*There are sharks with laser beams.


The Cons:

*Does not scale well as a solo game.
*Cooperative play requires team work and alpha players can run the game for everyone or two alphas can make every decision a drawn out argument.
*May be too light for some players.
*The Adventure Cards may seem a bit repetitive and predictable after a bunch of plays.
*You may end up revealing the dirty little secret that you used to watch "General Hospital" in the 80's.


Overall:

The Isle of Doctor Necreaux is a quick-paced, light adventure game that is an excellent filler game or a game to play while waiting for other players to show up. If you are a fan of the pulp genre and have ever seen anything where a villain has had a secret base on a volcanic isle, you know this genre. The game is easy and accessible for most gamers and non-gamers alike. While not deep, it is fun and fast and has a frantic pace and feel. It may suffer from too many repeated plays over a short time, but the character abilities will at least give a lot of diversity to the different ways of HOW the team deals with Adventure Cards that become more familiar. If you are a fan of pulp adventures or old-school spy movies and want a light, fun filler for your group, grab this one immediately. You may not be blown away by the depth of it, but you will have a lot of fun if you get into the pulp spirit of the game.


7/10