Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review: Labyrinth

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, Twilight Struggle is one of my all-time favorite board games, though it sadly does not get as much play as I would like. Also, at the time of the 9/11 attacks, I lived in the Philadelphia area, so the proximity of the attacks was significant in the way it was portrayed on our media, though fortunately, I have not had any direct losses due to the attacks. Also, I am an anti-war, Green Party, hard-core liberal quasi-wonk, though my family is rather conservative and not just by using me as a barometer.


The Overview:


The box cover. Subdued artwork that really says a lot.



Contents of the box. 



Labyrinth: The War on Terror is a modern strategy wargame that also covers a vast political game as well. The game is playable as either a two-player game or solitaire. In the two-player game, one player controls the United States while the other controls less defined Islamist Jihadists in a very asymmetrical conflict. In the solitaire game, the player controls the United States against the Jihadists, which are controlled by an AI flowchart.

The game is for 1-2 players. The two player game takes about 90 minutes to play through the deck one time once players are familiar with the decks. However, the game's length can be modified to play through the deck one, two or three times. Each subsequent play through the deck adds about 60 minutes to the play time. All of this can be cut short by one side reaching one of their "auto-win" conditions. I find that the solitaire game takes a little longer, but that is shortening up as the flowchart becomes more and more familiar to me.

The game set-up allows players to choose one of four different starting set-ups, each representing a different era in the US's war on terror. What will probably be the most common set-up is "Let's Roll", which is set post-9/11 with the world's views less set as they watch to see what the US's response to the attacks will be. However, other set-ups include a post-Operation Enduring Freedom scenario and a post-Operation Iraqi Freedom scenario, in which the world's views on terrorism are a bit more firmly set. There is also an alternate history set-up in which Al Gore won the 2000 election and the set-up is the same as the "Let's Roll" set-up, but with the US taking a different starting stance on Global Terrorism.

Usually I try to get into the rules with greater depth, but I'm going to be a little more general with the rules descriptions.

The map is set-up with both Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries being important in the game. Muslim countries can be set in one of three alignments from the US's perspective. They can be Allied, Neutral or Adversaries. The US can only deploy Troops into Allied countries, so if they wish to attack or counter Jihadist Cells in that location, they need to be allied with them first. Muslim countries also have their Governance set, again from the US perspective, they can be Good, Fair or Poor. These settings, more or less, describe the stability of the country's governing and their ability to combat terrorism on their own. So, even if a country is Adversarial to the US, it is still in their interest for them to have a Good level of Governance, since it deters terrorism. Non-Muslim countries are tested throughout the game for their stance on terrorism: it can be either Soft or Hard. If the majority of the world's views on terrorism oppose that of the United States, then the US incurs a penalty whenever they try to influence other governments.

Play is card-driven, and players can either use their hand of cards to either enact the event on it or use the cards "Ops" value to take actions. Some cards have Events that benefit the US, some the Jihadists and others that are neutral and could be either beneficial or baneful to either. If you play a card for the Ops and the card has an Event for the opposing side, it is triggered and is resolved anyhow. Each card has an Ops Value of 1-3, and by using that card the player can take an action.

Now, here is one of the genius points of the game for creating balanced asymmetry; the Governance level of each Muslim country is assigned a value. Good is a value of 1, Fair is a value of 2 and Poor is a value of 3. For the US player to take an action in a country, they need to play a card of a value worth at least that of the Governance level; so to take an action in a Good Governance country, the US must play a card worth at least 1 Op, but to play one in a Poor Governance country, they must play one worth 3 Ops. This makes it easier for the US to operate in countries with a Good Governance. For the Jihadist player to take an action in a country, they may spend any value Ops card for their action. That lets them take a number of actions equal to their value. For example, a 1 Op card lets them try to recruit one Cell and a 3 Op card lets them try to recruit up to 3 Cells. However, the actions of the Jihadist are not guaranteed. For every action they take in a country, they need to roll a six-sided die. If the number rolled is equal to or less than the Governance level of the target country, the action is successful. If it is over the Governance level, it is failed and the Ops point is still spent. This means that it is harder for the Jihadist to succeed in countries with a Good level (needing to roll a 1 on the die), but a bit easier to operate in countries with a Governance of Poor (needing a 3 or less).

There is also another Governance level, which is Islamist Rule. Countries under Islamist Rule always are considered Adversaries to the US. Ops spent by the Jihadist in a country under Islamist Rule always succeed without having to roll the die. The US cannot take any actions in countries under Islamist Rule other than a Regime Change, which is essentially sending in a large number of US Troops to put in a US sympathetic government. However, this can be a risky tactic for the US, since it tends to bog down troops and often the conflict there until the US can get a strong government in place, bogs down US resources and actions.

There are three ways that the US can get an instant win during the course of a game, which are roughly an economic victory, a political victory or a military victory. Each Muslim country has a Resource value of 1-3, which loosely represents the values of the country, from culture to oil reserves. For the "economic win", the US gets an instant win if there are 12 or more Resources in Muslim countries that have a Good Governance level. For the "political win", the US gets an instant win if at least 15 Muslim countries are either Fair or Good Governance; this represents that the region has stabilized enough to effectively impair the Jihadists operations. The "military victory" allows for an instant win if at any point in the game, there are 0 Jihadist Cells on the board.

The Jihadists also have 3 victory conditions. Their "economic win" requires them to have at least 6 Resources in countries under Islamist Rule, and at least 2 of those countries must be adjacent. The "political win" for the Jihadist occurs if the US Prestige is at 1 and at least 15 Muslim countries are either of Poor Governance or under Islamist Rule, essentially showing that the region is so destabilized while the view of the US is so poor worldwide, that the US become ineffectual in the region. Instead of a direct military victory for the Jihadists, they get an instant win if they are able to resolve a WMD Terror Plot inside of the US.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: The game has a number of similarities to Twilight Struggle. The most obvious is the Op Cards with each side's events on them, and playing a card with the opponent's event on it triggers the event. However, in Labyrinth, the card play is not directly alternating. Instead of taking turns playing cards, the Jihadist will play 2 cards, then the US will play 2 cards and the alternating works in this fashion. This allows for a few nice card combinations to take place. Plus, it allows you to play a card with your opponent's event on it, then immediately play another card to try to "damage control" the event before your opponent gets to go. This means that drawing a hand full of your opponents cards is still bad, but not necessarily as devastating as it can sometimes be in TS. Personally, I think that this strengthens the card-driven mechanic of the game greatly.

The region map created with point-to-point connections also holds a strong TS feel to it. However, unlike in TS, you are not using the map to illustrate a domino theory of ideas, but using the map to show where US Troops and Jihadist Cells physically are. Jihadists can move a cell to an adjacent country without having to roll to see if they succeed, but they can also try to move their cells to any country with their action (but need to roll against the country's Governance to see if they succeed). This actually abstracts the map much less than in Twilight Struggle, whose map has always been a very physical geographic representation for cultural influence. For example, I would have thought that if the UK fell under heavy Soviet influence, it would spread out differently than just to Canada, Norway, France and Benelux. However, the map in Labyrinth seems to work better in the sense that it is used to track physical troop location instead of just cultural influence and bias.


The Theme:

There is always a potential problem when real-world events are turned into games. Besides offending some (and there are plenty of boardgamers who love to get offended), the historical accuracy is always something up for debate, especially because any game will infuse a level of "what if", because otherwise, there is no game: it would be an exact repeat of history.

That being said, 9/11 is still fresh. Ground Zero is both a tourist destination and a mourning location. Firehouses in NYC still have shrines to members lost. Terror alerts and our government's ability to protect us from jihadists are still a part of our daily politics, while cultural center locations and burning of Qurans is still in our headlines for weeks on end. This is sensitive subject. And perhaps it takes a level of separation from the events even consider playing a "game" about it, let alone having "fun" while playing it, especially if you are playing the side of the Jihadists, trying to obtain WMDs to deploy as a terror plot in the United States. However, I have to say, that I am impressed and glad that there are people out there willing to try to make those games and also that there are people out there willing to play them.

What also impresses me about the game design is the lack of bias. I'm not saying that the United States and the Jihadists are both viewed through an equal moral lens in this game. They aren't. However, the lack of bias is in the politics of the US game. One can take a neo-con response to the Jihadists in the game and find the strengths and weaknesses of the strategy. One can also take a softer "left-wing" response to the Jihadists in the game and find a number of strengths and weaknesses in it.

The game isn't saying military is right and diplomacy is wrong. Nor is it saying that diplomacy is right and military is wrong. Instead, the game captures a great sense of the strengths and failings of both approaches.

The game also tells a great narrative, but I think that the narrative is better felt by the US player. The Jihadist tends to act on opportunity, which is, I suppose, a fair enough narrative there. But as the world turns soft on terrorism, a US with the hard stance may find diplomacy failing and their world image deteriorating. Will the US try to salvage their face in the world? Or will they forego the political game and press on, despite being despised by the world? The events play out very well to create this narrative, but mostly the US Prestige and the world's view on terror do the best job in creating this story.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: Part of this may be my age. The space race was won before I was born. I was just getting into politics as the narrative of Twilight Struggle is coming to an end. So the events, while known from history and reading, are not as personal to me. When I play TS, it feels less like a narrative that I am setting up with the game and more like a deep strategy game. Perhaps part of this is because of the domino theory influence that is being represented instead of physical troops and units, but at the same time, I think that some events in TS feel more like card play than narrative building plays. A lot of this may be because I did not live through the events.

Because of this, I feel the narrative of Labyrinth more. It is easier for me to imagine the events going on and their political ramifications on the world view and the US's reaction to it. That being said, however, I think that Twilight Struggle, even with less of a narrative, is more consistent with it. I feel the world theatre equaling when playing the US or the USSR. In Labyrinth, I feel the narrative much more as the US player than the Jihadist player. This may simply be because of my biases from living in the US though.



Learning the Game:

The game is written in typical wargame fashion of Rule 4.6.3.2 referring you to Rule 6.2.5. There is nothing wrong with that, but for some people, it is harder to comprehend rules written this way. However, the rules are actually extremely well-covered. There are a lot of rules questions on BGG, but if you look at them, most of the answers are just referring people to look up Rule X.Y.Z for the answer. So everything is there, but it seems like people have problems digesting all of it.

I can understand that, especially in the solitaire game. The flowchart is daunting and I'm still not always 100% that I've followed every action correctly. However, that is also because the flowchart AI in the solitaire game is surprisingly complex and effective, which makes for better solitaire play once a player understands it.

The only rules issues that I have really come from the placement of some of them. Perhaps I am not enough of a wargamer, but even with the laid out rules, I have trouble finding some stuff when needed. What to do at the end of the Turn, for example, seems unintuitively placed before the descriptions of what you actually do on your turn.

But these are minor quibbles. As I noted, everything is in there. I just don't like how some of it is laid out and placed.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: Even though I played Twilight Struggle much earlier in my gaming career and had much less war game experience at the time, I found that to be the easier game to learn. At its core, Labyrinth is actually a simple game when it comes to mechanics, but the asymmetrical set up of the sides makes it a little more difficult to learn. In TS, I could play the US and immediately be ready to play the USSR in my next game. However, learning to playing the US does not really prepare you to play the Jihadists in Labyrinth. This isn't a big knock against it, however, since the asymmetry is fascinating and really makes the game play interesting. But it simply doubles what you need to comprehend to get the game.


The Components:


The map board for the game.



Counter sheet (front side) for the game. 




Close up of some of the components, including the US Troops (wooden cubes) and Jihadist Cells (black cylinders; Crescent side up is active, Crescent down is Sleeper).




Flow chart for the Jihadist in solo-play.




Game end board. 



The components of the game are excellent, especially for a GMT game. That isn't to say that GMT games usually have terrible components, but often they are not of this quality. The cards are also of a great stock and are thick and should not wear easily. Honestly, I have no complaints with the components at all. There is even a second book that gives a detailed walk-through for both the two-player game and the solitaire game, which is excellent and incredibly useful for learning the game.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: The quality of the components of the game are on par with the Deluxe edition of Twilight Struggle rather than the earlier printings.

Playing the Game:

Despite what are a few little hidden rules in the rules, once the game is understood and clicks, there is no longer a need to grab the rulebook in most games. For me, this happened in my second two-player game. The solitaire game still takes a bit more work, simply because of the flow chart, but even for that I am grabbing it less and less, knowing when to do certain actions.

I think playing the solitaire game first, however, was a problem for me. It actually made me feel a little less enthusiastic for the two-player game. The single player game seems to be mostly putting out metaphoric fires started by the Jihadist AI. It didn't feel like I had a berth of options to choose from, just one or two obvious ones.

However, that becomes much less the case in the two-player game. Options seem to free up and different strategies emerge. When teaching the game, I've always had the new player take the role of the US, since it seems to be the more straight-forward as far as apparent strategies for a new player. Plus, the Jihadist plays two cards first, so a new US player can afford to be more reactionary at first as they learn the game.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: Despite the fact that there are three different victory conditions for each side, I still feel that Twilight Struggle seems to lay out a wider variety of options from turn to turn. I still feel so much more free to attack different strategies in TS. Labyrinth still has a lot of options, but often I just feel a little more tight than in TS. This may be because I've played so much TS that I know the game better at this point. However, I will say that Labyrinth tends to have less "see-saw" effect than TS. In TS, I may lay 2 Influence in Italy, only to then have my opponent follow up and lay 2 Influence in Italy, and this can go on all game. In Labyrinth, it seems easier to just move onto a different country where things are easier to succeed in or cost less Ops to stage actions in.

Scalability:

The game is playable either as a two-player game or through a solitaire game with the Jihadists being controlled through a flowchart AI. There really isn't much to say about scalability. I prefer the two-player game, but I will play the solitaire game from time to time. The AI is challenging enough, and even though the events it trigger may not always be the best play from a strategic point, it still creates a viable and realistic narrative.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: Twilight Struggle only supports two-players. However, there is much less discomfort in playing either the US or USSR in Twilight Struggle, while the 2-player in Labyrinth may cause some uncomfortability in playing Jihadists for some players.


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. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, she doesn't care for the game. It's completely not her style. She had indulged me a two-player learning game and then our next game I called early simply because I knew that she was not enjoying herself and was frustrated with the play. And, as I learned from playing Labyrinth, sometimes it is the best position to change your posture and withdraw early in hopes of salvaging diplomacy options for later in the evening.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: My wife had a very tepid feeling towards Twilight Struggle. She would play it with me on occasion to humor me when I had gone too long in between plays against my standard TS-partner. However, after playing Labyrinth, she told me that she would much rather play Twilight Struggle. So, if nothing else, the game has bolstered her opinion of TS.


The Pros:

*The game creates a realistic and interesting narrative through the eyes of the US and their reactions to the world's posture.
*Asymmetrical game play is both balanced and creates for a very interesting and unique feel in play.
*The Governance level mechanic and how it effects play for both the US and Jihadists is really genius in creating a narrative for either side to operate in.
*Multiple victory paths that allow plays break from the "see-saw" Influence contests that may occur in Twilight Struggle.
*Politically neutral (as far as liberal or conservative bias is concerned).
*A challenging topic that really deserves accolades for not being fearful in its approach to the topic.
*Excellent components.
*Allows for solitaire play, which is still challenging and interesting.
*Innovates some of the card-driven mechanics, such as playing 2 consecutive cards, which allows for players to soften the worst of their opponents events (thus weakening the problem of bad card draws).


The Cons:

*Rule layout is a little unintuitive to sort through in some places.
*A number of small game effects that can come into play that are very easily missed or forgotten in early plays.
*Solitaire play complicates game play, which is a shame since it is how most games will probably be played their first time through (though it is still worth learning).
*While the game is politically neutral, it tells a narrative from the US perspective. For some people, that may turn them off to the game as the premise of the game "justifies" the US reaction to 9/11 by only allowing certain actions in the game. For example, pulling out of the Middle East and cutting off funding to Israel is not a game option. I think that those purchasing the game, however, will be of the mindset that the available actions are fine, especially in a "game setting".
*The US perspective of the game makes the narrative favor story-telling from the US side. I don't feel the narrative nearly as strongly playing the Jihadists.
*Some people will not be comfortable playing as Jihadists, considering the real-life counterparts to the actions that are represented in the game (such as performing terror plots, especially if they control WMDs).
*Despite the strengths of the game and its approach on everything, some will simply feel too close to subject matter to be comfortable with the game.


Overall:

Labyrinth is not just a great game, but it is also an important game. It can easily be played simply as a strategy game, but considering how strong the narrative can be, it can also be used as a teaching game. The game does a great job of showing how sending in US Troops to enforce a "regime change" can bog down US resources and limit their actions in the rest of the world. It also does a great job of showing how remaining too soft risks a spread of radicalized influence throughout the Muslim world with little options to fully combat it. I'm glad to see a subject like this tackled by a game that takes it seriously. The mechanics are well thought out and really provide an excellent example of asymmetrical balance that is very challenging and never loses its narrative or feeling.

The obvious question is: Will Labyrinth be the game to take over Twilight Struggle's lofty mantle for strategy gamers? I don't know. It improves on a lot of TS's mechanics and set up and also tells a stronger narrative. However, the game doesn't have quite the flexibility that TS has. Labyrinth is not a flash in the pan, and it will definitely be a strong contender against TS and will probably win over a number of players who believe that the mechanics have been improved. But at the same time, it will probably suffer from a theme that some may feel is still "too soon" to be comfortable and those who will balk at having to play Jihadists.

My own view is that mechanically, this game is superior to Twilight Struggle. However, TS provides more flexibility in strategy. I think at the end of the day, after the newness of Labyrinth wears off, I'll still grab TS just slightly more than Labyrinth. However, if you add in solitaire plays of Labyrinth, they'll probably come up closer to even.


9/10

Friday, November 5, 2010

Review: Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game

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've been playing Sid Meier's Civilization games since the first one came out on the Amiga. And for the record, I've updated my computer since then.


The Overview:


The box cover. Images like this are also known as nerd porn for a number of gamers. 



Pictured is what is in the box. Things that are missing from the box? Decent insert. Good way to store and sort the pieces. 



Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game is a civilization/empire building game in which each person starts with a single city and a weak army and scout as they try to build and develop themselves as the best civilization the world has known by winning through one of four victory conditions. Each civilization has unique abilities that differentiates them from the others and tends to give an advantage towards one (or more) of the victory conditions. The game is based off of the Sid Meier's Civilization computer games, though portions of it are abstracted enough that it does not feel like one specific version of the game.

The game is for 2-4 players and plays in about 2.5 - 4 hours. A smaller group or experienced players will probably finish most games in two and a half to three hours. However, inexperienced players or players who are prone to AP will find that the extra hour playtime is easily added to the game. Play time is also affected by the number of players.

The game set up begins with each player choosing their starting civilization and chooses a color and takes all of the components and pieces matching that color as well as a deck of 36 tech cards. Set up continues then by building the modular board. The board is build with face-down tiles creating a "fog of war" type of effect and the board is built depending on the number of players:



Board set up for two-players. 



Board set up for three-players. It may look uneven, but each starting space is two tiles from each opponent. 




Board set up for four-players. 



Each player has a starting tile associated with their civilization and each player places their capital city on one of the four center squares in the tile. Each of the 8 surrounding squares dictates the resources that are available to that city and civilization. The players also place their starting units, an Army marker and a Scout, on one of the eight "Outskirt" tiles surrounding their city.

Players each also start with 3 Unit Cards that make up their "standing forces" and may represent the units that make up their Army. The figures on the board are the Armies, showing the position of where the civilization's forces are on the map at any time. However, the cards make up the units that are in said Armies. So, you could technically have an Army with no Units, but it would likely be crushed in combat. You could also have a bunch of Units, but no standing Armies. This would mean that you cannot move out onto the map, but could use your Units to defend your cities if they are attacked.

Combat is also based upon the Unit Cards. Each player shuffles their Units and draws 3 cards, plus more cards based on number of Army figures, if you are defending a city and other factors. There are 4 types of Unit Cards, Infantry, Mounted, Artillery and Air. The attacker plays first and lays down a card. The defender can then either play a card to engage that Unit, or start a new front. If they engage the Unit, both sides do damage to the other card based on the Strength of that Unit. If a Unit takes more damage than its strength, it is destroyed. Also, each of the ground Units has an advantage of one other type and is vulnerable to one type and that Unit resolves its attack first. For example, Infantry trumps Mounted Units. If so if a 2 Strength Mounted Unit is on the field and the other player plays a 2 Strength Infantry Unit to engage it, the Infantry's two damage is resolved first and the Mounted Unit is destroyed before it can damage the Infantry Unit.

After the set up is finished, game starts and is played out through a number of turns. Each Turn is comprised of five Phases and every player plays out the phase in player order before moving onto the next. The turns are:

1. START OF TURN: The first player position moves to the left and players have an opportunity to perform a couple of tasks if able and desired.
• Building a New City: A player can convert a Scout figure into a city. A city's outskirts cannot overlap another city's outskirts and a full 8 outskirt squares must be available around the area. The Scout figure goes back into the civilization's supply and can be built again later. The new city acts in almost every way as the capital city. Each civilization can only build one additional city, until they research the Irrigation tech, then they can build a second new city. So with a maximum of 2 new cities to be placed, they are important and limited resources that need to be planned out.
• Changing Government: If a civilization researched a tech that allows access to a new form of government the last turn, they can immediately convert to it and get it's abilities and bonuses. However, if they want to change to a government form that they have previously researched, but not over the last turn, they must first convert to Anarchy for one turn and then switch later. This prevents government swapping to maximize a benefit for only one turn.

2. TRADE: Each player first gains Trade equal to the number of trade icons on the outskirts of each of their cities. Trade is a resource that is used to research Techs at the end of the turn, but it also has other uses as well (such as it is needed to advance along the higher levels of Culture as well). After this, each player can negotiate and trade. This is an open-ended negotiation where non-binding promises can be made and just about any resource can be traded, bribed or blackmailed from any other player.

3. CITY MANAGEMENT: Each player in turn order then performs the City Management Phase. Each city in the player's possession can take ONE action. Different cities from one civilization can take different actions, but each must perform the action on their own, meaning that the cities cannot share resources on one another's outskirts. Cities actions basically come down to doing the following: build, culture or harvest.
• Produce a Figure, Unit, Building or Wonder: A city producing can add the production icons (hammers) on each of the spaces in its outskirts. It can then build ONE thing using these hammers. Extra hammers are not stored for later round and another city cannot send unused hammers to another city. Building a figure lets the player place a new Army or Scout figure on the city outskirts. Buildings can be built as long as the player has researched the tech that allows that building to be produced. Building are placed on one of the appropriate outskirt squares and covers up the resources on that tile, replacing them with the resources on the building. Wonders can also be built, but are generally expensive, requiring many hammers to build them. However, they are powerful and give bonuses throughout the game.
• Devote to the Arts: This lets the player gain Culture from the city. A city produces one Culture token, plus any other Culture icons in its outskirts. Culture can also be spent with this action to move further up the Culture Track. Each time a player moves up the Culture Track, they gain either a Culture Card or a Great Person (depending on the space you move onto). Culture Cards all are beneficial and can be played at different phases depending on the event effects listed. A Great Peron is drawn randomly and may be placed onto a city outskirt square like buildings, replacing the square's resources with its printed resources.
• Harvest Resources: Lets the player take ONE Resource Token from the supply (if it is available) and take it into their possession, provided that one of the squares in the city outskirts has that Resource printed on it. These Resources are very limited and are often spent to activate certain abilities on tech cards. However, cornering the market on a Resource that other players need can be very useful during negotiations as well. There is also another Resource, Coins, which are added to a player's Economy track.

4. MOVEMENT: Each player then can move all of their figures on the map. Each player moves all of their figures before the next player moves theirs. Figures begin with a movement of two, but can be increased with tech cards. If a figure is on a square that is adjacent to an unexplored tile, they can spend one of their movement points to flip the tile over. The flipped tile is placed with the marker arrow adjacent to the tile it was explored from, so flipping orientation does not matter. Figures cannot move diagonally and cannot cross water (until a tech that allows it is learned). If a revealed tile has a Hut or Village icon on any of its squares, a random token of the matching type is placed on the square face down. On the back of the Hut and Village token is a Resource. If an Army figure moves onto a Hut, they take the token and the Resource listed on it. If an Army figure moves onto a Village, they must first fight the Barbarians and a combat begins. If the player wins, they take the token and receive the Resource on the back. If an Army figure moves onto another player's Scout figure, it is immediately destroyed and returned the player's supply. If an Army figure moves into another square with another player's Army or City, a battle begins. The victor of the battle gets to claim spoils from the loser, and if the losing player was defending a city, that city is destroyed as well as every building, wonder or great person in its outskirts.

5. RESEARCH: Each player can now spend Trade points to gain a new tech card, which immediately takes place. In order to build a tech card, the player has to have enough Tech points to purchase the card as well as have a legal place to build it on their "tech pyramid". Basically, when you build your techs, the level 1 tech cards go on the bottom row. Level two stagger on top of them. So you need two level 1 techs in order to place a level 2 tech on it. If you wanted a level 3 tech, you would need at least two level 2 techs to have a place to build it onto, and having two level 2 techs requires that you have at least three level 1 techs to have them on top of. When you Research a tech, you must have at least the required amount of Trade Points. However, when you purchase a tech, you must spend ALL of your Trade Points to receive it. A level 1 tech costs 6 Trade. If you have 18 Trade and purchase it, you lose all 18 Trade to get it. However, you get to keep a number of Trade Points based on your current Economy Score. If you have a 0 Economy, you lose all of your Trade, if you have a 5 Economy, you lower yourself to 5 Trade when you Research a tech. This encourages players to build lower level techs early so that they are not "wasting" extra Trade to build the lower levels of their pyramids later in the game. Techs give a number of powers and upgrades, including making units more powering in battle, letting you be able to build certain building types, increasing hand size, movement and how many of your units can be in a single square.

Play continues turn to turn until a player reaches one of the four victory conditions. Players can win by a Culture Victory, which is obtained when a player reaches the last space on the Culture Track, by a Tech Victory, which is obtained by being the first to Research the level 5 Space Flight Tech, by an Economic Victory, in which a player has collected 15 Coins, or by a Military Victory, which is achieved by conquering another player's capital city.


The Theme:

So, does Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game feel like Sid Meier's Civilization: the Computer Game? In a number of ways, yes. However, the micromanaging of your cities is massively scaled down and you do not have to worry about things such as population, workers and happiness (like in Through the Ages. But some of the game's charm comes from seeing how many of the elements of the CIV games from the computer ended up in the board game, but at the same time, it retains its own identity and feel.

I really love Through the Ages and it seems like this game is the opposite bookend to that game to try to create a true experience of the CIV computer games. In TtA, territory, cities and geography are painted with a very abstract brush and you focus on the micromanaging of your civilization. In Civ the board game, territory, cities and geography are the basis of the game, with ideas such as city management being painted with a broader brush.

However, the game does feel like you are building an empire. It's not the quintessential Sid Meier's computer game experience by any stretch of the imagination, but the spirit of it is strong in this game. I would say that if you are a fan of the first couple of CIV computer games, where detailed managing your cities was necessary to advance, then Through the Ages is probably your best bet. However, if you are a fan of the more recent CIV computer games where you are able just plop down a city and the computer act as auto-mayor and build and manages resources without looking back at them as you focus more on the uber-game, then Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game is probably the better choice for you.


Learning the Game:

The game's rules are presented in a full color, 32 page rule booklet with large sections set up for examples and many illustrations and pictures to help guide the player through. The game may seem daunting for the first play, but at its core, it really is deceptively simple. Having the computer game background helps with some of the concepts of the game, but ultimately, the game is different enough that it is not overly useful, nor necessary (unlike TtA, where the concept of discontent workers really works best if explaining that idea to someone who has played the Civ games before).

The rules are well put together, with only a couple of odd little places to find stuff if you are looking up rules on the fly. I will suggest this to any new players: look at the little reference card, not the big reference cards or the manual, to see what you start with as far as Units and Figures and starting movement and hand limits. It's much harder to actually find these things in the rulebook.


The Components:


The Army figures, Scout figures and starting tokens for one of the colors.



Close up of the Roman player board and Trade and Economy dials. 




Wound markers, Coin tokens and Culture tokens. The wee bits of the game. 




Two-player game in progress. Yes, it is a table hog.




Closer view of the board of a two-player game in progress. 




Two player game in progress. Yellow player's POV. 



The components are, for the most part, typical Fantasy Flight Games quality, which is to say, excellent in both quality and artwork. The tiles are a good, thick cardboard and the cards are all of FFG's usual stock and coating. Artwork in the game is excellent and everything comes together as one very pretty package.

One of the things that I noticed that I thought was odd at first was the fact that there are 6 different Civilizations that you can choose to start from, but only 4 different colors to choose from. You would think that Fantasy Flight would have no problem giving you extra plastic and making dedicated colors and units for each civilization, especially since Russia begins with an extra Army figure (currently represented by a white figure so that it can be used with any color choice). However, then I realized the reason why this was done: expansion civilizations. Instead of packaging each new civilization with a new color and producing more plastic for it, you can minimize the production costs with new expansions this way.

Finally, my only complaint with the components comes from the player boards, which have thick cardboard dials on them (FFG loves them some dials). This would be an excellent mechanic and it really is convenient. However, the base of these boards are not thick cardboard, but instead heavy weight paper (like most standard reference sheets). This causes them to be very prone to bending or folding in the box, especially because the insert is not at all useful (it is the standard FFG's insert). It just seems like a very odd choice, especially since the dials are thick cardboard and may be a bit tight in trying to turn at first.


Playing the Game:

Game play is surprisingly easy to learn. Combat is probably the trickiest part of the game to get used to, but it isn't that bad. In teaching the game, I play out a couple of turns of combat with players, using the cards and showing how the fronts and trumping work in practice.

Now, the game has four different Victory Conditions and different civilizations with different abilities. It seems surprisingly balanced despite all of these varying elements. However, some civilizations are more apt to prosper at certain victory conditions than others. For example, Russia can steal techs, which makes them an excellent candidate for the tech victory, but their starting government gives them a penalty to Culture gained, so they are much less likely to win that way.

In my experience, it seems as if the end game comes quick. I was surprised at how soon we were each massive production machines with each of us moving in our own direction towards a victory. Sometimes, however, you may see that a player is close to a victory, but is too much a of juggernaut to stop. But, for the most part, it is fairly apparent which path each player is trying to win along and can be countered early in the game.

Another thing to note: This game is a table hog. Even beyond the map size and everything else, once every player starts to build their Tech Pyramids, you'll find that table space becomes a premium. It significantly increases the footprint for even two-players, but you'll really have to make sure you have enough table room for four players.

Also, combat is a little abstract and when you are in a battle, you randomly draw Unit cards into your hand from your stack. However, this means that you will have no idea what Units are actually in an Army at any time, which is a little odd and definitely abstract. Despite this, combat works, but it is a weaker (though interesting) element to the game. I'm not really disappointed that once again FFG has decided to resolve combat with cards instead of dice though. Unlike their last several games, this one actually seems to make more sense that way (despite the abstraction). Seriously though, I really think that FFG's trend to go diceless in their games and instead use decks of cards to resolve things is less of a design decision and more of a marketing decision since they started to sell their own odd-sized card sleeves.

Two subtle things, however, really stand out in this game for me:

First, I really like that the Trade Phase allows open negotiations and just about anything is tradable or negotiable. Games really should not be afraid of having these kinds of elements in them. Sure, meta-gaming and king-making is possible and can ruin the experience, but if you have these types of players in your core gaming group, you should really try to ditch them. Real negotiations with few limits creates some very interesting moments in a game.

Second, I understand a reluctance for player elimination, but usually don't like it when a game goes out of its way to keep it out of their mechanics, even when it seems natural. There is no real player elimination in this game, as conquering just ONE opponent's capital wins the game by a Military Victory for the player. However, in this game, it creates alliances. If I see a player with a lot of Units and Armies moving towards a weak opponent, I'm going to step in to try to defend that player so that he does not win. I can either move my Armies to try to cut them off or defend their capital, or trade Resources, Trade and cards to the player to let them bolster their own defenses. Uneasy, forced alliances really adds to the open negotiations in the Trade Phase.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2 to 4 players and it is fully playable with no changes to the rules for any of those numbers. However, with two players, negotiation is a little less common since you are obvious and direct opponents. With all games like this, more players equals more interaction with equals more better.

With 3 or 4 players, the "gang up on the leader" mechanic isn't as prevalent as it may seem, since there are multiple ways to Victory. Also, three players seems to be the most set up for interaction and competition. Not counting the start tile for each civilization, there are 3 unexplored tiles per player in both the 2 and 4 player games. In the 3 player game, there are only 2.3 unexplored tiles per player, making for less room to build your other cities on and more competition for locations and resources. Also, on the three player set up, even though each of the civilizations are 2 tiles away from the others, by the fact that figures cannot move diagonally, one of the starting locations is a bit more isolated from the others, but it shouldn't be a big issue or advantage in the game ultimately.


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. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, my wife has never really gotten into the Civ computer games, but she does really like Through the Ages, so I wasn't sure where she would fall on this one.

It turns out, however, that she did enjoy it. She's also brutally savvy and vicious as an opponent. The play time will probably mean it won't see heavy rotation in our weekday night gaming sessions, but I'm sure that it'll find its way into two-player plays as well as with our core gaming groups.


The Pros:

*A game that captures the spirit and heart of the CIV computer games, even if it doesn't translate all of the micromanaging mechanics of the games.
*Surprising ease of play that is very intuitive to learn.
*Multiple victory paths and open negotiation.
*No player elimination that actually creates a new depth to the game.
*A lot of interesting ideas in the game (such as Tech Pyramids and Units vs. Armies)
*Beautiful components that are fully functional.
*Set up for easy expansions, which could easily be small box, cheaper price-point add ons.
*Variable set up creates a lot of replayability.
*Graphics are much better than my old Amiga version of the game.


The Cons:

*Even a two-player game becomes a table hog once you start building your tech pyramids.
*Thick cardboard dials on player boards that are not actually boards, but heavy paper.
*Combat is a little abstract; I may move my Army in to attack, but I have no idea what Units are in it until I randomly draw them.
*Little leeway in being able to change strategies in mid-game and remain competitive--most of the time, you are locked in your Victory Path.
*Two player game lacks real negotiation opportunities, even if it is still fully playable and enjoyable.
*Portions of the micromanaging may seem too light for some players for a 3 hour civilization building game.
*Unlike in the computer game, if I don't like my starting set up, other people are now around to see me reset it again.
*No Alpha Centauri game to play after this one ends with a Space Race victory.


Overall:

Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game captures the spirit of the Civilization computer games, even if it is a little light in some parts. The game should not be considered competition to deep, in-depth civilization building games, as the game is much shorts and lighter than many of that kind. However, it is a fully-accessible and fun game that can be played in three hours. Deep micromanagers will not have that itch satisfied by this game, but those who like map exploration and city building portions of empire building games will find that this game will charm them with a fun experience.


8.5/10

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review: Cadwallon: City of Thieves

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 am an old school D&D player and I'm winding down a six year D&D campaign based around a thieves' guild, so the fantasy world thieves guild board game was a definite snag for me. Also, I played (but didn't particularly care for) the game Arcana, which shares a game world and fantasy city with this game.


The Overview:


Box cover artwork. The box is a standard-sized 12" x 12" x 3".



What's inside the box (minus the boards). 



Cadwallon: City of Thieves is a fantasy adventure game set in a city where each player controls a rival gang of thieves, each vying for control of the district through stealth, robbery, thuggery and combat. Eight different scenarios are included in the base game which each set up different circumstances and special rules for the game, but the goal is always the same: end with the most money.

The game is for 2-4 players and plays in about 30-60 minutes. If you play with 2 players, expect most scenarios to finish in a half hour, but 4 players should expect to be closer to the hour mark.

Set up begins with the players choosing a scenario, which dictates any additional set up needed on the main board, which represents the city district that the gangs will be competing in. Two militiamen are placed in their starting places on the board and treasure tokens are randomly seeded in each of the buildings on the board. Three Mission Cards are then placed face up on the scenario board. Mission Cards match some of the Treasures that are seeded out on the board and give characters a chance to have those Treasures pay out immediately (with bonus ducats) while still holding onto the Treasures.

Each player chooses a gang (each consists of 4 characters) and takes the four character cards and miniatures associated with that gang. Each gang member has a stats dictating their Combat, Movement and Mind values, as well as each one having a unique special ability. Each player takes 7 Action Tokens and five Arcana cards are then dealt to each player. After that, each player takes turns placing one of their gang members on a deployment space until all of the characters are out on the board.

Play then begins in the same player order and lasts a number of turns based on the current scenario being played. Each player takes their whole turn in player order and each Turn is broken into four phases.

1. Draw an Arcana Card: The player draws and adds an Arcana Card into their hand. Arcana Cards are one time use cards that can be played at specific times depending on the card and have effects on the game's rule, such as increasing movement or improving a character's combat.

2. Move a Militiaman: The player chooses one of the two militiamen on the board and rolls a six-sided die. On the roll of a six, nothing happens and this phase is skipped. However, on a result from 1-5, the player then moves that militiaman up to the number of spaces rolled. If the militiaman enters a space with another character, they begin a combat.

Combat is simple. The attacker has the opportunity to play an Arcana card (although he may not play one on a militiaman), and then the Defender may play a card. The attacker and defender each roll a number of dice equal to their Combat ability. Out of the dice rolled, they choose the single highest value rolled as their Combat Value. They then compare values and whoever has the higher value wins. If it is a tie, the attacker wins.

If the militiaman wins, then the loser loses 2 ducats (coins) and has to retreat 3 spaces (chosen by the winner). If the militiaman loses, he retreats 3 spaces (again, chosen by the winner).

Activate Characters: The player then activates their characters one at a time. Characters spend Action Points to take actions. Each player has 7 Action Points to use per Turn, but do not need to use all of their points. However, any points not spent are lost. A player can spend Action Points on the following:

• 1 Action Point / Move: A character may move a number of spaces up to their Movement value. Characters cannot move into or through spaces occupied by other characters unless they are also attacking.
• 1 Action Point / Attack a Character: If a character ends his movement in a space occupied by another character, he must attack. Attacking works exactly as it was described under Moving the Militiaman Phase, except that the winner takes a Treasure from the loser if they have one (otherwise, they take 2 ducats from the character). Note that character cannot initiate fights against the Militiamen.
• 1 Action Point / Pick the Lock on a Chest: If a character is in the same space as a chest he may roll 1 die. If it is equal to or less than the character's Mind value, then the chest is opened and the character takes the Treasure and puts it on their character card. Each character can only carry a maximum of 3 Treasures, however, but may discard a treasure (which is reseeded in an empty house) to pick up one.
• 1 Action Point / Use a Character's Special Ability: Each character has a unique Special Ability. However, some of them have a cost in Action Points to use.
• 2 Action Points / Bash Open a Chest: A character in the same space as a chest may automatically bash it open and take the Treasure. There is no roll or risk of failure, but it costs one additional Action Point than trying to Pick the Lock does.
• 3 Action Points / Play a Mission Card: The player may take any of the three Mission Cards provided that they have at least one of the Treasure pictured on the Mission Card. The player immediately receives ducats equal to the value of the Treasures that they possess that match the Mission Card, plus any bonus ducats listed on the card. The player does not discard or lose the Treasures after this and, thus, a Treasure may pay off multiple times in a game. Another Mission Card is then placed on the scenario board to replace the card taken.

Announce the End of the Turn: The player announces when they are finished their turn and play passes to the left. If it is the last player to go in the Turn, then the Round Counter is moved forward on the board. Moving it forward may also trigger an event listed on the scenario board or it may end the game.

If it ends the game, then each player tallies the value of any Treasures that are on their characters who managed to make it out of the District before the game's end. This is added to any ducats that the player already possesses. There are a number of escape points on the board and characters must make their way out of them before time runs out for their Treasures to count. Any characters who did not make it out of the District, not only loses their Treasures, but costs the player 3 ducats for each character who failed to leave the District before the game end.

The player who has the most ducats is the winner.


The Theme:

Cadwallon: City of Thieves is set in a fantasy city which is already somewhat defined by the game Arcana. It has the same stylistic artwork which is really defining in its consistency to give a good feel of what the world looks like.

The game also creates a small scale feel of gang members rushing around for a quick snatch and grab. However, those looking for a sweeping thieves guild management or war game will be disappointed. You've got 4 characters and only 5-7 Turns to get as much as you can and escape, so there really isn't much opportunity to enact any kind of sweeping strategy here.

And while there are eight different scenarios to play from, each of them still has the win condition of snatching as much ducats as possible. I guess it kind of keeps to the theme of being thieves, but it just seems to make the scenarios mere backdrop to an otherwise rather simplistic game.

So, the Duke has hired an assassin to take on the thieves of the city? Well then, let's try to grab as much gold as quickly as possible.

Zombies rise from the dead and attack the city? Better try to grab as much gold as quickly as possible.

Hostages taken throughout the city? Ah, we should try to grab as much gold as quickly as possible.

The Duke's daughter has been kidnapped? Well, let's grab as much gold as quickly as possible.

It just feels like a bit of a wasted effort to try to make the game feel different when it really does not play very different despite the arching storylines brought out in the scenarios.


Learning the Game:

The game's rules are presented in a full color, 24 page 11" x 11" rulebook of large fonts, double-spaced print and enormous margins with the text routinely broken up by large, spanning illustrations. Really, the rules could have been written on 4 pages with examples. The rules are really simple and easy to learn. In fact, they are almost simplistic.

However, its simplicity and beautiful production values does make it a good gateway game, but the game may prove to be too simple for many veteran gamers.


The Components:


 The game board map.





An NPC card and a Character Card, showing how great the artwork is in the game. 



Some of the miniatures from the game. Beautiful sculpts.




The minis in the game have attachable bases so you can easily see which gang they belong to.




Game in progress. You can see that the Action Point Tokens are really just Bingo Tokens, however. 



Like both AEG and Fantasy Flight Games, the components are stellar. The artwork is very stylized and remains consistent with the artwork from Arcana and the sculpted miniatures are gorgeous and match the stylized artwork really well. The cards are of a good stock and very functional.

The Action Point Tokens are plastic Bingo chips, which isn't bad, but just a little odd. I'm surprised they weren't punched counters, but either way, it does not detract from or really add to the game whatsoever.

The plastic minis have a colored base which can be attached to the bottom of each mini to distinguish which gang they belong to, which is actually a very nice touch. The bottom markers don't exactly snap on, so picking up the mini to move it may cause it to fall off, but it's still a very good idea and I fully support it even if its implementation was not 100%. It really does help break up and distinguish your minis in a sea of grey sculpts.


Playing the Game:

The game is easy to learn, and in fact, almost simplistic. I mentioned earlier that the different scenarios all essentially just provide some backdrop, but do not offer a real variety to game play or mechanics and the goal is always the same: grab cash and run.

Unfortunately, the differences in the scenarios are not provoking enough to make the game feel really much different, which may limit replayability despite having eight different scenarios right out of the box. The limit of time doesn't let you build very strategic plans, and while some scenarios allow you to receive money for other objectives, it really still feels rather similar in play. The mechanics and engine of the game really are too simplistic to offer a real feel of variety of the scenarios.

Further hurting the sense of variety is the fact that all of the gang members of each of the gangs have the exact same statistics. Each and every playable character has a Combat Ability of 2, a Movement of 4 and a Mind of 4. Sure, each one has a unique special ability, but ultimately small variations in the stats would have at least prompted some strategic play of your gang members: give high value treasure to your "runners" to make sure they escape with it and have your "bruisers" try to guard the choke points and stop other gang members from moving in, while your lockpicks scout out and find which treasure is where hidden in chests. Or even each gang could be different: Gang A has high combat, but are really slow, and Gang B is inverse, while Gang C are master lockpicks, etc. This was another missed opportunity to bring out more in this game. Instead, we are forced to rely on the game's engine and mechanics, which are too simple. At least the variety would have added something to it and ultimately masked some of the simplicity of the game, although I know why this wasn't done: the game plays too different with 2 players than it does with 4, which would drastically give fast characters big advantages in 2 player games and tough characters big advantages in 4 player games.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2 to 4 players and this really creates the most amount of different feelings in the game. Two player games tend to be loot fests, with each gang being able to take their pick of some of the treasure with minimal interaction and fights. Four players, however, is a slugfest as gangmembers will be tripping over one another and treasure becomes more of a scarcity and those who possess it become obvious targets. The sweat spot is probably three players, since it balances out the extremes found in 2 and 4 player games.

But really, that means that the game doesn't exactly scale well if the experience and gameplay is that different from 2-4 players. As such, it will probably be a game that some people only like playing 2 player and some only like playing 4 player since the feel ends up being very different for each.


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 also been a member of my aforementioned long-lasting D&D thieves guild campaign, so I thought that this would be a slam dunk choice for the two of us. Well, it turns out that she doesn't mind it, but was not moved by it. When playing evening games together during weeknights, my wife tends to favor lighter games than heavier ones like Twilight Struggle. After reading the rules and realizing how simplistic the game was, I figured it had a good chance to win her over.

However, even during our first game (which she usually needs to take in all of the rules), she was able to play on autopilot. It was just too simple of a system for her to really get involved with. She'll play it, but it is just an unmoving experience for her, despite the theme and lightness of it being huge pluses for her.


The Pros:

*Beautiful components and artwork that has a consistent feel throughout the Cadwallon setting.
*Quick playtime that keeps most games under an hour.
*Easy to learn, making it a game that could be played by non-gamers (though the theme isn't exactly a non-gamer's theme).
*It is an appealing theme in a very stylized world.
*Large, easy to read font in the rulebook is a nice consideration for older gamers who cannot find their reading glasses.


The Cons:

*Too simplistic of a game engine.
*Scenarios do not change the objectives or play-style, but instead just add minor backdrop to the same mechanics and goals of play.
*Too few meaningful decisions to make with such a short time limit.
*Characters are not varied enough to give at least a different feel between each of them.
*The cover of the rulebook has a 10 foot tall purple cat-like creature with a huge battleaxe, but I have no clue who or what he is, since it doesn't match the characters or any of the other artwork in the game.


Overall:

Cadwallon: City of Thieves is a light and easy-to-learn game that is brought down by the simplicity of its engine to the point that not even the variety of missions really give much of a different feel to the game. The game had a lot of potential to it, but unfortunately, the designers were not ambitious enough in their design and instead ended up with a quick, easy, non-memorable game that isn't much more than a light filler. The half-hour playtime might make it a good filler game while waiting for another game to break up and end, however, the game can be played on autopilot and ultimately a half-hour discussion about just about anything will ultimately be a more memorable experience to fill the time with.



5/10

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Review: Invasion from Outer Space

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 am a fan of old school alien invasion movies, and although I'm not a real big circus fan, I actually really do like old-school carnies. Finally, I'm a fan of Last Night on Earth and have reviewed that before.


The Overview:


The subtle box cover artwork. It's not like they just jumbled together a bunch of in-game artwork and put it collage style on the cover... oh, wait. 


Invasion from Outer Space is a sci-fi game which divides the players into teams to play out a survival story set in the vein of an old B-movie. One side controls the Heroes, who in this case are all members of a circus. The other side controls the methodical hordes of Martians, bent on wiping out any resistance and taking over the earth. In each game, a scenario is chosen which defines each side's victory conditions and any special rules in the game, including how many Turns are in the game.

The game is for 2-6 player and plays in about 60-90 minutes. Early (or lucky) victory conditions can end a game even earlier, though most games will likely hit the 60 minute mark. More players do not mean more turns, as the number of Heroes is set at four, but more players may mean more time taken strategizing and discussing plans with one another and increase time because of that.

The game set up begins with building the modular board. A large "Big Top" start square is placed and four L-shaped additions are placed around the center square to expand the board outwards. These modular pieces are chosen at random. A Scenario is drawn or chosen, which sets any special rules for the game and also gives the specific victory conditions for both sides.

The Hero player (or players) draws their Hero characters and places them in their start building. There will always be four Hero characters in a game, so they are divided among the Hero players. The Martian players then set up and begin with 2d6 Martian figures on the board which are placed on the Landing Sites on each L-shaped board.

From there, each Round is broken into two turns, a Martian Turn and then a Hero Turn.

The Martian Turn starts on a Turn number set by the Scenario. At the start of the turn, the Martian player moves the Turn marker down one space on the Invasion Track. If none of the victory conditions are met beforehand, the game ends when the Marker reaches the end of the Invasion Track, so it acts like a game timer.

The Martian Player then draws 2 cards into their hand. There is a 6-card hand limit for the Martian player, however, he can discard one card before drawing. These cards are Events and Technology cards that can be played during the game to help the Martian player(s).

The Martian player then rolls for reinforcements on 2d6. If the roll is higher than the number of Martian groups (not figures) on the board, then they will get an additional 1d6 Martian figures to place at the end of their Turn.

The Command Phase is next and the Martian player places 2 Command Points on different sections on the Command Console. This gives the Martian player a few options. Points can be spent to draw more Martian Cards, to move the spawn points for the Martian figures on the board, to immediately place more Martian figures on the board, or to build a Martian Tech or Call a Martian Champion. Martian Techs are placed by playing a Martian Tech card from your hand. Once the required number of Command Points are on the card, it can be brought into play. Martian Champions are brought into play in a similar fashion, but they are always available and do not require a card to play first.

The Martians then move. Each Martian may move one space, however, if a Martian figure is in the same space as a Hero figure, they cannot move out of that space. Up to three Martians may be on one space at a time. When three Martians are in a space together, it is considered a full Martian Pack, and they get bonuses in the next Phases.

Next, the Martians perform their Ray Gun Attacks. Each Martian figure adjacent to a Hero figure may fire their ray guns at them. Each Martian rolls 1d6 and hits on a 5 or a 6. However, if it is part of a full Martian Pack, each of the three Martians will hit with their ray gun on a 4, 5, or 6. Any hit on a Hero will equal one wound, unless they successfully Dodge the attack. Each Hero has an agility rating and they roll one die for each hit. If they roll equal to or above their agility, they ignore the wound as the ray gun blast missed.

Martians in the same space as a Hero then have to fight hand-to-hand with the Hero. Combats are very easy to resolve. The Martian player rolls one die for each Martian figure in the space and a Hero character rolls two dice. Both sides roll and choose their highest single die result. If the Martians have the highest roll, the Hero takes one damage. If the Heroes have the highest roll, the Martians take one damage (each Martian figure has one health, so one damage would kill one figure). If it is a tie, neither side does any damage.

The Martian player then adds any figures spawned from their earlier Reinforcement Roll and play passes to the Hero players.

The four Heroes can take their turn in any order, but each must finish his or her move before the next Hero can act. It starts with their Move Action. The Hero rolls a green six-sided die and a white six-sided die. If the green die is a 5 or a 6, they receive a Power Token (they can only have up to 3 at a time). Power Tokens can be spent to activate some of the Hero's special abilities or some actions on the board or from cards. The white six-sided die dictates their movement and they may move that many spaces, though they cannot move through walls and must immediately end their movement if they go through a space with one or more Martians in it. After rolling, but before moving, if the Hero is inside of a building, they can opt not to move and instead Search. Searching lets the Hero draw the top card from the Hero Deck. If it is an Event, they place it in their hand to use later. If it is an Item or Weapon, they place it next to their Character Card face up. Each Hero can carry 2 weapons and 2 items. If they draw any more, they need to either discard the card they drew or one of their current items to carry the new one. Certain buildings have special actions available when Searched, and the Hero can draw a specific item, if that item is in the Discard Pile.

Heroes may then Exchange Items with any other Heroes that are in the same space with them.

Heroes then may make a Ranged Attack if they have an Item which allows them to. The Item lists the range of spaces and the Hero can attack a zombie in that range. The Item lists what needs to be rolled to see if the Martian is hit and the effects of it. Most Items then specify if another roll needs to be made after the attack, whether successful or not, to see if the Item is out of ammo and is then discarded.

Finally, any Heroes who end their turn in the same space as one or more Martians must fight them hand to hand. This is resolved the same way as the Martian fights.

This continues until either the Invasion Tracker runs out, signifying that there are no more Rounds left, or one of the sides have met all of their objectives listed on the Scenario.


The Theme:

Invasion from Outer Space is a sort of homage to B-movie Martian invasion flicks. However, the theme is a little jarred because instead of landing in an old military base, or a small town, or something similar, the Martians instead have landed and invaded where a circus just happens to be set up. So instead of the B-movie Mars attacks clichés such as the gruff military commander, the ruggedly handsome scientist and the glasses wearing female lab assistant who secretly lusts after the scientist, we instead end up with the Bearded Lady, the Human Cannonball and a Dancing Bear. Don't get me wrong, I love carnies, but it just seems like a random match-up. Another bit of seemingly random weirdness is that Cabbage equipment cards are used to heal the Hero character's wounds.

It's almost like Flying Frog was looking for investors in their next board game product and Ringling Brothers and the Cabbage Growers Association fronted them a lot of cash for the project, so they felt obliged to include those elements into a pre-conceived Martians attack game.

I suppose the Carnie characters are interesting and quirky, but ultimately feel like it is quirky for the sake of quirk than actual theme. In that regard, it takes me a little out of the B-movie cliché feel. Also, IfOS has one of the same minor issues as LNoE, which is that the Martians role (like the Zombies roll in the other game) has more of a "dungeon master" type of feel to it. You are a vital role, but really you are telling the story of the Heroes, doomed or successful. I don't mind this, but some people may feel like it doesn't have enough "meat" to this side of game.

However, if you do have LNoE, there are rules for how to cross-over the settings and you can have the Martians invade the small town from that setting instead. This may actually feel a little more like a schlocky B-movie in theme.


Learning the Game:

The game's rules are presented in a full color, 32 page rule booklet of large type interspersed with a number of pictures and examples. In fact, five of the pages in the booklet are about combining LNoE and IfOS elements together. The game also breaks rules into a Basic Game and an Advanced Game. However, the advanced game elements are not many or too difficult that it really should have just been all listed together as a singular set of game rules. If nothing else, it would make looking up rules easier as you didn't have to search through two sections of rules to try to find your answer.

The game is really easy to learn and it can easily be used as a gateway game. However, Last Night on Earth is a more general theme for non-gamers to understand and relate to. Everyone knows zombies and townies from a small town trying to survive is easily relatable. However, with Invasion from Outer Space the Martian element is universal, but the carnies are a little more difficult for some to get into. Again, it really is marrying two themes in an attempt to make it quirky, which succeeds on that level, but detracts a bit from over-all B-movie theme.


The Components:


A set up board with the big top center piece. 



One of the Martian cards. 




JoJo the Dancing Bear's character card. Character like this are kind of awesome and cool and JoJo really is the cool factor for the Heroes. However, it is quirk for quirk's sake.




The Hero figures. 




Some of the Martian figures out on the board. Notice the helmets on the Martians. .



The components of the game are, like most Flying Frog games, well-produced and sturdy. They are of the same quality as Last Night on Earth's components. The Scenario and Hero Character sheets are all printed on thick cardboard. It uses the same modified photographic art style as Last Night on Earth which seems to be either hit or miss by personal taste. I happen to enjoy it, but I understand that not everyone does.

The figures are really well-produced and look nice, even without painting them. The only problem with the figures is that the Martian figures need their helmets glued onto them. This shouldn't be a problem for most people, but if you are really bad with glue, you may end up with some figures that look a bit worse for trying to put the helmets on them.

The game's cards have the same problem as LNoE's cards; they are too thick of a stock with too much gloss on them. This really makes it difficult to shuffle the cards.

Also, my copy of the game's map boards are warped a bit, which means that they do not lay flat on the table when the map is assembled. It isn't terrible and it is completely playable, but just minorly annoying. I suspect that this isn't an ongoing problem, however, and may just be an issue with my copy. LNoE's run uses the same kind of boards and I never had a problem with any of those.


Playing the Game:

Game play is simple and the game is easily picked up and learned; even more so if you have played Last Night on Earth since it is a retread of that game's mechanics. Strategies are fairly obvious by each scenario.

Randomness (or luck, for players who think that their own personal being directly affects die-rolls and card draws) is a big factor in the game. Personally, I don't mind it, but if that kind of things turns you off from a game, then that is something to consider here.

Now, I really do enjoy Last Night on Earth and all of its supplements have really made for a diverse and interesting beer and pretzels game to play. Thus, I was very excited to hear about Invasion from Outer Space and definitely stood out as a must-have title for me.

The game play is very much like LNoE and I expected that going into it. They did fix a couple of minor things with LNoE, but at the same time, repeated many of that games larger flaws.

First of all, the Command Console for the Martian player adds a little bit more to the Martian player's turn. In LNoE, the Zombie player's role had fewer decisions and it really was just the Hero's game. Here, however, they have started to build more decision processes into the Martian game, which is a welcome addition to the experience. It isn't anything major, but it does add a little more depth to the turn.

However, what the game failed to do was to fix a couple of the largest flaws from LNoE: Scenario Search items and running out of cards in the Hero deck as a Zombie win condition and having cards to reflect that.

Some Scenarios require that the Heroes find specific items or cards by Searching. Because it is possible that all of those cards are at the bottom of the deck, there are also cards that let you search the deck to find the items that you need. It is a clumsy mechanic. However, as it stands now, it sort of works well enough and it changes the game from being a simple Martian vs. Carnie deathmatch. This is despite the fact that we played the "Shoot Them Out of the Sky" Scenario where the Heroes needed to fire the cannons, but all but one of those cards were at the bottom of the deck, including all but one of the search for a card of your choice. That will happen from time to time, and we're experienced enough to shrug it off from a beer and pretzels game, but it is a factor. However, I am assuming that, like LNoE, this game will have its share of expansions. This adds more cards to the mix and makes this already delicate card searching mechanic even more fragile. For example, if an expansion wanted to add 30 new cards to the deck, it would probably have to add 30 cards, plus at least 3 more cards to allow you to search the deck for an item you needed. It just really messes with the chances of drawing something you need and it is just a clumsy mechanic.

Possible expansions also means another mechanic is in jeopardy; right now if the Heroes run out of Hero Cards, they automatically lose. Presently, the Hero deck consists of 60 cards, so it is possible that they may run through the deck. The Martian player has cards that forces the Heroes to discard cards from the top of their deck. This is a risky move as is, because if you force the Heroes to run out of cards, you win. However, the Heroes can go to location to pick up cards in the discard pile, so you are making more things available to them in the process. Presently, that's a fair trade off in a 60-card deck. However, with all of its expansions, LNoE now has 113 Hero Cards in it. So, if IfOS starts to get more cards, it will run into the same problem. It stops becoming feasible to make the Hero deck run out of cards, but each time you draw one of those events, you still end up making more cards available to draw in the locations for the Hero player.

Finally, LNoE required that a Hero player needed to roll doubles to kill a Zombie. In IfOS, the Hero needs to simply roll higher. Some characters have powers that allow them to roll an extra fight die, while others have powers that let them re-roll one of their fight dice. Since doubles are no longer necessary to kill an enemy, these abilities have essentially the same effect, so the Hero powers end up being not so different from one another as they might originally have seemed.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2 to 6 players, but it definitely has its sweet spots in my opinion. I think the Martian plays better with a single player controlling all of them. I think then it breaks down to being best with 2, 3 or 5 players, since it just comes down to how to break up the Hero characters. However, I do think that the included flexibility of the Martian player does make it more appealing in this game to play 2 Martian players than it did to play 2 Zombie player in LNoE.

Also, if you own both this game and LNoE, there are rules to include up to 8 players in a Zombies vs. Martians vs. Heroes game. Currently there are not real scenarios for it other than just a three-sided battle royal going for number of kills.


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 big fan of LNoE and I thought that this would be a no-brainer for us to include in our weekday evening game nights. And it was and it will slip into our rotation, however, she was a little put off by the carnies. I know I mentioned the circus theme to her once when the game was first announced, but afterward, it slipped her mind. And I can understand that. The game is Invasion from Outer Space: the Martian Game. Everything in the title defines one side of the game. It isn't called Invading a Circus: the Martian Game or Invasion from Outer Space: The Carnival Defense Game or Martians vs. Carnies: The Game of Randomly Determined Opponents.

Still, after playing it, she liked it. But the characters don't have the same story and feel that the small town folk do. My wife likes to play LNoE with her Heroes and they have backstories of who likes who and certain characters end up risking themselves to save others because of some inner story played out in her head. In this, it's just a bunch of carnies. I have a feeling that we'll probably end up having the Martians invade the Small Town from LNoE eventually and she'll have more fun with that.


The Pros:

*A light fun game that tries to give a B-movie science fiction feel.
*Excellent components and figures.
*Good gateway game potential.
*Plays in 60-90 minutes.
*Easily expandable.
*A very noticeable lack of clowns.
*Increased play options to the Martian game (as opposed to fewer options in the Zombie game in LNoE).
*The draw of playing a three-way slugfest between Martians, Zombies and Heroes is very fun.
*JoJo the Dancing Bear does not have a sex listed among its traits. (This means that if you are playing a cross-over game, you do not have to worry about someone playing "It May Be Out Last Night..." on one of the Heroes and JoJo.)


The Cons:

*Two Martian Players is less appealing than one, especially when your figures are locked in shared Martian Packs.
*Randomness effects the game from roll and move to card draws.
*Only five Scenarios (and one is just a basic slugfest) seems a little light until expansions can round it out.
*A very noticeable lack of clowns.
*Did not correct some of the flaws of the LNoE engine, which would especially stand out if the game is expanded with more cards.
*The mismatched theme is neat and quirky, but ultimately feels a little forced and less like the clichéd B-movies the game is invoking.
*JoJo the Dancing Bear does not have a sex listed among its traits. (This means that if you are into that kind of thing and are playing a cross-over game, no one can play "It May Be Out Last Night..." on one of the Heroes and JoJo.)


Overall:

Invasion from Outer Space is a beer and pretzels, random slugfest game telling a story in the vein of old B-movie science fiction flicks. The carnival angle is interesting, but detracts a little from other story telling possibilities that could have been presented, but despite the forced quirkiness, it in no way hampers the fun of the game. In fact, probably to most players, the carnie aspect is one that is easily embraced since the game is not taking itself too seriously. It uses the LNoE game engine and really is just a retheming of that game, which is good in the respect that it is a fun, light system. However, they did not fix some of the flaws of the system in making this version, which is a shame. It is fun and quirky and will have some shelf-life, but ultimately I think that LNoE will end up having more staying power by better incorporating an more classic B-movie thematic elements together than IfOS did.


6.5/10

Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: Fresco

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, my original schooling path was art, so I've had to endure many dull lectures about the pros and cons of the restoration of art and have actually developed opinions about the subject. However, never once during any of my Art History classes did I ever think, "Wow. This would make a great game."


The Overview:


Front cover of the English edition box. Most notable is the spelling of "Fresco" instead of "Fresko". 



What is inside the box. Lots of cubes and tiles. 



Fresco is a worker placement Euro-style game where the players each take the role of a competing artist hired by a bishop to restore the fresco painting on the ceiling of a chapel. Each player needs to manage his or her income and satisfy the morale of their apprentices in order to succeed. Ultimately, the game ends when the fresco is nearly completed and the winner is the player who has amassed the most Victory Points.

The game is for 2-4 players and plays in about 45-60 minutes. More players, as would be expected, tends to add more to the playtime, but ultimately not that much, provided your players do not suffer too heavily from analysis paralysis. The game is listed for players 10 and up and seems to be aimed somewhat towards families, which is perfectly fine, unless you are in the Ashcroft or Cuccinelli families since there are exposed buttocks and breasts in the fresco painting. But then again, you could just opt to not restore the upper left corner tile or the tile on the left edge, second from the bottom, and you would be just fine.

The game board is two-sided and is different for 3 or 4 players (2 player rules use the 3 player board with some extra rules). Players set up all of the components and place the 11 point fresco tile on the center of the fresco space and shuffle and place all of the other tiles randomly on the rest of the spaces. There are four market stalls in the game and each of them are filled with tiles indicating what paints that vendor is selling.

The game is then broken down into two phases in each turn.

The first phase is choosing your wake up time and adjusting your mood. Whoever is currently last on the Victory Point track chooses their wake up time first. The earlier that you wake up, the worse your mood will become and the more your paint purchase in the market will cost. If your mood becomes too negative, however, you will lose workers to place in the next phase. So choosing an early wake up time worsens your mood and makes the market more expensive, however, you will get the first chance to purchase paints at the market and you resolve your actions first. If you choose later wake up times, the market prices will be less and your mood either will not deteriorate or may actually improve, but at the cost of resolving your actions later and only having the left over paints to purchase in the market.

The second phase of the game is planning and performing your actions. Each player takes their available workers (which may have been affected by their mood) and places them behind a screen on the actions that they wish to take that round. After everyone has placed their workers on their actions, everyone lifts their screens and the actions are resolved.

Each action has enough spaces so that you can place up to three of your workers on a specific action on each turn. The different actions that you can take are:

• Market: This action allows a player to buy paints at a single vender booth. Each tile on the booth contains a number of different paint colors on it. For each worker you possess, you can purchase all of the paints on one tile from that one vendor (for the price determined by your wake-up time). After your purchases, no matter how many you bought, the remaining vendor tiles are discarded and no one may purchase from this vendor. This can be done as well without buying any tiles and just closing down the market booth so other players cannot get the paints. After you purchase the tiles, you take cubes matching the colors and put them behind your other screen. The tile then is discarded to be shuffled into the next day's vendor tiles.
• Cathedral: This action allows the player to restore a segment of the fresco. The fresco is covered by 25 tiles, each of which has a Victory Point value on it and icons indicating which color paints will be used to restore it. So a tile that has a 5 written on it and an Orange, Yellow and Blue cube would obviously cost one orange, one yellow and one blue paint cube to restore and be worth 5 points. Before a player restores a tile, he can pay 1 Thaler (coin) to move the Bishop pawn which sits on the fresco tiles one space. If the Bishop is adjacent to the tile restored, the player received 2 bonus Victory Points. If the Bishop is on the restored tile, the player received 3 bonus points. Alternately, instead of restoring a fresco tile, the player may instead opt to "restore the altar", which he or she instead discards a number of paint cubes for straight Victory Points listed on the altar. This generally is worth fewer points than restoring a fresco piece, but if other players went before you and restored the pieces you were planning on restoring, you may be left with an action and useless paints.
• Studio: This action allows a player to paint portraits. For each worker placed on this action, the player received 3 Thalers (coins).
• Workshop: This action allows a player to mix his paints to get other colors. Each worker on this action allows the player to blend his paints up to two times. For example, a player can blend red and blue paint to get purple paint. So the player would discard a red paint cube and a blue paint cube and take a purple paint cube. For those who do not know basic color mixing, a cheat sheet is supplied for each player.
• Theater: This action represents taking your workers out to the local opera. Each worker that you have placed on this action moves your mood up two spaces. This may remove worker penalties received from waking up early, or gain bonuses by becoming very pleasant and thus more people want to work for you.

After this is resolved, the next turn begins. New market tiles are laid out and each player collects 1 coin for each fresco tile they have already restored and sits in front of them.

This continues until there are 6 or fewer fresco tiles left to be restored. Then one more round is completed, but the Theater action is replaced with a second Cathedral action (which takes place after mixing paints).

After this final round everyone is awarded 1 Victory Point for every 2 coins that they have. Whoever has the most points wins and is recognized as the master fresco painter. Even though he is technically just a fresco restorer.

Now the game also comes with four supplemental expansion modules ready to play in the box.

The first supplemental module is the two-player game. It has rules for creating a communal third player (Leonardo) whose control is swapped from turn to turn. It isn't technically listed as one of the official supplemental expansions, but it is listed in the supplemental rules and does change the game enough that I think that this is where it belongs.

The Portraits supplemental module adds a variety of different portraits that can be painted in the Studio action. A player could simply take 3 Thalers, or he may choose a portrait card that is dealt to the Studio at the start of the turn. Each card gives different rewards, some of which are one time rewards and others last through the game. It creates the most diversity and, in my opinion, is the most interesting of the supplemental modules.

The Bishop's Request module offers new ways of getting Victory Points and paints, based on the fresco tiles a player has already completed. Each fresco tile has colors printed on the back of them. When you have tiles that have the colors matching the current Bishop's Request, you can have one of your workers taking the Workshop action to trade in the tiles and receive the Victory Points listed. From that point on, they will receive the colored paint listed on the tile when they collect income at the end of the turn. This is the most "euro" and abstract module in the game. It doesn't really add strategic depth, but it does offer a few more options with your completed fresco tiles than simply getting one point each for them. This is also the most confusing of the modules, so family gamers may wish to really get to know the game before adding it.

The Special Blend Colors module adds new fresco tiles to the mix which include even more complex colors of pink and brown. They are generally worth even more points and require extra steps to blend to get pink or brown paints. This module doesn't really change gameplay at all and really just adds more options out of the actions that already existed in the game. This is probably the easiest of the modules to introduce into the base game since it really require the least explanation.


The Theme:

This is a Euro game and as such the mechanics are really supposed to be the art and they are supposed to be what you are enjoying instead of the... well... art.

But I will state that there are flaws in the theme to begin with: You are not painting a fresco, but you are restoring one. First of all, this is a highly controversial thing in the art world. Many people think that this really destroys art. Others believe that it brings existing artwork closer to the original impression and color that the artist intended.

But whichever side of the debate you are on, most of the time restoration of important classical pieces in the Renaissance time used tools such as walnut oil, linens, wine-dipped sponges and wetted bread. Only in cases of extreme damage were actual paints used (and often sparingly). And that would be fine, but the set up and premise of the game seems to imply that you are famous artists creating a beautiful fresco. But they're not. They're restoring some other great artist's work.

So the "tacked-on" Euro theme isn't exactly accurate. That doesn't take away from the mechanics, which, considering the genre of the game, I suppose we should be focused on. But thematically, the game has some problems for me.


Learning the Game:

The game appears to have a lot more going on that it really does. This is not a bad thing, but it does have the effect of appearing more daunting to learn than the game really is. Without the expansion modules, the game is played and learned fairly easy and play becomes pretty intuitive after playing through a full turn or two. In fact, the rulebook excellently explains everything in an 8 page 8" x 10" full color book full of illustrations and examples.

In fact that it is easy to learn puts it closer to the family game category. However, the fact that it appears very complicated means that most non-gaming families will avoid it. And, truth be told, the mechanics are easy to learn for any BGGer, but I would imagine the amount of fore-planning and thinking needed in the game will ultimately keep it from being a family game as it is listed.


The Components:


A game in progress. The sheer amount of bits and things that appear to be going on with the board will frighten off most families. 



The game has some very nice components to it. 




The fresco that is being restored, complete with buttocks and breasts. 




I think that every game that is being produced feels obligated to create its own unique "signature" meeple these days. And people think that Ameritrash game plastic is unnecessarily overproduced... 



The game is beautifully crafted and although the board really seems daunting with everything that is going on with it, it really is surprisingly practical. And the board is two-sided and the board set up is different depending on how many players you have. I personally love it when games do things like this. It makes games much more playable depending on how many players you have.

The cardboard tiles in the game are sturdy and should not show wear for a long time. Other than the Bishop's Request module expansion, they all have easy to determine and realize icons on them.

Even the box insert is well-produced, which is a nice extra touch, since you do not need it at all for the game. I really have no complaints on the production of the pieces, though some might think that there are too many and they can be easily confused, such as the Bishop's Request tiles being too easily confused with the fresco tiles.


Playing the Game:

The game appears more complex than it really is. When playing the game, it becomes easy and intuitive to learn and most of the module expansions really do not complicate the game much more.

But games like this are supposed to be about the mechanics and the flow of them. And, the game really does play tight and tense. It takes a fair amount of planning and forward thinking to be the most efficient, but you also need to plan around what your opponents may be doing, which isn't exactly easy since worker placement is hidden and simultaneous and their paints are hidden behind a screen. Sure, you can watch what they buy and make mental notes and have some idea of what fresco tiles they might be able to restore, but if you are wrong and they wake up earlier than you, you may find yourself out of luck as they take the tiles you were after.

But there are a couple of new seasonings added to what is a game that is in a market saturated with different formers of worker placement games. The most notable is the wake-up time. This is an interesting mechanic, even if it does not make the most thematic rational sense (If you woke up at 6 am, then I cannot wake up at 6 am). Still, it creates an interesting mechanic that makes you focus on not just restoring and economy, but also mood (which is essentially just another economy to adjust and manage with actions).


Scalability:

The game really is designed for 3 or 4 players and each one has its own board and set up, which makes each of these games equally fulfilling since it takes into account the blocking factor of a game with only three players. The two-player game is playable, but ultimately the Leonardo dummy player mechanic does not work as well or cutthroat as it would with a live player. The two player game isn't terrible, but it also doesn't make the mechanics that make this game stand out shine in any way. I would suggest that this game really is for 3-4 players and the official included 2-player variant feels like most 2-player variants of games designed for more players. It's just included and not found by searching through the variants forum on BoardGameGeek.


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. The more she likes a game, the more likely (and often) we will play it. That being said, my wife does not mind this game. She definitely would not suggest the two-player variant for her and I during an evening together, but she doesn't mind when it comes up when friends are over. I don't think she'd ever suggest it, but I also think she probably would not turn it down if our friends mentioned it.


The Pros:

*An interesting choice of theme that isn't really touched upon...
*Well-produced and visually beautiful game.
*Plays a lot more simple and intuitively than it looks.
*Tight and tense gameplay.
*Elegant implementation of mechanics.
*Requires good forethought and planning with an eye on your opponent to really do well.
*Interesting "twist" of adding mood as an additional economy to manage in the game.
*Gameplay flows well, like a good Euro should.
*Included modules really can expand upon gameplay.


The Cons:

*An interesting choice of theme that isn't really touched upon... which ultimately makes the game seem to stand out more because of theme than because of the actual mechanics.
*Thematic elements don't really fit that well (I know, I know. It's a Euro).
*Bishop's Request module stands out a bit from the others, adding unnecessary complexity and breaking the flow of an otherwise elegant game.
*Probably too complex for most families, despite the game's own description in its rules as being an "exquisite family game".
*I'm unsure if the game is bashing artists by making them restorers of greater artist's work, or if they are promoting art restorers as being great artists.


Overall:

Fresco is an elegant implementation of game mechanics with beautiful components and pieces. Ultimately, however, the game's theme is suspect and that is what really makes the game stand out more than anything else. Still, it isn't bad and it is challenging with enough going on to occupy most gamers. The game doesn't stand out as anything spectacular in my opinion, but it is, at least, less dry than a number of other Euro games. Hardcore Euro fans will love this game, but unless that is your genre of games, the game does not offer enough to bring in an outside audience to check out the interesting and rather untouched theme.


6.5/10