Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review: Dungeon Lords

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I'm also a long-time Dungeons and Dragons fan and have played and loved the Dungeon Keeper PC games. I'm also a big fan of the tubby little astronauts in Chvatil's previous game, Galaxy Trucker, and am very pleased to have little like-sized imp playmates for them now.


The Overview:




The box cover depicts the very stylish and almost adorable artwork that is consistent within the box. 



It wouldn't be a Chvatil game without lots of cardboard and bits. 



Dungeon Lords is a fantasy game in which you take the role of the lord of a dungeon that you are managing and building over the course of two years. At the end of each year, there is a combat phase, in which an adventuring party enters your dungeon and tries to conquer as much of it as possible while you try to defeat them through traps and monsters that you have readied during the course of the years.

The game is for 2-4 players and plays in about 90 minutes. A two-player game with experienced players will take about 60 minutes and a full four-player game will usually take a bit more time than the 90 minutes. If you play with less than 4 players, "non-player" boards are set up to bring the number up to four, though they will block actions, but not play out fully. Extrapolating from this, it will be relatively easy to alter it for solo play, though it does not come with solo rules in the box. Also, the game is a little complex and isn't for non-gamers, even if most of the mechanics will be easy for your standard gamer to pick up on.

The game takes place over the course of two years. Each year is broken into four seasons, in which the player can build and expand his dungeon and influence. At the end of the year, there is a combat in which each dungeon is invaded by its own individual adventuring party.

The building portions of the game combine worker placement and card management, as you use the cards in your hand to pick where you will place your minions to determine which actions you take. Two out of the three cards you play will not be available in the next build portion of the game, so you have to plan wisely. Plus, there are only 3 available slots in each action, and each yields a different result with a different cost. Considering that there are potentially 4 players looking to take the same action that you want (which is why you include the NPC dungeons), there is blocking and position to worry about to maximize the effectiveness of your placements.

There are eight different actions which include:

Get Food: This gets you an amount of food dependent upon your position. Food is used to pay for and feed certain monsters that may inhabit your dungeon.

Improve Reputation: This action lowers your "evil" reputation. This is actually a very strategic mechanic in the game. Generally you gain more "evil" when you take better actions and have tougher monsters in your group. However, if you become too evil, you attract the Paladin to the adventuring group at your dungeon. The Paladin, to put it bluntly, is a bad ass. This balances the game and does not simply allow the player who placed his minions in the best location the opportunity to run away with building the best and nastiest dungeon. It will then have to survive the Paladin stomping through it.

Dig Tunnels: This allows you to expand your dungeon by digging new tunnels. Each tunnel built requires one imp and you can allocate a maximum number of imps to dig tunnels based on placement order.

Mine Gold: This allows you to allocate imps to get gold for you. Gold is required to pay taxes on your tunnels and rooms as well as to purchase traps and rooms.

Recruit Imps: This allows you to get more imps to place in later rounds. The number of imps you receive, as well as the total cost is dependent upon placement order.

Buy Traps: This allows you to purchase a trap for your dungeon (or two traps, depending on placement). Traps are one of the two basic means of battling adventurers at the end of each year.

Hire Monster: This allows you to hire one of the three monsters who are placed out each phase. Each monster has a different cost (some simply require food, others cost you in reputation and move you up more "evil" steps, tempting the Paladin and nastier adventurers to come to your dungeon). Each monster has their damage and effects listed on them and many of them have different attacks they can choose from or have other effects as well. Monsters are the second means of defending your dungeon against adventurers. You can have as many monsters as you wish, however, once each year, you will come across the "Pay Day" Event and have to pay the cost of each monster you have another time. For someone who has focused primarily on monsters that give you an evil reputation, you will see how quickly that rises.

Build Room: Two rooms are available for purchase each round. This makes jockeying for this position a little trickier than the others, since the first person to place on this action risks not getting anything if the other two positions are filled.

After four building rounds, the year ends and each dungeon is assaulted by an Adventuring Party. Now the Adventuring Parties are not drawn blindly. You see them forming and each are assigned as the building continues. In each assignment, the weakest adventurer goes to the least evil dungeon and each progresses until the strongest adventurer goes to the most evil dungeon.

However, weakest does not necessarily mean least deadly to you. There are four types of adventurer and each has a special ability. Warriors are damage soakers and usually have the most health and automatically move to the front of the party to protect the weaker members. Thieves can absorb the damage from traps that you use against the group. Wizards can cast spells, and each round of combat the spell effects depend on the card drawn. Priests can heal the party after you inflicted damage. And, if you are the most evil, Paladins have all four of those abilities. Anyhow, you may have few monsters and be relying mainly on traps. But if each round, the weakest adventurer is a thief, then they will be assigned to your dungeon and it may hurt your particular defenses more than if you took the strongest adventurer who was a warrior. So there is a lot of strategy and consideration when planning your defenses and anticipating who will comprise the adventuring group coming to you, and either planning your defenses or moving your reputation to ready yourself for it.

The Adventuring Party raids your dungeon for a maximum of four rounds. They move in from the entrance and you battle them on the tile. If it is a tunnel, you can assign one trap and one monster to the defense. If it is a room, you can assign two monsters and one trap (though playing a trap in a room costs one gold). You resolve the trap's damage first, but each thief absorbs a portion of the damage. If the group has a wizard in it, a spell is cast if they can cast it. Then monsters deal their damage. Casualties are removed as they are taken. Afterward, priests heal and then the party takes fatigue and if any of them are still standing, they conquer the tile. The next round continues the same way until all of the adventurers are eliminated or four rounds of combat have passed.

The combat creates some interesting tactical decisions, as you have to determine what the most efficient means of either taking out the adventurers is, or at least, the best way to minimize the damage they will do to your dungeon.

Once this is completed, the second year starts and everything is done once more, but with tougher monsters, different rooms and more powerful adventurers. Once the second year is completed, everyone scores.

Scoring is rather balanced, giving a few different options to try to gain the most points. The base points come from things such as dungeon size, monsters you have, and adventurers you've defeated, while losing points for each conquered tile and taxes you have not paid. The different paths for gaining points mostly comes from the awarding of Titles, in which points are given to the player with the most of something. The player with the most evil gets the title and points, the player with the most monsters gets a title and points, the player with the most tunnels gets a title and points, and so on.

By the end, you see that there are ways to try to position yourself to win one or two of the titles to get the point awards in hopes of putting you ahead of your competitors. But each of them is also costly. Trying for the most rooms or tunnels is fine, but then you will be paying the most in tax. Going for the most evil is good too, but then you will have the toughest adventurers and possibly the paladin. Most monsters will get you a reward, but you'll be paying the most each payday.

Ultimately the game works wonders in balancing itself out for making each move thoughtful and strategic and the points seem very balancing at the end.


The Theme:

Dungeon Lords is a very themey game. There is something about the artwork that draws you in and makes taking the role of evil overlord of a dungeon very appealing. And the little imp figures kind of make you wonder if you are trying to plague the surface village with fatal levels of adorableness.

The manual is written more like Chvatil's previous manuals of Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker instead of like Through the Ages. With the first two and this manual, the humor is strong, flavorful and evident and I laughed along with it, as opposed to the humor in the manual of TtA, in which I think it was just Chvatil laughing at me as I tried to look up and find a rule afterwards. But the theme is still evident even in the presentation of the manual, as it is presented as a training manual with two characters explaining the story and rules to you.

Still, while the theme is here and it is strong, there are times that the puzzle-solving battles and strategic worker placement and card management comes to the forefront and completely makes you forget about theme as you deal with the game itself. I don't want to necessarily say that this is a negative, however. But as so much of the game comes down to determining efficiency, I sometimes feel like I am playing a non-mathy version of Automobile as I plan out how to maximize my actions while at the same time trying to anticipate the movements of my opponents with so few turns available.


Learning the Game:

Other than Through the Ages, I really think that one of the strengths of Chvatil's games has been the presentation of rules. Not only are they entertaining, and not only are they presented clearly with good headings to look things up again later, but they are presented in a way to teach the game; not just teach it to you, but so that you can teach it to other players.

There is a lot here to digest and a lot of little things to remember and keep track of, but the rules really do a good job of keeping the player on top of them and getting it right. That isn't to say that you won't miss a small rule or three on your first play, but you'll get everything major down and a quick reread afterward and you'll pick up on your little mistakes.

The only thing that I can think of that would have made the learning process a bit easier would be player aids that explain the icons. As it is, they are only listed on the rulebook and it will get passed around a number of times in your first game. However, this isn't that notable of a problem at all, since the icons really are very intuitive that by your second game you shouldn't really need to refer to them at all. Plus, every monster and every room comes out in each game, which means that you won't have that stray monster or room effect that only comes up every so often so you don't recall it. It means there is more to take in on your first go, but it really is very intuitive.

Despite the number of cards, tokens and bits, by my second game I wasn't referring to the rules to set up the game. It really manages all of these pieces very well and makes the process easy to learn.


The Components:


It may be busy, but it's a very pretty board. 






The vampire shows the style of artwork. It is very stylistic and very beautiful. 


The components of the game are both functional and pretty. The boards are of standard quality and may seem a little busy at first, but really have such theme and style to them that it is completely worth how busy they are. There are interesting little things to find in the artwork. The imp reading the newspaper while using the chamber pot, the vampires drinking blood from an iv in the tavern, the yeti making a snowman and even the warrior smashing the troll's face in wielding a goblin as a weapon are all illustrated well enough and are amusing enough to be worth the extra busy that is on the boards as a result.



Player cube, damage cube and imps. My three-year old daughter has already borrowed a couple of the imps to have a tea party with. 


Besides the artwork and the functional, if busy, boards, there are also other components. Each player has three little wooden minion meeples (mineeples?) and the game comes with its required cubes. However, the imps are not represented by simple wooden cubes, but rather by sculpted plastic minis. This is both completely unnecessary and totally appreciated. They are on par with the little astronauts that come with Galaxy Trucker. A simple wooden cube would easily do the trick, but the extra details like these really make the game's components stand out.


Playing the Game:

There are a lot of little details that are easy to forget and a bunch of different rules and mechanics involved in this game. However, despite how complex some of it may be, the game really does flow together very intuitively.

A lot of the play will be reacting to the immediate needs of your dungeon and basing how to obtain them by anticipating where your opponents have laid their cards to know how to get the best gain for your worker placement. This isn't as easy as it may sound and you may find yourself suddenly changing gears because you suddenly are in a position that your cost for the food you need is not going to be one gold, but rather two evil. Your calculations on how to prepare for the adventurers may suddenly change when your evil levels change and you find that your dungeon full of vampires is now getting a priest adventurer instead of the rogue you had anticipated.

But that is also one of the things about this game. It may seem at times too much about the planning any strategy. The artwork, theme and silly rulebook belies the fact that this game can get thinky. This isn't a free-wheeling dungeon building romp. For those expecting the fly by the seat of your pants feel of Galaxy Trucker may be surprised to find at times that the planning and building with available resources and hoping for their cost to be effected by the movements and actions of their opponents to be more on par with Through the Ages. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but keep in mind that despite the cute little imps, you'll be thinking in this game.

And, despite the thinking, it is not brain-burning or overly heavy. However, you may have to spend some time planning and working hard to obtain the fun-filled romp of the dungeon crawl. I also think that the limited actions that you can take (only 4 per year, for a total of 8 actions), puts much more weight on what you do with each action. And the repercussions (such as attracting the Paladin) can be deadly, so you need to consider them well before taking them.


Scalability:

For a game with tight actions and positioning and timing for worker placement to maximize efficiency, the game scales surprisingly well. The reason behind this is that non-player boards are still set up and run in a bare bones fashion to simulate extra players. In a three-player game, three actions are drawn at random for the fourth non-player board and put out on the actions in the middle spot. This means that someone could still potentially be blocked out of an action, and positioning becomes a little more precarious.

Still, two-player games build a little more strategy in it. Each player controls a non-player board and randomly assigns cards to the first two actions and minions for the non-player boards are placed on the second spot of those actions (second and third places if both boards are on the same action). The third action for each non-player board is chosen by one of the players and played face down. When it comes time to reveal the third action cards, these are revealed first and placed in the earliest locations on their actions. This means that the players can try to plan to use the non-player boards to affect the positioning of their own third action choices. It actually gives a little more strategic depth into the randomness that is placed in the three-player game.

There is also an evil track for one of the non-player boards in the two and three player games. The non-player board will gain evil, but never gain enough to attract the Paladin. But this allows for more positioning and trying to manipulate the track to gain or avoid the adventurer or adventurers of your choice.

Overall, this is one of the best scaling games that I have seen. The mechanics to simulate more players are well done and allow for more of a range than just playing with fewer people. True, the evil track is predictable and the action cards are random, but it still effectively does what it is set out to do, and it creates enough of a range of options that playing with fewer people does not diminish the game's options or strategy. It is not as good as playing it with a full table of four players and the blocking and cutthroat nature that another player could have (intentionally screwing you into becoming more evil and getting the Paladin is a beautiful thing), but it has enough of the flavor that I appreciate what it does more than just limiting the number of spaces in each action would.


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 enjoys a game, the more likely I will see it at the table without me having to woo her into it by playing a lot of games that she favors. That being said, she is a big fan of Dungeons and Dragons and Dungeon Keeper and Dungeon Keeper 2 were some of the few games that she played until she beat. She likes this game. It is a little too thinky and a little too long for her to really enjoy, but if we have the time, I don't think that there will too much of a challenge to get this to the table. I think if it were a bit lighter, she would probably be more willing to play it more often. Not that she doesn't like deep games, but usually we'll play a couple of games in the evening instead of watching teevee. This just happens to be just thinky enough that it is more likely going to be a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon game instead of one to play after dinner.


The Pros:

*Great artwork and pretty boards and pieces.
*Great thematic style of artwork.
*Surprisingly deep, meaty and cutthroat worker placement phase despite what is ultimately few actions.
*Great theme.
*Great sense of humor throughout the rulebook and in the course of the game and cards.
*Good scalability; mimics multiple players well enough to keep full strategic and tactical options intact, even if the lack of real players limits the screwage factor to just randomness.
*Excellent rulebook designed for finding rules AND for teaching it to other players, while still being rather humorous.
*Little imp figures can now keep my tubby little astronaut figures company.


The Cons:

*Boards are a little busy (only a con if you don't care for the artwork).
*Perhaps too heavy for something that may give the impression (by theme and artwork) of being a quick, light-hearted dungeon romp.
*Complexity level is likely too high for casual or non-gamers who would otherwise probably really like the theme.
*Despite having a similar build, then challenge and destroy aspect to Galaxy Trucker, those expecting to find the fast-paced, haphazard style of that game will be very surprised that this is a very different game.
*The building (worker placement) and the Adventurer assault (puzzle solving) portions of the game feel so different, that if you are not a fan of one of them, it can really hurt your experience. For example, some people may feel that it is too much work (complex building) to get to the fun (fightin' the adventurers).
*Slapping my imps to make them more productive just sends them flying across the table and onto the floor.


Overall:

Dungeon Lords is a surprisingly strategic and tactical dungeon building game. The mechanics are amazingly well-balanced (the Paladin limits players from taking too many good options that would make them too evil; most every scoring Title category gives you points, but also costs you more resources to maintain) and the game scales beautifully with the non-player boards effectively blocking and creating a measure to adapt to and play off of. While it may seem at first like it may be a light, fun game more along the line of Galaxy Trucker, the weight and importance of the limited actions that you receive and building while working off of the hopes that your opponent will optimize your purchasing an action reminds me more of something between Automobile and Through the Ages (but admittedly not as complex). Some people may be put off at all of the thinking that they will have to do to get to the fun, but what it comes down to is that this is a beautifully crafted game; from art to bits to mechanics to balance to scalability, everything has been well thought through and put together amazingly well.


8/10

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: At the Gates of Loyang

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. However, I'm not really a fan of most vegetables, even though now that I have a three year old, I have to pretend I enjoy eating them to model good behavior.


The Overview:


The box is the standard Agricola / Le Havre sized box. 



Box contents, including oodles of wooden vegetable markers. 



At the Gates of Loyang is a war game that tells the story of the tyrannical Chancellor Zhuo's attack and siege of China's capital city of Loyang in AD 189... Ah, wait a minute.

At the Gates of Loyang is a farming and market game with an epic wargame title. Players take the role of famers who take their harvests to the marketplace set up in front of the gates of Loyang and manipulate the markets to trade for the resources that they need to fill the orders of their regular customers while at the same time trying to make profit from any casual customers that are available in the market. At the end of each turn, the money that the players made can be spent to move along the victory point track, which determines the final score and the winner of the game.

The game is for 1-4 players and takes from about 60-120 minutes to play. The solo game can be in less time, taking about 30-40 minutes for a player who knows how to play. Surprisingly, however, the three player game is the longest, taking the closest to the full two hours, while the two and four player games are both around 60-90 minutes. This is because of the set up of the four player game, but I'll get into that later.

Each player gets their own score track (the "Path of Prosperity") that also sets up the layout of their cards and houses their personal shop from which they can buy and sell vegetables. Each player begins with 10 Cash and one large field to plant their vegetables in. Other than the 9-spaced Home Field, each player has a total of 8 more fields (2 fields each of 3 spaces, 4 spaces, 5 spaces and 6 spaces) which are shuffled and placed face down. Each player purchases one of the vegetables in their shop and plants it in their home field, filling the rest of the spaces on the field with the same vegetable. Once that is completed, the players begin the game.

There are a total of 9 Rounds in the game and each Round consists of 3 Phases.

During the Harvest Phase a player turns over their next field face up. That field is now ready to be planted on. Each field that has vegetables on it, harvests 1 vegetable which goes into the player's supply. If you remove the last vegetable from a field, that field is discarded.

At the start of the Card Phase all of the discards are shuffled into the deck and four cards are dealt to each player. Players need to play exactly two cards into their play area. One comes from their hand and the other comes from a card drafting pool. Each player takes a turn, placing one of their four cards face-up into a common drafting area called the "Courtyard". The next player must either place one card in the Courtyard or take one of the cards in the Courtyard and play it along with one card from their hand. If they take and play cards, the remaining cards in their hand move to the draft pool. This continues until everyone has taken a card from the pool and played a card from their hand. The last player left to choose may not place cards in the Courtyard, but must instead immediately take one from the pool and play one from their hand. This mechanic creates some strategy, since if you have two cards in your hand, you have to decide which to lay out in the pool and hope that no one else takes it before it comes back to you. If you wait too long, other players can take their cards, leaving you with both cards that you want in your hand, but you can only play one of them and have to take another from the pool. The last player to play cards in this Phase becomes the starting player. Going first gives you a small advantage in the next phase, but it means you got last choice of cards.

Cards that you take go immediately to your play area. There are four kinds of cards. Regular Customer cards show what combination of vegetables they require and must be given to over four rounds. Each round that you fulfill the customer's needs, you receive the amount of coins lists. Casual Customer cards usually pay more than the regular customers, but they are one and done. You will make more money satisfying a Regular Customer over 4 rounds, but Casual Customers pay well for one round. Market cards let you trade one vegetable for another type of vegetable. Helper cards are cards that allow special actions and also allow you to interact with the other players. They are the only way that you can interact with the other players in the game.

The final phase is the Action Phase and a player can take as many actions as they want, as many times as they want, in any order that they want. It is here that they can plant vegetables in their fields, buy or sell vegetables from their shop, trade vegetables at a Market, play or discard a Helper, deliver to a Regular Customer, deliver to a casual customer or buy a two-pack. Buying a two-pack is the only action that can only be taken once per turn. A two-pack consists of two action cards that are taken from the draw pile. The player can keep none, one or both of the cards. If both cards are taken, one is placed on top of the other and the bottom card cannot be used until the top card is completed or resolved.

Regular customers who do not get their vegetables become dissatisfied. If you fail to deliver to a regular customer who is already dissatisfied, then you lose 2 Cash. Casual customers do not penalize you for not completing their order in a Round. Helper cards give special actions, including actions that let you interact with other player's areas. Some of them will let you use another player's Market, satisfy another player's customer or something along that line.

Afterwards, players store their vegetables that were not used that round. Depending on the size of their store house, they lose any extra vegetables.

And finally, players can move their marker along their Path of Prosperity (score track). The track runs from 1-20. The first step at the end of each Phase costs 1 coin. Then you can take as many steps as you like, but each subsequent step costs whatever the number shown on the step is; so to move to the 14 point step costs 14 coins.



The Theme:

At the Gates of Loyang isn't really about theme. That isn't exactly a bad thing. I mean, do you really want to feel completely immersed and come out of the game saying, "Wow, that really felt like I was growing turnips!" However, for creating a strategic planning experience, the game succeeds a bit better. There are decisions to be made and planning that needs to be done in order to maximize your earning potential each round and satisfy your customers.

Markets remain in play in front of you and casual customers hang around turn after turn until they get what they need. Despite all of the other markets and customers that are out in front of the other players, you need specific cards to use them. With that in mind, I don't think that the game really simulates a busy market in front of the Chinese capital city. The bustling marketplace doesn't matter as you really only focus on the portion of it right in front of you.

There are also some places where limitations from the mechanics bleed into the game play itself, however. In the start of the game, no more than 2 players may plant the same type of vegetable. This is not for any strategic reason or for creating a diverse market. That rule is simply in place because there are not enough vegetable tokens to accommodate more than two players starting with one vegetable type. And in a four-player game, players pick partners and two pairs of players take their turns simultaneously, where each player is only allow to interact with one other player with their Helper cards. This isn't to simulate anything, but rather just to reduce lengthy playtime.



Learning the Game:

The rules are fairly simply to learn. It is much easier to grasp from first play than Agricola. If you've played Agricola you can see some similarities in some of the mechanics concepts. This was actually developed before Agricola, but published after it. I think that puts it more in context and where it learned from some of the shortcomings in this game's design. The game was also inspired by Antiquity, but I have not played that to make a comparison.

Strategy comes with a few plays and it is an intuitive learning curve. Since the only interaction is through Helper cards, and going out of your way to simply hurt another player's game usually hurts you just as much, there is no reason why experienced players cannot coach new players during their turn. The interaction is sporadic and for the most part, your score ends up being based almost wholly on how you played, not by how much your opponent was able to stop you.

There are some differences in the solo play than the regular play, but they are easy enough to adapt to and learn as well.



The Components:



The game actually comes with Vegemeeples... What are the third party distributors going to produce to sell for this game? 


Card artwork is on par with Agricola. A little sidenote: All of the males of a card type are posed the same way and all of the females of a card type are posed the same way. 




Game in progress. 



The Path of Prosperity. Apparently to move further and further among the Path of Prosperity, it costs boatloads of money. That's not very Zen.




The artwork on the cards is on par with the artwork with Agricola and is fitting. The card stock is the sturdy and fine for shuffling and wear. The cardboard components are sturdy and useful, and the coins are rather nice and fitting. Best of all, the vegetables are shaped wooden components instead of cubes. This means that we don't have to go through a craze of everyone trying to get shaped vegemeeples to replace their cubes!

The components are useful and very practical and durable. The T-shaped scoreboard works for me, since it also sets up the frame of your play area. Some people think that the game would be better suited with a universal scoreboard so that people can compare scores more easily, but I like the personal ones. There is minimal blocking and only sporadic interaction, so really it feels right that my score should be in front of me. Despite the large markets at Loyang, the board is my world and I only rarely venture out of it to find other markets and customers.



Playing the Game:

Game play is easy and intuitive and there is a lot of contemplation on how to maximize the Cash you will receive each turn. There is downtime in the game, but in a two-player game it isn't that bad. The three-player game suffers the most lag from downtime. I usually don't mind this too much, since our core group is a chatty bunch, but a player taking his turn usually is concentrating on what is in front of him so at least you have one other person to talk to while someone is taking their turn.

I enjoy the Path of Prosperity and the means of advancing along it. It's cheaper to move early in the game, but much more costly at the end. This rewards those who can make a few quick deals in the early game, but also rewards those who can set up consistent engines to produce money through the mid and late game. Some people complain that the scores seem rather tight, but with coins as the tie-breaker and the mark of how you advance, they really are a part of the final score and tell a fuller story. For example, my wife's last three games have all been 18 point games. However, there is a huge difference between the game where she ended with 18 points and 2 coins and the game that she ended with 18 points and 16 coins. Similarly, a game where she and I tied at 16 points, I had 0 coins left and she had 14 coins left, wasn't nearly as close as it might seem. So, for those worried about the tight scores, include the cash in your scores at the end. It really separates the scores and shows a better picture.

And as much as I don't want to get into the whole debate about multiplayer solitaire, I think it is necessary to mention it here. The interaction is minimal. It can make an impact, but really I cannot go out of my way to block another player without really hurting myself, unless it just happens to be something that I need. That being said, I don't mind it. In its own way, it sort of works for this game. At the end of my wife's first 18 point game, when I mentioned that she won, she said, "Well, you let me win." I blinked and said, "How could I let you win?" And it really made realize that your score is a merit of your own game and not really by anyone else's play.



Scalability:

The game plays best as a 2 player and a solo game. Three player increases the potential of interaction, but really increases the down time and turns it into a two-hour game. For the limited amount of interaction and effect that a third player gives me in the game, I don't know if it is worth adding one to the game. I would rather play it as a two-player game.

Four player is just a little clumsy with the execution and trying to decrease the downtime. It still works, but at the same time that you are increasing players, you are limiting interaction.



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. My wife loved this game at first, but has slowed on her enthusiasm after more plays. She still enjoys it, but it is not a go-to two-player game as I thought it would have been. Still, it is not as brain-burning as Agricola and if I am in the mood for that and she does not want something that deep, this would probably be the compromise game.

Another thing I have to note is that even though my wife's enthusiasm has slowed on this, she is incredibly good at it. She routinely beats me and holds our two highest scores.



The Pros:

*Pretty game with solid components.
*Score is based on individual play since there is limited interaction and blocking.
*Lighter than Agricola, but with a similar kind of feel.
*Not difficult to learn, but offers a range of strategy.
*Game play requires you to be constantly thinking multiple turns ahead.
*Interesting means of gaining victory points.
*A good solo game play.


The Cons:

*Titles sounds a lot more epic than the actual theme is.
*Limited interaction will turn off some players.
*Mechanics take over theme and change game to make it playable (starting vegetables and 4 player partners).
*A bit too light for the time investment.
*Cards can make or break a Round with a really good or bad draw.
*Downtime is a factor.



Overall:

At the Gates of Loyang is a production and market game that has a lot of planning and strategy in it, but ultimately still feels a bit light. There is not a lot of interaction or blocking, but that does not necessarily hurt the game as long as you go into it with that in mind. There are some interesting mechanics in the game, the planning of the fields and the managing customers to get just enough money to move you one step further along the Path of Prosperity are rather interesting. However, for the amount of time invested in the game, I feel that it is too light. For the same amount of time that I put into a two or three player game of At the Gates of Loyang, I could have played a two or three player game of Agricola and still played my own game, but with more interaction. It will find its way to my table, but not as often as it would if it were shorter, or the same length but with more depth.


7/10

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Review: Luna Llena

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, for the record, I am not a member of Team Jacob. Nor Team Edward for that matter. I'm more of a member of Team Don't Be A Codependent And Angst Magnet And Maybe Later Hook Up With A Mummy That Respects You Enough To Establish Independence And Get You Involved In CoDA.


The Overview:


Box cover showing the style of artwork to be found within. 



Box contents. 



Luna Llena is a semi-cooperative game where one player takes the role of a pack of werewolves in the forest and the other players all take the role of the hapless campers, lost and trying to survive and escape. While more powerful in strength and prowess, the werewolves don't just want to slaughter the campers. They want to infect them with lycanthropy and have them transform to join their pack. The problem is, the werewolves don't know if their infection took or not until night, so they want to keep them alive until that point. The campers, meanwhile, are trying to arm themselves and find the werewolves' lair to rescue their companions and recover the map that will lead them out of the woods.

The game is for 2-7 players and takes about 2 hours to play. Like most games, it moves quicker with fewer player and slower with more, so 2 hours is the base to work from. The campers are all on the same team and can communicate openly and work together. If a camper is hit by a werewolf, they may be infected. If they are, they can try to stop the infection and work with the humans or give into their fate and join the werewolves' team when they transform. The ends when all of the humans have left the forest, are transformed or dead. For the humans to win, at least one of them must survive and escape the forest. For the werewolves to win, at least one of the campers must be turned into a werewolf and they have killed all of the other humans to ensure that no one can talk about what happened. However, this isn't really a game about winning or losing. Don't worry about balance and equal sides or anything like that. The game is really about the story you are telling.

The game turns run through the hours of the day, beginning in the morning and eventually moving to dusk, then night. The forest is represented by a hex map. The campers begin in the center hex and build the map as they move out, drawing a random hex from the bag for the new hex they've move into. The werewolf player takes a map and draws out a path of 10 hexes from the campers' start hex to his lair. This is where the map is, as well as two hostage characters who are taken and placed aside before the game even begins.

The campers take their actions by playing cards from their hand. These range from options such as Running, Searching, Exploring, Hiding and so on. Exploring gives you a chance to determine if the path the lair lays along a hex, while Searching lets you try to find items in a given hex. Regardless of the action card played, each camper can also take a move action to move one hex on their turn. There is no exit to the forest until the lair is discovered and the map is found. Once the map is found, the exits are placed on the hex map and the campers need to try to escape as quickly as possible.

On the werewolf player's turn, he gets a number of action points to spend. He use them to draw a card, use some of the special abilities available to the werewolf or to try to sniff out and attack the campers. Each hex has a icon on it for the number of dice that the werewolf gets to roll to try to sniff out a camper on that hex. If he is successful, he can spend any remaining points to get his werewolves to attack the campers on that hex. If he is not successful, he cannot find the campers in that area and can try a new hex. If he attacks a camper and damages him or her, they get an infection token. The token is face down and it may either have an Infection Positive icon on it, or an Infection Immune icon on it. Neither the damaged player nor the werewolf knows if the infection worked or not. And once a camper has an infection token, they cannot get another. So either it worked, or it didn't. There is not second tries at infection.

After that, the time marker moves forward one hour and the turn starts over again. However, if the timer reaches the dusk spots, each player with an infection token can peek at their token. They get to know if they will be transforming or not. They can lie, bluff or be honest about what they have. It depends on if they want to willingly join the werewolves or try to stop the transformation and continue to help the humans. And, finally, at night, all infection tokens are flipped over and if a camper has an Infection Positive token, then he transforms and joins the werewolf team (though there are items that would stop the transformation, but it still becomes public knowledge that you have the infection, but are still on the humans' side).

Once night falls and the werewolves can see who is on their side, the game becomes a bloodbath of trying to kill the fleeing humans while the humans are just trying to move and escape as quickly as possible.

There are a few other mechanics that affect the game. The humans collect Determination at the end of each round, which can be spent on numerous things: remaining calm, healing, helping other players, drawing new action cards. The humans also have a Calm stat, which can be lost by many different situations. Some hexes cost calm just to enter them and the werewolf can play cards that lose a players calm. Lose too much calm and you become scared, which limits the Determination resource that you can hold. And finally, if you are scared and lose all of your calm, then you flee into the woods in a random direction.

Combat is determined by a press-your-luck mechanic where each camper and werewolf involved draws a card from the combat deck and adds the number to their character's combat value. Players can either stand or hit, like blackjack. The problem is that there are a number of cards in the deck, such as "Trip", which, if drawn, drops the character's combat value to 0. So if a werewolf currently has a 15 and the camper has an 11, he can decide to hit or stay. Staying means that he knows he will not draw a trip card. However, the camper might be able to draw enough to pass your total. Or he may draw a trip card. That is where the press-you-luck mechanic comes into play, though usually it is the werewolf player that is the one choosing to stay or hit. For the camper, it's obvious that you have to go for it regardless of the risk since you usually start below the werewolf in combat value.



The Theme:

Luna Llena has been described as a horror movie... A weird, messed up horror movie. I think that is fitting assessment. There is a lot of randomness in the game and it depends on how that randomness plays out, there may not be much strategy. So ultimately, what you focus on is the story being told. And that works for the game.

There is a lot of theme in the game. You are watching a story being told. There is suspicion and tension as the campers each get infected, knowing that one or more of them may eventually turn on their fellow campers. Once an infected camper gets to look at his infection token you have to start to wonder if they can be trusted or not. Perhaps they see that they are going to be a werewolf and have decided to sabotage their fellow humans as they have embraced the inevitable. It can create a lot of suspicion and tension between the campers once people get a chance to see their tokens. The end result doesn't give as much sabotage opportunities as say, an unrevealed Cylon in Battlestar Galactica, but as the night nears, campers may scatter for fear of sharing a hex with a friend who suddenly becomes a rampaging werewolf ready to attack them.

This theme is a little less felt by the werewolf player, however. You are a part of the story, but most of it is a waiting game for the werewolf. Make a strategic strike here and there and get up the intrigue by attacking and infecting the players, but you cannot see who is infected yourself. ScottE had made the remark that playing the werewolf is akin to being the GM in an RPG and I cannot agree more. You set everything up, control the pacing, but ultimately, the story is told by the reactions of the other players.



Learning the Game:

The game is not a difficult or complex game to learn and understand. However, the rulebook really tries to make it so. The English translations in the book are not always phrased the best, but it is not impossible to read through the rules and figure it out. The player aids are good. In fact, they better illustrate the turn order and options available than the rulebook itself.

Even after the rules are understood, there are a few timing issues that are not well explained in the book. Fortunately, most of these issues can be determined intuitively. But ultimately, this isn't a game where winning and losing is really that important, so even if you get a small rule wrong, it doesn't really matter that much.



The Components:

The components of the game are probably the worst part of it, which is a shame. The cards have beautiful illustrations. I really like the artwork on them and the stock of the cards is durable and quite fine. However, there are two specific complaints that I have with the other components that cannot be ignored.



The artwork on the character cards is beautiful.



The tiles that will be drawn for the map. Also, the small tokens that are used by the players. More on them in a bit. 




The board that sets up the tile placement and lets you visualize where you still need to explore. However, this, or any map board like this, is not included in the game. 



The first thing to remark on is the tokens. The campers have markers for their Health and Determination and such, and the werewolves have markers for their points that they can spend each round. The problem is that these tokens are really tiny. I mean, really tiny. Annoyingly so. It is very easy to lose them, especially if you are playing on a tablecloth. And they are of the size that it is not practical to pick them up in a normal way, but rather by pressing your finger onto them and letting the moisture on your skin cause them to stick to your fingertip.

The other thing is that the tile placement is supposed to be within a specified area with some tiles already placed face down. The problem is that there is no placement guide and you just have to freeform and place everything. This makes it a little harder to visualize the map until enough of it is laid down. This is easily solved by having a map tile placement board, but none was included in the game. Fortunately, if you are reading this on BGG, then you can go and download one of the files that have been uploaded and print them out yourself. However, it really is something that should have been included in the game.



Playing the Game:

The game plays well and is fun once you have everything up and running. However, there are a few things to note. The game involvement is not balanced. The humans' turn may involve discussing what they are doing, planning things out, deciding how to work as a team, playing their cards and then resolving their actions, perhaps taking 5-10 minutes if not more if there is a lot of debate. Then the werewolf player takes his turn. He gets his 3 points and draws a card. His turn is over, taking maybe 20 seconds. This may turn off some players to playing the werewolf. But again, the role is much like that of the GM in an RPG. The payoff isn't in what you do specifically, but the end result and story at the end. If you enjoy the GM role, then the werewolf player is the role for you. But if you are in it for the interaction, the Camper side is for you.

Later in the game, it is all about the werewolf hunting and killing the humans, but there is a lot of build up to reach that part and there is much more waiting on the werewolf player's side than on the humans.

The game also is not balanced because of the randomness. Lucky campers can stumble upon the trail and find the werewolves lair before nightfall and can get the map and leave before the werewolves even transform. A bad draw in a combat can find a werewolf dead at the end of it early in the game. However, that isn't necessary bad. Like I said, you are telling a story. The story where tiny Ruka finds an axe and chops off the head of Rufus as he trips while moving towards her shortly after leaving camp is all a part of a greater (and usually weirder) story that is unfolding.

Finally, since the randomness of the game breaks and feasibility of real balance, I think the game would be improved by foregoing any attempt to try to balance it and each game should have a random number of Infection Immune and Infection Positive tokens in it. I think that would add to the tension and, while it would make some games easier for the werewolf, you would always have a lot more mistrust and suspicion in the game, which would make it ultimately more interesting.



Scalability:

The game is for 2-7 players and it scales well for all of that range. There are a few things that are missing from fewer players, however. For example, in a two or three player game, the human players play 3 or 2 characters each respectively. This removes some of the suspicion and tension when one of the characters is infected. You know that you aren't going to betray yourself and so you work to curing or stopping the transformation. Failing that, you will simply move the infect character as far away as possible to help the humans and hinder the werewolves when he does transform. Other than that, it scales well, with more players making the game more interesting because of the interaction.



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. Because this game is about story and theme, she is more likely to enjoy it. And she does. There are characters in this game that you assume the role of and I see the inner RPG geek in her and storyteller in her come out whenever we play. Of course, Dante is going to rush over to try to help Alice. In the story in my wife's mind, nerdy Dante has always had a crush on Alice and now he's going to try to win her over by being the hero.

She doesn't say these things out loud, but I know her well enough that I can see the story subtext in her actions. And you know what? That adds to the story we are telling by playing this game.

My wife really enjoys the game, but prefers it with more players. It lets her speak out and vocalize her story a little more and gives more players to interact with to create it. I think the length of the game, however, is what keeps this from reaching the table more often, even in 2 player form.



The Pros:

*Beautiful card artwork.
*A great story telling game, especially with the right players.
*Can create suspicion and tension once the infections start being given out.
*Excellent scalability.
*Randomness of set up allows a lot of replayability.
*The game feels like a werewolf movie, but not the type of werewolf movie where they are pining over Vampire rebounds.


The Cons:

*Poor translation in the rulebook making it seem more complicated than it really is.
*No hex map board makes the layout much less intuitive.
*Some components are unnecessarily small.
*Randomness can unbalance the game quickly.
*Can end up being quick and uneventful with a quick discovery of the Lair.
*A bit long for a game that really isn't that strategic, but building a story.



Overall:

Luna Llena is much like playing a werewolf movie in the same way that Last Night on Earth captured being in a zombie movie. Sometimes the randomness and luck can work against it being the most interesting movie, but for the most part, you have usually ended up with an experience and a story that is better than the sum of the mechanics of the game. Don't look here for a well-balanced, strategic game. However, if you like theme and story, this game fills that niche better than a lot out there. At the end of the game, you would have created something akin to a werewolf movie. Or, more likely, like a werewolf story being told around a campfire. And that experience and story is what is important here, not balance and mechanics.


7.5/10