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

Friday, September 17, 2010

Review: Murder City

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 was a big fan of the White Wolf RPG systems when they first came out, despite the unneeded hubris that the developers were keen on tossing around. And while I do not mind the cyber-punk dystopian future setting, I really am not that big of a fan of Blade Runner.


The Overview:


The box is compact with artwork that apparently shows the artist's one female friend's face photoshopped onto two women's bodies. 



The back of the box which shows the weirdest bit of the game: the fact that they think people should pay $34.95 for it. Yep. It's going to be a negative review. 



Murder City is a detective game set in a dark, dystopian future where the players take on the role of freelance detectives known as Jovans. However, a Jovan's role is more than just detective, they are also prosecutor for the cases they bring up and you only get paid for conviction, so Jovans diligently gather incriminating evidence, but also may falsify some to try to get paid. Other players take on the role of Auditor, determining whether or not the gathered evidence and story that you give for the prosecution of the crime is enough to warrant going to full trial.

Murder City is a story-telling detective game for 2-5 players. Play time is listed at 120 minutes, but less than 5 players will shorten the length. Deciding that this game is awful and deciding to put it away before finishing it to play something else will also shorten the play time significantly.

Each player takes one of the player boards which gives information on the characters. Most of it is backstory, but it does also list each character's strengths and weaknesses. This doesn't differentiate or make the characters play differently, however, since all that really changes is that this character has to pay one credit for card type A, while that character has to play one credit for card type B.

Each player is then dealt 3 cards from the Murder Deck and they are placed face up in each of the three slots on your board. Each player then gets their character's starting evidence card.



Two sample Murder Cards. As you can see, everyone murdered apparently looks exactly the same. 


The Murder Cards are how you get paid. Provided that your case makes it past the Auditor, you'll be rolling dice to see if it is successfully prosecuted. In the above cards, getting a Murder One conviction will take a dice total of 21 and pay 7 credits (21/7), while a mere Aggravated Assault conviction only takes a 13 and pays 3 credits (13/3). The list of possible suspects merely lists ideas for when you create a story for the case and the Means, Motive & Opportunity list the type of Evidence Cards that can be attached to this case, while the color of the card indicates that only Evidence Cards of the same color (green to green) are legitimate evidence towards a prosecution. You may attach a red card to a green case, but if the Auditor calls you out on it, your case will not be prosecuted.

The game is played over six turns, fewer if you realize that this is terrible and quit early. At the start of each turn, each player rolls initiative for the turn and draws a Legwork Card. Legwork Cards are events or situations which may benefit or hinder a Jovan. They can be played at any time on any of the players. Each turn consists of two Phases: the Investigation Phase and the Court Phase.

The Investigation Phase: During the Investigation Phase, players draw two cards from the Evidence Decks. There are a total of five Evidence Decks: Murder Weapon, Eye Witness, Forensics, Interrogation and Professional Aopinion. Yes, Professional Aopinion. I'm assuming that the deck is misprinted and it should be Professional Opinion, but it may be intentionally written as "Aopinion" to represent how in our bleak future we've changed the language to become even more dark and gritty by adding extra vowels to stuff, kind of like how White Wolf also changed hyphens to much grittier dots in their original RPG line.

Players then may assign Evidence Cards from their hand to the Murder Cases on their Jovan board by placing them face down next to the Murder Case. Players gain one credit per Evidence Card played onto their board. Players may also trade or sell Evidence Cards among one another. If a player has more than five Evidence Cards in his hand at the end of the Investigation Phase, he cannot take a case to court in the next phase of that turn.

The Court Phase: Whoever had the highest initiative goes first in the Court Phase. Play will continue clockwise from that player. On your turn, you can choose to take one (and no more than one) of your Murder Cases to court. If any of your Murder Cases already has three Evidence Cards assigned to it has to go to court.

The player to your left is your Auditor in the case. At this point, you build a story and narrative about the case you are bringing forward and describe it to the Auditor, weaving in the Evidence you have in the story. This is what first attracted me to the game when I heard about it, but it is also completely superfluous. I'll get into that a little later.

Anyhow, the Auditor can either Challenge, Rubber-Stamp, or Endorse your case. If he Challenges it, he chooses one of your pieces of Evidence that he believes it false (this is a blind guess; the storytelling does not matter at all). If, for example, he suspects that your case's Professional Aopinion is incorrect, you reveal it. If the color does not match the case's color, then the case is thrown out and the Auditor receives 3 credits and the Jovan gains a Hardship Card (bad things card). If, however, the Professional Aopinion does match the Murder Case color, then the case goes to trial and the Auditor loses 1 credit for each other Evidence Card that did not really match the murder case. If the Auditor Rubber-Stamps the case, then it goes to trail and he gets 1 credit. If the Auditor Endorses the case, then the Jovan gets an extra die to roll when it goes to trial and if a Murder One conviction is received, he gets a bonus 2 credits, but if it fails to get even an Aggravated Assault, then the Auditor gets a Hardship Card.

If a case passes the Auditor and goes to trial, then each Evidence Card attached to the case if flipped over. Each Evidence Card as a Strength of 1-3, letting you know how many six-sided dice to roll. Add up the total of the dice and compare the sum to the numbers listed on the Murder Case Card. If you equal or exceed any of the numbers on the card, you receive either an Aggravated Assault, Manslaughter or Murder One conviction and receive the appropriate number of credits for successfully prosecuting the case. Regardless of the outcome, the Murder Case and any attached Evidence Cards are discarded.

That's it. This continues for six turns or until players realize that they have something better to do.

Whoever has acquired the most credits at the end of the game won. But since you actually played through an entire game and made it to the end, you may wonder if anyone at the table really won at all.


The Theme:

Murder City is painful, pointless and drags on as players try to real dark text on dark cards. It is in this way only that the game succeeds in transmitting the feel of a dark, painful, dystopian future. Actually, I suppose that's not entirely true. The dice look metallic. I guess that's futurey. Maybe not dystopian, but futurey, I suppose.

Really the weaving of the story that you build about your case that you are presenting to your Auditor is the central theme and offers a great opportunity to build in a great narrative to the game. However, the mechanics involved in the game really make the story pointless, and it becomes obvious all too quickly that the words coming out of your mouth are just fluff. With the realization of how pointless your narrative and storytelling is, it deflates any hope of saving this game by playing with great storytellers or roleplayers.


Learning the Game:

Murder City is not really a complex game and my overview really touches on most of the rules much more clearly and in depth than the game itself does. The rulebook is a cluttered mess. It is a black and white printed 24 5.5" x 8.5" page example of style over presentation.

The rules are not clearly written out at all, but rather are hidden in a flavor-filled narrative of text. For example, let's say that in the middle of the game you have a question about the Murder Cards. So you flip to the Murder Card section of the rulebook and find this:
Murder Cards
The corpses of murder victims turn up all the time in the arcology, whether skeletalized in the plasma stream of a generator, rotting in a trash hauler or abandoned in a sub-street tenement. The authorities can hardly maintain order in the city, let alone solve crimes that have already been committed. That's where jovans come in -- and thrive. All Murder Cards describe a kind of crime committed, and are color-coded: red, green, blue, yellow or brown. Along with the type of murder is the target number required...

Great thematic narrative, I suppose, but all I friggin' wanted to do was figure out why my one card was Brown and the other one Green. And that is probably one of the more generous examples. Reading through the overview of the game it is completely indistinguishable from a glance where the narrative and flavor ends and the rules begin. In fact, sometimes one does not end as the other begins. This makes it incredibly difficult to look up something on the fly.


Normally I do not mind illustrations popping up in a rule book, since they are often used as examples of what is being talked about and break up the flow of paragraph after paragraph. However, the artwork in this rulebook is overused and repetitive and blocks what is an already difficult flow of rules. The same picture of the Murder Card example pops up twice, because the game's rules describes them in two different places. And the exact same picture of the "Altered Human Data Processor" jovan character pops up in the rulebook five times. The same exact picture. And never less than half-page size. In fact, it shows up nearly full page twice.


The Components:


The five different Jovan boards.



Close up of one of the five different Jovan character boards, er, Data Slates. 




Showing three different Eyewitness Cards. As you can see the Pervert with Binocular Implants looks exactly like the Registered Prostitute. That really is dystopian. 




The back of the Professional Aopinion Cards. Really, mistakes like this are completely inexcusable. But that's just my aopinion. 




The dice that come with the game. Sure, they look all futurey, but is it really so bleak of a future when I know that blue collar space miners are doing enough work that they have left over ore to produce dice? 



During its heyday of RPGdom, White Wolf had access to some really excellent artists whose work really set a great flavor and tone to their books which were very evocative in both artwork and words. I was an avid fan of Mage: The Ascension and so I recognize the artist Christopher Shy's artwork in this game. The only problem that I have with that is that they apparently only commissioned him for 5 different pieces. They are nice pieces, but the game really tries to milk their use throughout the rulebook.

When it isn't appropriate (such as on the Evidence Cards), we get generic pictures that are repeated throughout no matter what the evidence is. Each of the Evidence cards has a picture of what I assume is one of the layout designer's friends. For example, drawing Murder Weapon cards for a Discarded Syringe and a Dented Auto Fender do not show illustrations of the appropriate items, but rather a picture of the same woman's smiling face. This potential is most wasted on the Eyewitness Cards where I would really like to see a Pervert with Binocular Implants or Webcam Junkie or Registered Prostitute. However, I am instead treated to the same image of a guy in sunglasses with a most minimalist hint of a smirk.

The stock is fine for the cards, I suppose. Some of them are a little small, so you would probably have to order special card sleeves for them, but fortunately the game is boring enough that it will unlikely receive enough play to scuff the cards.

The game also comes with 5 metallic looking six-sided dice. First of all, the game often requires you to be rolling up to nine or ten dice at a time and add the results, so you don't have enough dice. And secondly, the dice aren't really metal. They are plastic. And they are hollow. So they are incredibly light and cheap, so I don't know why they couldn't have included a few more in the box. Hell, my friend got a real solid metal six-sided die sent to them free from Marlboro for somehow ending up on their mailing list.


Playing the Game:

I love storytelling and roleplaying games and even though this isn't my preferred genre, I very excitedly tracked down a copy of this game because of the storytelling element that was incorporated in it. I loved the thought of having to come up with a story and narrative to prosecute the cases before me and that my story is an attempt to bluff the Auditor reviewing my case into thinking that my evidence is legitimate. However, once we played, we came to the disheartening realization that it is completely pointless.

For example, let's say that my Murder Case is for a "Dead Musician" (a yellow case) and I have the following Evidence Cards attached to it: Murder Weapon: Discarded Syringe (yellow), Eyewitness: Registered Prostitute (yellow) and Professional Aopinion: Psychiatrist (brown). Now the Murder Weapon and the Eyewitness are legitimate evidence, but the Professional Aopinion is false. So I weave the following narrative:

"Samuel Caste was a down on his luck musician, that is true, but he was not suicidal nor a drug-user as some people might suggest. Sure, the discarded syringe found in his room might suggest intentional overdose, but Samuel's fingerprints were not found on it. Since Samuel's fingerprints are on file and since he was not found wearing gloves, it seems rather odd for a dying man to wipe the syringe clean. I contend that he was intentionally injected with a tainted and potent dose of the drug by his son, Joshua Caste, for the inheritance money. Two evenings before his death, Samuel, a known sexual-addict, was with Clarissa Holt, a prostitute registered with our courts. She has given testimony to the effect that she offered to share her stash with Samuel as they 'partied'. However, he adamantly refused and nearly ended their registered time together as he took insult from it. This establishes that he did not use drugs at least two days before his death. Samuel was also seeing a Psychiatrist, Dr. Fulton Harris, who has come forward with the testimony that Samuel had confided in him that he just created a laser symphony and believed that he was at his creative height. He was positive about himself and his future, thus reinforcing the assertion that he was neither suicidal or chemically dependent. I ask you, dear Auditor, let this case go to trial so that we may see his guilty son be punished from his crime of greed."

Now, as an Auditor, I can Challenge, Rubber-Stamp or Endorse this case. If I want to challenge it, I choose a piece of Evidence and check to see if it matches the color of the case. But nothing at all in what I have said in my story indicates anything as far as color of my cards. My story is pointless as it offers nothing to the Auditor's decision or my bluffing him. In fact, what is most depressing is that the following story does exactly the same thing in game terms:

"The musician was killed because someone stuck him with a syringe full of poison. A prostitute saw it happen and her psychiatrist said that she wasn't lying about it."

There is no reward or penalty for story or creativity, so ultimately the one thing that may have saved this game is pointless.

Furthermore, each evidence type is in each deck twice in two different colors; the Discarded Syringe, for example is in yellow and brown. This means that if you know the cards really well and see that it is a green Murder Case, and the story mentions a discarded syringe, then it is obviously false evidence. Ultimately, however, this isn't too much of a problem, since I doubt people will play this often enough to become familiar with the cards.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2-5 players. More players means you get more stories and can potentially hear more creative stories. However, it plays faster with fewer players, so I would suggest playing with as few players as possible to end the game quickly.


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, this game annoyed her too. The fact that it can make you feel uncreative or less creative than other players if you don't think that your stories are as good, it is further annoying because those stories just don't matter whatsoever.

She will not play this game again and for that I am pleased and we will remain married.


The Pros:

*If you really liked the picture of the "Altered Human Data Processor" Jovan, it is reprinted five times in the rulebook.
*The dice look kind of cool if you take a picture of them and the flash reflects off of the metallic coating.
*"Aopinion" is kind of funny to add to your vocabulary while playing the game.


The Cons:

*Repetitive artwork.
*Storytelling is pointless to the game.
*The game is just random as you take the Auditor role.
*Not enough dice included in the game.
*The dice that are included are hollow plastic and ridiculously light.
*Playing it makes me want to play Android again, and then I'll be bummed out and ultimately disappointed for a slew of different reasons.
*Rulebook is an atrocious mess and impossible to find rules hidden in descriptive flavor narrative.
*Professional Aopinion Cards is really just inexcusable.
*Shitting on the game this badly lessens my chances of being able to trade it away.


Overall:

Murder City is a game that had the potential to have an interesting niche storytelling mechanic involved in a gritty cyberpunk world, but ultimately it fails to make the storytelling important to the experience and that broken mechanic sits on a terribly constructed base game. The game's rules go out of their way to build a world and feel, but never go out of their way to properly explain the rules. It is almost as if the game world was designed as a board game, which, if it became a hit, would have been White Wolf's next RPG game world. However, the game falls flat on every level and fails to create anything more than a poorly constructed random experience with superficial and unnecessary storytelling incorporated. But your mileage may vary. All of this is just my aopinion.


2/10

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: Runewars

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, while I've played all of the Terrinoth setting games at this point (but not all of the expansions), I am not really excited about the world setting. It's just rather generic fantasy, in my opinion, and therefore none of the games really need to be connected by setting.


The Overview:


The unnecessarily large box cover art. Unfortunately it didn't really take full advantage of the larger size.



What is inside the box. Also not pictured, a lot of air. 



Runewars is a fantasy conquest and area control game that has some elements of an adventure game and resource gathering and management in it. The game represents an epic struggle of up to four factions warring over the control of Dragon Runes in the game. Each player expands their territory in a world of limited space and resources, often causing conflicts as each faction grows in power, size and strength. Ultimately the game ends when one faction seizes control of enough of the Dragon Runes
and has enough territory to hold them. This is six Dragon Runes in the normal game, although I highly prefer the epic game variant that requires seven Dragon Runes.

Runewars is a game for 2-4 players, each controlling their own unique faction. The play time is listed at 180 minutes, and as experienced players we find this now to be the upper end ceiling for our game lengths. Most games end in about 120-150 minutes, and this is considering the fact that we tend to play with the Epic game variant which does significantly increase potential game time. Throughout the game, each player controls unique armies, but also a number of powerful heroes who are questing for the Dragon Runes individually.

The game's rules are long, but surprisingly intuitive to grasp. Because of the complexity of it, the overview will be a bit long and unwieldy. Feel free to skip to the next section if you don't want a long (but still not very in depth) rules summary.

The game actually begins with the set-up. The game world is comprised of a modular board and each of the players places world pieces until it is built. This allows each player to try to set up potential defensive areas and choke points if they think ahead. After the world is built, each player adds their starting realm onto the edges of the existing map. There are some rules for placement and such, but this is the gist of the set up.

Each player also begins with an Objective Card. These state requirements that if the player can resolve, he immediately gains a Dragon Rune.

The game is played over the course of six "years" (eight in the Epic variant). Each year is broken down into four seasons and during each season, each player gets to take one action. At the start of each season, a Season Card matching that Season is drawn. Players resolve the effect listed on the card. These may be world events that effect everyone or represent councils where all of the players bid for an action or ability listed on the card. Each season also has a secondary season related ability that occurs, affecting each player, but are obviously predictable and occur at the end of each season.

After the season cards are revolved (including the secondary ability), each player chooses their Order card from their hand. Each player possesses identical sets of 8 Order cards which dictate what actions they may take in that season. Each Order also has a potential secondary ability, called the Supremacy Bonus. Each card is numbered from 1 to 8 and a Supremacy Bonus is only resolved if the card you played is a higher number than any other card you have already played this year. This means that you are more likely to move armies and attack in Spring and Summer and more likely to Harvest your fields and Recruit Troops and Fortify your position in the Autumn and Winter months. You are not restricted by this, but you forfeit the secondary advantage of the card. So I could save a card to attack in the Winter, but it is likely that it will not be as powerful as it would have been in the Summer because of higher numbered cards being played.

The Orders consist of allowing you to move Units and Heroes, starting battles (or Diplomacy), harvesting resources for the territories they control, recruiting new Units into their army, gaining the benefits from any cities that the player controls, gaining Influence tokens (the primary currency in the game), or fortifying their position and building strongholds. Each of these has a secondary ability that is activated if the card played is a higher number than any other card already played that year.

This is repeated each season and through each year until one player controls six Dragon Runes and wins the game.

Now there are a couple of things to specifically highlight in the game, however:

Each player has a board that tracks their faction's current resources. Each hex a player's Unit occupies and therefore controls give that player certain resources. These resources include Food, Wood and Ore. As you possess more of a resource it allows you to you the Recruit Order to bring in more units of different types, as well as possibly granting you bonus Influence or Tactics cards. You do not automatically update your dials when you take over a new territory, however. You only adjust them when you play the Harvest Order. This means that after conquering new areas you'll often want to harvest the resources so that you can be well supplied to recruit more Units.

At the end of each Summer, every player can resolve the actions of any Heroes that they control. Heroes do not usually affect the armies on the board, but instead represent powerful heroes working for your faction that are trying to find Dragon Runes for your armies to possess and defend. Each player has a number of Quest cards that only their Hero can resolve for a Reward (which may be equipment making them more powerful, or it may be a Dragon Rune). This is almost a sub-game and to some it may feel like it has a bit less depth to it. However, the Heroes are rather strategic in a lot of ways and their movements (only at the end of Summer) are predictable. I view them as an important part of the game, kind of like Frodo and Sam running around doing rather important work while the armies are busy conquering and holding territories doing other rather important work. If you want the Hero portion of the game to have a bit more depth (or at least interest) to it, then I would highly recommend playing with the Exploration Tokens variant, which gives each hex a hero moves to a mini-encounter to resolve.

Most non-home base hexes begin the game occupied with Neutral Units. Neutral Units can be removed in one of two ways: either attacked and defeated, or through Diplomacy. If one or more of your Units moves into a territory with Neutral Units, you may attempt Diplomacy. When moving into the territory, the player may spend between 1-6 Influence. For each point spend, he draws one Fate Card. Each card has one of three symbols on it reflecting either a full success, partial success or failure. The player then chooses one of his drawn Fate cards and resolves the symbol on it. A full success indicates that the Neutral Units ally with the player and are now under his control (provided that he keeps at least one of his Units with them at any time, otherwise they defect and become Neutral again). A partial success means that all Neutral Units retreat from the hex and the player controls it. A failure indicates that the player must either immediately battle the Neutral Units or retreat from the hex. Diplomacy cannot be used against other player's Units.

Battles are resolves when Units of different factions occupy the same hex. Each faction has four different types of units, each of a different general strength and special ability. Combat is resolved in five Initiative Rounds. Each Unit type only activates and is resolved on its specific initiative. Starting at 1 Initiative, players draw Fate Cards for each of their Units that activate on 1 Initiative. Depending on the unit type (specified in game by the shape of the figure's base), the card will indicate if you hit (and cause how much damage), miss, rout enemy units or activate your Unit's special ability. At the end of each Initiative Round, damage is resolved. Any Units receiving damage equal to their health is removed. The next higher Initiative Round is then resolved in the same way. The basic set up for most units are that the weaker Units are generally the quicker ones, attacking early, while the most powerful Units tend to attack later, but are devastating when they hit. Each faction has different Units that play differently and each have their own strategy on how to play them most effectively. There are different kinds of Neutral Units as well, and each of them has their own ability and strengths and may often require different tactics in taking them down. At the end of the fifth Initiative Round, the battle is over. The player with the most non-routed Units standing at the end of the battle wins. If both have the same number standing, then the Defender wins the battle. The loser must retreat his troops (if any are left) to an adjacent friendly hex.

Since each hex can contain only one Dragon Rune, each player must expand their land and holds enough territory to house each of their obtained runes. This also means that territories holding a Dragon Rune are vulnerable to Conquest if not appropriately defended.


The Theme:

Runewars is an epic game of conquest and, uh... war over runes. It takes place in the Terrinoth world that also includes other games, such as Descent, Runebound and the new DungeonQuest. Since this is a macro-game of factions at war, it has a very different feel than each of the other games set in the world, which focus more on events of individual heroes. I think it also does not have to be set in the Terrinoth world. Sure the continuity of the world setting is neat, but it is completely unneeded, especially in a game that feels so different than the others in the realm.

That being said, the game feels epic. The expansion is strategic and borders are often tense locations of trying to trust your neighbor just long enough so that you can make the first move against them. Because there is a quantifiable victory condition that requires territory being held, alliances are often made and broken based on stopping other players from advancing too far.

There are Heroes in this game, but this game does not focus and flesh out their exploits. Some people believe that this breaks theme, but I disagree. This story is being told through the eyes of Aragorn and not Strider. Sure there may be small updates about how Frodo is doing along the way, but the war on the ground is the perspective that it is played through.

I find the political and military struggles of this game to be very tight and intense. From that perspective, it succeeds fully on the theme of the game and drawing me into it. I need to plan ahead and control my nation and outwit and outbattle each of my opponents.


Learning the Game:

There are a lot of rules in the game and it may seem daunting. The rulebook is a 40-page 8" x 10" full color book. There is not really too much ambiguity in the rules, but rather as Fantasy Flight games seem to be in recent years, a lot of little specifics are difficult to find and look up. But still, for a game with as much going on in it as this game has, the rules are ultimately rather intuitive after a couple of plays.

Intuitiveness, however, does not mean that determining strategy is easy and it is quite easy to take a bad action in one season that sets you back a lot further than you may realize. Since you only take four actions per year, they are vitally important.


The Components:


A game set-up with a map built.



An example of one of the tiles that is laid out to build the map. Tiles vary greatly in shape and size. 




The map has a 3-D elements to it.




Some of the sculpts of the figures in the game. There are many of them and they are varied and each is greatly detailed.




This is the Elven faction's reference board that also has the resource dials on it. 



The game is beautiful. Fantasy Flight definitely can make very beautiful games and this is no exception. It is also very functional. Each faction has four different types of sculpts for their different Units and the Heroes are all very beautiful sculpts. The plastic in this game is very pretty.

The hexes are functional and easily display all pertinent information on them and, more importantly, each is large enough to hold enough Units on it (unlike Horus Heresy where you often ended up cramming units into a small region). The inclusion of 3-D mountains is purely superfluous and is nothing more than aesthetics, but it does work and make things much pretty. Completely unnecessary, but pretty.

The cards are small, but functional and of a good stock. Combats, Quest resolution and Battles all are resolved with the same deck of Fate Cards, and they manage to put relevant information on the small cards to resolve each of these.

One complaint that I have with the game is that it offers the Epic Game variant requiring more Dragon Rune tokens to be obtained in a longer game. However, there are not enough Dragon Runes included in the game for a close four-player game. Ultimately other tokens can be used, but it just seems to be odd to offer a variant that it does not have the resources for when the other variant in the rules has 35 separate tokens only used when employing the variant.

My only other complaint with the components of the game are with the box itself. The box is large. Very large and very unnecessarily large. Shelf space is, of course, an issue, but I have another complaint with the box.

Since the box is so large, it by default ends up on the bottom of a stack when I am transporting games. If I am carrying 4 or 5 games into a place to play, the large Runewars box always ends up on the bottom with other boxes placed on top of it. However, because the box is really so empty, the weight of other boxes on top of it has caused damage to it. Sure, I should may multiple trips, etc. However, the excess emptiness of long width box makes it particularly and unnecessarily vulnerable.


Playing the Game:

While rules are intuitive, strategy is not necessarily. The game really takes a number of plays to fully grasp the complexities of strategy and, as such, experienced players have an advantage over the less experienced. A certain significant advantage is gained by a familiarity of the season cards and their effects. If you are familiar with them, then you can plan around the chance of one of them showing up.

The Hero phase of Summer seems to be a sticking point with some players. It is almost its own sub-game since it rarely affects the armies on the board that move and battle over every season of the year. However, it is something that cannot be fully ignored or discounted. Heroes can gain Dragon Runes and can win the game for a faction, so they must be monitored and watched at every point. Armies cannot stop an individual Hero, but other Heroes may encounter and fight with an opponent's Hero. While I can understand the claim that it is a distracting sub-game, I do not agree. I again refer to the feel of Aragorn on the battlefield hoping that Frodo will win the day for him.

There are two variants to the game, both of which I feel improve the game dramatically.

In one variant, the Heroes have Exploration Tokens on each hex and as they travel, they need to resolve these tokens, giving mini-encounters that may benefit or harm the hero. Some may even affect the armies who go to that location. It makes the Hero phase a bit more interesting and I do not play without this variant.

The other variant is the Epic Game variant that requires seven Dragon Runes to win the game instead of six. They also only start with one rune instead of two. The game can run up to eight years in this variant. Personally, I think that this should be the standard way to play. The base game often ends a bit quicker and often before there is any real conflict between the factions (a common complaint with the game). With this variant, there is no bluffing of where a rune is at and everything is up front. It makes battling for territory that contains runes more strategic and occur much more often. Not to mention that each faction needs to possess more land to hold more runes. This is the way that we play every game and I believe it should have been the base game with the "standard" rules to be offered as a shorter play variant.


Scalability:The game plays from 2-4 players and, like many games, more is better. However, I find the game fully playable with 2 players. The map scales according to the number of players and I would definitely not ever play without the Epic War variant with 2 players. But, it is a great way to learn the game and still is challenging and fun. However, the game shines when you have temporary alliances and great armies have to suddenly drop their conflicts and turn against an opponent who has suddenly come close to victory.

So it is playable with 2 and enjoyable with 2, but you are missing a lot of the fun of the game with just 2.


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, I really thought that this was going to be a hard sell. When I first introduced it to her many months ago, I told her we'd just play two years as a learning game to determine how the mechanics worked. At the end of the second year, she still wanted to keep going.

My wife is also deceptively good at games like this and she has quickly adapted an understanding of the best way to play the Elves. For a long while, she would not play another race. Finally, she conceded and tried another race and won with their strategies as well. So she's not just an elf-player savant, but she's just plain good at the game. I think the length turns her off to the game a bit, but that is probably the only thing that makes her hesitate about playing the game.


The Pros:

*Excellent components that are pretty, but also functional.
*The game really feels epic.
*Asymmetrical balance in factions that really takes understanding the different strategies that work best for each.
*Complexity of the system really works in a surprisingly intuitive form.
*Resource needs causes realistic territory expansion and conflicts.
*Game can force some at table alliances and diplomacy to stop a potential victor which make for some uneasy and tense truces.
*Modular map and building in set-up offers a lot of variation in replay.


The Cons:

*Box size is unnecessarily large.
*Hero sub-game does cause some disconnect for some players.
*Using a single deck for all in-game resolution creates some "card counting" issues when determining potential success or failure of some actions when dice could have offered the same probability with just a bit more randomness.
*Play time can be daunting to some players.
*A single badly timed Order can really be difficult to recover from.
*Game can feel like it has an "attack the leader" mechanic sometimes.


Overall:

Runewars is an amazingly tense and strategic game. Due to the limited number of actions and the penalties of playing them out of order, it really makes the decision for every season's Order card that much more important. Too many people may focus on this as an epic war game, but that is not true. I have seen people win without ever battling another player. Heroes, season cards and Influence can win enough runes to win. So the game is more meta than that and encompasses both war and politics and negotiation. The game does scale, but is definitely better with 3 and best with 4. This game is one of my favorites and I will rarely turn down the chance to play it.


9/10

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: Dixit and Dixit 2

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 have played and (shudder) enjoyed some sessions of Apples to Apples, but I understand the overall flaws of that game. And my original schooling path was in art (though I eventually ended up working in social services) so, in theory, I've been filled with different ways to interpret art.


The Overview:


The annoying-sized box cover before they started to stick awards icons all over it. 



What is inside of the box, not including the expansion, which increases the number of cards and makes you flip the insert so that maybe you can fit them all in the box. Later editions changed the score track, so the bunnies were hopping along rocks instead of lily pads. 



Dixit is a party game in which one person comes up with a title or phrase to describe the image on one of their cards and other players try to choose cards from their hand that other people may think match the title. There is a scoring trick that makes the title-giver have to be not too vague, but also not too specific. The game works best with creative people, although it is definitely not required to play. It is probably best compared to the party game Apples to Apples, but is a visual version of that game as opposed to a literary version.

The game is for 3-6 players, although three players is only viable with a variant (that isn't that great). Playing time is about 30 minutes, plus a little longer if you have people who really take a lot of time to come up with titles. Adding the expansion to the game can double the game length unless you cut down on the number of cards being used, since you play until the deck runs out. It is a party game that will appeal to non-gamers and be more appealing to more hardcore gamers than Apples to Apples seems to be.

The game is really easy to understand, although scoring is a little unintuitive at first. Each player is dealt six cards. Each of the cards has a different image on them, and the images are complex and detailed, but most importantly, they are evocative. One player will be the Storyteller for the round. They choose one of their cards and comes up with a title or phrase for it. He or she then places the card face-down without allowing any other player to see it.

Each other player then looks through their hand of six cards and tries to find one that best matches the Storyteller's description. After choosing one, they add it face-down to the pile. The face-down pile of cards are shuffled and then placed face up so that everyone can see them. Each player (except the Storyteller) secretly chooses the card that they think the Storyteller was describing by selecting one of their vote tokens face down before them. After all votes are in, the Storyteller reveals which was his or her card and players score for the round. Players draw back up to six cards and the player on the current Storyteller's left becomes the Storyteller for this next round. This continues until the deck of cards is exhausted and then the player with the most points wins.

Scoring works a little differently depending on if you are the Storyteller or a player for the round.

For the Storyteller, if all of the players have correctly chosen your image, then you have been too specific in your title and you get no points. If none of the players have chosen your image, then you have been too vague and you get no points. However, if at least one player has chosen your image and at least one player has chosen another image, then the Storyteller receives 3 points for the round regardless of how many people actually chose his image (as long as it was at least one and at least one guessed incorrectly).

For the other players, if everyone correctly guessed the Storyteller's image, everyone receives 2 points for him being too specific. If everyone missed the Storyteller's image, then everyone receives 2 points for him being too vague. If you guessed the Storyteller's image correctly and at least one other person guessed incorrectly, then you receive 3 points. On top of this, you also get 1 extra point for each vote that was for the image that you had played from your hand.

That's it. Scoring is a little tricky in your first game or so, but it quickly becomes easy enough.


The Theme:

This is a party game with minor elements of bluffing involved. There really isn't any theme to the game other than the (hopeful) sense of creativity at the table. However, I have also seen the game take the opposite effect and make some people at the table feel very uncreative.


Learning the Game:

The game is incredibly easy to learn. My rules summary up at the top is basically all there is to it. The Dixit 2 expansion does not add to or complicate the rules in any way. It simply adds more cards to the mix. I would suggest, however, that you shuffle the new cards into your original Dixit deck and then play with half the deck. Otherwise you will end up with some marathon game times in a game that really should not be that long. Seriously. Two half-hour games of Dixit are much more satisfying than one marathon hour long game, this is primarily because there is no "catch-up mechanic" if one player takes a lead.


The Components:


Little wooden rabbit meeples that like to fall onto their sides with any bump of the table are inexplicably used to mark your position on the scoring track which is made from the box insert.



Example artwork from one of the cards.



The game is beautiful, if not exactly practical. First of all, I have to say that the cards are perfect for the game. There is a lot of detail to them, a lot is going on, they are evocative and stir numerous emotions and they are just simply beautiful. They are a good, solid stock, but easy enough to shuffle. However, they are an odd-sized and may be annoying to sleeve for those who do such things to their games.

However, while the little rabbit meeples for the score track are neat, they really like to tip over and fall whenever they have the chance. That isn't a huge complaint, but single the rabbit meeple was an aesthetic choice over a thematic one, practicality should have been considered.

The same holds true to the scoring track. The scoring track being part of the box insert was a neat enough idea at first. Then I purchased Dixit 2 and the cards no longer fit in the box without flipping the insert (which is surprisingly a bit fragile). This again leans towards aesthetics over practicality. However, the most annoying part of the score track for me is that you start on a zero space and the score track goes in a circle ending at 30 points. If you have a game that someone scores more than 30 points (which is not at all uncommon), then moving to the next space after 30 puts you on 0. So once you have lapped the scoreboard and are on the 8 space, you really have 39 points.

While this is not a bother to 90% of the people out there, it probably is an annoyance to 90% of BGGers who are gaming OCD and may record their scores. But ultimately, if this is my big complaint about the components of the game, you should realize that they are rather solid.


Playing the Game:

This isn't a deep or tense game. It is light, casual party-game fun. The game is better with more players, but ultimately runs into a few small problems.

First of all, player familiarity is a little bit of an issue in the game. For example, if I am playing with my wife and she gets this card:




...then she will invariably use the title "Family of Blood". Only I will get it, so she is assured points because no one else will pick this card for that title. Though one day, we will play with a bunch of people who get the Doctor Who reference and will foil her plans. I have seen these "inside" references be annoying to some players and I can't fully fault that feeling.

This familiarity problem can also pop up for people who play the game a lot. If Bob and Mary are playing a game with a group of people and Mary plays a card with a title. Bob and Mary can play another game later with different people and if either had that same card, they could use the same title and know that the other person will get the reference and vote for it, while the new players in the second game are guessing blindly.

However, these are not big issues. This is a half-hour party game. You are playing to have fun and this is not really a game that you play competitively.

This leads me to what I enjoy about the game: Fucking with people's heads.

I don't view Dixit as simply a game, but it is also a psychological experiment waiting to take place. Seriously, you want to have some fun? Next time you play the game and you are the Storyteller choose any card, no matter what the image is, and give the title: "There is no cat in this picture".

Now a lot of the Dixit cards have cats on them, so it is not uncommon for a number of people to have cards in their hands that have cats on them. But the title is that there is no cat in the picture. I find it very fun to see what the players have chosen. Do they lay out a card with a cat in it? What cards do they think best represent the absence of cats?

What is even more fun is to then watch each of the players at the table lean in and examine the cards laid out once they are revealed, examining each of them for either the sign of a cat or the epitome of lack of cat. Perhaps they think I am lying and there really is a cat in the picture. Really, titles like this make the game much more interesting from a psychological point of view, but much more chaotic from the point scoring point of view.

Another fun thing to do is to take a the most paranoid player at the table. Let's assume that at this current game "Bob" is the most insecure or paranoid person. When you are a Storyteller, choose any of your cards, it does not matter what it is, and give it the title, "What we all talked about when Bob was in the bathroom." Again, lots of fun to watch how people, especially Bob, react.

Want to find out what your friends think of you? Lay out any card and title it, "This is me." Want to see how easily impressed they are with titles? Title your card, "My card is the second one on the left", then see how many people pick the second card on the left. Who knows, with a lucky shuffle they may be right.


Scalability:

The game is listed for 3-6 players, but it really only plays with 3 players with a variant that isn't that good. With games like this, more players are better. The game plays alright with 4 players, but really it works best with 5 or 6 because there are more options to choose from when guessing the Storyteller's card.


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. My wife is more of a gamer than to really get into party games, but she and I recognize that party games have their place. It is one that my wife enjoys and when we are with non-gamers or gamers who are in the mood for some lighter fare, this is one that she will suggest or at least not be adverse to playing. The only problem with that is, as I mentioned earlier, she and I know each other and our references too well and it gives us a bit of an advantage in games. For example, if I were to title my image, "This looks like that picture that our daughter, Molly drew for us last summer", she would know it in a heartbeat, but the other gamers at the table might as well be guessing randomly.


The Pros:

*Beautiful game with very evocative artwork that is a lot deeper than it seems at first glance.
*Good playtime with just the base game without wearing out its welcome.
*Can make you feel very creative.
*Expansion adds content without making anything more complex.
*It's fun to use the game for psychological experiments on my friends.


The Cons:

*Components are focused on aesthetics over practicality.
*Player familiarity can give large advantages in the game.
*Can make you feel very uncreative.
*Expansion increases the playtime beyond its normal welcome unless you "half" the deck.
*Someone might use the game as a psychological experiment on you.
*The game does not include a control group.


Overall:

Dixit is a fun, creative party game that takes the premise of Apples to Apples, but effectively changes and challenges it enough that the hardcore BGGers will not snort derisively at being invited to play. Ultimately there are a fair number of ways to use player familiarity to "game" the system, but it's a rather non-competitive party game and if you are doing that you're probably a dick. It is light fare, but still rather fun and offers other ways to enjoy the game even without being "deep" into the system. It is not a gateway game, but a nice bridge to occupy a mixed group of gamers and non-gamers for part of the evening, or until the rest of the gaming group arrives or finishes their other game.


7/10

Review: DungeonQuest

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 did not play the original DungeonQuest back in the 80's, so I am coming at this game without the benefit of nostalgia.


The Overview:


The very misleading box cover art. Misleading because the wizard isn't dead yet. 



Inside the box. Do not be alarmed, however. Since this is a Fantasy Flight game, all of the pieces here will eventually be broken into a dozen decks of cards and hundreds of cardboard bits. 



DungeonQuest is a fantasy game set in Fantasy Flight's world of Terrinoth wherein the player s are heroes trying to enter and survive an incredibly deadly dungeon in hopes of escaping with the most treasure. The dungeon is very deadly and danger lurks at every turn for the heroes. But survival alone isn't enough as each player is trying to leave with the most treasure while at the same time trying to persevere through the taunts of the other players for being a chicken and leaving early.

DungeonQuest is a fantasy adventure game for 1-4 players and plays in 30-90 minutes. Yes, that is a wide range on the play time, but game length will vary greatly. More players will, of course, increase the playtime in theory, but ultimately it depends on the luck of the players and how long they last that will determine how long the game goes. Since the game includes player elimination, deaths hasten the game's play time.

Each player controls a hero whose stats and special ability vary, making them unique and more capable in certain situations and extremely vulnerable in others. The game is quite simple to learn and play.

Each player begins in one of the four corner towers of the dragon's keep. Most of the board consists of empty squares that you will place tiles on as you explore them. But the center of the board houses the dragon's treasure chamber and reaching it gives you a chance to draw from the valuable Treasure Card deck, though at a risk of waking up the vengeful dragon. On a player's turn he can choose to either Move or Search. Moving requires a specific available path for you to be able to take. Searching is only an option when you are on specific tiles.

If you Move, you choose which available direction to move. If a tile and path already exists along that direction, then you move into the new tile. However, if no tile is there, then it is Unexplored and you then draw a random dungeon chamber tile and place it in that space. The effects of that tile are then resolved (there is a chart in the back of the rulebook which explains what each tile type does). Usually this is resolved by drawing a Dungeon Card and resolving the card's effects, but special tiles have specific effects. Dungeon cards may be a bit of treasure, an encounter, a trap, or a monster ready to fight with you.

If you move back to one of the corner tower starting locations and have at least one treasure on you, you may opt to exit the dungeon and have survived. Your treasure total will be compared to that of the other survivors at the end of the game to determine a winner.

If you Search, then you draw a card from the Search deck and resolve it. It may be hidden treasure, or a secret door leading you to a new location, or it may be a creature causing you harm or a trap that you've just sprung.

Once that is finished, the player's turn is over and the player to the left takes his or her turn in the same manner. When play reaches the first player again, the Sun Token moves forward on the time track. The time track will ultimately show when night falls and the dungeon becomes too deadly and everyone still inside is considered to be dead.

That's essentially all there is to the game. Many times when you draw a card, it will refer you to a new deck to draw a card from. For example, I may draw a Dungeon Card after moving into a tile and it informs me that there is a dead body there and I can search it and draw a card from the Corpse Card deck.

If you encounter a monster that requires a combat, this simple formula becomes a bit more complicated and convoluted. There is a rather simple (though random and not strategic) way of attempting to retreat from combat that is quick and easy to resolve. However, if you fail you will take damage and have to fight anyhow. And if you succeed, your friends will taunt you for running, so you might as well just fight.

Combat is essentially a longer, move convoluted version of rock-paper-scissors with cards. The combat cards each are either a Melee, Ranged or Magic attack with an attack value listed on them. Each player draws a hand of 5 random cards and plays one against the opponent controlling the monster. The highest value wins, however, each card type can counter another type and that player can add more cards to their pile to increase the attack value. Whoever has the highest value at the end of the battle wins and their opponent takes 1 point of damage per card played to get that value (so counterattacks do more damage). However, the card (or cards, in the event of a tie) that was not resolved goes into the combat stack. Now, the next attack that wins that also matches any of the cards sitting in the combat stack will cause a Deathblow and get to add these cards to the damage inflicted. Once one of the combatants are reduced to 0 health, the battle is ended.

There is also an additional movement mechanic that lets you travel in the Catacombs under the board. This is actually an interest mechanic that really does represent blinding wandering below with no idea of where (or if) you might come out.


The Theme:

This is a fantasy dungeon crawl and it is supposed to feel tense and desperate due to how dangerous the dungeon is. However, for me, it tends to not feel tense, but rather just random. Sure it is deadly and sure it may all come down to a die roll, but 9 times out of 10, you are simply facing death from a tile drawn or encounter and from a drawn out experience. Tension comes from trekking deeper and deeper into a dungeon, already low on health, but pressing deeper anyhow despite the risk. Tension is lost from drawing a bottomless pit tile and falling to your death from a bad die roll regardless of position, health or situation.

Combat, as well, breaks thematic sense. Your cards are drawn randomly, and the type that they are (Melee, Ranged, Magic) does not matter. If my dumb, burly fighter drew a bunch of Magic Combat Cards, then I'll be blasting the baddies with Magic. Just the same, my weak Spellcaster just drew a fist full of Melee cards, well then I'm rushing up and punching that Golem until it is dead.

So, for me, it does not create a theme or story for the characters. The inclusion into the Terrinoth world is ultimately meaningless because it's inclusion does nothing to really affect the other Terrinoth games such as Descent or Runewars or Runebound. The game comes with stat cards to import the characters into the other games, but ultimately only a couple of the characters' powers translate into the other systems, so on the whole, they don't really feel the same in the other games anyhow. Plus, DungeonQuest just feels different than each of these games anyhow. You already have a dungeon delve game in the Terrinoth world anyhow. This inclusion into this world is really nothing more than a marketing ploy aimed at the completists of the gaming world. Some people may want every Terrinoth world, while some may want the characters and miniatures to use in the other (better) games in the world. Sure, that's not a big market share that they are tapping into, but it is enough to drive a few more sales, I am sure.


Learning the Game:

The game is easy to learn. The rulebook is an unnecessary 32 pages for such a simple game and it is really not that well put together and is drawn out and expanded to the point where it is unnecessarily wordy and therefore confusing. The one page "Rules Summary" on the back of the book does a better job of explaining the rules than the 31 pages that preceded it. Except for combat. That needs the longer six-page description in the rulebook because it is unnecessarily complex.

Until players have a number of games under their belts, there will be a lot of references to the rulebook to figure out what each of the tiles do. This isn't a bad thing, since it means that there is a lot of variety in tile types. However, a chamber summary sheet would have been an excellent idea for a player aid.


The Components:


Set up board with decks and several paths already being discovered. 



One of the character cards. One of the apparent requirements for dungeon delving here is apparently that you cannot be attractive. 




One of the cards from the game.




One of the Dungeon Tiles that you can draw in the game. 



It is a Fantasy Flight game, so the components are their usual good quality. The decks of cards are small, but sturdy and easy enough to shuffle without much fear of wear. The tiles are on thick cardboard and are vibrantly illustrated conveying a lot of information and detail despite their small size. Most of the cards have nice flavor illustrations on them, even if the decks are a bit repetitive.

The plastic minis for the heroes are nicely sculpted and are dying to be painted to bring out their rich detail.

Really, I have nothing to complain about the quality of the components other than some of the rulebook's formatting and my wife likes to play games with pretty people and there are no pretty people in DungeonQuest.


Playing the Game:

Now here is where I am missing out on a crucial element of enjoying the game: I did not play it when it first came out in 1985. In 1985, I was thirteen years old. Getting killed in all kinds of random, ruthless, frivolous manners would have been endlessly amusing. Hell, it would have felt like the D&D games we were playing at the time. I would have loved it.

But now, I am older. I like games that have finesse and depth. I don't mind luck, randomness and press-your-luck tension, but this game does not evoke those feelings. If I had played it and loved it at thirteen, I would like this version a lot more and would have felt the nostalgia in my veins and would have laughed along with every death because it would have made me feel like I was thirteen again.

But instead, I do not have that nostalgia and rather the game just makes me feel like it is treating me like a thirteen year old.

One of the biggest failings of the game is the combat system. It is inelegant and cumbersome and slows a random deathfest to a crawl. Really, it is completely unnecessary to waste five minutes of game time in a pointless fight against a skeleton.

This is actually my biggest problem with the game. Besides it's mask of strategy in a game that is pointless randomness, it marks a specific trend in a lot of Fantasy Flight's game. Middle Earth Quest used a similar (but more complex) card combat system and it was beautiful and elegant. You see, in that game, your deck of cards represented your stamina. As you travelled, you discarded cards as you became weary until you could rest. In combat, you lost cards as damage, representing more exhaustion. It was beautiful and elegant and most of all, fitting.

Runewars came next and used a card based combat system. I really like the game and it was still kind of new, so it didn't bother me. I could lie to myself and say that the clunky mechanic was intentional so that I could count down and determine rough percentage changes of success at diplomacy.

Horus Heresy was just pointless. It became unwieldy and difficult to implement. It was almost as if they charted probability and created decks to reflect this just to avoid rolling dice. But why? I don't think that any Euro game player would see that Horus Heresy doesn't use dice and buy the game.

So now we are at DungeonQuest and it is an implementation of a random card draw combat system in a purely inelegant and slowing manner. But it is happening in a game that is almost purely dictated by luck and randomness and serves in no way to better the gaming experience of DungeonQuest.

Still, with all of the said, I have to say that the best way to play, in my opinion, is Cloak and Dagger variant in which players keep their Treasure gained face down. I like the fact that you do not know how much the other players have and it adds an actual mystery and minor strategy to the press-your-luck mechanic.


Scalability:

The game plays from 1-4 players. I am not really a solo-game fan, so the solo game really does nothing for me, especially because it is a such a random game. More players adds to the playtime, but since player elimination is fairly possible, there is a fair chance that someone will die and cut down on the play time. I suppose the game works a bit better with more players simply because those who enjoy this game probably will enjoy the various character deaths and therefore there are more potential deaths to witness.


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. Surprisingly to me, she likes the game. More than me, in fact. She's not in love with it, but I think that she enjoys the mindlessness of running a dungeon delve like this one. This is even more surprising because when we first played it, she was very dismayed at the lack of pretty characters to play. The dungeon delvers in Dragonfire Dungeon really are a homely lot.

I don't think that this game will ever be among her favorites, but it isn't bad for a quick, dirty fantasy game for her to pass a bit of the evening with. For me, it's too mindless, however.


The Pros:

*Excellent, sturdy components that really are top-notch.
*May bring back feelings of nostalgia for gamers who played this in their younger days.
*Comes with characters for other Terrinoth games (though only one set of figures).


The Cons:

*Far too random.
*Card based combat system is clunky and unnecessarily adds to game length with no real strategic input into the game.
*At 13, dying brutally and randomly in a game might have been fun, at 37, not so much.
*Play time is too variable to be consistent to know when to fit it in to play.
*Technically it is a keep, not a dungeon.
*Even the elf is ugly.


Overall:

DungeonQuest is a game about how marketing can propel something into the spotlight. There are many fanboys from the good old days who spent many hours in the original game's brutal dungeons and I wholly understand wanting this game to relive those glory days. The game is also set in the Terrinoth world, and I fully understand the appeal of having a game that also adds something to other games that you know and love. However, if it wasn't for either of those things and DungeonQuest was released today with a blank slate as a wholly new and independent game, it would not survive against today's marketplace of games with more depth and decision making. It's one of those games that may get pulled down from time to time from my shelf to play (mostly because of my wife), but for the lack of time that this will see the table, it makes much more sense for me to keep the miniatures in my Runewars box instead.


5/10