Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: Yggdrasil

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I'm also a huge fan of Norse mythology and I knew of Thor and Odin long before Zeus and Apollo and D&D. I'm fairly well versed in the mythology and every week in elementary school I would check out D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths from the library. However, I didn't care for Marvel's take on Thor, nor the movie that was released earlier this year.



My childhood introduction to Norse mythology. 


The Overview:


The box cover. The box measures 12.5" x 9". The illustration shows Thor's battle with Jörmungand, the Migard Serpent. Thor is destined to die by the serpent's poison during Ragnarök . 




What's inside the box. 



Yggdrasil is a cooperative game set within the Norse mythology, where each of the players controls one of the Norse gods as they battle the enemies of Asgard and try to battle back their approach. The battles represented in the game are representing a rather abstract view of the gods' battle of Ragnarök, wherein their survival is at stake.

The game is for 1-6 players and plays in about 90 minutes. More players does not increase the playtime any, except for the table debate that may come from the actions to be taken. So a solo game will probably play quicker, even if the player is controlling multiple gods. Each player controls a God, each of which has a special ability or power that alter or bypass the standard rules of the game.

The game is actually very simple as far as mechanics go and each player's turn is also very simple, only added in complexity by the sometimes tough decisions that need to be made for the best route for survival.

Each player's turn consists of two things:

1. Drawing an Enemy Card and resolving its effects.
2. Taking three different actions from the available actions on the board.

The players win if they make it through the entire deck of enemy cards. The players lose if the enemies advance too far along their track.

That's it. However, to really understand the game, one needs to understand the set-up and what is available as far as actions are concerned.

To understand the effects of the Enemy Card draw, the Enemies' Track of Asgard needs to be understood. There are 6 different enemy tokens that are placed on the start of the track. Beyond the start space, there are 7 spaces that the enemy tokens can move along. If 5 or more Enemies advance past the wall of Asgard (into the third space), the players lose. If 3 or more Enemies advance past the door of Valhalla (into the fifth space), the players lose. If 1 or more Enemies advance into Odin's residence (the seventh space) the players lose. The loss isn't immediate, however, as the active player can still try to knock back the advanced Enemy (or Enemies) with their actions by the end of their turn.

When an Enemy card is drawn, it shows one of the six Enemies and that Enemy Token is moves one space forward along the track. Players can later take actions to try to "knock back" the Enemies of Asgard with their action step. Each Enemy Card, however, also triggers that Enemy's special effect which is then resolved. For most Enemies, the further along the track they are, the more powerful their negative effect is. This creates situations where players may decide that it is better to knock back certain Enemies whose powers would be more baneful if they advanced too far, rather than necessarily the Enemy who has advanced the farthest.

After the Enemy Card is resolved, the active player take three actions. Each of these actions, however, must be different. Each action is represented by one of the worlds of the World Tree. The different actions are as follows:

1. Asgard: This action allows the players to directly combat one of the Enemies along the Asgard track in hopes of pushing back its advance. Depending on how far along the Enemy is on the track, their difficultly becomes increasingly higher and more difficult to succeed. Players roll a die and need to get a number equal to or higher than that Enemy's difficulty. Depending on where they are on the track it specifies what the difficulty number is to succeed. However, the highest facing on the die is a 3 and the lowest difficulty for combat is a 5. So players will need to modify their die roll to succeed. Players can spend Vikings (which are gained from other actions) before their die roll to add to their total. Each Viking spend and discarded adds 1 to their die roll. Players also may possess a weapon that is useful against one particular Enemy (these weapons can be gained with a different action). If the player possesses the appropriate weapon, the weapons bonus (from +1 to +3) the bonus is added to the roll as well. Finally, after the die roll and modifiers are applied, the player can spend any Elves that they possess to increase the result by 1 per Elf. Where Vikings are spent blindly before the die roll, Elves are spent afterward if needed, making them a very useful resource. If the player's result equals or exceeds the Enemy's target difficulty, that Enemy Token is moved back one space.

2. Midgard: This action is how the players get their Viking resources to use with the Asgard action to knock back the Enemies. There are four different colored islands on the Midgard track, as well as a Rainbow Bridge starting space for the Valkyries. A player using this action may move the Valkyries marker one space forward or back on the track, then draws three tokens from the bag matching the colored island that the Valkyries marker is on. Any Viking tokens drawn from the bag are kept by the player and any Fire Giant tokens drawn are returned to the bag. Now, the starting ratio of Vikings to Fire Giants differ per bag, and the bags furthest from the Valkyries start favor the players more (thus taking more actions to get to). The ratio of Fire Giant and Viking tokens in these bags can be manipulated by other actions that the players can take. Managing the ratios of these bags is paramount for success for the players. Also adding to the difficulty of the bag management, however, is that one of the islands will always be inaccessible by the Valkyries at any given time. And when a Jörmungand Enemy Card is drawn, the Valkyries move back to their start space and the die is rolled and potentially a new inaccessible island is determined from the roll.

3. Dwarven Forge: This action allows a player to draw or upgrade a weapon that is effective against a single Enemy. If it is available, a player can take a Weapon that gives a +1 bonus against one specific Enemy. If they already possess a weapon against an Enemy, they can upgrade it to the next level, so a +1 Weapon is replaced with a +2 Weapon and a +2 Weapon could be replaced with a +3 Weapon against that same Enemy. These Weapons are permanent bonuses against the single Enemy that the Weapon provides a bonus for when combating the Enemy with the Asgard action. Weapons are not discarded after their use.

4. World of the Elves: The player can take one Elf with this action. Elves are spent after the die roll when combating Enemies with the Asgard action.

5. World of the Dead: This action is one of the ways of managing Viking and Giant ratio in the various bags. With this action, a player can take up to 5 discarded Vikings from this space and add them to any one bag of his choice.

6. Kingdom of Fire: This action is another means of managing bag ratio. It allows a player to choose any one bag and draw five Tokens from it. Any Fire Giants drawn are discarded and removed from the bag. Any Vikings drawn are returned to the bag. This decreases the chances of drawing Fire Giants with the Midgard action later.

7.World of Darkness: This action allows a player to create an emo Vampire who constantly sobs about their lost humanity... Wait, that's not right. This action let's a player give or take any Elves and/or Vikings tokens to one other player.

8. Ice Fortress: As the Enemy Loki moves, his negative power brings out Giants. He causes the top Giant (or Giants if he is further along the track) to be flipped over from the Giants' Deck. Each Giant remains in play until he or she is defeated and each has a global negative effect. The effects can range from increasing the difficulty to combat an Enemy by one, to preventing the players from undertaking certain actions or not allowing the Gods to roll the die in combat. When taking this action, a player needs to combat the giants in the same manner as combat in Asgard, but the base difficulty is always 3 against the Giants. Once a Giant is defeated, it is discarded. However, each Giant has a portion of a Rune on his card. If all four matching Runes are discarded (by defeating Giants), then the Rune's effect is immediately resolved. These are strong effects that help the Gods. A player can also attack and defeat a face-down Giant card as well to try to match Rune pieces.

9. Sacred Land: The Sacred Land track has a start space and five spaces that the Vanir marker can advance along. Taking this action allows a player to either move the Vanir marker one space along the track or to reset the Vanir marker back at the start and immediately apply and one effect that the Vanir marker had advanced to or past. Generally the actions further along the track are more powerful and useful for the Gods, but take more actions to move to. However, just about any of the actions can be situationally useful, but at the cost of requiring a lot of actions to set up and use.

Each of these actions can be used only once per player on their turn, as every player has to take three different actions.


The Theme:

Here's where my biases come in. Honestly, when I look at the game and the available actions, I see the mechanics behind them. When playing the game and applying all of the modifiers, I see the mechanics behind them. The game can be fairly mathy in determining the ratio of the bags or the chances of drawing a certain enemy or determining the probabilities of rolling above a certain number and calculating the risk on using an action to try it. I do not feel like a mighty Norse god as I compare the seeded ratio of the Blue bag compared to the Green bag to determine which yields a better probability of drawing more +1 tokens (Vikings).

However, my familiarity with Norse mythology lets me see why each mechanic is associated with a specific aspect of the myths. For example, the Enemy Hel's negative ability forces you to remove Vikings from a bag and discard them. When we calculate which Enemy Cards are left or when we draw a Hel Enemy Card, I only see the mechanic and how it will affect our current game and position. However, my knowledge of Norse lore makes me appreciate and realize that tying that ability to Hel is genius. Just the same, the effects of the Vanaheim (the Sacred Land) are befitting of the abilities of the Vanir and Tyr of having the best chance to satisfy Fenrir are perfect.

There is so much that ties in so beautifully with the mythology that I am amazed. However, even as someone who knows the mythology very well, it does not conceal the mechanics. You will think, feel and see the mechanics of the game while playing it. You do not feel like you've waded into battle against the Midgard Serpent with the never-missing spear Gungnir, aided by a legion of Viking warriors that you've called up the Valkyries to draw for you from the fiercest warriors of the lands with the aid of the elusive Elves. Instead it feels like you've calculated the best bag to draw from and applied your +1 bonus chits effectively enough to end with a sufficient risk to used resource ratio based on the Enemy token's positioning.

That doesn't mean it isn't a good game. But the theme doesn't mask the mechanics of gameplay. However, the association of mythology to them is still, nevertheless, geniusly fitting.


Learning the Game:

The game's rules are very simple and easy. Really the explanation that I gave above is really rather wordy for the action's effects, but, for the most part, even they are rather easily remembered. The game uses a lot of symbols to help jog the memory of the various effects, but regardless, the rules will be required to look up certain Rune effects from the Giants. But for the most part, within a couple of games, most players will have little problem with 95% of the icons. Just the less used ones (such as the Giant runes) will require a bit of refreshing in gameplay.


The Components:


The beautiful, but very cluttered, board. 



The god cards. This is Odin. Perhaps a little more "buff" than I'd like to see him represented, but still excellent artwork.


 
The weapons available from the Dwarven Forge; each is useful against only one Enemy, but they are not discarded. 




The Enemies of Asgard cards. 




 Tokens used in the game. 



The components of good quality and I happen to love the artwork on just about everything. Most of the components consist of cardboard tokens and cards. Both are of an adequate stock. Basically, everything is functional and pretty and I only really have two notable complaints:

First, the board, while pretty, is a cluttered mess. The reality of it is that it is completely functional, but it really makes things rather ominous for the first couple of plays. The use of icons is helpful in the learning process, but the use of Runes to denote certain actions (or worlds) is a little jarring as you draw a Giant that denies an action (world) and you have to scour the cluttered board to find the matching Rune.

Second, the bags are a little annoying. They are not drawstring bags, but rather still, shallow bags that have their opening on the wide end, resulting in easy spillage if players are not careful. Since the ratio of the bag contents is so important, accidentally spilling two bags contents onto one enough effectively ruins the game unless players know the exact contents of each bag. This could have been easily rectified with deeper, drawstring backs of a less thick material. Actually, any one of those would be a solution: deeper bags, drawstrings or less stiff material. I haven't had any in-game spills yet, but any handling of the bags makes me a little concerned because it just feels like it is such a possibility.


Playing the Game:

Gameplay is easy to learn. The mechanics of the game really are rather simple and even though some of the actions seem intimidating on paper, the reality is that the core of the game is simple enough that it is easy to learn, but the complexity comes from trying to maximize one's actions against the ever advancing threat.

Really that is what the game is about, learning to maximize your actions while minimizing your expenses to beat back the pursuing threats. From that, you learn that certain gods are better at certain things than others, so often games end up with characters supporting one other's actions to win.

I like this mathy, calculated approach. Perhaps it is my familiarity with the source material, but it doesn't feel too dry for me despite the theme not masking the feel of the game's mechanics.

However, where the game has some problems for me is the endgame. Since it is such a calculated game in so many ways, there are games where you realize that you are either going to win or going to lose before the last card is drawn. This can make the endgame anti-climatic as you just go through the last cards knowing what the end result will be.

This also makes the game suffer in another way. The game has 7 cards for each of the enemies so once each of the 7 is drawn, you know that they will not advance any further (unless they are far back on the track, since Nidhögg's ability moves the Enemy furthest back forward one space). This means that you might have Loki one step away from Odin's Door, but you know that you've already drawn the last Loki card, so there is no further reason to worry about him. It just feels a little awkward leaving someone that far along the track knowing that you don't have to worry about him at all.

Really, what the game needs is a randomizer aspect to the Enemy advance. There are six Enemies, and a simple six-sided die with one facing for each Enemy on it could be included. Some element (such as Nidhögg's ability or one of the Giants when active) could be used to trigger the die to be rolled to see which god moves forward. This little addition would make the endgame so much more interesting because the predictability of it would be gone.

The game does have another means of scaling the challenge. There are cards that can replace the existing cards for some of the Enemies. These cards, when drawn, move the Enemy two spaces. There are also other cards that move multiple Enemies. They can be added or removed as desired. However, the problem with this is that it is still predictable. Once the "bad" card or cards are drawn, you can factor them out of your equations.


Scalability:

The game plays from 1 to 6 players and it is fully playable with no changes no matter how many players you have. Solo games could be played with one player playing multiple gods, each taking their turn.

I've heard a lot of people say that the game plays better as a solo game than a multi-player cooperative game, but I disagree. Part of this is that I hate playing games alone, so I'm not a big solo game fan. Boardgames are social experiences for me. I played a learning game solo and I've found that I've enjoyed the games I've played with my wife and friends much more.

The game can suffer from any number of problems that can plague cooperative games: groupthink, alpha players, arguments and so on. However, most of these are issues with specific group dynamics and not a result of the game being played.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, she doesn't know much about Norse mythology, but loves the Marvel comics Thor as well as the movie. When it comes to Norse mythology, she is the anti-me. However, she enjoys this game a lot. She likes cooperative games and also enjoys the challenge of figuring out the puzzles of which actions would yield the best result. The game has been quite fun for the two of us to play in the evenings together and we've enjoyed experimenting with the combinations of god's powers.

To date, the combination that we've played that she likes the most is Frey and Freyja. Frey has 4 actions, which is quite strong, and he works as an excellent support character to Freyja, who can take the same action twice. So Freyja can double up her weapons quickly when she has the chance, but otherwise she can make two attacks on the advancing Enemies per turn, while Frey uses three of his actions to get Vikings and Elves and uses his fourth action to trade them all of Freyja so she doesn't have to.

Really, there are so many different strategies, but part of what we've enjoyed about the game is finding out the different ways you can handle the combinations.


The Pros:

*An entertaining game that comes in around the 90-minute mark.
*Even though it doesn't mask the mechanics, the theme is one that I really enjoy.
*Lots of combinations for differing play experiences, and also has enough randomness to ensure differing play despite the sometimes mathy aspects of it (the math is calculating probabilities and risk assessment rather than "solving" anything).
*Excellent artwork and solid components.
*Game is easy to learn to play with the curve at becoming an efficient player.
*Loki is not wearing shiny green armor with absolutely comically ridiculously large horns.


The Cons:

*Cluttered artwork on the play board and a little too much reliance on icons and Runes.
*The endgame drifts off into a precalculated ending due to the strict number of Enemy Cards and therefore calculated movements for each.
*The game is about its mechanics and its theme, while applied very appropriately, is really nothing more than a draping cloth over the frame of the game's mechanics.
*Poor quality of token bags is a game-halting spill waiting to happen.
*Thor's player is prone to take his actions by boisterously exclaiming, "Methinks I will go and draw some Vikings from yonder Green Bag."


Overall:

Yggdrasil's Norse mythology theme put it on my radar when it was first announced and I'm glad that I got a copy of it. The cooperative play has made it an excellent game to play during the evenings with my wife and, while it has a similar feeling as Ghost Stories in the sense that you are using limited actions to push back ever encroaching enemies, the game still feels a lot lighter and I don't have a fried brain after playing it. The mechanics are very visible through the game's theme, so the theme isn't applied well in the sense to evoke the feeling of the game, but they are applied well-enough that those familiar with the lore can see the intelligent application to the mechanics. This has turned out to be a surprisingly fun two-player game for our evenings together. It has and will make it to the table with more players from time to time, but really it seems to be better suited for more of an intimate affair with just a couple of players.


7.5/10

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