Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mini-Reviews: Firefly, Skull and Roses, Tzolk'in, The Cave

A flood of new games have been coming in, so the best way to tackle them is with a bunch of mini-reviews!

Firefly: The Game:

There has been a lot of unnecessary lauding and tearing down of this game online. A number of those who laud it would also adamantly defend a leaky coffee cup as being the best damned thing ever if it has a Firefly logo on it. That sort of kneejerk fanboyism also brings out those who would pick apart anything to crush the hearts of tubby neckbeards wearing browncoats calling everything shiny just to see them cry.

But at the end of the day, Firefly is a game with both theme and mechanics and somewhere along the reviews and defenses and criticisms, this seems to have been forgotten as reviews now attack reviews instead of looking at the game.

The end verdict, Firefly is a good game. It falls short of great, but it definitely has it's merit and a place on the shelf.

Firefly, at its heart, is just a pick up and deliver game. However, it does a lot of things right.

First of all, the emphasis isn't on the ship. It's on the crew and how the crew works together. It doesn't matter if you have the prettiest ship with the most mods and add-ons--if your crew is a mix of moral and immoral folk, there's going to be problems and some of them will end unhappy and you'll have to try to pacify them or they might leave. Working your crew to be balanced gives you both a sense of theme and personality for your ship.

There is randomness in the game. Movement is done through drawing of cards to see what happens. Movement in the border space runs the risk of coming across the Reavers, while flying in the Alliance space risks having the Alliance show up and delay and possibly commandeer your cargo. However, there is only one Reavers attack card in the border deck and only one Alliance Cruiser card in the Alliance deck, each one forcing a full reshuffle after it is drawn. While still random, it actually makes the movement more of a press-your-luck type of affair. When I see that the border deck is running thin, I might stick to Alliance space or take things real slow and careful if I don't want to risk my crew. Same thing with the Alliance deck when I'm running illegal cargo. So, in this sense, the randomness works.

To perform illegal actions, you need to draw a certain number of cards from the Misbehavin' Deck. Here is where your crew will usually have to try to get past an obstacle and it will often force a skill check, or can be benefitted by having just the right piece of equipment. This is the most random portion of the game since there is no real foreknowledge of what you might have to go up against. But I don't mind it because it is thematic. The deck represents the things that come up that you can't plan for--it is the sudden appearance of an Alliance patrol or an unexpected bar fight. These cards work as random and with a little knowledge of the game, it is pretty easy to know roughly what works best to make sure you can at least get away.

The game, however, has serious issues with length and downtime. This tends to be the case with a lot of pick up and deliver games, however. Merchant of Venus with 4 players is a long drawn out game. They introduced a starter scenario online which seems to be closer to the "right" length, but ultimately the scenarios need to be modded to make the game work without outstaying it's welcome.

There is also no real exploration. It doesn't limit replayability, per se, but it does mean some repeat players will take on more set strategies for who to deal with and where to upgrade.  After about 2-3 plays, the game will no longer hold any new surprises.

The game can be unforgiving. With experience, you start to see how to best mitigate against the worst threats in the game (having a Pilot, a Mechanic and fuel to spare allows you to Crazy Ivan away from the Reavers and making certain that you have Transportation when Misbeheavin' means you can always flee if the Alliance shows up). However, for newer players, you could suddenly see your entire crew devoured by Reavers or arrested by the Alliance and get set back and almost be knocked out of the game completely. Experienced players definitely need to make newer players aware of these strategies if they want them to enjoy their experience.

Ultimately, however, the theme really shines here. It is a pick up and deliver game, but it feels like a lot more than just that because of it. The theme definitely is not tacked on, but the mechanics of the game were really made with the theme in mind in most every step.

I'm not certain what people expected from a Firefly boardgame, but as a pick up and deliver game works. Then again, that's mostly what the crew was doing on the show anyhow. Picking up and delivering. We just liked it because the show was about the crew's interactions. And you have to manage and build your crew in just the same way. The only thing missing from the Firefly experience is the witty, snarky dialogue. But not to worry, I'm sure that your friend across the table will by shoehorning in Firefly quotes whenever possible.

Skull and Roses:

Skull and Roses is the most amount of tension that you can possibly get with six sets of coasters. It is a bluffing game where you have four cards (coasters). Three have roses on the face and one has a skull on it.

Players lay down one card face down, then take turns either adding another card to their stack or declaring that they can flip over a certain number of cards without hitting a skull. It then goes around the table and any player can declare that they can flip more. Once everyone passes, the highest bidder then flips that number of cards. They must flip through all of their cards first, so when someone declares they can flip, they might be bluffing, hoping someone will raise the bid and flip their skull.

This is a quick, light game, but it has a surprising amount of tension. I love bluffing games and this game strips away just about everything else and it is a game of pure bluff and reading the other players. There is no ambiguity in moves where someone may or may not be a Cylon to create false suspicion. It is pure bluff.

For that, I love it. However, it builds a surprising amount of tension that might be too much for some players as there is no way to justify your actions. You just have to look another player in the eye and try to determine if he's laid a skull or not in his pile. It's a simple game that feels heavier than it is. It's is a strange game, but if you want look your friends in the eye and try to read their soul and have 10-15 minutes feel like three hours of tension, then I highly recommend this game.

Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar:

Tzolk'in's been around for a little while and it was a darling game for a bit. I think it's faded somewhat in obscurity, however, as the flow of mid-level mediocrity in games is an ongoing tsunami that is not stopping.

That isn't to say that Tzolk'in is mediocre, but it is hard for any game to remain relevant for more than a month after its release anymore because of the flood of new titles that thrive on anticipation more than game life.

Anyhow, worker placement games are not my cup of tea. I can enjoy them, but I generally do not seek them out. However, I have friends who really like them, so it's always good to have a few good ones on hand so that I don't have to end up playing one that sucks.

Tzolk'in is a keeper for me in that regard. The big gears are really just a gimmick that moving along a track would represent just as well, but the core mechanics of it are still entertaining enough. Like most Euro worker placement games, you place your figure to get a cube that you can later place a worker to turn it into a card or another cube, which ultimately can be turned into some victory points.

In this regard, there really isn't anything new or interesting in the game and the theme is a disconnect at best. But it isn't as plodding or tedious as many such games, so I'll give it a go now and again and it'll be on my shelf so that my worker placement friends can choose between this, Agricola, Dungeon Lords or Dungeon Petz (though that one is pretty much for my daughter who loves it).

The Cave:

Repeated plays of The Cave have diminished some of my feelings for the game. I still think that it is a solid game and it can be rather thinky as it requires a fair amount of planning to be efficient at what you need to do with your limited supplies. However, the more I play the game, the more I realize that the game doesn't offer anything new with repeated plays.

For a lot of games, this isn't really a problem. And for a lot of players, this isn't really a problem. Many players really enjoy mastering a game.

I suppose the problem here is that I have access to so many games, I don't feel the need to master The Cave. It is a good game and thematic enough, I suppose. But ultimately the theme isn't one that I feel too attached to.

It is a tile laying game of cavern exploration, but you need to make certain that you maximize the supplies in the limited room in your backpack to be most efficient and limit your wasting time to return to base camp to resupply.

While I do like the game, I don't think it is something I would play with the same players again and again. I like introducing other players to new games, but ultimately, I find that I have gotten more efficient. So with new players, I am much more efficient than them and I can easily win now. So I need players at my level, but I don't see playing it with the same people again and again. I have better games that I would rather do that with.

So, while I like the game, it doesn't stand out enough for repeat plays with the same group and I think this'll go into my trade list.

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