Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: Valley of the Kings

I recently did a bunch of mini-reviews on deck-buildinggames and I found that I really focused my interest and attention on implementation of theme into the games. This is primarily since most deck-builders essentially play the same. Arctic Scavengers added new mechanisms to the game, which made it stand apart from the crowd. It also implemented them new mechanisms well into the theme of the game.

I am still a fan foremost of narrative play and theme, but I also am very interested in new and interesting mechanisms.

This picture makes the box seem larger than it really is.
Since writing my deck-building mini-reviews, I've played Valley of the Kings, which is a small box deck-building game which only has 56 non-starter cards in it. It also introduces new mechanisms to make it feel very unlike any other deck-builder game.

In Valley of the Kings each player ostensibly plays as an Egyptian noble in the time of the pharaohs and you are competing with the other players to obtain the best collection of artifacts and relics to be buried with. Each player has a tomb card and at the end of the game, they will only score cards that are placed under their tomb card.

Players begin each with the same starter deck of ten cards, drawing a hand of five of them. The stock (draw pile) is separated with Level 3 cards shuffled and placed on the bottom and then Level 2 cards shuffled and placed on top of them. The starter cards are Level 1 cards.

See? It's really rather compact.
Cards are then drawn from the stock to create the pyramid. Three cards are laid out as the base of the pyramid, with two cards placed above them, and one card at the top, forming a six card pyramid. Only the three cards in the base of the pyramid are available for purchase. When a card is removed from the pyramid, the pyramid "crumbles" and the cards above slide down to fill the missing space and a new card is drawn from the stock and placed at the top of the pyramid.

Each card has a gold value on it which can be used for buying new cards and an action on it, which can be executed instead of using the card for its gold value. On player's turn, he can do the following:


Buy a card from the base of the pyramid. This immediately crumbles the pyramid down. A player can purchase multiple cards on their turn, but each card is purchased separately and any gold value left over from the purchase of one card cannot be applied to the next card purchased.

Execute an action on a card. Cards which are played for their actions cannot use their gold value to buy cards. A player can execute any number of actions per turn from his hand.

Entomb one card under your tomb card. These are the cards that you will score at the end of the game, but you can only take one Entomb action per round. However, other card effects can allow you to place other cards in your tomb without using this action.

Each player then discards whatever cards were played and the remaining cards in your hand. You may discard them in any order your wish--this is important because some cards allow you to take the top card of your discard pile.

The pyramid crumbles like this:
I take the bottom right card and the cards
diagonally over the space slide down...
The player then rebuilds the pyramid by drawing a card from the stock for each missing card in the pyramid. If a player made no changes to the pyramid on their turn (did not buy or take any cards), he then must sacrifice (discard in the main discard pile) one of the cards of the pyramid, crumble it, and then draw a new one.

The player then draws his hand back up to five cards. And the next player takes his turn.

The game continues until there are no cards left in the stock, all cards have been removed from the pyramid, and all players have taken the same number of turns. This usually takes around 45 - 60 minutes.

Players then score the cards under their tomb cards. Some cards are worth a flat number of victory points (which is printed on the card), but most cards are part of a set. Set are things like Books, Canopic Cars, Statues, or Amulets and each set has a number of different types in its set, such as there are 7 different statues and 3 different sarcophagi (which is printed on the card). Each different card in a set adds to your set value. The value of that set is then squared and that is the number of victory points the set is worth. This means if you have 4 different Books in your tomb, then the set is worth 16 points total. If you have 3 Amulets, the set is worth 9 points. One Canopic Jar would be worth 1 point. You only count different cards in your set, so if you have two Books of Gates in your tomb, only one of them counts.

The winner is whoever has the most victory points.

...and it now looks like this.
Like most deck-builders, Valley of the Kings does not build much narrative. Using a Weres Amulet's power is just employing card mechanisms. There also is no reason why it generates gold if I don't use its power. But this is fine. This is standard for deck-builders, with a couple of remarkable exceptions.

However, where Valley of the Kings stands out is in the gameplay. There are tons of decisions to be made with every hand. Entombing a card is how you score them, but you can only entomb one card each round, so you want to get as many in your tomb at a steady pace. However, by placing it in your tomb, you are no longer able to use the gold value or the action on the card. So you have to decide when, or even if, it is best to entomb it. There are turns when you see a card that you can just barely afford, to purchase it, it will take your entire hand of cards... but you really wanted to entomb a card and play an action. Which will benefit you best?

The tombs of each player are public knowledge, so you can see what they are collecting. The player after you is collecting Books and has four in her tomb already. If you buy the Statue that you really want in the base, the Book will collapse down and be available for her to buy on her turn. Should you take the Statue, or should you try to stop her from changing her 16 point set into a 25 point set and take another card instead to leave the Book out of her reach?

Card lay out. It costs 4 gold (upper right),
provides 2 gold (laureled on the left), and
is part of the Sarcophagi set which contains
a total of 3 different cards (bottom left).
You'll find yourself trying to looking at your Heart of the Scarab, which has the powerful action to "Entomb a card from your discard pile" and you'll want to keep it in circulation as long as possible. But you have four Amulets in your tomb and the end of the game is nearing and you have to decide if you want to try to risk getting one more use out of it, or go for the definite points and use your entomb action on it, even though playing it would let you entomb two cards instead.

This is what I like about the game. I generally do not suffer from analysis paralysis, but I found myself pausing for a few moments in this game to really contemplate what to do because the decisions were that important.

Most deck-builders play on autopilot for me where it becomes obvious of what to buy and what to use. This game was a very pleasant surprise to see that I couldn't just play on autopilot, I really had to think about what I was doing. While those few moments of pause for me were very unexpected and very refreshing, I would probably consider hard before playing with a player who is prone to AP.

One of the things that I really like about the game is that you can set yourself up with a very thin, streamlined deck. Entombing Starter cards only gets you 1 VP, but it does get them out of your hand to keep the better cards appearing. Cards like the Outer Sarcophagus lets you put a card from your hand onto the top of an opponent's deck. This slims your deck while fattening theirs. This can streamline decks very quickly and you can keep drawing the same few strong cards.

The cards are of fair quality for us non-sleevers and the artwork isn't bad. There isn't anything dynamic of exciting about the artwork, but considering the theme, I really wouldn't expect it to. It is the mechanisms that makes it stand out, not the components. There is also a solitaire variant posted on the AEG website for those interested in honing their skills.

Displaying what is in your tomb.
The only real complaint that I have with the game comes from the scaling. As a two-player game, this game is phenomenal. It slows a bit, however, when you get to three players and it chokes even more with four. I'm not referring to just the downtime--the game moves swiftly enough. However, a lot of Level 3 cards are rather expensive. In a three and, even more so, in a four player game available gold becomes an issue. Since the card count remains the same, you simply have less turns to buy cards that produce gold and will end up having less time to entomb your weaker cards to make the deck more efficient. This means that when Level 3 hits, you may find yourself with your few 2 gold cards scattered throughout a bunch of 1 gold cards. This means that when the Level 3 cards come out, it may become impossible to acquire new cards when you cannot afford the 7, 8, 9 or 10 gold cost. I've seen a three player game where one player was unable to buy cards three rounds in a row. And the economy and division of these cards gets even worse with four players.


Overall, this is a great two player quick deck-builder. I'll play it with three still, but I would hesitate very much before playing it with four. I am enthralled by the choices presented in this simple game. It doesn't take over Arctic Scavenger's position as my favorite deck-builder, but its clever implementation of mechanisms, its wealth of decisions to be made each round, and the quick set up and break down time with a small footprint on the table makes it one that will easily become one of my go to games not just as a light filler, but for something to quickly whet my appetite for something a little deeper in thought and strategy when my wife and I have a little bit of time to play together.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective




My wife excels at inductive and deductive reasoning. I enjoy games where I am forced to lie and come up with bluffs on the spot. I do well at these kinds of games. I like to think that this is why we are a good match as a couple even though it means that my goal in games is often simply to have my wife believe my lies. This is why our games of Letters from Whitechapel are amazingly tense. I as Jack and she as the Investigators are both fully in our elements.

Now my wife isn't bad at bluffing, but I am terrible at solution and logic games. And when we play games such as P.I. or Mystery Express, she's often easily figured out the solution well before I've even found my footing in the game.

 Unfortunately, I don't offer her much challenge as a competitor in these games. And so even though she does enjoy them very much, they don't make it to our table as much as they should because of this.

So, it just made sense to get Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. It can be played cooperatively and I am able to ride on her coattails and, oh, what a wonderful ride it's been.

The game is very simple in mechanisms and is almost a more free-form Choose Your Own Adventure story, a little like Tales of the Arabian Nights, but with more open endedness in movement, but no random dialogue trees.

Players begin by choosing a case (the base game has ten). There is a map of London which is broken into districts and has numbered locations on it. There is a directory, as well, which has names of London residents and businesses which gives their location number.

The prologue of the case is read aloud, in which the story begins and sets up the investigation. Usually the stories are set up in a manner such as someone coming to Holmes for aid in a case. The players are members of the Baker Street Irregulars and are privy to the conversations between Watson and Holmes. After hearing the set up, you are free to investigate.

The attention to detail in the newspapers is remarkable.
There is a newspaper for each investigation for the day of the investigation. It has articles and adverts and letters which help bring out the theme and setting. Plus, there may be some very subtle clues in the papers to corroborate stories or to possibly find more points to investigate from.

But when I said that you are free to investigate, you really are free. Once the prologue is read, you are now completely on your own. The prologue might have mentioned a few names or places, but it is up to you which to pursue and in what order. It is a strange feeling during your first play to be offered such open-ended freedom. It is a little unsettling, in fact, since usually this is only given when there is someone eyeing you from the other side of a game master's screen.

Perhaps you decide to go to the scene of the crime. You look up its location in the directory or on the map. Perhaps you decide to go to speak to a suspect or a witness. You look up their name in the directory to get their location. Perhaps they mentioned a foot print and so you look up Shoemakers in the directory and find out that there are five of them listed. So you look at the map to see which is closest to the crime scene or a suspect's house and you go to it. Or perhaps you go to each of the five shoemakers one after the other. You are that free in this game.

There is also a key showing how long it would take to walk from one
location to the next--a useful tool in corroborating alibis.
Once you determine where you are going and have its location number, then you look up that location in the Case Book and you read a bit of dialogue about what happens during your investigation or interrogation. There are little details in these story snippets which can reveal a lot to those paying attention. But, of course, all of the snippets have minor details in them and many can prove to be red herrings--just the happenstance of everyday life that really are not indicative of anything else. There are also grander things to discover as well, such as more names, possible motivations, other places to investigate.

The game is set up to really allow a lot of freedom in your investigations. Now, not every location has a story in every Case Book. If, for instance, I decide to go to one of the four furriers in London, but there is nothing there relevant to the case, I will not find an entry for that location in the Case Book.

This continues until you are confident that you can solve the case, at which point, you turn to the Questions section of the Case Book.

This is just one page of the 16 page directory
of places that you can go.
There are typically eight to ten questions to answer pertaining to the case, some are more primary to the case (who did it, why did they do it, how did they do it, etc.) and some are more secondary and may be related to clearing other suspects or noting how well you picked out specific details.

Once answered, you read an epilogue in which Holmes breaks down the case and reveals what happened and how he deduced it.

After reading the epilogue, you check your answers to the solutions. Each answer has a point value and the primary questions are worth more than the secondary questions. You tally your total and then compare your route to Holmes'. The Case Book shows Holmes' path and his route for his investigation. For every location more that you visited than Holmes, you lose five points. For every location less that you visited, you gain five points.

You then can compare your score to that of Holmes (who always scores 100 points) to see if you did better or worse than him.

There is a moment of elation that I cannot fully express when reading the epilogue where it validates and confirms your theories while at the same time stunning you by making you realize the simplest clues that you missed.

It is possible to play the game competitively, however, each player takes turns deciding which lead to follow next and what location to go. Once one of the players is confident that they can solve the case, they read the Questions and write down their answers, noting how many locations they visited. This continues until everyone has answered the Questions and then each player's score is tallied individually.

I'm not too much of a fan of the competitive play because it is a bit clunky. If you were truly being competitive, you are still being "dragged along" to locations that the other players want to visit even though you may think that they are pointless dead ends. Plus, you lose the interesting dialogue that occurs naturally in the game as you bounce theories off of one another. If you are competing with another player, I don't see why you would discuss the case and you miss the interesting discussions that can spark moments of revelation with one another.

Another reason why I am too much of a fan of the competitive play is that I am terrible at logic games and if I want a decent score, I need to ride my wife's coattails. So when we play, I try to mask my deductive uselessness by being the permanent reader and giving each character a consistent unique voice when I read their dialogue. I also write down the locations we go to.

At the end of our first case, my wife had three pages of handwritten notes. I had scribbled the number of the locations we visited on the margin of my notepad. However, I would like to point out that Wiggins had a difficult gravelly voice that hurt my throat after a bit of long dialogue and I did accents as well for some of the characters. So, I feel that the flavor of my reading helped my wife's cognitive ability by putting her more in the correct atmosphere.

For as much as we love SHCD, there are some issues with it. First of all, there is limited replayability. There are only ten cases and despite the freedom and range of means to explore in them, they all have only one solution. This isn't too much of an issue for me, as I feel that the ten plays is still fairly reasonable amount to be played (sessions run around 90-120 minutes each) for the cost of the game, especially since it is such an enjoyable experience.

There is an argument that could be made that this isn't really a game. And... they wouldn't really be wrong in the sense that most gamers consider games. It is an experience event, but considering how much I enjoy the experience, I don't mind.

Also the text in the Clue Books is written in a terrible font for the amount that needs to be read. It makes reading the pieces a little clunky as I've had to pause to decipher some of the writing. There are a few typos as well, which normally wouldn't be that much of an issue. However, in reading aloud, the combination of bad font, the occasional typo, and the stiff period style writing, it causes the spoken dialogue to break up a bit and not always flow smoothly.

But that said, the game succeeds with its attention to detail. The directory is immense and there are so many open options to explore. The only times that we've ever not found an encounter in our Clue Book was when we were thinking very much outside of the box and trying to focus on such a minute detail.

The newspapers are an incredible addition as well as they are completely period and thematic and give little hidden gems of information within, but they are very well hidden in the thematic atmosphere of the paper.

If you ever feel lost, there are always any of Holmes' allies that can be visited as well to perhaps aid your investigation, from Fred Porlock, to Mycroft Holmes, to Scotland Yard, to Sherlock himself. Each of these visits offers an "in character" bit of information on the current case.


I definitely recommend Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. The expansions are out of print, but Ystari has started to release expansions in French so it is hopefully just a matter of time before more cases come stateside in English. Until then, we are restricted to just the ten cases. Still, if you want to have a good, thematic, deductive experience, I suggest doing what I did: Marry a logic minded spouse, purchase this game, and then ride her coattails to fun and success.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Gameplay: The Before Bedtime Edge of the Empire Campaign Opener



 

Ora is a Bothan Explorer. She is a Scout and a damned good pilot. Stricken by wanderlust, Ora wants to explore. She wants to see the galaxy. She met up with another Bothan, Lilly, who had a ship, an old YT-1300 freighter called the Marchana. Lilly used Ora's skills as a pilot to help her traffic questionable goods from one place to another. Ora didn't care, however. All that mattered was that she was flying and exploring new worlds. Unknown to Ora, Lilly was running low on funds and was heavily in debt. Masking the operation as a standard cargo run, Lilly had Ora take them to a remote planet. However, Lilly set up to betray Ora and the meeting was with slavers who were going to take Ora and pay Lilly handsomely. Ora discovered this and fled, leaving the system and Lilly behind, stealing the ship to escape the Bothan she thought was her friend, but actually betrayed her.

That is the character and back story that my seven year old daughter created for our "Before Bedtime Edge of the Empire Campaign". Other than the name of the ship, she created that entire background herself. Her character was originally named Emma, but she decided to change it right before we started playing stating that she "needed a name that said more about her character."

Zulara Lithal is a Human Bounty Hunter Survivalist. Her younger brother got in trouble with the Empire, but a sly Imperial Officer, Dandal Holt, decided to cover up the charges when Zulara plead for her brother. The Officer now blackmails Zulara, threatening to reveal her brother's crimes if she doesn't do what he says. Needing money, Zulara made an arrangement with small-time Twi'lek crime boss Bib Turrazza to finance her starting operations, though she remains in his debt as he is trying to milk out her repayment.

This is my wife's character and background from her character creation.

2-1BB4 is a droid. He was under the service of the Bothan Lilly by means of a restraining bolt. Originally, his programming was to be a Scholar and he would give Lilly information about the systems and planets she would visit to help her decide what would be the best cargo to trade. However, after a particularly bad exchange, she had him download programming to also become a Doctor. With dual specializations and no wipe, "BB" started to pick up some quirks. He has become obsessed with the glam rocker "Galaxy Glitter" from an old poster that Lilly had hanging in her ship from a time she helped transport some of his equipment. BB was on the ship when Ora fled Lilly and she removed his restraining bolt. BB now calls Ora "Mistress", but out of respect rather than the restrictions of a bolt.

This is the primary NPC. Since it was a small party, I decided to incorporate an NPC to give more party interaction, especially since my daughter is new to this.

 So these are the primary characters in our "Before Bedtime Edge of the Empire Campaign". Since our Call of Cthulhu campaign fell apart from a missing person, I've been indulging in a lot of independent RPGs and, although most aren't suited for a long-term campaign, I've become really impressed with the focus of mechanisms for characters, theme, and stories that many of these have.

When I got together with a group to start a campaign, I decided to try Pathfinder since I had such extensive history with D&D and 3.5. I lamented about it here. It seemed that mainstream RPGs really didn't focus on the things that made roleplaying interesting to me, which was characters and story.

I had heard about Edge of the Empire and dismissed it because I thought running a long-term campaign in the Star Wars universe would feel silly. However, I snagged the Edge of the Empire Beginner Game Box to idly check out the things I was hearing about it.

The system intrigued me. And I wanted to give it a shot, but it was a simplistic starter set and adventure, so I didn't want to bring it to my long-term hardcore veteran roleplaying group. I decided to test the systems by playing the starter adventure with my daughter and my wife.

It turns out that my daughter loved roleplaying. She talked in character and everything that happened was so fantastic and exciting for her. She was very disappointed when the adventure ended. I told her that we would roll up our own characters and start a campaign. She was very excited.

I really enjoyed what I saw in the rules of the Beginner Box and I found that the Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook expanded upon everything that I liked. My full review of the Edge of the Empire system is here.

Now, there are challenges to running a campaign with a seven year old in it. First of all, attention span is a concern. She loves playing, but bogging down to look up rules will bore her quickly. Also, she's not ready for the Saturday afternoon into late Saturday night/early Sunday morning marathon sessions of D&D that I had as a teenager. So pacing is a concern.

But this is Star Wars. Pacing an episodic adventure fits the theme very well.

Our first session started with Ora and BB fleeing Lilly and the slavers. They had enough fuel for one short jump there were several possible destinations in range. They ended up at Dantum Station, an old derelict space station and casino and had just enough money to pay for the docking fees. They knew that they had limited time to refuel before Lilly would track them down, so they set off to try to find a means to earn money and ended up heading to the local cantina to see if they could find a job that would pay enough to refuel the ship.

Zulara, meanwhile, was sent by Bib Turrazza to kill the owner of the Dantum Station, Dei Ametie. With Dei dead, the station would go into the ownership of Nada Dax, who had offered to give Bib a percentage if he would gain control of the station. Zulara arrived at the station and met with her contact who was supposed to give her access to her target. However, she was betrayed and when
they met in the cantina, he pulled a blaster on her. Since he warned Dei, he fled the station and was hiding out on an asteroid safehouse. Her contact radioed Dei to let him know that he had the bounty hunter and he was given the order to execute her.

Ora arrived at the cantina at this time. She didn't notice the exchange going on with Zulara or the blaster pointed at her. But as she inquired about jobs to get money for fuel, one of the patrons there recognized her from the call that Lilly put out. She contacted all of the areas within reach and put out a reward for the capture of Ora and return of her ship. The fight that broke out was enough distraction for Zulara to get the drop on her contact with the blaster pistol pointed at her.

When the ruffians were gone, Zulara fled, telling Ora she needed her to fly her to the safe house so she could eliminate her target. She'd get paid enough to refuel her ship for her. The group fled as the station went onto alert.

BB created a distraction while Ora and Zulara snuck into the control room of the station and released the docking clamps on their ship in lock down. Zulara was also able to turn off the alerts and slow any possible pursuit.

Reaching the ship, they took off. Heading into the ship, they passed the cargo hold that had a terrible odor coming from it. Ora hadn't noticed it before, but Lilly had placed a new locking system on that cargo hold and she couldn't get in. Zulara was able to slice the lock and open the cargo hold, which held a solitary Jawa. BB was the only one who could speak Jawaese, so he translated and they discovered that Tesoona was captured by Lilly and she had planned on selling him to the slavers as well.

The ship's klaxon sirens blared as ships from the station set to pursue came into range. Despite Zulara's want to jettison the Jawa to get rid of the smell, Ora took up his offer to help fix the ship instead. Ora was able to fly well enough to evade most of the shots of the enemies and Zulara worked the ship's guns and BB jammed the enemies com systems so they could not give Dei warning of their arrival.

With the ships eliminated, they flew through the asteroid field and found Dei's safe house. Ora successfully bluffed over the radio that she had eliminated Zulara and Ora and took the Bothan's ship to turn in to Lilly for bounty and reward. They were given clearance to land and were able to ambush Dei, taking him out.

Nada Dax took over the station immediately. Instead of paying the amount for the bounty that Bib Turrazza had promised, he instead offered to give a couple hundred credits and refuel their ship. Ora realized that she would need a source of income to pay for her fuel to explore and Zulara realized that she would need steady transport if she wanted to track down bounties to earn money. The pair decided that they benefitted one another and set off together.

My daughter. Back when she was Yoda-sized.
It was a simple, direct story meant to connect the pair. There was a bit of railroading in the set up to get everyone together, but it was my daughter's first free-form adventure. The benefits of the system that I outlined in my review remain. Fantasy Flight's Star Wars Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion system is a mainstream, campaign worthy system that focuses on narrative play and characters and story. The universe can be grey, but there is enough moral black and white (Empire and Rebellion) that a seven year old can make moral decisions with little difficulty. The dice system itself is easy enough for her to grasp, but can be deep enough for a veteran roleplayer to decide how to spend the three advantage in the most interesting and compelling way.

From time to time, I may update where our campaign is and where our stories are, but as a geek father, this is the first real roleplaying experience for my little girl. I wouldn't have expected it to be in the Star Wars universe, but whenever she's bored now, she'll come over and ask if we can play more of the campaign.


Other than her successfully bluffing to me in One Night Werewolf that she wasn't a werewolf last Saturday, I can think of little more that makes my geek heart beat prouder for my little girl.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Mini-Reviews: Building the Better Deckbuilder

When Dominion first came out, my wife and I played a fair amount of it. It was an interesting and new mechanism and our daughter was still young at the time, so having a game that set up and played quickly was wonderful. We continued with the first expansion, Intrigue, which was okay. By the time Seaside came out, our interested waned. We only got maybe three plays of Dominion with Seaside before we moved on to new things. The expansions didn't revitalize Dominion for us. In fact, if anything, they did the opposite.

The Dominion expansions helped to point out one of the reasons why we stopped enjoying the game: there is no real connection between theme and mechanisms. Sure, Seaside had lots of cards with water in the background, but essentially every card's artwork could be broken down into a picture of some dark haired dude with perhaps a bit of facial hair holding his arms out in an awkward, unnatural pose as if he was doing something or wanted something and this was to represent that you got +1 Action and +1 Coin.

I like and appreciate clean mechanisms in a game, but what I enjoy most is a narrative theme. What draws me back to a game is the challenge and gameplay, but what really makes a game memorable is that narrative arc. I can still recall (and overload you with) many stories of Machiavellian traitorous moves in Battlestar Galactica or marvelous last moment breaches in Stronghold or terrible character slaughters in Arkham Horror. But I really don't have any grand stories of the triumph of drawing and chaining a bunch of Markets together or the tragedy of picking up a hand of Duchies and having to pass my turn.

So, I like the deckbuilding mechanism in a game, but I want to play something better and more thematic than Dominion. What are my options?




Thunderstone
Thunderstone hit my collection right around when Dominion was wearing thin. It took Dominion's deckbuilding and incorporated more of a theme to it. You were buying cards and building up your deck, but with the goal of using a drawn hand of cards and deciding to either use it to visit the village (to buy more cards) or to encounter the dungeon (and fight monsters). Eventually the dungeon monsters (and traps) clear out to reveal the titular Thunderstone which can be obtained and ends the game.

The problem with Thunderstone was that it is clunky. Players needed certain amount of light from their cards to delve deeper into the dungeons and bad draws at the front of the dungeon deck can really clog up progress for a while forcing more time building up in the village than anyone wants.

We may have liked Thunderstone better if it had not been for the Dominion exhaustion when it arrived. Now, I have yet to play Thunderstone Advanced, so perhaps some of the clunkiness has been amended and fixed with the newest edition. But, as it stands, Thunderstone is still a much better implementation of theme into a deckbuilder than Dominion.


Trains
Trains is a bold attempt at a hybrid. I mean, the mere idea of taking the thematic presence of Dominion and adding it to the adrenaline churning excitement of laying cubes to make a railroad track is so bold that no one has ever thought of doing it before.

That's actually because both of those are boring and combining them is a bad idea.

The Deckbuilding portion of the game is plainly the same as Dominion, even to the victory point cards that clog your deck, and it has about the same level of thematic resonance. However, card play can also let you place stations on the map and lay rail to connect them. This ramps up the excitement of the deckbuilder theme by the exact level that you think picking up a wooden cube and putting it down would.

To be fair, the game is clean and clear and it works for what it is. There is slightly more thematic integration than Dominion by the fact that there is a map that you are expanding upon. However, drawing a hand that consists of a Holiday Timetable, Signals, an Information Central, a Viaduct, and a Mail Train is just plainly not exciting. I almost long for a guy in a floppy hat holding out his hand awkwardly as if wanting something from me in exchange for +1 Card and +1 Action.

I would also say that it has a terrible, boring name, but then there's...


DC Comics Deck-Building Game
DC Comics Deck-Building Game definitely wins the award for the most accurate naming of a game. I would have really liked something more exciting, however, from a comic book company whose characters consist of Superman, Batman, Aquaman, I suppose that I should expect nothing less than a very bland, but very accurate title.

(Fun fact: I write my reviews in Microsoft Office Word first, then transfer them to my review sites. Superman and Batman both cleared the spell-check, but Aquaman gets the red squiggle of shame under his name. Not even Microsoft respects Aquaman enough to include his name in their default vocabulary along with his fellow Justice Leaguers.)

The DC Comics Deck-Building Game has each player choose a signature Hero with their own special ability and starts them with low value buying cards and, unlike the previous games, cards are bought from a line-up instead of individual stacks (like Ascension). This creates a lot more randomness in what is available. Contrary to the theme, Aquaman can purchase Heat Vision and the Lasso of Truth and the Batmobile and use it to defeat Darkseid.

Despite the disjointed theme and the terrible, terrible, but accurate title, I happen to really enjoy the DC Comics Deck-Building Game. Unlike Marvel: Legendary, this game's design is much more crisp and clean. There is only one currency in the game. Legendary suffers from having two. In Legendary, you purchase cards with high buying power to afford cards with high attack, but then you are slowed as all of the high buy cards clutter your deck. With DC, there is one currency and even the high Victory Point cards do not clutter your deck, in fact, they are some of the better cards in the game in terms of ability. That does allow for some games to snowball with a runaway leader, but the simplicity and quickness of the game is still refreshing and fun even when the theme disconnects.

The DC Comics Deck-Building Game Heroes Unite stand-alone expansion offers much of the same. However, the deck seems a little more unbalanced with too many point synergies. The base game is definitely the stronger of the two in that regard.


Arctic Scavengers
In the genre of deckbuilders, Arctic Scavengers has proven to me to be the current pinnacle of what the genre cane be. The game is set in a post apocalyptic world where players are rival factions each trying to expand their resources to reach the only goal that really matters--population.

The game has stacks of each card available for purchase and, unlike many of its predecessors, there is no randomness or variety in the cards that are out. All of them are available in every game.

Now, other than thematic disconnect, the biggest complaint with deckbuilding games is "Why the fuck would you think that making train tracks with little wooden cubes would be an interesting or exciting addition to this genre?" But right after that, the next biggest complaint comes in the limited player interaction. Everyone plays multiplayer solitaire until one player hits the end game condition.

Arctic Scavengers, however, pits players against one another for the best resources in the game. After a couple of rounds of build up, players then compete for the top card of the Contested Resources deck, which are usually the strongest resources in the game. Only the first player gets to peek to see what it being fought over. Then, after a player spends some of his cards to buy more cards or take other actions, they get to hold back any remaining number of cards in their hand. Every player does this, and then, each player finally reveals their hand and the remaining cards are used to battle the other players for the resource card.

This opens up so much more to the game. There is the obvious direct interaction. But there is also bluffing. As the first player, I peek at the card. I could intentionally just keep a couple cards back to try to make others think it isn't that useful. Or I could hold my entire hand back even if I don't have good combat cards in hopes of intimidating the other players to use their cards to purchase instead, thinking that fighting is hopeless.

The theme and narrative works in Arctic Scavengers and you can try to lure engineers into your hand to help build buildings to fortify your position, but other players may suspect what you have and use a sniper to take down your engineer before he even starts.

Every complaint that I have ever heard about deckbuilders is countered in Arctic Scavengers. It really is a game that shows what level this genre is capable of.