With a bunch of releases all coming out at roughly the same time, combined with Santa bringing a certain expansion for my daughter, I've found myself in the middle of three campaign style board games all at once. This is, by no means, a complaint. However, playing concurrent campaigns has given me a bit of a direct comparison between them and has highlighted what I like and don't like about each of them and the strengths and weaknesses of each game.
That said, I will start out by saying that none of the three games are bad games by any stretch of the imagination. But I've noticed that each game evokes a very different feel for me than the rest and each game has me anxious to come back (or stay away) for specific reasons.
Mice and Mystics: Downwood Tales (MM) is the expansion for Mice & Mystics. We've recently continued our campaign in the expansion, so I'll be focusing on that primarily when it comes to story since the mechanisms are the same. MM takes place in a fantasy world of swords and magic where several principle characters were turned into mice. However, they discovered that they can speak with other mice and the world becomes sort of a fantasy Secret of Nimh where mice battle rats and spiders and centipedes, and avoid larger hazards such as cats, owls and snakes. The expansion has created a world that is a even a little more fantasy than the first campaign with mice battling froglodytes (instead of troglodytes) who worship a giant (in relative terms) snake in a surprisingly Conan-like scene. But the characters are mice (with a gecko and shrew tossed in the expansion) and are equipped with items such as button shields and walnut shell breastplates and the wizard is accompanied by a ladybug familiar.
Shadows of Brimstone (SoB) blends a few genres while borrowing heavily from the theme of others. SoB takes place in old west in the Southwest United States in the 1880s. Much like the Deadlands setting, a dangerous change happened to our world. Instead of a Native American ritual triggering the changes, in SoB, it was the discovery of Dark Stone in the mines. The Dark Stone (much like Deadlands' ghost rock) can be used to power magic and enhanced weapons and items. However, instead of fully paralleling the Weird West of Deadland, the influence is more of a (unnamed) Cthulhu mythos that has spread. Dark Stone can corrupt those who hold it and monsters are so horrific, they bend and warp the sanity of those who see them. Characters are traditional Old West archetypes from Gunslingers to Marshals to Saloon Girls to magic-casting Preachers.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault (IA) is set in the Star Wars universe right after the destruction of the Death Star over Yavin 4. The stories are mostly told from the perspective of the Rebels as they try to disrupt and stymie the Imperial operations. The Star Wars universe has never been science fiction, but rather more of a science fantasy and that still holds true in this setting. Here the characters are based off of very familiar Star Wars universe character tropes for the era. Character choices include a smuggler, a Force-sensitive trainee, and a Wookiee, as well as other rebel forces (though sadly no droids). One player here controls the Imperial forces. He doesn't choose individual characters to advance, however. Instead he chooses a deck of cards to draw from, which reflect his overall style for how he will deal with the Rebel scum.
Summary: Overall, it is up to a player's particular preferences to guide him or her to which of these settings speaks to them the most. Do you prefer bows and swords, or bullets and Calvary sabers, or blasters and light sabers? It should be noted, however, that MM and SoB are purely cooperative games, while IA has one player playing the Imperial Forces against all of the other player's characters. It also should be noted that the Rebel players in IA and the players in SoB keep the same characters throughout the entire campaign. In MM, most stories require four characters and you can pick and choose which ones are best suited for each adventure and some require specific characters to join them. This allows you to swap out and "level" various characters throughout, but at the trade off of losing your singular attachment to a specific character.
Mice and Mystics has a relatively easy gameplay. Combat is streamlined and there are next to no exceptions to worry about in the rules--everything is straight forward. It is a fully cooperative game, so the villains act based off of a script of actions based on their type. This is fairly simple to determine and it helps the game's smooth flow during combat. Combats generally do not drag out too long and, while minion encounters may sometimes be a bit repetitive or simple, most every boss or special baddie encounter have very interesting and creative ways of dealing with them. Fighting Brodie the Cat or the "giant" snake are two of the most memorable moments I have with the game. The game's timer is a cheese wheel. In combat, whenever the baddies roll a cheese icon on the custom dice, you add a cheese wedge to the cheese wheel. Once the wheel is filled (with six wedges), you resolve a surge (basically a penalty encounter for taking too long) and advance the timer marker one space. If the timer reaches the Chapter End position (usually around the fifth or sixth space), the players lose. When you have no enemies on the board and each character has taken a turn and not explored the next tile (to trigger another encounter), a cheese wedge is added. This gives player a timer and sense of urgency not to procrastinate. It can also mean that a string of bad rolls in combat can suddenly speed the timer. In my experience, the timer works well. From base game to expansion, we've lost only one chapter due to the timer running out. However, for every other game it was still a concern and a pressure, but not so much that we didn't feel like we had to rush past the flavor of the game.
Shadows of Brimstone has the most complex system of the three games. I will also be blunt: the game design here is sloppy. With nearly every aspect of the game being random, there are a ton of things that could happen to suddenly change the flow of a mission. Combat can be overwhelming at times and missions can be, frankly, impossible because of the random draws. However, each mission can be aborted and the heroes can flee, but this can cause problems as the town (where the downtime in between missions is managed) could be destroyed or other nasty things can happen. Combats can be swingy as well because of either an unlucky draw of how many foes you have to encounter to just bad die rolls meaning you quickly have a half-dead, half-insane gunslinger doomed to corruption. Now, the game is a sloppy design and it is a random fest, HOWEVER, there is something amazing about seeing it play out. What really stands out is how much this game was a labor of love of the designer. I find it very easy to look past those negatives and get caught up in what is happening on the board--because it is never not nail-biting and exciting. The game's timer here is a darkness track where players roll at the start of each turn (whether they are in combat or not) to see if they hold back the darkness. If they succeed on their roll (which has a higher difficulty the deeper into the mine they travel) then nothing happens. If they fail, the darkness marker moves along the track. If it reaches the end, the players lose. Along the way, it passes spaces that add threats and challenges for the players. Some of the spaces add Growing Dread cards which are resolved when you meet the boss of a mission. These cards can be really nasty and are a real scary thing to add to the stack. We've never run out of time in a mission, but the fear of adding more threats and Growing Dread cards is significant enough to have us keep up a fair pace throughout the game.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault is a cleaned up Descent 2.0 system. Basically, every complaint that I had about Descent (which I liked) was addressed here. Line of sight is better defined, players alternate their turns (one hero activates, then one Imperial group activates, then another hero activates, then another Imperial group activates, etc.), the Overlord doesn't have a large deck to draw from but instead has card effects that are out, and the hero wound/defeat system means the Overlord player needs to spread out attacks to win instead of just targeting the most vulnerable over and over again. This is the only of the three that is not a full cooperative game. One player controls the Imperial forces (like the Overlord) and the other players work as a team with their characters against him. Where I think that Descent is better than IA, however, is with the Overlord/Imperial player's objectives. In Descent, a good amount of the missions (especially since the missions were two part affairs with the first half played for advantage in the second half) had more dynamic objects for the Overlord. In IA, the Imperial player really just feels like he's protecting console terminals in most of the missions. IA also has a timer which is a static number of rounds--there is no chance to it advancing or slowing quicker. While the pace is steady, it is too quick. The Rebel characters don't really play out on the board with in character strategies in most missions. Instead, the fastest characters just make a mad dash to the various terminals that they need to activate before the mission round timer runs out.
Overview: MM is a simple system that keeps the game flowing at a steady pace. The timer is a threat to keep pressure, but it doesn't hurt the style of play, but it can be effected by bad luck and die rolls. SoB is a sloppy design, but, for me, it works because I feel the heart and love in it and I feel the excitement that the designer had in designing it. It is a labor of love and that counts for a lot in overlooking the flaws. The timer in SoB is a real threat--never because of an instant loss, but taking too long will result in a harder boss fight. IA is a crisper and cleaner Descent system, though the Imperial player/Overlord has a much less dynamic role in the game. The timer in IA and the mission design are the worst parts of it. It forces characters to rush and run through missions which ruins any flavor of characters acting "in character", unless, of course, you imagined your character as the galaxy's best sprinter and terminal smasher.
Characters and Advancement:
Mice and Mystics characters advance by spending six cheese to purchase new ability cards for their class and type. Cheese is also the resource spent to activate these abilities, so tough missions that require a lot of ability use often mean there is less advancement, which can feel counterintuitive. Cheese is gained through rolling a cheese when a hero attacks. This means that the more dice you attack with and the more often you attack, the more likely you will gain cheese. Some mice have other abilities that allow them to gain cheese. This awkward means of XP generation is supplemented by the fact that players can trade cheese with one another, so someone with poor cheese rolls or spending all of their resources to activate abilities can be aided by the other players. For each mission, you get to choose which characters you bring in, so mice may not all level at the same pace. However, this is never really an issue where any one character outpowers the others. The advancement abilities are useful, but they are not tiered in levels, so most characters really ever favor just one or two abilities. Mice can also find new items to use on adventures. However, each mouse can only keep one "found" non-starter item in between adventures. This, again, feels a little unintuitive for character advancement, but it helps to keep all of the mice roughly on the same power level and allows for more flexibility in party choice at the start of an adventure.
Shadows of Brimstone characters advance through leveling once they get enough experience points (XP). The biggest problem with advancement, however, is that everyone's XP is individualized. You (and you alone) get XP for each monster you kill, each spell you cast, every point of health or sanity that you heal, and each time you hit one of the bigger monsters. This results in two things: a LOT of bookkeeping and uneven advancement. Because you get XP per kill, often initiative order or lucky or unlucky rolls dictates how much you advance. As you level up, you get more abilities that let you kill things easier, so you become more likely to get even more XP than those lagging behind in levels. So even though it is a cooperative game, it suffers from the rich getting richer. Bookkeeping and fiddliness aside, however, SoB by FAR allows you to customize and personalize your characters the most. Because of this, it is far easier to grow attached to your character's abilities and the "persona" of your character and how he plays on the board. There are differing leveling "tracks" and random abilities that players gain. Each character will be vastly different from any other and that is even before including in equipment, which can be upgraded and personalized even more.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault characters advance uniformly, like characters did in Descent. Each mission gives a story reward and may give the group XP which can be spent on advancement powers. These are tiered, each costing 1 to 4 XP. However, IA gives you the fewest options in your upgrades. There is a deck of equipment cards that players can purchase from at the end of a mission with any credits they've gained. However, the items available for purchase are drawn at random, so despite buying them, players have little control over what may be available. The other problem I see with the equipment is that most pieces of equipment are pretty much tailored toward one or two of the characters. So my Wookiee will very likely look very similar in gear and skills as your Wookiee after five missions. The Imperial player, however, will not advance any characters. He will gain Influence Points or Experience Points to spend on cards. The cards are either played at a specific time or remain out, face-up, in front of the Imperial player to activate when desired. While some of these cards unlock side-missions and interesting effects, ultimately, leveling up as the Imperial player makes you feel more like the DM than an opposing player. What the system really needs to make this more engaging for the Imperial player is the addition of a Nemesis Character that he levels and can add via Threat in certain encounters. Think about the Imperial Inquisitor in Star Wars Rebels. Until that happens, it is a dull process for the Imperial player.
Summary: MM advancements feel more like tweaks. This is both good and bad. You never become too powerful, but you don't miss out and have staggered power levels when you switch out your party--and it does allow you to switch out your party without penalty. SoB and IA both have different leveling methods. With both systems, I feel like I am looking into a funnel, but at different ends. With SoB, I start at the narrow end looking through the wide end of the funnel ahead. I feel like my character starts narrowed and as I level, I am open wide to so many different possibilities. With IA, it feels like I am at the wide part of the funnel moving toward the narrow end. For all of the potential I see with my character at the beginning of a game, I find that the choices are fewer and fewer and more and more obvious and everyone will choose characters and abilities along the same narrow, most-optimal path.
Mice and Mystics starts each mission with a long story, often leading over several pages, to be read. This isn't just fluff and flavor text--it is essentially part of the game. You aren't just playing a mouse character you've created. You are playing a mouse character in an on-going story. This may be a turn off to some who feel they lose the ability to create their own character's "personality", but the story really and character are engaging and interesting. I like making my own characters, but I still love playing the MM characters. And the story, while not dynamic, is engaging. I want to find out what happens next. Furthermore, as actions or events occur within each adventure, you are often prompted to read a story break which propels the narrative. And, again, this isn't just a bit of fluff. It is often several paragraphs that builds an interesting narrative and makes what is happening on the board all the more engaging.
Shadows of Brimstone has no story to read. Really there's just minimal fluff text. The entire background of the quasi-Weird West is just two paragraphs at the very beginning of the rulebook. This doesn't matter to me too much because with the characters being so personalized and you become invested in them that you end up telling your own story. Because the characters are engaging and personalized, your attachment to them starts to tell a story. Our Preacher refused to heal the party's Gunslinger who became corrupted by the dark stone and grew a prehensile tail until he had that devil's abomination removed from him in town. Our U.S. Marshal whose skin was melted wrapped himself up in a poncho to avoid being seen until he could get the condition fixed. My friend's Bandito is has lost so much sanity that he is always on the edge of losing it. The thing is, out of the three games here, this one has given us the most stories--and each of them are completely unique to our group.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault actually has less story dialogue than Descent missions did. Mission set up generally involves the Imperial player reading four or five sentences to the players. There may be a "story break" in the mission where another sentence or two are read. Missions here continue based off of what mission was just played and which side won them. Side missions are drawn at random and break up the main storyline missions. But, ultimately, progress will lead you along a very specific path. But there isn't flavor and story in IA. The flavor and story you get it from seeing the Stormtrooper figures and the AT-ST and remembering the things they did in the movies. If I found someone who knew nothing about the Star Wars universe and sat them down to play this game, they would get nothing from it other than knowing that in this mission they have 6 rounds to smash 3 terminal consoles.
Summary: In MM you are playing existing characters in a very engaging and interesting story. In SoB very memorable things can occur to characters that you created and invested in, but it is incumbent upon you and your group to really make the story. In IA, the story is a choose your own adventure path with little variation, however, it is a game for Star Wars fans since there is no flavor or story there other than seeing a Stormtrooper figure and knowing from the movies what that represents.
Nuts and Bolts:
Mice and Mystics rules set is very easy to learn and fairly intuitive to remember. The rules are well presented and do not cause much confusion or require much clarification. The AI of the opponents is fair, if not a little simplistic, however, the simplicity allows the game to flow at a good and steady pace through combat. There are very few times in the course of an adventure when I would have to reference the rules to check something. Each adventure tends to offer something new and interesting to the mix as well, from crossing streams, to floating down from a high branch on a leaf, to encountering a cat, to encountering a snake. You are not overwhelmed with new rules in any adventure, but each addition makes the moment of the story memorable.
Shadows of Brimstone has a lot of rules and exceptions. There are tons of charts to reference for random occurrences and you'll be drawing from ten decks of cards throughout the game and often one deck will reference you to draw from another deck which may reference you to draw from a third deck. Opponent AI is pretty unintelligent. What this game needs is more variation. At present, every baddie will simply shamble up to a random hero (breaking themselves up evenly between them) and attack. Since the party generally consists of primarily ranged heroes, it would be nice to see some ranged monsters or monsters that have different attack patterns or target priorities. It should also be noted that SoB has two base sets, each with different characters, monsters, adventures, tiles, loot and just about everything else. Only one is needed to play, but combining them gives a lot more variety to your game--though the game doesn't give any official rules on how to combine them.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault essentially is Descent 2.5 reskinned. I know a lot of people like the new FFG rulebook set up, but I hate it. The reference book for rules is nice, but the actual rulebook itself is now bare bones and omits a number of rules, because you are supposed to look up the topic in the reference book to get the rest of the rules to it. I prefer to read the rules in a more narrative sense to understand them and have a reference book to refer to exceptions afterward. In IA, the opponent AI is played by an Imperial player. This allows the Imperial forces to react and act with more precision as they... protect their terminal consoles from sprinting Rebel forces... Though one of the Imperial win conditions for many missions is that all Rebel heroes are wounded. Wounding doesn't disable a character, but is just, essentially, a status that occurs when a character loses all of their health. This does result in a strategy of wounding one character and then completely ignoring him and targeting the next character. Doesn't matter that the wounded character is still running around blasting your forces, you now ignore him and focus onto your next target.
Summary: MM is an easy and intuitive game to grasp. There are melee and ranged enemies and special boss baddies usually have unique means of interacting and attacking the heroes. SoB is a cluttered mess of charts and decks and the AI is rather standard and dumb as they all just fill in the ranks to melee attack one after another with no variation. IA is an upgraded Descent rule set and has the enemy forces controlled by a player allowing for dynamic reactions and plans against the players, although mission design typically means rotating targets until wounded and protecting terminals from Rebel sprinters.
Final Observations and Fun Factor:
Mice and Mystics is often, in my opinion, mislabeled as a kid's game. If anything, it is a GAMER's kids game. The mechanisms are easy to grasp and remember. but adventures can run two to two and a half hours, which is well out of the attention span range of many kids. My eight year old daughter LOVES this game and so do I. We are invested in the story and that is a big part of why I want to keep playing. I want to see where the story goes next. It is well written and very engrossing. The game typically has four heroes per adventure, so if you don't play with four players, you'll have to double up on some characters since it does not scale for fewer heroes. The components are beautiful and with the Downwood Tales expansion, I am more interested in all of the amazing things that they've done with the cardboard in the game than with the plastic, from overlays, to flying down from branches on falling leaves, to tile flipping, to snakes uncoiling, to precariously jumping on turtle backs. We have always liked Mice and Mystics as a family game, but Downwood Tales has engrossed and engaged us so much more than just the base set that I am annoyed that I cannot keep my daughter up late on school nights to continue our campaign and I have to wait until the weekend to continue. That said, once we finish this campaign, we will likely not replay it. That isn't to say that we wouldn't have gotten our money's worth, but the story unfolding is so much of the game for us, knowing where it is going ahead of time would diminish our enjoyment of a replay.
Shadows of Brimstone in a lot of ways (including the flaws) reminds me of old school AD&D (1st edition). You advance at different paces, there are ton of charts and you are constantly looking things up. However, I'm invested in my character like I would be in an old school D&D game. We have wild stories about things that have happened to our characters. However, that is the old school roleplayer in me. The game gives you the framework, but it really is the players who need to bring in the story. Mechanically, the game is sloppy, but the heart and passion in the game shine through and makes that palatable for me. Despite all of its flaws and all of its randomness, SoB is one of my favorite games this year because of the feelings it evokes. It isn't for everyone. You will not find a clean, crisp systems here with dazzling mechanisms to make everything work. But if you miss those old Friday and Saturday nights of playing D&D in your friend's rec room, stuffed with pizza and 2-liters of Coke and telling wild stories of what happened to your characters, then you may just love this game as much as I do. Really, AD&D was a hot mess of charts, rules, and systems as well. But we loved the stories that told from the crazy things that happened. You can be sitting in town (where downtime between adventures takes place) and it can be overrun by demons and you can die. In town. If that kind of craziness excites you, check it out. Another thing to note is that, while the game in its final product is beautiful, the miniatures must be assembled and glued together. I am not a miniatures wargamer, so I am less skilled at gluing minis. As a result, the blood, sweat, and tears that I put into assembling the minis are often still glued to them--including some of my skin. I still have crazy glue on my fingernails a month out from getting the game. And, for anyone who is new to model assembling, I will give you a pro-tip passed onto me by one of my modeling friends: use Loctite super glue. You can find it at a Lowes or Home Depot. It works so much better than the other glues I was trying to use before I switched.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault is crisp and clean mechanically, but honestly, we have felt that most of the stories and missions have fell kind of flat. There is little flavor text leading into the missions and most mission design is boring with a timer that forces darting to points on the map instead of really building any kind of tactical strategy. This is a literal (and spoiler free) mission briefing for a mission:
You arrive at a Rebel safe house where crucial supplies are being stored. You've been there a few minutes when the door explodes inward. Imperials rush in, and blaster fire fills the air.
That is all of the flavor and set up you get for the mission. Most missions have about this much flavor and set up. If instead of a group of Stormtrooper minis and a Wookiee mini on the map, I had a robots and a generic human figure, we'd complain at the lack of story. Instead, the story is told by our attachment to the movies. Character advancement seems to be rather obvious and, like I said, after about five or six missions, I would expect everyone's Wookiee looks roughly the same and everyone's Smuggler looks very similar. Some of this will change with expansions as more character choices and new equipment fills the decks. But a lot of the early expansions focuses on one-off side quest and NPCs. Instead of fixing the systems to increase a player's investment in their own character and it's advancement, customization and personalization, expansions are really just focusing on the nostalgia and giving you more of a glimpse of characters that are familiar to us all. Because of that, we feel more nostalgic of the Star Wars movies and we think about them instead of our characters. Instead of seeing Luke Skywalker, let me be him. Or better yet, let me be my own character in a world that feels like Star Wars where I am a Rebel agent hunted by the Empire by description and mission design instead of by inferring it by relying on familiar looking Stormtrooper figures who stand in front of terminals that are waiting to be smashed. But as it stands, I will hazard a guess that your Rebel party includes the characters of girl Han Solo, Twi'lek Luke Skywalker, and essentially Chewbacca. This is because those characters feel the most familiar. And this is because the game doesn't go out of its way to create its own feel or place in the Star Wars universe, but rather just relies on what we already feel about what already exists in it.
Summary: MM is a great gamer's family game. The story is amazing and engrossing. SoB is more of an old school RPG in bookkeeping and complexity, but also in investment and story. IA relies too much on the license familiarity instead of actually crafting an engaging story of its own.
Ultimately, none of these games really are bad and, depending on what you are looking for, each one can satisfy a particular itch or desire. For me, MM is a storybook I want to finish and enjoy, but then place back on my shelf until the next installment comes out. SoB is those old days of cold pizza in my friend's rec room living out adventures that don't always make sense, but, damn it, they were memorable. And IA is a wonderful thing to have on the table when I want to make Star Wars quotes and think about the movies instead of getting engaged in the story on the board.
I suppose a fair way for me to determine how well each of these games do in their specific genre would be to compare them to an RPG. I would be equally happy playing either Mice & Mystics or Mouse Guard RPG to satisfy that itch. I would rather play Shadows of Brimstone over Deadlands RPG (though an Old West Call of Cthulhu RPG campaign seems really tempting). And I would much prefer to play Age of Rebellion or Edge of Empire RPGs over Star Wars Imperial Assault.