Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: Fief: France 1429

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the board is set up correct.
        -from "Manual of Setting Up the Game" by Academy Games

Frank Herbert's Dune is one of my favorite books. What I loved so much about it is how it portrayed great houses demonstrating feudal power struggles. All of the other elements: from the sand worms to the realization of a messiah to the long genetic manipulations of bloodlines are incredibly interesting and compelling. But it is that feudal political struggle between Houses that compels me and engrosses me so deeply into the story.

Avalon Hill's Dune is my favorite board game. The game is such an amazing rendition of the themes of the book. Each player's faction is completely unique and strong while at the same time resonating so well with how the book portrayed them. There is one faction who writes down a turn number and another faction. If they would win on that turn, they don't. The predicting faction wins instead by manipulating the game in their favor.

But more than that, the game is about political dealings, traitors, and backstabbing. I love negotiations in games. Games like Diplomacy get brandished as the top of this genre. However, I personally think that Diplomacy and Game of Thrones are poor examples of what this genre is about. You see, in those games, there can only ever be a single winner. So every negotiation is footnoted with the idea that everyone will be forced to backstab in the course of the game. In Dune, however, alliances can win together. This propels the negotiation game to a whole new and interesting level--someone may actually want to help you and not betray you.

So, why am I starting out my review of Academy Games' Fief: France 1429 with a three paragraph summation of my love for Dune?

Because Fief is the spiritual successor of Dune--moreso than the FFG reimplementation of the Dune mechanisms in Rex.

God created medieval France to train the faithful.
        -from "The Wisdom of Pope Gauvin" by the Duchess Blanche

In Fief, each player controls a dynastic feudal family vying for control of France's power. Power comes in the form of noble and Royal titles (from Baron, Count, and Duke to King), as well as Ecclesiastical titles (from Bishop to Cardinal to Pope). Noble and Royal titles give the possessor 1 VP, while most Ecclesiastical titles only give influence and power. The game is played to 3 VP, which would grant a single player victory. However, allied families combine their VP totals, but only win with 4 VP. Getting 3 VP isn't as easy as it sounds and a good portion of the game will be spent eyeing up your opponents to see which ones could best benefit you to get to 4 VP together.

The map is broken into eight fiefdoms. Fiefdoms contain two, three, or four villages in them. If you control all of the villages in a fiefdom, you can purchase the Lord title of the fiefdom (and the VP that goes with the title). Now, the board is also split into five Bishoprics, which spill over and encompass portions of multiple fiefs under their sway. Once all of the villages in a Bishopric are controlled (even if by different players), the title of Bishop is put up for vote. Being a Bishop doesn't offer any VP, but it does allow the person to eventually become a Cardinal, which has a bit more power, including the ability to cast votes in the election of the Pope--or to even become Pope themselves.

Right off the bat, this sets up different strategies in the game. Area control with military forces can be used to seize and control as many different fiefs as possible. However, Ecclesiastical titles have a lot of influence over the game even if most do not give any direct VPs.

   "Thierry! Thierry! Thierry!" goes the refrain. "A million deaths were not enough for Thierry!"
        -from "A Child's History of Gauvin" by the Duchess Blanche

Here is a very basic overview of how a round of Fief plays out:

Each round begins with the Hear Ye, Hear Ye Phase, where alliances and titles are determined. Players may announce marriages. A marriage is where a player's Lord or Lady marries another player's Lord or Lady of the opposite gender. This ties the two families together and they are now allied (and require a combined 4 VP to win). Alliances, however, are binding. The only way to end the alliance is to end the marriage, which can be done by petitioning the Pope to annul the marriage (though he may refuse) or by the death of one of the spouses (in which case, any titles possessed by the deceased would pass to the spouse). So alliances should not be entered into lightly. Afterward, the titles of Bishop, Pope, and King are voted upon if the position is available and there are eligible candidates.

Next, players draw cards that can give them new nobles to play into their family or Fortune cards which can be played to various benefits and effects from ensuring a good, profitable harvest to hiring an assassin to kill another player's noble. During this time, Disaster cards may appear, which will be resolved to negative effects throughout random Bishoprics.

Player then collect income for the villages and mills that they control and then they can spend their money on titles (if eligible), mills, more military forces, or defensible strongholds.

Next, players move their troops. Military forces cannot be moved without a Lord leading them and each Lord can move up to two villages away. This means that, while stationary Lord-less armies may defend a village or stronghold, only Lords may lead them into battle. This poses a risk because a lost battle could mean the death or capture and ransom of a Lord. Battles are not immediately resolved until everyone moves and a Lord may ask permission of another Lord in a village to pass through without combating them. Similarly, a player could control the roads through the village and halt any progress through them, forcing their opponents to try to rush their way past the troops, or to simply stop outside of the village, or to turn around and return home if they have enough movement left.

Combats are then resolved and units strength is determined to calculate how many dice to roll. The attacker and defender roll simultaneously and then remove casualties. Afterward, if there are survivors, the players can continue, or negotiate a truce to stop battling, or, if a stronghold is being attacked, dig in and set up a siege to help the next round's battle.

After all of this is finished, players calculate VPs to see if there is a winner. This means that the marriage that gave you and your partner 4 VPs at the start of the round doesn't mean anything if your titled lord was killed since then and you are down a VP now.

To attempt an understanding of Gauvin without understanding his mortal enemy, the Baron Henri, is to attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing Darkness. It cannot be.
        -from "Manual of Pope Gauvin" by the Duchess Blanche

Three victory points doesn't seem like a lot. But it is. Alliances and trusting other players soon becomes a very real part of the game. The problem becomes trying to determine who best to power with. Once any marriages are announced, the pair must sustain their 4 VP throughout the round.

Here is where planning and plotting becomes interesting in the game. If an allied pairing has 4 VPs, they will surely be a target throughout the round. The same is true if a single person is on the verge of gaining his third VP.

Perhaps you have two points and a player with one point assures you that they will gain and hold another point on their turn. Do you trust them? Perhaps they are simply trying to wed into your power because they realize how difficult it is to end a marriage. Or, worse yet, they want to marry your only female Lord who is titled. That would mean if they hold an assassination card, they could marry her, kill her, and then claim her title as the surviving spouse, breaking your alliance and leaving them with 2 VP and you with 1 VP. Maybe they could do it and gain their 3rd VP and secure a solo win.

Now, if this were Diplomacy or Game of Thrones, you would know that this was the case. However, with Fief, it may not be. They might be telling you the truth and together you could secure a victory.

But the intrigue goes well beyond just marriages for titles. Perhaps you can position yourself with enough Ecclesiastical power and influence to secure the role of Pope. However, the Cardinals also have a lot of influence on voting to crown a King. So, perhaps you don't have a lot of points yourself, but you have the power and influence to possibly name and control these powerful titles.

All negotiation in the game is open, but players may not freely trade cards or coins to one another. However, each player begins with three Diplomacy tokens. A player can take a card or up to three coins from a player (with their consent) if he spends one of his negotiation tokens. They can also spend a token to gain 3 minutes of private conversation with one other player. During that time, they may trade as much as they like with one another.

The Diplomacy tokens at first felt unnatural. It seemed strange that you could not simply have a large military and routinely ask for bribes not to attack people. But after play, I actually grew to like them. It means talk and plans at the table are important to gauge where people's allegiance lies, but when a player is willing to spend one-third of their resources to collect or deal, you suddenly know how important it is. Every negotiation at the table is mere words until someone plays a Diplomacy token. And being able to spend three minutes in private dealings with another player is devilishly brilliant.

Without the tokens, game play would be muddied. Rich players would throw around coin to get others to do their bidding with statements like, "I'll give you 2 deniers to attack him there" or "I'll give you 3 deniers to move out of this village."

Now those offers can still be made, but it must really serve the strategic purposes of the other player because it is they who must discard their Diplomacy marker to receive the payment. This simple addition limits some of the power of rich players from dictating too much on the board. It also speeds game play as negotiations and offers of coin could easily slow down every turn as people haggle over every action.

The AP sleeper must awaken. It's his turn now.
        -from " The Wisdom of Pope Gauvin" by the Duchess Blanche

There is a lot going on in Fief. A lot. It is something that can feel overwhelming in your first play. Once the rules are understood, the game flows like... well... it flows like Spice. However, it takes a bit of time to fully grasp those little intricacies that, if missed, can easily ruin a plan because someone didn't know a nuance of a rule and it spoiled their entire strategy.

Because of this, I highly suggest that people treat their first game as a learning game. In fact, if playing with new players, if time is not an issue, I would even suggest playing through an entire dummy round to get them to understand the flow before resetting and starting again. Try to do as many things as possible in this dummy round for living examples of play--stack Disaster cards, set up attacks to show how they work, etc.

One of the things that I respect Academy Games for is their attention to detail. However, I was surprised at a few things that I found lacking in the game. First of all, there are a lot of different Fortune Cards with different effects, from Secret Passages, to Taxation Cards, to Uprising Cards that have different uses depending on when they are played and by whom. However, there is no "cheat sheet" of cards and their usages included in the game. In fact, card descriptions aren't even in one place in the rule book for easy reference. Depending on when in the game the card can be played, they are in that section of the rulebook. This makes it difficult for new players unfamiliar with the cards (which are language neutral and do not even have names on them) to figure out what card they have, let alone what it does or where to find it in the rulebook.

Another surprising find for an Academy Games rulebook is the number of inconstancies in the rulebook. The game is a reprint of an older French game and with this reimplementation, Academy Games made some small tweaks to the rules. I happen to prefer all of their changes. However, the rulebook lists many of the old rules to the game still. It references that there is a blank face on the battle dice, even though in the Academy Games version there is no blank face on the dice. Also, relics are referred to in the rules as being placed face down, while the tiles in the game are double-sided. While ultimately none of the missed old references break the game, it can add to unnecessary confusion in an already complex game and I'm surprised to see errors like this in an Academy Games release.

The Kickstarter run offered some bonus upgraded pieces, but they aren't necessary (and in fact are sort of over produced). The standard components are perfectly fine and work for the game. The only real component issue that I have is the board is a little under polished. Some of the colors blend together too easily making fief borders difficult to determine and the artwork for features like bridges seem like D&D cartography program icons.

There are Round Overview Cards for each player in the game and they are useful, but even they are set up with some shorthand references that can be confusing for newer players. But, overall, they are useful to get players to understand the flow of the game.

There are a number of small modules that can be added to the game that add complexity and more rules and I would highly suggest avoiding them until your group has more of a command of the game. However, we played with the Noble Attribute cards from the Politics Expansion right from the start because it increases flavor, variety and usefulness of a player's nobles in the game without adding much in the way of complexity.

Thus spoke Alienor-of-the-Knife d'Arc: "The d'Arc must combine the seductive wiles of a courtesan with the untouchable majesty of a virgin goddess, holding these attributes in tension so long as the powers of her youth endure. For when youth and beauty have gone, she will find that the place-between, once occupied by tension, has become a wellspring of cunning and resourcefulness. And moving three spaces is really sweet."
        -from "Pope Gauvin, Family Commentaries" by the Duchess Blanche

There is a lot to take in with this game. I will not deny that. It may seem intimidating and overwhelming and you might see some hesitant shifting at the table when you suggest playing it and begin to describe how the game plays to them.

So don't.

You will not sell this game by trying to describe the mechanisms of the game like I have up until this point. They don't do the game justice. If you want to sell the game, you need to tell them what happens when you play.

Explain to them about the time we played and my wife was holding the d'Arc title card. It is based off of Joan of Arc and you can play it on an unmarried female lord and she becomes a military might to be reckoned with as she has 3 movement and an extra die in battle. However, she cannot marry. My wife had the strongest military title in her hand, but did not play it. She had two male lords and one female lord. If she gave the d'Arc title to her female lord, she would not be able to marry her off. She needed to save her female lord for possible alliance. She had the strongest military card in her hand, but needed to keep marriage options open for alliances. That is wonderfully evocative and amazing. It also gave me the ability to try to negotiate giving her a female noble card or for her to title one of my female lords.

Tell them about the time when a player in our group created a very powerful Ecclesiastical base of lords, but since they were all cardinals and bishops, they were unable to wed. He had to vie to be elected Pope so that he could excommunicate his own Lord so that he would lose his cardinalship and then be eligible to marry. However, in order to do this, he had to bargain and negotiate with the other cardinal in the game to secure his vote for Pope.

Tell them about the time when the King had married for an alliance, making the other player Queen. He was set to petition the Pope to annul the marriage so that he and the Pope could join forces and win, but then the Queen's player played a male noble--who immediately became the Crown Prince. This proved that the marriage was consummated and the Pope was not able to annul the marriage. Then a simple assassination on the King gave the Crown Prince (and the Queen's player) the title and all of the power her ally one had.

This is where the game shines. It creates political and courtly intrigue in wonderfully narrative arcs. There is a military and control aspect of the game. But typically, it tends to be more about stopping rise in power while trying to underhandedly position yourself to be more appealing to another player.

"You are transparent. I see many things. I see plans within plans."
        -Othon to the Padishah King Philippe, from "In My Father's House" by the Duchess Blanche

My wife was nervous about playing our first live game of this. She told me that she doesn't feel that she does well with negotiation in games and she always gets the worse end of any bargain.

I told her not to worry. Fief tends to produce two types of players. There are those who machinate from the very beginning and look at every action to better themselves in some way as they look at the board with Machiavellian glee.

There are also players who simply position themselves to be appealing. They might strive for 2 VPs and hold them solidly. They can sit back and let the other players woo them and shower them with promises and offers.

It turns out that my wife is very comfortable with the second way of playing. She quickly became the richest player and had massively strong armies securing her two fiefs. Players wooed her with promises of marrying her and making her Queen and offering her cards and gold in exchange for her possible favor later as I tried to offer her a female lord to lay the d'Arc title upon. She was belle of the ball surrounded by horny French suitors.

"What is in the box?"
"Pain. And some really awesome bonus components if you bought the Kickstarter upgrade."
        -from "Manual of Pope Gauvin" by the Duchess Blanche

So, I suppose I need to test Fief with the Gom Jabbar and determine whether or not it replaces Dune for me.

No, it does not. There is too much that I love about the Dune setting and the unique player powers and strategies that makes it the King of my collection.

However, Dune has long been out of print. Fantasy Flight Games obtained the license for the mechanisms of the game, but not the IP and they produced Rex. Rex is okay, but it feels so diminished in comparison to Dune. The game Dune fits the setting so perfectly while Rex tries really hard to bend and manipulate their setting to fit the game. Also, the rules changes aren't that great and the components are surprisingly mediocre for a FFG production.

So I would definitely recommend Fief over Rex. With Dune out of print, it seems as if Fief is the best negotiation and diplomatic game out there at this time. It succeeds because the negotiations follow a true narrative arc (something that Rex fails to accomplish). The stories being told feel real and that is so important to the experience.

If I can't be a floating fat man betraying my enemies as an oncoming sandstorm threatens to level the battlefield, then I'll happily be a French Baron trying to woo the Pope's vote to make another player King so that we can marry and I can become Queen and betray him with assassination after bearing the Prince and marry the Pope's sister.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mini-Reviews: The "Games That Require The Right Players To Succeed" Summary Review Spectacular

Arguably, any great game can be ruined by the group of people you play it with. Similarly, any bad game can still lead to a couple hours of fun with the right people sitting around the table laughing and mocking it. However, we tend to still quantify those experiences based on the game itself. I can distance myself from the fun I've had mocking Murder City with the other players to know that the game was abysmal. Also, my view of Dune never diminished even after I attacked and decimated a player I didn't know before and he literally screamed and stormed out of the room and sulked for ten minutes, leaving the rest of us to sit around the table uncomfortably as we tried to figure out if he was going to return (postscript to that story: The player did return, and later, he and I allied together and ended the game with a joint victory--which is exactly why I love Dune so much.).

But there are a bunch of games that thrive on the right group and the right players. They are games that are dependent upon it. While you might be surrounded by shitty people and not enjoying your experience at Automobile, you will probably still recognize that the mechanisms of the game are solid and see the game's potential. But these games take it even further. These games are the games that require right-minded players as one of their components.

Snake Oil

Snake Oil is a party game. That, in and of itself, starts to require specific crowds. Non-gamers tend to get nervous around games that they aren't familiar with and veteran gamers can often be snobbish and require a quota of wooden cubes and worker placement before they will allow themselves to admit to having "fun". Anyhow, Snake Oil is an incredibly simple design. Players get a hand of cards with one word on them, such as "College", "Tragedy", "Fear", or "Cream". Then one player sits out of the round and draws an occupation/persona card, which might be "Runaway" or "Sorority Girl" or "Fashion Model". The player announces his occupation card and he is the Customer for the round. The other players then combine two word cards from their hand and give their best sales pitch and try to sell their item to the buyer.

For us, that is what the game needs--enthusiasm about the sales pitch. You need players who will get into selling and describing their made up item. Often, the sales pitch is necessary and fun because you have a hand of shit cards to make something a Caveman would want to buy, and so you really have to put in your everything to try to make a "Tofu Hat" appealing to him.

However, this sort of interaction and coming up with wild pitches to make the bizarre sound useful really does put off some players. And, frankly, if people just put down their cards and read off "Tofu Hat", it will be nowhere near as fun as a player who tries to convert the Caveman to vegetarianism and being a hipster with his ironic food hat.

Now, my eight year old daughter loves this game, but sometimes it can be a little awkward when she struggles to come up with an engaging pitch for some of her items, but the rest of us generally carry the game and entertainment. That being said, my two all-time favorite moments of Snake Oil both came while playing with her. One time, as the Customer, my daughter was a "Pregnant Woman" and I watched my friend delicately try to sell her on a "Mistake Eraser". The other time, my wife was the Customer and was a "Prom Date". We pitched various things to her, including things like a "Wall Mirror" so that she could check out her dress. My daughter got up and walked over to her and silently laid down her two cards in front of her mother to sell to her: "Man Pleasure".

One Night Ultimate Werewolf: Daybreak

This is the stand alone expansion to One Night Ultimate Werewolf, which was probably my most played game in 2014. The game is quick and easy to teach and it has a lot of appeal to the majority of players in most of the groups I play with. Game play really isn't changed from the original game, but new roles are introduced in this version. The roles can be combined with the original base game, which I highly recommend doing.

For me, what makes this game appealing isn't the deduction--although that is quite engaging. What I enjoy the most is the bluffing. Bluffing is how I deduce who other people are. I'll claim to be the Seer, for example, and say I saw someone's card and they were the Troublemaker. Then another player claims that I am lying and that they are the Troublemaker. Then yet another player verifies them by also stating that I am lying because they are really the Seer. So, I've now (potentially) outed two players by getting them to admit what they were. All I need to do now is to backtrack and get them to believe what I really was from the start. Now, imagine a group of five to seven of us all using this kind of bluffing deduction. It sounds chaotic, and it is. But there is a methodology behind it that makes it all work when everyone is on board and enjoys the bluffing game.

Players averse to bluffing make this game flatter than the wild ride it can be. Everyone immediately stating (truthfully) what they were and what they did during the night isn't that exciting and isn't that much fun. The only conflict then comes from the Werewolf's singular lie. You need a group willing to bluff to bring the life to this game.

Also, Daybreak is a decent expansion, but it is best when combined with the roles from vanilla One Night. There are some roles that are just too chaotic (the Village Idiot moves every other player's card one space to the right or to the left), or remove the bluffing from the game for one player (the Revealer flips over one player's card face up). Personally, I would be very disappointed to see my card flipped face up as I lose my ability to bluff for the round. So Daybreak is best when a few of the roles are peppered into the original game.

Sheriff of Nottingham

Sheriff of Nottingham is another bluffing game. Players are merchants trying get their wares to sell to market. There are legal goods and contraband. The contraband is worth the most to sell, but sets of specific legal good types can rack up a lot of points. Players take cards from their hands and seal them into a bag. Each round, one player plays as the Sheriff. The players each hand their bags of goods to the Sheriff.

Now, the players must each look the Sheriff in the eye and declare what is in his bag. He cannot declare contraband, but may be trying to sneak some past. And since a merchant can only legally bring one type of legal good to market at a time, he may be lying and hiding multiple goods in his bag. The Sheriff can hand the bag back to the player, in which case, all of the cards in the bag make it to their stall and will score for them. Or the Sheriff can open the bag. If he opens it and the player's bag does not contain exactly what the player declared, then that player pays a penalty to the Sheriff. If, however, the bag's contents are exactly what was declared, then the Sheriff pays a penalty to the player. The role of Sheriff switches from players from round to round. Players can also bribe the Sheriff not to open their bags, but other players could also bribe the Sheriff to open other player's bags.

The game works well enough on its own, but it shines with players with the right attitude. When teaching the game to new players, I take the role of Sheriff first. When I inspect a bag, I'll hold it to my nose and sniff it. I'll tell them that I smell pepper (a contraband spice). I'll tease that I'll open the bag, then set it down and move to another player. Basically, I try to set the theme of the Sheriff building suspense. With this established and all of the players doing it, the game shines so much more. The game is okay with the Sheriff quickly opening or passing back bags, but a game where you have to look another player in the eye and possibly lie is only enhanced by the tension and threat that can be brought to play with the right group.

Marrying Mr. Darcy

Marrying Mr. Darcy is a card game based off of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice novel. Players each play one of the story's iconic female characters as you try to make yourself the most appealing to marry one of the gentlemen from the story. Now, I admit, that premise sounds wretched. Not in game design--it's an interesting theme. But rather it is wretched in the sense that it lacks all of the commentary of Austen's novel. In the novel, for example, Mr. Bennett only had daughters. This meant that after his death, he had no male heirs, and could not pass on his house to his daughters, but instead would become the property of Mr. Collins, who Mrs. Bennett did not like. The novel was enlightening and subtlety scathing toward the systems of patriarchy and entailment. The card game, however, ignores all of these points and focuses instead of the Bennett daughters (and a few others) trying to make themselves most appealing to attract the man that would best suit them.

Yeah. Without the presence of entailment in the game, the message really is lost as you try to make yourself the prettiest to attract Mr. Darcy's eye.

Also, there really isn't much to the game. On your turn, you flip over the top card of the event deck and resolve it. It may allow you to draw a card and play a card from your hand to increase your character's stats. Though, honestly, there isn't much decision making to be made and events are just played and resolved, offering you little meaningful to do on your turn.

So, why is it on this list?

Because with the right group and played with the right attitude, the game is a hell of a lot of fun when you don't take it seriously. You need to get as catty as possible and taunt the fuck out of your opponents.

Which seems like more fun? Drawing a card and saying, "Paint a Portrait. Okay, I draw one card and play one. Hm. I'll give myself +1 Wit. Your turn."

Or drawing a card and taunting, "Booyah! Who has two thumbs and just painted the prettiest damned portrait? That's right. This gal. And I'll give myself +1 Wit and BOOM! I am more witty than you and you and you! Aw... What's the matter? Afraid Mr. Darcy'll be all over me for me wit? What's wrong? Someone afraid they won't find a husband? Someone afraid of growing old alone? Someone feel like they need a husband to give themselves a sense of identity? Well, too bad, bitches! He's all over me talking about my wit."

Those were actual taunts in our game.

This (lack of) game surprisingly gets a lot of play at our tables. And it's because playing it over-the-top is really the only way to do it. And when you play it what way, it really shines.


Spyfall is another bluffing/deduction game. In this one, everyone is passed out a card that lists the same location name on it--it may be a Corporate Party, or an Airplane, or a Restaurant, or any other of over two dozen locations. Each location card also assigns that player a role at the location. Perhaps you are the manager, or a customer, or the pilot--it depends on the location. Now, one of the cards distributed to the players, however, does not have the location listed on it. Instead it simply tells the player that they are the Spy.

The objective of the players who know their location is to deduce who the Spy is without giving away their location. The objective of the Spy is to not get caught, while simultaneously trying to determine what the location is.

Over the next few minutes (it is a timed game), players take turns asking other players questions. You can ask anything that you want. And the player can answer (or refuse to answer) in any what that they want. If you are too obvious in your question, such as asking, "So, do you like the onboard movie?" the Spy will figure out where you are and win. However, if you are too vague in your questions or answers, the other players might suspect you are the Spy.

Game play can be stopped during the game to call out the Spy or for the Spy to declare the location, otherwise voting occurs once the timer is up. There is a point system for determining how many points are awarded to which side, but honestly, it works better as an activity than a competitive score-keeping game. The game is also very different with different numbers of players. A smaller player count is harder on the Spy who has to respond to more questions, while a larger player count usually provides the Spy with more opportunity to listen and deduce before he is asked anything too pertinent.

Spyfall, however, is another one of those games that can really be intimidating to players who are shy or meek or are easily intimidated. Play can be delayed by a player trying to think up the "perfect question". And, frankly, some people just aren't too good at it. They don't like the pressure of coming up with a question or answer that isn't too revealing, especially when all eyes are on them scrutinizing.

However, with the right crowd, the game really shines, especially once questions and answers begin to take shape based off of your role at the location. When the location is a Day Spa and your question is, "Did you see that woman's hair?" And the response is, "I know, right?" a LOT has been said to those who know the location, but it may be well over the Spy's head. This is a game that is good with players who don't mind the spotlight for a couple minutes, but it is fantastic with players who enjoy being a ham while in the spotlight.

Faking It!

Faking It is actually an Android app (no iOS at this time) that is a spiritual successor to Spyfall. The phone or tablet is passed around and everyone sees the topic of conversation, except for one player who is told that they are "faking it". Then, everyone holds a conversation for five minutes about the topic. At the end of the time, players vote on who they believe is faking it and didn't know the topic.

Players need to be vague enough as not to reveal the topic to the faking player, otherwise he will blend in quickly to the topic and avoid detection. For many people, this is still much easier than Spyfall since a conversation is more organic than everyone taking turns throwing carefully worded questions and answers about. There also isn't a spotlight shined on anyone at any time--at least no more of one than would be there during a conversation.

While I actually think that Faking It feels better and is more organic and I prefer it over Spyfall, the game does miss a bit of the climax of an ending. In Spyfall, the Spy can call out the location and it ends the game with a bit of dramatic tension. Faking It could lead to a couple of people wall-flowering on a topic just because they do not know much about it and the tension of the reveal is lost. There is no calling out for the faker, just blending in. It is a fun game, but lacks the dramatic reveal at the end or at least the suspension of the faker suddenly blurting out the topic for a win.

This is another game that, with the wrong crowd, would easily fall flat. It is a social game and, well, not everyone in our hobby is very social. With a social crowd, however, the game can be simply amazing. It is a good icebreaker as well and hopefully it'll be out of prototype and available on iOS soon.

Both Ladies and Gentlemen and Dead of Winter also fit into this category of needing the proper group to make the game shine. The former because the spirit of the game needs to be embraced. We play our games with tiaras and cigars. The latter because, while the game forces players to take suspicious moves, there still requires an atmosphere and group mindset to make it work, otherwise, frustration could easily curtail the fun that is there when the game is played with the right group.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: Mice & Mystics, Shadows of Brimstone, and Star Wars: Imperial Assault comparison review

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.

The three games represent story, character, and intellectual property. Take your pick of which appeals most to you and you won't go wrong.

Monday, January 5, 2015

2014 Game of the Year

I believe if you have a blog that you write about games (even as infrequently as I have over the past couple months), you are obligated to make a list of the best games of the previous year once the new year rolls around.

Well, since I need to start writing here again, this is a fine way to start again.

My overall thoughts of 2014 for games was that it was a good year. It wasn't a great year and no single game or trend took the year by storm. However, there are a few stirring that I think will carry through into 2015.

Make no mistake, however. This is still the Golden Age of Board Games. I find myself playing fewer and fewer truly bad games. This is, in part, because I am more discriminating and the market gives me so many options now. However, I believe it is also because more games are good. Out of the worst games I've played this year, the majority of them failed because they were merely okay, but not because they were bad.

This is both a good and bad trend. It is good because there are (relatively) fewer truly terrible games being released, or at least marketed well. However, it is bad because through the extensive use of Kickstarter and start up game companies circumventing experienced publishers who could refine designs and make them better, we have a lot of games that missed the mark of being good or great.

And speaking of games that missed their mark, here is a list of some of 2014's biggest disappointments. And these are not necessarily the worst games of 2014, but just the ones that disappointed me the most:

I was not a Myth Kickstarter backer, so I didn't jump in with insane fervor or commitment. When I did finally approach the game, I was impressed at first--though not at the rulebook. The game is beautiful and the campaign system has some truly inventive and wonderful ideas behind it. A lot about the game made me excited. However, Myth is the classic example of what Kickstarter does to the hobby. The game is beautiful and pimped out to amazing levels. However, the rules are terrible, ambiguous, and sometimes flatly missing. But even when the rules are finally understood, too much is left to the player's hand for a purely cooperative game. It is too easy (and tempting) to game the system. Myth is an amazing framework that, unfortunately, needed an experienced publisher to flesh out fully.

Imperial Settlers actually makes the list of biggest disappointments as well, but I need to throw out a bunch of caveats and reasons why. First of all, Imperial Settlers is a good game and, for a number of people, it is their favorite game of the year. So why was it a disappointment to me? Well, my favorite designer is Ignacy Trzewiczek and I was eagerly awaiting this release. However, the mechanisms of the game are the same as his lesser known games 51st State and New Era, which I loved. But they are simpler and "cleaner". I loved the grit and dark and struggle of those games and Imperial Settlers just felt too much like a clean, happy version of them. Every time I play Imperial Settlers, I wished that I was playing the "deeper and darker" version of the game. I will still play Imperial Settlers, but every time I do, it makes me wish that more people played 51st State and New Era so I could be playing that instead.

Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men also disappointed me. It wasn't because of the lack of availability or production slowdowns, but rather because I don't believe that the game lived up to its hype. I'm not a Quarriors fan to begin with and, at first, I really liked MDM. But, the more I played it, the less enthused and enthralled I was with it. The game is still a huge step up from Quarriors, but the system itself just doesn't hold the depth it needs to keep me enthused about it. Magic the Gathering is about deckbuilding and figuring out what works best with what, and it also relies on skill to know when and how to use the cards you drew. MDM's deckbuilding is not that deep--you are essentially just picking a half-dozen cards that provide you with your dice. Once you have a solid group, there is little reason to tweak it. Then the strategies of the game are lost in the randomness of the dice rolling. The game ultimately ends up as being solidly okay as a time passer. If not for the pictures of the superheroes, however, the game would be an instant pass.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: Vengeance was my last ditch effort to rekindle the flame I once had for the Sentinels of the Multiverse game. Part of my problem with the SotM games was that I played them too much. The games are not deckbuilders, and instead, each hero has a pre-constructed deck to use. This makes things more thematic, especially as the villains have their own decks. However, the more I played the game, the more I realized that the only game there is learning each hero's deck. Once I knew Ra or Legacy's deck well enough, my hand play was automatic. Choices were obvious and I wasn't playing the game anymore, but just letting it play itself. The same happened with repeat plays of villains. We knew their decks and how to beat them. The game's only meaningful decisions turned into deciding which combination of heroes would have the best chance of defeating each villain, then we start and go into autopilot mode to completion. Vengeance, offered a new way of playing: you can play against villain TEAMS. That's right, you can go up against five villains at once. Ultimately, however, the flaws are the same with this game. And to make matters worse, SotM is already unforgivably fiddly with counters, tokens, card effects effecting other cards and order of play. Vengeance multiplied that fiddliness by five.

Heroes Wanted is another superhero themed game that I really wanted to like. It seemed like it could be a fun and silly ride. However, all of the fun of the game is front-loaded. Once the heroes are created, the game turns into a static slog of planning out your moves to maximize your points. However, nothing on the board changes other than the position of the other players. You could plan out every move of yours for the entire game and, unless another player interfered, you would be fine. Overall, the game didn't know what it wanted to do. And while there is a solid (if boring) strategy game there, it is distracted from by having silly heroes and villains on the board and quirks played for cheap, forced laughs. And for those who were brought to the table with the idea of playing silly, quirky heroes that evoked a lot of laughs--well, they then had to sit through 90 minutes of a thick, non-dynamic game. And, honestly, the designers' attitude of praising those who liked the game as "getting it" while snarking those who do not with assumptions that they have not played it enough or don't understand instead of taking and moving forward with criticism to improve the game was a further turn off that moved me from wanting to follow the game's expansions to see if it improved to simply passing on future endeavors completely.

Next are a few surprises for 2014 that didn't make the final cut, but deserved a special mention.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf was on my 2013 list, but it really had its official release in 2014. This is probably my most played game in 2014. I love deduction games that involve bluffing. I can falter at straight deduction, but if I can bluff, I have a chance. The fact that this game has so many plays says something. However, the game really lives or dies on the merit of those playing it, which is a weaker design flaw. But the game offers enough for most groups to dig into and explore, it still works. I've yet to play with a group that truly did not work with the game. I've played with the expansion, but I'll write up a fuller review on that later.

Among the Stars wouldn't merit a spot in my top five best games. However, it replaces 7 Wonders, which means I'm pleased that I'll be playing that much less often. AtS is a good, solid game which, unfortunately, requires an expansion to move past a four player count. However, I find the theme and the narrative much more engaging than 7 Wonders. Also, the variant which lets you only play with the table space you have in front of you with a wonderfully devious way to play. But AtS fits that card drafting urge that the Wonders fans in my groups have and this has been a much welcomed option to throw out there over the other. I also really like the fact that you are placing tangible things next to one another. It adds so much more to the theme. 

Dead of Winter deservedly made a large splash and it is a good, solid game that offers a lot of player suspicion and interaction. It handles zombies like zombies should be handled--as a catalyst to provoke motive and distrust among the survivors. Zombie movies and media should be about the survivors and how you cope with a hopeless situation. Otherwise, you end up with Warm Bodies. And no one wants that. Anyhow, the only thing keeping Dead of Winter from the top of the list is that there is some fickleness to the game. Much of the traitor mechanism in the game succeeds or fails based on the group you are with. However, the game is dense emotionally and mentally and I can burn out after a play and have it sit on my shelf for a couple weeks before I want to see it on the table again. There is also a lot going on and a lot of distrust by design. This is good in some senses, but I miss the games of Battlestar Galactica where you would have a surprise Cylon reveal and everyone would be floored. Here, you never trusted anyone anyhow and the grand coup de grace move is generally to sit in the corner and eat a shit ton of food. The drama of the discovery just isn't as amazing.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig also made a huge splash with our various groups. Suburbia is a favorite with most of our groups and Castles plays like a lighter, but more player interactive Suburbia. The game really is about being the Master Builder and setting the prices. There is a decent amount of strategy in trying to figure out what people want and earning maximum profit from them. However, even for new players who don't know all of the hidden objective cards so they may not pick up on the patterns of other players' buildings, they will rarely be burned too badly by the prices they set for the others. So there is strategy, but it isn't really too necessary. Still, Castles is a lot of fun and definitely one of the best of the year and it really has made quite an impression on everyone that has played it in my groups so far.

Legendary Encounters:An Alien Deck Building Game has a solid chance to dethrone  DC Deck Building Game: Heroes United as most annoying series offering title whose name needs to always be referred to by a shorthand nickname. The Alien Deck Builder really caught me by surprise and was a very tough cut at my number six on best games of the year. I'm not a fan of the Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game (another bad name contender) and so I had humble expectations for the game being based off of that system. However, it modifies the mechanisms to the point where it is its own system and it shines at how well it puts everything together. Deck building games typically aren't very narrative in their gameplay (with the noted exception of Arctic Scavengers), however, the way each of the four movies are played out through the cards is amazingly thematic and surprisingly immersive. The game falters a bit with the traitor mechanism and really works best as a simple, pure co-op.  I highly recommend Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game to anyone who likes theme and narrative in a game just to see how impressively it can portray it with the mechanisms it has.

So now my list of my top five games of the year:

5. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was a game that I was expecting to be solidly okay. However, the game is good. Really good. I had thought that it would have just been a dumbed down version of War of the Ring, but it isn't. It is a focused vision. There is no dual-story here. It is just the battle and it is great and engaging. It's even something that my wife has offered and suggested playing. There is very little that this game really gets wrong. It focuses the system of WotR, it condenses playtime, it reward strategic play while at the same time forcing players to be tactical based on their action dice rolls, and it tells a sensible narrative of the battle throughout the play. The condensed play time and the sensible narrative alone makes this game the anti-Peter Jackson version of the Battle of the Five Armies. The fact that Legolas was not shoehorned into the game and there is no superfluous love plot in it is just icing on the cake.

4. Tragedy Looper blew me away. First of all, I'm a sucker for time travel. However, the narrative arc in the game is a little muddied--the players don't know the full story as they go back and try to fix things. In fact, telling them the narrative would ruin the game. I'm also not a fan of the anime style artwork. However, once you start playing the game, any little flaws melt away and I am completely engrossed. So much amazes me in the game. The players start knowing nothing at all and the Mastermind knows and controls everything. But loop after loop, the players start to figure out more and more and, by the last loop or two, the Mastermind is suddenly the one on the defensive. This is a deduction game that goes too far for my wife. She loves deduction games, but this one burns her brain. And it is a heavy thinking game. Because of that, it doesn't reach the table as often as it should. But each time it is there laid out, it is special and wonderful and amazing.

I kept changing my mind on the next three games and it was really a struggle to declare my favorite. These three games are all amazing. Because it was so tight in my mind, my number two spot is a tie and my number one game barely hedged out the others.

2 (tie). Xia: Legends of a Drift System and Shadows of Brimstone both are engaging games that have a lot of randomness at their heart.

Xia: Legends of a Drift System is a sandbox style space adventure game. And when I say it is sandbox, I am not kidding. Players can get victory point by buying cargo at one planet and selling them at a planet that desires them, they can get points by exploring new systems, they can get points by upgrading their ships, buy points with cash, complete legal or illegal missions, destroy other ships, or collect bounties on other ships who have become outlaws. The game's exploration works by drawing tiles and placing them out at random when a player wishes to scan or move across the edge of tile that does not have an adjacent one already laid. There are hazards throughout the tiles and, with a bad roll of the die, they can be rather nasty. Every game that we've played so far has had all of the frontrunners within a point or two of the winner and each had taken a different strategy to win. Ultimately, however, it is the randomness that made me eliminate this from the number one spot. Dice rolls can have a huge effect on the game and a string of bad rolls can really set someone back. Dying isn't that bad, as you simply respawn. But it is this respawning that breaks the narrative arc a bit (and can make suicide a more appealing option than repairing your ship). However, the random tile placement could mean that a cluster of trade planets are all nearby one another meaning that trade routes may be the most viable path to victory in the game. For me, I don't mind the randomness. That is what has made each game exciting and new.

Shadows of Brimstone is campaign style western adventure game where you are fighting dark Cthulhu like forces and corruption. Though it is another randomfest. However, no board game has every brought me back to the feeling of old school roleplaying more than Shadows. It reminds me of playing old school Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I am amazed at how free and open I feel in leveling my character--there are so many options. But it isn't just for show. Different abilities have you play your characters differently. And that's another thing that I love about the game; the characters play so differently. It is the game where I feel the most invested in my character and each play gives me stories that I could tell about the craziness that happened. Despite the massive amounts of fun I've had with this game in our campaign so far, what ultimately brought this down from my number one tie-break was the rough edges of the game. Like Xia, the randomness of this game can be unforgiving and turn some people off. However, the randomness has even more of an effect. Characters level up with experience points. You don't get XP as a group after each encounter, but rather each character has individual XP that they get from each of their kills, or heals, or a myriad of other things. This is, first of all, annoying on the bookkeeping end. But secondly, it can cause problems when randomness is factored in. A string of bad die rolls for your character means he doesn't get many kills. Everyone else gets a bunch and while they level and advance, you don't. Then, in the next adventure, they have new stronger powers and get more kills. Even though it is a fully cooperative game, it still has a rich get richer problem to it. It is still wickedly fun and memorable, but those rough edges keep it from my number one.

1. Hyperborea surprised me on many, many levels. It surprises me that it is my choice of top game of the year. I nearly passed it by, thinking that it would simply be too much of a Euro for me. However, most 4x games that we have are space and science fiction themed--a genre that usually does nothing for my wife. So, seeing that it was a fantasy setting, I decided to test it out thinking that maybe I could sucker her into a couple of games of it. However, we both have come to admire the game greatly. One of the key mechanics of the game is a deck building like mechanism where you place cubes in a bag. Different colored cubes can be used to activate different actions, so seeding your bag properly is very important. Because combinations of cubes are used to activate different abilities, it isn't like a straight deck-builder. The purchases of a deck building game are pretty straight forward--you get the card and then you can use the card. However, adding a cube to your bag means that you have to look at all of its possible uses. And once options are used, you will have no place to put extra cubes of a color. So there is a lot of thought in bag optimization. Beyond that, the game really just floods you with options and strategies. While Shadows of Brimstone and Xia: Legends of a Drift System both had a bit of randomness and roughness around their edges, Hyperborea really is a pared down brilliant system whose only flaw is downtime. However, with more experienced groups, turns start to fly by quickly, eliminating even this problem.

One of the things that surprised me most about this year was how much I liked a couple of games with obvious problems with randomness. However, despite the randomness, I've only had amazing times with those games so far. Also, earlier this year, my wife declared that she didn't really care for longer games anymore and was really into the shorter games. However, she's a fan of all of the games on my list (except Tragedy Looper) and all of them have longer play times. They're among her favorites and it goes to show the effectiveness of these games to bring her around.