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Two Small Updates

Jesse Dean
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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#1: Aldie has posted his annual "Top X of 2012" set and has honored the blogs section by adding it to those that are listed. You can check it out here: Top Blog Posts of 2012. It is a pretty interesting list and it is nice both to see how my blogs have done in comparison with everybody else's over the course of the year. It has also been helpful in identifying to me some fun entries I missed!

#2: I posted my review of CO2: Vital Lacerda's Best Game (So Far).

In the next two weeks I expect to have up my Top 10 of 2012 as well as the next review in my series: Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar!
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Fri Jan 4, 2013 8:00 pm
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Dungeon Command: Tyranny of Goblins, Customizable Miniatures Games, and Mage Wars

Jesse Dean
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Though I expect that to change after I get to play some of the sweet-looking new Essen releases, or if I ever get an opportunity to play Andean Abyss in more depth (outlook: not so good), Dungeon Command is currently my favorite new game of 2012 and that has only been reinforced with the release of Dungeon Command: Tyranny of Goblins.

 


Tyranny of Goblin’s Pre-Constructed War band
For those that intend to primarily use Tyranny of Goblins without any customization I think Tyranny has a lot to offer. The biggest reason why is how different it plays then the other factions is. Playing Tyranny of Goblins, with its plethora of ally-boosting abilities and beneficial attachments, feels like playing a much more disciplined military force then seen with the sneakier drow or rag-tag band of adventurers. So I think this will be quite effective for those who simply want a new war band to play against their older drow or heroes war bands, even if I think the biggest strengths are in how it contributes to the overall availability of war band construction options.

 


Expanding Options for Customizability in Dungeon Command
Dungeon Command is a customizable miniatures game, played primarily with two players, where each player has a commander that provides morale and leadership ratings, initial order cards, a creature card hand size, and a special ability, a deck of order cards that provide special bonuses, and a deck of creature cards which are used to limit the options of what creatures you can have on the board. I have written a review for the base game, which is essentially just the first two packs, so I recommend you should check it out if you want a more detailed look at the game.

For customizable games to really be successful there has to be real opportunities for the players to use their available pieces to construct a wide array of “deck” options. This is not to say that their needs to be a wide array of options for it to be successful as a game, it is quite possible to play say Netrunner or Dungeon Command with just some of the pre-constructed items, but that does not really unlock the full play potential that the game’s offer. However, the potential for customization can be important even for more casual players who do are unlikely to do so, as they want to have the available packs in case the situation allows for customization to be relevant. With only two packs available, Dungeon Command did not really have effective customization options yet.

Customization in Dungeon Command comes along three primary axes: your commander, your order cards deck, and the creatures’ deck. Commanders provide an overall guiding structure for your war band. Several of them provide bonuses for only particular types of creatures, the Sting of Lolth drow commanders being an example of this, but most of them are generally useful, providing bonuses that are just optimal with certain creature or order card combinations rather than being completely useless unless you have certain types of creatures or war band configurations. The cards that are in your creature deck and the ones that are in your order deck are more intimately related, as most cards require a certain level and attribute combination. So in an optimized war band you will want to make sure that either the order cards are such that the you will always or almost always have creatures that can use them in play or that there are ways to get around the attribute limitations of included creatures. A combination of both will probably end up being the preferred way to go.

I think that with the introduction of Tyranny of Goblins there are enough options to make customization worthwhile enough to explore. Part of this is simply due to the fleshing out of a number of attributes that were poorly represented before. The vast majority of the Sting of Lolth miniatures had Dexterity as one of their attributes, so there were plenty of options if you wanted to make a pure Dexterity war band or one that combined it a single other attribute, and with the strength and specialization of the Sting of Lolth commanders. However, all of the other attributes were either lacking cards entirely (Constitution, Charisma) or had such a small number of available cards and/or figures that including them seemed to have a limited amount of worth (Wisdom and Intelligence). Tyranny of Goblins changes that by adding a significant number of creature and order cards that focus on Constitution and Charisma and a number of order cards, though only a single creature, that focus on Intelligence. Wisdom unfortunately remains neglected. With these new cards it is now possible to make interesting combinations of war bands featuring a relatively large variety of creatures sporting Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma and have a reasonable amount of variety and real choices as to what cards to include or not include. Intelligence also has enough support that it is possible to have cards based on that attribute in a support function, though they are not yet significant enough to form the bulk of a war band. This is aided by what I see as one of the most exciting new order cards to be introduced: Arcane Scroll.

 


The Arcane Scroll card opens up the possibility for all sorts of interesting customization options because it allows a creature to use an order card with the Intelligence trait even if they lack the trait itself. While I am not quite sure that it is worthwhile to use this card in war bands that do not have a reasonable number of Intelligence based creatures, it does allow for some interesting options for those that either have them as a subset of the total or even a major part of the war band, giving you the ability to add consistency for the sake of some level of power. It also allows you to pull off some interesting surprises, such as having an otherwise slow unit without range capabilities do something your opponent was not expecting and thus give you an advantage.

Other utility order cards have also been included, providing with interesting options that push the limits of the game further and provide fun decisions during deck-building. The ability to consistently and effectively maintain offenses and preserve your units with defense cards is helpful, but the addition of the strong utility cards, like Arcane Scroll, seen in Tyranny of Goblins is a strong positive on the mind as it expands the potential of order deck construction beyond jamming in as much of the best attack and defense cards as possible into the decks.

The other big mechanical advancement comes from the large number of beneficial attachment cards. A few of these, particularly ones that gave one shot bonuses or card draw income, were featured in the previous sets, but Tyranny of Goblins really pushes this further allowing you to improve the movement or damage capabilities of an individual unit, probably a high-level or otherwise powerful one, further.

This also leaves me pretty excited to see what is coming with Curse of Undeath and Blood of Gruumsh. Curse of Undeath is particularly intriguing because of how it looks like it will have a pretty good mixture of units that will provide a way to flesh out current attribute selections with a significant amount of options for Intelligence-base bands. I am hopeful that Blood of Gruumsh will have similar sorts of options for Wisdom.

Customizability and Game Play of Dungeon Command vs. Mage Wars
When I wrote my previous review of Dungeon Command, I noted that Dungeon Command seemed to be less interesting then Mage Wars from a customizability perspective, with both being clearly superior to Summoner Wars. While I still believe that they are both superior to Summoner Wars in customizability, I think I enjoy the construction process with Dungeon Command more.

Mage Wars uses a restricted point based system for customization that allows a great degree of variance in building options, even if this variance is filtered through thematic limitations. What I did not account for in my initial analysis is the linearity of the Mage Wars economy. Essentially Mage Wars is the tactical miniatures expression of an economic snowball game. You are attempting to build an efficient enemy mage killing engine by spending your currency to affect the relative position of each player’s economy or to advance your position to the eventual goal. So most of the customization options are based around deciding how many cards to have for the construction of engine building, and what combination of cards should be devoted to moving towards the victory condition vs. undermining the ability of other players to achieve those victory conditions.

Dungeon Command has a multi-dimensionality that results in both more interesting game play and construction. Rather than a deeply intertwined system where the one type of income is directly related to board presence and thus victory, Dungeon Command forces players to juggle multiple types of income and build based on the differences in how these incomes relate to the pursuit of their victory conditions. These incomes are largely card based, which allow both for interesting ways for players to build and for WotC to introduce cards that allow do things that do not necessarily effect income or creatures on the board.

The first of these incomes is order cards. At the basic level a player gets a single order card per turn. There are existing cards that can accelerate, and one of the commanders allows for certain units to exchange the morale of treasure acquisition for order card draws, but I still believe that these cards are the single most unbalancing aspect of Dungeon Command, and am still inclined not to play with them. The majority of the order cards are related to attack, defense, movement, or some combination of these items. Even with these cards the increased amount of consideration for building is relevant, as you cannot simply build a tool box of cards that you will find useful. Instead, the distribution of the attributes and levels in the creature deck and how they interacts with the distribution of attributes and levels in the order card deck needs to be accounted for and built around to ensure that the vast majority of the time you will be able to use your order cards while still being able to harness the more powerful, less widely usable cards.

The creature card deck is managed in an entirely different sort of manner then the order card deck. Rather than drawing a single card per turn, a player draws up to a commander-defined creature hand size whenever new creatures are deployed to the board. The ability to deploy creatures to the board is limited by the commander’s leadership rating, which has a pre-set value and automatically increases by 1 every turn. When building for the creature deck, this rating, its rate of increase, and the number of creatures that will be in a player’s hand at a given time all need to be considered. Being able to effectively build a collection of creatures that allows for optimal board presence based on leadership limitations will allow for a particular war band to be more effective than one that frequently is forced to keep a smaller board presence.

The way the creature deck works also allows for some interesting order cards, two of which are featured in Tyranny of Goblins. The first of these is a card that does nothing but provide an immediate increase to leadership rating. This is good, but considering the cost is an order card, which tend to be a very valuable and scarce resource, makes the question of if it is quite good enough quite relevant. After all, if you draw this card you are not drawing a card that will have one less card to use for movement, attack, or defense and while having the ability to bring out slightly bigger creatures is good, is it quite good enough to make up for the opportunity cost. Similarly, there is a card that allows you to discard as many creatures as you like from your creature card hand and then reshuffle your discarded creature cards back into your hand and then draw back up to your creature card hand size. This is a good effect, as it allows you to potentially recover lost units you would like to have back and get rid of cards that are not currently useful but it brings up the same questions of opportunity cost that the leadership increasing card present. I am not sure if they are worth it yet, and I strongly suspect that their overall worth will depend on the particular war band you are using them in, but I very much like the fact that these cards can even exist as they imply that there are a lot of potentially interesting and exciting directions that they can go with future order card releases.

 



Of course, a much more multidimensional economic and customizability process does not necessarily mean a particular game will produce more interesting gameplay. And from a complexity stand point, Mage Wars definitely has Dungeon Command beat. There are more abilities, more special powers, and more ways that individual units can create conditions on other units. So people who appreciate this level of complexity will probably enjoy Mage Wars more than Dungeon Command. I am one who typically does appreciate this sort of complexity, and I still enjoy Mage Wars, but I find that the items that Dungeon Command brings to the table, more interesting construction, a less straightforward economy, and more spatial complexity, are sufficient to make Dungeon Command my preferred tactical combat game of choice.


Conclusion
Tyranny of Goblins is an exciting addition to the Dungeon Command, not just because of its fun and effective pre-build war band, but because of the options it creates and possibilities it implies for future Dungeon Command releases. I am still disappointed that there are not more possibilities for purchasing order cards and miniatures in a less expensive fashion, but even with just acquiring one of each new set, it still looks like there will be plenty of fun possibilities.
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Fri Oct 26, 2012 11:01 pm
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Brinkmanship At Two Moves A Turn: A Milestones Review

Jesse Dean
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Milestones is a two to four player medium weight euro game by Stefan Dorra and Ralf Zur Linde and published, in the US, by Stronghold Games. This is the first eurogames that Stronghold Games has published, and also one of their first games that is not a remake of an older game. This trend looks to continue though, as they are scheduled to release another, heavier, eurogame, CO2, at Essen this year.

Disclosure
I received an unsolicited copy of Milestones directly from the publisher for review.

Components and Theme
Milestones is thematically focused on the idea of the players being builders, responsible for managing workers who are collecting resources from the countryside and translating those resources into constructions on the countryside, specifically roads, houses, and marketplaces or use them to supply marketplaces with food. This is a pretty drab and standard theme, but it is also largely irrelevant. Very few people play middle weight euros for their strong thematic underpinnings.



The components are simple and utilitarian. The worker tiles, bonus tokens, and flour tiles are all illustrated. This is particularly helpful for the bonus tiles, as otherwise it would be very difficult to tell them apart; as it is clarifications had to be made at least a few times per game for those who had color issues.

The board is interesting only because of how different from that of “typical board games”. Rather than being a standard square, it is a bit more rectangular and a bit smaller then is the norm. So if you have a deep, transcendent love affair with more standard boards, then I would recommend you stay far away from this one. Beyond that the art is cartoonish and fairly simple with nothing about it that particular draws your eye and makes you say “Wow!” but it also does not actively detract from the game which, when you get down to it, is the main thing I ask for from a game’s components.
Players also have somewhat flimsy player boards, but this flimsiness has not been an issue so far. I imagine if we start to invent new games that require more resilience from them, such as “Milestones Player Board Frisbee” this might become more problematic.

Mechanical Underpinnings
Milestones is a rondel game. For those who do not know, a rondel is a circular structure where a pawn is moved around the various available spots, activating individual spots by landing on them. It is organized such that you have to wait a certain amount of time, taking intermediary actions along the way, before you can take the same action again.

What makes the rondel in Milestones most distinct is its customizability. Half of the board is made up of the four spots that every player must have: a location to exchange resources and money, a location to construct buildings on the main board, a location to convert grain into flour and place it onto a marketplace, and a location that serves to blunt a player’s momentum and force action. Across the top of the player’s board are a number of empty spots that are used for customization. Players may purchase worker tiles that can be placed to cover any two of these spots. These tiles are used to generate resources and, sometimes, victory points.



While the types of resources you can get from of the tiles is very important, so much so that I suspect that players with certain resource combinations will have a much more difficult time winning then those with others, the order of tile placement is even more important. During a player’s turn they may skip as many spaces as they like on the rondel, with the only limitation being that they are forced to stop on the location that forces player’s to blunt their forward momentum. If they land on a resource spot they get all the resources of the same type they passed in that move. This reinforces some level of specialization, as it enables the player to get a lot of resource very rapidly if they select lots of the same time of worker. Similarly, by placing these workers in an order that allows the player to avoid having wasted “skipped” spaces and thus generating large amounts of resources for scoring opportunities. Bonus tiles, which are gained through certain building activities, reinforce this further as they give you bonus points every time you collect resources from the associated worker.

This desire to group the same resource types together is complicated by the fact that workers also have a number value, and if you are able to keep the number order of your workers sequential you get a coin every time you stop on the resource conversion spot. This money can be significant, particularly if you have no coin generation of your own or you are already planning on stopping at the resource conversion space on your way around the rondel. This money, and the resource conversion space in general, is particularly important because the required momentum sapping space forces you to discard down to three resources (including money) and cover up one of your workers. So unless you have a way to generate money on your own, a gigantic amount of resources to sell for money, or sequential workers, then you will rapidly find your workers depleting to the point where you have so few that you are effectively out of the game.

In addition to money, the major resources are wood, stone, sand, and grain. Grain is special, but the other three are each used to construct one half of the game’s major buildings. Wood is used for marketplaces and houses, stone is used for roads and houses, and sand is used for roads and marketplaces. Roads are probably the most important of these buildings as they define how effective the other structures are. Marketplaces are the worst, simply because they do not score any more points than roads, are dependent on roads in order to score, and can be used to set up big scoring opportunities for players with grain. As a result of this, it strongly appears that specializing in wood production is a trap. You become very reliant on other players to build roads and establish scoring opportunities for you and you can only generate roads through inefficient resource cash conversions. Grains is similarly situational, as in order to effectively use it you need to have another player not only construct marketplaces but also construct them in locations where you can get the maximum amount of victory points. It can be argued that you could specialize in markets and grain, but you are still reliant on other players to create scoring opportunities, and will ultimately be collecting fewer resources because of the increased number of required stops around the rondel.



These interdependencies are both one of the more interesting part of the game but also the most worrisome. The method that gives you the most control over your victory point accumulation, road building, also opens up victory point possibilities for the other players. However, with the board layout it is possible for players to build roads in such a way that they are able to avoid opening up too many opportunities until they have acquired secondary resources that will allow for big points from a house placement or a smaller, but still significant market placement. What counterbalances this is a combination of greed from those who are focused mostly on road building resources to seize the better road scoring locations, and willingness for those players to let other players gain a marginal pay off in exchange for their own personal advancement.

This struggle between deciding when it is appropriate to allow others to score points off of a situation you create is essentially what the game is about. Rondel management is also very important, but deciding what resources you have and when you have them is merely a means to create context for these decisions. This focus on allowing scoring opportunities puts additional weight on both how players establish initial scoring stances and develop them over time, and brings some level of clarity into why the momentum reduction spot is so key to making Milestones work as well as it does.

At the beginning of the game a selection of worker tiles (two per player, plus one additional) are presented for selection, with whomever is the last player getting the first choice of two tiles, with each player closer to the first player also getting a choice between two from an increasingly smaller available pool. This selection process means that, at least for the early part of the game, it can be difficult to control what your scoring options are relative to the other players. If a particular player, probably later in the turn order and thus with earlier tile choices, ends up with a pair of deeply synergistic tiles producing resources that allow them to have some control over board development, such as stone, sand or both, and potentially push them into an early lead.

The ability to maintain this lead is restricted by the momentum reduction space. Each player is required to stop on this space when going around their rondel, and in doing so are forced to cover up one of their workers, making it unavailable, and discard resources down until they have three. This serves two purposes. The first is that, at the very least, a player with a too perfect initial board set-up will be forced to degrade it. The second is that it prevents players from hoarding materials for a super optimized scoring round, thus creating action on the board and driving forward the central dynamic of the game. Because of this mechanic, attentive players can purchase tiles that could allow a dominant player to retain their current position of strength. As the player’s available workers shift, the particular scoring stances of the players will also shifting, making it so that what was scoring points for a player early in the game will not necessarily prove to be successful later in the game. Of course, all of this requires players who understand the implications of both their actions and those of others; otherwise it is very easy for those who do not understand to throw the game to someone else.

After you understand and master this aspect, of the game, there is really not that much less to explore. Milestones becomes a game of tactical brinkmanship, as players seek to create and destroy scoring opportunities for other players, while attempting to reshape their scoring opportunities until they are in a stronger position to push for the end of the game then their opponents. This works very well for a shorter game, but I personally prefer a game that has a few more layers to it. Still, this is probably the best middle weight euro I have played since Kingdom Builder, and is one of the few that I will remain willing, if not eager, to play again.

Conclusion
On the whole I have enjoyed my plays of Milestones, but I strongly suspect that I will not play it more than a few more times. Part of this is simply due to how streamlined Milestones is. I prefer my games to have a lot going on, and Milestones is pretty restrained. However, I am not the target audience for this game and I suspect that fans of more middle-weight euros will be very pleased with it.
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Fri Sep 28, 2012 8:51 pm
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Android: The Bluffing

Jesse Dean
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For those who do not know, Android: Netrunner is a two player living card game (LCG) by Richard Garfield and published by Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). It is a remake of the well-regarded Netrunner collectible card games (CCG) released by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) in the late 90s, and has undergone a bit of tweaking as it transitioned from a WotC property to a FFG property. I did not play the original version, so this is mostly a fresh look at the game. I will be comparing to other card games I have played, but will not be commenting on how effective of an update it is.



Core Game Play
In Android: Netrunner each player is either a netrunner or a corporation. Over the course of the game the netrunner attempts to hack into the corporation’s servers, attempting to steal agendas by either getting them from R&D (the corporation’s deck), HQ (the corporation’s hand), the Archives (the corporation’s discard pile), or a remote server (a location established by the corporation and used to complete agendas). At the same time, the corporation is seeking to complete these agenda’s, while establishing defenses around them that will keep the netrunner out.



Game play revolves around the “run”, where a netrunner attempts to attack one of the previously mentioned locations. If there are no defenses, the netrunner is able to simply waltz in, either looking at a single card from the deck or the corporation player’s hand or accessing all of the cards that are in the remote server. In the event that the corporation has established defenses, known as ICE, then the netrunner has to use their own attack software, known as Icebreakers, to try to get through. If the netrunner lacks the ability to break the ICE’s subroutines, then they will be hit by their effects and probably be unable to actually get to their goal.

Resource management is very important. The primary currency of the game (credits) can be a major bottleneck for how effective a runner or corporation is, and it is frequently the case that the player who is able to most effectively manage their credit flow will be able to successfully defeat their opponent.

Similarly, card availability has a big impact on the game. It is possible for the corporation to lose if they get to the bottom of their deck too quickly, while a runner can lose if they are forced to discard, due to damage, when they have zero cards in hand. I have seen players lose due this forced discard, but a corporation loss due to lack of available cards to draw seems unlikely with the current set of cards. I suspect that this will change as expansions are released.

A Game of Bluffing
One thing that sets Android: Netrunner apart from most of the other two player special power card games that I have played is how important bluffing is to the game. The corporation player plays all of their cards face down and does not actually have to pay for them until they choose to reveal them. This allows the corporation player to set up all sorts of different, layered mind games with the help of their available cards. By playing cards that the runner is generally less interested in, such as most assets, or actively harmful to them, such as traps, the corporation can force the runner to make potentially fatal miscalculations as they decide whether they can get away with using valuable credits to get past the corporation’s defenses when the target may not actually be worthwhile.

This bluffing pushes Android: Netrunner above most of the other two player special power card games that I have played. The tension this creates can be delightful for either side, the netrunner has the to decide if it is worth it to spend the resources required to get through the corporation’s ICE, as a wrong decision, particularly if the Corporation has built up effective defenses, can drain so many resources that the player will be put permanently behind. In contrast, the corporation is constantly concerned about whether the particular traps and misdirection they have established are going to result in something concrete or will simply be wasted effort.

Yomi features a similar focus on bluffing, but is also a much more simple game. Android: Netrunner’s focus on tableau building and multilevel resource management are such that it ends up being a deeper game but also a longer game. They are both very thematic and thus offer a very distinct feel. For people who like bluffing in their two player games, I think that it is easy to own both of them without feeling that either one particularly intrudes on the other’s space.

Faction Differentiation
Within that basic framework there is a delightful variety of special powers and possibilities. The current available runners and corporations have a fairly distinctive feel and the deck building rules, which ensure that at least 2/3s of the deck, and possibly even more, belong to the same faction even as players have the option to customize their decks in great detail. Unfortunately, with the core set it does not appear that there is a huge amount of variety available for that customization, but there is still a lot of potential for there to be quite a bit based on future releases.



Comparison To Other Card Games
I am deliberately unfamiliar with most of the other living card games. I have not been willing to invest in them for various reasons and that lack of interest in investment has also translated into a lack of interest in purchase. I have however, played most of the other non-CCG special power card games (and my fair share of Magic), and I think Android: Netrunner stands up well to most of them. I do not think it will ever displace Race For the Galaxy or Mage Knight as my favorite card games, but it still stands well with or above the other card games that I have played.

One of the big attraction factors for customizable games is the potential to create and build a wide variety of different configurations of the game’s unit for each player, whether that is the deck, war band, or whatever. Of course, in doing so you have to be willing to put enough of a financial investment into the game to make that customization worthwhile. The expected dividend of this investment is the amount of time you are able to play and enjoy the game. Of course, in order for this investment to pay off you either need a dedicated partner or a community that is available that allows you to continually play the game and thus make it so your financial investment can turn into fun. A dedicated partner is great, but relies too much on the continued interest of said partner for my tastes. It is very easy for the partner to decide they are no longer interested in the game, and then you have to either find a new partner, and deal with the skill differential or just stop playing. Having a community to play the game against is better, but for a game like Android: Netrunner, which does not have a community yet, this requires you to actively be involved in the community building. I have been involved in community building before, and it is a frustrating activity, that I am not really willing to do again unless it is a game I absolutely and completely love. I like Android: Netrunner quite a bit, but it is not to the point where I love it enough to perform the required building.

In hindsight this is one of the things that is particularly brilliant about the Lord of the Rings LCG. By making it so you can play it solo, it allows for people who like solo and cooperative games to be able to continue to buy and customize their decks without having to rely on the continued interest of other people. I do not personally like solo or cooperative games, so this does not help me, but I cannot help but admire this effectiveness.

Conclusion
I like Android: Netrunner. It is not one of my absolute favorite card games, but I like it a lot, and I strongly suspect that the game will become increasingly deep and interesting as expansions are released. I do not expect that I will personally purchase the game beyond the initial pack, but that is due to the fact that in my personal situation I do not expect to get a good enough return on investment. For those who can, I suspect this will be a very enjoyable and engaging game for years to come.
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Mon Sep 24, 2012 4:48 pm
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Dice Tower Con 2012 , Mage Wars, and Sky Traders

Jesse Dean
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Orlando
Florida
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I spent the 4th of July weekend in what looks to be the first of what will almost be a series of board game conventions in Orlando sponsored by Tom Vasel’s The Dice Tower called, appropriately, Dice Tower Con. I am mostly an irregular listener to the Dice Tower, and only rarely watch the video reviews, as I vastly prefer written works, but I could not resist the urge to go to a gaming convention that was just 30 minutes from my house, and I did my best to let as many people in my extended play group as possible about it in order to ensure that we would have a good Orlando contingent at the convention. We did.

It is tough for me to really compare Dice Tower Con to the other gaming conventions I have attended because of the general lack of board gaming conventions in Florida. I am thus unfamiliar with the smaller conventions, and typically only attend much larger events like BGG.Con, Gen Con, or the World Board Gaming Championship (WBC). Still, I had fun and will certainly attend again next year, and it will be interesting to get into the convention from the very beginning and see how it grows. Talking to Tom indicates that he has pretty big plans for the convention’s future, and it would be nice to have a pretty big regional or even national convention locally.

I mostly spent time on longer games that I had played before, I played Mage Knight four times at the convention and got in plays of Through the Ages and Cave Evil, but I was also able to play a couple of games at the Convention that were new to me: Mage Wars and Sky Traders.

Mage Wars
 


I am actually surprise that we even had game demos at the convention, considering its size, but it end up working out as I was able to play three games of it over the course of the convention. The first ended up being fairly late in the evening against Tom Vasel. After a day playing a pair of Mage Knight games and Through the Ages, I ended up walking by the demo area and Tom Vasel suggested I come play it with him.

I found the rules to be fairly intuitive, and while I needed some clarifications on how the timing and limitations of certain powers, on the whole it was very easy for me to pick up and run with the game. The match was also tense and exciting. Tom was playing a particular mage, called the Beastmaster, which was focused on quickly summoning animals to rush at the opponent while I was playing the Priestess, who was focused a bit more on board control and healing. Tom tried early on to focus on attacking the Priestess, and while he was able to make some headway a combination of effective defenses and healing allowed me to prevent death while my units were able to destroy his, allowing me to eventually turn the tide and achieve victory. The other two characters included in the game, three of which I played, and two of which I played against twice, also played in a fairly distinct fashion which is something I appreciate. Differentiation is important in games like these, and while there was quite a bit of crossover in particular characters abilities, that did not prevent the characters from feeling strategically and tactically distinct.

Looking at Mage Wars, and even hearing the name really, I was most reminded of Summoner Wars, and they do have some levels of similarity. Both of them are card-based systems that involve players controlling spellcasters of some sort who using a magic point system to summon monsters and casting spells in an effort to kill their opponent. That is where the similarities end, however, as Mage Wars has a significantly more mechanical complexity and has a completely different way of managing the cards that represent the game’s units and spells.

This card management is perhaps Mage War’s most distinctive feature and the one that I think will stand out as the game’s primary innovation. Each player has a binder filled with cards that are used to manage a player’s available spells. They are able to draw out two of these cards on a given turn and these represent the spells that they will have available, forcing players to make some hard choices about not only how they want to go about advancing their position but also how much they need to account for potential actions of their opponent. Similarly, spells can only be cast once, and if they are used, or destroyed in the case of more permanent effects, so when you are going to cast a spell is as important as if.

Players are able to customize their spell book too, with a level both indicating how expensive a card costs to place in the spell book as well as how the card relates with certain other cards. In order to encourage a player to specialize in cards that are thematically appropriate (animal cards for the beastmaster, healing cards for the priestess, etc.) each character has a few schools of magic they specialize in. Cards outside of these specialties cost more while schools that are opposite of the character’s theme can cost triple. I like how permissive this is, as it adds a certain level of potential for players to create a wide variety of decks, but is not a complete free-for-all so we are unlikely to see identical decks across the characters. This also means that if certain cards, particularly ones focused on removal of opponent’s effects, are considered “must haves” we will see them in every deck which I find to be troublesome, but the severity of this will only become clear once I get more experience with building spell books rather than just playing the game. The prebuilt decks did display some of this, as there were certain cards that appeared in most, if not all of the decks, but these decks were also designed to convey a particular experience so I question how optimally designed they were.

The game play itself is fun though nothing about it really struck me as that new. It was well-designed and seemed fairly deep, with this depth created in part by how many different ways you could manipulate the games myriad interlocking parts to smash in your opponent’s face. The core mechanics are pretty straight forward: each unit can be used once per turn, either moving and taking a fast action or not moving and taking a full action. Creatures and conjurations (essentially locations) have armor, hit points, and creatures have a mixture of melee and ranged attacks. The complication comes from the plethora of keyword-defined special abilities and how they interact with each other. For example, some of the human knight style creatures are wearing heavy metal armor which gives some bonus dice to lightning attacks used against them, while some equipment rings give discounts to casting certain types of spells. These are all the sort of things that I expect from a reasonably advanced tactical skirmish game, but I suspect that this interlocking complexity and the fact that you are provided with the entirety of the game’s options at once will make first games seem overwhelming to new players. I could definitely tell that the two people I taught were at least a little overwhelmed by the game, and they both stated that now that they understood the game they would have done things a bit differently, but I think this complexity is worth it. I eventually grew a bit bored with Summoner Wars because of its simplicity; I doubt this will happen with Mage Wars.

The artwork used was a bit inconsistent, but they had the final proofs on hand and showed them to me. I found them to be very well done for the most part, but it was very generic and seemed to lack some of the distinctiveness that I generally prefer. This is a problem that extends to the game in general, in fact. While the special abilities and characters all make sense from a thematic perspective, the theme itself is pretty much “generic fantasy.” I think I would have preferred slightly more world building in order to give the game a distinctive character. It feels slightly less exciting to be playing a generic “Warlock” or “Wizard” then someone who has even the faintest bit of back-story, no matter how cheesy. It would also help to explain why the priestess is wearing the outfit below rather than something more sensible.



Arcane Wonders, the publisher, is going to be sending me a pre-release review copy of the game and I plan to give it a full workout once I get it, with a particular emphasis on spell book building to see what sort of permutations can be constructed, and how similar some of the better decks are. I already know that I find the game play enjoyable, but how differentiation is important enough to me in games like this that I want to ensure that the cost structure incentivizes people enough to create differentiated spell books rather than having a large amount of overlap, with only a few items that are different. I will also see if we can break the game, though based on what I have seen so far of both cost structures and the pricing of creatures, that seems unlikely, and if continues to be fun over the next 10 or 15 plays. Based on my initial plays though, I am quite enthusiastic about the game. It is definitely my favorite of the games I have played that have had a 2012 release date (only 1989: Dawn of Freedom and The Manhattan Project are even close), and I strongly suspect that if it holds up over a larger number of plays that it will end up in my Top 10, or maybe even my Top 5, of 2012.

Sky Traders


Sky Traders was my other new to me game that I played at Dice Tower Con. This one was something I purchased myself the day before the convention though after reading the rules I was not particularly optimistic about it particularly when I compared the listed play time (2 to 4 hours) to the rules. There really did not seem to be a lot to it, and I was concerned that the game would drag or get overly repetitive over the course of time.

I ended up having a lot of fun playing it, but I strongly suspect that this was due to group dynamics rather than the game itself. The game is focused mostly on pick up and deliver, buying goods at certain locations on the board and selling them at other locations, with the ships, as represented by giant busts of their captains, flying between steampunk inspired locations to accomplish this task.

Prices are determined by a combination of negotiation and die rolls. You are able to place these dice either in the positive or negative column for the good type rolled (naturally, there are six different types of goods) and the difference in quantity on each side determines how the price moves. On the plus side this emulates a reasonably volatile market where the players, as mercantile magnates, have some influence, on the down side it does make it difficult to plan for whether the cargo of goods you just purchased are going to end up being extremely valuable, marginally profitable, or merely take up space in your cargo hold. With how we were playing, they would frequently end up being money losers as players decided that there would be little interest in pushing prices upwards for their opponent, and instead cratered the market. One of my opponents and I ended up getting in a synergistic position, where we bought and sold similar goods, increasing the odds that we were going to increase our profits, but this also made our opponents more motivated to try to push the market down and ensure that we did not make any money off of our purchases.

A random event deck inflicts negative status conditions, or pirate attacks, on the players though many of these did not seem to be extremely significant, largely costing a turn at most. The most dangerous attacks only came about if the player dabbled in illegal goods, or choose to attack he pirate king, so they were largely avoidable. Players are also able to attack each other, but when attacking players who do not have a bounty are required to demand some combination of goods, crew, and money that allowed them to avoid combat. One of the players in our game turned pirate but kept on demanding a quantity of goods that encouraged their opponents to fight against him rather than accede to his demands. Eventually his ship got damaged enough, and he lacked the money for repairs, and his bounty so high that one of the less able combatants was able to destroy him and collect the reward. This reward was so significant that the player was able to pay for a lot of points (influence) on the track and at that point the game was called as there was little chance for the players to continue.

I think I would probably like the game a little bit better if the market mechanism seemed to actually work. As it stands it seemed much better to focus on low risk items, like minerals or sludge, both of which you can acquire without actually spending money, rather than goods that you actually risk losing money on if you purchase. This drags a game out which should really last more than two hours into what could potentially be three or four hours. This can potentially not be a problem with players who are in the right mood for the randomness of the game, but I suspect that for me at least this situation will come about rarely. I prefer games that are much more consistently good then ones that will occasionally be quite enjoyable and occasionally will utterly bomb. I still intend to play the game a couple of more times, to see if I am wrong and also to build up a deep enough of understanding of the game to comfortably write a review, but I do not see this one having any sort of longevity in my collection.
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Tue Jul 10, 2012 4:10 pm
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Initial Impressions of Oliver Kiley's Hegemonic

Jesse Dean
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Orlando
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I am actually not quite certain of when I first became aware of Hegemonic, but it was likely as a result of its designer, Oliver Kiley, starting to post on my blog and my natural curiosity over his Game Designer badge. This interest level was increased even more by his comments in my Two Different Styles of Civilization Games article and his description of what made Hegemonic special. When he offered me a chance to get a late stage prototype I eagerly accepted. The copy arrived earlier this week and I got a chance to play two partial games last night, though between the two of them I got a very good idea of the overall scope and essence of the game.



Last night I got a chance to play two partial games. The first was a three player that was stopped due to the third player being put into an unrecoverable position after some very bad early moves, but pretty soon after that we had three other friends show up, so Mike and I joined Chad, Kelly and Scott for a five player game.

Even before we started the five player game Mike and I were pretty excited about the game, with Mike wondering how he could get a copy. The three player was definitely a learning experience but we greatly enjoyed what we had learned about the game, and the five player game did little but enhance our general enthusiasm. Chad, Kelly, and Scott also really liked the game, Chad said it was better than Eclipse, which had been his favorite 4X game up to this point, and Kelly and Scott were also very enthusiastic about it with Scott asking when the Kickstarter was going to begin.

I will let the others explain the source of their own excitement if they chose, but for me personally the primary basis for my enthusiasm is how the game handles conflict between civilizations. Most 4X games, and civilization games in general for that matter, are focused almost exclusively on military conflict. Political influence is merely hand-waved by saying the game is a negotiation game or is extremely abstracted, while economic aspects of the game are almost exclusively focused on building economic power for yourself and using that economic power to build a military. If you want to effect another player’s position you are going to build up an army and send it over to attack their armies, burn down their cities, seize their solar systems, or whatever depending on the focus and scope of the game. While this can make a quite entertaining game, I prefer a more comprehensive approach to my conflict, with both opportunities for direct economic and political conflicts as well as purely military ones.

Hegemonic provides that opportunity, as player infrastructure is focused in those three major spheres: political, industrial, and military. Each one improves your income, and each one provides you with the ability to interact with, either through destruction or conquer, the other spheres of influence. Of course this results in a level of abstraction that many fans of the 4X genre will find to be a bit disconcerting. There are no hordes of plastic miniatures to play on the board, and each player only has 3 fleet markers and 3 agent markers to represent their ability to project military and political force. Still, if you are willing to get past, that I think it is very easy to see past that abstraction and get a feel for how tightly integrated the mechanics are to the theme. Open negotiation and exchange of currency is allowed, but because political conflicts are the ones that allow other players to influence the results, you are more likely to see this negotiation and exchange in currency when political power is on one side of a conflict. Military power’s area of influence and power is directly determined by relative location and size of fortresses, and an increasing focus on military also causes military fleets to scale up in power accordingly. Industrial power can be used to take over locations of types, representing the power of money and economy, while military power and political power can only take control of embassies. How you calculate military, industrial, and political power differs as does how you are able to project power, making it so that even with the level of observed abstraction there is an important differentiation between the different spheres of influence.



The economic system is clever, but does not particularly stand out. Essentially your progress in each of the three tracks associated with either industrial, political or political influence, as you place more complexes, embassies, and outposts on the board your income increases, your costs increase, and the amount of currency you can hold between rounds decreases. Three tiers are associated with each track, and advancing the tiers gives you access to special powers as well as the ability to place more advanced technologies. This is straightforward and utilitarian and most importantly does not get in the way. You will be thinking about your economy and the income and output of the currency you have to spend to expand your position, but it does not interfere with the true central focus of the game: conflict.

The resolution mechanic is both clever and does stand out. Each player has a hand of five cards, each of which is divided into a conflict half and a technology half. Whenever a conflict occurs calculated power is added to the power of the card to determine the winner. Each card has a general power and a specialized power that comes with specific pre-requisites. When playing one of these cards for a conflict it is left face-up and unavailable until the player runs out of cards, takes an action to refresh them, or the round ends, meaning that there is a very strong element of hand management when dealing with a very conflict heavy round. The double nature of the cards also leads to some interesting decisions, as when you get a new technology, you are losing that as a potential card to play in a round. This does not decrease the total number of cards available, you will always have 5 total available active and inactive cards, but it does lead to a potential decrease in the overall level of quality of cards you can play. If you have invested strongly in industrial, political, or military infrastructure this is particularly tough because the cards that have the best synergies with these types of influence are also the ones that provide the valuable level 3 technologies.



Action selection is secret and simultaneous using a hand of cards that is identical between the players. Each action card has up to three potential actions on them, with an individual player having the ability to take either take up to three actions from this menu or, in the case of one card, a single action. Player order, is determined by the initiative value of the card, but plenty of ties will occur and when that happens the arbiter, essentially the “first player”, determines the order. This can be a particularly valuable role on contentious rounds, and bidding wars for the ability to go first are likely in these cases, but in other rounds it is only marginally useful. The individual action cards are comprehensive, allowing for a variety of different ways you can interact with the board, and the ability to initiate a conflict is spread across them making the reason a player selected a particular action delightfully ambiguous.

It is tough to compare it to other 4X games I enjoy because they are doing something quite different. The need to manage fleets and internalize the capabilities of a half dozen ships is removed, but strangely enough, despite its lesser focus on military conflict the total amount of conflict in the game is greater. Conflict aggressors are rarely harmed permanently in the process of an attack, making it so it can be optimal to attempt experimental attacks if you think you have a chance to win, and the fact that victory points are scored in such a way that you are encouraged to expand across the board means that players are constantly driven to be in each other’s proximity, so turtling is non-existent. You can certainly build centralized locations where you are very strong, of course, but these locations are merely a tool for launching game winning conflicts, not as a means to turtle while you pursue victory in isolation. You also see a sort of interweaving of player presence that is virtually unknown in other games of this type. Any individual hex could have up to three different players in it, and it is possible for two players to coexist in the same region in a fairly peaceful manner.



The only real problems I see with it are ones of clarity. As a red-green colorblind person, I found some of the differences between the political faction tiles to be unclear. Additionally you frequently need to add and read numbers from adjacent areas in order to calculate actual and potential powers for different networks. This can be a bit problematic for people who prefer a slightly more visceral play experience, but I did not find it problematic except in the case of political power, where the power contributions are more dispersed, and a wider array of factors need to be considered. Luckily this is something that can be easily solved at a component level, as a track that indicated each players power level across the three political factions would easily allow for a player to consider the possibilities without a lot of AP-induced counting. It is nowhere near the level of permutation that is seen in something like Dominant Species, and most of the down time I saw was from people wrestling with tough decisions rather than attempting to overcome hurdles that stopped them from actually playing the game.

While it is a 4X game, is probably the most “euro” of games of this style. In fact, it probably reminds me most of some of the big conflict-driven eurogames that have had a strong crossover appeal like Dominant Species or Tigris & Euphrates and as such I see this game having a strong potential to appeal to both players who are fans of traditional 4X games as well as those who are not typically into the genre but like big conflict-driven games. I see little opportunity for my opinion of this game to go anywhere but up, and it’s a damn shame that it has not found a publisher yet. Hopefully Oliver will work out a publishing deal so that this one can get into wider distribution. Yes, it is another 4X entry in a crowded market, but it is a very distinct one and one that I think will ultimately be very popular, particularly for those who like big and deep board games.
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Thu Jun 7, 2012 7:11 pm
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Initial (and Final) Impressions of Abaddon

Jesse Dean
United States
Orlando
Florida
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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I knew it was probably not going to work for me as I first read the rulebook. If I had been performing my due diligence I probably would have read the rulebook before I acquired the game, but since I do not have the driving force of Essen excitement to keep me focused on reading the rules, I admit I have been a bit lax about it lately, which probably explains my indifferent reaction to many of the games I have played recently. If it is a special powers card game, tactical miniatures game, or bigger, meatier game there is already a good chance that I am going to acquire it, and since Abaddon is a tactical miniatures game and has an at least moderately interesting theme I figured it would be worth checking out.

Of course I did feel some measure of uncertainty as the release date got closer. Tom Vasel on the Dice Tower stated that is was mostly a good game for playing pre-teens and I heard some rumblings that it was definitely one of the more simple games that Mr. Borg has produced. I almost pulled the trigger and cancelled the pre-order, but the enthusiasm of one gentleman in my group, he is a big fan of mechs, was enough to get me to reconsider. So I picked up my pre-order and we ended up playing the game on Sunday.

Abaddon is a game about battles between giant robots that uses a fight for resources on a distant planet as the pretext for having said battles. Now this is a reasonably cool concept, but it is used largely as window dressing as most scenarios end up being things like, “You have been ambushed! Escape!” This last of flavor is rather disappointing particularly compared to the historical context for Borg’s other games or even some of the completely ridiculous, though fun, fiction for games like Earth Reborn. The game play is most important, of course, but having context for the game play is something I typically look for in my tactical miniatures games, and its lack was slightly off-putting.



The game play was similarly disappointing. There are four different units, each of which is differentiated in their movement rate, combat die rolled, and hit points. Each turn a player rolls a scenario defined number of dice which have symbols corresponding to each of the types of units as well as a “command” face that works similar to a wild and a “weapon systems” face that lets you draw more cards. When activating a unit, you are able to move it based on its movement rate before choosing a target. At this point a targeting card is played by each player and a comparative die roll is made, with the winner doing a point of damage to the loser.

There is a little bit more to it than that, in the form of undifferentiated terrain, critical hits, and direct vs. indirect fire but on a whole it is rather bland and kind of boring. There is very little decision making too involved in using your units, and no ability to conduct forward planning of any kind. You are at the mercy of the dice, and while the same can be argued for games like Command & Colors: Ancients, at least those games involve a level of look ahead as to what you potentially could use in the future, even if what you can use is not what you want to use. The game is quick, with little downtime, but that is more due to the lack of real decisions to be made than anything else. Even when situations where the move to be made is not obvious, the decision is trivial enough to not be time consuming.

It is not often that I flat our regret purchasing a game, as usually there is something that is at least something that I find interesting about them or makes me wonder how I would jury rig things to make it more to my tastes, but Abaddon failed to provide me with even that level of enjoyment, as most of the things it does well I have seen before, mostly in the Command & Colors titles, and the things it does well are mostly in the implementation of the physical design. The way it tracks status conditions from critical hits and the transition from hit points to victory points is clever, but that alone is not enough to save the game.

I do think this game has a place for those who are completely new to tactical battle games or whom are likely to be playing this game with a pre-teen, but even for them I would recommend something like Summoner Wars over this. If you have any sort of familiarity with these sorts of games, or just prefer meatier games in general you can pretty safely skip it.
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Tue May 15, 2012 9:34 pm
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Dipping My Toes Into the Thematic and Other News

Jesse Dean
United States
Orlando
Florida
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American Style Games
As part of my continued exploration into all things board game, I have been pushing into what is probably the last great frontier for me: the great, modern, and not so modern, American-style games. Of course, the fact that I am only just now getting to them, leads to the question of why I ignored them up to this point in favor of war games, card games, and the great undefined mass that is described as eurogames. The biggest reason is probably fatigue. After years of playing RPGs and CMGs, the last thing I wanted to do was dip my toes into what I saw as being the same old tired fantasy themes. Similarly I was not that interested in adventure games after years of playing D&D as they seemed to be a pale shadow of a real RPG and was disinterested in tactical miniatures games for the same reason. The few Ameritrash games that I did end up getting dragged into ended up being both light and dreary or so laden with chrome that they seemed to collapse under their own weight. I did like Arkham Horror, but that seemed to be an exception to my general preferences, based on my love of the Lovecraftian theme, rather than a true indication of my tastes.

This changed in 2010, as my general love for 4X games, drew me back in the direction of Ameritrash. I tried out both Sid Meier’s Civilization the Board Game and Runewars and found them both to be lacking for various reasons. That was almost enough to put me off of them again, and I went through a brief phase where I played almost nothing but 18XX, but the seed was planted and I have been looking at AT games with a renewed interest. The sheer quality of AT games released in 2011 only cemented that interested, resulting in my current inclination to explore some of the great AT titles of the past and in the last week I have ordered a copy of Magic Realm, played Twilight Imperium 3 (TI3), and bought and played Earth Reborn.

Magic Realm
My interest in Magic Realm probably sprung from my love for Mage Knight, and the comparisons between them were enough to spark my interest and track down a copy. Whether it remains in my collection will be determined by if it is interesting and offers a unique enough experience, which is what everything else I have read about the game indicates, than it will probably be worth keeping. Of course, soon after my purchase I learned that Stronghold Games was probably going to be reprinting the game, but that does not bother me much, as it will allow me to provide more context for any review I do of the new edition. Of course there is always the possibility that I will end up hating it, but that is a risk I am willing to take, particularly considering the amount of context that playing this will provide me for adventure games that have been published since its release.

Twilight Imperium 3
TI3 is a hulking brute of a 4X game, with such a reputation that most released 4X board games are directly compared to it. This influence alone would be enough to make me want to try it out, but bits and pieces that I have read about it over the years were entertaining enough to make me want to play it on top of that, but were not enough to push me over the edge into purchasing it. Luckily, a local owns the game and its expansions and we were able to play it on Sunday. Playing a game once is typically not effective in identifying the total worth of a game, but what I saw impressed me in a way that I was beginning to think was no longer possible for a 4X board game. Despite this curiosity, I was slightly concerned that based on TI3’s length and my experience with previous big Fantasy Flight games, that it would be some awkward ungainly monstrosity. Happily I was wrong. Instead of the additional game length being due to rules bulk, instead it appears to largely be based on additional texture and nuance that really bring the game’s flavor to the forefront. Granted, we were all experienced board gamers, but after the first hour it felt like the game’s mechanics quickly receded from view, and we became wholly absorbed in the game.

From my perspective, TI3’s primary competition as preeminent 4X board game is Eclipse, Runewars, and Space Empires 4X. Since its strengths are different in comparison to each of these games, I am going to focus on talking about it in relation to these games, in order to provide greater context to why I think it is a superior 4X experience. These comparisons might not be completely fair, as I was able to play TI3 with the benefit of some enjoyable expansion material, while I have only played the base game for each of the others, and from all accounts the base game for each of the alternatives is much more balanced than the base game of TI3, however, I consider the possibilities present in the TI3 expansion as part of its strengths.

Twilight Imperium and Eclipse
Eclipse has been one of the hottest games on BGG over the last few months and has been touted as a TI3 killer in part due to providing a similar experience in a much shorter time frame. While I do not have much to say about their relative time frames, as I have only played TI3 once and that play only took a little bit longer than our plays of Eclipse, I found that the experience offered by Eclipse to be both different and ultimately inferior to the experience offered by TI3. Both games present the players as one of several galactic civilizations, humans or alien, whom are trying to take over planets in the galaxy, with a particular bonus available from acquiring the core system in the galaxy and its available resources, and an exception-based technology tree. However, from there they largely diverge in ways that for me make Eclipse an inferior experience.

There is an area where Eclipse offers additional level of depth over TI3: ship customization. Where TI3 has a slightly larger variety of differentiated ships, Eclipse offers a smaller set of ships, each of which can be interchangeably customized based on researched technologies. This does add a nice level of additional strategic breadth, but I found that a lot of the initial intrigue that this customization offers fades as players become more familiar with particularly optimal configurations. It also prevents any extensive distinctiveness to come to the fore, like is possible with Twilight Imperium.

Eclipse and TI3 are roughly equivalent in the complexity of their economic systems. Eclipse features three different styles of resources, for which specialization is its own reward. However, the system supports a style of economic snowball that, when combined with the random draws of sector tiles through exploration can result in someone being forced out of the game through the quality of tile draws. TI3’s economic system is more interactive. Planets produce a combination of two different resources, three if you count technology discounts, but also adds a trade system that allows for the production of a general-purpose expendable resource based on establishing trade relationships with other players. .

Eclipse’s political system is pretty basic, with politics essentially being limited to either player’s exhortations to attack each other or limited agreements that serve both as non-aggression pacts, and the games limited execution of trade. TI3’s diplomatic systems offers the potential to establish laws that can actually be used as weapons against the other players, but frequently these will only occur if you can convince other involved players to vote on them, forcing players into a position where they can attempt to evaluate and manipulate the overall balance of power.

I could continue, but essentially it seems that what Eclipse has done has provided a streamlined 4X experience that, while interesting in its own right, fails to live up to the fullness and richness provided by TI3. This is probably an acceptable trade off for many people, who are unable to get TI3 to the table due to its sheer scope or because of a simple preference for more streamlined games, but it is not acceptable for me. I would rather play a game that gives me a complete and rich experience, no matter what the time frame, rather than one that leaves me wishing I could have something more.

Twilight Imperium 3 and Runewars
I got Runewars for Christmas with 2010 and it lasted six plays before I lost interest in it. I thought a great deal about whether I wanted Runewars or Twilight Imperium 3 more before I eventually settled on Runewars. Its game length seemed slightly more manageable, I had a slight preference for the fantasy setting, and it seemed that the integration of an adventurer system into a larger 4X game might be interesting and could potentially be amazing. Unfortunately, over time it seemed to largely be an over-chromed mess, with a large number of the subsystems and rules details that had minimal impact on the game as it was played. The adventuring system was kind of neat, and did provide an additional avenue of conflict, but their essential invisibility to your available forces was somewhat unfortunate, and lead to a level of disconnect that I found to be unpleasant. Conflicts between armies were infrequent and frequently seemed irrelevant. It was very difficult to be able to push and grab the victory point tokens from a canny player, and in many instances the game was essentially won during map set-up. TI3 seems like it might also share some of the weaknesses in how military forces are used or not used, but even if that ends up being the case, and I suspect it is not, there are enough other weapons that can be effectively used against other players to make up for this.

Twilight Imperium 3 and Space Empires 4X
Space Empires 4X suffers in comparison to TI3 for much the same reason that Eclipse does: the streamlining of the system leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, it makes up for this by its extensive and extreme focus on the combat system, such that it works more effectively as a war game with an economic undercurrent than as a more expansive 4X game. The surprises of fleet composition and technology configurations, plus the kill or be killed victory condition, allows Space Empires 4X to carve a particular niche such that I still think it is worth owning, if only as a two player game. Space Empires 4x’s extremely immature diplomatic system unfortunately leads to awkward “Lets have you and him fight” situations and makes me disinterested in trying it again with more players.

Conclusion
I am interested in playing TI3 again in the near future. It is possible that some of the supposed ponderousness of TI3 will push me back away from it again, but as it currently stands it is perhaps tied with Space Empires 4X as my favorite board game of the genre, and I can see a lot of potential in getting more extensive play out of it. I am not quite ready to purchase it, and thanks to the fact that one of my regular board game opponents owns it I will not need to do so, but I could see it being a purchase at some point, if that particular situation changes.

Earth Reborn
As discussed previously, I was formerly a tactical miniatures gamer. D&D Miniatures, then Dreamblade, were essentially my lifestyle games, and I played them exhaustively racking up thousands of total plays. I did not explore the board game side of tactical miniatures games, and my investment into DDM and Dreamblade was such that I did not have a high degree of interest in branching out. In my earlier exploration of board games, I found C&C: Ancients to be an interesting replacement for DDM in a way that was a bit more approachable to a wider range of people. This proved to be effective and I ended up playing a rather large number of games of it against my girlfriend. (She was quite good). Playing Summoner Wars is what really reinvigorated my interested in the genre, and playing Cave Evil, which has some strong similarities to the genre, reminded me of my love for these sorts of games while also reinvigorating my general interest in Ameritrash.

Earth Reborn came to my attention for three primary reasons. The first was the simple fact that Coolstuff Games (the store front for Coolstuff, Inc.) has a ding and dent section where they sell games with damage boxes at an additional discount. My lack of familiarity, its rank, and the $40 price tag were all very alluring to me. What pushed me over the edge was the great esteem that my friend Kurt has in the [blog=1431]game[/blogpost] and the fact that I was able to convince a local to go through the scenarios with me, with the overall goal being that this would end up being a two player game we could play that I would not have a strong play experience advantage in.

I had Wednesday off, so Will and I had some lunch, went to Coolstuff cracked open the box and ended up playing the first four scenarios until everyone else started showing up for board game night. I was impressed enough that I ended up arranging for us to get together to play the next scenario last night and am looking forward to my future plays. I also found that another local is also interested in Earth Reborn (and tactical miniature games in general) so there is a good chance that Will and I can start working through some of the scenarios with him in the near future too.

So what do I like about Earth Reborn? For one the action point system is effective and fun. Each turn a player draws five action tiles, each of which has four symbols on it, each of which can represent one of five different actions. This provides a limitation on how you can spend your available action points, and with the ability to draw further tiles by spending action points it leads to interesting decisions about whether to draw more tiles or to spend more points on the tiles you already have. The fact that the action points can also be used for blind bidding to control initiative or to interrupt actions simply adds to the tough decisions that need to be made.

Secondly, I appreciate how well the games thematic underpinnings intertwine with the action point system. Actions as different as activating a missile silo, to shooting a gun, to rifling through an officer’s stash for secret files, to convincing an enemy to switch sides, to fleeing from rabid zombie with a saw arm are all neatly contained in the system while still leaving loads of room for additional expandability. Because of this intertwining, it is fairly easy to create rather in-depth, cinematic scenarios that match something you would see in an RPG or an action movie.

It is this potential for expansiveness that really excites me, and I have really only gotten about half way through the game’s scenarios and have yet to encounter character abilities, radio jamming, torture, or the much-vaunted Scenario Auto-Generation System. That being said, I already feel a bit hungry for an expansion. I have no doubt that the base set will keep my occupied for a while, but I cannot help but imagine how awesome the game would be with a few more characters (or another faction) and a scenario book with a few more pre-constructed scenarios.

So if you are interested in a deep, thematic tactical miniatures game, and do not mind putting some effort into learning it, then Earth Reborn seems to be an excellent choice. I am definitely looking forward to playing it a great deal more in the near future.

Other News

Review Contest
I am the judge for a review contest, entitled the Voices of Experience and have donated my copies of Hawaii, Rex: Final Days of the Empire, and Sekigahara for prizes. In the words of the contest organizer,
qwertymartin wrote:
The Voice of Experience Review Contest is open for submissions until May 28th 2012. It aims to encourage critical analysis of board games that goes beyond a summary of the rules, and in-depth exploration in a community that tends to be dominated by first impressions.

The contest is open to all and is for reviews of a game the writer has played at least ten times. Games and GG are on offer as prizes.


Cult of the Critical
There is a new guild, Cult of the Critical, with the goal to,

”mezmorki” wrote:
The purpose of the Cult of the Critical “guild” is to: (1) provide a place for members to discuss and plan their activities; (2) provide a venue for peer-review of ideas or articles prior to broader distribution on BGG or elsewhere on the web; and (3) provide a place to centralize resources and information pertaining to critical analysis of games and gaming hobbies.


If this interests you please check it out.

Game Sale
In my constant quest to keep my collection at a reasonable size, I have decided to sell some of the games that I like but I do not foresee getting much play in the next year. I have already sold Ascending Empires, German Railways, Key Market, Princes of Machu Picchu, and Summoner Wars to locals, but I still have the following games left for sale:
Puerto Rico
Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization
Bios Megafauna
Dungeon Petz
Neue Heimat
Puzzle Strike
Upon A Salty Ocean
If you are interested in any of these games and want to make an offer let me know. Otherwise I will be putting them up for auction tomorrow morning!

Castles of Burgundy
I played it. It was adequate. I could see plenty of potential replay value in the game, and could even see playing it a couple of more times. I just do not see very much in the game to continue to keep me interested. If I am going to be playing a dice management euro I would rather play Macao or Troyes.

Brink of War Review
Alex Brown has written a quite extensive and very interesting review of Race For the Galaxy: The Brink of War. Even if you are not a fan of The Brink of War it’s worth reading, simply because it is a good, entertaining review of a game that he has played extensively.
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Fri Apr 20, 2012 8:57 pm
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Blog Roll and Monday Quick Hits

Jesse Dean
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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Lords of Waterdeep
My Lords of Waterdeep review is up. Summary: I played Lords of Waterdeep so you do not have to. Essentially it serves as a fairly effective distillation of previous, more complex worker placement games, with just enough there to give a hint of these other games while failing to capture what makes them special. It feels fairly hollow as a result, but for those whose preferences run towards the lighter end of the spectrum it should be fast and entertaining enough that that might not matter.

Critical Infrastructure Series
My next article in the “Critical Infrastructure” series should be up later this week. I expect it to have three parts in total. As with A Few Acres of Snow and the Critical Silence On The Biggest Flawed Game of 2011 this one will be posted on www.2d6.org 24 hours before I post it to “On Gamer’s Games.” I expect that it is less likely to break the blog feature then the last one was.

Microbadge?
Is there any interest in an “On Gamer’s Game” microbadge? If so is anyone interested in making one? Unfortunately my skill set does not include making effective, yet tiny graphics, so if there is some interest I will have to find someone who has both the capability and willingness to construct one.

Blog Roll
A lot of blogs in the broader wilds of the internet allow people to link to various websites, mostly blogs. Since that is not a real capability here, I will instead provide a list of spots I generally go to when I conduct my daily board game reading:

QWERTYUIOP
While I am quite jealous of his relatively low blog number (46!) I am able to overcome that in order to read Martin’s generally very good content. Lately he has been talking a lot about pushing for a more effective focus by playing previously experienced games and is going to be leading a book discussion group on “Rules of Play – Game Design Fundamentals.” I plan on participating and if this topic interests you, I encourage you to do so as well!

Quote:

One way to describe the project of this book is to say that we are working to establish a critical discourse for game design. We agree with veteran game designer Warren Spector that "It is absolutely vital that we start to build a vocabulary that allows us to examine, with some degree of precision, how games evoke emotional-intellectual responses in players." As a nascent field of inquiry, there are not yet well-developed ways of talking about games and how they function. What is the point of establishing a critical discourse? Simply put, a critical vocabulary lets us talk to each other. It lets us share ideas and knowledge, and in doing so, expands the borders of our emerging field.


Straight Talk on Strategy Gaming
Nate does not post frequently, but when he does it is always worth reading. His posts tend to be large, well-thought out and extremely comprehensive covering both modern and classic games. He occasionally posts reviews, to but most of his articles are on general topics. My favorite of his articles, and the one that originally brought his blog to my attention is Agriconomics where he examines whether or not Agricola is really an economic game. It is really exceptional, and I highly encourage that anyone who is even remotely interested in the topic.

Over on Fortress Ameritrash (www.fortressat.com) are three columnists who I try to read whenever they post. They do not have links that specifically connect to a collection of their articles, but they if you poke around on the site you should be able to find their articles. They are:

Matt Thrower with “Bolt Thrower”,
Ken B. with “Next of Ken”, and
Michael Barnes with “Barnestorming”

There are some differences about their columns. Matt tends to write a lot more general article beyond his column, where Mike and Ken mostly seem to write articles directly related to the column itself. Matt and and Mike both write a bit about media in addition to their discussion on games, where Ken seems to be laser-focused on games, but in general I find them all to be worth reading, both for the reviews themselves as well as for the frequently insightful discussion that occurs in the comments section. I know that Fortress AT has a bit of a bad reputation on BGG, but for those who are looking for intelligent criticism of games, then it is probably a good idea to keep up with their articles. I tend to read them regularly, it was Barnes’ column that brought Cave Evil to my attention, even though the games they cover are outside of my area of interest.

The Opinionated Gamers (www.opinionatedgamers.com) is also worth reading mostly because they have a large stable of reviewers who all contribute to what is ultimately a group review of the game they are discussing, and frequently have other articles that are worth reading including, arguments about the merit of particular designers, interviews with particular designers, convention reports, and more. They tend to prefer euros that sit outside my general area of interest, but the articles are typically worth reading, if only to provide some enjoyable annoyance. I do not even bother reading the comics any more though.

What’s Next?
My current plan is to write a comparative review of Hawaii and Pantheon. Both are middle to light weight Hans im Gluck eurogames which typically means I am going to be predisposed to disliking them. Surprisingly enough one of them worked for me, and I am going to write a comparative review of the two games, exploring why exactly one of them worked for me while the other, sadly, did not.

Since it looks like we are hitting a bit of a dead zone in interesting new games after that I am thinking of writing a comprehensive review on a lightly reviewed classic. Five geek gold to whoever is able to guess which one it is. No more than one guess per person!
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Mon Apr 2, 2012 8:12 pm
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Board Game Adaptations of Video Games (and Dragon Valley)

Jesse Dean
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Board Games have been the target of media adaptation and tie-ins for a long time. Themed versions of monopoly are endemic, but even in the realm of quality board games, we have seen such noteworthy franchises as Dune, Star Wars, and Lord of the Ring adapted into well-received board game since the late 70s. Board Games have similarly been adapted to video game form, with Sid Meier’s Civilization being one of the earliest and noteworthy examples of this, but Europa Universalis saw a similar treatment, and the rise of iOS devices this trend has accelerated as accurate facsimiles, rather than reimagining, being increasingly common. I don’t have a particular problem with either of these sorts of adaptations, but neither particularly thrills me. Media tie-ins are only marginally interesting to me, because I generally care about the overall tightness of a game’s theme then what theme it has. I have been largely disinterested in board games directly ported into video form, simply because I prefer to play them around the table with my friends. Adaptations can be good, I love Europa Universalis, but I think it is important to create an experience that fits the strengths of the medium rather than trying to recreate it directly.

There is a recent trend in adaptations that I find more exciting however, and that is adaptations of video games into board game form. These are preferable to board games translated into video game form mostly because of the forced innovation; due to the limits of board games in both physical components and preferable play time it is impossible to directly translate most video games into board game form. This has resulted in a variety of board games that, while not necessarily good games or good adaptations, are at the very least interesting and provide an indication at the various ways future video games can be turned into board game form.

Dragon Valley
While this one is not a directly licensed adaptation of a video game, it shares the same general style of the tower defense genre. Unfortunately, rather than going with a super tense struggle for survival that is prevalent in the sort of tower defense games I prefer, where you are trying futilely to overcome hordes of enemies before ultimately failing, they have gone with a less tense design that focuses instead on survival and more on harvesting enemies for victory points either through direct combat or by using walls to direct them off cliffs. While this is a perfectly valid decision, both creatively and from a marketing position, as few people like to fight hard before ultimately being the person who fails the least, I admit this almost certainly unfair expectation did leave me a little bit disappointed. I have just written a new review of it which focuses on the game’s particular merits and flaws, rather than my unfair expectations, here: You Split! I Choose...Orcs?

Dungeon Lords
While I never, ever want to have to teach it again Dungeon Lords provides an interesting adaptation of the “Dungeon Keeper” style of games where players are the evil overlord in a dungeon, fighting off invading adventurers. As it is designed by Vlaada Chvatil, it combines an effective implementation of the theme with an interesting twist on an older method of resource distribution. Unfortunately, this effectiveness is diminished by the level of rules overhead and length compared to the amount of interesting game play. It is nowhere near as bad as Automobile, but it is sufficient that I have not played it since my initial exploration of the game.

Eclipse
Eclipse is another game that is not exactly a direct adaptation, but is strongly inspired by the Masters of Orion series of video game. The best example of this is the ship design system, where Eclipse has a total of four different blueprints available to each of the races, and players are able to take an action to customize their ships based on researched technologies. The game also features a number of other stylistic flourishes related to Master of Orion 3 and a fairly innovative action selection system that is completely unrelated to the original video game. You can see my review here: A Total Eclipse of the Grand Strategy Genre?.

Planet Steam
Inspired by the classic economic video game M.U.L.E., Planet Steam is focused on exploiting the resources of a planet in a science fiction setting, with intense competition for real estate and an intense focus on market manipulation that is fairly true to the original game. A player’s particular action capabilities are severely constrained by available resources, and it is quite possible to end up in an unrecoverable situation. Whether you consider this a perk or a flaw will depend on your perception of catch-up mechanisms.

Puzzle Strike
Puzzle Strike is a fairly typical Dominion clone, with a unique twist directly related to its theme that pushes it ahead of the rest of the pack. Puzzle Strike very effectively implements puzzle fighter style video games, where the players use crash gems to push a steadily climbing pile of gems at their opponents, both protecting themselves and pushing their opponents closer to defeat. This focus on actually knocking out your opponents rather than a race for victory points, and the clever way Sirlin has translated Puzzle Fighters into a deck building games has resulted in a game that is much more tense and exciting then the other deck builders I have played.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game
Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game is one of the few video game adaptations that I have played that actually has a license. Designed by Kevin Wilson it is a very faithful adaptation of the Civilization series of video games, with a minimum of mechanical meanderings and a laser focus on producing a board game that is true to the video game experience. Unfortunately, in this case I think it remains a bit too true to the video game, resulting in a design that feels somewhat lacking, particularly since I have become disinterested in this style of games in general as you can see here: Two Different Styles of Civilization Games

Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization
Through the Ages is the second Vlaada Chvatil game on this list, and that is no accident, as he really seems to be at the forefront of adapting video game ideas into board game form. Through the Ages is less of a strict adaptation of the Civilization series of video games then Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game, but it is an adaptation none the less and a rather effective one. I greatly enjoyed Through the Ages for a period of time, but eventually grew weary of the dominance of certain strategies, and my eventual disenchantment with this style of games in general drove down my appreciation of Through the Ages.

Yomi
Yomi is another Sirlin adaptation, and another fun and effective translation of a video game genre into card game form. Where Puzzle Strike was an adaptation of the Puzzle Fighter games, Yomi is an adaptation of Street Fighter-style fighting game. The complete edition comes with a set of 10 characters, each with its own distinct fighting style and flavor that remain fairly well balanced. I absolutely love this game, and it really probably deserves a higher ranking in my Top 10 of 2011 then it currently has.

Based on these games I think there is a lot of potential for new translations of video games into board game form, even for particular styles of video games that have already seen excellent board game examples. Through the Ages and Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game are good examples of the extremely diverse ways you can present even a specific game series, and it seems that BattleCon War of the Indines is presenting another interesting take on the fighting game genre.

I wonder what other sorts of staple genres we will see in coming years. The most challanging example of these genres will probably the sidescroller. I am not sure how one would be able to translate something like Super Mario Brothers into board game form without losing something fundamental from its character. However, I am not a game designer so it will be exciting to see what sort of other great video game adaptations will appear in the coming years.


Have I missed out on any particularly major video game to board game adaptations that I should check out? What are your favorite adaptations?
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Tue Mar 13, 2012 8:10 pm
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