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Dungeon Command: Tyranny of Goblins, Customizable Miniatures Games, and Mage Wars

Jesse Dean
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Orlando
Florida
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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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Special Power Card Games of 2011

Jesse Dean
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Introduction
2011 is widely considered to have been a great year for games. It has been particularly lauded, by fans of ameritrash (AT)*, for which it is arguably the best year since 2005, but what I found to be particularly exceptional about the year is how it is perhaps the best year yet for special power card games (SPCG) which, after years of releasing a relatively sparse selection of titles since they first began to regularly appear on to the board game scene in 2004, finally have about as many titles in the Top 20 ranked games of 2011** as there are Ameritrash titles and Eurogame titles.

This is the culmination of a gradual trend in the increase of the number of well received SPCG. While the historic roots of these games extend back to Magic the Gathering and earlier, the first modern game to begin to establish current trends was San Juan in 2004. 2005, with Glory to Rome, and 2006, with Through the Ages, also featured well-received games, but it was not until 2007, with Race For The Galaxy, and 2008, with Dominion, where SPCG really achieved some level of momentum and prominence.

In fact, it could be argued that much of the current momentum for SPCG can be attributed to Dominion, and while this is almost certainly true, with 5 of the 13 most well-received SPCG since 2008 being deck-building games, what we are seeing is a much broader push, with a large number of rather distinct designs. From my perspective, it seems that some of the most interesting, and perhaps innovative, games of the last two years have been SPCG, where eurogames and AT have not seen quite as much.

My investigation of the SPCG released in the last ten years has happened concurrently with my exploration of my dissatisfaction with most sub-90 minute games, and I suspect that a large part of my dissatisfaction stems from my enjoyment of these SPCG. These games typically provide a level of interplay variability and opportunity for creative play that many games in this time frame lack, and it has difficult to convince myself to play other games in this category unless, like Hansa Teutonica, they also feature some of these strengths.

I have played six of the top eight SPCG of 2011 enough that I feel that I can effectively present why I like them. The seventh, A Few Acres of Snow, I have only played once but I have studied enough that I think I can discuss what is particularly interesting about the design. The last one, The Lords of the Rings: Card Game I have also played only once, but I think what makes it particularly special is obvious, even to someone who has not played it extensively. If I am wrong about it, I am sure someone will let me know.

Mage Knight the Board Game

My selection of Mage Knight the Board Game as a SPCG might end up being mildly controversial, but its biggest emphasis is on deck and hand management, with the board being merely an expression of how the player uses their cards. I have played it 34 times to date, and if I have my way I will push that number up to 50 by the end of the year. It is perhaps the best game in a year of very good games, and is in the running for my favorite game of all time.

In most deck building games, players use their cards to generate one of several currencies and use those currencies in order to move towards achieving the victory conditions. Dominion has money for victory points; Thunderstone has money which buys cards and then attack power which is used to get victory points; Ascension has money for cards, which are worth victory points, and power to defeat monsters for victory points. Mage Knight also uses cards to generate one of four different currencies, but rather than these currencies being direct avenues to victory points, they are instead used to translate into action on the board which can then be used to generate victory points. This additional level of separation between the player’s actions and victory points, and the shift in focus that it results in, is probably Mage Knight’s most important innovation and is one that I personally find to be very satisfying.

The other major shift between Mage Knight and other deck building games is its slightly decreased focus on deck building itself. Generally, the cards you have at the beginning of the game will still be important parts of your strategy at the end of the game, where in many other deck building games, getting rid of your initial cards is extremely important. Additionally, you will typically only reshuffle your deck anywhere between two and five times over the course of a game of Mage Knight, meaning that any individual card you acquire, which is always put on the top of your draw deck, will only be used between one and six times over the course of the game. These combined factors put a strong focus on hand management over deck building, which is a nice shift considering how many deck-buildings leave their most important decisions in the deck building phase rather than in the card play phase.

A Few Acres of Snow

Though slightly controversial due to the broken Halifax Hammer strategy, A Few Acres of Snow has introduced some interesting innovations, which I expect will be utilized in future designs, including Martin Wallace’s own. I have only played A Few Acres of Snow once, but I am familiar enough with the game that I can discuss its particular characteristics.

A Few Acres of Snow is closer to a traditional deck builder than Mage Knight the Board Game. Both cycling your deck and deck thinning are helpful, and ideally you will go through your deck a plethora of times before the game ends. It provides a typical two currency model, but also introduces a level of permanence by having it so both currencies continue to persist beyond the individual rounds in which they are introduced. This is interesting, but is not what I consider to be the most interesting thing that A Few Acres of Snow does. Instead it is how different board locations work in relation to each other.



A Few Acres of Snow’s board features a series of networked points, with adjacency not so much determined by where they are in relation to each other on the board, though this is an important factor, but where individual location cards say these adjacencies exist. So in order for you to accomplish most actions related to board play, you need to not only be in a position on the map where you have an adjacency to the appropriate location, but also have the card that serves as the bridge to get there. This serves as a way to tie a feeling of “place” directly into the deck building and hand management aspects of the game. The deck represents not only resources you have access to but also where you are, which is something I find to be both effective and intriguing.




The Lords of the Rings: Card Game


I am less familiar with The Lords of the Rings: Card Game, and really most of FFG’s Living Card Game catalog, than any other item on this list. I played it once, probably incorrectly, a year ago and what I saw was not interesting enough for me to come back. However, despite this inexperience I can still appreciate how it was able to effectively combine cooperative games with SPCG, and I think that alone is probably worthy of note.

Blood Bowl: Team Manager


Blood Bowl: Team Manager’s greatest achievements are in the realm of simulation. Intended to serve to simulate a series of games of Blood Bowl, it effectively provides the feeling of managing a team on the rise, as it gets additional staffing and star players while accumulating fans throughout the season.

Each turn features a set of “highlights” which represent the key moments during matches throughout the season. Each highlight can have up to two players assign their team members to it, and each one provides special benefits both to the players who assign their team members to it as well as whomever wins the match. In many ways, the game feels almost like a trick taking game, with each of your players having a numeric value that determines how effective they are at winning the particular trick/highlight, but the layers of special abilities events that are added to the cards safely prevent the game from being anywhere close to a typical trick taking game’s level of abstraction. The game is actually quite effective at getting across the feel of managing a team across a season, and while I am not that familiar with Blood Bowl, I am fairly familiar with various team sports, and the game effectively gets across the feel of a bloody and more vicious form of head to head sport with some parallels to American football.

Blood Bowl: Team Manager does feature some amount of deck building, in that up to five star players may be added to each players deck over the course of a game, but this deck building is relatively insignificant in the games overall mechanical whole and I would be skeptical of anyone categorizing it as a deck building game. Blood Bowl: Team Manager feels fairly innovative as a whole, but that may simply be because there aren’t any other card games out there quite like it. I have quite enjoyed it so far, and have played it 7 times in the past two weeks, and with six different teams and a plethora of acquirable special powers, I see the replay value as being pretty high. The game appears to have both variability and depth and I can see playing it a lot more even if it never gets an expansion.

Yomi


Yomi was released at the very beginning of 2011, and dominated my plays during that period. I have played it 87 times since my acquisition, and I still remain rather fascinated it, despite the kerfuffles regarding Dave Sirlin. At its basic level it is simply a variation of paper-rock-scissors, but the game adds so much more on top of that basic level that deeply engaging game play emerges.

Each card features an attack, a block, a dodge, or a throw, and each combination of these modes has different interactions with the others. In the case where identical offensive modes are used, then whoever is successful is determined by speed. The end result of most of these modes is damage to the opponent, though blocks serve as a way to avoid damage while replenishing your hand size, and in the case of a successful attack you can potentially set yourself up for a combo attack, which allows you to unleash a large amount of damage at the cost of depleting your hand. Each decision rewards an understanding of the capabilities of your own and your opponent’s deck and an ability to read patterns in your opponent’s behavior.

Each Yomi character features cards that match the numbering system and suits of a traditional deck of cards. While this is in no way required for the design, it is a helpful tool for both learning and structuring the game; low numbered cards end up being faster but weaker, while higher value ones end up being slower but stronger, and face cards feature special attacks or defenses that are unique to the character. The exact combination of modes featured on the cards varies based on the character used, and this differentiation creates an enticing variety of possible experiences across the available characters.

Eminent Domain


Eminent Domain is the third of the four big deck builders in 2011, but it is just as mechanically distinct from previous titles as the other deck builders on the list. Where many deck builders prior to 2011 built upon the basic structural model established by Dominion, Eminent Domain diverges significantly, combining features of Glory to Rome with some its own ideas in order to create its own, unique, experience.

Unlike most deck builders, which feature turns where a number of currencies in a range of quantities are generated by various cards in order to purchase further cards or victory points, Eminent Domain’s currencies are the cards themselves. There are six available roles, with each role’s strength is determined by the number of cards of that type that are in a player’s hand. As a player selects a role, then a card associated with that role is added to the player’s deck, meaning that a player’s deck is altered directly by their role selection choices rather than card purchases. The technology role breaks this rule slightly by allowing players to acquire distinct special power cards, but on the whole, how the deck building occurs is enough to separate Eminent Domain from the rest of the pack.

If I have one big complaint about Eminent Domain at this point it is that the lack of distinction between the majority of the cards, leaves the game a bit samey with slightly less room for creative play. At 15 plays I am largely done with the game, but I enjoyed those 15 plays, and I do greatly respect the design’s particularly unique takes on deck building.

Core Worlds


Core Worlds is the last of the big deck builders of 2011, and is just as unique feeling as the others. I only recently tried Core Worlds, with 5 plays over the course of 2 days, but I came away from the game with a grudging respect.

Core Worlds, like many deck building games, is focused on building an economic snowball. This snowball has three parts: energy, ground forces, and space forces. Each of these are acquired throughout the game, with ground forces and space forces used to conquer planets, which produce energy, which are used to purchase more ground forces and space forces. What allows Core Worlds to distinguish itself are the sorts of breaks that are placed on to the snowball. A limited, non-expandable pool of actions are used to limit what a player can do in a turn, and actions are required to purchase cards, add them to your tableau, or conquer a planet. Whenever you spend an action to acquire a planet, you are forced to discard cards that have strength, forcing you to both consider the cost for bringing them into play again as well as the negative impact on efficiency of reintroducing these cards into your deck. You are forced to make a lot of tough decisions regarding whether it is worth it to conquer a planet and thus deal with a non-streamlined deck that increases the risk you will not be able to deal with the hard to conquer worlds in the later or stages or risk not conquering it and thus get behind both in energy income and in victory points.

This tension is what really drives the game and what has kept me interested so far. Rather than having a pure economic snowball game, or having to deal with slight but required bouts of inefficiency, the games is filled with these decisions which can have a fairly dramatic effect on whether you do well or poorly. That being said, I have no idea if the decisions based around these tradeoffs will remain interesting to me in the long term, as historically pure snowball games have lost my interest once I figured them out. However, even if it does not work for me in the long term, it does have my attention for the time being.

Sentinels of the Multiverse


While The Lords of the Rings Card Game has been smashingly successful both critically and commercially, in the small realm of cooperative SPCG I have found the smaller and pluckier Sentinels of the Multiverse more effective at catching my attention.

Part of this is simply my greater interest in a game based on super heroes than one based on The Lords of the Rings, as super heroes are much less thoroughly explored theme. Another thing that I also greatly appreciate is the sheer modularity of the design. By having a large selection of heroes, villains, and environments, all of which are available to be used interchangeably, the game creates both interesting variation in how the component parts interact with each other and allows players to establish new challenges for themselves by specifically establishing situations that are suboptimal for the particular skill sets of the utilized heroes.

Sentinels is also structured very efficiently, with a fairly simple structure providing with a vast amount of different decisions based on the combination of various exceptions introduced by individual cards. This allows play to move along fairly swiftly even when dealing with fairly complex game state situations. However, the number of different modifiers, and situational effects can be overwhelming for those who are used to more constrained games. I find the nuance provided by this complexity to be thrilling whoever, and greatly appreciate how the game simulates various narrative states through information.

My enjoyment of Sentinels, which flies in the face of my normal disregard for cooperative games, actually has increased my curiosity about The Lords of the Rings Card Game. Perhaps my usual aversion to cooperative games blinded me to The Lords of the Rings Card Game’s strengths. Of course, I am not sure I really want more than a single short cooperative game, but I am much more willing to try it again than I was even a few months ago.

Conclusion
2011 was impressive not only in the number of different quality SPCG released but also in the sheer variety of their implementations. I do wonder if perhaps this year will represent the peak of these sorts of games. There do not seem to be that many coming out this year, and it may be that we will soon go back to the trickle of one or two good ones per year. I think I would largely be okay with that, despite my appreciation for this type of game, simply because of how much more there is to explore in each and every one of them. These card games are what really make 2011 a standout year for me, and I expect to be exploring many of them for years to come.


*I am not particularly fond of the terms AT and Euro because of their imprecision, but they are commonly accepted enough that I will continue to use them for the time being.
**The Top 20 Games of 2011 (excluding games that are effectively expansions or reimplementations and probably should not even be in the rankings):
Spoiler (click to reveal)
1) Eclipse (AT)
2) Ora et Labora (E)
3) Mage Knight (SPCG)
4) The Castles of Burgundy (E)
5) A Few Acres of Snow (SPCG)
6) The Lords of the Rings Card Game (SPCG)
7) Mansions of Madness (AT)
8) Trajan (E)
9) Blood Bowl – Team Manager (SPCG)
10) Dungeon Petz (E)
11) Risk Legacy (AT)
12) Letters to Whitechapel (E)
13) Yomi (SPCG)
14) Gears of War: The Board Game (AT)
15) Star Trek: Fleet Captains (AT)
16) Lancaster (E)
17) King of Tokyo (AT)
18) Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon (AT)
19) Flash Point: Fire Rescue (E)
20) Eminent Domain (SPCG)

Looking at the list, and the lists I compiled for previous years, the big loser appears to be wargames, for which there are no examples in the Top 20. This compares to at least 1 title from every other year since 2002. I suspect this may simply be due to the slow rising nature of wargames, however, and it would not surprise me if Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan and Space Empires 4X end up in the Top 20 of 2011 after some time spent building ratings.
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Fri May 11, 2012 5:13 pm
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Structural Chaos in Bios Megafauna and Urban Sprawl

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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A month ago I asked for recommendations on meatier 2011 games that I might have missed. One of the more interesting recommendations was for Bios Megafauna, a game about the evolution of dinosaurs and mammals in the time period leading up to modern history. I was warned ahead of time that the game had a somewhat high chaos level, since the person responsible for the recommendation was well aware of my feelings on Urban Sprawl, but that strategy was a much more important factor for determining whom the winner was. I have now played Bios Megafauna a bit across all possible player counts and while I do not plan to write a review for the game as I do not think I have that much more to add beyond some of the excellent reviews written so far, but I think it is worthwhile to compare the relative systematic chaos levels in the two games.

My primary issue with Urban Sprawl is how little control you have over your capabilities and possibilities on any given turn; you never know how much money is going to be in your hands when your next turn will occur due to the randomness of income. Similarly the many and varied special abilities can cause pretty dramatic changes in the game state from one of your turns the next. With how contracts and permits come out there is very little you can do about a very powerful effect hitting the board. Frequently a powerful effect will hit the board and be gone before you have an opportunity to take advantage of them or potentially mitigate their effects. As much as half of any given deck will also not be seen during the game, so you never know if a particular effect will even appear. Some cards will vary dramatically in power from game to game, and whether it is ultimately useful or not is essentially random. This adds up to a high degree of variance between turns with very little opportunity to plan. There is little reason to pay attention to the board when it is not your turn and while individual decisions are important, it is very easy to make the wrong decision without having any way to identify it is a wrong decision beforehand since it is so highly dependent on what events, contract cards, and building permits emerge.

With Bios Megafauna the changes between turns are much more gradual. You may occasionally have to reconsider your plans due to a target environment being eliminated but largely there are minimal game state changes between turns, with some exceptions. Periodically there will be a disaster or shift in the green house gasses that will cause a much more dramatic shift in the environment. While at first these dramatic changes bothered me, but now that I have played the game a bit more this tendency to shift and change is something I consider to be a positive, as it helps to “reset” the game, reducing the possibility that a player who has a species with traits that are particularly suited for a particular game state from continuing to dominate.

Bios Megafauna, like Urban Sprawl, features a Through the Ages-style card draft where you are able to spend genes (essentially action points) to purchase cards. Since these are an exhaustible resource, cards that are in more expensive spots typically end up still being available when it comes around to your turn, leaving you with more opportunity to prepare. The cards themselves are also far less dramatic than Urban Sprawl, instead of having big effects they instead change the capabilities of a species, requiring a player to actually implement the effects of the change rather than them happening automatically.

These differences have been pretty significantly affected my relative enjoyment of these games. While you can have wildly varied games of Bios Megafauna that are decided by when and how natural disasters occur or particular biomes are destroyed, there are also games where the game is a bit more stable, there is always some level of structural chaos, but the chaos is low enough to be frequently tolerable rather than distastefully overwhelming like it is in Urban Sprawl. It will never be one of my favorite games, but there are enough positives about it that I am rating it a 7, and am generally willing to keep it in my collection as long as I can find other people who are willing to play it with me.

On its surface Bios Megafauna is a pretty straightforward area majority game. There are four scoring phases in the game, and whoever had the most species markers on the board during each of them will get the highest score, and each other player getting half of the score of the person who had a better presence on the board. The actual score is based on the number of tiles in the tarpit, which is typically representative of how difficult it was to do well in the face of a constantly changing environment. This simplicity is complicated in how different animals survive. Each species can have a number of traits that allow it to subsist in a particular environment or predate on other species that subsist in the same environment. Of course, some traits do not work well with others and if you make your species too specialized it becomes increasingly likely that it will be unable to survive in the face of a catastrophe: each catastrophe eliminates species that equal exceed a particular number of traits. This is combated by speciation, by separating out one of your species into a second, one it is possible to make a species that is able to survive in a new environment without being comet-bait.

A reasonably large amount of the game is creating a suite of species that can survive through a wide array of environmental changes. You will have species go extinct, usually at particularly inconvenient and frustrating times, but the distribution of tiles is such that you will usually have a pretty good idea of what traits are going to be particularly valuable and it is very possible to build a coherent strategy and make informed decisions of genes even if you are only going to see just a subset of the tiles.

I also suspect that my enjoyment of this game is heightened by its very strong theme. Even though a lot of what is going on is an abstraction, I still learnt quite a bit by playing this game, and it was particularly fun learning about some of the crazy biomes that are introduced over the course of the game and imagining how bizarre some of the species that are built would look and act, particularly if one develops a culture like agriculture or projectile based hunting. Of course, despite my enjoyment of the game my group is skeptical enough about the game that I am not sure how much I will ultimately be able to play it. If anything forces it out of my collection it will be that lack of ability to play it regularly, not due to any distaste for Bios Megafauna’s level of chaos.
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Fri Feb 17, 2012 10:47 pm
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Two Different Styles of Civilization Games

Jesse Dean
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My absolute favorite style of video game is the civilization game. Something about needing to manage the multiple facets of an empire while expanding and prospering in the face of other civilizations attempts to do the same just works for me, and I have spent thousands upon thousands of hours playing various implementations of this idea. The most well known of these is the Civilization series, of which I have played every game except for the first one, but after a decade of playing that series almost exclusively I have slowly but steadily been introduced to other games, most notably Europa Universalis III (EU III) and Crusader Kings (CK), that have redefined what I want in a civilization game. As a result of this, most board game civilization games, which tend to follow the model seen in the Civilization series, have increasingly felt lacking.

The Civilization series of video games, regardless of the particular bells and whistles associated with each iteration, follow a general model that has been translated into some very popular board games such as Eclipse, Through the Ages, and Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game. In it you start with a limited knowledge of your environment, and through exploration learn about the world and its resources. By exploiting these resources you grow from a small nation to an empire and win either through military dominance, technological advancement, or cultural achievements (or some combination thereof).

On the whole it provides for a pretty entertaining narrative, and I completely understand why these sorts of games are very, very popular. However, too many board games hew to this particular narrative a little bit too closely, which is good for the sake of ease of entry, but after so much time focused on the video game, and board game, iterations of this I admit I am a bit tired of it, particularly since most of these games focus on combat at the expense of other, equally interesting styles of conflict.

Paradox Interactive, the video game company that publishes EU III and CK, publishes a large number of video games that are good at appealing to more historically minded gamers. They do follow the general civilization game model, in that you end up managing the economic and military aspects of your empire, but they add additional levels of conflict, in the form of diplomatic relationships and trade, that were very important historically but have been largely ignored or abstracted in games of this style. While wars and alliances are powerful options, they are not the only available tools in undermining and interacting with other nations or achieving civilization goals.

So with my shift in preferences in video games, I have also found a shift in preferences in my civilization building board games. Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game was perhaps the first casualty of this, in that it roughly coincided with the beginning of my disenchantment with the genre; it was such a great distillation of the Civilization series that it allowed me to begin to crystallize my thoughts on why I was no longer happy with games built on that model. My dissatisfaction with that model is also why Eclipse and Through the Ages do not quite work for me anymore. They are both very, very good examples of that model, but when I no longer am particularly happy with their baseline it is difficult to be completely happy with a game built on that baseline.

The best examples of what I want are probably found in some of the two player hybrid card-driven games, many of which are published by GMT. Hellenes: Campaigns of the Peloponnesian War and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage are good examples of this as they have a fairly strong political component despite being largely focused on sieges and battles, but they pale in comparison to Labyrinth: The War on Terror and Twilight Struggle. Both of these games include wars as tools that can be used to help accomplish your national objects, but they also focus a great deal on other methods of conflict, with coups and contests to influence secondary nations that are important to the conflict in Twilight Struggle, and insurgency and counter-insurgency actions in Labyrinth.

Multi-player games that provide a similarly deep look at multi-player conflict are a bit sparser. Of recent games, I find Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas to be one of the better examples of this. While you can and do have the ability to make war on other players, a large part of the game is focused on direct non-military competition. In addition to influence wars over colonies, it is possible to inflict privateers on opponent’s merchant fleets, incite native revolts, and even potentially push other countries into revolution. The importance of trade is highlighted rather than either ignored or abstracted away, though I admit even with my appreciation in how Colonial handles it, I would appreciate slightly more differentiation in this area then is actually present.

Because of its comparisons to EU III, I was quite optimistic Warriors & Traders would also work for well for me. With a focus on country unifications I was hopeful that it would end up providing a multi-faceted look at how these countries founders used a combination of diplomacy, bribes, and force in order to bring their burgeoning nations together. Unfortunately, it mostly ended up being a somewhat scripted, with a focus on combat that is maintained by the sheer difficulty of fights against barbarians and how quickly they escalate in power. It seems that this was meant to make the game challenging, and in that it is succeeds, but it also makes the game a bit too narrow, with only a few reasonable options available at any given moment of time. It does not help that most of the conflict is against the game itself rather than other players. You can trade, and I do very much like how different levels of trading technology can make a trade valuable to both players involved simultaneously, but otherwise interaction is limited to forcing barbarians to retreat into territories your opponents want, and thus make them difficult to impossible for them to claim, or declare war, which is so costly in actions that it is frequently not worth pursuing.

Here I Stand, also fits this model well and with a great deal of depth, but at the cost of extended game length. There are opportunities to politically influence third parties, fight out religious conflicts, compete for the new world, and even engage in piracy in addition to engaging in extended wars. The costs and opportunities of the conflict are very well handled with the card play, and the diplomatic opportunities are heightened by the ability to make mechanically meaningful deals, particularly as the game is designed so that other players will have things that you want that cannot simply be claimed by taking one of their cities.

The fact that probably the best example of a multi-player implementation of this style of game, Here I Stand, is so lengthy is probably a good indication that to have the full experience I desire will require a game that is outside my typical comfort zone for time. I can spend dozens of hours on a single game of EUIII or CK, and distilling it down into something that is similarly rich, yet still playable in a three or four hours is a daunting task. Some additional levels of abstraction are required, but at some point this abstraction shifts too far from something that is useful, and you end up with something like Age of Empires III or Endeavor, which discard what was interesting about these conflicts in favor of something that is bland and largely uninteresting.

It will be interesting to see if someone is able to reach this perfect midpoint between playability and breadth. Colonial and Here I Stand both come close, from opposite sides of the spectrum, but are not quite there. Still, I am pretty happy that I have finally been able to identify what I want in a civilization game and why I find games such as Through the Ages and Eclipse, which are generally well loved by the gaming community, to come up short. They are very good games for their particular style, but it is simply a style that I am just not that interested in anymore.
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Thu Feb 2, 2012 5:24 pm
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The Current Maturity and Bright Future of Worker Placement Games

Jesse Dean
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With the exception of perhaps hand management, worker placement is my favorite board game mechanic. The analysis required to determine the best series of action to take and how your opponent’s choices will impact what you can do is very appealing. Agricola was my introduction to the genre, though Stone Age was the first game of this type that I played, and I have greatly enjoyed playing a wide variety of worker placement games since then. As my preferences for length and meatiness have changed my preferences in worker placement games have similarly shifted and I have found most of the worker placement games since Agricola to be interesting only for as long as it takes to figure out how they work. Le Havre, in 2008, and Dominant Species, in 2010, are exceptions to this, but were fairly lonely until the past few months when the number of meaty worker placement options positively exploded.


Dungeon Petz, The Manhattan Project, MIL (1049), and Ora et Labora all push and prod the standards of worker placement in interesting directions, changing the standard structure of a worker placement game in unique ways while still being likely to be interesting even with in-depth play. I find it noteworthy that we got four of these games in such a short period of time considering that it almost doubles the number of total worker placements game that I like (previous examples being Agricola, Caylus, Dominant Species, Key Market, and Le Havre). I am not quite sure if there is anything specific that is causing this spate of good worker placement games, but the maturity of these designs leaves me hopeful that this is the start of a trend rather than being a unique data point.


The first, and greatest of these new designs is Ora et Labora, which followers of my blog should know that I have written extensively about in my review as well as my Best Games of the Year entry. While a lot of its excellence comes from small innovations and improvements over its cousin, Le Havre, the worker placement mechanism in of itself is very interesting and drives a lot of the tension of the game. The bonus action provided by the prior and the fact that you do not get your workers back until the beginning of a round after all three of them have been placed, results in a plethora of interesting little decisions. For example if you cut wood or peat, you get some valuable resources, but it slows down your ability to get your workers back, since taking these resources, rather than the others, does not sped up how quickly you get back the prior. It also forces you to be careful about paying other people to use their workers; it is possible to help another player as much as you are helping yourself by giving them access to your prior earlier. These are considerations you do not typically have to account for in a worker placement game, and it shows a rather refined understanding in both worker placement games and resource conversion games.


Dungeon Petz, which I have not yet decided if I am going to review, is Vlaada Chvatil’s latest attempt at a worker placement game. I like it quite a bit more than Dungeon Lords, as its rules overhead seems much more in line with the game’s overall depth. The worker placement in this game combines elements of blind bidding with the typical worker placement mechanic, where players have imps and money that they form into groups that are functionally identical to workers. These groups are revealed simultaneously, with the order of placement being based on the overall size of the groups. There is a relatively small number of locations on the board, and the value of individual spots is different enough that this leads to an interesting level of tension as the typical worker placement angst of choosing what spots to place is amplified by not knowing what the actual order of placements is going to be until after players reveal their groups. Looking also at Dungeon Lords it appears that Chvatil is most interested in making players to look more deeply into what decisions other players are likely to make in placement, forcing them to decide how to expend their worker resources in the face of potentially ambiguous player motives. I find the manner in which Chvatil implemented this to be more compelling in Dungeon Petz then it was in Dungeon Lords and hope that he has some more ideas of ways to explore this ambiguity in future releases.


Of these games I am least certain that MIL (1049) will hold up to extensive play thanks to the fact that I have only played it once, but despite this uncertainty I think its worker placement mechanic is fascinating, and worth noting. At the beginning of a round, MIL’s worker placement spots are unavailable, and can only be taken once a player starts to accumulate time tokens. Each time one of these tokens is selected it opens up a potential worker placement spot, but these spots cannot be taken without some level of sacrifice. Once you start placing your workers you are no longer able to take the actions that cause you to collect time tokens. This forces the action phase into an interesting game of chicken; the longer you wait the less likely you are to get the actions you want but the more resources you will be able to gain. While this particular worker placement mechanic is not what I consider to be the defining feature of the game, it is innovative and fun providing additional dimensions to what appears to be an already deep game.

The Manhattan Project is the last of these new games, and one that I have been playing a lot recently in preparation for a review. After reading the rules, I was interested enough in The Manhattan Project’s design to Kickstart it, and so far it has not disappointed me. At its basic level, The Manhattan Project is a pretty basic resource to VP conversion game, but the structure of the worker placement and recovery, and how the players interfere with these placements creates a fun dynamic. On a player’s turn they can place one worker on the central board and as many workers as they like on buildings on their own board or they can recover all of their workers. This could be a pretty solitaire experience, but main board actions allow for players to each other use other player’s buildings, and thus prevent that player from being able to take that action, or to attack them directly eliminating their aerial defenses before damaging buildings, making them unusable, until they are repaired. These two items help turn what would otherwise be a simple efficiency exercise into a game where constant attention to other’s action and choices is required in order to monitor the balance of power and help identify who most needs to be interfered with in order to win.

While all of these are strong designs, I consider Dungeon Petz and Ora et Labora to be the most interesting of these from a game design perspective. In each case they are the latest releases of a very experienced game designer who is apparently taking ideas that they implemented in previous designs, Agricola and Le Havre for Uwe Rosenberg and Dungeon Lords for Vlaada Chvatil, refining them and implementing them in new ways that I think are both ultimately superior to previous worker placement designs and show a greater understanding of how to effectively bring out the best in what worker placement has to offer.

As an optimist, I can’t help but think that perhaps these other designs, and Dominant Species from 2010, are signs of things to come. The last few months a very impressive one for fans of worker placement games and while it is possible that the sudden arrival of four good to great worker placement games in such a short period of time is an anomaly, I cannot help but hope that this is merely a sign of some really excellent future designs down the road.
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Fri Jan 20, 2012 9:59 pm
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Mob Ties, Tigris & Euphrates, and Acceptable Levels of Direct Player Interaction

Jesse Dean
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In case you have not seen I wrote a review of Mob Ties: A Million Gangland Murders. Please check it out if you have time!

One thing that playing Mob Ties, and also revisiting Tigris & Euphrates, has made me reexamine is my overall stance on acceptable levels of player interaction. In the past I have been a fairly strong proponent of games that are mechanically meaty yet still have fairly high levels of player interaction, games like Dominant Species, Eclipse, or the various 18XX, where you are putting together an intricate web of actions that can have a big effect on both your own position as well as that of other people. For the most part, I still am a fan of those sorts of games, but playing Tigris & Euphrates and Mob Ties has made me realize that I do have an outer bound on my tolerance for direct player interaction, and both of them are outside of it. The fact that Tigris & Euphrates is outside of this bound is particularly disappointing to me, as it was probably my first “favorite board game” once I started to truly engage in hobby board gaming, and now I have to accept the game is mostly not interesting to me anymore.

In Mob Ties, you have five pawns called mobsters, each of which has varying respect levels and capabilities. These mobsters are used to collect income, due to votes based on respect levels, and are also required to directly affect another player’s mobsters, through the playing of action cards that are used for attacks. The first part of this interaction, where you maneuver for votes and can threaten, bribe and cajole each other in order to work out deals during the various situations in which the game requires votes to determine results, is pretty neat. Unfortunately the card-based interaction pushes the game out of my comfort level. Since it is fairly easy to eliminate each other’s mobsters, and because you have so few of them, it is almost trivially easy to be knocked out of the game by someone else misreading the game situation and making a poor decision as a result of that. The elimination of mobsters is not in of itself a problem, it is the overall level of impact that the elimination has on your position that makes me uncomfortable.

In Tigris & Euphrates my problem is similar in that you can affect each other’s positions casually with a great impact on the overall game state, though in this case the casualness of the ability to affect each other’s position matters to me more than the overall impact of the effect. In Tigris it is incredibly easy, sometimes requiring little more than the placement of a tile or two, to start a conflict that will end up benefiting a third party much more than it helps either the instigator or their target. I have seen countless games won or lost based on these decisions to start external conflicts, as players do not think out the secondary consequences of their actions and give a big windfall to a third party.

It can be argued that in either instance that skilled play among all players can pretty much resolve these problems, and push them into an entirely new level of challenge and entertainment and that is true, but I am not part of a highly skilled group of players for either game, so that argument is invalid for my particular situation and getting to that point is simply not going to happen with Mob Ties thanks to a negative reaction from my local playing group. For Tigris & Euphrates I have pretty much ruined the game for any local play by playing it a couple of hundred times on-line, so I am probably going to simply not play it anymore, since there are other games that I find more enjoyable, even with groups that have mixed player skill levels.

So playing Mob Ties and revisiting Tigris & Euphrates has made me realize that while I like for players to be able to effect each other’s position in games with more than two players, I prefer to make it so they have to work to do so. Making it so that you need to work to have a big impact on someone else’s position is much more acceptable to me then being able to do so casually.

What are your own personal limits for player interaction?
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Wed Jan 18, 2012 3:30 pm
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