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Subject: The Monster Mash... (A Review) rss

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Kevin Outlaw
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This review, complete with pictures, is also available on my blog at AlwaysBoardNeverBoring.



On occasion, I have been known to ramble.

This is an understatement.

I appreciate my reviews are often long, and sometimes come front-loaded with a preamble that is longer than the amble itself.

I would apologise, but my apology would be a lie.

I love words, and I love writing. I've been making what almost passes as a living based on my writing for a long time now. But I appreciate that not everybody wants to wade through a deluge of words to find out about some dusty old game they found in a charity shop. So, for the benefit of anyone who is in Oxfam or Scope right now, reading this review on a phone with a copy of Regency in one hand, I'll get to the point:

Regency gifted me with one the worst gaming experiences of my life. And I don't say that lightly, because I've played The Worst Case Scenario Survival Game.

To be fair to the game (and I honestly don't know why I should be after it stole two hours of my life) I have only played it once. There is, perhaps, a great wealth of gaming goodness lurking around the two hours one minute mark.

I'll never know, because I hated this game so damned much.

I will continue being fair to the game (and I honestly don't know why I should be, because it's basically a vampiric sponge that sucks the life and soul out of your board game evening) by adding that my game was with three players, and I get the impression the designer might have intended this to play best with four players.

But with those caveats aside, let's talk about Regency...

Right from the start, the box filled me with unnamed dread. The tag line reads, "A Serious Pursuit," which immediately conjures up images of Trivial Pursuit and too many Christmases when I had to endure countless hours of questions I had no hope of answering, when all I really want to do was hop into the nearest dungeon and start cutting on some trolls.

The second tag line (yes, apparently the game deserves two) reads, "The modern game with ancient rules." This is just a little hint at the treats in store for the players, because this game wasn't so much designed as it was genetically engineered from a series of better games.

The basic idea is a variant of Ludo or Parcheesi, involving each player attempting to move certain pieces from the outside ring of the board to the centre of the board, while attempting to land on opponent's pieces to send them home or remove the from the game completely. Next, the designer has thrown in a dash of Backgammon in the form of blocking opponent pieces from moving by stacking your pieces on certain spaces. There is arguably a bit of Chess in there, as it is possible to permanently remove pieces from play by landing on them. Finally, there is a light dusting of Bridge, as the four-player game involves working with a partner, and there is even a section in the rules that explains how to play the game in a manner similar to Duplicate Bridge.

That's a fine pedigree, by anyone's standards, but the result isn't likely to be kennel club registered. Regency doesn't represent a clever weaving of design elements to create a rich tapestry of merit; it's a monstrous mash-up of design elements. The designer basically took a hatchet to the existing games, in the way a small child might pull the heads and arms off dolls to combine them into a terrifying Frankenstein's monster.

The result, much like Frankenstein's experiment, is a misguided passion project. Someone has attempted to make art, and while you can appreciate the effort and the objective, there's no denying it's basically shit.

It's shit art.

It's shart.

But look at me, running the game out of the village with a pitchfork and then setting fire to it before I've even told you how it plays. Let's start again...

Regency is an abstract game based on the history of Scotland, and supposedly recreates (by which I mean "doesn't recreate") the struggles of up to four fictitious Scottish families as they vie to gain the power of the Regent. Each family comprises six shield pieces, and while each of the shields have unique designs (to the point even setting up the game is a painful chore), there are actually only three types: a Chief, an Heir, and four Cadets.

Each family also has a castle, comprising spaces for the shields, a dungeon, and a chapel. The castles are attached to three concentric rings on the board, which represent the ranks of nobility: Baron, Earl, and Duke. The concentric rings are linked by sanctuaries, and also represent the route to the Regency; however, they also represent territories, and each ring has a coloured section representing one of the four houses.

And if you think that sounds confusing, you're right.

So, you start in your castle, and the aim is to move your Chief to the centre of the board to win the Regency. However, this is only possible if one of the Chief's family is in the rank of Earl or Duke to support his claim to the Regency.

Movement involves rolling two dice, and then moving one shield by each result in turn (in other words, making two moves with the shield based on the individual dice rolls rather than one move based on the total), or else moving two shields, each by a different dice result.

If at any point you land on an opponent's shield, you attack it. If the shield is in its own territory, it is wounded and goes to its chapel; if the shield is in your territory, it is captured and goes to your dungeon; if it is attacked in any other territory, it dies and is removed from the game.

If you kill a Chief, the Heir becomes the Chief, and the Heir's shield returns to the castle for use on subsequent turns. Heir's never die, as they simply return to the castle. In other words, you always have a Chief and an Heir. The only exception is if you risk using witchcraft to aid your dice roll for movement. This is something each player has the option to do once, and in exchange for a one-time benefit, your family is cursed and there will be no new Heirs when the current one dies or becomes the Chief. This means that your chances of winning are significantly diminished, and I absolutely fail to see why anyone would risk using witchcraft unless he or she was already in a strong position to win the game outright within a few turns.

The reason you may need the witch is because it is possible for shields from the same family, or from families in alliance, to create barriers by stacking in the same space. It is possible to overcome such barriers on your turn, but it involves matching or exceeding the strength of the barricade, and then rolling the right numbers on the dice, or else using the aforementioned witch. This particular aspect of the game takes a full two pages of the six pages of rules to explain, and honestly, I'm still not sure I could explain it coherently, so I'm not even going to try.

I'm going to be honest. At this point when writing the review, I stopped and went and did some research on the Marvel Universe Miniatures Game from Knight Models. It looks really cool, and finding out how much it costs seemed like a much better use of my time than writing this review.

But I'm back now, so let's sum up...

As I see it, from my admittedly limited exposure, the game suffers from several major issues:

The strategy is directly linked to luck. If you want to create a barrier, you have to be lucky enough to roll the right numbers on the dice that allow you to land all your shields on the same space. Similarly, the strategy for overcoming a barrier is rolling the right numbers on the dice to bring more pieces in to support your movement.

Some of the rules are kludgy and convoluted, like the rules for breaking barriers, or employing the services of the witch. Additionally, the way hostages are handled is just frustrating, and actually broke the game in our playthrough. You see, if you capture any of your opponent's shields, they go into your dungeon; and while there is a way of freeing hostages from an otherwise empty castle, most of the time the only way to get shields back is if the captor chooses to release them. The only time that is ever going to happen is if two players arrange an exchange of captured shields.

In our game, one of the players lost his four Cadets, and had his Heir captured, meaning it was actually impossible for him to win the game. That was the point when we decided to call it quits, so he didn't have to endure an hour of watching me and the other player endlessly circling the board.

And it really does feel endless. The game goes on forever. And that wouldn't be a bad thing if it wasn't so bloody boring. This game does nothing to generate any kind of interest. On your turn, you roll your dice and you move your shields, and most of the time you just feel like you are playing Ludo, or Talisman without the adventure cards (imagine how much fun that would be). Then you get to a situation where someone (usually by luck) has created a barrier to stop your movement, at which point everything grrrrrriiiiiiinnnnnnnddddsss to a halt.

With three players, the game isn't recreating Scottish history; it's recreating a Mexican standoff.

But a Mexican standoff with no payoff at the end.

I can forgive a long game, if it is good fun. I can forgive a rubbish game, if it has at least attempts to do something wonderful or is so bad it is actually still a lot of fun (like a B-movie). I can't forgive a long game that does so little, and tries to make so much of it. It's more like a chore, and any aspirations the game has amount to nothing as, while you are playing, it takes all your willpower not to wish yourself out of existence.

And speaking of aspirations...

Perhaps the game's worst crime of all is being so utterly pretentious. Besides the rulebook, the designer included an eight-page strategy guide, with detailed explanations of things like "The Rococo Approach." Additionally, there is an eight-page book explaining the symbolism of the game, with little gems in it like:

"The board is wide, as befits the representation of a largely underpopulated country, but the combatant's paths are narrow, squeezed geophysically, disciplined economically, pressed by the ineluctable politics of an unforgiving fate."

I understand that part of the game's design is to be educational, providing an understanding of Scottish history, politics, and heraldry, but is this really necessary? Okay, maybe I'm being unfair. The game does serve its purpose in terms of being packed with information on its subject. And now I know the difference between a heraldic baton and a bar, which should come in handy at the next dinner party I want to excuse myself from.

The most egregious indicator that this game was reaching too far too soon is the inclusion of an application form for joining the Club Regency Association. Membership involved quarterly newsletters, privilege prices for books on Regency and Regency accessories, and priority forms for national competitions.

I can't even imagine what a national competition would look like. It would have to be the most tragic gathering of human souls in the sorry history of humanity.

Maybe these national competitions happened. Maybe they still do.

I'm not convinced.

I went to the official Regency website (yeah, I know!) and I'm still not convinced.

I'm more inclined to believe the designer was expecting this game to be the new Chess, and prepared accordingly. I suppose that's admirable, in its way. It's great to have a dream, after all. But you can't ascend a ladder to the stars if it doesn't have any rungs. Regency tried its best to sidestep the ladder-building process completely by standing on the shoulders of giants - Chess, Backgammon, Bridge - but those stars are still way beyond its reach.
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