As it seems to be the fashionable thing to do at the moment, and inspired by Caroline Black's excellent blog, I am rebooting my own blog this winter with a list of my 10 favourite games for 2. So, in no particular order, here we go:
I believe Jaipur was the first dedicated 2 player game I owned (besides Chess). I still enjoy how tight every decision feels on every turn. I love how what you choose to pick up and when you choose to sell are determined almost as much by what your opponent is doing, as it is by what you are holding; even though there is no direct interaction in the game. The game plays in quite a short amount of time and doesn’t require much space. It is almost always in our luggage when we go away. I have the old version, but the presentation is still excellent. I appreciate how neatly it all fits into the small box.
A fairly recent addition to my collection, another small box which has become a staple in my luggage. Also, another game in which every decision is agonising - we have taken to referring to Arboretum as ‘Stressful Trees’. I love how the simple rules can create a situation where the best outcome on your turn is that you draw 2 cards from the deck, neither of which you are interested in, allowing you to dump one of them and then play something useful from your hand. I have the new blue Renegade edition, and like everybody else, wish I had got my hands on the lovely old green Z-Man edition, but hey ho. The game only fills half of the small box, which is a shame, although it might be a contender for sleeves later down the line, at which point I’ll be glad of the extra space.
The first bigger game on the list. I wrote about Imperial Settlers in more detail in my Top 10 list earlier in the year. It is a game which I struggled with at 3 or 4 players, but have come to love playing at 2. We tend to play a fairly non-aggressive game, just getting on with our own thing before totting up points at the end. The expansion civilisations have provided a nice bit of variety, and I have recently got the big box to put them all in - it’s not amazing, but it does make it easier to start playing. I have also recently bought the Rise of the Empire campaign expansion and am looking forward to giving it a go.
Paris: La Cité de la Lumière
A very new game for us, with only a couple of plays so far. But so far so good. On each of your turns during the first half of the game you have to choose between laying a pavement tile and reserving a building. This means that you are immediately stuck into 2 races in which you can only advance one at a time. The half-time pause is very welcome and allows you to reassess your position and strategy before the second half of the game. A second half in which you straight away start having to choose whether to place a building on a prime piece of real estate, or to grab a bonus which you will need later. There is a lot of game packed into this beautiful little box.
The King Is Dead: Second Edition
Oh boy, what a good game this is. I just wish I had any idea how to play it. I have a pretty good track record of winning , but I don’t really know how. The game requires that you have a long term strategy, but also requires that that strategy is altered at almost every turn. The trick, it seems, is in knowing which fights you must win, and going all-in with multiple action cards. As is a bit of a theme on this list - I love how the simple rules set lead to a deep and complex game. I haven’t played with the variant cards yet - I’m not sure my brain will cope. This is the only Peer Sylvester game I have played, but I am certainly keen to try some of his others. I love the art and the presentation, and I am so pleased that the publisher went with wooden cubes rather than plastic pieces; I just wish the box was smaller…
Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Volume One
This really applies to any of the Unmatched series - I also have Cobble & Fog, and Robin Hood vs Bigfoot. Not a game my SO really likes, it’s a bit too fighty, but fortunately I have a friend down the road who does enjoy it. The concept of Unmatched is great, and there are a lot of combinations of characters to try. It can sometimes be a bit one sided, but the games are quick enough that it doesn’t matter too much. We have also found through repeated plays alternating the same 2 characters that, with familiarity, a character that was consistently beaten in early games will go on to win more of the later games, suggesting that the characters simply have different skill curves rather than being inherently unbalanced. The presentation, component quality and art is all off the chart, which only improves the experience. I haven’t combined characters from different sets yet, because I couldn’t work out how to log my games here on BGG, any thoughts?
Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends
Vlaada’s abstract game. Not a looker, but good fun. It would be great if CGE (or another publisher) produced a deluxe version - it has the feel of a real classic like chess or go, and it would be nice if the components reinforced that feeling. My SO loves this game when she’s winning, and hates it when she’s losing - it is fun to watch her mood swing from one extreme to the other during a single game (something that doesn’t happen when playing anything else). Sold as an arena combat game, this is really a pattern-matching and combo-building abstract; frequently frustrating, but equally often, very satisfying.
My most played game, and obviously featured on my Top 10 list. Memoir ‘44 is at its best played as a mini campaign across multiple games in as few sessions as possible. The scenarios are often fairly unbalanced, but that just gives me an excuse when I lose, and is much less marked when games are strung together. It is a game that creates moments. A lone soldier surviving an assault from 3 tank units, and then annihilating one of those units on the very next turn is amazing for one player and deeply infuriating for the other. The feelings don’t last, the game moves on too quickly, but you will remember the moment and talk about it afterwards. The expansions are all great too, The Pacific Theatre is my favourite though - both the American Marines and the Japanese are terrifying to fight against.
Another game from my Top 10 list. Cairn has climbed a huge 598 places in the BGG rankings so far this year, but it is still languishing down at number 2697 - woefully too low for what is a great game. It is designed by Christian Martinez, who also brought us Inis - and it shows. Cairn’s clever action selection mechanism on double sided tiles, and it’s tricksy point scoring criteria, mean that you are constantly having to think multiple moves ahead. This colourful and cartoony game is actually the most chess-like experience to be had from the games on this list. It just doesn’t go on so long. I urge you to give it a go, and help me get it up into at least the top 2000 games.
War of the Ring: Second Edition
By far the biggest, heaviest, longest, most plasticy, ridiculous game on this list. War of the Ring is like Memoir ‘44 on steroids. Instead of action cards, you get action dice, and instead of soldiers and tanks you get elves, men, dwarves, orcs, trolls, wargs, Nazgul, hobbits, and wizards. And Gollum. I haven’t played this anywhere near as much as I would like to have done, it is difficult to find a whole free afternoon with someone who is willing to play it with me. Played on a sprawling map, with tens of miniatures it would seem an overwhelming prospect, but I love that the action dice system really limits your decisions each turn to manageable level. It also manages, in my limited experience, to remain quite close throughout, which is vital for a 2 player game that takes this long to play. As with TI, it is a huge experience which manages to hold my attention for the duration and never feels as long as it is.
7 Wonders Duel
A collection of thoughts, opinions, lists and hopefully some How to Plays and photography.
27 Nov 2021
- [+] Dice rolls
30 Jun 2021
Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition. Probably my favourite game. I said in my Top Ten post that I agreed with Shut Up & Sit Down when they said that this game “[...] is almost literally everything board games can be”. However it is not perfect.
My usual gaming group has always had a problem with the Agenda Phase - we just don’t ever really enjoy it. We don’t tend to play many negotiating games and we play TI as more of a euro-y area-control game than as a diplomatic one. We usually find the agendas to be irrelevant or just boring, and the discussions and arguments that we end up having about them are often tedious. I have not yet got my hands on Prophecy of Kings, but I have heard that it adds a bunch of new agendas to the game and I will be interested to know what these are like.
A couple of games ago, I decided to have a go at improving the Agenda Phase for my group, and what follows is that attempt. Some of this is just a strengthening of what can already be found in the rulebook, and some of it is my ideas - designed to make it more enjoyable for my group.
I thought I would share it here because I am sure that we are not the only group who feel the way we do. I would be interested to know what people think, or if anyone has any other suggestions for groups like mine.
So without further ado:
TWILIGHT IMPERIUM - The Agenda Phase
Note: I plan to use a split Agenda deck, with half of the cards used during Phase I and the other half used Phase II. *
1. The Speaker draws and reads aloud the first Agenda.
- There is no discussion at this stage.
2. Starting from the Speaker, each player may choose to play a ‘When an Agenda is revealed’ Action card. Then, starting again from the Speaker, each player may choose to play an ‘After an Agenda is revealed’ Action card. **
- The Neckro Virus player makes their prediction in turn during this process.
- Technically any cards played before a ‘Veto’ card should be discarded - however I disagree and these cards are returned to the players’ hands.
3. The Speaker opens the floor for negotiation.
- Information and promises shared must be kept vague (Think Battlestar Galactica), players may discuss for what/whom they are voting, and whether they plan to cast a lot or a few votes, but no actual numbers can be shared.
- If asked, a player is obliged to state how much influence they have available on their planets - this is public information and can be easily read by the players sitting beside them.
Deals may be made during discussion.
- Players may only make one deal with each other player during the Agenda phase.
- Most deals made here will be non-binding; i.e. they cannot be resolved immediately, rather they have to wait until the voting takes place.
- To make a binding deal, votes can be bought. Players may trade or make deals for planet cards from other players for the duration of the vote. After the vote has happened, the cards are returned to their owners in the state that they are after the vote - either exhausted or ready. There is no obligation for a player to use votes that they have bought, and planets may be passed between players as part of non-binding deals.***
- The Speaker has the power to end the discussion at any time (for their own ends, because the discussion isn’t going anywhere, or just because they are bored). It is of course possible to bribe the Speaker to end negotiations or keep them open for longer.
4. The Speaker ends negotiations.****
- From this point onwards players are no longer allowed to speak to, gesticulate at, look significantly at, or otherwise try to influence each other.
- Any deals which are on the table may not be amended but can be either accepted or rejected in their current form.
5. The Speaker asks every player, starting with the player to their left to cast their votes.
- Each player must state for what/whom they are voting, and how many votes they are casting. They must exhaust planets to spend votes.
- There is no discussion while votes are being cast.
- The Speaker votes last and breaks ties.
6. The Outcome of the Agenda is enacted and the rewards of any successful riders are collected.
7. The above steps are repeated for the second Agenda.
- If two players made a deal during negotiations for the first Agenda, they may not make a deal with one another during negotiation of the second Agenda.
8. After both Agendas have been resolved, any pairs of players who have not yet made a deal during this Agenda phase may now do so, even if they do not share a border on the map.
* As per the lists at the link below, this is designed to make the Agendas a bit more relevant at the point they come out of the deck. https://www.reddit.com/r/twilightimperium/comments/88jpvt/se...
** This resolves any conflict with the order of these cards and hopefully prevents the discussion from either being derailed by someone suddenly dropping a rider, or being rendered futile by someone vetoing the agenda being discussed.
*** We have never played with this rule, but I would like to try it.
**** This rule is designed to give a bit more power to the Speaker, and to make the voting stage a little bit more tense by preventing players from discussing where they stand after the first votes have been cast.
- [+] Dice rolls
I have put many hours into both of these great games. I have played through 3 Imperial Assault campaigns; once as the Empire, twice as a rebel, and we are about 25 scenarios into our Gloomhaven campaign. I just can’t decide which one I prefer. I am aware that Descent would probably be a better game with which to compare Gloomhaven, given their similar themes; I just haven’t played it yet. The same person in my gaming group who owns both Imperial Assault and Gloomhaven also owns Descent, so we will eventually get around to it; that just hasn’t happened yet. I have also not played Imperial Assault with the companion app, so all of my comments relate to playing the game with a player controlled Empire.
At the highest level these two games are very similar; you each pick a character and then cooperatively play your way through a series of combat heavy missions, upgrading your character as you go. The first, most obvious difference is the theme and setting. Imperial Assault is set in the Star Wars universe, while Gloomhaven is set in a fantasy world straight out of Issac Childres’ imagination. I am a fan of Star Wars, well, I am a fan of the idea of Star Wars - none of the actual output of the franchise ever seems to live up to what Star Wars is in my head. Anyway, I am generally more a fan of a fantasy setting over a sci-fi one. I think that Issac has done a wonderful job creating a fantasy world with a lot of depth, without falling into the classic tropes. There are no elves, dwarves or orcs in Gloomhaven - instead the titular city is populated with a whole array of races and species as diverse as those of classic fantasy, but fresh and interesting.
The world of Gloomhaven is appealing, and I want to dive into it more deeply. However, doing so is difficult. As a group playing Gloomhaven, we often found the flavour included in the box - in the book and on the cards - to be somewhat lacking. The individual scenarios were all excellently written, we all knew where we were, what we were doing and why. It was the bigger picture we felt was missing; I didn’t really know who my character was or what their motivation was, or what Gloomhaven was really like as a place. Imperial Assault has no problems here - it’s Star Wars, the Death Star has just been blown up, you’re rebels. I immediately knew who I was, what was happening, what I was trying to achieve, and who my enemy was. The imperial march was stuck in my head before we’d even got the lid off the box. But that all comes from the IP, the game designers were able to be lazy in this respect - their backstory was written for them 40 years ago.
I don’t have much to say about the physical differences between the 2 games. All of the miniatures in Imperial Assault are, as you would expect from Fantasy Flight, excellent. It is a bit cheeky of them to include characters in the main box which you then have to buy as a separate bonus pack to get the figure, but I suppose it keeps the cost of the base game down. Gloomhaven keeps the cost down (!) by only providing miniatures for the heroes and relying on standees for all the other figures. I am not normally a fan of standees, but the art on these is great and it makes it easy to distinguish between the huge number of enemy types. I am also not usually a fan of combining miniatures with wooden figures or standees, but the scenarios in Gloomhaven are immersive enough that I quickly stopped noticing the miss-match.
The enemy that you are facing is very different between the two games as well. In Imperial Assault the Empire is controlled by the one of your friends who drew the short straw, whilst in Gloomhaven you are up against a flood of enemies guided by the rules listed on their various cards. (As I mentioned above, I can’t comment on the use of the app in Imperial Assault to replace the Empire player.) I personally didn’t mind playing as the Empire in Imperial Assault, but I can see how others might. It is not a great feeling to be sat apart while your friends discuss how they are going to beat you up. It is an even worse feeling to have your friends actually beat you up and then celebrate together while you pick up the pieces. The Empire player also has to take on a bit of a GM role - they can’t just annihilate the rebels every game - that is no fun for anyone. Ideally the rebels want to win most of the scenarios, but not by much. If the rebels aren’t winning missions, the Empire player has to stop playing so competitively, and start playing more thematically, throwing wave after wave of storm troopers down the same corridor to be shot to pieces. In effect, they have to become a game component or mechanic, rather than a human player, in order for the other players to have fun.
Gloomhaven avoids this issue by having the enemy figures controlled by actual game components and mechanics. Apart from obviously meaning that no one has to volunteer to be the baddie for a whole campaign, it also allows the players to set the difficulty. We aborted a few of the scenarios and restarted them - with all the monsters turned down a notch on their dials - when it became clear after a couple of rounds that we stood no chance. This system does however introduce a lot of admin into the game. During any given scenario the table will be littered with cards and sleeves and decks and tokens all of which need to be managed by the players. This is fine if everyone around the table is willing to pitch in with the shuffling, drawing, organising and moving of standees that is required on almost every turn. However if even just one player checks out of this process, it can become a real burden on the others.
Also, this system can lead to the monsters you are facing sometimes doing really illogical things. They have followed the instructions on their card to the letter, and have adhered to every rule governing NPCs in the book, but they have ended up standing in a location or attacking a hero that makes no sense. They have taken their turn following a series of logical decisions, but without applying the common sense that a human player would add. We found ourselves on occasion giving the NPCs this common sense and tweaking their turns to make more sense. This was especially true of our summons or if the monster was of a more intelligent species - rambling skeletons and oozes were left to stumble around and get stuck in corners.
The final issue with this system is that because you are not playing against another human, cheating doesn’t feel quite so bad. I would normally abhor the idea of cheating to complete a scenario, but because Gloomhaven simply requires you to replay any scenario you fail, and because, especially if you include set-up, a scenario will take a whole evening to play, we fell into this bad habit. We never went too far, but if we were going to fail a scenario after playing for 2 hours because someone was one movement point short, or because the last enemy had one health point left, we didn’t fail it. Had there been other consequences to failing, there would have been no way we would have done this. There are 100 scenarios in the box, and there is only so much time I can devote to Gloomhaven. I’m not going to replay any of them because one of our heroes was exhausted one space away from the exit.
The player turns in each game are very different, and both games really shine at different aspects here. The card system in Gloomhaven is simply brilliant. A lot has been said about the innovative way in which your deck combines your actions for the game with your initiative, your stamina and even, to a degree, your health. But for me, what really makes it great is the tricky individual decision you have to make each turn. Which cards are you going to play? Unlike a lot of co-operative games, Imperial Assault included, there is a lot of hidden information, which you can only share in the vaguest of terms. Your decision of what you are going to do is yours and yours alone. Are you going to try and go first, or last, or does that not matter as long as you can play your strongest attack? Is this the time to permanently wipe out a card or should you hold back for another turn? If you move to attack that enemy, is it still going to be there by the time it gets to your turn? Being forced to make these decisions individually means that for most of the time the heroes are not working in perfect synergy, and there is a lot of scope for accidentally stepping on one another’s toes - exactly like you would expect from a real group of misfit adventurers. The addition of both long-term, and scenario specific, personal goals, and the individual accumulation of coins only adds to the obscurity of what each player might do on their turn. As the campaign goes on, you get more used to each other’s characters and play styles and are better able to second guess what each other are going to do. Until somebody retires their character and throws a new adventurer into the mix. But when it does all come together and you have a turn where everybody is perfectly in sync, and you pull off smooth and efficient combo of actions it feels amazing!
Imperial Assault feels very different, there is no hidden information and rebels can discuss - at great length - what each of them is going to do and in what order they are going to go. It is easy for these discussions to descend into 15 minutes of counting squares, checking lines of sight and calculating each rebel’s probability of doing enough damage with the dice they get to roll. This effective downtime between each round of play became so bad in our group, that we ended up banning players from talking specifically about what they were going to do, and limited the discussion purely to turn order. As well being incredibly tedious, this process whereby each round of turns is worked out in it’s minutiae denies the rebels those moments of satisfaction when they all work together in harmony. Finally, it allows for a huge amount of quarter-backing, and potentially resentment towards a player that on their turn decides to do something that you know isn’t what they needed to do. Gloomhaven nicely avoids this problem by not giving players the perfect information about what each other are holding in their hands, and therefore what they could even try and do this turn.
Where Imperial Assault shines is in how thematic your turns feel. I loved narrating turns that went along the lines of: “Right, I’m going to step out from behind this corner, and fire my new DXR-6 at that stormtrooper down the corridor, it’s got a guaranteed range of 6, so I can’t miss - he’s dead, and I’ll retreat back into cover - it’s fine, my special sniper skill means his mates can’t get close enough to see me.” Or: “Right, I’m going to use my whip to drag that stormtrooper next to me, and then I’m going to hit him with my sword… now I’m going to hit him again - he’s dead, and I’ll run up to that door so I can open it next turn”. The use of dice in combat adds to the excitement - the element of luck they introduce means that you could miss your easy shot, but also that your huge gamble might just pay off. We had one campaign where the Empire player was finally able to deploy their big bad general and immediately one of our rebels appeared from around a corner, threw their lightsaber at the general scoring maximum damage, before catching it, running up to close the gap and slicing him in half - finishing him off with another maximum damage strike. It was such a great thematic moment - he was a hero!
This, sadly, leads me on to probably my biggest disappointment with Gloomhaven. After making the crunchy decision as to which cards to play, and despite the rich character descriptions on the player sheets, most turns end up being something like: “I’m going to play this card for it’s two movement to go here, and then I’m going to play this to do a ranged attack at distance 3 to do 2 damage”. Some of the cards titled things like ‘Flame Thrower’ or ‘Ink Bomb’ allow a little bit more theme to seep in, but generally turns end up being very dry. Which is not what I expected from a game like Gloomhaven. I think the reason for this comes down to the limitations of the card play. I can see from the artwork and figure that my little tinkerer has a small crossbow and is carrying a bomb, but I have no idea why the range and damage output of her ranged attacks varies so much. I also have no idea how, or with what, she performs any of her melee attacks. The cards that can be bought whilst in the city are good, but it has always confused me how a battle axe or a suit of armour could be single use? Issac, if you read this - I think that giving each character the cards that represent their basic weapons and equipment would make the turn by turn gameplay of Gloomhaven much more thematic.
Both of these games are great, and they are both amongst my most played games. However I think they could learn from each other. The imperfect information and personal objectives in Gloomhaven really give the impression that you are a group of adventurers exploring the world with your own strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly, agendas. While the use of the Star Wars universe, the detailed item cards provided to each player, and the dice-based combat, can make each individual turn in Imperial Assault feel epic. I suppose I just need to play them both some more to decide which is better.
- [+] Dice rolls
18 Apr 2021
A couple of years ago I bought a copy of Tim Fowers’ excellent co-operative heist game Burgle Bros. from my FLGS for around £30. At the counter, one of the staff said that he had heard good things about it, and was keen to play it, but would never spend £30 on such a small box. His expectation was presumably that a game in a box that small wouldn’t contain components, or an experience that was worth as much as a game sold in a larger box. The box that Burgle Bros. comes in is small, about 7x4x3 inches, but should that really dictate the cost of the game?
Firstly, let's look at the box itself. The box is wonderfully illustrated by Ryan Goldsberry and when stood on its end, depicts the building which the Bros. are going to Burgle, complete with hole in the ground floor and helipad on the roof. The game components fit beautifully into the box with almost no air, and the rule book has been produced in a super small format to also tuck neatly inside. A lot of publishers could learn from this production; I own a number of games that contain fewer components than Burgle Bros. but come in shelf-hogging foot-square boxes, yes Imperial Settlers & Splendor - I’m looking at you. These games also come in at around the £30 mark and I wonder if the guy from the game shop would have any reservations about spending the money on them?
Then there is table presence, unpacking Burgle Bros., creating the 3 floors of the building from the tiles in the box, setting aside all the other cards and tokens, and giving each player their own pieces covers as much table space as many big box games. The art on the components is lovely, and the combination of the tiles with cardboard tokens, wooden walls and meeples and the plastic dice certainly gives the impression of playing a big box game on a fairly large board. Burgle Bros. is not a little card game that you could play on a train, but should it be priced like one because the box is small?
Finally, there is gameplay. A game of Burgle Bros. could easily last a couple of hours if everyone is having fun and there is a lot of discussion. The decisions that need to be made, the distance that players need to move, and the random elements introduced by the set-up and guard movement mean that Burgle Bros. plays like a big co-operative game, as well as looking like one on the table. As I mentioned in my Top 10 list, Burgle Bros. gave me one of my best gaming experiences of 2020. I think that one of the reasons I enjoyed my first couple of games of Burgle Bros. so much was because the gameplay far exceeded what I expected from it. It seems hard to believe from looking at the little box full of little components what a varied and exciting game it is.
Personally I think that Tim Fowers should be commended for squeezing such a big experience into such a small box. As my collection grows, I don’t have space to store all of the air that is packaged along with the components in most game boxes. And I know I am not alone. It seems wrong to me that the expectation is that the value of a game should be solely determined by box size, and that Burgle Bros. didn’t sell as well as it might have done had the box contained more air and a folded cardboard insert.
But a more common problem is when this goes the other way. I have in my collection all 5 of the Reiner Knizia games released under the ‘Euro Classics’ label; Samurai, Ra, Tigris & Euphrates, Through the Desert, and Taj Mahal. I, to varying degrees, enjoy them all - Tigris & Euphrates is very close to being in my top ten. My other half however, to varying degrees, hates them all. This is partly due to the games themselves, but a much bigger factor is the fact they completely fail to meet her expectations.
Take Ra for example. The edition I have comes in a big box that contains a fairly large textured board, a cloth bag full of beautifully illustrated tiles, the chunky ‘eye-of-Ra’ bidding pieces, and the plastic Ra statue. It is all gorgeous and feels like a real luxury product - and it comes with a price tag to match. The game itself though is a quick, push-your-luck, set collecting, auction game which plays like a small card game. In fact, the board is not strictly necessary and all of the other components could easily be replaced with cards. All of the art assets and gameplay would be retained but the game could have come in a box the same size as Arboretum or Fungi and be sold for half the price.
This comes back to what is expected of a game when looking at its box and components, and how the game itself compares to these expectations. I think that the gameplay of Ra would exceed what would be expected of a small card game. Players flipping cards off the top of a shared deck and then adding their winnings to a tableau of cards would make the game much faster and, I think, very much change the feel of it. I am sure that my other half would have looked much more favourably on it had this been the case. Her problem with it is that the gameplay simply doesn’t live up to what she expects from all the lovely components.
This of course raises the topic of deluxification. Had Ra existed first as a little card game, and had then been turned into a deluxe board game, I don’t think I could level the same criticism at it. There would be a large number of people who loved Ra the little card game and would jump at the opportunity of getting their hands on a beautifully produced version with a board and tiles. Already knowing and enjoying the game, and then buying into a deluxe version to heighten the experience avoids any chance of expectations being disappointed. Arboretum is a great example of a little card game that vastly exceeded the expectations I had of it, and I would now gladly buy a deluxe version with little 3D trees...
I am all for expanding and deluxifying my games. I own the resin clearing markers for Root and have just backed the full collectors edition of Everdell, I have all the Small World expansions and I am currently sitting next to a stack of Memoir ‘44 boxes. But these are all games that I already love. I had played them enough to know that spending the money on the shiny components and additional content would be worth it for me. In all cases, the base game had either exceeded, or at least met, my expectations, and I wanted more. I am concerned that with some of the Kickstarters I have backed over the last year, that already come with expansions and deluxe components, that they will never live up to my expectations.
It is a well known fact that the high point of excitement and anticipation when playing a game often comes at the moment you open the box. I would argue that the best games are ones that go on to build upon this moment. Opening a box and being slightly underwhelmed by the components, but then going on to play a hugely enjoyable game, feels a lot better than being blown away by the quantity and quality of a game’s components, and then being underwhelmed by the game itself. This second scenario is at best disappointing, and at worst depressing and demoralising. Also, you are far less likely to want to pull a game down off the shelf to play again if your first experience of it was one of crushing disappointment. Which is a shame, because it was probably a game that you spent much more money on than the ones you play over and over.
In short, it is important for publishers to make sure that the game they are selling meets the expectations that the box and components give players. They must not be tempted to over sell a game with bloat and gimmicks, if that is only going to lead to disappointment and remorse in the people that buy it. As in the case of Burgle Bros., it is also important that a publisher doesn’t undersell a game, however, as consumers we must remember that it is the experience that we are buying, as well as the components and bling. Bigger does not necessarily mean better, and smaller does not necessarily mean worth less.
Ask yourself - can a game that ships with additional boxes of beautiful miniatures, metal coins, dual-layer player boards, resin sculpts, and multiple expansions included in the box, ever live up to the expectations you have for it when you back it?
- [+] Dice rolls
24 Mar 2021
In my last post I covered the games that I have backed on Kickstarter over the last year. This list included Monumental; a deck-building, civilisation game with a prominent dudes-on-a-map component. These ‘dudes’ are represented in the game by gorgeous-looking plastic miniatures. The fact that I backed this, miniatures and all, may have come as a surprise to anyone who had also read my earlier piece on pieces. I am not a huge fan of miniatures for miniatures sake, and generally prefer well done wooden meeples or nicely illustrated cardboard tokens. As I mentioned previously, I consider backing Monumental to be the low point of my Kickstarter adventure. I have been fortunate that the pandemic has not affected my job, and being in lockdown meant I wasn’t spending much money. I convinced myself that what my collection was missing was a game that came with 4 boxes of little plastic people, and I felt I could justify the expense. With hindsight, perhaps I was wrong on both counts, but I don’t regret my choice of Monumental, and I wanted to explain why I think it deserves some praise.
Mechanics, theme & art.
I am a fan of deck building as a mechanic, but I have never played anything that I have enjoyed more than Dominion. The deck building aspect of Monumental, coupled with the row/column card action selection looks really clever - I hope it will provide a lot of interesting decisions and the opportunity to produce some really strong and satisfying combos. A deck building game where you have to keep one eye on a map reminds me of Trains, a game which I have played a few times and have quite enjoyed, despite its theme. I don’t dislike train games per se, I just find it hard to get on board with a game in which your hand might consist of 4 normal trains and some landfill…
Personally, the theme in Monumental is much more appealing. I know that it is hardly original, but I would much rather have a trebuchet and the Taj Mahal in my deck, than an early train and a dump site. The closest thing I have in my collection to a civilisation building game of this type is 7 Wonders, and so I feel that there is definitely space for Monumental (thematically and mechanically that is, physically, I’m not so sure…). I am also a fan of the art style, a sort of vibrant realism, which it also shares with 7 Wonders. This style may present a very rose-tinted view of the history depicted, but it does make the game stand out when it’s on the table.
This is all very subjective, but for me the aesthetic of the game is what first caught my eye. The artists have done a great job of making a game that really pops. The colours are bold and almost cartoony, but the style of the drawings isn’t at all. It is a combination that I particularly appreciate. Coupled with the interesting take on an old mechanic, the designer and publisher have produced a game which is a very tempting prospect.
But enough of why I personally liked it, and on to more objectively why I think that the whole team behind Monumental have made a game worth looking at.
My intention when backing Monumental was to add a big, over-the-top, miniatures game to my collection. And so I backed it with all the miniatures included. Having not yet received my copy of the game, I cannot comment comprehensively on the quality of the figures, but from what I have seen and heard from reviewers, they are excellent. They don’t appear to suffer from the issues of wonky swords or flaccid spears for which I criticised the miniatures in some other games. The relative sizes of the miniatures also appears to make sense - the bigger the figure, the more powerful it is. And finally, actually picking up and moving the miniatures around is an integral part of the game. Monumental manages to avoid most of the issues I have with miniatures as components.
Although that is just the base game and the main expansions. The less said about the Titans the better. The sculpts themselves look as gorgeous as all the other miniatures, but the size of them is completely unnecessary for the game. They break the rule I mentioned above, they may be pretty powerful figures, but their scale hugely outweighs the fairly minimal effect they have on the game. And, I may be wrong, but from reading the descriptions it would appear that one of them never actually goes on the board. I just don’t get it, especially seeing as how I could buy a whole other game for what they were charging for these add-ons. Needless to say, I couldn’t bring myself to add either of them to my pledge. Anyway, back to the positives...
Where I think that Monumental really deserves credit, is for providing the option for a plastic-free version of the game using illustrated tokens in lieu of miniatures. This provides a cheaper alternative for those people who are tempted by the game, but can’t justify the huge sum of money required to pay for all the miniatures. More than that though, it demonstrates the confidence that the publisher has in the core game. By offering a version without miniatures, they are exposing the game to players without the distraction of all that plastic. I added the tokens to my pledge as an add on, and I will use them in my first few plays to experience the game myself without that distraction. I will also use them (once the world returns to some sort of normality) when I take the game to other people’s houses to play.
Races and Factions
There are a lot of historically themed, empire building games available on the market. The settings of these games tend to sit in a couple of common settings; the European colonial powers of the 18th century, or the powerhouses of the ancient world - the Romans, ‘Barbarians’, Greeks, Celts, Egyptians, and so on. Especially within this second category, the factions tend to be fairly generic, stereotypical views of the cultures and people in question. The base game of Monumental skips the obvious Romans, but does include the standard Greek and Egyptian factions. Where Monumental begins to stand out is that the other factions included, the Danes, Chinese, and Japanese, while by no means unusual in board games, are not necessarily what you would expect to find in this type of game.
Monumental goes further than just including some slightly less common factions. Each faction in the game is given a leader, based on a real, historical, or contemporary mythological, figure. I don’t know how much information is included about these characters in the literature that comes with the game, but I have been interested enough to do a bit of background reading myself. I had never heard of Musashi or Siegfried before reading about Monumental, and I have enjoyed finding out about them. I can’t think of another example of a game which has led me to educate myself about a theme outside of any information included in the box.
The new African Empires expansion takes this even further still. The name ‘African Empires’ immediately rings alarm bells and conjures images of colonialism and the carving up of the continent by the European powers. But Monumental stays well clear of this topic, and instead includes cultures and civilisations that existed in Africa independently from any European intervention. Again, I had never heard of the Aksum Kingdom or Musa Keita - apparently the wealthiest person ever to have lived. I really think that, however good the game turns out to be, Monumental should be applauded for this thoughtful inclusion of interesting and diverse cultures.
As well as including and highlighting lesser known cultures, Monumental, I think, does a pretty reasonable job when it comes to gender equality. While there is by no means a 50/50 split amongst the characters, I appreciate how hard this would be to achieve in an historical game. The inclusion of Mulan, the Queen of Sheba, and Hippolyta as warlords, as well as the Amazons as a whole faction feels quite natural, and not at all like they’ve been shoehorned in. Also, I feel it worth mentioning that in the base game, the largest, most prominent miniature is that of the hero Joan of Arc. I am not saying that they couldn’t have done better, but they have done better than most.
One of the issues I raised when I was talking about miniatures in my piece on pieces was the inexcusable way in which female characters are often portrayed in plastic. It is often the case, as in Blood Rage, that male characters are clad in realistic armour, while female characters are clad in almost nothing at all. The design of the figures in Monumental however feels very balanced. While Hippolyta and the Amazons are all wearing the skimpy, bikini-like armour with which they are generally associated, they are all well covered and there is nothing lewd or indecent about the figures. I wouldn’t be embarrassed playing the game with my mother. The scantily, but decently, clad female miniatures also don’t feel incongruous with the rest of the game, given that Hercules, Ramses II, Atlas, Moctezuma & Shaka Zulu are all running around without their shirts on.
As with the selection of races and cultures included in the game, the inclusion of a fairly high proportion of female characters, all depicted on a par with the male characters is commendable and deserving of recognition.
Finally, I want to discuss the criticism that the game had received prior to this latest Kickstarter. As far as I can tell from the content that exists around the game, the two biggest problems that critics have with Monumental are the downtime between turns and the fact that the map becomes less relevant as the game goes on. However, the new African Empires expansion seems to go some way to deal with both of these criticisms.
The designer has introduced a simultaneous play variant, whereby all players take their turns at the same time. This should remove a lot of the downtime and keep players more engaged. They have also included quests, which will provide an additional thing for explorers to do during the late game, and keep some focus on the map. It is yet to be seen if either of these additions will have the desired effect, but I am optimistic. More importantly, I think that both the designer and the publisher deserve some praise for listening to the criticism and acting on it quietly and efficiently, without making a fuss.
So whether Monumental is a game that you are interested in or not, I think deserves a bit of attention. It is really nice to see a designer and publisher appearing to put a bit of thought into making a kickstarter miniatures game interesting and thoughtful, rather than just big and shiny. I tip my hat to Matthew Dunstan and Funforge. I just really hope that it’s good.
- [+] Dice rolls
06 Mar 2021
During the locked-down year that was 2020, I discovered Kickstarter. I have some thoughts about the platform and some of the campaigns I supported, but I will probably share them in a future post. For now, here is a list of everything I have backed up to today, with a little bit of my justification for doing so. This is mainly for my own benefit - as well as discovering Kickstarter, I have also discovered 'backer's remorse'...
Once again, as with my Top 10 List, this is going up a little later than planned (and is therefore a little longer than planned…) Lists are hard, and Kickstarter is too tempting.
Technically I didn't actually back this, I put in a late pledge after the campaign was over. It was, however, my first dabble into the world of Kickstarter and will be arriving this year. I was going through a bit of a space phase - I had spent the Easter weekend building the Lego Saturn V and had recently bought and read a book about the Apollo missions. So when I got wind of a game based on the Space Race, I was immediately very interested. Now, I would usually have just waited for the game to come to retail and watched some reviews before buying it. But, the campaign stated that the Rockets expansion would be a Kickstarter exclusive, and the Rockets expansion contained the Apollo missions and the Saturn V and I wasn't about to buy a game about the space race that didn't contain them. I ummed and arred for a long time, but in the end I decided to put down my pledge. I was really interested in the theme, the art and design were great, and most importantly it wasn't a completely new game - Space Race the board game is based on a fairly well rated and pretty popular card game. Looking back, I don’t know whether I would back this if I saw it now. But having said that, I am quite happy that it will be arriving on my doorstep soon. I just really hope that the game is good, and that the big bits of plastic in the box are worth it.
Shogun Big Box & Wallenstein Big Box
I played Shogun on International Tabletop Day in 2019. And I loved it. It is my sort of area-control war game, and I love the programming aspect of the action selection. However it was unavailable to buy anywhere, not for love nor money. So when I was told about the new Kickstarter, I was pretty interested. I had already played and enjoyed the game - what was the risk? My decision was muddied by the fact that the friend who told me about the campaign, also backed it. They are amongst the people with whom I would play it the most, so was there really any reason for me to buy it as well? Well, handily the campaign also included the option to pledge for Shogun's sister game - Wallenstein, so I could just back that instead. Problem solved. But Shogun was the game that I had played and enjoyed, and which had the more enticing setting and theme. I turned to the internet for help, but as with almost every matter of opinion, it was divided right down the middle, with both sides claiming that it was obvious that their preferred game is better. As I deliberated, the timer on the campaign was running down. Unable to decide between them, and with a matter of hours to go, I just backed them both. At a reasonable discount I might add. Problem solved again. I do regret backing both of them, but I still don’t know which one I would have chosen… I am also a bit concerned about the ‘deluxe’ components these new ‘big boxes’ come with, I’m not sure about swapping out the cubes for little men, and while I think the buildings are an improvement over the old tokens, I have yet to be impressed by Queen Games’ production quality.
Kemet: Blood and Sand
Another remake of an old, popular, game that I was considering for my collection. Having now dived into Kickstarter, this felt like a pretty safe bet too. I haven’t played Kemet, but I really want to, and I have only heard good things. The campaign from Matagot was a bit of a rollercoaster and it exposed me for the first time to the animosity that can exist within a community of backers. There was never much doubt about whether or not I would back this one, but I still faffed for ages before pledging. This was the first time I had experienced stretch goals and add-ons, and deciding exactly what to get in the end was the cause of yet more deliberation. If I remember correctly, I went for everything apart from the playmat (unnecessary) and the Cthulhu stuff (not as objectionable as some of the comments in the campaign made it out to be, but I still prefer the re-skin). I don’t regret having bought Kemet: Blood and Sand, this is presumably going to be the only available version going forward, and it is a game that I want. I just feel in this case that perhaps I shouldn’t have backed it, and just waited for retail instead. I don’t necessarily think that the Kickstarter added anything I would really have missed, and I could have avoided all of the drama that played out during the campaign.
Merchants of the Dark Road
By this point I was actively browsing Kickstarter for board games and Andrew Bosley’s art leapt out at me. I have mentioned before how much I love his art, and Merchants of the Dark Road looks to be a fine example. I was pretty much sold by the theme and the art before I knew anything about the game. I watched a lot of videos about this one. It is a new game and I needed to make sure that the game lives up to it’s art and design. Having done my research I convinced myself that the game not only looked pretty good, but that it is a game that I will enjoy. It has a number of mechanics that I like (limited action selection, pre-programming, variable player powers, etc.), and yet is fairly unlike anything I already have in my collection. I wonder whether I really needed to go all-in for all the fancy coins and other bits - it was quite expensive, but overall no big regrets here. I am really looking forward to playing this one. Also, kudos to Elf Creek Games for running a lovely, friendly campaign.
Monumental & African Empires Expansion
So yeah, I backed Monumental. This marks my deepest and darkest descent into Kickstarter. The fact that I backed this, miniatures and all, may come as surprise to anyone who has read my previous piece on pieces. However, at this low (high?) point of my Kickstarting, I had convinced myself that my collection was missing a big, over-the-top, nonsense miniatures game. And the Monumental reprint came along at exactly the right time. But it wasn’t just the timing of the campaign, there were plenty of other options available at the time. I think for a game with lots of unnecessary miniatures in, Monumental does them pretty well, and I think the choice of civilisations also deserves some credit here. I will probably discuss my feelings towards Monumental in more detail at a later date. The fact that it is again a reprint of a fairly popular existing game added to my confidence in backing it. The art, theme and basic deck-building mechanics all appeal to me. I didn’t go all in on this one. Firstly, the player mats are ridiculously big and don’t really work for a couple of the new factions. Secondly, the Titans - what were they thinking? As I said, I was partly drawn to this game because of the unnecessary miniatures, but this was just too far - from the descriptions, it sounds like one of them doesn’t even go on the board! I don’t currently regret having backed Monumental, I just have a horrible feeling that I won’t feel that it was worth it when it finally arrives.
Petrichor: Collector's Edition & Cows Expansion
I backed this one, not for me, but for my other half. She works for an environmental charity and is therefore very interested in the climate and weather. She also loves the white, minimalistic artwork of games like Tokaido, so Petrichor seemed ideal. As is becoming a theme with a lot of these games, this Kickstarter was a reprint and expansion for an already well liked and well thought of game. The base game had been on our radar for a little while, so I was pretty sure she would be happy that I was buying it for her. I am not convinced by all of the plastic components and plastic inserts that they are filling the box with, especially as the new ‘Cows’ expansion introduces methane and climate effects to the game - it feels a little bit hypocritical. But still, this was an all-in pledge for me and I’m sure that she’ll love it.
Another game I backed for my significant other. As with Petrichor above, the garden theme is perfect for her. She also loves 7 wonders with it’s simple drafting mechanic and simultaneous play. I am hoping that Flourish will become a game that’s as easy to get to the table for us as it’s civ-based counterpart currently is. Everdell is pretty high up my Top 10 Games list, and so I have high hopes for Flourish, coming as it does from the same designer and publisher. The game though is an unknown quantity, and at the time of the campaign, there hadn’t been all that much coverage. I am hoping that it lives up to my expectations and that the game deserves the lovely art and high quality components that it’s been garnished with. I don’t regret backing it, it was after all quite cheap - I just really hope it’s good.
Project L & Finesse Expansion
We come full circle, Project L was advertised to me by Boardcubator in one of their updates about Space Race. Competitive engine-building tetris, what’s not to like? I immediately liked the idea of this one, and as an abstract puzzle game - it is completely unlike anything I already own. I had developed some trust in Boardcubator from following the updates to Space Race, and I had no doubts about the quality of the product they were going to produce. All of this, coupled with a (relatively) low price tag made this an obvious back for me. I went all-in and added the fancy box to put it all in. There’s not much more to say about Project L, no regrets here at all - me, and a subset of my gaming friends will love it. Backing this, back in October marked the end of my Kickstarting spurt in 2020, and I thought perhaps, for good. But it wasn’t to be…
In the early days of 2021, just as the optimism of the new year was fading into reality, Darwin’s Journey caught my eye. They baited me with the free Darwin mini-expansion, hooked me with the theme and art, and then reeled me in with interesting and fun-looking gameplay (courtesy of Before You Play), a great campaign, and a really good value all-in pledge. Having been on the Kickstarter wagon since October, I put a lot more thought and deliberation back into this decision that I think I did into some of my later 2020 pledges. Darwin’s Journey is a new game, and comes with the same old risk that it might not actually be any good, or that it might just not be for me. I am also unfamiliar with either of the designers or the publisher. However, the art and the theme and the interesting, interlocking mechanics eventually won me over. No regrets here, I am very much looking forward to getting it to the table, hopefully before next Christmas.
Root: The Marauder Expansion
More Root, no stretch goals, no Kickstarter frills, just everything that I would have bought at retail, sooner and for less money. Enough said.
- [+] Dice rolls
15 Feb 2021
I like cubes. Especially wooden cubes. And other wooden pieces. Terra Mystica is probably the box I enjoy opening the most, just because of the sheer amount of wood in there. I think that wooden pieces have a charm and a tactility that is missing from their plastic counterparts. The warriors in Root are probably my favourite game pieces of all time. They are pretty much perfect. They are exactly the right size and texture, the colours really pop and are easily distinguishable, and the screen printing gives them all such character. They have a warmth that would be missing if they were made from plastic. They even sound nice when they are dropped onto the board.
Wooden meeples are not always the best solution though. I own a copy of The Dwarves (which is pretty good by the way), and a copy of The Saga Expansion. In this co-op game you play a group of dwarves defending your land from an onslaught of orcs, trolls, and elves. The base game comes with 3 bags of cubes to represent your foes, with a different colour and size to represent each flavour of bad guy. As the game progresses these cubes spread across the board in much the same way as the disease cubes in Pandemic, and you dispatch your diminutive heroes to go and ‘heal’ the land of their presence. As a result, a lot of the game involves picking up and shifting groups of these cubes around the board. This process is very enjoyable - again much like Pandemic - travelling to a location and sending a bunch of cubes back whence they came is hugely satisfying.
The expansion replaces these cubes with wooden meeples representing the three invading races. These meeples look great, they are lovely little pieces. However, I don’t think they work. Firstly, I think that they clash with the plastic miniatures that represent the players, I don’t think that having figures in different materials and clearly at different scales is great. Secondly, and more importantly, they are awful from a usability standpoint. They are difficult to stand up, either individually or en masse, and they take up too much board space lying down. This instability coupled with the quantity of them on the board means that it is difficult to pick one up without knocking over half a dozen others. Also, because of their different heights it is difficult to pick up a group containing a mix of races - which you have to do often. And finally their size means that they obscure too much of the board state - and then to move them out of the way is difficult and results in half of them falling over. As I said, the meeples are lovely pieces, and I was using them as workers in a different game - they would be great. The number of them on the board in The Dwarves, and the frequency with which you have to move around groups of them, means they are just not right for the role they have in this game. The cubes may not look as nice - but they are so much more suited to the job.
I have been tempted by Academy Games’ Birth of America series for a while - they look really interesting. Then they released 878 Vikings - the first in a new series of Birth of Europe games. Being English, and from the Viking city of York no less, I am very tempted by this too. But I haven't bought it. One of the things that puts me off is the fact that the wooden cubes of the earlier games have been replaced by wonky plastic figures. There was no need for this change, and the figures are just a bit disappointing, a bit… naff. I can't be alone in relishing the thought of shuffling little piles of cubes around the map. A game I do own (and love) and that suffers from the same issue is Inis. The gorgeous art and otherwise outstanding production quality of Inis feels a bit let down by the cheap feeling plastic figures - which are more reminiscent of something that you might get in a Christmas cracker or a cereal box than in a quality board game. I think that both of these games are potentially candidates for custom wooden meeples. Little wooden Vikings or Celts would be great, and I feel would suit the feel of the games better.
That's not to say that plastic figures like these don't have a place. In War of the Ring for example. I still find all the low resolution and crooked armies of elves and men a bit disappointing, but there are too many types of figures here to use wooden pieces. It would simply become too hard to distinguish between them without expensive screen printing or the use of stickers. I am undecided about my feelings towards cubes with stickers on having played Command & Colours Napoleonics. On one hand I really enjoyed the look of the board with all the blocks of troops on - it looked like a proper old fashioned battle map. But on the other, the stickers - which it was impossible to get consistently centred and straight - looked untidy, and I worry about their longevity. I understand the appeal of miniatures when they are done well, but the little wonky Vikings and Celts in 878 Vikings and Inis are just disappointing. Games like Root or Everdell with their wonderful wooden pieces demonstrate what can be done if simple cubes won't suffice.
I do enjoy playing with plastic miniatures when they are done well. All of the figures in Imperial Assault are really well done and help with immersing players into what is a very thematic game. The player pieces in Blood Rage, Rising Sun, and presumably the upcoming Ankh, for example are also superb, a huge step up from those in the games I mentioned above. The detail in the design and the care in the manufacture mean that they are wonderful to look at and I do think they elevate the experience of playing these games. Miniatures done well can make a simple game feel like a deluxe product. I am not such a fan of the other miniatures in these games though. Again, the attention to detail in the sculpts is incredible, and they are great models to look at, but they are always a bit disappointing to play with. I hate that you are tempted by, and then buy, a monster that looks terrifying and is 5 times the height of a regular soldier, only to read it's card and see that it plays like a normal soldier unless you're at the top of the honour track, when it has 1 extra health. And it can still be captured by 1 ordinary, puny man. This just feels so disappointing - I want this guy to be stomping all over the map terrorising the other armies, but while he may look scary - it's all mouth and no trousers. I should have just bought that card that would generate me an extra point each turn. The additional miniatures in these games bloat the box sizes and the price tags, without really justifying themselves in the gameplay.
I couldn't post this without briefly talking about the hobbyist side to miniatures. This is not an area of tabletop gaming in which I really partake - I have dabbled, but no more. I wish I had the inclination to put in the time to become good at painting, and it is something that I am planning to work on. If you are an avid painter and you bought Rising Sun with all the miniatures because you love the Japanese mythology and you want to paint all of those beautiful models - then you can ignore all of my criticisms above. I’m sure that, well painted, they will look stunning displayed on a shelf or in a cabinet, and adding them into your games will be a lovely bonus. My issue is purely with them as raw game components.
Finally, I wanted to mention the worrying trend to over sexualise female (though not exclusively) miniatures. Just look at the figures in Blood Rage again - 3 tribes of big beefy Viking men dressed in layers of armour and fur - and 1 tribe of Viking women sharing hardly enough clothes between them to decently cover half of them. I mean, c’mon. I noticed in the first edition of Senet magazine, in their feature on Vikings in games, they included images of some of the miniatures from Blood Rage - but only the men. I may be projecting here - but I expect they were just too embarrassed to include the women. When you think of Viking warriors, you think of big hairy men, and even bigger even hairier men. An attempt to bring some gender equality into the game, given it's fantastical leanings anyway, would be applaudable if it weren't for the fact that the women they have included look like they should be running down the beach on the set of Baywatch rather than up it on the way to burn down a monastery.
So what I think I’m trying to say is that the industry needs to put a bit more thought into the pieces that are being included in modern games, and stop the trend of just adding more and more plastic for the sake of it. Picking up and moving objects around a board is such a big part of playing so many games; it has to feel right. I know that including lots of plastic miniatures sells games, but do they actually make the games better? There are so many examples of games getting it right, all those I have mentioned above - and Azul and Brass Birmingham also come to mind - that it is such a shame that so many don’t.
- [+] Dice rolls
28 Jan 2021
A little while ago some friends of mine were having a clear-out before moving house, and they decided to cull some of their game collection. After much deliberation, this resulted in them getting rid of exactly one game - which they offered amongst our friends for free. That game was 'The Settlers of Catan' (yes, an old copy from before they shortened it to just ‘Catan’ - a change which was weird for us because we always used to refer to it as just 'Settlers', but I digress). Another, non-gamer, friend had heard of it, and said that he would take it, but asked what was wrong with it, i.e. why were they getting rid of it? At this point I decided to join the discussion - "What's wrong with Catan?” I asked rhetorically, “It's fundamentally flawed as a board game, that’s what's wrong with it!"
Now, I may have been a little harsh, but there is a lot wrong with this euro classic. ‘It's too random, there's too much luck’ is what I'd usually have said, but I have come to realise that that's not true. There isn't too much randomness or luck, it’s just that the randomness and luck is in the wrong place. It is an all too common occurrence in Catan that you place your first 2 buildings in a tactically strong place, say, up against the 6s and 8s, and then nobody rolls a 6 or an 8 for the first 15 minutes, leaving you unable to do anything for turn after turn until you are 3 or 4 points behind and will never catch up.
Don't get me wrong - I don't dislike games which are luck-based, or which use dice to resolve events. It's just that the game needs to be fundamentally a push-your-luck game, or I need to be able to decide when and how I gamble. Rolling the dice in Catan isn't a decision you make - players just take it in turn to perform that piece of the game. The outcome of rolling the dice on your turn is no different from the outcome of anyone else rolling the dice on their turn. Not being able to do what you want because you gambled and failed, sucks - but it was your fault: you knew the odds, you chose to roll the dice, and you were unlucky. Not being able to do what you want because the game hasn't provided a 6 yet, is just awful - it feels unfair rather than unlucky. In other games, if you fail a dice roll - you can usually just do something else on your next turn. In Catan, if the dice doesn't deliver for you - there is nothing that you can do. You effectively miss a turn. This is the worst punishment in board games - there is nothing fun about sitting out a round watching your friends play. Especially if you are being punished for something that you had no control over.
As a, fairly long, aside - writing this reminds me of my experience with Arkham Horror. Please forgive any inaccuracies in what follows, I have only played it once and it was some years ago, I am only trying to get across a sense of what happened. My character in our 6 player game was a bookish girl, armed with an encyclopaedia and a pair of glasses. For my first turn I went to the library, as felt appropriate, and flipped the first card. It was a vampire; who killed me. I was sent to the Dungeon Dimensions and missed my 2nd turn while my character found her way back. For my 3rd turn I decided to leave the vampire in the library and visit the graveyard. I flipped the top card and, you guessed it, it was a different vampire; who killed me. Back to the Dungeon Dimensions I went, and missed my next turn. So 4 turns, and over an hour, into the game I had achieved nothing other than lowering my character’s (and my) sanity. I was so far behind the other players’ preparation that when it came to fighting the big bad at the end, I was of little to no help. The game ended and we won (yay!) but I didn’t really feel like I contributed to that success. And that wasn’t my fault - I didn’t choose to fight those vampires, the game just randomly handed them to me, without providing me with a way to deal with them. It was only okay in the end because Arkham Horror is cooperative and I could enjoy watching my friends struggle to our shared victory.
This problem is compounded in Catan by the scoring being so linear, and by the fact that there are no catch-up mechanics. Once you fall behind it is incredibly unlikely that you will be able to compete. There is no gamble you can take, nor riskier strategy you can employ, in an attempt to grab some points and catch up. You just have to sit there for the next hour, 4 points behind the leaders. This would be ok if what you were doing was actually fun without the competition - Catan is a race and if you're not going to be competing for 1st place, there's very little enjoyment to be had. And it's not as if you can just retire - the pieces you have on the board, and the cards you have in your hand, are integral to the game still being played by the other people sitting around the table.
When I said earlier that the luck involved in Catan didn’t feel like gambling because there is no player agency, I wasn’t being 100% accurate. I have come to realise that there is gambling in Catan - there is a choice that you make, knowing the odds, and hoping that you will be lucky. And that is where you place your initial buildings. Those 2 little decisions made essentially during set-up, are the gamble that your whole game rests on. After that you are at the mercy of the dice that the game rolls for you.
And that is my conclusion - that is what's wrong with Catan. Sitting through an hour of game that you know you can't win, and therefore isn’t much fun, because a gamble that you took during set-up didn't pay off, is just awful. It would be unforgivable in a game released today.
I may still be being a little bit harsh, Catan is by no means a terrible game - I have played it many times, and I have enjoyed it. However I have enjoyed it most as a 2 player game. We flip a couple of the tiles to their sea-side to shrink the map a bit, and play it head-to-head. This completely eliminates that 3rd or 4th player who ends up just propping up the game for the players who are competing for first place. I will never love it though - it will always be too frustrating, and there will always be too many better games I would rather play.
People love Catan because it was one of the first games they played having graduated from Monopoly and Cluedo. It opened their eyes to the world that is this hobby of ours. Either they are still taking their first steps and have yet to move past Catan, or it holds a deep nostalgia for them, reminding them of those innocent days when exchanging 2 wood for a sheep was the best gaming experience they had had. And that is absolutely fine - I love some games purely because of my nostalgia for them. It is just important to remember and acknowledge that that is why I love them. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to anyone else, or be upset if people don’t enjoy them. Catan is like the Beatles. Groundbreaking when it appeared, and indisputably important for what has followed, but when compared to what is being produced today - not actually that good. Catan being released in 2021 would be like the Fab Four releasing ‘Love me do’ in the same year. Unremarkable.
And I didn’t even mention the robber...
As a footnote - my advice to anyone who likes Catan, but has recognised anything in what I’ve said above, is to try Concordia. It is a game of building routes in order to put down little buildings in order to collect resources in order to get points. Sound familiar? Concordia is what would happen if Catan asked you what you wanted rather than just handing you the result of a dice roll.
- [+] Dice rolls
18 Jan 2021
I thought I would make my first post a Top 10 list and some reasons why I like the games that I do, because it should provide a nice bit of context for anything that I write in the future. This was supposed to be posted much closer to the start of the year - but it turns out that coming up with, and then writing about, a top 10 is really hard. To help make my life a little easier, the 10 games I have chosen are all in my collection, and I have deliberately avoided numbering them. The list below does not necessarily represent the order in which I would rate these games, but the best of the best are at the top. I would also like to point out that this is a snapshot, ‘as of December 2020’ and I reserve the right to have completely different opinions in the future.
So without further ado, my Top 10 games of all time (at the moment) are:
Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition
What was it Shut Up & Sit Down said of this game? “[...]Twilight Imperium is almost literally everything board games can be”. Although it is a game that isn't easy to get to the table, it is always an occasion. I love the whole thing - from getting the players to choose their races and re-watch the excellent RTFM video in the week before, through to sorting out the box the day after the game. TI is great for a whole plethora of reasons, but it is right for me and my gaming group because it is the perfect combination of a big, complicated, management game with a sprinkling of combat and just enough fuzz to obscure the maths and force players to play with their guts. We really love it though because we can make a day of it - organising food and drinks beforehand and settling in for one of those days when you don’t leave the house and it feels great. And the game will take all day - but somehow it never feels like it; it is at once a game in which you are constantly interested in what all the other players are doing, and a game that is easy to walk away from for 5 or 10 minutes. Breaking for lunch, and later dinner, doesn’t break the flow, and while conversation around the table will be mostly about the game, the pace of it means that other discussion can take place without derailing the experience. I would compare it to a day spent walking on the fells - a full day doing an activity I love, whilst also being able to really enjoy the company of my friends. My usual gaming group does not generally go in for discussion or negotiation games, and as such we are not huge fans of the agenda phase. We often find it a bit awkward or tedious, but we have house-ruled it to ‘improve’ it and it can’t spoil the experience. TI days have been some of the best days I’ve had, and to my mind, TI IV is pretty close to being everything that a board game can be.
I’m not going to start here by quoting Shut Up & Sit Down - because I think they got it wrong. I watched their review probably a dozen times before deciding I was going to buy the game anyway. And I’m so glad I did. Root is probably the best example here of a trait that most of the games on this list share - I enjoy them almost as much when I lose as I do when I win. I think this is such an important feature of a truly great game, and it is something that Root does better than any other game I’ve played. I love the asymmetry of the different factions; in the way that they play and in the different rates at which they score. It would almost be enough for me to just watch them interact over the course of a game without being invested. I think the choice of theme has a big impact here as well - the fact that it pits cats against birds against otters against moles, and so on, gives the game a real sense of fun that I think would be lacking if it took place in a more traditional wargame setting. This has the added bonus of making it so much easier to persuade more people to play, people who would be instantly turned off if it were Britain vs Germany vs Russia, or Elves vs Orcs vs Dwarves. I don’t love the art in Root, but I think it works - some of the cards are brilliantly, darkly, funny and the board is easy to read - even when it is covered with tokens and warriors. And the warriors themselves! I am not a big miniatures fan, and I generally prefer wooden pieces over plastic, and the warriors in Root are perfect - absolutely the best playing pieces in any game I’ve seen. The size, material, colours, and the little touch of screen printing that gives them personality, are all spot on. Root is a clever, interesting, and strategic war game perfectly camouflaged in a not-at-all-scary forest.
Concordia is brilliant - it is definitely my favourite ‘euro’ game with its traditional oldie-worldie-trading-in-the-Mediterranean theme and limited player interaction. Concordia is full of another feature that many of these games have in common - fuzziness. I like Power Grid, and it is constantly being recommended to me, but I don’t love it - it feels a bit too much like a maths exam. If you are not as mathematically efficient as you can be from turn one, you will lose - and all of the numbers are right there, laid out in front of everyone. Concordia on the surface is very similar, each turn there will be the most efficient thing you can do, and the player who is most efficient for most of their turns will win. The difference is that in Concordia the numbers are obscured in the cards that players hold, and calculating the most efficient move is usually just too complicated to be feasible. This leads to players making decisions based on what their gut, rather than their head, is telling them would be most efficient right now. This is what makes Concordia shine. The game flows much more quickly and it feels better when you win, and more importantly, it feels better when you lose. In fact everything you do in this game feels good - whether that’s placing your trading houses, buying cards, collecting resources, or even just collecting the money for refreshing your hand - it very rarely feels like you made a bad decision. I like that there is always the opportunity to at least get resources or money - the game is very generous in this way, and it never feels like a turn is wasted. Concordia is constantly satisfying and you always feel like you have a chance of winning. I like the fact the scoring is not done until the end of a game, it makes it exciting and means that you are never in the awful position of knowing that there is an hour left to play and that you are never going to be able to catch the runaway leader. Concordia is a fuzzy euro of the perfect weight that just keeps giving.
I think I just really like birds! This is the only ‘modern’ board game that I have been able to persuade my Father to play, and when we were finished he commented that the game was worth buying just for the deck of bird cards - and I am almost inclined to agree. Almost, because on top of the gorgeous cards, the game itself is also really quite good. I really like how the tableau and engine building mechanics mesh with the action selection - “I don’t really need food, but I’m going to get food anyway because it will activate those two great birds …”. ‘Building’ the birds in the rows you trigger to perform actions means that as the game progresses and you get fewer actions, those actions become more and more satisfying, and then, just as you start to run out of space, the game is done. I like that the tableau you build is so limited, you are only able to play a few birds and so deciding which ones they will be is a crunchy decision. I am looking forward to getting the Oceania expansion to the table with its mechanics for burning through the deck more quickly. The bonus cards and the end of round goals are other mechanics that I enjoy here - they give players a bit of direction, shrinking the number of good options each turn and preventing too much analysis paralysis. I am also a big fan of the little bit of flavour text on all the bird cards, and the way that the power of the bird is usually loosely linked to this bit of flavour. I enforce the rule that when you play a bird you must name it and read out this little factoid, which I enjoy even if nobody else does. The theme does feel somewhat pasted on, making the game come across as quite abstract, but the mechanics and theme are both engaging enough separately for this not to matter to me. I think Wingspan is a strong game, pushed to excellence by a beautifully illustrated and engaging theme.
I can sum up the first reason I love this game in one name, Andrew Bosley. I think that Mr. Bosley is the best artist working in board games today. His illustrations are always beautiful and his work on Everdell is no exception, it is warm and inviting, colourful and vibrant, and the characters he portrays have so much, well, character. And all this without ever getting in the way of the iconography and text that players need to actually play the game. The theme of Everdell can seem a bit at odds with itself at times - your critters are competing to build the best city in a forest? However, building a little farm and then being able to populate it with a mouse husband and wife, all of which synergise with each other wonderfully, is both cute enough and satisfying enough for the theme to pull me in. As with Wingspan above, the tableau building and engine building mechanics really gel together nicely, and also like Wingspan, your tableau, and therefore your engine is limited to a fairly tight set of cards. The progression in Everdell is incredible. You begin winter with just 2 workers to place, and doing anything beyond building your first card feels like a real achievement - but by the time you are into autumn, the cards in your city-engine will be firing on all cylinders, and placing one of your, now 6, workers feels almost like a little bonus to help you along. I do sometimes find that my city is full before the end of the game and my last few turns can feel wasted, but think I only have myself to blame… This is also the game on this list that suffers from the most AP, by the halfway point you will have such an array of resources and cards and options in front of you that planning out your next couple of turns can be a real headache. This is forgivable here though because it is not a long game, and there is only a small chance that your hard-thought plan will be foiled by an opponent. Everdell just feels cosy, both in its gorgeous art and components, and in its gentle mechanics and ‘soft’ player interaction.
The first solely 2 player game on the list (yes, unless you play Overlord), Memoir ‘44 is a game that I have never not had a great time with. It gives me the experience of playing a miniatures war game, a genre with which I have yet to click, but with all of the faff removed - there is no measuring and no arguing about who can ‘see’ who. The rules system is light enough that set-up is quick, the ‘teach’ is quick and then play is quick. What makes it really right for me though is the command card system. The hand of cards you have narrows the decision space, usually huge in a war game, down to just 4 or 5 options each turn. Picking the card that’s best is usually quite straightforward, but even when it’s not, it’s fine, because your opponent will be enjoying watching you squirm as you try to decide which of the terrible options in front of you you’re going to play. As with TI, I love that the combat is quick and dicey - it makes it exciting. On one turn your brilliantly executed pincer attack is foiled when you roll a fist full of stars, but on the next, your lone infantryman will single-handedly take out an entire unit of tanks and be a hero! I have a bunch of the expansions and while they do make it a bit more fiddly, and introduce some hard-to-remember rules, the slight asymmetry they provide between the factions really adds to the game. Pitting the US Marines against the Japanese Imperial Army in the Pacific Theatre is probably my favourite - the special rules for these troops make both sides terrifying to face in different ways. The scenarios can be a little one sided, but as the manual says, this is because they are based on real battles. The game is short enough that if you lost because the scenario was unfair, you can just spin the board around and play again as the other side, totalling your points from both games to determine a winner, but I very rarely care enough and would rather just move onto the next scenario. Memoir ‘44 is a fast and loose skirmish game, which manages to pack all the highs and lows of a big wargame.
Cairn, another 2 player game, is by far the lowest BGG rated game on this list - 3295th at the time of writing! I think that that is way too low. Yes the theme makes very little sense, and yes the iconography is really hard to pass, but these flaws cannot get in the way of the fact that this is a great game. No other game I have played (except for perhaps Hive) has managed to capture the intense head-to-head duel-like quality of Chess, without also capturing it’s intense tedium. The set-up and tear-down are both pretty quick, making it very easy to get to the table; it is the newest game in my collection - I didn’t get it until August - however it quickly became one of most played of the year. Even though you only have a maximum of 5 pieces on the board, and there are only 3 possible moves to choose from, with clever use of the megaliths you can pull off some really powerful combos. I find this really satisfying - moving one piece to trigger moving a second piece which in turn moves a third piece which scores you one of the 3 points you need to win. This is more than just playing efficiently, it makes you feel clever, like you’ve beaten the game. But you won’t be able to do it again, the board shifts too quickly, and the chances of the same configuration of megaliths occurring in a future game is pretty slim. I like that this isn’t a game about learning the good moves, it’s a game about seeing the good moves that are available right now. Cairn; like chess, but fun.
This one is a bit of a surprise, at the start of the year this game would never have been in my top 10 - in fact it was near the top of my list of games to consider passing on. Yet another tableau building game, Imperial Settlers, like both Wingspan and Everdell, keeps things tight in a very satisfying way. I think the reason for my early reservations, and the fact that it didn’t come off the shelf all that often in the past, is that I simply played it too early in my board-gaming career. It doesn’t offer the same easy to grasp mechanics and strategies of the games I was playing at the time, mostly Dominion and 7 Wonders, and therefore felt much less satisfying... Coming back to it in 2020, primarily as a 2 player game, I discovered that the strategic depth of the game was now well within my grasp and it is great. I love the fact that everything is so limited and it is a real struggle to maximise the efficiency of your civilisation each turn. I still don’t love it at 3 or 4 players, I think the down-time might just be too great, but at 2 it really shines. I have recently got all the expansions, and the new civilisations are a really nice addition, pushing the asymmetry in the game to a new level. As with the factions in Root, the different civilisations share some core mechanics, but all play in different ways - I love watching my opponent take their turn and having a real “You can do what now?!” moment, especially knowing that they are probably thinking the same on my turn. The art here is also lovely, not quite up there with Everdell or Wingspan but still very good, and I do appreciate the touch of humour in the details. Just because of the way it has turned around my opinion, Imperial Settlers is probably my ‘Game of 2020’.
This game sat on my shelf of shame for a long time, and it has still only made it to the table a couple of times, but I have to include it here because it gave me my single most fun game of 2020. Burgle Bros. is quite simply a joy to introduce and teach to new players. After our initial play we invited a couple of friends over for another game. I set everything up in secret and kept my teach to a minimum - covering just what you could do on your turn, and not revealing too many of the room types or what to expect from the loot (I haven’t looked through any of the decks too closely myself). Watching them blunder around the building setting off alarms and falling off balconies was, as I say, joyous. And that is to say nothing of the individual moments that this game created, from the situation that had all 4 of us cowering in a single dead-end room for turn after turn waiting for the guard to pass, to the moment when one of our friends finally opened a safe only to find it contained a very angry cat (I won’t spoil what that means, save to say it was unexpected and hilarious). Winning the game (by the skin of our teeth) felt like it was just a bonus on top of the experience we had already had. The fact that it is cooperative means that those situations where a player is trapped by the random flip of a room or the movement of the guard don’t feel too unfair - it is a problem for the whole team and it is the whole team’s responsibility to fix it. I don’t know how much replayability there is here, particularly within the same group of people, and I can see it being knocked from this list quite easily. However, I think Burgle Bros. will always remain in my collection as a thing I will get a kick out of showing to new people.
7 Wonders will always hold a special place for me and my usual gaming group. It was one of the first modern board games we played and it has really stuck around. 7 Wonders is the game we turn to if we want something light and familiar. I never have to remind anyone of any of the rules, and it is almost a little annoying when we have to look up the power of one of the more complicated leaders. It has become for us like comfort playing, akin to watching episodes of your favourite TV show again and again. We can get stuck in and play a really competitive game, or we can play it almost in the background whilst having a few drinks and a chat about something else. I really enjoy the synchronous gameplay that means there is very little downtime, a very important factor at the high player-counts it supports. We also love 7 Wonders for that high player count, it gives us the chance to play with 7 or 8 players, without having to resort to a ‘party’ game - a genre that we don’t tend to get on with. The art and components are all nice enough, but they don’t stand out, and it is showing its age a bit with some misaligned punch board, but there is nothing that detracts from the game itself. I don’t know whether we would like it as much if we came to it now, amongst some of the newer, shinier, games on this list, but we love it for the nostalgia and comfort that it provides. Having said that - it is still a really good game, and we can always add in one or two or five of the expansions if we want to spice it up a bit. 7 Wonders is a classic which hasn’t outstayed its welcome in my collection.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 - Our real-time, month-by-month play-through of the game Pandemic was halted in April, ironically, by the actual real-life Pandemic. But so far, so good!
War of the Ring: Second Edition - I love War of the Ring for many of the reasons I love the games above, I just need more plays to determine if it is ‘Top 10’ material.
Captain Sonar - I bought Cpt. Sonar just before the idea of getting 8 people in a room to shout at, and/or whisper to, one another became unthinkable, but the single session I had had previously was a riot!
- [+] Dice rolls