On Gamer's Games

Wherein I Discuss Those Games Described As Gamer's Games
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Dice Tower Con 2012 , Mage Wars, and Sky Traders

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
I spent the 4th of July weekend in what looks to be the first of what will almost be a series of board game conventions in Orlando sponsored by Tom Vasel’s The Dice Tower called, appropriately, Dice Tower Con. I am mostly an irregular listener to the Dice Tower, and only rarely watch the video reviews, as I vastly prefer written works, but I could not resist the urge to go to a gaming convention that was just 30 minutes from my house, and I did my best to let as many people in my extended play group as possible about it in order to ensure that we would have a good Orlando contingent at the convention. We did.

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

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

Mage Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Board Game: Mage Wars Arena

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

Sky Traders
Board Game: Sky Traders

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

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

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

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

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