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Subject: Play test review: Solid rules set but bland game play rss

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Sean Franco
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I recently had the opportunity to play test what I assume is the beta edition with the designer. Liz seems to be very dedicated to this game, and it's always good to see a creator with passion.

The game itself is a simple card game about alien monster hunting. You acquire crew, which can be used for one of two things each turn: building things (mostly cages to hold monsters) or hunting monsters (assuming you have a cage to put them in).

The sequence of the game is a simple ABCD: Actions, Builds, Captures, and Discards/Draws.

Actions take two forms. Crew members are hired through actions (no salary or fee required, just play them down from your hand). Crew have a build value and a capture value, each between 0 and 4. Most crew seem to be 2/2.

Other actions are a little more nebulous and involve mostly screwing over other players: stealing their crew, their monsters, their empty cages, etc. For each of these take-that cards, there are also numerous Reaction cards, but you need to have the right one that lines up with whatever card is being used to attack you.

You only get two actions per turn; actions are the only phase limited in this way.

Builds come next. You "use" your crew to build things. By "use," I mean tap, exhaust, whatever. The rules are a little vague at describing how to indicate that crew are "used" during your turn (important because they can only be "used" once per turn, but they can be "used" for both building and capturing, though not both in the same turn).

The primary thing you'll build are cages, which hold monsters. You can also build locks onto cages to secure your monsters from other players and alarms onto your cargo bay (play area) to give you a chance to defend your cages and monsters from other players (defense not guaranteed, see section on combat below).

Items have a different build cost, and you have to "use" crew that collectively satisfy this build cost to play that item card.

Captures are next. There is a card row of five monsters (called the "line of sight"). If you have a cage that can fit the monster (cages and monsters each come in small, medium, and large), you can "use" crew to capture that monster the same way you build an item.

You can build as many items and capture as many monsters as you have crew capable of doing.

Draw/Discard is last. You can discard as many cards as you want (anywhere from 0 cards to your entire hand), then draw back up to 6 cards in hand.

Alternately, you can draw two Collection cards, keep one, and discard the other. This brings up the question: what are Collection cards? This also brings up the question: how do you win this game?

Each monster has a number features. They have a Capture cost (which indicates how much Capture value your crew have to "use" to acquire it) and a VP value. They also have about five or six other indicators, which deal with what planet the monster is from, what its diet is, what kind of creature it is, etc. These indicators have exactly one function: to indicate what Collections want them. For example, one Collection might want three or more monsters from the planet Nix. Satisfying this condition will net you 20ish end game VPs. Failing this condition with penalize you -4ish VPs, so there is an element of risk when you try to acquire new Collections.

So to score the game, add up the VPs from your monsters and completed Collections, then subtract your incomplete Collection penalty (and a few other sundries, like crew members that are so strong that they come with negative VPs). Highest score wins. The game ending condition is either the depletion of the draw deck or N number of occupied cages controlled by a single player, where N is the 11 minus the number of players.

So far, I've basically taught you the game. Now here are my opinions on it.

There is a tremendous luck of the draw. Crew cards and cages are never guaranteed, and these are the basis to making any forward progress in the game. In fact, almost too much of the deck is filled with Actions and Reactions, almost all of which are take-that mechanics, and most of which result in some kind of battle. Now, there is an argument that if you have an Action to steal the crew or cage of someone else, it's even better than having a crew or cage card of your own to play. This leads to another problem of the game then, the battle system.

The battle system itself is straightforward but unfun. Players have a battle deck of seven cards ranging from 0 (the Decoy card, which is never discarded) to 3. The deck is mostly 1s and 2s. During a battle, each player chooses and reveals two cards. These cards are added together, with the higher sum winning and ties going to the aggressor. Cards are then discarded. When your battle deck only has your 0 card left, you get your entire deck back.

There are a few problems with this battle system. First, this leads to simple card counting and simple teaming up on whoever is the weakest. Second, the aggressors always winning ties gives little incentive to play defensively, especially given the very low variance in the battle deck values. Building alarms in your cargo bay will give you a chance to always have a battle if someone tries to steal or mess with your stuff, but the alarms are public knowledge, so it's easy to prey on someone who has already played out their best cards. Fortunately, combat is only a minor part of the game, but it's simplicity does not line up well with what significance it does have.

Unlike many amateur games on the Kickstarter market, the game rules do work. Nothing is unclear, and all of the systems are functional. That said, the game is bland. I mean, the game is boring. There are minimal decision points once you understand the rules, and your hands tend to play themselves.

There is a ton of detail in the monsters that can result in bonus points from the Collections, but that's it. There are virtually no interesting interactions or synergies, which is what a game like this depends on. There's little variation in crew members; there's even less variation in monsters, despite the glut of detailed signifiers on them. Considering how many cards end up in each player's play area, it's bizarre that there are no synergies. Why can't my captured Cownivore help me hunt down a herbivore? Why can't my small cages hold more monsters if they are from the same planet? Without synergies, card evaluation is mind-numbingly simple. It would be details like this that could help players look for alternate paths to victory. Without those details, your decision points are minimal, leading to just one or two cursory plays.

Again, the word that kept ringing through my head for the entire game was bland. Functional, yes. Bland, also yes.


EDIT: Grammar
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Taela Sky
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Sean - Thank you for taking the time to play test my game and write your comments.

And while no one likes it when someone calls their baby ugly, some of the best changes can come from critical feedback such as yours. The great thing is that Xenofera has not yet gone to final print, so there is still time for tweaks.

I have already started play testing with a slight change to the battle mechanic to address your concern below with the aggressor always winning.

If you have any other suggestions for the game please feel free to let me know.

Liz
 
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Sean Franco
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Liz, I had no intention to call your baby ugly (as you put it). Indeed, much of the art seems impressive, and the only reason that I did not mention it in my review is that it seemed largely incomplete in the copy that I played.

The biggest change I would like to see in the game is something to mix up card evaluation. Presently, there are only three factors in deciding what to capture: can I capture it, how many VPs is it worth, and does it fit into one of my Collections. As I said in my review, any card synergies would make this a much more interesting decision, especially since the decisions at this point are fairly obvious. Just look at two of my simple suggestions from above:

Quote:
Why can't my captured Cownivore help me hunt down a herbivore? Why can't my small cages hold more monsters if they are from the same planet?

Obviously, you don't want synergies like this on every monster, since that would sacrifice much of the simplicity of the game for minimal payoff. However, if even something like a third of the monster had additional abilities like this, it would add an actual interesting dimension to the game that would give reasons to replay.
 
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Michel Daviot
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I also got a chance to play 2 games tonight with the designer Liz.

I usually prefer games with little luck involved so I had some apprehensions about this one.

It IS true that there is a fair amount of luck in the cards drawn. But I still liked the game a lot.

What I liked :

- the rules are clear, solid and get understood very quickly
- the game only uses cards as material. The layout is pretty clear with the different card backs. The game state is clear.
- the game length : we did setup, explainations and 2 games in about 90 minutes.
- it seems to play well with different # of people. We played 2p games only tonight but Liz seem to prefer games with more.
- the art is really nice ! it was improved since the first version (which you can still see in the 'print'n play' section of the site)
- there seems to be different strategies which are not obvious during the first games (hold your reaction cards to play defensively, try and stifle your opponent by stealing crew members or cages, rush to build and fill your cages and end the game, build slowly upgraded cages and capture only most valuable creatures which match your collections ...)
- the game plays quite differently depending on which ratio of crew members / cages / attacks / reactions you get at the beginning
- the level of interaction between players with attacks / reactions / duels
- the duel mechanism (it was improved since the first review) which has just the right amount of randomness and balance between "I want to make sure I win this one" and "I need to keep good cards for next duels".

What could be improved :

- I felt that the games coud end a little earlier. I really like games like Dominion or Puerto Rico when you can rush the game to an end an counter a greedy strategy.
- The amount of information on creature cards was a bit overwhelming to me. I got confused more than once between size and planet information, capture and value, and the many keywords. Most of this information only matters for collections so you tend to use it only by the end of the game.
 
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