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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past» Forums » Reviews

Subject: TMNT: Stuck in the Past rss

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Taylor S

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I love ameritrash dungeon crawlers, grew up with TMNT, and happily own several Kevin Wilson-designed games. But I HATE TMNT: Shadows of the Past. This review details the design elements that take what should be a sure-fire combination for fun, the turtles vs. shredder's minions, and turn into a series of slow, painfully non-interactive experiences.

Before diving into TMNT:SotP's failings, it worth tracing the gameplay foundations it has been built upon. Namely, Kevin's Wilson's Doom engine. Doom featured the mechanics of 4 players vs. 1 overlord, moving figures a certain amount, rolling dice to deal damage/range, and rolling dice to prevent damage. This system was later rolled into FFG's own IP: Descent, given a fantasy theme, and created a literal empire over two editions and dozens of expansions.

As an experienced D2E player, I am all too familiar with the criticisms leveled at the game -- that at its root it simply becomes a game of blocking hallways with monster meat while the Overlord alpha strikes a weak hero over and over again while they try to get up. Very unfun if you are the spellcaster on the receiving end of these repeated civil rights violations.

Very late in D2E's cycle this problem was minorly improved with better written scenarios. FFG strongly targeted this issue for improvement in Star Wars: Imperial Assault by forcing the Overlord to "wound" all heroes rather than just pick on the weakest, which largely worked.

This is as good a point as any to discuss the strengths of the doom/descent/SWIA system: variety. The games feature a multitude of heroes abilities, weapons, and monsters all of which have different types of attack dice, defense dice, and special abilities. Heroes and monsters can be glass cannons, damage soakers, AOE specialists, safe-but-reliable, or dangerous-but-inconsistent. Furthermore, there is progression so players and overlords can tailor their characters' as they see fit.

TMNT has none of these strengths, but most of D2E's weaknesses. Furthermore, an "action dice" mechanic has been shoehorned into the design in the name of teamwork, but really only serves to artificially limit player choice -- pretty much the worst offense in game design. So let's begin dissecting where TMNT goes wrong:

Teamwork Dice - billed as the great selling point of the game, fostering teamwork and fun. Ultimately it doesn't do much to help the players. With 4 turtles rolling dice, Raphael getting 6 to choose from for sharing, and Leo's ability to swap dice, you can almost always scrounge up the actions you need. Move some, attack some. In most cases, players are simply setting up the dice of their allies. While in the loosest since this is teamwork, it is really just managing a communal dice pool with extremely small bits of compromise when needed. But what about setting up that big attack or movement using all the turtles dice together? Teamwork makes the dream work, right? Well, that leads to...

cry Asymmetrical Flexibility - So the turtles horse trade and groupthink their dice for the round and lock them in. What is a round? It consists of 4 turtle turns, alternated with 8 overlord cards. An overlord card can activate up to two minions, though only one minion per turtle turn. This means that the last turtle to act has locked in his options publicly while the Overlord has SIX cards worth of actions to react before the turtle can do anything! Mechanically, this is infuriating as the last turtle is often denied effective options due to significant changes in the board state between when they lock their actions and when they can enact them. Thematically, shouldn't the turtles be the ones who can adapt and react to the minions, not the other way around?

yuk A Rugby Simulator - As of Book 2, the mission objectives have all been for either someone to escape off the end of the board, or for something to be destroyed at the end of the board. To support this, and hamper quick movements, mechanics have been put in place to slow players down. In fact, virtually every rule in the game relates to slowing players down! Special terrain: adds movement costs/stops movement. Character zones of control: makes movement more expensive. Character intersections prevent movement. This game feels like Blood Bowl. Since every mission has one team grinding to the end to "escape" or "defeat" a target at the back, you could easily replace those with "score a touchdown" or "sack the quarterback" and be on point. But why not just juke and use ninja moves to make exciting things happen?

gulp A Game of Pile-Ons - In most missions, the Overlord has to get two KO tokens. It actually took us a while to understand what that means due to the way the rule book was written (it essentially means a failed standup attempt by a turtle). Conversely, the turtles usually have to move ALL turtles to a location. That is, turtles cannot be sacrificed as distractions to accomplish mission objectives. Thusly, every game degenerates into a big greasy pile-on where the Overlord focuses fire on a single turtle, literally up to 16 times per round (2 card/turn, 2 minions per card). So a focused turtle gets ~5 dice worth of actions compared to potentially 3 times as many attacks coming at it. Why not retreat, heal, or hide?

ninja Offense is Defense, and there is no Defense - There is only one direction in TMNT: forward. Healing relies completely on rolling chi dice faces, which is not reliable and even if it were only heals 2 life, less than a standard attack. There is no heal/rest action in the game. As for hiding, good luck. LOS is extremely generous and minions can shoot long distances without penalty, and melee minions can move through obstacles without penalty. It is as if all strategy was deliberately removed from the game. So you cannot rotate turtles on the battle front. You just have to charge into the pile-on and hope you win. Things are spiced up mildly by the occasional jump attack or enemy throw, but those are too few and too far between to maintain player interest.

Conclusion - Ultimately TMNT takes the worst aspects of previous 1 v. Many designs, removes tactical flexibility, customization, scenario variety, and adds an irrelevant action dice mechanics and punishing rules for standing up. This creates a 2.5 hour slog. For instance, if a player moves first on round 1 and last on round 2 -- it could take 30+ minutes between turns! There was an exciting opportunity for TMNT, but simplifications were made in the wrong places while leaving in the parts that are just not fun.
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Bryce K. Nielsen
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Interesting. Our group found the dice sharing mechanics to encourage teamwork and planning more so than other semi-cooperative games like Descent. Our players would think about what they're wanting to do action-wise, look at their dice and see if they could even do it, then all the turtle players would talk about their strategies and what actions they might need from their neighbors. More often than not this required a lot of dice juggling to get the desired actions, and the best thing for us was the general planning/communication between the players. They would tell each other what they wanted to do, strategize a lot if they didn't have the right dice, etc. It's by far the most teamwork I've seen from these games and frankly one of the most innovative mechanics I've seen in a tactical miniature game in a while.

The dice sharing also helped with the down time, since all the players tended to strategize at the beginning of the round, and thus feel involved, even if they were the last player to move that round.

But I can see if you don't like the dice sharing mechanics you wouldn't like the game at all. Pretty much everything cool about this game hinges on that mechanic.

-shnar
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Doctor Bandage
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An interesting take, although I disagree on a few points. As a disclaimer, I've primarily been playing the villain.

To clarify, this game is not a dungeon crawl; it's a brawl. There's no character progression or loot, just a bunch of mutants beating up thugs and ninjas (or vice versa). It's natural, given the designer's previous works, to draw comparisons to such games. However, I feel the goal of this game is different. Its goal is to be more accessible and to focus on getting your player into the fights without bogging them down with shopping phases,level ups, etc. Infinite customization of a character is supremely fun, but also a big time sink. Sometimes you just want to take a character that's established (like the Turtles, or Batman, or the Avengers, etc) and just get straight to it. That's where I think the focus of this game is and I think it does it well.

The Good Parts

Like Shnar, I've found the action dice to really encourage teamwork and group discussion instead of just having 4 separate one-man armies. The phase where dice are rolled turns the table into a mini situation room with all kinds of strategies flying around and requests for certain dice being made. It makes the turtle players feel like they're part of a team instead of 4 lone wolves who just happen to be together.

I can sort of understand the issue of the last turtle's moves being public knowledge. As a villain player, knowing EXACTLY what that last turtle can/can't do is extremely useful information. But more on that side of things later. On the turtle's side, it doesn't feel like it's as big a deal. Every other turtle's available actions are public knowledge too so you don't "feel" like you're in a different situation. It's also more likely than not that you went last because whatever actions you had were sort of middling anyway compared to the other players (otherwise you'd have gone before them). It's a bit of a downer to know your actions aren't stellar this round, but sometimes dice don't roll what you want (or you were too stingy to use some focus).

I rather like the movement rules, specifically the bit about needing to break away. I like that I can get into melee range and generally keep a foe tied up. It always bugs me when there's no penalty for leaving melee combat because it generally leads to ranged weapons being much more useful, often to an absurd degree. The special abilities are also part of why the movement rules have my favor. Lots of the abilities allow you to bypass the typical movement rules (at a cost, of course) so I feel like I have options. For instance, lets say two goons block the alleyway. We can have Mikey throw someone past them, have Donnie fling one away, Leo can leap right over them, etc.

Jumping ahead a bit, I see the minimal healing as a way to keep game-time from spilling into all-day territory. If there were ample opportunities to heal, the game would be way longer than it is now. As is, it puts a timer on the turtles to push the objective and not waste time with every goon until they die from attrition. I wouldn't object to some better healing options (maybe like some of the villain cards allow?), but I'm okay with them as-is.

The Not-So Good Parts

Now, here's where I start to agree with you. When I first cracked open this game, I praised it for (upon first impression) not having the villain player be a glorified GM. As I've gotten more playtime with it, that hasn't held up. There are a lot of scenarios where a competent villain player will make turtle soup out of the heroes almost every time. This is especially true if you use & abuse the "beat up on one turtle" tactic. Villains also have a distinct information advantage. No one can see what cards they have, they get to hear the players discuss strategies, and - as mentioned before -, they can see the player's action dice ahead of time. If you're a competitive person, it's hard not to use that information to crush the heroes where they stand. Part of me wonders what if would be like if the turtle players hid their dice behind a screen and made the villain player leave the room while they strategize.

Unfortunately, the best solution to the information discrepancy, like many 1-vs-All games, is to be a villain player with a certain mindset. You need to be okay with being the dungeon master. You need to be okay with pulling some punches here and there to make sure the rest of your players are having fun. You need to have this innate sense of when to apply pressure and when to ease back to keep the tension just right. It's a difficult skill that certainly not everyone has nor is it one that everyone wants to apply when playing a board game. If you're an ultra-competitive, cutthroat, win-at-all-costs type of person then TMNT (and most other 1-vs-All games) probably wont be for you or your group.

Finally, I wish boxes included a "best at" player count. This game is best at 2-3 players. At 4-5 players, you will end up waiting a while between turns (as a hero), so you need to be okay with that to have a good time.
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Geoff ...
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DoctorBandage wrote:

You need to be okay with being the dungeon master. You need to be okay with pulling some punches here and there to make sure the rest of your players are having fun. You need to have this innate sense of when to apply pressure and when to ease back to keep the tension just right. It's a difficult skill that certainly not everyone has nor is it one that everyone wants to apply when playing a board game. If you're an ultra-competitive, cutthroat, win-at-all-costs type of person...
You offer a rather extreme example of the type of person that may not like the game, as if to suggest that this game is actually for most anyone (extreme, by definition, being a small sample of gamers). You don't need to be "ultra-competitive", "cutthroat", "win-at-all-costs" (are we done yet?) to take issue with a game that requires a DM to be enjoyed.

DoctorBandage wrote:

...then TMNT (and most other 1-vs-All games) probably wont be for you or your group.
Disagree. Modern 1-v-all games are designed so that the overload must play at his best to win. Recent examples are The Others, Conan, and (suggested by designer) World of Smog.

DoctorBandage wrote:
This game is best at 2-3 players. At 4-5 players, you will end up waiting a while between turns (as a hero), so you need to be okay with that to have a good time.
Yes, and for a game whose strength is the innovative means of cooperation, it doesn't actually play well unless you have players control multiple turtles, ironically negating cooperation to a fair degree.

For what it's worth I don't have an opinion on the game either way, as I'm only a few games in.
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Brant Benoit
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Thanks for the dissenting view.
I actually like to read negative reviews and especially so when a game gets nothing but praise heaped upon it. I like getting some perspective, and for people like myself that are still waffling it really helps. So thanks again.
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Doctor Bandage
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Geoff wrote:
You offer a rather extreme example of the type of person that may not like the game, as if to suggest that this game is actually for most anyone (extreme, by definition, being a small sample of gamers). You don't need to be "ultra-competitive", "cutthroat", "win-at-all-costs" (are we done yet?) to take issue with a game that requires a DM to be enjoyed.

You seem to have misconstrued my statement to be mutually exclusive. There are plenty of reasons not to want to be a GM, but being ultra-competitive, cutthroat, OR (happy now?) a win-at-all-costs type is certainly a sufficient reason.


Geoff wrote:

Disagree. Modern 1-v-all games are designed so that the overload must play at his best to win. Recent examples are The Others, Conan, and (suggested by designer) World of Smog.

You say "modern" as if this game didn't come out last year and missed the qualifier "most". TMNT's GM problem has some shades of gray to it as well, as how much you need to be a GM versus a villain is highly scenario dependent. Annoyingly, the first mission (Book 1-1) is one such case where the villain player needs to show some restraint or they'll win in 3-4 turns. I say annoyingly because this is most likely the scenario that will get played as you try to teach the game, highlighting the problem. I don't have the scenarios handy, but I believe the ones that I didn't feel the need to GM were ones without the win condition of getting 2 KO tokens on the turtles. When that condition exists, it enables the use of "beat on the weakest turtle" as a means to victory. If this condition were slightly tweaked to X (<=4) KO tokens on different turtles, I would feel differently.

Geoff wrote:

Yes, and for a game whose strength is the innovative means of cooperation, it doesn't actually play well unless you have players control multiple turtles, ironically negating cooperation to a fair degree.
It's not that it doesn't play well at 5, it just requires patient (or quick) players. There's a lot of table-talk going on at 5 players and you often feel invested in other players turns because of the variable turn-order. However, as the players who've taken their turns increases, there's less opportunity for personal investment until the round resets so the table-talk tends to decrease near the end of a round. Since it's easier for people to maintain their attention when they have a personal investment (rather than a group one), I find that lower player counts controlling multiple turtles works better, but the game isn't broken at 4-5. Apologies if that was unclear.

Waiting isn't unique to TMNT. I get the same feeling in high-player count games of Imperial Assault, Caverna, Carcassone, Splendor, and lots of other games. My general opinion is that games without a high degree of direct interaction off-turn work better at lower player counts.
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Arnaldo Horta Jr
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I agree that this is really not a 5 player game. I prefer it with 3 and will play with 2. Since my regular opponent for this game is my son, it works just fine!
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Arnaldo Horta Jr
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I just looked at this again...a 2.5 hr slog?? What game are you playing? If I was playing one scenario of this for 2.5 hrs I would hate it too. I have never had this go over 90 minutes....
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These are, for the most part, valid criticisms. There have been some sacrifices in order to keep the game simple and moving.

I find that a lot of people who complain about the length of missions are ones who are probably overthinking a lot of it. When you consider that most fights in the comics last only a few pages, then each scenario in the game really shouldn't take very long at all. It also isn't thematic to spend 15 minutes each round trying to decide what to do; it really should be immediate tactics, not the Battle of the Bulge.

And if you play it as quick tactics, then a lot of the other complaints become less relevant. For example:

Quote:
the last turtle is often denied effective options due to significant changes in the board state between when they lock their actions and when they can enact them

If you are playing in full-on strategy mode, then yes, that is infuriating. But if you're playing quick tactics, then it doesn't matter nearly as much. Instead of figuring out exactly how many spaces you need to move ("I need three skateboards, guys!"), you simply decide how best your teammates can complement your roll (and you complement theirs). And then when each turn comes around you decide which hero will be best effective, and that hero takes a turn. Again, this is a ninja skirmish -- strike fast, then fade away into the night.

That also mitigates a lot of the fact that the villain player can hear the heroes strategizing; if they're only strategizing the current turn, then what does it matter? (Overall strategy is best discussed before the game begins anyway, so the hero players could easily be allowed a few minutes alone with the map to plan, but once the game begins, it's slash and dash.)

That's not to say there aren't some issues. I would like to see more variety in the scenarios. It is also unrealistic that a villain character can move 4 times as fast as a hero. And I have not played with 5 players, but I do think 3 is probably ideal, and that can be considered a negative for larger groups.

I think it's unfair to downplay the teamwork aspect, though, as there is far more teamwork in TMNT than in most other games I've played. Compare it to Defenders of the Realm, which I love and has tons of cooperation to it; but for all the cooperating in DotR, it doesn't really feel like there's much teamwork going on. Even battling the generals, it just feels like everyone is figuring out how to show up at the same time with enough cards to win. TMNT feels like every round you are making decisions that affect your teammates.

Anyway, like I said, the OP makes fair criticisms for the most part. But I think the game was intended to be played in a way that is fun and swiftly moves past its shortcomings. And so far, in my view, it succeeds.
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Charlie Theel
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Quote:
only serves to artificially limit player choice -- pretty much the worst offense in game design.

Earth Reborn, Gears of War, War of the Ring/Battle of Five Armies, Gloomhaven, Claustrophobia, StarCraft/Forbidden Stars, Middle Earth Quest, and a truckload of other phenomenal games give you a wink.
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Bryce K. Nielsen
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So played this game again with some friends last week, right after trying Gloomhaven, and it was such a bigger hit for the following reasons:

- Setup time was so tiny: Layout 2 boards, a handful of tiles and figures, and we're playing! Like 5 minutes for each mission.

- Public Strategizing: the public knowledge of Action Dice allowed for such great teamwork in strategizing the turn among the players. It was really refreshing compared to other dungeon crawlers that tend to silo player actions.

- Limited Bad Guy actions: Shredder's cards make it so not every single figure is activated every turn. That really helps the game keep moving but never feeling overwhelmed, especially since Shredder can respawn every turn.

- Quick Games: Every games we've played so far was completed in under 2 hours, including setup and teardown, and most were done in under an hour. Great "streamlined" experience for a tactical miniature game like this.

-shnar
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Taylor S
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All I can say is that I'm stunned that any group would prefer TMNT to likely 2017 game-of-the-year Gloomhaven. But if your people are having fun, that is what counts!
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Arnaldo Horta Jr
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DrFunkenstein wrote:
All I can say is that I'm stunned that any group would prefer TMNT to likely 2017 game-of-the-year Gloomhaven. But if your people are having fun, that is what counts!

Completely different kind of game. TMNT has less setup time, can be played as a one-off with a few people and has Amerithrash mechanics as opposed to thinky Euro mechanics.

I know lots of groups that would fall on either side...
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Doctor Bandage
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DrFunkenstein wrote:
All I can say is that I'm stunned that any group would prefer TMNT to likely 2017 game-of-the-year Gloomhaven. But if your people are having fun, that is what counts!

I'm stunned that you think there isn't room for both. They're vastly different games in theme, mechanics, and weight. I can (and do) like both games.
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Marco Signore
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DrFunkenstein wrote:
All I can say is that I'm stunned that any group would prefer TMNT to likely 2017 game-of-the-year Gloomhaven. But if your people are having fun, that is what counts!

I would prefer ANYTHING to Gloomhaven, which in my humble opinion is the most overrated game ever.
That said, after only two games TMNT:SotP is good for my group, perhaps because we don't like the analysis-paralysis syndrome, and we play games like this as, well... action movies. This is not to say that our way is the best/only way to play this game, by all means. Our way is the one we enjoy, and so all criticisms are welcome - I for one always prefer to read a "negative" review over a super-enthusiastic one.
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