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Subject: Nova Aetas - An in depth review rss

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Trent Y.
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Where do I start? Nova Aetas (NA hereafter) is a tactical game fashioned after old school video games like Fire Emblem, Ogre Tactics and the like. Essentially, rather than a dungeon crawler, you’ve got preset maps where all the action takes place.

When I backed the game I liked the idea and look of it.
When I got the game I was excited to play it.
When I played the game, I hit several walls of frustration. I also saw some potential.
When I forced myself to keep playing it, I lost all hope.
Then, after figuring out how this game plays, working through the translation issues, working with the wonderful people on BGG and perseverance, I found the potential that I saw.

So do I like this game? I will state for the record: Yes I do. But the game has not made it easy to like.

KSer
Now let me start by saying that I’m a backer of this game from KSer. As is becoming more and more typical, this game featured a number of KSer exclusive figures and cards. I am not a fan of this, as I know that this will turn off some gamers because they cannot get the ‘whole’ game. It is my personal opinion that games that have many exclusives also do not do exceptional well in retail.

Also, I’m cognitive of the fact that some KSer backers over-inflate a backed product because they invested time and money into it and can’t bare the idea that it could be bad.


Components
The components vary a great deal. The minis are quite nice IMO. They are a little larger than normal figures but that does allow them to stand out on the maps. There are 4-5 hero figures (4 in the base set +1 in the expansion). There are several unique enemies and several squads of enemies. What is interesting is that there are three enemy factions represented (Papal, Faun and republic of Venice Mercs). I will get into that more later on.

The tiles...okay the tiles are really, really basic to the point of being boring. They are not the feature however. This game comes with cardboard 3D terrain. A few buildings, trees and bushes but they serve quite well to make the ‘board’ stand out. You can, in fact, climb on top of buildings so they serve a function in most cases. So while it’s a shame that the tiles are pretty basic, the 3D terrain makes the fights ‘pop’.

Tokens are tokens. You get a fair number of them. Some are used to represent wounds. Others will represent status effects. I had trouble making sense of many of them at first but after a while, I understood what most of them represent. Many of the tokens are double sided and I don’t normally mind that, except that they are not always consistent. For example, the wound tokens have a 1 wound on one side and either a 3 or a bleed on the other. It’s a bit annoying when you’re looking for the much needed side.

The cards are functional but they suffer from a few problems. First, the rulebook fails to be clear on when and where you get some cards. This is due to numerous small problems.

Basic gear cards have a colour code on them and a symbol that matches the hero. The symbol is obvious if you know where you’re looking but you could miss it. The bigger ‘crime’ is that they used blue and green as two colours and they are actually hard to distinguish if you use a dim light. It also isn’t fully clear that you trade them out when you switch classes, so your basic gear evaporates (or is unusable) when you specialize.

Element cards should have two decks. One is for elements that you can find/buy from the merchant and one is exclusive to (animal) hunts. On that note, the game is unclear what you can buy and sell from the merchant.

Skill cards are a little confusing as well, only because you get skills for free (it’s part of the win/loss of a scenario) but there is a cost on the cards. Only after exploring the rulebook do you find out that cities have a master that you can visit and instead of gaining an Uncommon skill you can pay to learn a Rare skill (this could have been handled smoother, since you are inclined to gain the skill at the end of the scenario and then do a city phase afterwards, and not all cities have Masters to learn from).

There are two orientation cards in the game, one using a d6 and one using a d8. The game rarely tells you which one to use.

There are wound cards. The rulebook doesn’t actually tell you when to use them...unless you have version 4 of the PDF rulebook.


Lost in Translation
This game has serious translation issues. I’m a little torn on this issue and I can see both sides.

When you get a game and you want to play, you’ve got one primary resource. The rule book. You want something that explains the game well, flows well and don’t hide key ideas/information in obscure sections of the book.

Sadly, the NA rulebook is bad on many accounts.

There are many small stumbling blocks to read the rules. There are some translation issues. There are some odd keywords used. There are layout confusion. There are examples that use incorrect terms. There are missing rules. There are confusing rules that can be puzzled out only after reading the entirety of the book.

Part of me finds this unforgivable.

There are profession companies that can be hired to do concise, clear translations. Just look at the latest Sword and Sorcery game that was translated extremely well (and in fact has one of the most clear to read rule books around).

Part of me accepts that this is a small company and they are trying. Members are very active on the BGG board and are working hard to clarify the rules. I appreciate that but at the same time, at the end of the day, it wasn’t fair for us (the gamers and the Kickstarter backers) to have to put so much work into figuring this game out. If somebody told me that they tried to read the rules and gave up on the game, I would not fault them. There are so many other games out there that a gamer is well within their rights to choose something more accessible.

The game designers are updating and releasing newer versions of their rulebook online, which shows tremendous effort on their part towards fixing these problems. There are still translation issues but you can figure out what they mean.

Example: A hero can discard a Haste token only once for activation would be the written rule. This obviously means once per activation.

Eventually, I believe that they will have a functional rulebook. For now, you may have some stumbling blocks.

There are still some weird rule interactions. For example, with ranged attacks there is no minimum range, so in theory a bow or crossbow can be used in point blank range. Except for the fact that (currently) all enemies who have a ranged weapon also have the Marksman skill, which forces them to run away from engaged (adjacent) heroes.

Artificial Intelligence
This is a coop game with 1-4 players vs the game. As such, the AI rules were promised to be challenging. Games like these can often be defined by how well their AI works.

Sadly, the AI rules in the original book were severely underdeveloped. Or perhaps the better way to state it is that the game designers knew what they want but failed to explain it clearly to the player.

The problem existed in that the player was instructed, more or less, to play the enemies as best as possible. This ended up feeling like you’re playing both sides, which isn’t really utilizing an artificial intelligence.

With the arrival of the new rulebook PDF there is a flowchart that reveals the AI in an excellent and concise way. It removes a great deal of ambiguity that the original book had (there is still going to be some issues). I would say that it helps with 80% of the problems, leaving a player scratching their head for the other 20%.

In many other games, the AI is much more clear. From the simple directions of the Descent app to the detailed chart for Sword & Sorcery, these AIs are mostly free of any ambiguous situations. There will always be the occasional situation that pop up but rarely do these derail the game.

The strength of the NA system is that within each scenario the enemies are given specific objectives, which may or may not involve the heroes. This is a pretty big deal and allow me to explain why.

The vast majority of dungeon crawlers (or in this case tactical minis games) have a host of monsters who have a sad and lonely existence with a singluar life goal to kill the player heroes. They sit in their dungeon rooms and halls, alone and unloved, waiting for a hero to walk close and trigger their AI. They exist only to act as ‘trash mobs’ for heroes who need the experience of killing monsters.

NA does away with all of that by giving the enemies objectives. You set up the map, place the enemies as indictated and then follow their objectives when they are activated. Because of this you have some truly imaginative scenarios.

One of the first real missions you have to tackle is dealing with some mercs who are lighting buildings on fire, for example, because there is a messenger inside one of the buildings whom they are trying to draw out and then kill.

This is where the game really sets itself apart from most other tactical games. The fact that these enemies are here to do their own objectives, just like you are. It’s fantastic (when it works).

Now obviously you are going to be a thorn in their side and begin to disrupt their objectives. This is where each hero gets a threat dial. Doing things like attacking the enemies will raise your threat value. Each objective is given it’s own threat valve, which is a way of saying how strongly does this enemy favour it’s objective over a hero. So you can sometimes attack an enemy and they will ignore you and continue along their objectives.

At first, this struck me as odd, but then I grew to adore it.

These enemies were given a job. Whether it’s a merc who is taking money to kill a messenger or it’s a member of a religious order attempting to burn a witch at the stake, they were given a task and they will adhere to it to the best of their ability. Until you get up in their kitchen and they finally have to put aside their task and start to deal with your hero.

In play it works extremely well. Making yourself a huge nuisance to the enemy to disrupt their objectives is fun and tactical.

Now I did say that this mechanic is fantastic when it works. There are going to be some objectives which are not entirely clear. “Kill the Heroes” is clear. “Burn the House” (along with some accompanying explaination of how they do that) is clear.

Use their skills to obstruct the heroes”, however is not clear. This is the objective on an enemy who has both a disruptive form of attack AND a way to buff nearby enemies. So with such an open ended objective, what IS the AI of this enemy.

The rulebook has only some open-ended advice, which amounts to: do the best possible thing for the enemy. It’s moments like these where you are forced to make decisions on behalf of the enemy and at times, you will feel like you’re back to playing both sides.

Overall, the benefits of this system outweighs the negatives. You can generally fumble through the confusing objectives and the when the more clear objectives work, you can feel like you’re playing a part in a bigger narrative.

Back to the threat value, this is the most important ‘weapon’ in the player’s arsenal. I feel that the largest draw to utilizing an AI is how the player is able to understand it and then capitalize on it. The threat value of each hero ends up becoming the ‘most dangerous and important target’ for many of the AI enemies. Enemies will examine who, within their control area, is the biggest threat and then will attempt to move and attack that hero. As a player, I appreciate this mechanic because it allows me a straightforward way to capitalize the enemy AI. There was, for example, an enemy with a large control area (basically they look near and far for threats). My apprentice (mage) was the highest threat and so, they were going to go after her. I was able to move her away and intercede my squire and novice (priest) between the enemies and her to keep her from being attacked and keep the enemies running around my other heroes. The trick was that I had to keep the apprentice within the control area of these enemies but not so close that they could attack her (it’s a lot trickier than it sounds because they were coming at her from both sides). Regardless, with the threat value as a mechanic, it provides a simple and satisfying way to manipulate the AI.

Gameplay
I’ve already covered the AI, which does cover the majority of details, but I will cover much of the rest.

Characters are activated via action points (AP). The average is 5AP and an attack costs, almost universally, 3AP. Movement is 1AP per square. So the AP budget is pretty tight at times.

All characters have a token that is placed on a clock, called the Horologium. As the clock ticks by, it will activate all characters in that sector, who must spend some or all of their AP. It is a little cumbersome, however, it works well. It gives you a predictable measure of when every character will activate. Enemies spend all of their AP even if they don’t actually use it all (if they are already in melee, but example, they will just attack and then ‘wait’ out the remaining AP). Players must spend either a) all of their AP or b) enough to move them along the clock to the nearest enemy. In this way, since each activation resets all AP, players can manipulate the clock, squeezing out a bit more AP than the AI can.

Perhaps a pro and a con, most scenarios have a time limit (I guess if you’re going to use a clock as a main mechanic, you might as well have a time limit). I’m not a huge fan of scenarios with artificial time limits but it does give you a reason to make difficult tactical decisions.

Enemies feature their own gear/skills which is a mixed bag. Most skills provide a bonus to the enemy in some fashion. At least one in particular, however, governs the AI of the enemy. This should not be a skill but part of the basic AI structure. Enemy gear is strange. There are pieces of gear which aren’t in the rules, so they serve no function. There are some gear that are listed, such as armor (which provides bonus wounds), but are explained to be already incorporated into the stats of the enemy. While this might seem like a fine idea, it appears as those the designers forgot to actually incorporate it. For example, there are melee and ranged mercs that you’ll meet very early on and both have 4 wounds. But the melee merc has Light Armor (which should already be incorporated into his stats, so without his light armor he should only have 3 wounds + his armor. It really is a trivial point but it’s one that makes you scratch your head just a bit.

Luck
The game uses both d6s and d8s, although exclusively at different points. Your characters will be starting out rather weak and will use d6’s. Tasks will generally require you to roll 3-4 dice (on average) and you will need 5+ (generally) to get at least 1 success. Many tasks require more than 1 success.

To ameliorate some of the luck, you will have skills (gained through performing scenarios) and gear (some of which you start with and others that you will have to create/earn) to help. Many of these will require that you spend AP to ‘power up’. These skills/gear will often give you more dice or re-rolls.

I found the game to be heavily slanted towards luck, until, you play it long enough to ‘level’ up your heroes.

Levelling up is called picking your specialization and you will do it (most likely) after 4 scenarios. At that point, all your dice pools, AP amounts and gear (for some reason) all gets better. Additionally you use the coveted d8s for all your rolls.

Levelling up has always been a strange thing. Generally you increase in power but so do all the enemies. That is true in NA. Once you level up, all the enemies suddenly also get better. They are tougher, hit harder and for more damage. They gain nasty skills and tricks.

Fortunately, by this time, your trusty d8, upgraded stats, gear and skills allow you to outshine the enemies just enough to start feeling like you’re a hero.

As I said, I became quickly frustrated with the luck portion of this game. That is until I came to the realization that the game is not designed for you to win every scenario! I will come back to this point later.

Gear
I want to talk about gear for a moment.

Every hero has their starting gear. They also automatically get their specialization gear when they level up. I don’t know why they weren’t using this excellent gear all along but whatever.

There is also gear (called formulae) that you can construct by collecting the correct types of elements (basic ingredients).

Throughout the game you’ll earn money and elements, which are things like herbs and other materials. When you kill enemies, they drop loot bags and these loot bags always have elements in them (which is kinda funny that you’re robbing people for the salt or silver nitrate in their pockets).

The elements are actually a hugely engaging part of the game (although once again, the rule book doesn’t do a solid job at explaining how you build the element deck or that you have to carefully record your elements and reset the deck).

There are actually two types of elements (common and hunt) but they function largely in the same way. You use these elements in between scenarios to create formulae, which is a fancy way of saying you turn elements and money into new gear.

The gear you get as part of your class is well suited to your class and rightly so. But the gear you get through formulae opens up all sorts of new and fascinating options for any character since it is not class gear. There are some obvious choices, a better sword or a crystal ball. Then there are some curious choices. A fire bomb that never extinguishes is quite appealing. Or a chemical that allows one of your heroes the ability to stick to walls (and thus climb up buildings).

Then there are hunt elements which you can only get by going on option hunt actions. You will be hunting an animal and hopefully, managing to chop off some precious body parts in the process. These animal elements allow you to build some powerful formulae that will definitely assist your future scenarios.

Constructing formulae is throughly satisfying and gives a compelling reason to spend precious AP grabbing loot bags from defeated enemies.

Additionally and likely unintentionally, because the constructed gear opens up new opportunities for characters, you can create new unexpected situations. The gecko formula, for example, given to the mage hero would allow her to climb up a building (which she normally cannot do baring a ladder). This would allow her to rain her spells down upon the poor melee enemies without fear of reprisal.

Enemies
The enemies provided in the base game come from three factions. The first two sound historic: the papal state and the republic of Venice. I don’t pretend to know my history well but I’m pretty certain that the primaevai faction, consisting of centaurs and fauns, is probably fictional.

It was actually the primaevai that sold me because I find myself falling asleep at the idea of playing a game through a historically accurate game, until there is magic, miracles and monsters.

What is interesting is that the papal state and the republic are in conflict and your heroes are caught up in that conflict. It’s not a spoiler to say that the entire game takes place in Italy and there is a token for both the pope and somebody named Doge (I had to look him up as well). You are the poor saps caught in the middle of their squabble.

As with the AI and the scenarios, the enemies are utilized to give the game a sense that, while your heroes are important to the narrative, there are other ‘characters’ in this setting who have their own agenda and are creating the conflict. That is quite refreshing, compared to the cliche adventurers clearing out a nest of orcs for a local village. But most importantly, and it’s hard to stress this enough, the enemies (what with their objectives) don’t feel like they exist to be XP/Treasure trash mobs. One of the opening scenarios has the enemies looking for somebody in a building and most of them will ignore your presence on the map until you give them cause to (I mean, some start wanting to kill you so keep that in mind).

It is actually for this reason that I’ve persevered through the difficult translation and the confusing rules. I love that the scenarios feel more realized than practically all other games around.

I love dungeon crawlers but after NA, I am struck with how much these games feature the aforementioned trash mobs.

About the only thing that NA is missing would be a ‘morale’ rule that allowed the enemies to realize when they were on death’s door and attempt to flee.

Scenarios
Another area where NA turns things on it’s head is through it’s scenarios. Although it may not look it at first, truly this is where the strength of the game resides.

I’ve already mentioned, due to the enemy objectives, you get a much more real and full sense of the world than any other game in recent memory. It feels like a living breathing world.

The scenario book has a fair number of scenarios to them. It is a complete story and it comes with 7 different endings!

Here is the thing: You are NOT meant to win every scenario. You are meant to win some and lose some and that combination of events will decide your final scenario and how well you accomplished the story.

This is almost shocking, in a world of dungeon crawlers where, if you lose a scenario you just replay until you win (such as Gloomhaven or Sword and Sorcery). Having a branching series of stories that, in part, reacts to what you’ve accomplished (or have not). There are a handful of scenarios that you must win in order to proceed, as the narrative would be broken otherwise.

For a game with 4 (simple) tiles, some nice terrain and wildly different scenario goals, the scenarios feel very fresh. There is no variation in a specific scenario, sadly, but there are so many that the game keeps throwing new things at you through the course of a campaign.

This is an understated strength of the game. I’ve not realized the sameness of many other dungeon crawlers until I played NA.

The only negative thing, for some, is that there is little to no hidden information in a given scenario (there might be a randomized token that needs to be uncovered, but these are few and far between). You are given all the details on how to setup and the objectives of the enemies. Some scenarios feature spawn points so new enemies will arrive but you know when this happens and can plan accordingly.

Additionally, as with most scenario based games, having all the stretch goals (new figures, reinforcement packs, etc) are for naught if the scenario doesn’t include them. Anybody who bought the Conan board game knows this all too well. At it stands, the campaign in NA only takes advantage of what’s in the box (and the first expansion Vesuvios Forge only adds the two additional enemies into that campaign). As the 2nd wave gets released, we may see scenarios that will allow you to swap out one enemy type for another or incorporate a way to add any random enemy to the mix.

Replayability
Everybody wants the most bang for their buck. The replayability exists, but only as much as the scenarios allow.

Each of the 4 heroes have 2 different specializations, so you have that as replayability. Mixing and matching the specializations will be interesting, but at the end of the day, there are only 4 characters in the core game (more characters are introduced in expansions). This is where the KSer exclusives rear it’s ugly head: Most of the exclusives are more heroes. They currently have not arrived so I can’t speak about how well they intergrate into the game, but if they do arrive, they will add a fair bit more replayability to the game.

I will mention that the specializations themselves are quite different. One version seems the agressive version and one the defensive version (although this is a broad stroke). They have access to different gear and skills so they feel quite different from each other.

You will never go through all the scenarios on one playthrough, so you can replay the story again. However, if you succeed in all the missions that you did before, you will arrive at the same ending, so there is that. I don't recall seeing any decisions to make - the storyline is determines by your success or failure.

Conclusion
This was a very hard review to write, simply because I find so much good, bad and ugly with this game.

The scenarios and enemy objectives makes this game stand head and shoulders above most games on the market. The game feels more ‘real’ than most.

The luck frustrated me to the point I was close to rage-quitting, but I persevered enough to get to my specializations and the game was noticeably better. Also, I had trouble with the idea that losing into the worst thing, especially given the structure of the campaign.

The AI is 80% solid, with only a few enemy objectives still falling into the trap of “you play the enemy to the best of your ability”. When it works, it works well. When it doesn't, you hope that the situation is something that isn’t too hard to logic your way through.

This is not a one-shot scenario game. This is a campaign and to really appreciate it, you need to give it a while. The gear and skills are fun but they only reveal themselves after a few games.

The rulebook is bad. Even after the pdf fixes. As I said before, it will take a bit of effort to understanding this game and if a person doesn’t want to do that, I wouldn’t blame them.

I think that this game is still in the ‘has potential’ stage. If the designers release all of the stuff they intend to, fix some of the cards that have mistakes and fix their rulebook, then this would be an amazing game. As it stands, this is an amazing game IF you have the fortitude to learn it.
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David Martin
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I loved reading your review Trent! It's crazy how much we think alike regarding this game, both the good and bad parts.

I would say that this review is un-biased and very truthful on all accounts regarding the current state of this game. Excellent job! I could tell you put a lot of time and effort into this and it shows.
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Hal Martin
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What an excellent review, well done!
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Aaron Rabold
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Thanks for the detailed review. This game wasn't on my radar when it hit KS as I didn't really start following Kickstarter for board games until this year, but I did come across Sine Tempore. I backed the crap out of that campaign and became very interested in Nova Aetas as a result with the number of crossover stretch goals that it had.

It's a bit disappointing to hear about the rulebook, but it isn't that surprising to hear after reading the early version of Sine Tempore's rulebook and I'm happy that the publisher seems to really be working hard to fix things and that they're listening closely to feedback.

I was actually most surprised to hear that there are only 4 heroes in the base game for Nova Aetas. While Sine Tempore also started with only 4 heroes, their stretch goal figures for both heroes and enemies were about half-and-half on the KS Exclusive and non-exclusive sides, by my count unlocking 6 additional non-exclusive hero figures. Of course, ST made nearly 4 times as much as NA on Kickstarter, but still, only having four hero options in a game that can be played with four players is kind of sad.

I really hope LMS does a Nova Aetas second printing Kickstarter, applying the things they learned from the Sine Tempore KS to hopefully get more funding and more stretch goals, having upgrade options for those who backed the first Kickstarter to get any new/updated content. They were originally going to have Nova Aetas purchasable through the Sine Tempore Pledge Manager, but ended up dropping that due to shipping cost issues and a second reason that they couldn't reveal in the last update but "think it will be good news for all game enthusiasts." I'm hopeful.
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Silver Bowen
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LMS has already announced a 2nd NA KS.
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David Martin
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silverbowen wrote:
LMS has already announced a 2nd NA KS.


When and where did they announce this? I couldn't find anything via a search on Google. Thanks in advance!
 
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Trent Y.
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pluvia33 wrote:


I was actually most surprised to hear that there are only 4 heroes in the base game for Nova Aetas. While Sine Tempore also started with only 4 heroes, their stretch goal figures for both heroes and enemies were about half-and-half on the KS Exclusive and non-exclusive sides, by my count unlocking 6 additional non-exclusive hero figures. Of course, ST made nearly 4 times as much as NA on Kickstarter, but still, only having four hero options in a game that can be played with four players is kind of sad.


Currently, all backers have received either just the core box and possibly the first expansion. The expansion adds 1 hero to the mix, so at most, we have 5 heroes (still a far cry).

There are 4 more KSer exclusive characters plus 1 more hero who was an optional buy and an expansion that includes another hero.

So eventually there will be more heroes.

I went all in on Sine Tempore and I hope that it ships with more heroes at the start.
 
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Andreas Micheel
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To be fair, for the base game, 4 heroes evolving into 8 different 2nd-level heroes is really enough. The game is very challenging as it is (which I like as it´s more like solving a crossword-puzzle, playing chess or doing a Sudoku than playing some sort of dice game).

I am looking forward to expansions which could add more depth to the game - but I think more elements, more recipes, more side quests, more locations ( I think all of which are included inthe Pandoras box) will REALLY make this a great game.

And the campaign is excellent! I already look forward to play it again with different skills, 2nd level heroes or even the architect hero. or the new "epic classes" (whatever that may be).

Once the rulebook has been reworked and proof-read again, then this game REALLY has potential to shine.
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David Martin
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I agree Andreas. I didn't really find the content lacking in the base game either. I'm looking forward to the additional content as well and am super happy they have a professional editor on board now!

I really do think this game is amazing, but I can't forget how much of a bear this game was to learn initially. When I was first learning this game, I would spend more time on here looking for answers and asking questions, then I would actually playing. The downloadable material in its current form did not exist when I (and others) were trying to make heads and tails out of the books that came with the game. We would study each new rules revision that came out (there were many) and ask questions as they'd come up in game. As a result a strong community was created on this forum and I love being a part of it!

Truthfully, I've never had to work so hard to learn a game!

However, I have to say the reason I did is because I absolutely loved playing it! The clearer the rules became, the more time I spent with the game, the more I loved it! It's at the point now where it's easily one of my favorites.

If LMS can fix the rules issues, the issues regarding the cards and do their best to prevent said issues in their expansion content; They will really have a winner on their hands! I sincerely hope that after it's all said and done, newcomers to the game will be able to learn and enjoy it with minimal effort on their part.
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Luca Bernardini
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Thanks for this fantastic review!

A very in-deep sight to our game, well done!

Luca LMS
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