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9
Go to the Legend of the Five Rings - Emperor Edition page
71 out of 72 gamers thought this was helpful

Legend of the Five Rings (L5R): Emperor Edition is the eleventh base set for the L5R collectible card game. It signalled the beginning of the Emperor “arc” of competitive play, with all cards released having a small green “bug” at either the lower left or lower right corner of the text box to indicate legality for that arc (see here for an example).

From a design standpoint, Emperor Edition was meant to give multiple options to each of its nine clans immediately upon release of the base set. Starting with previews nearly a year before the release of the set, AEG teased each of nearly forty distinct themes, with four for each Great Clan and a few stragglers for the Unaligned factions. This was an ambitious but flawed undertaking: not all themes received useful cards equally, so there would be a disparity in balance. In addition, designing cards meant to work with a variety of specific keywords had the issue of individual card packs not being largely useful to players who wanted specific themes and decks. That being said, the multi-themed design led to some fun deckbuilding, and people who thought outside the box with their deck choices can be well-rewarded with fun gameplay. Splashing some light dishonor tech into a primarily military deck can be useful in buying crucial turns against a fast-paced honor deck, and so forth.

The L5R storyline going into Emperor Edition picks up about 25 years after the end of Celestial Edition. The Empire is rebuilding from the devastation of The Destroyer War; Empress Iweko I still reigns, with her two sons fostered to different Clans to shape their youth; Rokugan is expanding outside its borders for the first time, claiming the tropical ruins of a former kingdom as “the Colonies”. The grand bargain Iweko made with the newly minted Dark Lord of the Shadowlands has formalized the Spider Clan as the Empress’ Conquerors, who after a quarter-century are a part of everyday Rokugani life, whether the other Clans like it or not. The Emperor Edition narrative is one of change and possibility, where the situations faced by the citizens of the Empire are new, exciting, and terrifying.

The Emperor Edition product itself is markedly improved over its predecessor, Celestial Edition. Starter decks for a clan include all four base strongholds for that clan’s themes, the Clan Champion, a family House Guard follower, and a divine Guidance card (Celestials, a short-lived card type which provide either an ongoing or strong one-shot effect after entering play), as well as various other cards to support a single themed deck for that clan. There are also a rulebook, a story sheet, several small cardboard token sheets for tracking state changes to cards, and three booster packs to supplement the starter cards. The deck boxes for each clan feature a number of pieces of artwork related to that clan, are made from sturdy telescoping cardboard, and are designed to hold a full 80-card deck (two 40-card decks, Dynasty and Fate) even if the cards have been sleeved. With an attractive presentation and a design which features real utility, the Emperor Edition packaging was some of the best ever created for the game of L5R.

Booster boxes were made from larger telescoping cardboard, easily stackable, with a light removable insert separating the packs into two columns. These boxes were designed for easy presentation at the retail level, and useful for storing cards once the boosters were removed. Each Emperor arc expansion included different artwork and clan focus on its identically-sized booster boxes, making for an elegant way to store one’s collection. The boosters themselves in Emperor Edition were geared at Draft, with 10 commons, 4 uncommons, 1 rare, and 1 “premium” card. The premium rarity slot all featured the Draft Stronghold “The Governor’s Estate” on one side, with the other side having Draft Rules, non-deck proxy cards, and (now expired) redeemable cards. This 16-card standard was only used in the base set during the Emperor arc, but would be revisited with the next base set, Ivory Edition, for each expansion of the game so that they could all be drafted equally well.

The artwork in Emperor Edition marks a high point of the game’s visual presentation, with gorgeous pieces by L5R veteran artists such as April Lee and Drew Baker as well as newer talents.

The cards in Emperor Edition have a relatively high level of power compared to prior arcs (excepting Lotus Edition), and a drastically higher power level than subsequent arcs. The Emperor arc is characterized by a power level that started high, remained high, then spiked to untenably unbalanced levels by the end (five or six expansions in). For players looking for a dramatic game, the power level will be satisfying, though take care that decks built by each opponent are not wildly out of balance with each other, or one player may not have as good of a time playing.

The actual release of Emperor Edition was a high point for the game in terms of player excitement and involvement with the game. It is unfortunate that the competitive Emperor arc did not seize the potential of that excitement, but it should not diminish from the overall quality of this particular product achievement.

Legend of the Five Rings review

8
Go to the Legend of the Five Rings page

Legend of the Five Rings

67 out of 68 gamers thought this was helpful

Legend of the Five Rings (L5R; 1995-2015) is a collectible card game (CCG) which enjoyed nearly continuous publication from the days of the earliest CCG craze — a survivor, in a marketplace that was harsh and unforgiving. The shuttering of the game was announced in September of 2015, shortly after the game’s 20th Anniversary was celebrated at GenCon, with the simultaneous announcement that the intellectual property of the game — the storyline, characters, and art assets — would be transferred from Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) to Fantasy Flight Games (FFG), for relaunch as a Living Card Game (LCG) in 2017. FFG has let it be known that the mechanics of the new LCG will not be compatible with the original CCG, so this review will also serve as a sort of post-mortem on the game.

One of the earliest elements of L5R to appeal to players was its rich storyline. Blending samurai drama, courtly machinations, and various Asian fantasy elements, the writers behind L5R managed to create a colorful world of conflicts among its prominent factions (six Clans in the original card game, expanded out to over a dozen at one point, and then contracted back to a manageable nine in the end). In addition to the narrative of the conflict being woven, players of the card game had the opportunity to influence the storyline: event winners were able to determine plot points major and minor, from which faction might recover a hidden artifact, to who would be named the next Emperor of Rokugan, the Emerald Empire at the core of the game. The amount of control available to players varied over the game’s twenty years, but the interactive storyline was always a selling point of the game. With tie-in novels and an associated role-playing game setting, the amount of material defining the characters and settings of Rokugan is dizzying.

L5R has gone through 16 base sets and reprints, 10 narrative and competitive arcs, 60 expansions, 8 direct-to-player-sets, and various learn-to-play sets and others. Well over 11,000 distinct cards by title have been printed for the game. New card types have been introduced, and certain card types which had run their course have been retired in the name of simplification. Each new arc has undergone some mechanical changes, from the subtle to the significant; in its next-to-last arc, Ivory Edition, several major changes were made. The core of the gameplay has, nonetheless, remained the same: each player constructs two decks, one of Dynasty (where the resources of the game are generated: the Holdings which will produce Gold for you, and the Personalities who will form the center of your strategy), and one of Fate (the Strategy cards you will employ, the Followers, Items and Spells which you may equip to your Personalities, and the titular Rings of the game). Starting with four Provinces (slots for your Dynasty cards, which you may purchase from or discard to find better options on future turns), players develop their board position, and work towards one of the multiple victory conditions of the game:

  • Military: By building the strength of their units (Personality + attached cards), attempt to overcome your opponent’s forces in battle and destroy all four of their Provinces.
  • Honor: Through courtly manipulations, hold off your Military opponents and prove your claim to the Emperor’s favor is the strongest, by reaching 40 Honor.
  • Dishonor: Through courtly manipulations, expose the darkest secrets of your opponents and prove them to be unworthy, reducing them to -20 Honor.
  • Enlightenment: Via a series of tests, fulfill the conditions to put all five Elemental Rings (Air, Earth, Fire, Void, Water) into play.

Other victory conditions have existed throughout the game’s history, but are fueled by specific cards instead of the core rules of the game. Battles are one of the hardest parts of the game to master, with the give and take of actions performed by each participant, and the harsh winner-take-all effect of emerging with the greater force. Honor and Dishonor tend to be passive-looking strategies (with most of their battle maneuvering focusing on stalling their opponent), but have intricacies which require careful thought and timing. Strategically, L5R is a tour de force: it can be challenging to learn initially, and can take many games before a player’s skill both at refining their deck and overcoming their opponent might be polished. In this, the various Learn-To-Play sets have proven useful as introductions to the game. Playing competitively requires an awareness of the playing field; success at regional tournaments was often defined by “reading the meta” and designing or tweaking a deck to play better against the popular archetypes.

The card design has gone through multiple eras, including a redesign of the card backs from the original interlocked rings to the “five coins” design in 1999 as a result of a complaint of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and two major changes to the framing and layout of the cards (first for Pearl Edition in 1997, then to the modern look starting with the Celestial arc in 2009). The artwork is frequently considered to be some of the finest, and the cards have a visual appeal even when considered solely on those merits.

Starting with Ivory Edition through the end of the game, all booster releases were designed for limited (draft) play — an unopened tin of boosters can provide a fine draft experience for around 8-9 players, and multiple tins, especially mixing and matching sets, can enhance that experience.

I have been involved with the game for 19 of its 20 years, first as a casual player, then as a competitive player. I was involved in playtesting expansions for the game from 2013 on, and was named to the Player Design Team in 2015, collaborating on designing sets which, with AEG’s sale of L5R, will sadly never see the light of day. I continue to maintain my own web site which sells card singles for the game. I will very likely pick up FFG’s version of the game upon its release, but I know that the original era of the game has passed. The advantage to anyone choosing to explore the game now is that game shops worldwide will very likely be liquidating their old stock, making it possible to pick up entire booster boxes for a fraction of their retail price. While the competitive circuit for the game no longer exists except in pockets, there are still players who use online clients to play, and many people have enjoyed playing locally, even with a limited pool of cards, among their friends and/or family.

Even at its lowest ebb, the game was still fun to play. While there is no further opportunity to engage with the interactive storyline, players can consume the stories associated with the game, the flavor text on the cards, and so forth. The cards themselves are still perfectly playable, and it is my hope that the L5R CCG will enjoy a devoted following in its afterlife, much the same way that other long-defunct CCGs have.

8
Go to the T.I.M.E. Stories page

T.I.M.E. Stories

48 out of 49 gamers thought this was helpful

T.I.M.E. Stories is a hybrid storytelling/board game, placing the players into the roles of temporal agents, working for the Tachyon Insertion in Major Events (T.I.M.E.) Agency. In a manner similar to the old Quantum Leap TV show, the players are projected through time to inhabit the bodies of others in the targeted time period, and must work together to complete a mission. Each “receptacle” (the others being inhabited) has different skills and possible other abilities or items to start, similar to a game of Arkham Horror. The game setup involves a Scenario deck, comprised of Locations, Items, win/lose conditions, and a “Plan” (the known surroundings of the time projection), which may change as more of the area is explored.

Players move as a group, and are invested in resolving the central problem of the Scenario. Upon entering one of the Locations, the cards for that location are removed from the scenario deck, and fanned out onto the gameboard in a particular order face-down, comprising a visual scene which the players may explore. Each player moves his pawn above one of the location cards to explore that part of the panorama, then the players at each location pick up and read the other side of the card. Some may offer visual or text-based clues, some may offer item cards (retrieved from the scenario deck by number), and some may offer tests (roll-based, compared to stats on the receptacle card). Every player decides on their action within the location (attempt the test, move to another card within the location, do nothing), then one or more Time Units (TU) is expended to complete the action. While most tests can be walked away from if not succeeded, certain ones will lock a player in, requiring that the test be passed before that player can do anything else. Tests require a specific number of successes to be rolled on the Action Dice, and most tests allow players to cooperate to complete them. Some will yield more clues or items, while others are red herrings — time sinks that will do nothing but eat up the party’s TU. Certain tests are more rigorous than others, with the potential to cause damage to a receptacle or eat up TU if the skull (undesired result) is rolled on one or more Action Dice.

When the group decides together that they have spent enough time exploring a location, they can move to a different location on the Plan by expending 2 TU, removing the cards for the previous location, and then laying out the cards for the new location, whereupon the exploration cycle repeats. Some locations will have locked areas, requiring that the players complete a task or find an item in some other location to get the State Token (a tile with a distinct color/pattern combination) to unlock that area. As they progress, they may learn about areas not shown on the starting Plan map (represented by item cards which overlay a sector of the Plan), allowing them to access other Locations within the Scenario deck. If the players cannot decide unanimously, they hold a vote to determine the next party course of action (which location to explore next, for instance).

The party is granted a certain number of Time Units to complete their mission. If they fail by running out of TU, or their entire party is killed (difficult, as there is a limited resurrection mechanism built into the game), they read the Mission Failed (TU) card, which explains what steps to take next. Players are not expected to necessarily complete their mission on the first try — fortunately, since the game has a central time travel theme, they get to go back and try again, able to select a different receptacle (if the first one was not a good fit), and armed with the knowledge of all the secrets uncovered on previous attempts. On a second run-through, the party should be able to remember the pitfalls of the prior run, avoiding any time-sink tests and knowing where to go to pick up certain State Tokens. A mission reset changes the parameters of the Scenario slightly (the team might get more TU to work with on a subsequent run, for instance), but as this is a cooperative game, how quickly (and in how few runs) you can complete the scenario decides how well you’ve collectively done.

The game has some beautiful artwork in its scenarios and base T.I.M.E. Agency cards. Its design is deliberately minimalist: the board is a staging ground for the specific parts of the scenario, with an area to lay out the Plan cards, spaces for Item and Location cards, and a line of spots to lay out the location panorama. There are markers for the individual party members as well as the group as a whole, shield tokens to represent tests to be completed, a variety of resource tokens which can change function from scenario to scenario, and the array of various state tokens. With such perfect modularity, general gameplay will remain unchanged, and players can swap out scenario decks to get a whole new experience.

As a game, T.I.M.E. Stories is actually fairly light. The rulebook anticipates that each “run” of a mission will take about 90 minutes, and much of it will be exploration and clue-gathering. In that sense, it’s like a group version of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, with some decisions potentially leading to bad ends. The theme of the game makes the idea of repeated runs fun, though in that sense it’s very much like exploring a video game level and having a save point from which to restore if things go south very quickly. This is particularly amusing considering the game’s packaging has a literal means of creating a “save point” if you are unable to complete a single run in one session, using areas of its segmented plastic tray to store specific information regarding what you’ve discovered, how many Time Units you have remaining, and what damage your receptacles may have taken. In this, it is an interesting design.

The base game costs $50 at retail, which is a bit pricy considering the entire run-through is about 5-6 hours with zero repeat value out of the box. The campaign effect of the game, however, means that you can substitute in any $30 expansion scenario (as of the time of this writing, two are available: The Marcy Case and A Prophecy of Dragons) and get another several sessions out of it. When you consider that the base game’s Asylum 1921 N.T. scenario is virtually identical to one of those expansions, the $20 spent for the spare but versatile components of the base game doesn’t seem all that bad. Even if the cost is an issue, it could be split among a dedicated group of players. I think this game lends itself beautifully to any gaming store that runs a game rental option, as each scenario has virtually no replayability for the same group once completed, but multiple groups could make good use out of it (though they would need to figure out a way to separately record any “save point” information given a shared box).

Despite the game claiming to work with 2-4 players, I think this is a game that doesn’t scale well. Given the rules surrounding group movement, a smaller party would be a liability and the number of runs required to complete a scenario would likely increase. It is fun within its limitations — this is not a strategic game, it is a cooperative exploration game. There is a negligible element of role-playing, but the campaign structure of the game does have the feel of a tabletop RPG. Overall, it’s an entertaining experience — not as irreversible, one-time-only purchase as the “Legacy” class of board games; modular enough to support an infinite variety of scenarios, but not replayable within those scenarios, at least by the same group. I feel like a “naked” version of the base game could be sold to allow someone to start with whatever scenarios they see fit, though selling a “console” without a “game cartridge” to play on it probably doesn’t work at the retail level. Can recommend giving it a try, but definitely discuss with your regular playgroup the dynamics of how you will bear the costs of the game.

Pros:
Excellent theme and art
Good production values
Impeccable component modularity
“Save point” design innovative and unique
Good option for game rental or lending libraries

Cons:
Costly as a base game for the total hours of play
No replayability between scenarios
Light in actual game-play; no real strategic play or player interaction

Neutral:
A blend between tabletop RPG and cooperative exploration game

8
Go to the DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Rivals - Batman vs The Joker page
40 out of 41 gamers thought this was helpful

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Rivals – Batman vs The Joker takes the core elements of Cryptozoic’s Cerberus Engine-driven DC DBG and applies them to a direct head-to-head style game. Where it is possible to play any iteration of the DC DBG core sets with as few as two players (solo variants notwithstanding), the “race to punch Supervillains in the face” aspect leaves something to be desired in those situations. In the Rivals set, the Dark Knight Detective gets to go toe-to-toe with his arch-nemesis, the Clown Prince of Crime.

Basic mechanics for Rivals are unchanged: players have a starting deck of Punch and Vulnerability cards, have a stack of Kick cards to purchase from, and a stack of Weakness cards which may be gained through the course of gameplay. All of these starting setup cards feature thematic artwork. Players take turns using cards in hand to purchase from a Line-Up of cards flipped from the top of a Main Deck. The main difference here is that there are no Supervillains (or Superheroes) on a stack to be defeated — instead, the players must accumulate powerful cards to directly assault each other.

The Batman and Joker oversized starting cards come in a group of 3, with incrementally higher costs (9, 12, and 15). Each level has a slightly different ability: the 9-cost card allows the player to draw an extra card at end of turn if they acquire one or more of an appropriate card type during their turn (Equipment for Batman, non-Kick Super Powers for Joker). The 12-cost card requires two card types (adding Heroes for Batman and Villains for Joker), and if one of each is played, the player may play the top card of the Main Deck and return it. The “final form” 15-cost card lets the player gain +1 Power during a Confrontation (see below) for each card of the two appropriate types for the character which they play.

The Confrontation replaces the usual SuperX stack. To declare a Confrontation, a player decides at the beginning of their turn that they have the potential to punch the lights out of their rival, either with raw power in hand or via the abilities of the cards they play. The confronting player then plays cards from their hand as normal, but they cannot use their Power to buy any cards from the Line-Up during this turn — all of their focus is on attempting to defeat their rival. Several of the Main Deck cards in Rivals have abilities which only trigger during a Confrontation, allowing extra card draw, extra Power, and other shenanigans. The player being confronted does not have much that they can do, but if they have purchased any Block cards from the Line-Up and have them in hand, they may now play them in an attempt to thwart the Confrontation. Block cards temporarily raise the cost of the defending rival’s character, making it more difficult for them to be defeated. If, for example, the Joker player uses a Block card that raises their cost by 3 during the first Confrontation of the game, then the Batman player who initiated the Confrontation would need at least 12 Power (9 + 3) to win.

The trick to the Confrontations is that the attacking player plays out their hand first, then the defending player chooses whether or not it is worth it to Block. If a confronting player beats their rival by a sufficiently large margin, it may not be worth it to play any Block cards at all, as doing so removes them from the defending player’s hand before their next turn begins. If the attacking player wins the Confrontation, they acquire the top oversized card of their rival (which does not enter their deck), and the defending player now uses the next card down as their character. If a player successfully confronts their rival three times before the game ends via other means, they win immediately, having defeated their opponent. In this way, strategic use of Block cards can keep a player from losing their topmost character card, and waste their rival’s turn with a failed Confrontation.

With a buyable Main Deck and Kick stack that is roughly half the size of a DC DBG core set, Rivals encourages a tighter gameplay. The interaction of the cards is fairly elegant, with adequate deck-thinning, card synergy, and potential combinations. With only two players, the back-and-forth Line-Up purchases on each turn will lead to roughly equal Victory Point (VP) totals if the Main Deck runs out, encouraging the players to initiate Confrontations instead. Top character cards are worth 4VP, middle cards are 6VP, and the bottom cards are helpfully stamped with “You Win” in the middle of the VP star.

Since it is a smaller set, there’s less need to provide off-theme “filler”. Every card in here belongs to the Batman milieu, from the supporting Heroes and Villains to the Locations. While it may seem odd for Joker to play the Billionaire card, or Batman to let out a Maniacal Laugh, at least the cards thematically fit just the two characters and their environment.

Gameplay can be fast, and is frequently rewarding — with the back-and-forth of a head-to-head game, there’s little downtime, little “analysis paralysis”, and the effect of “hate-drafting” is mitigated — both characters operate better when they stick to their “native” card types, but a player can build a solid deck development strategy even with off-brand cards.

Components are fairly simple, with oversized character cards and other cards for gameplay, but the small box they are packaged in is horrible for storage, with one small central gap in the cardboard insert which does nothing to prevent cards from sliding around once the shrinkwrap is removed. A plastic bag or two for the cards can go a long way towards keeping things organized.

This is not a set that lends itself to using the expansion packs for the DC DBG — Crossover Packs would lose the starting Superheroes that offer thematic cohesiveness, and the Crisis Expansions, with their cooperative nature, defeat the whole purpose of Rivals. As a standalone two-player game, however, it is quite good, either as a starting point to teach someone about DC DBG, or as a simplified version of a tabletop favorite when it’s just you and a friend. While many of the cards in the Main Deck are specific to the Confrontation / Block mechanics of the game, several of them are sufficiently generic to be good additions to a customized combined DC DBG deck.

Pros:
Thematically pristine
Good mechanical design for head-to-head play
Well-balanced and easy to learn

Cons:
Confrontation mechanic can be somewhat confusing at first
Box is terribly designed to store cards

DC Comics Deck-Building Game review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Heroes Unite review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Forever Evil review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Teen Titans review

6
Go to the DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Teen Titans page
42 out of 43 gamers thought this was helpful

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Teen Titans is Cryptozoic’s fourth deckbuilding outing using comic book characters. Right away, this base set displays a unity of theme that is largely missing from the earlier sets — all starting Superheroes, as well as cards in the base set and Super Villains, are related to the Teen Titans property. Players may take on the roles of Raven, Beast Boy, Blue Beetle, Wonder Girl, Red Robin, Starfire, Superboy, or Kid Flash (only available as a promo). Based on one of the common lineups of the team in the comics, this leaves out only Aqualad (represented by a Hero card) and Cyborg (who appeared in the first DC DBG set). The starting Superhero card for Starfire marks her third, as she previously appeared as a promo Superhero alongside the Heroes Unite set, and also in the second Crisis Expansion as a Crisis Mode Superhero. The central mechanics of the game remain the same; all of the common setup cards (Punch, Vulnerability, Kick, Weakness) are present, with thematically appropriate artwork.

Teen Titans continues the exploration of mechanical synergy, this time with several cards that feature the Ongoing keyword, and cards that trigger off of that keyword. This is not a new keyword, though the proportion of the set that features it is distinctly higher. Several cards do nothing when put into play, but as an Ongoing, may be discarded from play for an effect. The overall power level of the set is distinctly lower than prior outings; the idea here is that players will consolidate their power by acquiring and putting into play several of the Ongoing cards, which can then be used in tandem on a later turn to generate larger effects, such as taking down Supervillains.

The other major theme involves cards you “control”, either by type or number. Ongoing cards in play count, as well as any cards in your “in-play” area — which include cards you’ve played from your hand this turn. Starfire’s ability to destroy a card you control if you control four or more different card types therefore is quite useful, as you can play a Punch for its +1 Power and then destroy it to thin your deck. Blue Beetle wants to hoard Ongoing cards, as he can draw a card if you control seven or more cards on your turn.

Unfortunately, despite the thematic cohesion and mechanical unification, I find this to be among the weakest products of the DC DBG suite. The problems with Teen Titans as a base set start with its Superheroes. Superboy and Wonder Girl are typical of the type-dependent Superheroes seen in past sets, offering a card draw kicker if you control two or more Super Powers or Equipment, respectively. Raven and Red Robin, on the other hand, are doubly type-dependent: Raven requires you to control two or more Villains to then recurse a Super Power from your discard pile, while Red Robin does the same with Heroes and Equipment. Having abilities that require two entirely separate card types to fully activate is already weak in a deckbuilding game with a central line-up; the unfortunate secondary problem is that both secondary card types for these Superheroes are already “covered” by other starting Superheroes. Gameplay involving both Superboy and Raven, or Wonder Girl and Red Robin, is more likely to end up with one of the players stepping on the other’s strategy directly via normal gameplay (instead of what frequently occurs in other DC DBG iterations, which is “hate-drafting”, where someone will buy a card of a specific type to deny it to a player whose strategy is dependent on that type). Encouraging two or more Superheroes to cover the same ground encourages a form of “hate-drafting” which advances one player’s agenda specifically; doing it in a way that steps on already weak type-dependent Superheroes just seems poorly thought out.

Second is the “left-behind” factor. The need to accumulate Ongoing cards to have explosive later turns, coupled with the lowered power level of the Main Deck cards in general, mean that it is possible for one or more players to be effectively “shut out” of card synergy. In each session which my local group has played with Teen Titans, at least one player is relegated to purchasing marginally useful Ongoings which have poor effects (with Kick cards having been entirely bought out early), or forgoing a turn — and as they fall farther behind, they are unable to capitalize and purchase higher-cost cards which might reverse the trend. The problem seems to be one of utility — by making low-cost cards with not just poor, but nearly useless early effects (Cybernetic Enhancement, for example, which has no baseline Power generation, and requires one Ongoing card to get to the level of “worse than Kick”, making it a terrible card to see early), alongside other low-cost cards that do instantly useful things (Detonator, which is one of the few destruction card effects in the game), the deck development of players can be wildly imbalanced. This tends to make the overall gameplay no fun for at least one player, which is bad in terms of desire to bring the set back to the table.

The considerable downsides are unfortunate, given that Teen Titans does some things very right. The Supervillain Stack setup is excellent, with Slade Wilson as the top Supervillain being the best, most balanced, and most interesting effect of all of the top Stack cards from prior sets. Slade offers an ongoing ability that, while in play, lets you draw your hand back up to five cards at the start of your turn — meaning that all of the discard tech and First Appearance Supervillain Attacks that deplete players’ hands will slide right off of you. The Stack is always meant to end with Trigon, which is thematic to the characters, as he is a primary nemesis to the Titans; as a result, the design on Trigon is such that he has zero use in players’ decks — as the last Supervillain, if he is defeated, the game ends anyway.

The strategy involved in setting up a series of Ongoing cards to have a “power turn” later feels like more interesting gameplay, and would be excellent if the hard imbalances between players’ strategic development were not a nearly-constant factor in games. By making it more difficult to acquire high-cost cards, there is a slower, “set up to win” feel to the game, and that has considerable appeal. Everyone is on an equal footing, more or less, with down-powered cards; the problem is that some cards are more down-powered than others.

I do not have any experience with integrating Teen Titans with any of the other DC DBG expansions; I feel like the low power of the Main Deck would make Crisis Expansions very difficult, but most of the Crossover Packs should be fine. Overall, this core set has more interesting concepts than it has balance, and it suffers for that problem. This set may be the best beneficiary of multiple-set customization, playing around with the Main Deck composition by combining with cards from other core sets.

Pros:
Good integration of theme
Innovative mechanical design
Generally same positives as original

Cons:
Terrible balance of design in starting Superheroes
High “left-behind” factor can shut players out of a game
Few deck-thinning options

DC Comics Deck-Building Game review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Heroes Unite review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Forever Evil review

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Rivals – Batman vs The Joker review

8
Go to the DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Forever Evil page
41 out of 42 gamers thought this was helpful

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Forever Evil is the third standalone comics-themed game by Cryptozoic using its “Cerberus Engine” common to its deckbuilding titles. This iteration of the DC deckbuilder “base set” puts the players in charge of Supervillains instead of Superheroes, with the obvious change being that they are attempting to defeat a central stack of their Superhero nemeses instead of fighting other villains. Players may choose between Lex Luthor, Harley Quinn, Deathstroke, Black Adam, Sinestro, Black Manta, and Bizarro (and, if they are fortunate enough to get a first retail release, the promo supervillain Bane). Once again, the central mechanics remain unchanged, with the common setup cards (Punch, Vulnerability, Kick, Weakness) sporting new artwork.

A common mechanical theme in Forever Evil is destruction — unlike its predecessor base sets, there are abundant cards which destroy other cards in your hand or discard pile, in the Line-Up, or even in a foe’s discard pile. Villains do like their mayhem and devastation, after all. This not only enables thin-deck strategies, it encourages them: Punch and Vulnerability cards can rapidly be eliminated from players’ decks. Many of the destruction cards will pay out in Victory Point (VP) tokens if cards with a cost are destroyed, allowing players to thin their decks down even further while maintaining the total VP they have acquired. The VP tokens themselves are new, with several cards in the set encouraging acquisition or theft of the tokens, and some even getting more powerful as players accumulate more such tokens. Certain starting Supervillains have a built-in destruction mechanic (Black Adam, Bane) or ability that works off of the destruction of their cards (Deathstroke, Bizarro). Black Manta operates as a reverse-Aquaman, placing gained cards on the bottom of his draw deck. Lex Luthor and Sinestro provide access to card draw if their acquired cards are of the correct type, and Harley Quinn proves surprisingly resilient to opponents’ discard strategies.

Another theme is direct attacks. Instead of primarily blanket Attack effects that hit everyone except the current player, many Attack cards in Forever Evil ask you to choose a specific foe, dragging someone who is galloping away with the game back down. To counteract this, there are also many cheap and simple Defense cards available.

Every card type (except Location) has a new 1-drop card, each worth 0 VP, that does nothing by itself, but provide a boost if destroyed in any zone — from your discard pile or hand, from the Line-Up, or even from an opponent’s discard pile. These cards round out awkward buy turns where you have a bit of leftover Power after buying your main target. It is possible to have the Line-Up clog up with expensive purchases, as with previous sets, but Forever Evil manages to have a wide array of small buys — 1-, 2-, or 3-drop cards — so that hopefully such clogs will be scarce. The Main Deck cards are a bit of a hodgepodge, with no real unifying source, though one of the groups that is represented is the Crime Syndicate of America (the Earth-3 villainous counterparts of the Justice League), with Villain characters such as Ultraman, Owlman, and Superwoman, each of which has a Line-Up destruction ability and a ramping Power generation. Rumor has it the CSA villains will play a central part in the third Crisis expansion (designed for use with this base set), due to release later in 2016.

The VP powerhouse cards in the Main Deck are Phantom Stranger and Deathstorm, both of which have destruction abilities, and both of which provide up to 10 VP each depending on how well you were able to thin down your deck. The “multiple accumulator” card in this set is the Royal Flush Gang, a card-cycling Villain which provides no card advantage (draw two, discard two), but which gives you VP based on each other Royal Flush Gang played that turn. Start gathering more than two of these, and your VP token gains will be exponential. Firestorm and Firestorm Matrix both encourage the removal of powerful cards from your deck (meaning they no longer contribute to your end-of-game VP total) by providing a high level of re-use or ramp-up. Never underestimate the strength of using your Firestorm Matrix on a “mere” Kick for a guaranteed +2 Power every turn!

Mechanically, Forever Evil is very coherent. The constant deck-thinning leads to more powerful decks, but does so universally — it is rare for someone to not have access to high-Power turns. The ubiquity of smaller-cost cards means that there is almost always something to buy. The addition of VP tokens as a manipulatable, tangible measure of partial victory feels thematic with the Supervillains battling each other over who takes credit. In fact, unlike the previous sets, the game feels somewhat more thematic — even if the card pool is not terribly cohesive, the constant use of Attack cards and the encouragement of messing with each other feels very villainous. This is one of the levels where this set succeeds and its predecessors do not.

A few balance issues exist with the card pool; sadly, one of them involves the starting Superhero setup, and one of them involves one of the Supervillains — see the Game Tips for Flash and Bane which I have written on this subject previously.

There are new components for this set, in the form of Cold Gun tokens (large tokens to indicate a card “frozen” in the Line-Up), which are fine, and the VP tokens, which leave something to be desired. Provided in values of 1, 5, and 10, the tokens are of uniform size and color, meaning they either need to be pre-sorted, or careful attention needs to be paid so a player doesn’t inadvertently grab the wrong value when taking points from the pool. This would have been an easy thing to avoid in design, so it’s unfortunate that Cryptozoic failed to do so.

Finally, this set integrates very well with expansion sets such as the Crisis sets — the Forever Evil main deck works elegantly even if the starting Supervillains are replaced with Superheroes from an expansion.

Overall, I consider this to be the strongest overall core set for the DC Deck-Building Game. If you don’t mind playing as the bad guys, the gameplay is excellent. The set has some issues, but they are minor and can be addressed.

Pros:
Strongest DC Comics Deck-Building Game core set
– high-powered but generally balanced
– ubiquitous deck-thinning/destruction options
– more cheap cards in Main Deck
Same positives as original
More thematic than predecessors
Best integration with expansions

Cons:
Some balance issues
Lazy component design for tokens

DC Comics Deck-Building Game review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Heroes Unite review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Teen Titans review

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Rivals – Batman vs The Joker review

8
Go to the DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Heroes Unite page
46 out of 47 gamers thought this was helpful

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Heroes Unite is the second standalone superhero-themed game by Cryptozoic using its “Cerberus Engine” common to its deckbuilding titles. The mechanics are identical to the original game, so I will not rehash them in this review. The fixed setup cards for Heroes Unite function identically — Punch, Vulnerability, Kick, Weakness — but each has new artwork centered around the new superheroes in this set.

Those new superheroes are part of what makes Heroes Unite interesting as a standalone game. While the original game uses primarily flagship Justice League characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al.), the heroes here are more of mixed bag: Shazam, Nightwing, Batgirl, Black Canary, Hawkman, Red Tornado, Booster Gold. Some abilities are almost complementary to the seven heroes in the DC Comics Deck-Building Game, with Hawkman and Black Canary strongly resembling Superman and Batman for different card types. Nightwing works off Equipment, but feels a bit like Cyborg instead of Batman. The similarities mostly end there.

Booster Gold works best off your acquisition of Defense cards, making them worth your while even when you’re not avoiding Attacks with them. Batgirl has an interesting early-game accelerator, allowing you to discard a Punch card once per turn to draw a card. Shazam has an unpredictability factor, letting you spend 4 Power (a common amount for early turns) to acquire the top card of the Main Deck, choosing to put it on top of your deck or in the discard pile. Since you don’t know what you will get, this ability is a double-edged sword. Finally, Red Tornado requires you to have a variety of cards in your discard pile; his is one of the more strategic abilities to use properly.

The Main Deck and Supervillains are also all-different in Heroes Unite. One of the themes that runs throughout the Main Deck is the Lantern Corps and the various Power Rings — an unusual choice in a deck without Green Lantern as a primary Superhero, until you see the Hero card Kyle Rayner (one of the later Green Lanterns), who enables an alternative victory condition. The Power Rings are all interesting and potentially quite powerful in their own right.

One thing that Heroes Unite gets very right in comparison to the original game is in scaling back somewhat on the raw power of cards, in favor of supporting card combinations and synergy. The Locations, in particular, while still largely centering on card draw, do not overclock a player’s strategy here. There are a few cards that reference each other by name, and generate strong effects should you manage to acquire all of the correct pieces. Additionally, there are a few more key deck-thinning pieces so that they do not feel like they are at a premium. Still, sharp players will jump on those that come by in the Line-Up.

The thematic issues which plagued the DC Comics Deck-Building Game still exist, and are even a bit more exacerbated by the non-unified heroes. Those who don’t have a deeper knowledge of the DC milieu, and want at least to play with more familiar faces, may want to go with the original. By addressing some of the balance issues and offering more interesting combo-driven play, however, Heroes Unite is a superior base set from a gameplay point of view, offering another easy-to-learn deckbuilder, but with even more opportunity for players to learn more complex strategies as they come back to the game.

Pros:
Improved standalone gameplay over DC Comics Deck-Building Game
– better balance
– more deck-thinning options
Good combo-driven play
Same positives as original

Cons:
Thematically weak
Main characters are less well-known

DC Comics Deck-Building Game review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Forever Evil review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Teen Titans review

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Rivals – Batman vs The Joker review

7
Go to the DC Comics: Deck-Building Game page
59 out of 60 gamers thought this was helpful

DC Comics: Deck-Building Game is a simple variation on a standard deckbuilder, using the trappings of starting Superheroes to provide variation of play and strategy between players, and adding the complication of a Supervillain deck both as a resolving series of obstacles and a clock for the end of the game. The game is very easy to learn, but lacks thematic cohesion.

Players choose one of seven starting Superhero cards, each featuring a classic DC hero (though how “classic” Cyborg is, is open to debate) with a different ability. These abilities generally involve generating more Power (the currency used to buy cards for your deck) or drawing more cards. Starting decks are identical, with seven Punch cards (+1 Power) and three Vulnerability cards (chaff cards which generate no Power and are worth no Victory Points). After determining who goes first (which will always be The Flash if he was one of the Superheroes chosen), players take turns using five-card hands to attempt to purchase cards to enhance their decks. Purchases can be made from a fixed Kick pile (+2 Power, 1 VP), or from the Line-Up, flipped from a central deck full of Heroes, Villains, Super Powers, Equipment, and Locations. As the game progresses and players are better able to generate high Power hands, they can take on the Supervillains, gaining a powerful tool for their deck, a big chunk of VP, and flipping the next Supervillain who will then immediately “attack” all of the players in some nasty and unforgiving way. Victory Points are counted at the end from all cards in a player’s deck, subtracting for any Weakness cards (-1 VP chaff) that were given out during the course of play.

Part of the fun in the game is in getting the right setup of cards in combination, particularly if they interact well with your Superhero. Batman, for example, interacts well with Equipment cards — the more his player acquires, the more robust his deck will be. Each of the heroes has certain “signature” cards which will work better with that hero’s innate strategy: sticking with the Batman example, there are The Batcave (a Location which allows you to draw a card the first time you play an Equipment each turn), Utility Belt (an Equipment that is worth 5VP if your deck contains four or more other Equipment at the end of the game), and The Dark Knight (a Hero card that gains you all of the Equipment in the Line-Up, and which has an extra kicker if you also played the Catwoman Hero card). This being a “common deck” deckbuilder in the mold of Ascension, however, you have no guarantee of being able to purchase cards which will work specifically with your chosen strategy, and in fact, may have other players actively purchasing cards just to deny them to you.

Many Villain cards include Attack abilities which target one or more of the current player’s opponents; to counter these, a number of Defense cards are available. This is one of the areas where the theme breaks down — if you (the player) are representing a Superhero, why does your turn involve using Villains to assault other Superheroes? Similarly, defeated Supervillains also enter the players’ decks. Since there is no restriction on who can buy which cards, nor any “homefield advantage” for Aquaman, for instance, trying to buy his own Trident, decks end up looking like a hodge-podge arsenal of tools and characters from all throughout the DC Universe. If you’re looking for a gameplay experience which mirrors a comic book narrative of superheros coming together to struggle against villainy, you won’t find it in the base DC deckbuilding games. (Instead look at Legendary or the Crisis Expansions for the DC deckbuilders.)

This base game does have some balance issues. Most of the Location cards are card-draw based, and thus can accelerate the speed of decks that acquire them considerably — those who are winning tend to continue to win more. Deck thinning, a key component of most deckbuilding games, is relatively scarce, and highly prized when it does come around.

Despite the thematic and balance issues, DC Comics: Deck-Building Game is still a great deal of fun to play. The game is fairly simple to learn, and unlike its Marvel counterpart, does not require 15-20 minutes of intricate setup before gameplay can even begin. Anyone who is introduced to deckbuilding games like this one which use Cryptozoic’s “Cerberus Engine” can graduate to other such games without difficulty. All in all, the game is fun, but is not immersive. This base set is decent on its own, but its issues are better addressed by later base games in the series. Still, Cryptozoic continues to breathe new life into “tired” editions of DC Comics: Deck-Building Game with its Add-On Packs and Crisis Expansions.

Pros:
Colorful comic-style art
Good gateway deckbuilding game
Easy setup and cleanup
Short (30 min) play time

Cons:
Thematically weak
Unbalancing cards
Minimal deck-thinning

Neutral:
Gameplay experience enhanced by expansions

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Heroes Unite review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Forever Evil review
DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Teen Titans review

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: Rivals – Batman vs The Joker review

9
Go to the Istanbul page

Istanbul

64 out of 68 gamers thought this was helpful

Istanbul deserves its title as 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres, combining vibrant theme and art with an intricate yet easy-to-grasp design. The gameplay follows a simple pattern, yet the strategies can be quite complex, and while there is very little direct player confrontation, the decisions made by one player can undo the plans of another — or open up new possibilities.

Theme: Players act as merchants in a classic Turkish bazaar, acquiring (and selling) trade goods, upgrading their wheelbarrow, paying bribes, gambling, etc. The art on the sixteen tiles which make up the bazaar invoke the chaotic and colorful nature of the setting, creating a “bustling” environment without the game components actually interfering with play.

Design: The actions of the game, once learned, are all represented by iconography. This game can be language-independent: only the rules require an appropriate grasp, but once learned, the visual nature of the game makes it easy to play without much rules consultation.

Gameplay: The Merchants are represented by thick wooden discs, with an additional sticker to indicate which piece is the player’s “main” piece. Thinner wooden discs of the same color represent that Merchant’s Assistants, which are the workers you will place in this worker placement game. Merchants have four of these Assistants at their command in the beginning, but can acquire a fifth later on. A player’s turn involves moving their merchant stack (the Merchant, and any unplaced Assistants who follow in his wake) either one or two horizontal or vertical spaces within the 4×4 bazaar layout, then either dropping off an Assistant or picking up an Assistant on the destination tile to use the action of that tile.

The interplay between the tiles is quickly evident — the three Warehouses allow a player to load his Wheelbarrow full of the particular good stored there; the two Markets demand a specific set of goods, and pay out more depending on how much of the order you can fill; the two Mosques require you to have an amount of goods available (increasing as more players visit), then pay one of that good in devotion to get a permanent special ability. The Wainwright lets you add an extension to your Wheelbarrow (cleverly represented by slats you add to a punch-out gap in your starting Wheelbarrow tile), which enables you to hold more goods. The Black Market and Tea House allow you to test your luck and improve your fortunes by rolling dice. The Sultan’s Palace and Gemstone Dealer require specific goods or larger amounts of lira (coins), respectively. Several of these tiles will eventually reward you with Rubies, which are the stepping stones towards your endgame. Endgame is triggered when any player acquires 5 Rubies (6 if playing a two-player game). Players complete the current round of turns so everyone has had the same number of game turns, then may turn in any Bonus cards for goods or money. If more than one player has the highest number of Rubies, there are tiebreakers to check.

With so many options, there is no one true strategy to the game, so players will often divide and try to work on particular areas of the board. However, it is possible to get in each other’s way! If a player’s Merchant ends their turn at the same place as another player’s Merchant, the moving player must pay 2 lira to the player who is already occupying the tile, if they want to use the action. This payment is not applicable at the Fountain, which allows any Merchant to recall all of their Assistants from wherever they are on the board.

You might also encounter the Governor or the Smuggler, both of which can help you advance your game, at the cost of either coins or trade. And if a Merchant has gone to the Police Station and sent forth their shady Family Member to do their bidding, you may find them in the midst of the marketplace, where you can turn them back into the Police for a reward. Players can acquire Bonus cards throughout the game, which will enable various tricks like “no-movement” turns, “extra-movement” turns, use of a bazaar tile twice in a turn, and so forth. These can lend vital momentum to a game, as you will be able to reach tiles before opponents, or shut them out unless they pay you a fee. The bonus cards that provide free money or free goods can give you what you need just in time.

The game offers varying levels of difficulty in the bazaar setup, with three sets of numbers that dictate possible layouts of the tiles. Short paths group places that interact well close together; long paths put them farther apart. The tiles may also be laid out randomly (with some limitations specified in the rules), for those who want a shifting strategy.

Istanbul has an interesting approach to classic worker placement, using the Assistants as a finite resource that must be managed over a period of turns, combined with path-based strategy, the potential for player collision, and ways to pay to continue taking actions instead of being shut out of particular approaches. It is an entertaining game that is more complex than standard entry-level boardgaming fare, but not so overwhelming as to turn new players off. The game can be taught relatively easily, and is unlikely to have the same gameplay twice.

There are a fair number of components, and as mentioned in a previous review, not enough bags to adequately separate them. My personal copy of the game has been obsessively rebagged, with each color’s components occupying their own bags, and so forth. The game takes a little bit of setup, and organizing the components ahead of times goes a long way towards minimizing that setup time.

It is not a heavily interactive game, but the need to follow certain paths and the desire to complete certain objectives in a particular order can lead to players strategically working against their opponents, either forcing them to reevaluate their strategy or to pay out to use an occupied space. This is not a game for those who prefer direct conflict.

The cardboard and wooden components are all well-made, solid and unlikely to be easily damaged. All told, this is a substantial game for its price, well worth the money spent to bring it to your gaming table.

Pros:
Excellent theme and art
Good production values
Iconographic design
Variety of interesting strategies to pursue
Simple changes in setup provide wide gameplay variety
Short (45 min) play time

Cons:
Not well organized out of the box
Minimal player interaction

8
Go to the Love Letter page

Love Letter

104 out of 111 gamers thought this was helpful

Love Letter is a game of deduction and misdirection, played with a very small number of moving parts. The original version is thematically linked to AEG’s Tempest line of games, but the game has proven popular enough to be re-released in multiple “skinned” versions, including an English release with the original Japanese art (the “Kanai Factory Limited Edition”), one based on AEG’s long-running Legend of the Five Rings franchise, and a Munchkin-themed version (appropriately enough, called Loot Letter).

The gameplay is very simple. The deck of 16 cards is shuffled and one card is set aside (or four cards in a two-player game), face-down. Each player is dealt one card. On their turn, they draw a card, and play a card. The goal is to be the last suitor standing, representing the successful delivery of your love letter to the Princess’ hands. For each round a player wins, they gain a red cube to represent a token of the Princess’ favor. Gameplay continues until one player has gained an agreed upon number of Favor tokens (often four), or until the group is ready to move on to something else.

The strategy of the game lies in correctly deducing the cards which other players hold, and using the options available to you to capitalize on that knowledge. Since there is always at least one card sitting out the game, knowledge can never be perfect — while the reference cards tell you how many of each type of card are in the deck, you will almost never know exactly what’s still “in play”. The most common card, Guard (value 1), lets you name a card and target a player; if they are holding that card, they are eliminated. Other cards protect you for the turn (to let your rivals eliminate each other), swap hands with someone else (to leave an opponent holding an unfortunate liability), or even cause instant elimination if they’re discarded (the Princess herself, at the highest value of 8).

A player wins once all of their rivals have been eliminated, or if there are no cards left to draw — at which point the player holding the highest value card is the winner. With the various abilities and varying numbers, it is important to keep track of what’s been played by everyone. Even though there is a decent amount of straightforward gameplay, a well-timed bluff can make the difference between winning or losing a given round.

With a very small number of cards (including reference cards) plus a handful of cubes, the game can easily be packed into any gamer’s bag as a quick, fun way to pass 15-20 minutes of downtime during a typical gaming day. It may seem simple from the outside, but this little game is one of the best and quickest deduction games on the market. Anyone who enjoys a quick and casual game will enjoy this; it is also very family-friendly. While the basic game is geared around winning the favor of the Princess, the Kanai Factory version includes alternate cards for the slot, including a Prince, if that is more to your liking.

Pros:
Extremely portable
Very quick (15-20 min) play time
Easy to teach
Strong replayability as a deductive game
Not much downtime even with player elimination
Family friendly
Multiple themed versions available

Cons:
Only works with two to four players (though variations for more players can be found online)

9
Go to the Sail to India page

Sail to India

22 out of 23 gamers thought this was helpful

The designer of Trains tackles Euro-style worker placement in a remarkably compact and efficient exploration game with Sail to India.

The game comes in a small (4×6) box, similar to publisher AEG’s games in the “Five Minute Fun” line, but you get a delightfully strategic game in that same space. With a total of 28 cards (including four reference cards), 13 colored cube markers for each of four players, and a rulebook, the components are minimal. Each player receives a Domain card, which is used to record their current wealth, their ship speed, and to store any unused Technology markers; and a Historian card, which tracks Victory Points (VPs) earned during the game. The players each start with three markers on their Technology space, one marker to indicate a starting ship speed of 1, and one marker to track their wealth (variable depending on starting order). This leaves a total of eight markers per player in their stock, to be added over the course of the game. There are three cards indicating the Technology options available for purchase, which are used communally. One card represents the starting port for all players, Lisboa. The remaining twelve cards are used to form a line of coastal cities stretching east from Lisboa, only a few of which are known quantities at the start of the game.

On each player’s turn, they may take two actions from a series of available actions. These are:
Employ a marker. By paying one wealth, the player may take a marker from their stock and place it on Lisboa.
Move their ships. In a single action, the player may move any or all of their ships, which can be markers below a coastal town or idle markers in Lisboa, a number of towns west or east (left or right) up to their ship speed. As part of this move, one ship may be used to move onto and “discover” a face-down coastal town, and any ships that are in the sea area of a coastal town may be converted to trade goods by moving onto an unoccupied trade good space on the town card.
Sell trade goods. A player may sell any or all markers which occupy trade good spaces on coastal towns; based on the number of different goods sold, the player earns an increasing amount of wealth and the possibility of gaining VPs. All markers sold move back to Lisboa and become idle, able to be employed in any fashion.
Build a building. A player may pay two wealth to convert any marker on or below a coastal town card, moving it to an unoccupied building on the card. The three types of buildings are: Strongholds, which allow the player to start a Move Ships action from that town using any markers in Lisboa; Marketplaces, which represent a permanent trade good that add to any other trade good markers sold; and Churches, which are worth additional VPs at the end of the game.
Acquire technology. A player may spend the cost of an unoccupied space on one of the three Technology cards to place one of their three Technology markers on that space. This gives the player a benefit which may affect their wealth, VP acquired, or VP totals at the end of the game.
Increase ship speed. With one action, a player may pay an appropriate amount of wealth and increase their ship speed by one, to a maximum of three. This allows their ships to move across additional towns during a Move Ships action.

The game continues until either the final coastal town is flipped face-up, indicating that the passage to India has been discovered, or until two or more players have no unused markers remaining in their stock. Whoever triggered the endgame condition finished their turn, then each other player gets one more turn. VP are tallied up, including rewards for buildings and technologies, and a winner is declared.

The trick with this game is that nothing can be tracked until markers are employed, and that employed markers are interchangeable between jobs. Of the 13 markers each player receives, four are dedicated to tasks that cannot be changes: ship speed and technology. The remaining nine, including the starting Banker marker, are all fluid. If you earn VP, you must use one of your already employed markers (NOTE: NOT a marker from your stock) to track those VP on your Historian card. If you earn wealth, you will need to use an employed marker as a banker to track that wealth on your Domain card. These cards only go up to 5 each; if your VP or wealth increases past that number, you will need a second marker to track the higher number. Any employed markers which are no longer necessary — say, if you have seven wealth tracked with two markers, and spend down to five or below — go back to Lisboa as idle markers. These idle markers can then be used to become ships, Historian markers, etc. If at any point you need to track either VP or wealth, and you have no spare idle markers to do so, those untracked benefits are lost! You will need to carefully manage how your markers are employed — and how they might be shifted around during the course of your turn. A ship that becomes a trade good could be sold and immediately turned around to become a banker, as necessary.

Sail to India reflects the high quality of game that AEG is becoming known for, as their partnerships with international designers increase. The artwork is striking, and the lack of moving parts means it is a very clean, simple, and portable game. The layout of the game reflects the exploration theme very well. The card stock is very sturdy, and all of the same size, meaning cards will not slide around and become mixed up in the box. At a $20 price point, the game is highly affordable — it may seem like a small box, but there is a lot of game here at that price. I recommend this game highly for anyone who enjoys worker placement and resource management style games; it is simple yet strategic enough that other gamers may also enjoy it.

Pros:
High production values
Strong strategic replayability
Relatively easy to teach, difficult to master
Extremely portable
Turns play relatively quickly; not much downtime
Moderate (45-60 min) play time

Cons:
Only works with three or four players
Marker reusability can be confusing at first

8
Go to the Guildhall page

Guildhall

122 out of 130 gamers thought this was helpful

Guildhall (retroactively named Guildhall: Old World Economy in AEG’s marketing materials since they released the sequel, Guildhall: Job Faire) is a card game of strategic set collection for 2-4 players. Players must take turns to attempt to complete Chapters (one of each of five colors) of Professions (cards with different abilities) within their Guildhall (individual collection area), then cash in those completed Chapters for cards which bestow Victory Points (and sometimes, additional abilities) in a race to attain 20 points.

The components of this game are simple: 120 Profession cards (4 sets of 5 colors of 6 different professions), a deck of Victory Point cards, and a punchable set of VP tokens which may be attained via other gameplay. Setup involves shuffling the Profession deck and dealing 9 cards to each player, then shuffling the VP deck and dealing 5 cards in a communal line. Players choose any three cards that do not match each other’s color and Profession and place them from their hand directly into their Guildhall at the start of the game, leaving everyone with a hand of six cards. (They may place multiples of a Profession as long as none of them are the same color.)

Play proceeds around the table in turn order, with each player taking two actions on their turn. Actions, which may be repeated, are:
– Play a Profession card from hand into their play area (but not if they have played the same Profession already this turn), and resolve an ability on it if desired.
– Discard any number of cards from hand and draw back up to six cards.
– Cash in an appropriate number of completed Chapters (one or two) for a visible VP card.

Part of the strategy of the game is in the abilities of the Professions, and how they allow you to disrupt your opponents’ plans. Each has abilities which get progressively stronger depending on how many of that Profession are already in your Guildhall. The six Professions are:
– Assassin: lets you discard cards from an opponent’s Guildhall
– Dancer: lets you draw cards equal to the number already in your Guildhall, then take an extra action
– Farmer: if you have at least one in your Guildhall, gains you VP tokens
– Historian: lets you retrieve cards from the discard pile and put them directly into your Guildhall
– Trader: lets you swap cards between your Guildhall and an opponent’s
– Weaver: lets you play additional cards from your hand directly into your Guildhall

You may only play a profession card if it does not match both the color and type of a card already in your Guildhall. Profession cards are put into a play area at first, which is not your Guildhall, and their abilities are resolved. Any cards which are placed directly into your Guildhall as a result of ability resolution do not resolve their own abilities — at most, you will resolve two Profession abilities per turn if you used both of your actions to play cards. If you complete a Chapter (have a stack of all five different colors for a single Profession) during your turn, you turn that stack face-down immediately; it is considered to be “completed” and can no longer be affected by opponents. You can then begin a new Chapter of the same profession. At the end of your turn, any Profession cards in your play area move into your Guildhall (if possible), and any completed Chapters are flipped face-down.

Completed chapters may be cashed in for VP cards from the communal line, some of which are worth only points, others worth a lesser amount of points but with an additional ability that resolves immediately. Most of these abilities are similar to those offered by the Profession cards. Once a VP card has been taken and resolved, it is replaced in the line from the top of the VP deck. Once a player reaches 20 VP, they are the winner and the game ends.

Where Guildhall shines is the ever-changing state of play. You can’t rely on having a perfect setup once your turn comes around again, but you can use the off-turns to calculate the effect of what you are going to play. Certain Professions are strong in the early game, while others come into their own late in play. The random element to the VP cards allows for strategies which change on the fly, and can set off cascading effects. It is dangerous for a player to have too many incomplete chapters with 3-4 cards in them, as they will not be able to play as many cards from their hand; on the other hand, for an opponent to ignore a loaded Guildhall is also dangerous, as that player could complete many Chapters with a single action.

As a two-player game it has a high entertainment value, a constant back-and-forth struggle to win. With three or four, the amount of disruption and strategic play possible increases dramatically. At no point during my play has it ever felt like someone was running away with a game — even those where someone comes dangerously close to winning early can be thwarted by some late-game maneuvering and well-timed Farmers. Also, the VP cards’ values are scaled to the power of their ability, so that highly effective moves come at the cost of not advancing your position as much.

The game’s visual design is well done: cards of different colors also have different border elements, so they can be distinguished from each other in multiple ways. All of the abilities on the cards are represented with iconography, meaning that the rulebook must be referenced for deciphering if people don’t “get it” easily. The box is an exercise in overpackaging — it is 9×9 apparently to occupy a certain amount of shelf real estate (and presumably draw attention to the game) and to support an oversized multilingual rulebook, with a large plastic insert containing a single tray for cards and tokens. The entire game minus rulebook can be repackaged into a small (200 count) card box, which is a bonus for portability if you like to take multiple games to gatherings.

Guildhall is simple enough to teach to young players or non-gamers — as a personal anecdote, my 70-year old non-gamer mother took to the game well, after a small learning curve for how the abilities worked. Some of the rules may take a session or two to fully commit to mind, such as the play area vs. the Guildhall, and the “no duplicates” rule. Games run reasonably quickly, about 30-45 minutes, and it takes very little time to set up or put away. Since it is based around set collection, it is a game type that others should grasp easily. The varying strategies — and the fact that no particular strategy will work the same way between two games — lends a complexity that makes the game very replayable.

All in all, the game is fun to play. It won’t immerse you in theme, and it won’t give you a power-play high, but if you enjoy casual games or like teaching games to new people, Guildhall can easily earn a spot in your game library.

9
Go to the 7 Wonders page

7 Wonders

54 out of 56 gamers thought this was helpful

7 Wonders is a rare but amazing game that gets a lot of things right in a single package. It is wonderfully thematic, elegantly designed, easy to learn, offers widely varied play, is scalable, has no real player downtime, and a single session can be completed in around half an hour. The play time may make it seem like a simple game, but the complexities are abundant.

Thematic: Players each take a base tile which represents an “ancient wonder” of an historic civilization. During the course of the game, players will draft cards which represent structures for them to build, ranging from simple to complex as the game moves through three phases, called “Ages”. Certain structures in one age dovetail into others in subsequent ages, allowing for a track of development that echoes similarly themed games (Civilization, anyone?).

Elegantly designed: The game uses simple iconography to illustrate costs and effects. Cards use multiple visual cues for separation, including card backs (color-coded by Age, though each also bears a prominent Roman numeral and an arrow to indicate the direction to pass when drafting) and templates (each card is color-coded for the category of structure it represents: Civic/Science/Military/etc., and has a subtler visual pattern for the color-blind). The starting Wonder tiles feature attractive art, and make good use of space to encourage certain layout without appearing too busy. The number of different components are low: starting tiles, structure cards, and tokens to represent money and military conflict.

Easy to learn: There are two things that new players will likely need to pick up to play 7 Wonders if they are not familiar with the concepts from other games. The first is drafting: taking the hand you are dealt, selecting the structure you wish to build, and passing the rest of the cards away. The second is the almost purely visual nature of the game. There are no reminder texts on cards cluttering up the design space, so frequent trips to the rulebook may be necessary. There are a handful of rules to be learned beyond that. Most players have the hang of the game after a single walkthrough, and begin to develop more interesting strategies by their third or fourth session.

Widely varied play: Because the game’s winner is determined through scoring multiple potential points categories, players will rarely have the same experiences in consecutive games. Someone might corner the market on science while dabbling in military campaigns; in another game, they may build a wide array of civilian structures for points. Since the draft decks are shuffled up and distributed randomly, each choice you make informs what you are able to do later. Successfully pulling off strategic plays — such as using a card to build a stage of your Wonder to deny that card to someone later — can feel immensely satisfying. Wonder tiles come with an A side and a B side to allow for more skillful play.

Scalable: This fits with “elegantly designed” somewhat as well — each Age’s cards include a number in the bottom center that indicates whether that particular card should be included, based on the number of players. This allows for scaling of the game from 3-7 players. (The game supports a two-player mode with a dummy 3rd player, as well.) With larger numbers of players, extra copies of certain key structures are included, and since no one can build a structure of the same name twice, no one can create a monopoly. Since interactions are limited to a player’s immediate neighbors (for trade or war) in a circular layout, no one can be dogpiled by an alliance of other players.

No player downtime: The draft nature of the game means that all players are taking their turns simultaneously. Paying attention to what your neighbors just built lets you plan ahead to your next draft, but you are never waiting around for others to decide what to do on their turn.

Time: Unless someone in your group is subject to serious Analysis Paralysis, games go relatively quickly, as the draft-and-pass method has the same number of cards in every age regardless of the number of players (see Scalable above). Scoring can be done swiftly, and the game can be quickly reset to play again. If new players are learning the game, allow another 15 minutes or so for them to grasp the core concepts.

With all of the things it does right, what are the downsides?

– For a card game, there’s a moderate amount of setup: separating the Age decks, removing cards from the Age decks to scale to the number of players, adding a specific random number of Guild cards to the Age III deck — as well as incorporating any components from the Leaders or Cities expansions. It is useful to include some bags/sleeves to keep the cards separated, and it is definitely worth the time at the end of overall play to separate the components correctly before putting the game away.

– Since the game is very dependent on design to separate the cards, you shouldn’t sleeve it in a single style unless those sleeves are transparent. Being unable to tell Age I from Age II or III cards because you can’t see the backs is problematic to say the least.

– It isn’t a heavily interactive game. Though it is possible to pay neighbors for resources (or build in a way which encourages them to pay you), or build military which automatically creates conflict with your neighbors, you can’t disrupt a player’s strategy without working the draft. Some players may be dissatisfied with this level of interaction.

– If not careful, it is possible to be resource-starved, particularly since Age III contains no new resources with which to build. The rule that lets you rent resources from your neighbors is key, but if they end up buying Commerce structures that substitute for resources, those cannot be rented.

– If using the expansions, the balance of power can be radically shifted, particularly if the Leaders expansion is used.

All things considered, however, 7 Wonders is a marvelous addition to nearly any playgroup, at a reasonable price point.

8
Go to the King of Tokyo page

King of Tokyo

49 out of 56 gamers thought this was helpful

King of Tokyo is the brainchild of legendary Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield, and is an entertaining, simple dice game. The game is fun for all ages — if you like giant monsters, you will probably enjoy King of Tokyo.

Some of the components of the game are superfluous, simply decoration to further the concept of the game. Each player takes an identical monster character at the start of the game, and receives their character card (name, art, and two wheels to track Health and VP) and standee (2D color-printed cardboard with a plastic base). There is a board to represent Tokyo City (and in 5/6-player games, Tokyo Bay). All of these are extraneous, though when getting people into the spirit of the game (KAIJU SMASH, with humor), the components do add value.

There are six toxic-colored black-and-green dice which each player rolls on their turn. These are the essential core of the game. Each player gets up to three consecutive rolls, and can keep any or none of the dice on each roll, including switching which dice get kept between rolls (if an alternate strategy presents itself). The dice results once a player is finished rolling have the following effects:
– Numbers score VP directly: for each triple (three identical numbers), that number is scored. Three 3s score 3VP, three 2s score 2VP, three 1s score 1VP. If more than three of the same number are rolled, then the VP reward is +1 for each additional matching die. Five 2s score 2VP (original triplet) + 2VP (two additional matches), or 4VP total.
– Lightning Bolts give your monster Energy, represented by translucent green cubes. Energy can be swapped for Power Cards (discussed later).
– Claws represent damage. They work as follows:
o If there is an empty space in Tokyo (either the City itself, or either the City or Bay for 5+ players), move your monster standee into the empty space.
o If Tokyo is fully occupied, you do damage equal to the number of Claws shown to the monster(s) in Tokyo. The monster(s) damaged may choose to leave Tokyo, at which point you move into the space they previously occupied.
o If you are in Tokyo, you do damage equal to the number of Claws shown to all monsters outside of Tokyo.
– Hearts represent healing. You recover Health equal to the number of Hearts shown, unless you are in Tokyo. While you are in Tokyo, you are unable to use Hearts to regain Health — therefore remaining in Tokyo is a risky proposition.

There is an upside to staying in Tokyo, however! When you enter Tokyo, you gain 1VP. When you start your turn in Tokyo, you gain 2VP. Everybody gets a shot at you if you choose to try and stay, but similarly, on your turn you can damage everyone outside of Tokyo.

Once you have resolved your dice, you have the option of buying Power Cards. At the start of the game, three Power Cards are placed face-up from the deck. You may purchase one or more of these after resolving your roll, if you have the Energy necessary to do so. You also have the option to pay 2 Energy to sweep all three cards into the discard pile and flip up three more, if you want to deny those cards to your opponents.

Game play proceeds until one monster gathers a total of 20VP, or until one monster is the only one left standing (all others eliminated by being reduced to zero Health).

Others have called the game “Monster Yahtzee”, and that isn’t inaccurate, though the name diminishes the game somewhat. The roll-and-keep system has the same feel, but Yahtzee is about attempting to roll to best fit a scorecard, where KoT has some more complex interactions. Is it best to keep those two 3s and roll to try for points? Should you load up on Energy to go for cards? Do you risk attacking the King of Tokyo, or do you try to heal up first? There is some strategy to the game, which requires flexibility based on how your rolls turn out. It can be fun to watch people deliberately try to avoid being the first Attacker (moving into Tokyo with no damage done to others).

The game would be straightforward and a little boring without the Power Cards. These affect all parts of the game, from reducing the Energy cost of future purchases, to dealing direct damage in a one-shot move, to increasing your paths to gain VP. Mutations such as Extra Head (allows you to roll a seventh color-inverted green-and-black die) or Regeneration (when healing, gain an additional Health) can affect your choices. Some cards are a bit expensive in Energy, so you can try to save up, but anyone can pay to sweep the card options. Of course, sweeping could lead to better cards being revealed for one’s opponents.

All in all, the game is fairly simple fun. It can be taught quickly (like Smash Up, it teaches well to both drunks and children, though I would recommend not mixing the two audiences), it requires very little setup, and the games move quickly. Even though it is an elimination game, and there is no down-turn option for players, once monsters start being killed off the remaining game moves even quicker. This isn’t a game you would play for hours on a serious game night, but it is a marvelous, palate-cleansing filler game. It’s also a good gateway game for the little ones, with the colorful monsters serving as an attraction, and the dice providing an easily understandable mechanic. Kids can be slowly introduced to the strategic elements provided by Energy and the Power Cards.

Pros:
Simple to setup
Easy to teach to new players
Colorful and fun components
Kid-friendly
Short (30 min) play time

Cons:
Some components feel superfluous
Competitive elimination game with no down-turn option
Can feel simplistic

8
Go to the Smash Up: The Obligatory Cthulhu Set  page
49 out of 53 gamers thought this was helpful

The inevitable Lovecraftian touch comes to Smash Up with its second expansion, The Obligatory Cthulhu Set. This new expansion diverges from what is seen as the thematic “fun” of the game, with disparate elements combining to form new strategies, but it manages to do so in a way that enhances the game overall.

TOCS includes four new factions, each with a Lovecraftian theme, and one major new mechanic: Madness. Madness is a chaff mechanic, which works as follows: if you are given (or voluntarily take on) a Madness card, it usually goes into your hand. Madness cards are Action cards which can be played to either draw two cards, or returned to the communal Madness deck (which of course eats up your turn’s Action to do). If they end up shuffled into your deck, they can clog your draws when you need to hit that critical Minion or Action. Additionally, Madness eats at your victory! Every two Madness cards in your deck (including your hand or discard pile) at the end of the game will reduce your Victory Points by one, meaning that even when the game ends as someone reaches 15 VP naturally, they could still be dragged into 2nd (or lower!) place depending on their Madness count.

Each of the new factions manipulates Madness in some way along with its basic schtick:

– Innsmouth: The “one of us” faction has ten Minion cards like most other Smash Up factions, but in this case all ten are identical: a 2 Power card called “The Locals” that lets you look at the top 3 cards of your deck, put any “The Locals” into your hand, and put the rest on the bottom of your deck. Deceptive in their effectiveness, Innsmouth pairs well with “extra minion” effects, and nearly always ensure you won’t be stuck with only Actions in your hand. Innsmouth dabbles in Madness, taking on the penalty for a couple of kicker effects.

– Minions of Cthulhu: Whereas Innsmouth may dabble, the cultists revel in Madness! They draw Madness cards to fuel huge effects, including a simple “Draw a Madness card, destroy a Minion” effect. Should they ever put their faction boss (Cthulhu’s avatar) into play, they can then spread the Madness around.

– Miskatonic University: The sober, intellectual lot, able to carefully analyze the non-Euclidean dimensions of the Old Ones and present their findings. Misk U not only takes on Madness for the occasional strong effect, but they are also very good at ditching their own Madness, particularly with their in-house Psychologists.

– Elder Things: Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Really. Lovecraft’s horrific creatures pass out Madness to their opponents like candy, and use high-Power Minions to crack bases with a sound like doom. Their limitation is that there needs to be some setup before they can play their best Minions.

It’s harder to involve your kids in a Smash Up game night where the Mythos is part of the action, though it could prove a gateway for avid readers. There’s not as much family-friendly fun in playing Cultists/Robots vs. University/Bear Cavalry, for example. But for those who embrace Cthulhiana as part of geek culture, TOCS becomes a sillier version of Arkham Horror roleplaying.

Whereas the unifying theme is potentially a dealbreaker for some folks, the mechanical benefits of the set are incredible. TOCS does more to enhance Smash Up as a game than the prior expansion, Awesome Level 9000. Madness as a whole makes scoring a strategic matter, as you need to be aware how much you’ll be dragged back down by the burdens you’ve taken on. The new factions add to the fun with some countermeasures: for example, Innsmouth specializes in “burying them deep,” shuffling Minions back into their owners’ decks. This acts as a natural foil to Zombies’ constant recursion. One of the drawbacks to the prior sets is mitigated here as well.

There are more “surprise factor” Special actions available in TOCS, including a well-telegraphed one in the Minions of Cthulhu deck with the Cthulhu’s Chosen card, who can let you draw a Madness card when a base is scoring to gain +2 Power. Prevent someone from claim-jumping your base at the cost of half a VP? Sure! The new bases, two tailored to each new faction, are good additions as well. The Misk U bases involve purging Madness, either by winning during base scoring, or by ditching one for each Minion played on it. The Elder Things bases reward large Minion play, and so forth.

As a standalone set, it fares slightly better than AL9K, since Madness is a central mechanic which all of the decks share. It does suffer from the same problem (only six deck variations) as the previous expansion. With a complete set of factions, the total number of deck variations is now nearly doubled to 120, and truly insane (Madness!) game sessions of up to eight players can be supported — though it might be recommended to limit the number of bases in play if so.

The base cards in this set are slightly darker on the back than those in prior sets, which is unfortunate — sleeving is recommended to fix this issue.

TOCS also comes with cardboard punchout scoring tokens with a bit of a Lovecraftian art theme.

An overview of game play can be found in my review for Smash Up here: http://boardgaming.com/games/card-games/smash-up#userreviews
A review of Awesome Level 9000 can be found here: http://boardgaming.com/games/card-games/smash-up-awesome-level-9000#userreviews

Pros:
New mechanics add substantial new depth to the game
Increased surprise factor adds to the off-turn game
When combined with prior sets, nearly doubles game variations
Can be bought and played as a limited standalone game

Cons:
Not as entertaining as prior sets due to unified Lovecraftian horror theme
Less kid-friendly (also due to theme)

8
Go to the Smash Up: Awesome Level 9000 page
38 out of 42 gamers thought this was helpful

You can re-create or subvert some of your favorite Internet tropes with Smash Up, such as Lizard Wizards (Dinos and Wizards) or Pirates vs. Ninja. Smash Up: Awesome Level 9000 adds to the fun so that you might try Plants vs. Zombies and other such variations.

AL9K comes with four new factions, each with its own new schtick(s): Killer Plants grow out of control if left unchecked, and entangle their opponents; Bear Cavalry intimidate other minions out of the way, sometimes into an ambush; Ghosts become stronger the fewer cards you have in hand; and Steampunks toolbox their way into leveraging bases to their advantage. These four faction decks can be employed with the base game to increase the number of deck combinations from 28 to 66, or they can be used as a standalone game — though with only six combinations, the fun there will dry up very quickly. As with Smash Up, each faction has two bases each which interact well with its schtick, leading to eight new bases total. AL9K also includes all of the bases from the base game so that there is more variation as a standalone game.

An overview of game play can be found in my review for Smash Up here: http://boardgaming.com/games/card-games/smash-up#userreviews

So what does the expansion add to the game? Increasing the number of factions definitely changes the strategic play of Smash Up — you have to be ready not only for what the new factions can do, but also what having games without certain factions will do, since a four-player game no longer uses all of the factions in the game. Beware of games where no one is using “surprise factor” factions (Ninjas/Pirates), as they become very straightforward power ramps. In those situations, minion destruction becomes even more important. AL9K’s four factions do not add any new off-turn surprise factor to the game.

Bear Cavalry adds a ramped-up kill factor, as well as potentially slowing the game down just by moving minions away. Whereas Pirates tend to strategically use movement to score bases, Bear Cavalry establishes superiority at a base and dares you to come crawling back. Plants borrow pieces from several factions — Sprout is similar to Ninja Acolyte; another minion has a high Power on every turn except the one you play it. AL9K also introduces a new mechanic on Minions: a “Talent” is an action on a minion in play which may be taken once on each of your turns. The Plants’ Venus Man-Trap, the faction boss, can use this to “bud” Minions of 2 Power or less into play each turn.

Steampunks don’t look very intimidating at first, but they have a number of base-related tricks up their sleeves, including movement tricks, ways to preserve Minions that would normally be destroyed, and sudden force multipliers that can turn an army of small grunts into instant base breakers. Ghosts are perhaps the trickiest faction of all, with effects that get better with fewer cards in your hand. They can be counterintuitive in how they play, as ordinarily you want to have more options up your sleeve, but mastering them can unlock one of the most powerful factions available.

The new factions’ interactions with the old makes for some interesting combos. None of the new factions is a lightweight with Zombies, which is a testament to the strength of recursion. Steampunks and Robots are a fantastic mix, since Robots’ Minion flooding works well with Steampunks’ force multiplication; Steampunks also play nicely with Tricksters, where preservation and recursion of on-base Action cards can ruin your opponents’ day. Plants and Dinosaurs interact well — Sprouts can fetch either Stegos or War Raptors to rapidly increase the Power on the board. Similarly, the Venus Man-Trap can bud various Robot Minions to chain into further Minion play. Bear Cavalry is a strong faction on its own, but can be enhanced with either further movement (Pirates) or kill (Ninjas, Pirates, Dinosaurs). Ghosts are another strong faction, where the support of the secondary faction can be key. Oddly, Wizards can work very well with Ghosts, with the card draw and extra actions chaining together to leave you with the desired low card count.

Finally, it may be tempting to run games with more than four players now that there are additional factions in the game. These can be fun, though there is a lot of player downtime between turns and decision paralysis with large games of Smash Up. Overall, the new factions add strategic fun to the game, if not a whole lot new. Talents are a good way to represent Actions that existed in the base game without extra cumbersome language. The variety of choice has now more than doubled the combinations available, and the artwork and text maintain the level of fun established by the original.

I can’t complete this review without a nod towards the one element that the base game was missing. Included in AL9K are cardboard punchout tokens (in 1 and 5 denominations) for tracking players’ total score — these are a much-welcomed accessory to the game.

Pros:
New scoring tokens
Adds to the strategic complexity of the game without making the game itself more complicated
Increased number of ways to hinder your opponent
Can be bought and played as a limited standalone game
Entertainment value of factions, art, and text

Cons:
No additional surprise factor
Some pairings further enhance the faction schtick imbalance

8
Go to the Smash Up page

Smash Up

35 out of 38 gamers thought this was helpful

“Who’d win? A T-Rex or a ninja?” If you’ve ever had silly conversations like this as a child — or an adult — Smash Up might be the game for you. A very simple concept which allows for thousands of variations on play, Smash Up is a “shufflebuilding” game for 2-4 players.

Setup is as simple as it comes: the game has eight factions mostly representing some of geekdom’s “beloved” groups: Aliens, Dinosaurs, Ninjas, Pirates, Robots, Tricksters, Wizards, and Zombies. Each has a schtick which they are better at in the game; for example, Zombies specialize in recursion (coming back from the dead) while Pirates specialize in movement (sailing the Seven Seas). Each faction’s deck has 20 cards, usually 10 Minions and 10 Actions. (Robots break this rule of thumb with 18 Minions and 2 Actions, but many of their Minions have coming-into-play effects that work like Actions.)

At the start of the game, each player drafts a chosen faction, then reverses the draft order to select a second faction: first to select is also last to select, and so forth. Players shuffle the two decks together to make a deck of 40 cards, and can begin play. Thus “Smash Up”: every time you play the game, you will have two different factions “smashed” together to hopefully make something both effective and fun.

The goal of the game is for players to “smash” Base cards by piling Minions on with a total strength greater than the Base’s breakpoint. Based on who had the most strength in Minions there at the end, there are Victory Point rewards for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. Once a player reaches 15 Victory Points or more, the game is over. Each player’s turn consists of playing a Minion card and/or an Action card, resolving their effects, checking for base breaking, then drawing two cards and passing to the next player. Some combinations of card effects can allow for cascading base breakage, and a very few effects allow for surprise moves on other players’ turns. The Base cards each have effects of their own, some that apply while Minions are played there, some that give effects to the winner, etc.

Strategy in the game involves having an idea of your opponents are capable of, correctly reading board position, and convincing opponents to gang up on each other instead of you. The trappings of the game allow for a great deal of fun, and it is both simple to learn and complex in its interactions. I personally have successfully taught the game to both drunken adults and easily distractable children (not at the same time), and everyone has had a grand time playing it. There’s nothing in the game that has overly frightening or violent content — the art is well done and unobjectionable, and game play is abstract enough that even “destroying” Minions isn’t a personal thing.

The game does have its limitations — without more surprise moves possible, the game is more about preventing yourself from setting up your opponents for victory. The eight factions allow for 28 deck combinations, and it is clear that certain factions are more powerful than others within the base set. Wizards’ card draw, Tricksters’ discard tech, and Zombies’ recursion are very strong. To prevent players from always gravitating towards the same factions, it may be preferable to occasionally doing random allocation instead of draft.

Still, games run fairly quickly, and this is a great beer-and-pretzels uproarious good time, or a Childhood Revisited fun night with the family. Smash Up is fun in a distilled form, a competitive, no-holds-barred free-for-all that never takes itself too seriously.

NOTE: Although two expansions to the game have been released as of the time of this review, the review is written to only account for the base game. I will review the expansions separately and discuss them both as standalone sets and in the context of the base game.

Pros:
Very easy to learn and set up
Good for different audiences, including children
Relatively short games (30-45 minutes)
Decent amount of game variance
Entertainment value of factions, art, and text

Cons:
Very little surprise factor possible (two factions out of eight: Pirates and Ninjas)
Faction schtick imbalance

9
Go to the Sentinels of the Multiverse page
71 out of 76 gamers thought this was helpful

Here is a game that perfectly captures the feel of a superhero “team”. Sentinels of the Multiverse is a cooperative game for 3-5 players, each taking on the role of a superhero, who must band together to take down a powerful supervillain. Each hero or villain (ten and four in the base set, respectively) may feel somewhat familiar, existing as the game universe’s pastiche on a character with whom we are already conversant, but the creators of the game have gone a long way to set up their own universe and atmosphere. The art is of a consistent, comic book quality; the Hero decks are capped by a card that evokes a comic book cover, complete with unique logos and tag lines (“The Indestructible Bunker”).

Setup is as simple as selecting (or randomly assigning) heroes for each player, a villain, and an environment. The decks are entirely pre-constructed and designed to be shuffled up and played straight out of the box. Certain decks (primarily villains) will start with one or more cards in play. Turns are simple: a card is played from the Villain deck, applying any effects as necessary (including ones from cards in play). The Heroes all play their turns in order, being able to play one card and/or take a Power action. Finally, a card is played from the Environment deck amd all necessary effects are resolved. This continues until either the villain is defeated, or the heroes are. The decks are well-tuned, with all of them playing to different strengths and weaknesses, and thus most games will feel very different from each other unless your group likes to choose the same heroes each time.

The true depth of game is learning how to interact like a team, in ways that will be familiar to anyone who has played a superhero RPG or engaged with multiplayer content in an MMO. Certain heroes will specialize at being Bricks, dealing out high levels of damage; others will play Buff roles to make their team more effective overall; still others act as Healers. Communication is key, with teams being more effective if they strategize their turns together — since there is no single “winner,” there is no sense in playing the game in a vacuum. Each villain presents its own special challenges — what works against Baron Blade may not necessarily fly when dealing with Citizen Dawn — thus players need to be adaptable as they move from session to session of the game. Power levels are scalable, with villains becoming tougher based on the number of heroes they face. Villains also all have an Advanced mode to provide greater (and sometimes nearly impossible) challenge. The Environment deck can be boon or bane, frequently a spoiler effect that can disrupt the heroes’ well-laid plans.

The little touches add to this game, such as “nemesis effects” between certain heroes and villains, and the alternate promotional versions of Hero cards, which do not change the base deck but instead alter the hero’s starting power. Individual heroes can be defeated and knocked out of the fight, but the designers have even taken that into account by providing multiple “incapacitated” actions on the reverse of each Hero card for a player to take on behalf of their team — not direct action, but support to the others.

Each of the games expansions adds more of everything: heroes, villains, and environments. The challenge level varies wildly, but a gaming group can get tons of mileage out of changing up what they fight against, and who they use to do it. Highly recommended for nearly any sort of gamer with a group.

Pros:
Easy to learn and set up after initial shrinkwrap shelling
Relatively short games (30-45 minutes)
Hundreds of sessions of replay value based on game variance
Immersive comic book world experience

Cons:
Early games may involve getting stomped by the villain before learning how to use teamwork properly
Certain heroes are very hand-dependent

9
Go to the Trains page

Trains

148 out of 153 gamers thought this was helpful

“What if Dominion and Ticket to Ride had a baby?” That was the opinion of one of my friends to whom I taught the game during GenCon.

Trains is AEG’s English-language release of the Japanese game of the same name which debuted at Essen 2012. The core of the game is a deckbuilder: you start with a tiny deck of basic Normal Train cards, some Lay Rails cards, and a Station Expansion. You use the money produced by your cards to purchase more cards from a common pool of 15 piles, acquiring them to be shuffled into your deck. You can also use your money in conjunction with your Lay Rails cards to put railway track (in the form of colored cube markers) onto different terrain types on a hex board map (in the base game, maps of either Tokyo or Osaka).

Deck management and board management go hand-in-hand. You can build into cities, which you can develop with Station Expansion cards to increase your victory point total at the end of the game; into remote locations which are worth straight VP; and across the board to interfere with or mooch off of your opponents’ builds.

The piles of cards to be purchased include advanced Trains, additional Lay Rails (and better versions), additional Station Expansions, and Action cards, as well as Buildings which are worth straight VP at the end of the game. Cards which involve construction and development (rails, stations, buildings) also put Waste cards into your deck. These are chaff cards which clog up your deck. They are a central part of Trains’ game mechanics: you can hold your Waste, manage it with other bought cards, or skip a turn to purge all Waste from your hand back to the Waste deck. Deciding the best strategy from turn to turn can dictate what you are able to accomplish with your deck. Each turn allows you to use any or all of your cards in hand to add to your deck or work on the board, as the cards permit.

Play lasts until a player has laid their last rail token, until any player has played the last communal station token, or until four of the fifteen non-Waste card piles have been depleted. This is usually about 45 minutes for a four player game. Replayability is high, since eight of the sixteen card piles are fixed and the other eight come from a pool of thirty different cards. Additionally, multiple maps can change a player’s build strategy from game to game.

The basic map is high quality and dual-sided. Card stock is sturdy and unlikely to break down easily. The tokens used for rails and stations — colored cubes and colorless hexagonal cylinders, respectively — are not terribly representative, but they are simple and easily distinguishable. The most common point of confusion among new players was the use of the universal recycling symbol (arrows in a triangle) to represent taking a Waste card, but it was not a barrier to play.

Pros:
High production values
Substantial replayability
Easy to teach to new players
Reasonable setup and cleanup time
Short (45 min) play time

Cons:
Some dissociation with components
Lack of ways to trash cards from deck (deck thinning)
Will ruin you, a bit, for other deckbuilding games

9
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Firefly: The Game

68 out of 72 gamers thought this was helpful

Almost universal among the group of us who played the game during GenCon was an undercurrent of nostalgia: we wanted to watch the show again after playing this game. It captures the feel of the show beautifully, using locations, situations, and characters both great and small to do so.

Gameplay is widely varied. Players select from identical Firefly-class ships to start (including Serenity), choose a captain (including Mal Reynolds), and are loaded up with identical drives, fuel, and spare parts. Everyone is on an equal footing, and can start anywhere in known space (the game board) to begin play. The ultimate goal of the game is drawn from a stack of cards, and will involve changing up your strategy significantly from game to game.

Players visit various fixers/employers (Badger, Patience, Harken et al.) to take on jobs, ranging from shuttle runs for cargo and passengers to full-on heists involving risk and skill checks (“aimin’ to misbehave”). They can stop at one of five supply planets to hire crew or purchase gear or ship upgrades. They can steal (hire away) disgruntled crew from other ships. Travel between planets can be slow and safe, or reckless and risky, with the possibility of encounters and/or salvage along the way.

Complicating things are various modifiers, such as Fuel and Parts (both required to continue moving through space, and both of which take up valuable cargo space on your ship), Moral crew members and captains (who frown on taking on Immoral — but not Illegal — jobs), Warrants, Wanted crew, Fugitives and Contraband (which can make things tough when you travel through Alliance space), Solids (the benefit for completing a job for one of the fixers), and many more.

Complicating things still further are the ever-present Reaver Ship which wanders unregulated space, and the Alliance Cruiser which patrols inside the Halo at the center of the board. These elements are moved by other players during your turn, which allows them to throw obstacles directly in your path — or force a confrontation you can’t afford.

The components are well-designed, using photography from the show for most character/ship/gear art, but also demonstrating a savviness of design in the art deco and retro look of the card backs representing the supply planets, for example. The ship pieces are durable plastic, and the card stock is heavy enough not to worry about wear. The game can accommodate up to 4 players, and even includes a solitaire mode for player-vs-gameboard play. Game length will vary; one of the most time-consuming goals is a Monopoly-like variant involving accumulating the most cash, which can take 2-3 hours.

Pros:
Clever game design, incorporating traits from various other game types
Substantial replayability
High production values
Captures the spirit of the show brilliantly

Cons:
High setup and play time
Complex rules system
A handful of Full Stop conditions that can create failure with no chance of success (dice rolls irrelevant)
A handful of Easy Out conditions that can create success with no chance of failure (dice rolls irrelevant)

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