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William McCarroll

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Go to the Eminent Domain page

Eminent Domain

99 out of 117 gamers thought this was helpful

This review, along with photographs was originally posted at http://www.nerdbloggers.com

Tasty Minstrel Games has taken their games to new heights with the space themed, Seth Jaffee designed board game Eminent Domain. While the title of the game may sound like the sort of legalese a cheap polyester attorney would feed you right before demolishing your house to make way for an interstellar bypass, in execution Eminent Domain forgoes any legal wrangling and instead tasks players with discovering and settling planets to score influence points. Any sleazy space attorneys that may be part of these proceedings have, thankfully, been abstracted out of gameplay.

In Eminent Domain, players attempt to score influence points by discovering planets, colonizing or attacking them, and researching technologies. Each planet gives different benefits to the player, allowing him to excel at certain actions or trade resources for points. Players take turns selecting a role card from the center of the table, and performing any instructions on the card before adding the card to their personal deck. By using cards in their hand, and special features of planets on the table, players can enhance the effect of certain roles. Whoever can best manage their deck, and make the best role choices will ultimately gain the most influence, and win the game.

Eminent Domain is reminiscent of several different modern games. The role selection mechanism that was popularized by San Juan and Race for the Galaxy is featured prominently in Eminent Domain’s gameplay, as is the deck building paradigm that Dominion pioneered. Despite this obvious influence, Eminent Domain manages to take these two disparate ideas of role selection and deck building and merge them together into a unique mash-up that has a flavor and strategy that stands on its own.

Components:

Right out of the gate, the components in Eminent Domain scream high quality. The artwork is colorful and pleasing, and the components are rugged and well made. This is especially redeeming, as Tasty Minstrel Games suffered some production issues during their freshman attempt at publishing games a few years ago, when a large majority of the first print run of the game Homesteaders was shipped from the factory with critical manufacturing flaws. Not willing to be knocked out so easily, Tasty Minstrel Games has shifted production of their games to a different, highly respected manufacturer, with absolutely stellar results.

Board – Although Eminent Domain is more of a card game than a board game, it includes a glossy board to hold the various cards that players will collect through the game. This is not only nice because it helps organize the play space, but it is also functional in imparting rules information to the players when all of the cards of a certain type have been collected.

Cards – Gameplay in Eminent Domain centers on the manipulation of its various cards. These cards are printed on linen stock and display vivid, colorful artwork. The cards are good quality, but they have black edges, and even after a single play the edges of my cards started to show some whitening. Because the cards will be constantly shuffled during play, Eminent Domain (like most deck builders), is a candidate for card sleeves.

Cardboard Bits – The few cardboard bits found in Eminent Domain are thick and sturdy. The Influence Point tokens, starting planets, and player reference cards were a joy to punch from their cardboard sheet; some even fell out out on their own, impatient to play. This may seem like a small detail, but it’s actually very important to me. When I first open up a brand new game and find that the cardboard pieces are difficult to punch, causing them to split or tear, it makes me anxious and affects my enjoyment of the game. I plan to keep my games around for many years, and knowing that pieces aren’t going to be defaced before the first game has seen it’s first play is greatly appreciated.

Spaceships – When first opening Eminent Domain, one finds carefully packaged in a baggie, inside of a small box, a set of small, black, plastic spaceships. The spaceships come in three different shapes, with each shape a differing size. The spaceships serve as simple counters to denote a player’s current military might, but they look really neat, and are a lot of fun to handle. It could be argued that wooden cubes or cardboard tokens would serve the purpose just as effectively as these little plastic fighters, but during play, little touches like this really help reinforce the theme. It is a bid odd though that the ships come in three sizes, because the size of the ship has no relevance in gameplay. Seth Jaffee was kind enough to talk to me about these interesting components, and I came out of the exchange with much more information about the ship tokens came to be, and what the future holds for them – You will have to wait till the conclusion of this review for that juicy info though!

Rulebook – The rulebook is very colorful, and has large, detailed illustrations of the game components. It is easy to understand, and the fact that it doesn’t contain a wall of text makes it very inviting to read. As a nice thank-you, the manual also has a list of all of the people who contributed financially to Eminent Domain‘s Kickstarter birth.

Setup:

Since Eminent Domain is a card game at it’s heart, setup mostly involves separating cards and putting them into the correct piles on the board. There are three major classes of cards: Role cards, Planet cards, and Technology cards.

The Role cards will make up the brunt of a player’s deck, and are sorted into the five roles that a player can choose on his turn: Survey, Warfare, Colonize, Produce/Trade, and Research. Each type of role card has two distinct abilities printed on it; one for the Role phase, and one for the Action phase. Once sorted, the role cards are placed in piles indicated on the game board, and each player is dealt a hand of 10 predetermined Role cards that will make up his starting deck.

After the role cards are set up, the technology cards are separated by type and placed next to the board, as well as the planet cards which are shuffled together and placed face down in a pile. The resource markers, spaceships, and influence tokens are then placed in piles near the play area.

Each player starts the game with a random unexplored starting planet in his play area. These starting planets are easily differentiated from the other planets by the fact that they are printed on a thick cardboard tile.

Once the game has been set up, players shuffle their deck and then draw 5 cards to make up their starting hand. Play is ready to begin.

Gameplay:

Play in Eminent Domain is deceptively simple. Each gameplay turn is separated into 3 distinct phases: Action, Role Selection, and Cleanup.

During the Action phase, a player may play a card from his hand, and perform the action listed in the “Action” section of the card. This action is restricted to the current player, and unlike the Role phase that will be described next, it is not performed by other players in the game. The action phase is optional, and a player may find himself forgoing an Action phase and saving his cards to take better advantage of the Role phase.

After a player has performed his action phase, the mandatory Role phase begins. During his Role phase, a player chooses one of the Role cards from the center of the table: Survey, Warfare, Colonize, Produce/Trade, or Research. Each role will give the player a specific ability, printed in the “Role” section of the card, but while the action phase gave an exclusive ability to the player, every other player in the game is allowed to take advantage of the selected Role card during the role phase.

Role cards also give the player an opportunity to “Boost” a role’s effect by playing cards from his hand, or utilizing the special abilities of explored planets in his tableau. This is where the deck building portion of Eminent Domain really becomes apparent. When you select a Role in the Role phase, the card you take makes its way into your discard pile, and eventually your deck. This means the more you select a certain role, the more likely those Role cards will be in your hand, and the more cards you will have available to enhance the effect of a particular role.

Each Role card has a very specific purpose in forwarding a player’s strategy:

Survey – The Survey card allows the player to draw cards from the planet deck, and place it unexplored in his tableau. Planets do not score points, or give effects to players until they have been explored, so this is just the first step in expanding an empire. Players can “boost” the Survey role by playing more survey cards from their hand, increasing the number of cards a player can look at before choosing a planet to explore. Since planets have differing abilities, having a larger number to choose from allows the player to better select planets that align with his larger strategy. The player who chooses Survey as a role, automatically gets to look at and take a single planet card without playing any additional cards, but players who wish to use this role on another player’s turn must play at least two survey cards from their hand. This limitation avoids the uncontrollable proliferation of planets by making planets more expensive on other players’ turns.

Colonize – While the Survey role will allow players to get planets from the deck to their tableau, the planets cannot be utilized until they are flipped over to the “explored” side. Each planet has two values printed on it’s unexplored size: The first is the number of colonies needed to settle it, and the second is the military might needed to conquer it. The Colonize action works towards the first objective, by allowing players to build colonies on the planet, or if there are already enough colonies on the planet, to “settle” the planet and flip it over onto its explored side. While other players may expend colonize cards and add colonies to a planet during an opponent’s colonize role, a player may only settle if he was the one who chose the role.

Warfare – While some players may choose to go the peaceful settlement route, those bloodthirsty gamers may wish instead to conquer planets with with military might – and that’s where the Warfare role comes into play. Similar to the colonies in the colonization role, a player may use the warfare role to amass ships to conquer planets. If the player already has enough warships to meet the attack number on the planet card, he may choose to Attack instead, by returning the required number of ships back to the supply, and flipping the planet card to it’s explored side. Like the colonize action, only the current player can attack a planet, but all players may discard Warfare cards, and use planet abilities to gain more spaceships.

Produce/Trade – Many planets have the ability to generate resources that can then be sold for influence points. The Produce/Trade role is used to activate these planet abilities. When selecting the Produce/Trade role, the player announces which aspect of the role he is exercising. If he produces, he may place a little wooden resource disk on a production planet; by boosting the role, he can produce on more than one planet. If the player chooses the Trade role, then the opposite of Produce occurs, and the player may remove a resource from the planet, return it to the supply, and gain an influence point in return. By boosting the Trade role, the player can perform this action on more planets. This Produce/Trade cycle can really start to pump out influence points for the player if he has built his deck in a way to facilitate this economic engine.

Research – With the previous four roles, the gameplay is pretty straightforward: Players Survey to gain unexplored planets; then they settle or attack those planets; and finally generate influence points by gaining more planets, or using the Produce/Trade role to sell goods. The research role breaks this predictable cycle up a bit, and is really what adds character to the game. The research role serves two purposes: The first is to allow the player to purchase technology cards with special actions that are much stronger than the base role cards; the second is to allow the player to tailor his deck by removing unwanted role cards from his hand.

The research role may be the most complicated to understand for new players, because it has an action that allows players to remove cards from the game entirely. New players will often ask me why anyone would want to use an action that makes them discard cards, but after several plays the importance of removing cards from a deck to make it more effective becomes very apparent: At the start of the game the ability to Survey and Settle/Attack is extremely important, but as the game progresses those actions can clog a player’s deck; especially one who is looking to utilize the Produce/Trade abilities of his planet. Because of this ability, the research role actually becomes one of the most important roles in the game.

The technology cards that can be purchased with the research role are also very important. Most of the technology cards act like super-powered role cards, with expanded actions that are stronger than their simple role counterparts. In conjunction with the research ability to remove cards, players can trash the more basic role cards, and increase the likelihood that one of the powerful technology cards will be drawn.

After a player has taken his action, selected his role and played any cards to boost it’s effect, the newly drawn role card and all the cards used to boost it are put in the player’s discard pile. The player may also choose to discard any number of cards from his hand, before drawing his hand back up to 5 cards. When the player runs out of cards in his deck, he shuffles his discard pile to create a new deck.

While this is the basic flow of the game, there is a bit more depth when actually looking at the special powers of the planets and the different technology cards. Many technology and planet cards have icons on them that correspond to a particular role. A card with one of these icons can be used just like a role card when boosting the matching role. Planets may also give other abilities, such as allowing a player an increased hand size. I wanted to wait until after I had described general gameplay before discussing this iconography, not because it is difficult to understand (in fact, it is very simple), but because Eminent Domain shares a lot of mechanical similarity to another icon heavy game: Race for the Galaxy. While Race for the Galaxy‘s iconography can take a while to learn, and is complicated to some, the iconography in Eminent Domain is very straightforward and very easy to understand. Simply put, if there is an icon on a card in Eminent Domain it means one of two things: either it increases your hand size, or it can be used like a Role card when boosting a role effect.

Conclusion:

I enjoyed playing Eminent Domain. It’s mechanics and theme really fit together in a pleasing, easy to understand whole. Where some games may mire the various actions in complexity, the purpose of the various roles in Eminent Domain are clearly defined, making it easy to create and execute a strategy. The addition of Technology and Planet cards add spice to the game by introducing some rule changing properties and effects which keep Eminent Domain from growing stale, and keep players on their toes.

Deck building as a game mechanism has been polarizing gamers lately. With a large number of games trying to jump on the Dominion bandwagon, many people have become fatigued with the idea. But, those gamers who dislike deck building games may not want to discount Eminent Domain out of hand. While Eminent Domain does contain a deck building mechanism, it is not presented in the same manner as most deck builders. In fact, Eminent Domain‘s gameplay is closer in feel to a role selection game like San Juan or Race for the Galaxy than a Dominion style game. The deck building acts almost as a mechanism to simulate gaining experience in a given role, and doesn’t offer the perpetual card combos that can drag out player turns in other games.

Players who own Race for the Galaxy may find Eminent Domain jockeying for the same spot on the game shelf. Eminent Domain has unique mechanics that allow it to easily stand on its own, but with such a similar theme, and role selection mechanism, both titles may feel like they scratch the same itch. Eminent Domain is certainly a more directed game experience; it’s fairly small subset of planets and powers allow players to strategically shape their empire – and drawing cards doesn’t feel like a fishing expedition. As a result, the Eminent Domain player may feel more empowered, and have more control than the Race for the Galaxy player. By the same stroke however, Eminent Domain can feel like it lacks breadth of content, with the handful of planets appearing somewhat anonymous, and without personality.

Eminent Domain is a very approachable game, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Its gameplay is simple; perhaps deceptively so. The choices that can be made, and they way different actions interact with each other, appear straightforward and understandable. While this is great from an accessibility standpoint, it also means that players may feel they have a handle on the game after the first few minutes of play, and mistakenly think that it lacks depth. Given a few games however, it becomes apparent that the workable strategies in Eminent Domain are much more varied and subtle than first glance. Understanding how to use the Research cards is a big part of opening up the greater depth of Eminent Domain, and may take a few plays before it really clicks. Once it clicks though, Eminent Domain changes from an entertaining diversion, to a truly fun game teeming with strategic choices.

There are many different paths to victory in Eminent Domain, but some strategies might seem overpowered to the new player. Take Warfare vs. Colonization as an example: When a player uses a colonization strategy, his colony cards are tied up during use, because they must be placed under the planet to be colonized. Only when the planet is settled are those returned to the deck. Warfare, on the other hand produces spaceship tokens which can be stockpiled to attack a planet later. After producing the ships, the Warfare cards go right back into the discard pile, and eventually make their way back into the player’s hand to produce more warships, whereas the colony cards languish out of play under a planet.

This is assumption that Warfare is unbalanced is deceptive, though, and one of the situations where the subtlety of strategy in Eminent Domain really shines. Although a Warfare strategy will generate lots of ships for the player, the player may instead chooses to settle planets with colonization icons on them. Using this alternative strategy the player will find that the number of colonies needed to settle each planet decreases with each new planet. Pursuing this strategy far enough, with enough icons in his tableau, the player can settle a planet in a single action without having to first add any colonies to it. This means that a player using the colony strategy is able to take over planets in less turns than a player using the warfare strategy. A player using a colony strategy may also choose to keep colonies out of play, under unsettled planets, as a strategy to change the distribution of cards in his deck. Strategies like these add a subtle balance to the different roles, and may not be apparent at first glance. But, as players become more familiar with the game, the possibilities unfold into a very rich game-space.

While most of the design in Eminent Domain is surprisingly elegant, there are a few parts of the design that seem almost superfluous. The two that immediately come to mind are the plastic spaceships, and the resource counters. Don’t get me wrong, I think the spaceships are really cool and help solidify the space theme, but the three different shapes are a bit disorienting. It feels like the different ships should each have a unique purpose, and not just act as simple counters. The colored resource disks also seem out of place. Each planet produces one of four different resource types, but these different resources aren’t really relevant to gameplay aside from a couple of technology cards that give bonuses based on diversity. Whether a planet produces water or silicon is largely irrelevant. I thought that perhaps these components were added to the game in anticipation of an expansion that would more appropriately use them, and the mere presence of the different sized ships and different types of resources made me wonder whether there is added depth just beyond their painted surfaces.

Instead of speculating about this, I went straight to the horses mouth and contacted game designer Seth Jaffee. The story behind the components in Eminent Domain actually turned out to give an interesting glimpse into the game development and production process.

Eminent Domain originally called for small back disks to represent the warfare counters, But as it became apparent that Eminent Domain would exceed its Kickstarter funding goal, Seth Jaffee and Tasty Minstrel founder Michael Mindes wanted to add some cool bits to the game that would add to the theme and increase the production value. The original plan was to design custom fighter tokens, but the cost of making the molds was prohibitive. They did, however, have access to the ship molds that were used in the game Galactic Emperor, and decided that using these ships would add to the theme of the game (I agree that it does!) while still meeting the budget. These molds happened to have all three sizes of ships in each mold, and as a result, every copy of Eminent Domain comes with those three different types of ships. Seth Jaffee is currently designing an expansion for Eminent Domain, however, and he tells me that he has some ideas for utilizing the different types of ships. In his own words:

“I am working on an expansion … [where] the small ships will remain Fighters, the medium ships will be called Destroyers, and the large ships will be called Dreadnaughts. The difference between them is really sort of like a military tech tree in a way – they are used for different things, not just ‘destroyers are equivalent to 3 Fighters’ or anything like that. So for those who can’t stand the thought of 2 different ships both being ‘1 Fighter,’ sit tight! Some time next year you will probably have an expansion that makes them different!”

As for the differing planet resources: that was a design decision to add a bit more theme to differentiate the planets, and also give players more strategy when utilizing technologies. While it may seem that the game should support planets or tech that require specific types of resources in their purchase price, in practice, those choices unbalanced the game. Seth does have some ideas that he hopes to include in the next expansion to take more advantage of the different resource types; and he even hints at a “top secret” idea for a future expansion sometime after that (maybe it’s those infamous polyester space attorneys absent from the base game!). He has certainly piqued my interest, and I am excited to see what is in store for Eminent Domain‘s future. Waiting won’t be TOO hard though, because the base game has plenty of depth packed inside of its box to keep me entertained for quite a while.

After many plays, I have come to the conclusion that Eminent Domain, through it’s easy to understand rule set, colorful cards, and sturdy components, is most definitely compelling – and perhaps more importantly, a lot of fun! Eminent Domain is a game that seems to exist to defy preconceptions; no matter what you may think about the individual game mechanisms that make up the game, Eminent Domain is sure to surprise you, and may just sneak up on you to become one of your favorites. It is certainly proof that a game can be greater than the sum of it’s parts.

 
Go to the Nightfall: Blood Country page
22 out of 22 gamers thought this was helpful

This Review of Nightfall: Blood Country can be found with photos at http://www.nerdbloggers.com.

Nightfall: Blood Country is an expansion to the supernatural themed deck building game Nightfall. Designed by David Gregg, and published by Alderac Entertainment Group, Nightfall is a deck building game that encourages direct confrontation between players, and rewards the building of card combos through the use of its unique “chaining” mechanism which uses color matching to bring new cards into play. I really enjoyed Nightfall, and its stand-alone expansion Nightfall: Martial Law, and I was very excited to give Nightfall: Blood Country some table time.

While the previous expansion, Nightfall: Martial Law had all of the components to play as a stand-alone game, Nightfall: Blood Country is an expansion in the strictest sense, and requires one of the previous Nightfall incarnations to play. Since I have previously reviewed both Nightfall and Nightfall: Martial Law, I am not going to write an in-depth description of gameplay. If you aren’t familiar with Nightfall, my review of the base game gives an introduction to gameplay.

Components:

The biggest difference between the components in Nightfall: Blood Country and the other Nightfall games is the box. The colorfully illustrated box has a small footprint, at around 6” x 4” x 3”, much smaller than the full-sized boxes of its predecessors. The previous games in the series are already built to hold expansions in them, so Nightfall: Blood Country’s small footprint is very economical. Some people may be tempted to put the cards from this new expansion into the original Nightfall box, and simply discard the expansion box, but there is a compelling reason to keep the smaller box around. Even with its diminutive dimensions, the expansion box still has plenty of room for more cards, and it comes with the same foam spacers and divider cards as the original game. In fact, Nightfall: Blood Country even comes with dividers for wound cards, and the starting player decks, making it an excellent portable solution for when you want to take Nightfall with you without the hassle of lugging around a big box. I haven’t yet checked to see if all of the original Nightfall cards and Nightfall: Blood Country cards will fit into the expansion box together, but there is definitely enough room in there to pack a wide variety of cards, making it perfect for travel.

The expansion also forgoes a full-fledged rulebook, opting instead for a single folded sheet that describes new rules, presents a small FAQ, and adds some new game fiction. The majority of the text is devoted to game fiction; a fiction that moves the action to Canute, Oklahoma.

The Game:

Nightfall: Blood Country doesn’t really add much to the core game mechanics; there has been a change to the original drafting rules that call for the random public archives to be selected and revealed before drafting starts. This small change is actually very effective in making the drafting process much more strategic, due to the fact that players now have a frame of reference when drafting cards. In the older drafting rules, the random cards were just that: random. Now, the random cards can better mesh with the rest of the selections.

Nightfall: Blood Country offers a variety of cards, with a more even distribution of character types. The expansion’s small box contains: 4 vampires, 3 hunters, 3 lycanthropes, and 2 ghouls; not to mention a handful of unique action cards. This selection of cards is where Nightfall: Blood Country really stands out. Even though the core game mechanics haven’t changed in this expansion, the cards themselves have a lot of unique and interesting capabilities. In fact, the cards in Nightfall: Blood Country may be my favorite of the series, focusing more on more unique, rule-bending effects. Wound types (Bite, Burn, Bleed) are now referenced directly in certain card text, and the types of wounds you have can make a difference. Many cards in Nightfall: Blood Country work as spoilers, or counterattacks, taking malicious cards and negating them, or in some cases, taking control of them.

Some examples of the more interesting cards are: Maggie Hawke, and LeShawn Wallace, who allow you to deal damage to them and manipulate influence; Rabid Rex who adds some randomness to wond damage, and uses specific wound types; Vampiric turning which allows you to kill, then control an opponent’s minion; and Exit Strategy and Pipe Bomb, which both allow for some fundamental changes to the game rules.

Maggie Hawke:

Vampire

In Play: At the start of your claim phase, you may inflict 1 damage on this card to gain 1 influence.

Kicker: Exile all minions destroyed by the next order in the chain.

LeShawn Wallace:

Vampire

In Play: At the start of any phase, you may inflict 1 damage on this card to make the active player lose 1 influence.

Kicker: Draw 1 card. Target Order in the chain will resolve its kicker.

Rabid Rex:

Lycanthrope

Chain: Target player receives wounds until he receives a bit or a burn wound.

Kicker: Inflict 2 damage on target ghoul or vampire.

Vampiric Turning:

Chain: Destroy target minion. You may discard a bite wound to place that minion into play under your control until it is destroyed or discarded.

Kicker: Place up to 2 target cards from your discard pile on top of your deck.

Exit Strategy:

Chain: Target order in the chain does not resolve. Place it in your discard pile instead. Exile this card.

Kicker: Reverse the direction in which you resolve the remainder of the chain.

Pipe Bomb:

Chain: Shuffle the bottom 2 wounds from the wound stack into target archive. They must be claimed at no cost when possible.

Kicker: Inflict 1 damage each on up to 3 target minions.

Nightfall: Blood Country may suffer a bit from “more of the same”; This isn’t necessarily true when it comes to the card effects – the card effects are unique and fun – but when it comes to the characters and theme in this expansion, there isn’t anything that outwardly separates Nightfall: Blood Country from the previous expansions. A potential customer sitting in front of the three Nightfall titles may have some trouble differentiating what each box actually delivers, and why he should choose one over the others. Dominion addressed this fundamental issue fairly well in its expansions, with each expansion delivering a solid gameplay theme; “conflict” in Intrigue, “high stakes” in Prosperity, “Variety” in Cornucopia, etc.. I would have liked to see stronger defining characteristics like this in the Nightfall expansions. Small expansions like Blood Country would be the perfect vehicle to introduce sets of cards with a thematic flavor all their own. For example: A set of cards focused around a corrupt banking corporation living in their seemingly safe utopia; a set of cards that take the conflict to the barren, ranch filled ghost towns of Nevada; or a set of cards that showcase the battlefield that is Hollywood, where no one can see past the plastic and Botox to tell the difference between the vampires, ghouls, and humans. Without an obvious thematic hook, I wonder if quality expansions like Blood Country might get lost in the firehose of games flooding the current market.

Conclusion:

Nightfall: Blood Country is an excellent addition to the Nightfall family. It has unique, rule-bending cards that really change up the nature of the game, and allow for some really exciting, and unexpected turnarounds – these are cards that will find their way into the draft piles in all of my future games. The new draft rules are a great addition as well, adding a new layer of strategy to the game with a very simple change. The smaller box for Nightfall: Blood Country also makes the game much more portable now, giving me the ability to easily bring Nightfall with me in anticipation of a quick game while I am out.

Nightfall: Blood Country does seem to be teetering dangerously on the edge of “been there, done that”. While its card effects are outstanding, some of the coolness factor is lost due to the fact that the artwork and theme in this expansion seem to mirror that from the previous installments. Now, I’m not saying that new expansions for Nightfall should have a drastically different theme, but certainly something that would better differentiate them from the previous games would be welcome.

Despite any concerns I may have, Nightfall: Blood Country has easily earned my recommendation. When it comes down to it, the gameplay is what matters the most – and Nightfall: Blood Country has it where it counts.

 
Go to the Dominant Species page

Dominant Species

170 out of 187 gamers thought this was helpful

This review can be found, along with photographs, at http://www.nerdbloggers.com

GMT games, a prolific publisher well known for its quality wargames, has been making grognards smile for over two decades. In 2010, GMT surprised a lot of people with the release of Dominant Species, a game about survival of the fittest during an encroaching ice age that appeared to have more in common with the worker placement mechanics found in Euro style games than GMT’s previous conflict oriented offerings. Designed by Chad Jensen, Dominant Species trades the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific for the glacial arena of the frozen tundra, where the deadly implements of modern war are replaced with the ruthless hand of mother nature and the wily twists of evolution.

In Dominant Species, players control a class of animals in a biological taxonomy, and attempt to evolve their class of creatures to dominate a world being rapidly changed by the encroaching glaciers of the ice age. Players must evolve their creatures to better adapt to the environment and change the environment to benefit their species, all while engaging the other players through direct tactical conflict and cunning strategic migration. While the core mechanic in Dominant Species is worker placement, it’s about as far from archetypal genre titles like Caylus or Agricola as you can get. Players will compete for various actions through the worker placement mechanic, but how they choose to utilize those actions, and where on the board they place their genetic army of species has an awful lot in common with conflict based combat games. As one poofy-haired singer from the 80’s once expressed: “Love is a Battlefield”, and the cutthroat natural selection of Dominant Species certainly supports that notion.

Components:

I was a bit late to the party in picking up Dominant Species, and although I may have thought mean, jealous things about those lucky gamers who acquired a copy during 2010 before it sold out, I was happy to pick up the second printing in 2011; a printing which received upgraded components, as well as the removal of the comic-sans font (the bane of typophiles everywhere) from the rulebook. That being said, the components in the second edition are stellar. From the super-sturdy box, to the thick tiles and board, everything in the box screams quality. And that’s not even mentioning enough wooden bits to shock a lumberjack – and that’s okay!

It’s important to note that the components that make up Dominant Species are all very minimal in design: wooden cubes; cylinders; cones; and very simple, minimalist illustrations that serve more as iconography than artwork. I have to admit that in general I am drawn to detailed miniatures and colorful artwork in games. The way a game looks and feels, and the mood that it conveys can really enhance my gaming experience. GMT could have easily gone this route with Dominant Species, but I can honestly say that it would have been a mistake to add such embellishments. The minimal presentation of the game fits the function much better than complicated artwork would have. There is so much going on in Dominant Species, and so many pieces on the board at any given time, that miniatures or fancy art would have detracted from the playability of the game. The minimal art allows the state of the game to be delivered in a clear, concise way and benefits the game as a whole.

The Box – The Dominant Species box is super sturdy. I think it’s made from the thickest cardboard of any game box I own – and I really appreciate this. I recently moved my entire game collection to a different room, and while putting boxes away, I noticed that some games which I had only played a handful of times had lids that were beginning to sag. I am fairly careful about how I store my games, but regardless of how careful I am, I can’t defy gravity, and the wicked forces of time and nature hate my games.

The Dominant Species box, however, ruggedly laughs in the face of nature (in an anthropomorphically non-sagging sort of way). Millions of years from now when the archaeologists of the future are sifting through the remains of our primitive society, the Dominant Species box will still be around, when the frail boxes of the competition have perished to the elements. Future generations will doubtlessly ponder this, posing the question: “Where is the missing link that brought us from Monopoly to Dominant Species?”

Although I have waxed lyrical about a box for two paragraphs, I do have one small quibble with it. After bagging up all of the components in the game, it can be difficult to fit everything back into the box. Removing the insert, or placing some components under the insert will free enough room to comfortably fit everything, but I am one of those people who doesn’t even throw away the product catalogs that come packed in games, so you will be hard pressed to find me tossing a box insert. Not everyone is as neurotic as I am though, so this is really a small concern.

The Board – The second printing of Dominant Species boasts a large, mounted board. The right hand side of the board has spaces set aside for the placement of action pawns, with useful icons and clearly delineated areas that will remind the players what each of the action spaces accomplish. The center area of the board makes up the geography of Dominant Species, with hexagonal spaces that are filled with terrain tiles as the game progresses. This center part of the board is where the area control portion of the game plays out, as players move their wooden cubes around to claim dominance in territories of the world. Hugging the edge of the board is a victory point track. Like other worker placement games, Dominant Species uses victory points to determine the winner of the game, and although there is a strong direct conflict component to Dominant Species, pure aggression isn’t necessarily going to be the best strategy; there is a lot of subtlety here, and the mechanic of collecting victory points reinforces this.

One aspect of the game board that I really appreciated was the placement of player aids around the play area. Printed directly onto the board are reminders about the number of points that certain actions score, tiebreaker conditions, and other rule and scoring related information. Nothing sinks a game experience like constantly searching for information in the rulebook. By moving often referenced information onto the game board, Dominant Species streamlines play and makes the game experience much smoother.

Player Mats – Each class of animal in the game has its own thin cardstock player mat. This mat displays the starting statistics for a particular animal, and contains a very detailed summary of the actions that a player can take during his turn, as well as the order and steps that take place when those actions are resolved. I really wish that more games would include detailed player aids like this. Like the game board, the delivery of rules information on the player mat reduces so much potential downtime. During my first play of this complex game, I only had to look in the rulebook twice – all of the other information I needed was quickly gleaned from the information on the game components themselves.

Cards – Dominant Species uses a deck of cards to describe different rewards a player can purchase when he takes a certain action. The cards are sturdy, and have simple but pleasing artwork on them. This is the only area of the game where there is artwork for the sake of artwork, as each card has a descriptive image on it. With the minimal presentation of the rest of the game, these cards could have easily been text only and perfectly functional, but the simple, but professional images are welcome, and add a bit of character and whimsy to the game.

Element Tokens – In the game, each class of animal requires certain resources to survive. These resources are called Elements, and are represented by small cardboard tokens. The element tokens can be found displayed on the player mats, and also placed on the intersection of the hexagonal terrain tiles. Players will be manipulating their environment by removing and adding these tokens to the game board to create more habitable environments for their creatures, or more hostile environments for their competitors. Players will also have the opportunity to adapt and evolve their creatures by adding these tokens to their player mat, allowing for their animals to thrive in more varied locations on the game board.

Of all of the components, I personally find the element tokens the least compelling. They have muted colors in comparison to the vivid coloring of the wooden pieces that make up the game, and can sometimes blend in with the board. The icons on the tokens, although simple, have fairly complex shapes, and don’t share the same minimalist appeal that the rest of the game does. Aside from the iconography, I would have liked to see the element tokens a tad bit larger in size as well. Element tokens are placed at the corners of the terrain tiles during play, and they are often knocked around as the board is jostled, and rearranged. Larger tokens would not only increase readability, but would be a bit more resistant to this tile movement.

However, the game does come with a fabric bag to draw the element tokens from, which goes a long way towards reversing my apathy towards the tokens themselves. I really appreciate it when the game publisher supplies everything you need to play a game, and makes no assumptions about the materials at hand.

Wooden Bits – There is a ton of wood packed in the game box. Each of the six player colors has 55 small wooden cubes to represent their units; 10 wooden cylinders, called action pawns, used to take actions on the board; and 10 wooden cones which are used to denote which geographic areas a particular animal dominates. When first unboxing the game, all 450 of these wooden components come packaged in a large plastic bag, but GMT has graciously included smaller bags in the box so that the laborious process of sorting the little wooden bits only needs to be done once. The wooden bits are all vividly colored, although the blue components are more of a turquoise color, which seemed an odd choice when compared to the more saturated, mostly primary colors of the other bits (Black, white, red, yellow, and lime green). Quality wise, the wooden pieces are outstanding; in games that have this many wooden pieces, the odd deformed bit is practically guaranteed, but all of the bits were perfectly shaped in my copy.

Customer Service – While not a physical component of the game, I would like to take the opportunity here to lay praise on GMT for their customer service. A day after purchasing Dominant Species, I managed to get my game manual waterlogged. I watched in horror as it shriveled up like a prune. Since I take photos of games for inclusion in my reviews, I was a bit upset that I managed to destroy part of the game, and quickly emailed GMT to ask about purchasing a replacement. GMT went above and beyond my expectations by shipping me a new manual for free, despite the fact that it was my own clumsiness that destroyed the manual in the first place. I never mentioned that I was blogging, or writing a review of the game, so this level of care is indicative of GMT’s general approach to customer service.

Setup:

Setting up Dominant Species is moderately simple. Players each select a color, and take a number of action pawns, species cubes, and domination cones based on the number of players in the game. Players then determine which class of animals each will be playing, and take the appropriate player mat. Each animal in the game has a special power that lets them bend the rules of the game in one way or another so choosing an animal to play isn’t arbitrary, and each player mat is tailored to a specific animal in the game. After choosing an animal, one wooden cube per player is placed on the start square of the victory point track.

Players then set up the starting world, which consists of a fixed layout of 7 terrain tiles, and a tundra tile in the center. Element tokens are placed at the corners of these tiles in a predetermined configuration to achieve a balanced starting point for all players. The initial configuration of the terrain tiles is printed directly onto the board, simplifying setup greatly. After the starting tiles have been placed, the remaining terrain tiles are shuffled and stacked in three face-down piles, with the top tile of each pile flipped face up. Players will then put species cubes on the map, in specific terrain tiles determined by his particular animal class.

Now that the geography has been set up, focus will move to the right side of the board, where the worker placement portion of the game will take place. On this side of the board there are spaces where players can put their action pawns to reserve actions during gameplay. There are 12 different actions a player can take, but some actions have details which change from turn to turn. These details revolve around certain elements tokens that can be manipulated during that turn. These actions must be seeded by randomly drawing element tokens from the draw bag, and placing them on the corresponding spaces.

The deck of cards is then shuffled and placed face down, and the top 5 cards from the deck are placed face up onto the game board. One specific card, titled “Ice Age” is always placed at the bottom of the deck. The ice age card works a bit like a game timer. When the Ice Age card is selected as a reward, it signifies the last round of the game.

Gameplay:

Play in Dominant Species is split up into three distinct phases: Planning Phase, Execution Phase, and Cleanup. The Planning phase is the action selection/worker placement portion of the game, the Execution phase is when those actions are actually carried out, and the Cleanup phase is where the board is reset for the next round. Players continue to play through these rounds until one player collects the Ice Age reward card, and final scoring occurs.

Planning Phase – In the Planning Phase, players take turns choosing one of the available 12 actions to take. Each action has a limited number of times it can be chosen per turn, so as players choose actions, more and more will become unavailable. In this phase, the player is only choosing actions, and is not actually taking the actions, so players have to be careful that the actions they select early in the phase are not made futile by the action selection of others. Much of the strategy in the game is weighing the importance of certain actions, and creating contingency plans if required actions are taken. With 12 actions, choosing one can seem overwhelming the during the first couple of turns, but as the game progresses, and strategies emerge, this process becomes much easier. When choosing which actions to take on the board, the player must also take the other players’ apparent strategies into account; Dominant Species is as much about furthering your own agenda as it is about blocking your opponents’ progress. Actions in Dominant Species can be both offensive and defensive; sometimes a player is required to take a certain action to avoid negative consequences. An opponent may choose to one of these defensive actions, not for his direct benefit, but to deny the other players the opportunity. This interplay generates a lot of second guessing and bluffing between players, and can create a surprisingly organic social experience woven within the cerebral nature of the game mechanics.

Execution Phase – This is the phase where all of the actions that were chosen in the Planning phase are carried out. Actions are performed in order, from left to right, top to bottom. Because actions are executed in this manner, earlier actions can effect later actions. While the planning phase takes place on the worker placement portion of the game board, the majority of the Execution phase takes place on the terrain tiles. It’s in this phase that all of the plans that were made in the Planning Phase either come to fruition, or completely unravel.

Cleanup Phase – At the end of each round is a cleanup phase. This is where maintenance between the game rounds occur. The elements in the action spaces are moved and repopulated, and any reward cards are restocked.

The Actions – Dominant Species is a fairly complex game. The basic flow of the game isn’t difficult to comprehend, but its complexity arises from the 12 different actions that a player can choose, and the many ways a player can score victory points. I’m not going to go into an in-depth rules explanation, but I would like to give a summary of each of the actions a player can take, because the way they interact really makes up the meat of the game.

Initiative – The first action a player can choose during the planning phase is the Initiative action. This action changes turn order, and allows a player to swap his initiative with the player directly before him. Player order can be extremely important in Dominant Species, especially because some actions can only be selected once or twice per turn, and a savvy opponent can preempt another from taking the action by selecting it before anyone else has the opportunity.

Adaptation – This is how animals change to adapt to their environment. Throughout the game players will be taking actions that allow them to grow the world, and change the element tokens that are available in that world. How well your animal will thrive in this environment depends on the number of element tokens on your player mat that match the element tokens on the various terrain tiles. The Adaptation action allows you to take one of the available element tokens, and place it in an empty spot on your player mat, making your animal more robust and able to thrive on more varied terrain.

Regression – Between rounds, tokens from the Adaptation action that were not used on the previous round move down to the Regression space. At the end of the Regression step, for each element token on the Regressions space, players must discard one matching element from their player mat. By taking the defensive Regression action, players can protect their animal by removing one element token from the Regression space to avoid a potentially debilitating loss of element tokens from their animal.

Abundance – The Abundance action allows a player to modify the placement of element tokens in the game world. Like the Adaptation and Regression actions, the Abundance action has a set of element tokens next to it. By selecting the Abundance action, players are able to take an element token, and place it on the corner of a terrain tile that does not already have one. This action can be used to make areas of the world more suited for your animal.

Wasteland – Any tokens that are not taken during the Abundance action eventually make their way down to the Wasteland action. Similar to the relationship between Adaptation and Regression, the Abundance action adds elements to the board, while the Wasteland action removes elements from the board. Throughout the game players will be placing tundra tiles onto the board, simulating the glacial growth throughout the world. If there are any tokens on the Wasteland space at the end of the Wasteland step, all matching tokens on the map that are adjacent to tundra tiles must be removed. By selecting the Wasteland action, a player can discard a token from the Wasteland space, averting the loss of that element from the map.

Depletion – While the effects of tokens in the Wasteland space can be destructive, there are times when a player may still choose not to take the Wasteland action. However, during the cleanup phase, any elements left in the wasteland space, make their way down to the Depletion space. Like the Wasteland action, the Depletion action affects elements on the game board, but unlike the Wasteland action, the Depletion action is an offensive action. Players who choose the Depletion action will have the power to remove a single element token matching one in the Depletion space from any terrain tile on the game board. This can be a very powerful action, and although offensive in nature, it is another space that a player may choose to block as a defensive strategy.

Glaciation – This is the action that causes the tundra to expand across the board. When a player chooses this action, he places a tundra tile onto any terrain tile that is adjacent to an existing tundra tile. Placing tundra tiles is a way to gain victory points, but it also devastates any species on that tile. When a tundra tile is placed, all species cubes are removed from that terrain tile, save one of each color. If the placement of a new tundra tile causes any element token to be surrounded by three tundra tiles, the element token is removed from the board. The Glaciation action is very powerful, it allows players to score points, and negatively affect their opponents. Because it is so powerful, only one Glaciation action occurs per round. Glaciation works a bit different than the other actions – although only one glaciation action is performed per round, there are 4 spaces for action pawns in the Glaciation space. These spaces form a queue that is resolved over the course of several turns; the leftmost pawn is able to take an action on the current turn, and all others are shifted over, setting up the next pawn in line to take the Glaciation action during the next round. The fact that pawns queue in this space has two important consequences. First, players must plan for this action turns in advance. Second, pawns that are waiting in line for this action are not available for use when selecting other actions. This queuing mechanic balances the use of such a powerful action, and discourages players from placing all of their pawns on the action, and monopolizing it.

Speciation – By taking the Speciation action, species cubes are added to the board. When a player selects one of the Speciation spaces, a player may add cubes to any terrain tiles that contain an element token of the type printed on the Speciation space. The number of cubes that a player can add to a terrain tile is dictated by the type of terrain. More fertile terrain like oceans and wetlands allow more cubes to be added than desolate terrain like deserts and tundra.

Wanderlust – This is the action that players take to grow the board. Players may choose a face up terrain tile from the stacks, and place it on the board. After placing the tile, the player can choose to take one of the element disks in the Wanderlust space, and add it to one of the corners of the new tile. All players then have the opportunity to move cubes from adjacent tiles onto the new tile. Like Glaciation, placing a new terrain tile during the wanderlust action will gain victory points for the player.

Migration – When a player wants to rearrange his cubes on the map, he can select the Migration action. Each space in the migration action has a corresponding number associated with it. This is the number of cubes the player can move. Players may move each of these cubes to an adjacent terrain tile.

Competition – This action is where the direct conflict occurs. When selecting the Competition action, players may remove one opposing cube from a single terrain tile of each type depicted on the space. When a cube is removed from the board this way, it is removed from play entirely, and does not return to its owner. This is extremely important, because as the game progresses and more players choose the competition action, the numbers of species cubes will dwindle. At the same time, the game world is expanding through the Wanderlust action, making it deceptively easy for players to spread their cubes too thin to be effective.

Domination – The final action is Domination. This action is probably the most important of all the actions, because two things happen: the scoring of victory points; and the acquisition of special rewards. While all of the actions up until this point have been important, they primarily serve as a way to position your animal to take best advantage of the Domination action. When a player takes the Domination action, a terrain tile is scored, and the dominant animal on that tile is rewarded a card.

Terrain tiles are scored based on the number of cubes that occupy it. Each type of terrain gives a differing amount of victory points. Points are not only awarded to the player with the most cubes on the tile, but certain terrain types also award points to the second and third placed players as well.

Although tiles are scored based on the number of cubes on the tile, “domination” is determined through entirely different means. An animal is considered dominant on a tile based on the number of matching element tokens that appear on both his player mat, and the terrain tile. The player with the most matching elements is dominant, and gets to choose a face-up reward card, which allows him to perform a special, powerful action. Some of these actions are immediate, such as removing or adding cubes and elements to the board, and some are more permanent, such as the acquisition of an extra action pawn.

Game End:

When the Ice Age card is chosen as a reward for the domination action, it marks the end of the game. The current round is completed, and a final scoring round occurs, during which, every terrain tile is scored. Players then compare their scores, and the animal with the most points wins.

Conclusion:

Dominant Species is an excellent game, and has quickly vaulted into my list of must play games. It will be a treat for people who really enjoy exploring a rule set and trying to get their head around the interaction of a bunch of moving parts. Dominant Species‘ many actions and scoring rules make it one of the more complex games in my collection. While it is complex, it manifests in a different way than most rules heavy games. In fact, the mechanics of Dominant Species are actually very simple. It’s the way the 12 simple actions interact that add such a breadth of choice. Like the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland, Dominant Species seems to have a never-ending depth. The more I play it, the more I understand, the more nuances I pick up, and the more I love it.

This complexity, though, will most likely make the game inaccessible to most newcomers to the hobby, and light gamers. Although they will pick up the mechanics easily, the vast number of decisions that can be made from the very start of the game may seem extremely overwhelming. Dominant Species could have been made a bit more accessible by further limiting the number of actions available at the start of the game, and slowly introducing them as the game turns progressed, allowing the depth of the game to open up as the players gained confidence in their strategy. But, targeted toward the experienced gamer, this hand-holding isn’t really needed.

Dominant Species probably won’t appeal to players who shy away from direct conflict in games, either. Most worker placement games forgo direct confrontation for a more passive confrontation where players jockey for position. Dominant Species definitely has this in spades, but it also allows players to directly affect others by taking their element tokens, killing off their units, and glaciating their high-scoring tiles. There is a lot of potential for “take-that” moves. Personally, I like this conflict in my games, but those who do not may find that Dominant Species was not what they were expecting.

Dominant Species does work as a bridge between pure Euro mechanics, and cutthroat competitive play, though. It’s almost like two games in one, in that respect. The worker placement “Planning Phase” of Dominant Species should be familiar to anyone who has played a heavy worker placement game, like Caylus; and it also shares the same abstract, indirect conflict. But, the Execution Phase is where Dominant Species begins to really differentiate itself. The Execution phase is all about area control on a physical map, moving units around, attacking enemy units, and building a concrete positional advantage. Both aspects are needed for Dominant Species‘ success, and are intimately integrated with each other, but there are definitely different skills required to excel in both. It is refreshing to play a game that exercises both abstract and concrete thought at at the same time.

The minimalist art direction, and components work very well, and this really surprised me. I am not a huge fan of abstract games, and I had worried that the lack of flash would affect my game experience. In reality, it was absolutely the opposite. The game has a certain beauty in it’s visual simplicity, and dressing it up would have created sensory overload. I also came to realize that the theme of a game is not necessarily found in the art or components of a game, but in the way the mechanics interact with the ideas that are offered. Dominant Species may look abstract, but it is very tied to it’s theme, and the gameplay just wouldn’t make sense without that theme supporting it. I think that it is quite an accomplishment for a game to portray so successfully, such a solid theme, with basic components.

 
Go to the Nightfall: Martial Law page
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This review was originally published at http://www.nerdbloggers.com

Hot on the heels of the debut release of Nightfall, game designer David Gregg and publisher Alderac Entertainment Group are unleashing the shadowy creatures of Nightfall: Martial Law into the sticky summer nights of Atlanta, Georgia. With a new setting, and a new cast of characters, Nightfall: Martial Law serves as both an expansion to the original Nightfall game and a standalone introduction to the series. Martial Law also ups the ante a bit by introducing a new game mechanic called “feeding” to the game, as well as a new wound card Ability.

In the Nightfall universe, the world has mysteriously fallen into perpetual darkness, with humankind and the supernatural locked in a deadly battle, vying for the future of Earth. You are secretly controlling these Ghouls, Vampires, Werewolves, and Humans to the benefit of your own nefarious agenda, and unleashing their rage upon your opponents. Players bring cards representing creatures and actions onto the table through an innovative process called “chaining”, where cards can be played off of one another by matching colored icons. Since I have already discussed the rules and theme of Nightfall in my review of the original game, this review will focus on the changes that Nightfall: Martial Law brings to the series.

The Game:

The first thing that is apparent when looking at Nightfall: Martial Law is that its box is the same size, and shares the same build quality and card organization system as the original Nightfall box. With so much space in the original box meant for expansions, it may seem confusing that Nightfall: Martial Law doesn’t come in a smaller box. But, Martial Law is more than just an expansion for the original; it is also a standalone game that contains the starter decks and wound cards included with the previous release. With a limited production pipeline, AEG had anticipated that the first printing of Nightfall could sell out before Martial Law was released, potentially alienating new customers who would be unable to find the original game. By including all of the components in Martial Law, AEG is ensuring that players can jump straight into the world of Nightfall, even if they cannot find the base game on their retailer’s shelf.

Like Nightfall, the cards in Martial Law are beautifully illustrated, and capture the vivid, gritty art style found in many high quality graphic novels. I really enjoy the dark, urban style feel of the artwork, and find that it is very effective at communicating the theme of the game. I do, however, have one minor gripe with the cards in Martial Law. The order and draft cards don’t have any icons on them to differentiate them from those in the original Nightfall set. This made cleanup slightly more difficult after playing a game that mixed cards from both sets. However, the card dividers indicate the set that they are from, so I found that it was easiest to look for the empty spaces in the box, and then grab the correct pile from the table. Odds are, if you are mixing cards from the two sets, that you will be keeping all of the cards in the same box anyway, so the issue becomes moot.

A second issue I ran across with the draft cards in Martial Law was a printing error in the kicker text. The spacing between lines was incorrect on some of the cards, causing portions of text to overlap, contain misaligned letters, or exhibit strange blob-like artifacts. I do not know if it is a widespread issue, or is isolated to my copy, but the cards were still readable, and the issue only manifested on the draft cards.

When looking through the cards, I was pleasantly surprised at the variety and relative number of the various types of minions. While the card selection in Nightfall was mostly dominated by vampires, Martial Law mixes things up a bit by increasing the number of humans and werewolves. Even though there is more of a variety in the creature cards, the vampires still have the advantage of numbers – although this advantage is mitigated a bit by some new action cards that specifically target the bloodsuckers. (“Silver Stake – Chain: Destroy target Vampire. Destroy Target Lycanthrope.” and “Shining Cross – Chain: Inflict damage on each player equal to the number of vampires they have in play.”)

Martial Law ships with a revised version of the Nightfall manual which adds some new rules, as well as some new fiction surrounding the characters found in the game. The biggest addition is a new mechanic called “Feeding”. Feeding allows a player to repeat certain effects multiple times by discarding cards from his hand. Each card that is discarded causes the effect to repeat once, and a player with a handfull of cards could produce potentially devastating results. Feed effects can be found in both chain and kicker portions of the cards, opening up the possibility for some extremely brutal combinations.

Along with the wound cards found in Nightfall, Martial Law contains a deck of cards with a new wound effect that allows players to increase the strength of their minions. These new wound cards also take advantage of the feed effect, allowing players to discard multiple wounds to buff up their creatures. The inclusion of multiple wound effects adds a new layer of decision making. While the original wound effect fills the player’s hand with cards, and gives him an advantage when purchasing cards or creating combos, the new wound cards allow him to convert his wounds into raw power for his minions – if they can survive until his next turn.

Although the cards in Martial Law work great together, and form a solid gameplay experience on their own, I love throwing the cards from both sets together and drafting from a huge pool of options. With the larger number of cards to pick from, Martial Law includes some new drafting rules for mixing the game sets. Instead of the usual four card packets, five card packets are used. These cards are drafted normally, with the exception of the last remaining card, which is discarded. The addition of that single card to each packet makes a big difference in the perceived selection available when drafting, and makes the drafting portion of the game much more enjoyable.

Conclusion:

Martial Law easily stands on its own. Even with the different selection of cards, it gives a satisfying experience on par with Nightfall, and the variety of cards and the story driven connections between the cards may even make it more compelling from a thematic standpoint. The cards in Martial Law are also more varied and interesting in their effects, but often much more brutal than vanilla Nightfall. The brutality can turn even more vicious when pumping pain into opponents through the unyielding feed mechanic. I can imagine that this would make Martial Law a bit more daunting for the new player, and Nightfall may serve as a better introductory experience.

For the experienced player, however, Martial Law invigorates the game by speeding up the pace, adding more complex card effects, and increasing the “take that” factor. Cards like “Hysteria – Chain: Target minion inflicts damage on itself and its controller equal to its strength. Kicker: Inflict 2 damage on target player” can be devastating to a player who isn’t prepared. But the higher stakes of the new cards really force players to think critically about the cards they draft and play, and that really increases the fun factor.

If you didn’t like the conflict in Nightfall, then Martial Law is not going to make a convert out of you. But, if you can’t get enough of the brutal head-to-head confrontation of the original, then you are in for a definite treat. I look forward to many enjoyable hours of exploring the different strategies and card interactions within Martial Law and Nightfall, and can’t wait to bring it back to the table.

6
Go to the Mansions of Madness (1st ed) page

Mansions of Madness (1st ed)

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This review and all of its nifty images can be found at http://www.nerdbloggers.com

Mansions of Madness is fairly unique in the board game space, where it positions itself as a storytelling game. This started me thinking about story in board games, and how it impacts the play experience. Because Mansions of Madness is so closely tied to the concept of story, I want to give my take on story in games before I start in on my review of the game.

Story in games:

I enjoy a wide gamut of game genres, but when it comes down to it, I have a special affinity with those that are story driven. The game sessions that I fondly remember, and excitedly describe to my friends, always have a strong and compelling emotional element. This makes sense, because without an emotional component there would be no story to tell. When the human element is removed, what remains is no longer a story, but a series of empty machinations. People innately realize that there is a difference between abstract movement and meaningful movement – between description and story. This idea often manifests itself in discussion of board games as “Mechanics vs. Theme”. Mechanics are the movement of the pieces, and the rules that must be followed during play, whereas the theme consists of the art, player motivations, and the real or imaginary ideas that the pieces in the game represent. Many abstract games are accused of having a “pasted on” theme, which is often used as a thinly veiled way of saying the game does not deliver a story. This is where my opinion of story may differ from the mainstream.

Story can appear under many different guises outside of the typical cut-scenes in video games, or back-story narrative in board games, and is much more pervasive than may be immediately apparent. Even games like the epitomic abstract “Chess” can tell a compelling story through the give and take of positional advantage. In these instances, however, the story isn’t found on the board, or in the pieces, but instead manifests from the interaction between the players, and is facilitated by the mechanics of the game. Even when completely devoid of theme, games can tell stories of loss and victory; clever cunning and missed opportunity; and can hide within their simple interactions the gamut of human emotion. After all, most sports are abstract games that are watched and loved by millions, not for their mechanics, but for the inherent story that is created through the interaction of the players.

When refined into its essence, a game’s story comes from its ability to elicit this emotional response. Theme is often a key ingredient in facilitating these feelings, and does so by enhancing the player’s immersion in the game world, but in the end, theme is still only a tool to help develop the story. The players themselves fill the role of characters within the story of a game, and the emotion that makes the game’s mechanics meaningful must come from within the players. With this in mind, story becomes a non-corporeal concept that rises above simple mechanics and theme, and lives on its own as a separate idea. Story is the brass ring that game designers are reaching to grab, because story is synonymous with player engagement.

There is an ongoing discussion about what makes a good game. The term “Balance” is bandied about a lot in these dialogues. Balance is the perceived fairness in a game; the potential for all players to achieve victory, given the same amount of effort. Some go so far as to say that a game which is unbalanced is fundamentally broken. Unbalanced gameplay can elicit strong emotional response just like a good story, but in many contexts this response can be negative, and directed towards the game itself. The player who experiences this will still relate his gameplay story to others, but this story may very well consist of a string of colorful expletives, and end with the words “never playing again”.

It’s in this situation, however, that theme can actually turn a negative game experience into a positive one. An unbalanced abstract game gives the player no frame of reference as to why the game is unbalanced, and as a result, the player has nowhere to channel his emotional response. But when theme is added to the same game, the player gains a frame of reference which allows him to justify the difference in difficulty; and what was a negative aspect of the abstract game, can become a positive aspect of a themed game. If one player is representing a ragtag band of rebels, and another controlling an oppressive dictatorship, it would make little sense for both sides to be equally balanced from a theme perspective. In fact, by adding that element of skewed odds, the game experience is often made much more emotionally compelling for the players involved.

That’s not to say that theme fixes everything, though. The theme of a game is still just a tool to justify the game mechanics. The choices that the player makes must be interesting, and empower him to feel that he is driving the direction of his play experience. There is a term used in film study: “Suspension of Disbelief”. This describes the ability of a film to immerse the viewer so much that he doesn’t notice the limitations of the medium, or discontinuities in the story. This idea can be applied to games as well: A player has a very limited number of decisions that he can make during most games, and he must play within the confines of the game rules and components offered. What amounts to moving bits around a board, and generating random numbers transforms into something much more engrossing during play, because the player looks past the limitations of the cardboard and plastic that make up the game components, and instead becomes immersed within the confines of the game mechanics and theme. If those mechanics become too dull, or are overly complicated, that suspension of disbelief is broken, the game components revert back to being bits of cardboard and plastic, and the player can no longer justify his emotional reaction within the confines of the game.

Getting that perfect mixture of theme and mechanics can be a difficult proposition. There is no magical formula for creating a good game, yet there are a multitude of different paths to achieve compelling gameplay. Not every game hits that mark, but when a game does hit that sweet spot, the experience is sublime.

The Game:

Mansions of Madness is a game designed by Corey Konieczka, and published by Fantasy Flight Games. When it comes to theme, Mansions of Madness has it in spades, even more so than the typical Fantasy Flight fare – and that is saying a lot. Its story-driven design aspires to take that step beyond pure theme, and strives to deliver a marriage of balanced mechanics and story through a uniquely focused gameplay experience.

In Mansions of Madness, players take on the role of individuals who find themselves investigating strange, supernatural events in a creepy mansion. The investigators must struggle to combat creatures, explore the mansion, search for clues, and solve puzzles to ultimately put an end to the unspeakable horror that confronts them. Like several other Fantasy Flight games, Mansions of Madness takes place in the world of the Cthulu Mythos, modeled after writer H.P. Lovecraft’s early 20th century short stories and novels.

Mansions of Madness shares many similarities with some other popular games on the market; most notable are Fantasy Flight’s own Arkham Horror, and Wizards of the Coast’s Betrayal at House on the Hill. Despite these similarities, however, Mansions of Madness manages to find its own unique identity, and any does not feel derivative. Like some other games in the genre, Mansions of Madness uses modular tiles to build its vivid game board, but unlike most games with tile based boards, the tiles are not arranged randomly. In fact, the random elements found in Mansions of Madness are mostly relegated to combat, and skill tests alone. The majority of the game is tightly moderated, and in some ways resembles a roleplaying module more than a board game.

Like a role-playing game, Mansions of Madness is mostly a cooperative experience. All the players, except for a single player called the “Keeper” are working together towards a common goal. The “Keeper” is a bit different; he fills a role similar to the Game Master in a roleplaying game. Unlike roleplaying games, however, this “Keeper” player is actually in competition with the other players, and has his own set of conditions to win the game. Before the game even starts, one of the 5 possible scenarios in the rulebook is chosen, and the modular game board is arranged as indicated by that particular scenario. Although there are only 5 scenarios, each scenario contains a handful of different possible variations from which the keeper can choose. Each scenario has detailed instructions about which of the game’s many cards will be used, as well as how they are arranged and placed. These cards contain clues, puzzles, and items that the investigators will encounter, and also act as a way to control the tempo of the game.

Although this merging of role-playing concepts with board games is unique and refreshing, I did find that there were some implementation issues that lessened the experience for me. Because the game relies so much on its back story and theme to drive the game forward, it is paramount that the story itself is compelling. Unfortunately, if that story never really coalesces, the game can feel flat. The first scenario in Mansions of Madness never really clicked for my group, and as a result, created some apathy towards the game. Much of the problem revolved around the fact that this introductory scenario didn’t build on what players were familiar with. When confronted with monsters, the players sought combat, instead of the strategic exploration and evasion which is really at the core of Mansions of Madness. The first scenario really doesn’t do much to anticipate this behavior, or guide the players back on track. A bit more direct instruction in the first scenario would have properly set the stage for more subtlety in later scenarios, and solved the issue of new players wandering around aimlessly.

Another area that could have been improved was the delivery of the backstory itself. Aside from a few detailed paragraphs setting up the scenario, all other plot based information is relayed through tiny cards that are roughly the size of business cards. This limits the amount of prose in the game, and turns the plot into a vague outline. Adding more detailed and lengthy text in the game manual, or in a small per-scenario booklet would have added some needed depth to the various plots. Normally, in less directed games, it is up to the players to create their own story, and vague flavor text is more of a snippet to spark the imagination, and in that context brief flavor text is perfectly enjoyable. Mansions of Madness however, structures it’s scenarios in a way that dissuades players from free-form movement. In fact, the placement of cards in each scenario is explicitly designed to limit player progression. Players literally cannot move into certain areas without having met specific prerequisites in the game; and there are from three to six of these chokepoints in each scenario. Players instinctually look to the theme to justify these roadblocks, and with only a smattering of text to explain each one, the story ends up feeling empty. Limiting player movement isn’t a bad thing though, it is important to maintain the pacing of the game; there is just a lot of missed opportunity regarding storytelling that could have been harnessed with this decidedly linear progression.

Mansions of Madness supports from 2-5 players, but really plays best at the high end of that range. With more players in the game, more things are happening due to the increased number of actions that the keeper can take with a higher player count. In the relative starkness of the plot, more actions mean more potential for the players to do interesting things. This dynamic turns Mansions of Madness into more of a social game, just like the roleplaying games that it loosely models. The players’ success or failure in the game really hinges on their ability to work well together, and it’s this interaction that fuels the fun-factor in the game. With a length of 2-3 hours per session, it is important that players stay engaged, or else the game can start to drag.

While Fantasy Flight suggests a minimum player age of 13, this is due more to the theme and content of the game than the mechanics. Mansions of Madness has a horror theme that takes itself very seriously, with gory illustrations on the components, some grisly descriptions on the cards, and foreign, insect-like creatures found in the box. In addition to the general horror aspects of the theme, Mansions of Madness also assumes a bit of knowledge about the Cthulu Mythos, as it gives no explanations about what the strange creatures the investigators encounter are, or where they came from. This can lead to questions from players such as “Is this a Cthulu?”, while pointing at the large Shoggoth miniature; or incredulous looks when they are told that the Shoggoth CAN fit through the narrow passage because he is an inter-dimensional being, and doesn’t have to follow the same physical laws as we do. This doesn’t mean that the players won’t enjoy the game, but it does break a bit of the suspension of disbelief that Mansions of Madness relies on.

Components:

The artwork that graces the mountain of components in Mansions of Madness is visually stunning. Cards make up a good majority of the content, and are used to depict character statistics, to represent items and obstacles, and to represent player and creature actions, among other things. The cards come in two sizes: a smaller business card size that represents items, obstacles, and other things that can be found on the game board; and a larger playing card size that represents actions the keeper can take, character sheets, combat actions, events, and anything else manipulated outside the confines of the game board.

There are a ton of tokens in the Mansions of Madness box as well. These represent different game concepts, such as threat (The keeper’s form of currency), damage, insanity, time, and various environmental and status effects. The game also contains a handful of jigsaw-puzzle-like tokens used for solving the various conundrums the investigators will encounter during the game. The tokens are nice and thick, vibrantly colored, and a pleasure to handle.

The board itself is very interesting; it is put together for each scenario, by arranging double-sided modular tiles into a predetermined configuration that is described in the investigator manual. Each tile depicts one or more rooms, and each room is further subdivided into individual spaces (usually one or two per room, but more for larger rooms and outdoor areas). While the room divisions are bold and well defined, it can be easy to forget about the individual spaces sometimes, especially when there are a large number of miniatures in the room.

The plastic figures that come with the game are truly spectacular. They look amazing and some of them are truly massive in size. Each monster has unique information about it printed on a small square token; with public information on the front, and secret information on the back. Each figure attaches to an ingenious black base that has a slot in the side which allows a monster token to slide into it. The base also has cutouts on the top to allow the public information to show through, and another on the bottom to allow easy access to the secret information. If this wasn’t cool enough, each base also has a small hook to which wound tokens can be attached, making all the required information about a creature available at a glance, during play. With so many components in the game, the ability to keep all the monster information in one place without the need to cross-reference a separate character sheet is fantastic. The only issue with these clever miniature stands is the tendency of the miniatures to fall off of the little pegs that hold them on, but a dab of glue easily solves that issue.

Mansions of Madness comes with three rulebooks (although two of these are combined into a single physical booklet): The Rules of Play, which is nicely illustrated with large, full color pictures, and describes the rules of the game in a very clear and concise manner; the investigator’s book that contains the tile placement, room layout, and a small backstory for each scenario; and the keeper’s book, which contains the placement of all of the item cards, clue cards, puzzles, and obstacles for each of the different variations of the scenarios. All of these manuals are full of theme, great artwork, and clear instructions. A better index, or reference sheet could have made looking up rules questions during the game much more streamlined, but the manual is arranged in a manner that makes it easy to flip through it and answer that pesky rules question.

Setup:

Setup in Mansions of Madness takes quite a while, and can be very confusing at first. Setup can easily take thirty minutes. The nature of the game requires that the components are meticulously sorted, ordered, and placed in very specific spots in the play area. This process is delegated between the keeper and the investigators, with the investigators setting up the game board, and the keeper collecting, sorting, and ordering the appropriate cards for the scenario. This division of labor helps cut down on the setup time, and gives the players an opportunity to better learn the components they are about to use during the game.

The investigator setup involves building the game board, by placing tiles according to the illustration in the manual. Because the investigators set up the board, they get a better idea of how rooms are laid out, and can plan routes through the mansion in their head. There is a negative side to this, however; players do not truly get that sense of exploration and discovery of the mansion during the game. From a tactical standpoint, it is really necessary for the players to know the layout of the entire game board up front, but this necessity works against the exploration theme that Mansions of Madness tries so hard to cultivate.

Setting up the board correctly is imperative. Many tiles look similar to other tiles, and can be unintentionally rotated, making it easy to accidentally place a tile in the wrong configuration. This can have significant gameplay impact, sometimes moving doors so that portions of the mansion are made inaccessible. It is worthwhile to make a second pass across the board to make sure that everything is placed correctly.

After the investigators have set up the board, they select characters. There are a handful of different characters to choose from, each with a different backstory, and different stats. The distribution of characters allows for a good variety, and the backstories are entertaining to read, and help players to get into character. Investigators further customize their characters by choosing from a selection of traits and special abilities that have been tailored for each. Some of these traits allow characters to start the game with specific items, which they receive after selecting the appropriate trait.

At the end up setup, the players read the scenario’s backstory from the investigator’s manual. This is usually half of a page of text, setting the mood, and giving the players a motivation for being in the mansion. This text is easily the most detailed piece of fiction in the game, and it would have been nice to see this level of detail in other text found in the game.

While the players are performing their half of the setup, the keeper is tasked with setting up the plot points in the game. The keeper is able to select some variations of the story by answering questions from the keeper manual. For each answer he will place a corresponding, numbered tile onto the table. These questions usually consist of one who’s answer determines the goal of the particular scenario, and a handful of other questions that determine where in the mansion particular events will occur. While the first question can fundamentally change the scenario, the other questions just determine where particular events occur so that there is some replayability in the scenarios.

Based on the choices that the keeper made, he will refer to a table in the keeper’s manual, which will tell him what cards he will be using for the scenario, how to order them, and where to put them on the board. In order to correctly drive the game plot forward, certain cards must be placed in certain rooms. Any cards that do not belong in a specific room are randomly distributed in the remaining, empty rooms. This is a very lengthy process that is prone to error, and if the keeper accidentally looks at the card setup for answer “3a” when he answered “3b”, the game can become unwinnable. If you are easily distracted, like me, conversation during the setup process can cause it to take much longer than it normally would. In fact, for this reason, I prefer to privately set up the scenario ahead of time, before the game starts.

After the setup is complete, the keeper reads the flavor text from the keeper manual aloud. This narrative is just more than simple flavor text, and the keeper should probably reiterate this fact to new players. The text on the clue cards, and in the opening story actually tell the players where they need to explore. If it mentions incontinence (it doesn’t), then the investigators should probably make their way to the bathroom, or risk wandering around aimlessly.

Mechanics:

Mansions of Madness has quite a few rules, although some of them never come into play unless you are tackling certain scenarios. The core rules are fairly simple, however, and can be taught fairly quickly. In fact, if the keeper sets up the game ahead of time, Mansions of Madness is a good candidate for a game that can be taught while playing.

For the investigators, the core concept in Mansions of Madness is exploration. The investigators start the game without knowing their objective, and they must explore, and find clues to reveal it. This forces the player to listen to the clues, and plot points that are revealed throughout the game. These hidden objectives and secret clues add an exciting mystery to the game if you are willing to immerse yourself in the story, but players who ignore this information are at a disadvantage, and will find themselves frustrated, and feeling like they don’t know what to do next.

When exploring the mansion, there are two phases to the game: the investigator phase, and the keeper phase. During the investigator phase, each of the investigator players can take two movements, and one action, in any order. For each movement, a player can move his miniature to an adjacent or diagonal space, as long as there is not a wall in the way. Sometimes, when moving into a new room, it will contain a lock card. When this happens, all movement stops, and the player must successfully resolve the lock card before moving forward.

These lock cards are a mechanic that Mansions of Madness uses to control the tempo of the game, and ensure that the plot unfolds properly. In order to enter the room, the player has to use a specific item that is associated with the type of lock, or solve a puzzle to open the door; the requirements are printed on the card. If the player succeeds, he can continue his movement, but if he does not, he must end his movement, and cannot enter the room.

Sometimes, the player will enter a room with a monster, or other environmental effect, and will have to test for horror. Horror and insanity are prevalent in the Cthulu Mythos. The creatures in Lovecraft’s writings are so horrible, that just looking at them can cause insanity in mortal men. This idea is presented in Mansions of Madness as a player statistic called “sanity”. As the player encounters things in the mansion, he will have to test his will against the horrors that he finds. If he fails this test, he will find that his psyche takes damage in the form of horror tokens. If the investigator takes too many horror tokens, he goes insane, which allows the keeper to do some pretty nasty stuff to them.

Checking for horror is done using a simple “skill check”. This “skill check” process is performed during horror checks, combat, and in response to certain game events that require a player to test his skill. The player rolls a 10 sided die, and if the result is equal to, or less than the skill he is testing, he passes, otherwise he fails, and received a horror token. Some tasks are harder than others though, and may modify the number that the player must roll to succeed. The players also have a small number of “skill point” tokens that they can expend before rolling to add their luck statistic to the skill they are testing. These skill points are a limited resource though, and must be used wisely.

Aside from the two movements, an investigator player can take one action per turn. These actions are all very intuitive, and it isn’t difficult to remember them. The most common action used is the “Explore” action which allows a player to look at, and take the cards that are face down in the room, as long as there are no obstacles in the way. If players find themselves with nothing useful to do, they can take the “run” action, which allows for an additional movement. Players can also use items and spells as an action, pick up and drop items, as well as hide, and barricade doors. Of course, the investigators can also choose to attack as their action, and engage a monster in combat.

Sometimes, when exploring a room the investigator will come across a puzzle. This is one of the more unique aspects of Mansions of Madness, because it represents character intelligence in a very intuitive manner. It is hard to separate the player’s intelligence from the character’s intelligence in games; if a character is stupid, but the player is a genius, then giving the player a puzzle doesn’t realistically depict the character’s abilities. On the flip side, just rolling a die for an intellect test wouldn’t isn’t very interesting, and doesn’t give the player a feeling of accomplishment. Mansions of Madness addresses this dilemma by giving players actual puzzles made of tiles that must be manipulated in different ways to achieve a proper arrangement. The players must actually solve the puzzle with his own brain, but the number of times he can manipulate the puzzle is determined by his character’s intelligence. This means that a player with a character that has a high intelligence will have more than enough turns to solve a puzzle, whereas a character with a low intelligence will give a very limited number of turns, making the puzzle difficult for the player. Puzzles that haven’t been solved are left as-is in the play area, which allows a player to finish the puzzle on a later turn, or let another player to try his hand at the puzzle. Not only does this puzzle mechanic keep the game thematically solid, it engages the player at an intellectual level as well.

To complete the game, the players continue the process of searching rooms, fighting, evading monsters, and following clues until they discover and complete the objective. Of course, the investigators aren’t the only players trying to win, the keeper will try to stop them at every turn, and he has quite a deadly selection of tricks up his sleeve. The keeper has his own secret objective that will bring the game to an end in his favor. Both the keeper and the investigators are both limited by the inevitable march of time, and if neither has completed his objective before time runs out, everyone loses.

After all the investigators have taken their turns, the keeper gets his chance to terrorize the investigators. While investigators have a fixed number of actions each turn, the keeper has a kind of currency that he spends to perform actions. This currency is called “threat”, and is gained by the keeper at the start of his turn. Depending on the scenario, the keeper will have a different set of actions that he purchase with his threat. Each action is represented by an action card that the keeper player keeps in front of him. Actions can cost differing amounts of threat to use, and allow the keeper to do things like spawn monsters, move monsters, and perform other story specific deeds (such as taking tissue samples from the players). Each scenario uses a different subset of these cards, so not all actions are available in all games, which requires the keeper to stay nimble, and change his strategy from game to game.

Aside from the action cards, which are always available for the keeper to purchase, there is also a small deck of “mythos” cards. These are cards that the keeper can acquire throughout the game, and activate using his threat. Unlike the keeper’s action cards, these mythos cards are discarded as soon as the keeper uses them. Mythos cards often have prerequisites for use, such as requiring investigators be in certain rooms, or be carrying weapons of a certain type. These mythos cards can be very powerful, and the keeper may find himself building strategies around these cards in order to leverage their effects.

The last type of card that the keeper utilizes is the “trauma” card. These cards can be used on a player when he takes damage (either physical or mental). The effects of these cards are usually permanent, and persist until another trauma card of the same type takes it’s place. I really like the depth of theme that these cards add; in most games the character takes damage, but has no permanent effect on the player’s abilities. The trauma cards in Mansions of Madness are different, and can simulate a potentially debilitating condition as a result of damage.

At the end of the keeper’s turn, creatures that are in the same space as an investigator character can attack. The combat system is an aspect of Mansions of Madness that really shines. This was actually very surprising to me, as I’ve never been a fan of the card driven combat in many of Fantasy Flight’s games. I may be more accepting of the combat in Mansions of Madness because there is still a die-rolling element in the combat, but it is the card driven portion of combat that elevates it. Combat is separated into several types: melee, ranged, unarmed, etc, and each monster type (humanoid, beast, and eldrich) has it’s own deck of cards used for combat. When a player attacks a creature, cards from the deck of the applicable monster type are turned over until a card with the appropriate combat type is drawn. For example, if I am unarmed, I would draw cards until I find one with the “unarmed” heading. That card will have a bit of flavor text on it about the attack being made, and then tell the player what attribute to make a skill check against. Based on the text of the card, the player may have to test against different abilities. This mechanic makes combat more interesting, because the cards don’t stand as a simple replacement for dice, but instead impart story into the game, and turn combat from a potentially dull act of number crunching, into a meaningful narrative experience.

After all investigators and the keeper have taken their turns, a time token is placed on top of the event deck. This deck is built to introduce plot events at certain intervals during the game; when the number of time tokens on the deck equals a number printed on the back of the top card, it is flipped over and the events described on the card are performed. If the last card in this deck is flipped over, it usually means global failure, both for the investigator players, and the keeper. The inclusion of this event deck serves to convey interesting plot events, limit the time a game is played, and keep all players on target. Without a ticking doomsday clock, players may feel motivated to leisurely explore the mansion; the event deck keeps impending failure breathing down everyone’s neck, and motivates them to stick to their objective.

Conclusion:

I have a generally positive impression of Mansions of Madness. It is enjoyable to play and has a nice depth to it’s mechanics, without being completely overwhelming. The rules are intuitive, and although they may seem intimidating at first, it is not hard to remember how things work, and there aren’t a lot of exceptions in the rules to be forgotten. The mechanics themselves are well-balanced, and the tempo of gameplay is moderated in a way that drives the plot forward, as long as players pay attention to the clues.

Combat is easy to understand, and the card driven, die-rolling mechanic really works to make the combat itself interesting and relevant to the theme, and should appease players who like both card driven and dice controlled combat mechanics. Because different attack types use different cards, and each monster type uses a different deck, the combat experience is really tailored to the situation at hand, which makes combat feel more cinematic. The design put into the miniature bases, are also worth noting, as they simplify what could be a complicated combat process otherwise.

Mansions of Madness is bursting with theme, and the unique, directed scenarios make for an interesting, almost episodic feeling experience. For the first few plays, the excitement of not knowing what is about to be encountered motivates replay, and keeps players coming back for more. The artwork on the components, and the detail put into the sculpted miniatures really tie everything together, and deliver an exquisitely themed package.

Despite the wonderful theme, dazzling components, and balanced gameplay, Mansions of Madness does have some drawbacks. In many ways, it appears that the game attempts to do too much in it’s marriage between theme and game balance, and may end up diluting the gameplay experience. Even though Mansions of Madness is dripping with theme, It fails to deliver a deep, compelling story. While the game is enjoyable, and the attempt to tell a story is admirable, it only really gives a taste of story, delivering what ends up being more of an outline that is never really fleshed out by gameplay. More detailed clues and events could have really helped the game in this area, and by moving fiction from the small cards to the larger manual, the delivery of story could have been fleshed out much more. This may have added a bit of complexity and made the gameplay a bit less streamlined, but I think that it would have made the game more immersive and enjoyable.

I’m sure it’s this perceived emptiness in the story that makes the game feel a bit sterile, but the theme itself adds to this feeling as well; H.P. Lovecraft’s stories often gave the feeling of isolation and desperation, and tended to be more about plot than character development. Mansions of Madness reflects this theme well, but as a social, cooperative game, it really needs to facilitate player interaction, and character development a bit more.

Although the game is well paced, and balanced, this doesn’t necessarily make for the best story. Due to the inherent balance, the players never really feel outclassed or outnumbered, which lessens the visceral horror impact. In this instance, a bit of imbalance in gameplay may have helped invest the players in the story more. There are also very few opportunities for the players to heal in game, which makes the progression towards the endgame very linear. With little opportunity to regain health, progression can feel like a slow burn towards the inevitable end. Empowering the players through success, and allowing them more opportunity to heal, or gain a leg up, would have created a game full of more ups and downs, and explored a wider range of player emotion.

It may seen like I am focusing on story a lot, and holding Mansions of Madness to a different standard than most games, but unlike most games, Mansions of Madness is built around a linear, story like progression. With only five scenarios that come with the game, story becomes even more important, because it has to hold up after multiple replays.

The final issue I have with the game is that there are “nobody wins” situations. The game can end in a draw, or more accurately, situations where everyone loses. These endings are extremely unsatisfying, and sometimes don’t really even make sense with the narrative given. Not only does this leave the players unfulfilled, it causes players to make decisions that do not make thematic sense, motivating players to behave in an uncharacteristic, suicidal manner to ensure that nobody can win the game.

Despite my criticisms, I still think that Mansions of Madness is a fun game, and worth playing, and it has a definite place in my collection. But, when it comes to the exploration based horror game, I find myself leaning more to the often grossly unbalanced, less sterile, and more interesting stories and scenarios of Betrayal at House on the Hill. I’m not sure that gameplay balance trumps theme when a game is built to tell a story. Stories are interesting due to the inherent imbalance, and in this case I think the balance of Mansions of Madness is actually a shortcoming. It has a lot of promise, though, and is built with expansion in mind, so I will certainly be bringing it to the table again. But, I hope that Fantasy Flight can bring some more personality to the game through expansions in the coming years.

8
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Forbidden Island

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This review was originally published at http://www.nerdbloggers.com

Long ago, four artifacts of immense power were hidden from prying eyes by the wise protectors of a long dead civilization known as the Archeans. This ancient civilization was the keeper of an unimaginable elemental power. A power harnessed through the use of the four treasures: The Crystal of Fire, The Statue of the Wind, The Ocean’s Chalice, and The Earth Stone. Fearing the catastrophic danger that misuse would create, the Archeans housed these dangerous relics on a secluded island, with an elaborate trap that would destroy the treasure, along with the island itself, were it to fall into foreign hands.

The Archaen civilization collapsed, and faded into obscurity long ago, but the Forbidden Island has waited silently, shrouding its wondrous secret, and biding its time until discovery wakes it and starts the deadly machinations that will send it to the ocean floor. That’s where you come in – as a brave explorer, you must retrieve the artifacts from the island, and escape with your life, before the island sinks into oblivion.

Forbidden Island is a cooperative family game designed by Matt Leacock and published by Gamewright Games. Similar in mechanics to Leacock’s lauded game Pandemic, Forbidden Island looks to transform the horrific prospect of global disaster found in Pandemic, into a family game of treasure hunting – with the horrific prospect of global disaster.

The part where the review takes a detour:

“What?! Global disaster?! You’re crazy!” I hear you say, “Forbidden Island is just an exciting family game of treasure hunting”. I do not deny any mental instability on my part, but hear me out: Forbidden Island may have more sinister parallels to modern day issues, and pose more questions about ethics than is outwardly apparent. I’m sure that players start a game of Forbidden Island with heroic intentions, and honestly, will probably gloss over the theme. But playing the game bears the question, “Why unearth these artifacts?” Is it for Money? Power? History? Science? Wouldn’t it be better to leave these treasures in the ground?

Let’s forget about global disaster for a moment, and think about the moral implications of the players’ actions. By taking the treasure, the players are destroying an entire island full of ruins from an unknown civilization. By the time the players have left the island, the entire place is destroyed, with any archeological insight swallowed by the waves. This fact alone poses a lot of interesting questions about the players’ intentions. By destroying so much unlearned history, the players can’t possibly be working under the banner of history or science. Given this insight, it means our intrepid explorers are robbing the island for either greed or power. This is probably not the light that players put themselves in when experiencing the game, but it makes for an interesting moral dilemma.

The sinister repercussions of the players’ actions don’t stop at the morality of historical conservation, either. The theme and background story of Forbidden Island describe the artifacts, which the players are risking their lives to acquire, as dangerous and catastrophic in the wrong hands. If the players’ motivation is money, then selling these artifacts to the highest bidder could have disastrous consequences for the world. If the motivation is power, then the players themselves will be unleashing an unknown element unto the world. Either way, the outlook is bleak for humanity. Perhaps Forbidden Island is but a prequel to Pandemic – the four virulent diseases unleashed on the world spawned from the four artifacts of the Forbidden Island.

Most likely, the explorers just don’t know what they are dealing with. After all, the Archaen civilization is long dead, and forgotten. How could the players possibly know of the dangers they unearth? The players can be comfortable knowing that their actions are not unsavory, as they are unaware of the nature of the island and its contents. This is the most sinister prospect of the game, because it hints at a possibility for our own future.

While the human race does not control the elements of ancient alchemy, we do control the seed of the scientific elements: the almighty atom. Through decades of nuclear proliferation and disposal, the human race has created its own artifacts of catastrophic power, locked away deep underground in military facilities peppering many “Forbidden Islands” across the globe. Like so many forgotten minefields from wars past, when our civilization is dust, will the things that we leave behind hold the power to destroy the unaware?

While I doubt that the story behind Forbidden Island was meant as a treatise on nuclear proliferation, that a paragraph of text on the first page of a game manual can elicit so many questions and thoughts about human nature says a lot about the prospect of board games as art. Many people, even some who support the board game hobby, insist that games cannot be art due to the core nature of games as a set of rules.

While games are a collection of rules at their core, when theme is added, they gain an aspect that even traditional art lacks: The ability for the player to experience moral and ethical dissonance due to his own actions. Instead of passively experiencing a static work, games allow the player to make decisions, and witness the consequences of those decisions. The gravity of the decisions can vary from game to game, but often times there is a deeper meaning that can be gleaned from those choices. Games can be experienced on many different levels, and just like literature, there can be layers beneath the surface that are only visible to those who look for them, and maybe, like Forbidden Island, the treasures found hidden there can be catastrophic to the unopened mind, forever changing it to seek out the deeper meaning in everything.

The Game:

(ED: We apologize for the wild detour, and assure you that this review is now back on it’s tracks, and the engineer in charge has been summarily fired.)

In Forbidden Island, players take turns drawing cards, and traversing the island, working to collect sets of cards which allow them to claim treasures. As soon as the players take the first turn, the island starts sinking, and the players must manage the flooding to ensure that they do not drown, or become trapped. If the players can secure all 4 treasures, and make it back to the helicopter alive, they win. But, winning is harder than it sounds, as there is only one win condition, and multiple ways to lose.

Components:

The Box: Forbidden Island comes in a colorful tin box, with artwork that is evocative and vivid. Although I am not a huge fan of tin boxes, as they tend to dimple, and get damaged easily, I have to admit that this one looks very nice. The box contains a custom plastic insert that is built to perfectly fit the components.

The Cards: Cards are used to represent several things in Forbidden Island. Two decks are used throughout the game, one that contains “Flood cards” representing island sections that are sinking and one containing “Treasure Cards” which represent treasure clues and special items that the explorers can collect. There is also a set of cards that describes each adventurer and their special power. These cards are good quality, sturdy, and can easily withstand the demand of play in a family setting.

Island Tiles: The game board is made up of 24 thick, double sided island tiles which represent the different sections of the island that the adventurers can travel to. One side of the tile is illustrated in full color, and the other side in a blue monochrome. The artwork on the tiles is fantastic, and it really works to immerse players in the game.

Player Pawns: The player pawns in the North American version of Forbidden Island are chunky colored wooden pawns, which are easy to manipulate. The German version of Forbidden Island has
painted miniatures that represent the explorers, and while it would have been really nice to see them in the North American version, there is still plenty of bang for the buck for such a low price point.

Treasure Figurines: These are the crown jewels of Forbidden Island. Each of the four treasures is represented with a detailed plastic figurine. These are hefty, and look really nice (especially the translucent fire treasure).

I am quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of the components in Forbidden Island. From the box itself, and its custom insert, to the wonderful components and molded figurines, it surpasses the quality found in many games that cost twice as much.

Setup:

The players start by laying out the 24 tiles that make up the island. The tiles are arranged face up, in a diamond-like shape, with some space between them to allow easy access to flip them when necessary. These tiles make up the game board that the players will navigate. The treasure figurines are placed near the corners of the board, and the treasure and flood decks are then shuffled and placed within reach. The first six cards are drawn from the flood deck, and placed into the discard pile. The tile corresponding to each section depicted on a card is flipped over to show its blue, “flooded” side.

Each player selects one of the six explorer cards, and puts the corresponding colored pawn on the correct tile. Each explorer has a special power printed on his card that gives him a unique way that he can bend the rules.

After the each player has chosen an explorer, each player gets dealt two treasure cards. Finally, the water level indicator is moved to the desired difficulty number.

Gameplay:

Each turn in Forbidden Island is made up of three steps. Players alternate taking turns, with each player performing all three steps of each turn.

Step 1 – Actions:

Players may take up to 3 actions per turn. For each action, players can do one of four things: Move one space up, down, left, or right (some special abilities allow players to move in different ways); shore up an adjacent flooded tile (flipping it from the blue side, back to the colored side); Give a treasure card to a player in the same space as you; or claim a treasure if you are on a space with a treasure icon and you have 4 treasure cards that match the icon.

With 3 actions, and a limited number of things to do with each action, it may seem like the game is easy. Fortunately, the opposite is true. Every turn, the players will feel like they don’t have enough time to do what they want. Between moving, shoring up tiles, and trading cards with other players to collect 4 of a kind, there is a lot to be done with only 3 small actions, and if tiles sink in such a way to cause a player to become stranded, or a treasure to be lost to the sea, the game can end very suddenly.

Step 2 – Draw treasure Cards:

This step is both a blessing and a curse. Players draw two cards from the treasure deck. Most of these cards contain pictures of one of the four treasures, or some contain special actions that the players can take, but scattered throughout the deck are the dreaded “Waters Rise” cards. When one of these cards is drawn, the water level goes up one notch, and the discard pile from the flood deck is shuffled, and placed back on top of the flood deck.

Because the discard pile is NOT shuffled back into the deck, but instead placed on top of it, players will start to draw the same cards from the flood deck that they have on previous rounds, increasing the chance that a flooded tile will be removed from the game completely. This drastically increases the amount of
tension in the game. On top of this, as the water level increases, more and more cards are drawn from the flood deck during step 3, increasing the rate at which the island sinks.

Step 3 – Draw Flood Cards:

The final step in a players turn is to draw flood cards. When a flood card is drawn, the corresponding tile is flipped onto its flooded side. If the tile is already on its flooded side, it is removed from the game completely, leaving a hole in the game board where players cannot move their pawns. The number of cards drawn is determined by looking at the current number on the water level indicator. As “waters rise” cards are drawn from the treasure deck, this number will increase.

Winning The game:

If the players can collect all 4 treasures, at least one player has a helicopter lift card, and they all make it back to the helicopter pad tile, they win the game. If any players drown, the helicopter pad sinks, there is no way to get a treasure because all of its corresponding tiles have been removed, or the water level reaches the skull and crossbones marker on the water level indicator, then the players lose.

Conclusion:

There is a lot of depth in Forbidden Island. While it doesn’t contain quite the level of complexity as its big brother Pandemic does, Forbidden Island concentrates the same feel into a simpler, more family friendly set of rules.

Players always feel like they are racing the clock as the tension in the game increases when “waters rise” cards start appearing, and the variable player powers add a bit of spice to the game, while still keeping it extremely approachable. With a different combination of explorers each game, the player dynamic changes each time, and keeps the game fresh.

The underlying mechanic of the flood deck, and appearance of “waters rise” cards, revolves around randomness. But, it’s a controlled randomness that gives the game a bit of a press your luck feel, without seeming completely out of control. Players can make educated decisions based on the number of cards that have been drawn, and the probability of the next card.

I don’t have much negative to say about Forbidden Island, it works very well for my family and me. It is a cooperative game, though, and may suffer if you have people in your game group that like to take control, and tell others how to make their moves. Forbidden Island is not a super heavy game either, and thrives in a family setting. If you are looking for a deeper game with the same feel, I would suggest sticking with Pandemic.

If you are in need of a good family game, with rich and rewarding gameplay, and dramatic pacing that is right on the money, then Forbidden Island is for you. Its cooperative nature opens it up to many people who may be put off by the competitive nature of other games, by allowing the group to win or lose as a team, without hurt feelings or bruised egos. This is a game that is well deserving of its Spiel des Jahres nomination.

9
Go to the Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game page
59 out of 66 gamers thought this was helpful

This review was originally published at http://www.nerdbloggers.com

Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game is Fantasy Flight’s 2010 tabletop take on the popular Video game franchise of the same name. Designed by Kevin Wilson, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game attempts to capture the feel of Sid Meier’s Civilization the video game (which I’ll refer to as Civ from here on out), a game about growing a civilization from humble roots through the use of military might, technological achievement, cultural enrichment, or acquisition of wealth.

Wilson isn’t the first to tackle a board game conversion of the Civ license, but those that have tried before him have failed to really capture the essence of the original. Wilson has experience successfully bridging the gap between the computer and the tabletop with his work on Fantasy Flight’s Warcraft: The Board Game, and Doom: The Board Game. His respect for these games really shows through in his design choices, and the way he smartly approaches the licenses. His work on Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game is no different. His design is not a quick attempt at slapping a licensed theme on a preconceived game design, but instead pays homage to the source material, and creates a very engaging board gaming experience.

Civ might seem like an easy target to make the transition to a board game. After all, it had definite roots in the board game medium. Sid Meier, creator of Civ, has expressed that the classic Avalon Hill board game Civilization was a strong influence on the design of Civ. But, inspiration wasn’t the only influence that board games had on the computer game. Sid Meier also employed former Avalon Hill employee Bruce Shelley as an assistant and collaborator when designing Civ. Before joining Meier, Shelly had worked for Avalon Hill bringing games such as 1830 and Titan to market. With such a tie to board games, it is surprising that almost 20 years after Civ was published, Fantasy Flight seems to be the first contender to finally capture the feel of Sid Meier’s Civilization.

Let’s take a closer look at this board game, inspired by a video game, inspired by a board game, and see what makes it tick.

Components:

In true Fantasy Flight style, the components in Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game are wonderful. And, in true Fantasy Flight style, punching out the components will take a while. But, after all of the components have been freed from their cardboard sprues, it becomes apparent that the modular game board and mountain of tokens are all made of high quality cardboard, and covered with beautiful artwork. No one is going to accuse this game of having low production quality.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game has a variety of different components:

A market board – The market board holds all of the buildings, units and wonders that can be purchased during the course of the game. It also contains as a scoring track for culture points earned during gameplay. The market board looks nice, and serves as a place to put most of the components in the game. I just wish that it had places for more of the components. While half of the game stays organized with the market board, the table can still get cluttered as the piles of tokens, plastic figures, and cards that don’t have a place on the board can fill the empty table space. Aside from that small detail, the market board is very useful, and nicely illustrated.

Map tilesSid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game uses a modular map to create a new game world each play. The tiles that make up this map are single sided and placed face down at the start of the game. Map tiles are flipped over as areas are explored, recreating the exploration aspect of Civ. Each map tile has different terrain represented on it, and iconography describing what is produced in each area. The terrain and icons are easily distinguishable, and appealing to look at.

Civilization sheets – The civilization sheets are cardstock mats that describe the civilization, and list its special abilities, starting government, and starting technology. The civilization sheets also allow the player to manage his available gold and trade using an attached cardboard dial. These dials will be familiar to anyone who has played Runewars, as they are practically identical. The dial is a really novel idea, but I’m always concerned that I will rip the comparatively flimsy cardstock sheet when turning it.

Plastic units – Military Units and scouts are represented by plastic figures in the game. The scouts look like the iconic covered wagon from the Civ games, and the Military units are represented by colored plastic flags. Fantasy Flight is known for their detailed miniatures, and I was a bit disappointed to see that the units were represented as flags. I think this is an area that Fantasy Flight could have upgraded to increase the immersion a bit. I really would have liked to see figures that I could paint.

Cards – Cards are used to represent many things in the game. Combat is resolved through the use of cards, technology and governments are represented with cards, and events are triggered through cards. The cards are good quality, and serve their purpose well for the most part. However, I do have an issue with the combat cards: the iconography on the cards can be a bit difficult to make out at a glance; the art makes the cards feel cluttered; and the orientation of the cards changes their meaning. The combat cards are my biggest gripe with the game in general, they just seem a bit obtuse to me, and I can’t help but thinking a set of dice would serve the same purpose in a much simpler manner. Perhaps if the combat cards had clearer icons, and didn’t seem so cluttered, I wouldn’t feel as strongly as I do about them.

Tokens, Tokens, TokensSid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game uses tokens for everything: cities, buildings, great people, culture, wonders, military tech level, resources, wounds, money, villages, etc. Even though there are a lot of these pieces of cardboard, they all serve a particular purpose and work well at representing what they need to in a clear and direct manner.

All in all, the components are top notch. My only real criticism was with the combat cards, and that may be more of an issue with the combat mechanism itself.

Gameplay:

Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game is a fairly complex game. Because it stays faithful to the source material, there are multiple paths to victory: Military, Economic, Cultural, and Technological. These multiple victory conditions require a set of rules, and components, for each path.

Players explore, collect resources, settle, and grow their cities striving to be the first to reach the victory condition in one of these victory paths. A cultural victory requires a certain number of culture points to win; a tech victory is awarded to the first person to research “Space Flight”; an economic victory is gained by amassing a certain amount of wealth; and a military victory is won by conquering another player’s capital city.

A player grows his city by purchasing buildings to add to his city. These buildings increase the footprint of his city, and in turn, allow more resources to be generated. Most resources are generalized as “Trade” or “Production”, although specific resource types can be collected and produced in the game as well. The resources that a certain position on the map produces are indicated by the icons on the map tile, and are modified by the building tiles that are placed on top of them. Resources are spent to purchase more buildings, military units, technology, and culture among other things. These newly purchased items add to the power or production of a city, generating a kind of “economic engine” moving the player forward towards his goal.

There are rules that dictate where players can grow their cities. Due to the way these rules operate, a large part of Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game is about area control. It is beneficial to grow your city before your opponent does, but at the same time, it can leave you vulnerable to attack. Players have to balance their progress towards a victory goal with growth of other aspects of their civilization.

Three of the four victory paths are not directly confrontational in nature. However, like in Civ, military might plays a large role in this game. Combat can be a bit unintuitive at first. There are two representations of the player’s military might: The first is the units on the board, which move to establish the location of the player’s armies; the second is the deck of cards that players maintain to represent the military strength and unit types found in their civilization. The combat cards are more of an abstract representation of the civilization’s military might, as the same deck of cards is shared between all of the armies on the board, and a hand is drawn from that deck when combat begins. Units and cards are purchased separately, creating a bit of a dissonance between the two.

When combat actually occurs, players take turns placing their combat cards along an imaginary “battle front”. Each combat card represents a different type of military unit: Infantry, Mounted, and Artillery (There are also aircraft units, but they work a bit differently). These units have a Rock, Paper, Scissors relationship with one another when determining which unit takes damage first. Every card can represent each of the four military tech levels, with the attack value of each level oriented along one of the four sides. This makes it important to keep your cards rotated in the correct direction so that you don’t accidentally make tactical decisions using the wrong number. Each card also has an illustration of the unit type for each military tech level, and an icon for the type of unit that card represents. All of this information makes the card feel cluttered, and it can be difficult to glean information from it at a glance.

Combat is balanced, functional, and fun, but it’s a bit fiddly. I’m not sure that the card mechanic really works perfectly the way it is. I think a simpler mechanic, or perhaps dice based combat would have kept things running a bit more smoothly, but this small criticism definitely isn’t a deal breaker. I don’t dislike combat in Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game, I just wish it was a bit more streamlined.

The game plays well from 2 players to its maximum of 4 players. The different victory conditions are well balanced, and I can see a player making a solid winning strategy using any of the paths. A game of civilization could easily last for 3+ hours; maybe more if the players are new to the game. The instructions suggest removing the “Wonders” for the first game, and I would agree that it creates a slightly easier, yet still fulfilling first game experience.

Conclusion:

Overall, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game does an excellent job of capturing the feel of its video game namesake. It makes a fun, deep strategy board game that could easily stand on its own without the Civ license. It is definitely one of my favorite civilization building board games, and I don’t think I would turn down a game if I had the time and opportunity to play. I’m not totally sold on the card based combat mechanism. However, it is still fun, and doesn’t detract from the game, as it’s just a small part in the larger whole. The game is a bit on the long side, and may be hard to get to the table for people who cannot spare the block of time to play, and, due to the sheer number of components, putting the game away and taking it back out to finish a game becomes unfeasible. For those that love a nice long meaty game, Fantasy Flight’s offering definitely scratches the itch, though.

When all is said and done, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game really gives the feeling of building a civilization from scratch. With all of the different leaders, technologies, and governments available, the strategic combinations are endless. Who can resist reliving a history where Abraham Lincoln of the Communist States of America wages a vicious war against Cleopatra and the money grubbing capitalists of Egypt? I certainly can’t, and I would definitely recommend giving Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game a try.

8
Go to the Nightfall page

Nightfall

68 out of 75 gamers thought this was helpful

This review was originally posted on http://www.nerdbloggers.com.

In the not too distant future, the Earth has been plunged into darkness. Supernatural creatures are rising to power in the eternal moonlight, and the human race is being hunted like game. Vampires, Werewolves, and Ghouls are locked in a mortal battle with the Human “Hunters” who dare to defend mankind. They all fight to claim the inky darkness of this changed world as their own… or so they think. Unknown to all, there are unseen hands pulling the strings from behind the curtain of darkness, making and breaking hidden alliances between both friend and enemy clans. In this land of Nightfall, you are the puppet master, and these creatures your unknowing minions.

Nightfall is a competitive Deck Building game created by first time game designer David Gregg, and published by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG). The Story of Nightfall’s publication is an interesting one, and a source of inspiration for aspiring game designers. Although Nightfall’s designer, David Gregg, had been a collectible card game player for most of his life, he had only recently discovered designer board games when he joined the popular gaming community boardgamegeek.com in 2009. Inspired by his new found hobby, he began openly working on a game design that would merge the sensibilities of the CCG with some of the popular deck building mechanics found in modern designer games. The game design that was born out of this process was called Chainmaster, named for the unique card chaining mechanism Gregg had devised. Many game designs reach this point of development, and then fade into obscurity, but Gregg’s design was fated for a brush with serendipity; Todd Rowland, the Senior Brand Manager at AEG, had recently pinpointed the need for a competitive deck building game to fill a hole in the game market and AEG’s game catalog. Only a couple of weeks had passed before Rowland ran across the Chainmaster prototype while browsing online message boards. He was impressed by the design, and subsequently, AEG picked up the title for publishing. It’s through this collaboration that Gregg’s first design, Chainmaster, evolved and ultimately found its way to store shelves as the game Nightfall.

In Nightfall, players control a band of supernatural creatures, locked in battle against their opponents. The players compete to build, and utilize a deck of cards representing Vampires, Werewolves, Ghouls, and Humans. Cards are acquired during gameplay to dynamically form a private deck that the player draws from to unleash creatures and actions upon his opponents. Cards can be chained together to form powerful combos, but the cards that are played must be carefully chosen, as other players have the opportunity to add their own cards onto the chain, potentially changing the nature of the original combo entirely. Players use their minion cards to deal damage and block attacks, but any damage that isn’t blocked is issued to the receiving player in the form of wound cards. When all of the wound cards have found their way into the players’ decks, the game ends, and the player with the least amount of wound cards is the winner.

Components:

Cards – Being a card game, Nightfall consists almost entirely of cards. The illustrations on the cards are detailed and vibrant, and share the style of a high quality graphic novel. Even though the cards were illustrated by a handful of different artists, they maintain a consistent art style, delivering a pleasing and cohesive package. The illustrations really help to sell the theme, and make me genuinely curious about the stories behind the characters on the cards.

The graphic design of the cards is clean, looks nice, and is functional, but there are some areas that I think could have been improved. There is a lot of information that is communicated on every card, but during my first few plays, the lack of iconography made it difficult for some players to differentiate between the number values on the cards. Players would often try to use the influence cost of a card as the attack power, or vice versa. This confusion went away after a few plays, but the confusion could have been avoided entirely with some icons that better conveyed the purpose of each number. The chaining mechanism also relies heavily on recognizing and matching colors. These colors are presented as tinted moon icons. The moon icons are almost identical apart from the color, and in incandescent lighting, the yellow and white moons can be tricky to differentiate.

The cards themselves have a good quality and thickness. However, moving away from the linen textured cards in Thunderstone, AEG has chosen to use smooth paper stock for Nightfall. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but the back of the cards are almost solid black, so the cards collect noticeable smears and fingerprints when they are handled. Nightfall comes with a coupon for card sleeves, in the box and I would definitely suggest putting the cards in sleeves before playing.

Despite my criticism, when all is said and done, the cards are enjoyable to look at and play with. Most of the concerns about card layout go away after the first few plays, but it is worth mentioning, as it may be a barrier to entry for some.

The Box – It is rare that a game’s box is brought up when talking about components, but Nightfall’s box bears mentioning. Where many deck building games have struggled with the problem of organization, especially with multiple expansions, Nightfall offers an elegant solution. The Nightfall box is large, with a reinforced interior, and two compartments for cards. Custom printed dividers for each of the different card types are included to allow for easy organization and retrieval of the different cards. The cards in Nightfall take up a very small amount of the real estate in the box, with foam spacers taking up the rest of the space. As new expansions are released, spacers can be removed, and the new cards put in their place, allowing for multiple expansions to easily fit in the same box; if the size of the box is any indication, we can expect a lot of expansions in Nightfall’s future.

Theme:

Popular media has seen a flood of vampire and werewolf related themes lately. This can elicit groans from some people when the word “Vampire” is even mentioned. However, the Vampires in Nightfall are more akin to the violent creatures at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s film From Dusk Till Dawn than the kind that would hang out in a high school cafeteria.

Nightfall paints the picture of an apocalyptic future that gives a nod to classic pulp horror; a time when contemporary literature and role playing games hadn’t painted werewolves and vampires as being dire enemies. This pulp horror connection can be found in the short stories that bookend the game’s instructions, and in the subtle nod to The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the gameplay examples.

What may be my only disappointment with the theme, is that it has the potential to paint a rich narrative, but doesn’t really deliver. The short stories in the manual are fun to read, as are the quotes sprinkled throughout. The illustrations on the cards are wonderful, and have such personality. But, all of those things only seem to hint at a deeper story that never materializes. If none of these things were included in the game, I’m not sure that I would even be mentioning the theme. Most other deck building games have a somewhat pasted on theme, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But, that tease of a deeper story in Nightfall really has me wondering who all of these characters are. In another game I might refer to a card as “The card that lets me deal one damage to a player”, but in Nightfall I see “Lilith Lawrence”, and wonder what her story is, and why she hangs all of those weapons on chains when shelving would be much more economical. There are several references to http://www.hunting-by-night.com in the manual, presented as a site where the hunters post messages. The address is real, but it directs to the Nightfall product page. Perhaps AEG has secret plans for the site in the future. I would love to see an ARG style environment where more game fiction might be released.

Mechanics:

Although components and theme add to the overall game experience, the meat of a game is in the gameplay, and this is where Nightfall really shines. It pulls from both the collectible card game and in-game deck building genres to produce a fun game that takes the best of both worlds, while leaving the chaff on the cutting room floor.

One of the biggest complaints about pure deck building games is the anticlimactic feeling of building a deck just for the sake of building a deck. The deck building concept was incubated in the CCG world, where building a deck was just a prelude, but using the deck to defeat your opponents was the main event. The deck building game Dominion pioneered the idea of turning deck construction into a game itself, where players would add to their decks as the game progressed, and whoever built the most efficient deck won the game. However, Dominion’s deck building was more about creating an economic engine than building an unstoppable force, unlike its CCG heritage.

Nightfall brings the direct conflict of the CCG back into the deck building genre. It distances itself from the bureaucracy and politics of medieval feudalism, and replaces it with the pure destructive nature of pulp horror. Nightfall is about action, direct conflict, and power. The creatures in Nightfall live and breathe combat; if they can attack another player, they will, and all you can hope to do is direct their rage. There is no economy, no trading, and no gold in Nightfall; if you want something, you take it by force. The currency of Nightfall is “influence”, which roughly translates to the amount of destructive power you are willing to throw at a problem.

Nightfall also addresses some of the perceived weaknesses of the CCG format; most notably, the tendency for money to buy success. The CCG market is built around the concept of random boosters – a small package with a random assortment of cards. CCG players collect cards, and build decks with these cards. They do not know what cards they will get when they purchase a booster, but more powerful cards are usually much rarer in distribution. This usually means that the player who has spent the most money on cards has a higher probability of success. Nightfall levels the playing field by including all of the cards needed to play in the game box. There are no booster packs to buy, or rare cards to unbalance the game. Some might protest that the variation in player decks is part of the fun in CCGs, and Nightfall has a response to this as well. At the beginning of the game, there is a draft in which players pass cards around the table, and select the cards that they will have exclusive access to. This adds a bit of variation and individuality to each player’s deck.

Setup:

There are 2 main types of cards in Nightfall: Orders, and Wounds.

Orders are the cards that players build their decks with. Orders come in two flavors: action cards and creature cards. Creatures serve the purpose of attacking and blocking for the player, and stay active on the table until the player’s next turn. With Actions, however, the effect is more immediate, and lasts only until the end of the current turn.

Wound cards are put in a player’s deck when he is dealt damage. At the end of the game, the player with the least number of wound cards in his deck wins the game.

Throughout the game, players will be able to acquire order cards from various stacks on the table. These stacks are called “Archives”. There are eight archives, called “Common Archives”, that are available to all players. Each player also has two “Private Archives” that only he has access to.

Each archive is made up of seven identical copies of an order card, but there is an eighth card in each set with the word “Draft” printed across its face. These draft cards add an interesting level of depth to Nightfall, by turning the game setup into part of the game itself. At the start of the game, the draft cards are collected, and each player is given four of them. The player chooses a card from his draft packet that he wishes to include in his private archives, and passes the remaining cards to the next player.

This process continues until there are two cards left in each packet. Then, the player gets to make a very interesting decision. He gets to choose one card that will go into the common archives (which everyone will have access to) and one card that will be removed from the game entirely. If he chooses a card to put in the common archive, it is possible that his opponents will use it against him, but if he removes it from the game entirely, he denies himself the opportunity to utilize it for his own nefarious purposes. This adds a very strategic element to the game, as choices made here can affect the game in dramatic ways.

After the draft is completed, the remaining draft cards are randomly chosen to complete the common archives. Each draft card is replaced with it’s seven matching order cards, private archives are placed next to their owners, and common archives are placed in the middle of the table.

Each player is given an identical prebuilt deck of 12 creature cards, that he shuffles and places face down. He then draws five cards from this deck to form his starting hand.

A pile of wound cards is placed within reach of all the players, and the game proper is ready to begin.

Gameplay:

The crux of Nightfall is in its concept of “Chaining”. When a player puts a card into play, it is called “starting a chain”. Each card has 3 moon shaped icons in its upper left corner, one large, and two small. Each moon icon is tinted with a color. The large icon represents the color of the card. The smaller icons determine which cards can be linked to that card. If the smaller icons are green and blue, then only a green or blue card can be linked to it. Adding cards to a chain is the only way to get them into play. If you play your cards right, you can create long chains that bring many actions into effect and lots of creatures onto the table to fight for you.

The cards in a chain don’t actually take effect until the chain is complete, at which point the cards in the chain are “resolved”. Chains are always resolved from the end first. This means that the last card that has been linked to the chain is the first to resolve, so planning the order of your cards can make a big difference in the effect that they produce. The last cards added to the chain often have the biggest effect. This is important to remember, because after you finish your chain, each other player has the opportunity to add to the end of your chain. This means that they can bring their creatures and actions into play on your turn BEFORE you do, often changing the effects that your cards have. The fact that other players’ cards can piggyback on top of yours, during your turn, really keeps the everyone on their toes.

Each player’s turn consists of four phases: Combat, Chain, Claim, and Cleanup.

Combat Phase – In your combat phase, any creatures you have on the table MUST attack. The amount of damage that a creature deals is represented by a red number in the upper right corner. You can choose which player each creature attacks, but each defending player determines which of their creatures block. A creature’s heath is represented by red lines on the edges of the card. When the creature takes damage, the card is rotated to reflect his current health. If a creature takes more damage than he has health, the remaining damage is applied to the defending player in the form of wound cards that go into his discard pile. When the attack phase is over, all attacking creatures, and creatures that have been defeated, go back into their owners’ discard pile. This means that once your attack phase is over, all of your creatures are removed from play, so it is very important to get new cards onto the play field, else you become a target for your opponents.

Chain phase – The second phase in play is the chain phase. This is the phase where you can start a chain to bring cards into the game. As described earlier, cards are chained together based on the colors of the moon icons they display. Each card has text on it that describes the card’s effect when it is resolved in a chain. There are two types of text: Chain text, and Kicker text. The instructions in the chain text are always followed when a card is resolved. Next to the kicker text, however, is another colored moon icon. If this kicker color matches the color of the card that is being linked to, then the kicker text is resolved as well as the normal chain text. As players get more familiar with the chaining in Nightfall, maximizing kickers becomes a large part of the strategy of the game.

Due to the terminology used in Nightfall, the card text can sometimes be a bit confusing for new players. The term “order” is used to refer to any card that is not a wound card, and the term “target” is used to describe the object that a player can chose to affect. So, when a player is able to chose any non-wound card to apply an effect to, it would be referred to in the card text as a “target order”. For example: The action card “Leave Me!” has the text “Chain: You choose the target(s) in target order’s text. Kicker: Resolve the text of that order twice”. Because the word “order” is a homonym with four distinct meanings, and can be used as both a noun and a verb (“I order you to heed my order.”, “order your cards in numerical order.”), reading the correct interpretation can take some practice. To add to the confusion, the word “target” can be different parts of speech as well. After a while it becomes second nature to understand that “order” is always used as a noun in the card text referring to an order card, and “target” is never used as a verb. Putting these keywords in bold text or italics, however, might have saved some frustration. There were players in my game group that were definitely turned off by the card text, even though they play Magic: The Gathering, a game that has similar issues with ambiguous text.

Claim phase – This is the phase where you “purchase” new cards, a process called “claiming” in Nightfall. The player starts his claim phase with 2 “influence points”. Any influence points that were earned due to card effects in the chain phase are added to this value, and the player may also discard any cards from his hand to gain one influence point per card. A player can claim as many order cards as he wishes, as long as he has the influence to pay for them. Claimed cards go directly into the discard pile. This may seem counter intuitive to players who have never played a deck building game before, but when the player’s deck runs out of cards, his discard pile will be shuffled, and the claimed cards in his discard pile will become available. Nightfall cycles through the deck much faster than most other deck building games, so it won’t take long before you see your claimed cards in your hand.

Cleanup phase – During your cleanup phase you replenish your hand by drawing cards to bring it back up to five. After you have drawn cards, you may use the effect of one wound card. In this first installment of Nightfall, all of the wound cards have an effect that lets you discard any wound cards in your hand, and draw twice the number of discarded cards into your hand. This creates a bit of a catch-up mechanic, allowing players with more wound cards to utilize more cards in their starting hand. In future expansions, wound cards with different effects are planned.

Conclusion:

Nightfall is a lot of fun, it plays well in all of it’s player configurations from 2-5. For the two player game, a slightly different drafting process is suggested, and the game may not feel quite as dynamic as a 3+ player game, but it is still enjoyable. However, I would definitely strive to play Nightfall with at least 3 players, as it adds more decisions and strategy to the game.

The chaining mechanism is novel, and makes for some very interesting gameplay decisions. Some people may have trouble understanding the card layout, iconography, and text at first, but given a few plays most of those issues go away. The ability to play cards on your opponent’s turn, and bring minions into play in response to something in another player’s chain is a really creative design choice. It basically eradicates downtime when other players are taking their turn, and adds a bit of psychology to the game. You never know what another player has in their hand and how they might affect your chain.

Putting abilities on the wound cards was also inspired. It keeps all of the players competitive by giving a slight advantage to those with more wound cards. The use of wound cards instead of hit points also works to keep everyone involved in the game. There is no player elimination, so everyone can have fun until the game ends, and no one is stuck sulking in the corner because he was eliminated on the second hand.

Although I didn’t mention it in my gameplay description, there is another very creative aspect of Nightfall. All of the character cards in the player’s starting deck are removed from the game instead of discarded. This keeps the game moving much more quickly. In games like Dominion, the end game is often slowed down because players have a lot of low level cards that are no longer relevant clogging up their deck. Nightfall automatically solves this problem by creating a limited lifespan for those low level cards by design.

I think Nightfall is very successful in merging the CCG and the deck building genres, and at 30-45 minutes playing time, it’s the sort of game that can be played multiple times in a sitting. I hesitate to call it “filler”, because there is quite a lot of depth in the game, but that depth is found in layers. Someone can play Nightfall as a beginner, and enjoy the game, but as they become more familiar with the combination of cards, and the different kickers, a whole new level of card management opens up. Although I have only been playing the game for a couple of weeks, from what I have experienced, I think Nightfall has staying power, and that’s not even taking into account the expansions that are planned. In fact, the next expansion to Nightfall, Nightfall: Martial Law, has already been released, and introduces a new gameplay mechanism called “Feeding”.

If you like card games, CCGs, and deck building games, and you enjoy a directly competitive experience, then you should go out and pick up a copy of Nightfall. If you don’t like conflict in games or tend to avoid games that take a few plays before they really click, then I would recommend playing Nightfall before purchasing. But, I would definitely recommend giving it a try, it’s mechanics are unique and refined, and you might be surprised at how much fun you have.

For me, this game is a keeper, and I can’t wait to see how David Gregg and AEG evolve both the game, and the shadowy fiction of Nightfall.

8
Go to the Letters from Whitechapel page

Letters from Whitechapel

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This review was originally published on http://www.nerdbloggers.com.

Between the years of 1888 and 1891 a series of brutal slayings captivated the media of Victorian England. Unsolved to this day, the murders that shocked and terrified the downtrodden Whitechapel district, were perpetuated by a man who, in his shocking letters to the police, assumed the pseudonym “Jack the Ripper”. To this day, the unsolved nature of the crimes and the taunting correspondence from the infamous serial killer invoke a morbid curiosity in people, generating an unending stream of novels, movies, and speculation about what really happened under the soot filled skies over a century ago.

Letters from Whitechapel is a deduction based board game, designed by Gabriele Mari and Gianluca Santopietro, illustrated by Gianluca Santopietro, and published by Nexus Games. In the game, one player assumes the role of Jack the Ripper, who commits crimes, and attempts to avoid police detection through a mechanic of hidden movement across the winding labyrinth of streets and alleys. The other players portray the police detectives historically assigned to the Whitechapel Murder cases, and attempt to search out, and apprehend Jack through the use of logic and deduction.

The game takes place over the course of four nights, with a total of five murders committed. Although these numbers make for a tense and exciting game, they certainly aren’t arbitrary. Of all of the murders that actually took place in the Whitechapel district while the police case was open, only five of them are considered to be canonically associated with Jack the Ripper, and of those five, two occurred on the same night, dubbed the “double event” by Jack’s own hand – and faithfully represented in the rules for Letters from Whitechapel.

This attention to detail in both the rules and components of the game makes it engrossing on a visual and intellectual level. So many of the rules and components have a solid grounding in the history of the Whitechapel Murder cases, and this adds greatly to the macabre theme of the game. From a mechanics standpoint, Letters from Whitechapel could have been a simple cops and robber themed game, but the art, components, and rules really bring 19th century Whitechapel to life, and really pull the player into the history.

Components:

The Board – The showpiece of Letters from Whitechapel is the enormous game board depicting the various streets and alleys of Victorian era Whitechapel. Intersections are denoted by black squares, and areas that can be searched for clues are denoted by 195 circles, each with a unique number printed on it. The illustration on the board itself is historically accurate in its representation of the geography of the area, and surprisingly, the tangled streets create a strategically intriguing play-field. The district map is pleasingly rendered in in sepia tones, the stark color choice creating a vivid contrast to the red circles that represent the victims’ starting locations, and the crime scene tokens – translucent plastic disks that seem to float above the surface as pools of crimson.

Pawns – The police, victim, and Jack pawns are large chunky wooden bits, stylized to abstractly resemble the English bobby hat of the investigating police, the tight corseted figure of a potential victim, or the gentleman’s top hat that has become so closely tied to the public image of Jack the Ripper. The pawns are enjoyable to manipulate, they have a nice heft and size. The colorful police pawns maintain an imposing presence as they move to tighten the net around Jack. And the Jack pawns, although never actually moved on the map proper (Jack’s movements are hidden), are utilized on the game board for bookkeeping functions, such as tracking the current round number, and reporting how many murders have been committed. This means that although Jack may be hiding in the shadows, he still has a definite presence on the game board.

Tokens – Both Jack and the police have a set of tokens that they place on the board during the first few phases of each night. These double-sided tokens represent the potential position of the police and the victims. They are simply illustrated, but work well to accomplish their purpose. Also in the box is a set of large cardboard tokens representing the different detectives hunting Jack down, each bears the likeness of an actual police investigator on the Jack the Ripper case, and is used to display the detective in charge of the investigation on a particular night. The final tokens used in the game feature illustrations of carriages and lamplights, and are used by Jack as resources to break some of the movement rules during his escape.

WinksLetters from Whitechapel comes packed with a handful of transparent plastic disks, or winks. These disks come in three colors: clear, red, and yellow. The red disks are used to denote the crime scenes where Jack has committed an atrocity, and the clear disks are placed during gameplay to denote clues that the investigators have found during their search for Jack. The yellow winks are used as false clues for an optional game variant. The decision to use transparent plastic disks on the game board was inspired, as the mechanism works really well. The red disks really stand out against the game board, while still allowing the players to see the numbers below the marker. My only issue with the transparent winks, is that the clear disks can be difficult to see at times, as they blend in with the board; a lightly tinted grey may have given just enough contrast to make the clue disks more noticeable, while maintaining the elegant look of the game.

Jack’s Movement Pad – Since Jack’s movement is hidden, he writes his movement down in pencil on a pad of paper. The pad supplied is simple, and easy to understand, and contains quite a few sheets of paper in it. I am a conservationist at heart, and always struggle with games that have a paper pad, because I envision the day that I will go to play, and there are no more sheets left. In all reality though, the odds of going through an entire pad are fairly low, as the game itself takes a good chunk of time to play, and there are plenty of sheets included. Plus, modern inventions such as the eraser, and photocopy machine put the power in the hands of the OCD gamer to keep his components pristine.

The movement pad is perfectly sized to slide into an included cardboard sleeve. This sleeve can be unfolded to become a screen that Jack can use to keep his scribblings hidden. The inside of the sleeve has a small version of the game board on it, which Jack can use to plan his escape, without giving away his plans through his eye movements. It would have been really nice if small maps for each of the investigators were included in the game as well. Small dry erase maps would help the investigators plan and coordinate their movements, while keeping their suspicions secret from Jack. Luckily, the publisher has made downloadable maps available on their website, so if you have a computer and a printer you are good to go. Even so, small investigator maps would have been a really nice inclusion inside the game box.

Setup and Gameplay:

At the start of the game, each player is allocated a set of tokens: police tokens for the investigators, and victim tokens for Jack. The investigators take the white “wretched” pawns that will signify Jack’s potential victims, and then choose their investigator pawns; there are 5 different colored investigator pawns, and they are all used, despite the number of players in the game – so in games with less than 6 players, someone will be controlling more than one investigator. Jack then takes the winks, and his special movement tokens for the given night, and places his black Jack pawns on the board to signify the current turn, as well as the current round. Jack also takes his movement tokens, and his movement pad.

After all of the tokens have been sorted and collected, a secret decision is made by Jack. He must pick a numbered circle on the board, and write it down on his movement pad. This chosen space is Jack’s hideout. Although the game has not yet started, this decision may very well be the most important one in the game – for Jack at least. At the end of each of the four nights, or rounds of the game, Jack must always return to this hideout. The hideout that Jack has chosen for himself does not change throughout the game, and the investigators will get closer to determining its location as the the game progresses towards its climax, so Jack’s hideout needs to be strategically placed.

Although the players have sorted their tokens, and have selected pawns, there is still a lot of setup to be done before the chase begins. However, Letters from Whitechapel follows the growing trend in gaming where setup becomes part of the game proper, so this setup process is part of the fun. Turning setup into part of the game makes the game very approachable, and eliminates the downtime between deciding to play a game, and actually starting. Letters from Whitechapel offers immediate gratification in this aspect, and you won’t lose players to other games while it’s being set up.

The game is played over five “Nights”. These are rounds in which a murder (or multiple murders on the 3rd night) occur, followed by the investigators trying to track Jack down before he reaches his hideout. This first “setup” portion of each round is named “Hell”, after the real-life heading in Jack the Ripper’s famous “From*” letter. During this step, both Jack and the Investigators work to bluff, and place their pieces into the most advantageous positions. The second phase is called “Hunting”, where the investigators try to corner the fleeing Jack using only their wits and powers of deduction, before Jack can reach his hideout and end the round.

Hell:

Jack begins “Hell” by placing each of his white “woman” tokens on one of the handful of red-tinted number circles on the board. Incidentally, these circles are situated on the map of Whitechapel in locations that closely parallel the actual places that the Whitechapel Murders occurred. The woman tokens are double sided, with the front either being blank, or displaying a red dot. Jack chooses red-tinted number circles on the map, and places each woman token, face down, on a selected location. After Jack is done placing the tokens, some locations on the game board will contain a token with a red dot on it’s face, while others will contain a blank token. The ones with the blank tokens are false clues, but the ones that contain a token with a red dot hidden on it’s face will house a potential victim.

This placement of tokens with a hidden element adds a bit of bluffing to the game. In the next step, the investigators place their own tokens on the board in strategically optimal spaces, but they have limited information to work with, because they may be planning their strategy around a false clue that Jack has left. This bluffing mechanic, and hidden information, is found throughout the game, and is a real treat for those who love trying to read other players. It’s this bluffing component that really elevates the game from a pure, dry logic puzzle, to a game that really showcases the human element of detective work.

After Jack has placed his tokens, the investigators put their patrol tokens on the yellow square intersection tiles. Like Jack’s woman tokens, the patrol tokens have either a blank face, or a colored dot, and each token with a colored dot represents a specific investigator. Just like Jack was given the opportunity to bluff with his woman tokens, the police can bluff with their patrol tokens, hiding the actual positions of their investigators from Jack.

After the investigators have placed their tokens, Jack reveals the position of the potential victims, and the white “wretched” pawns are placed on the game board in those locations. Jack can chose to kill one of the wretched now, or can wait up to five turns – but on the fifth turn he MUST claim a victim. Every turn that Jack chooses not to kill, the investigators will move the wretched pawns to adjacent circles along dotted lines printed on the board, but Jack also has the ability to reveal one of the investigator tokens to determine if it is a decoy or not. This creates a nice tug-of-war between the investigators and Jack, giving the investigators more control over the tactical positioning on the board, but at the same time revealing more hidden information to Jack. When Jack does decide to kill, he can select any of the wretched pawns, and will most likely chose the one most strategically placed to avoid police detection. However, there are still a number of police patrol tokens that are resting face down, so Jack doesn’t know which tokens represent the actual investigators, and which tokens represent decoys.

After Jack has committed the murder, the wretched pawns are removed from the board, and the location of the murder is marked with a red “scene of the crime” wink. The wretched pawn that has been killed and one of the victim tokens are removed from the game entirely. This is a clever aspect of Letters from Whitechapel, because as the nights progress, the possible victims and murder locations steadily shrink, increasing the pressure put on Jack. After the scene of the crime has been marked, the investigators reveal their patrol tokens, and place their pawns in the locations indicated, and the hunt begins!

The Hunting:

The Hunting phase is where the cat and mouse portion of the game unfolds. Jack moves along the dotted lines connecting numbered circles, and always ends his turn on a circle. The Police, on the other hand, move between solid black squares on the board. This means that Jack and the police can never share the same space, and they travel different paths, but this dichotomy can create some very interesting interactions, in sometimes unexpected ways.

Jack kicks off the hunting phase by moving first. He writes his current location in the appropriate space of his movement sheet, and selects an adjacent numbered circle to move to. Jack is allowed to move along a dotted line to any adjacent numbered circle, but he cannot travel along a path that would have him pass through a police officer’s pawn. This is often a difficult decision, as the position and future movements of the investigator pawns can make certain moves risky, and if Jack doesn’t get back to his hideout by turn 15, he loses the game. After Jack has carefully selected his new position, he writes it down in his log. Although Jack’s movement is hidden, he still gets a chance to manipulate his chunky black pawn, by moving it to the next space in the “move track” denoting the current turn.

Sometimes there is just no way around the police. Luckily for Jack he has a couple of aces up his sleeve. The movement tokens that he acquired at the start of the round can be used to help him in a bind like this. The movement tokens come in two flavors: alley tokens, which have a picture of a lamplight on them, and carriage tokens, which display a carriage illustration. Both kinds of tokens let jack bend the movement rules in different ways. The carriage tokens let Jack move two circles in one turn, and allow him to pass through a police pawn on the way to his destination. The alley token on the other hand, lets Jack veer off of the dotted lines that he is normally tied to, and allows him to cross a solid block of buildings to a numbered circle on the other side. Both of these options can be very powerful, but can also give an insight to Jack’s location. If the police think they have Jack cornered, and he uses one of his movement tokens, they can be fairly confident that they have Jack on the run. Either that, or Jack is bluffing.

After Jack moves, the police get their turn to tighten the net around him. The police can move up to two black squares in any direction, as long as they follow the dotted lines. Once they have reached their destination, they have two options: They can search for clues, or they can attempt an arrest.

If an officer chooses to search for clues, he can name a numbered circle that is adjacent to his current location. Jack then looks at his movement sheet, and checks if he has been to that location. If he has been to that location during the night, he places a clear “clue” wink on the circle to notify the police that he was there. If a clue is found, that investigator’s turn ends. However, if a clue is not found, the investigator can continue to name adjacent circles until either a clue is found, or he runs out of circles.

If an officer attempts an arrest, he has just one chance before his turn ends. The officer must name a numbered circle that he thinks Jack currently occupies. If he is correct, Jack is apprehended, and the police win the game. If not, the officer’s turn ends, and he cannot take any more actions until his next turn.

This process continues, with Jack and the police moving and searching for clues, until Jack is apprehended or reaches his hideout. This process of “hell” and “hunting” takes place over 4 separate rounds, each round the number of victims shrink, and the police get a better and better idea about where Jack is hiding out.

It’s important to note that the third night has a bit of a twist to it. On Sunday September 30, 1888 the mutilated bodies of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were both found by police in the District of Whitechapel. The next day, the Central News Agency received a note in the mail, dubbed the “Saucy Jacky” postcard, in which Jack the Ripper took responsibility for the Murders. In this infamous letter, he called these two slayings the “double event”; and on the third day of gameplay in Letters from Whitechapel, parallel to the “double event” on that late September evening, Jack takes two victims. At a time in the game where jack is getting squeezed harder and harder by the police, having two crime scenes gives Jack a bit more breathing room, as he gets to chose which crime scene he will flee from, leaving the police the task of canvassing two regions of the map where Jack might be hiding.

Conclusion:

Letters from Whitechapel is a very enjoyable game that plays well anywhere from two players, to it’s maximum of six. As the number of players increase, the advantage begins to tip more in Jack’s favor unless the investigators can work well together to formulate a workable plan to deduce Jack’s location.

Letters from Whitechapel is full of theme, and serves up a good bit of history through its artwork, rule book, and gameplay. Some may find the content objectionable, as the manual contains snippets from the actual letters sent by Jack the Ripper, with quotes such as “I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I cant use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope. ha. ha.”; and the very first time playing as jack can be unsettling, when you realize that you have to choose someone on the board to murder. In a way, though, Letters from Whitechapel humanizes the tragedy of the murders, brings it out of the realm of stories and movies, and puts the reality of the events into focus in a very personal way.

The bluffing mechanics in the game also enhance its logical, deductive nature, by adding a human element as players try to read each other, and determine their actions through behavior, as well as deduction. The players can almost put themselves in the shoes of a Victorian detective, interrogating witnesses, and trying to determine their inner thoughts. This is a really nice departure from a lot of deduction based games that rely entirely on building a spreadsheet to find the solution.

The components in Letters from Whitechapel are truly sublime in their muted simplicity. From the chunky pawns, to the beautifully and historically accurate board, the components scream quality. When the blood red crime scene winks begin to pepper the board, the contrast is both striking and beautiful, in a strangely sinister way. Jack’s movement pad is well designed, and easy to use, and makes the movement process painless for Jack. Some mini-maps for the police players would have been nice, but the fact that Nexus Games supplies downloadable maps on their website takes large strides in making up for it.

Although there may appear to be a lot of rules to digest in Letters from Whitechapel, in practice they flow together seamlessly, and are easy to remember. After the first few turns, the rules become second nature, and play flows smoothly, allowing players to focus on their strategy. There are some optional rules and components included to help players tune their game experience. There are variations included to tip the game in favor of either Jack, or the police, depending on the needs of your gaming group. It’s nice to see that the variations aren’t just tacked on, as they include the same sense of history and theme as the core rules.

Hardcore analysis of the Letters from Whitechapel map, can reveal hideout placements, and crime scene locations that can make the game extremely difficult for the police to track down Jack. If your game group plays very competitively, and you have members that will spend hours analyzing strategies, then Letters from Whitechapel may break under certain scenarios. There are some workarounds to avoid this, such as generating a random location for Jacks hideout, although I think that this removes some of the fun of the game. If you have a cutthroat game group, then you may have to resort to tweaking things a bit, although the vast majority of gamers will find Letters from Whitechapel extremely rewarding as it is.

Gameplay can often extend past the 2+ hour mark if Jack is being very sneaky, but the structure of the game allows the players a fulfilling experience, even if they only choose to play only one or two rounds, instead of the complete four. The progression from night to night does offer a wonderfully tense experience though, with the number of victims shrinking, the “double event”, and the police gradually honing in on Jack’s hideout. This dramatic swell of tension, that climaxes on the fourth night, can be hard to beat.

All in all, I think that Letters from Whitechapel is a great choice for any game library. It is enjoyable by casual gamers and experienced gamers equally, has a wonderful theme that only compliments the tense and exciting gameplay, and smartly tackles the deduction genre while avoiding the dry nature of some similar games. Even if you might not be drawn to the deduction genre, the bluffing aspect alone should give you reason to give it a play. Letters from Whitechapel is a great game, and will appeal to a large swath of interests. I definitely recommend it.

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