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Jeremy Lennert

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Go to the Dominion page
Go to the Ghost Stories page
Go to the Descent: Journeys in the Dark page
Go to the Legions of Darkness page
Go to the Betrayal at House on the Hill page
Go to the For the Crown page
9
Go to the Ghost Stories page

Ghost Stories

290 out of 311 gamers thought this was helpful

Ghost Stories is a fully cooperative game in which you control Taoist monks defending a village from an onslaught of ghosts and try to prevent the return of Wu-Feng, Lord of the Nine *****. Players move about the village, fight ghosts, and call upon special abilities of the villagers. The game prominently features variable player powers and winning requires careful balancing of conflicting goals.

This game is a tightly-woven ball of simple but beautiful mechanics. The combat rules reward you with improved efficiency when you take your time to prepare for a fight, but the ghosts instill urgency with a variety of abilities that punish you for ignoring them, requiring constant re-evaluation of your priorities. The ability to exorcise two ghosts at once in a corner space is a great boon, but the corners offer the fewest movement options, so taking full advantage of them requires careful planning. The Taoists all have powerful, game-changing abilities.

The game offers a satisfying variety of options, and every single one of them will save the day in one situation or another. There are times you must band together and times you must split up. There are times you will spend your entire turn just setting up the next player for a key exorcism. There are times you must throw yourself into the jaws of death in a desperate gambit, and times when you must force yourself to sit calmly in the tea house while all the ghosts of **** howl around you.

But for all that, you can teach the rules to a new player in about five minutes. Learning from the rulebook is a bit harder (it’s translated), but once one person understands the game, you can easily play this with a novice gamer (as long as they don’t mind losing).

The game seems impossibly hard until you grasp the importance of tao tokens; after that, it’s merely hard.

I would encourage anyone who thinks they might be interested in cooperative board games to give Ghost Stories a try.

6
Go to the Puzzle Strike page

Puzzle Strike

26 out of 33 gamers thought this was helpful

Puzzle Strike is a deckbuilding game with a focus on volleying “gems” (basically negative points) back and forth between players. Each player chooses a character with a different initial deck and plays their chips (cards) in various combinations to buy new chips from a common supply, manage their decks, and send gems to opponents. The theme is, if anything, even lighter than Dominion’s, with next-to-no artwork and many chips given obviously meta-game names (there’s a chip similar to Market called “One of Each”, and a chip similar to Witch called “Really Annoying”).

Many have said that that this game is about “attacking” other players rather than building up points, but I don’t think that describes the difference very well; the gem piles are effectively points, it’s just that you gain points by playing cards instead of by buying cards. So it’s kind of like playing Dominion: Prosperity with cards like Monument and Bishop and without the standard green cards. In a multiplayer game, you do also get to choose which opponent to send negative points to, but it’s hard to see how that adds anything other than a kingmaking issue.

Puzzle Strike makes it much harder to build an “engine” than Dominion does, with +action effects being very expensive; this might have been fine, except that many characters have around 3 terminal actions in their starting deck (which is 2 hands big). With +actions heavily limited and a starting deck already overburdened with (untrashable) terminal actions, your viable purchase options seem to be very limited a lot of the time.

Tragically, Puzzle Strike failed to follow Dominion’s example in limiting the cumulative effects of attack cards. One chip forces each opponent to discard 2 chips from their hands (not “down to 3” like Dominion’s Militia) and then lets you play another attack action (not any other kind of action, ONLY another attack). Lots of turns that game where my opponent played 3 of these in a row (no other chips required) and made me discard my whole hand.

I also personally found several mechanics to be just…distasteful. Players with more gems (i.e. negative points) in their pile get to draw bigger hands, so you can intentionally let your gems build up to make bigger plays, but I felt that strategy was unsatisfying no matter which end of it I was on. Certain characters are intentionally designed to have advantages over specific other characters, leading to lop-sided match-ups. The type-limited +actions and negative money seemed annoying to track without adding much depth. Maybe these things only bother me? I’m not sure.

And Puzzle Strike’s rules definitely lack Dominion’s rigor. Reading the rulebook revealed important nuances of some chips that I could not have guessed simply from reading the chips themselves.

Overall, Puzzle Strike has some modest differences from Dominion, but it doesn’t feel all that different, and it lacks much of Dominion’s polish. If you’re a major deckbuilding fan, I could perhaps see playing this occasionally just for variety, but I would have a hard time justifying purchasing this over another Dominion expansion.

7
Go to the Legions of Darkness page
26 out of 32 gamers thought this was helpful

Legions of Darkness is a solitaire game in which the player takes command of a fortress and must survive a siege by fantastic monsters until reinforcements arrive. Each turn, a card draw dictates the actions of enemy forces, any bonuses or penalties in effect for the turn, and possibly an opportunity for a side quest. The player has limited actions with which to counter-attack, upgrade his defenses, prepare and cast spells, and more.

There are just enough options and limitations that you will usually need to make a tough choice regarding your priorities for the turn: attack the weakened army, or the closer one? Fight a bloody battle, or give ground to save your troops? Spend your energy on the spell you have, or wait and try to get the spell you want?

Replayability is not bad. I found the greenskins scenario quickly became too easy, but the undead scenario remains challenging. The heroes, spells, and event cards are interesting and quite distinctive, but you can see around 3/4 of them in a single game, so they become familiar after a few plays (there is an expansion that helps with this).

As with Victory Point Games’ other products, the components will not impress, but neither do they stand in the way of great gameplay.

Overall, this is a small but challenging solitaire game, and so far my favorite in the States of Siege series.

7
Go to the Fury of Dracula page

Fury of Dracula

142 out of 156 gamers thought this was helpful

In Fury of Dracula, one player is Dracula and tries to spread his influence across Europe, while the rest of the players control 4 characters from Bram Stoker’s novel trying to locate and slay him (always 4 hunters, regardless of the number of players), each with different special abilities. Dracula uses hidden cards and markers to track his movements and lay traps for the hunters; the hunters strategically search the map for clues and supplies. When they meet, they engage in combat using a combination of simultaneous tactical choices and dice rolls, with Dracula having a lot more options at night. Both sides must manage their resources carefully. The game is much longer than I expected, with my plays typically clocking 4-5 hours.

The hidden movement is reminiscent of Scotland Yard, but Dracula’s trail of clues feels more tense and elegant than SY’s timed reveals. Map control and mind games make a great difference in the chase, and both sides have enough special moves to keep things interesting, with cards that can give an extra move, block off a location, and more. This is the game’s strongest point, in my opinion.

The combat system is a bit clunky. It’s got some depth to it, but the cards do a poor job of communicating this; it wasn’t until I downloaded and printed a fan-made table of combat results that I started to see what each of the tactics was really good for. There’s also a lot of luck involved; a single die roll is sometimes the difference between Dracula losing a third of his maximum health or gaining a third of the victory points he needs to win the game.

Players often talk a lot about the Evasion card, which lets Dracula teleport anywhere on the map, effectively erasing the hunters’ progress towards locating him. That’s a potent effect, but it needs to be seen in context: there’s also two Hypnosis cards that the hunters can save and play when they choose for a 2/3 chance to reveal Dracula’s exact location, his next move, and the locations of all his young vampires. Both sides also have cards that can be played to cancel an opponent’s card, and Dracula only gets events when the hunters choose to draw. The events can cause dramatic swings for either side, but there are ways to prepare for and mitigate them once you’ve learned the game.

Overall, Fury of Dracula is a solid game. The different game systems don’t seem to work together as well as they could, but they all do their jobs reasonably well. There’s a high luck dependence, but that decreases somewhat as you learn the cards and how to counter them. A strong theme is evident throughout. The long play time means I don’t play this often, but I have fun when I do.

4
Go to the Thunderstone page

Thunderstone

51 out of 62 gamers thought this was helpful

Thunderstone is a deck-building game in which each player forms a party of heroes and slays monsters to earn victory points, competing with the other players to have the most points by the time the Thunderstone is discovered.

I must preface this review by saying that the rulebook was a colossal train wreck. I read the rulebook thoroughly, and I still had many major unanswered rules questions before even sitting down to play. Apparently I wasn’t alone, because the rulebook was massively rewritten several times in the weeks after the game’s release. As of version 1.3, they’d added several entirely new steps to the sequence of play, errata’d several individual cards (meaning you couldn’t rely on the printed text while playing), and I still found several glaring flaws and inconsistencies on a cursory reading of the new-new-new rulebook. I stopped reading their edits after that.

Admittedly, I’m kind of a stickler for clear rules. But I’m also quite good at memorizing (and inventing) new rules, so if there was a solid game underneath this morass of incompetent editing, I would be playing my heart out even if I had to rewrite the entire rulebook myself. But I can’t seem to find any reason to.

The cards read like someone’s initial brainstorming list of cool stuff to try to work into the game. Cards with equal prices can vary wildly in power. Many cards are only useful at all due to some hyper-specific interaction with another card that you may or may not have included during set-up.

But the frightening part is actually how little that matters, since the game gives you so much money that you barely even notice costs past turn 2. Imagine playing a version of Dominion where you could plausibly buy Gold on both of your first two turns. Even the victory cards (monsters) give you copious amounts of money! Your average cash-per-turn starts at 5, so when you see a weak card that costs 2 and a strictly-better card that costs 4…it just looks like a bad joke. Then they include only a single (very weak) card that even gives you the option of splitting your money between multiple buys, and it’s one of the random cards (not available every game).

The combat portion of the game has the opposite problem. Building a deck with high attack power is not trivial–unfortunately, monsters are basically all equally hard, so it’s not helpful, either! Since players that are capable of killing something are generally capable of killing pretty much everything, the front two dungeon slots get filled with ****** monsters no one wants to kill, and then you spend most of your time fighting whatever new monster was just drawn after the player to your right killed the previous best option. This means that whether you get a lot of points or few points has little to do with the efficiency of your deck; it’s basically just luck of the monster draw. I had several games end with the comment “sorry; you clearly had the best deck, you just got unlucky monster draws”.

Sure, there are a few monsters that are genuinely hard to beat, but mostly through gimmicks like “magic immune”, which means that beating them is a matter of memorizing all the monsters so you know in advance what trick to prepare for in a given monster set. And even in the rare event that a great monster shows up and the player to your right can’t kill it, he can still fight it and deliberately lose to discard it and prevent you from getting it (and that may well be a bigger point swing for him than killing a weak monster instead).

I want to emphasize that I wanted, and expected, to like this game. “A more complex version of Dominion with a dungeon crawl theme? What could go wrong!” I thought to myself. Two weeks later, Thunderstone earned the distinction of being the first (and so far only) board game I’ve ever sold.

So in summary: the economic system doesn’t work, the combat system doesn’t work, the rules were blatantly unfinished at release, and winning is mostly luck. As a strategy game, Thunderstone is an unmitigated disaster.

I guess you could play it as an experiential game purely for the art and theme. That’s not my cup of tea, personally. But even if that’s what you’re looking for, surely there’s a game that provides it with less number-crunching and errata than Thunderstone?

6
Go to the Kingdom Builder page

Kingdom Builder

154 out of 169 gamers thought this was helpful

In Kingdom Builder, players place settlements on a map, claim special abilities to enhance their placement options, and compete to score the most points according to scoring rules that are different each game.

The key tactical consideration is that your placements must be adjacent when possible, but when not possible (under other constraints), you can place anywhere. Thus, touching lots of options is better than touching few, but touching none at all is best. This sometimes promotes interesting tactics, but I find it counter-intuitive and frustrating. I specifically remarked upon it when someone was teaching me, and yet still managed to horribly trap myself for much of that first game. There’s strategy invoked by this rule, but also a very great deal of luck, and an early disadvantage tends to compound.

The randomized combination of scoring rules is an elegant and thought-provoking design, and by all rights should mark this game for excellence, but the details just seem to fall flat. For example, several rules award points for particular terrain features, but in practice players seem to pick these up incidentally without materially altering their plans. One awards points to the player with the most settlements in a sector, which slowed the game down as players kept counting to try to keep track of who was leading and by how much, and then the player who went last got most of the points anyway because he was able to rearrange his settlements to have exactly 1 more than rivals in several areas. There have been brief moments when I thought I saw something more shine through, but they’ve been disappointingly rare. Perhaps I’ve gotten unlucky so far.

I feel like this game stands close to greatness, yet separated behind iron bars. I’d willingly play it from time to time, but do not think I would ever request to play it.

8
Go to the Descent: Journeys in the Dark page
81 out of 90 gamers thought this was helpful

Descent pits a team of heroes against a monster-filled dungeon run by an evil overlord. Heroes collect items, manage their inventory, and draw upon an impressive variety of unique abilities. The overlord manages a “threat” pool to spawn monsters, activate traps, and generally hinder the heroes. Both sides engage in nuanced, tactical combat. Games are lengthy (typically 4-6 hours for me).

Despite appearances, this isn’t a traditional RPG. The overlord is an opponent, not a referee. The heroes are under constant time pressure, even when no monsters are visible, so the game is a sort of race. Both sides are expected to exploit all the strategies available to them, even if they are sometimes counter-intuitive. Expect a tactical miniatures game, not a storytelling game.

Some players are also disappointed to discover that every game starts from scratch with a new set of heroes, rather than carrying over loot and experience. I actually quite enjoy it, as it allows me to experience a lot of character growth in each individual game, and makes it easy to play quests out of order or with different players each time.

The basic rules are much easier to grasp than I expected, and the detailed rules (such as monster abilities) can generally be learned as they come up, making Descent remarkably easy to teach. However, there are a multitude of special cases with unclear or counter-intuitive rules that will crop up from time to time, and the game has been errata’d extensively. Download the FAQ, and be prepared to discover you did some subtle-but-important things wrong your first game.

Game balance is quite good on average, but highly variable. The asymmetric gameplay can disguise large player skill differences (I highly recommend rotating overlord players). The player scaling rules don’t work very well, and heroes will find the game much easier when playing with a larger party. Quest difficulty varies widely, and the first couple quests are basically tutorials, often giving a misleading impression. Skills, treasures, and heroes are also all over the place, and a lucky or unlucky draw can change the whole game. (In fact, this bothered me enough to create my own rebalanced homebrew…though that probably says more about me than about the game.)

In summary, Descent is a deep tactical combat game with an impressive breadth of content, but it’s a bit kludgy, and it won’t necessarily scratch your RPG itch.

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