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Puzzle Strike

23 out of 27 gamers thought this was helpful

Originally posted at – used with permission.

I’ll admit that I had a bit of trouble wrapping my head around Puzzle Strike for the first few games. The first game took forever, mostly because we couldn’t figure out how to finish off the opponent. The second game was over ridiculously quickly, because one of us learned that part better than the rest of us. The next few games felt really scripted as we all started buying all of the same chips (mono-purple, as I’ve seen it called). At that point, I got frustrated and set it aside for a bit. I was starting to think that perhaps my list of trusted reviewers, most of whom loved this game, was badly mistaken.

Puzzle Strike is an odd sort of hybrid. It’s billed as a card game that’s played with chips that simulates a puzzle game simulating a street fighter-styled game. Think Dominion meets Tetris meets Street Fighter, I guess. It’s certainly one of the stranger themes for a game that I’ve ever seen. The game does sort of pull it off, although it’s tough to know how successfully, since the game it’s pretending to be doesn’t exist. The deckbuilding elements have no real thematic coherence; I’m ok with that, though, as deckbuilding as a mechanic is typically difficult to justify on a thematic basis. It does convey a sense of the back and forth, combo-laden, attack/block/counter rhythm of an old-school arcade style fighter, so I’ll give it credit for being able to evoke some sense of theme around a multi-layered simulation of two nonexistent video games.

I’m not sold on the chips. I’m an old-school card gamer. I played Magic:TG during the Legends/Revised timeframe. I have more cards for the Star Wars CCG, Legend of the Five Rings, Middle Earth: The Wizards, and Seventh Sea than I care to admit. ****, I’ve probably still got a couple of Shadowfist decks lurking around somewhere. I love the feel of a deck in my hand, I like the way that they shuffle, I like the tactile sense of moving cards around as I plan my next turn, and I like that I can store them in a box that will fit in my backpack. Chips? Not so much. They don’t shuffle as well and they take up more space. Visually, though, they really work for this game. I don’t think that piling up cards would have the same sense of impending doom that a stack of chips somehow manages to convey. Plus, parts of my Dominion set are beat to all **** after what’s probably approaching one hundred plays, and I think these chips would fare better under repeated use. Overall, I think it’s probably a smart design move, even if it does have some tradeoffs.

The game itself invites comparisons to Dominion probably more than anything else, although in practice they play very differently. The goal of Puzzle Strike isn’t accumulation of Victory Points – it’s elimination of opponents. It’s a brawl, not an economic engine. Each player has a Gem Pile that consists of gem chips that have been ante’d or added by an opponent. This pile serves several distinct purposes: it creates the game clock, as a player is eliminated when his or her gem pile is at ten or more at the end of the turn; it’s also the primary accelerant, as players draw an increasing number of chips as their gem piles grow; and it’s the primary offensive and defensive stockpile through the Crash and Counter-crash mechanic.

A turn begins with an ante, typically a 1-gem added to a player’s gem pile. Players then receive one Action and one Buy in that order, similar to Dominion, after which any leftover chips are discarded and a new hand is drawn. Action chips can attack, react, perform utility functions such as drawing chips or creating additional actions, or crashing. Crashing is the main mechanism for dealing damage to your opponent while reducing the number of gems in your own pile. Crash-sphere chips (or purple chips, hence the term mono-purple that I mentioned previously) come in several flavors. A basic Crash Gem removes one gem chip from your gem pile and sends a number of 1-gem chips at your opponent equal to that gem’s value. In other words, crashing a 3-gem sends 3 1-gem chips. Combine chips replace two gem chips from your pile with a single chip of equivalent value, allowing you to send more chips in the direction of your opponent when you crash. And Double Crash Gems – wait for it – send two gems’ worth of 1 chips. Combines also allow an extra action, so it’s not uncommon in the late game to start chaining purple like a madman. Combine-Combine-Crash is a typical turn in the later game. Crashes can also be played as a reaction – if an opponent crashed a 2-gem, you can play your own counter-crash, sending a number of gems back at that player to cancel out incoming gems and perhaps return gems to his or her gem pile. However, 4-gems can’t be countered, so a player must decide whether it’s better to crash now or wait to combine further, hoping to reach the uncounterable point.

Players start with ten chips in their bags: six 1-gems, a crash gem, and three character chips. The current game includes ten different characters, each with three unique chips. Characters specialize in different strategies; Setsuki has an edge in creating combos, Rook has a defensive flavor, and Lum is a push-your-luck character that likes a large gem pile, for example. The character chips are played as actions just like any other action chip, but because they’re unique to the character, they lend a bit of asymmetry and flavor to the game that I appreciate.

Overall, the game comes together nicely when played on its own terms. For players familiar with Dominion, it’s easy to approach this game thinking that strategies will port over. They don’t. Big money is a default strategy in Dominion that represents valuation in that game fairly well. Against inexperienced players, simply buying treasure cards is often a successful strategy, because treasures have a high valuation and contribute directly towards ending the game through purchasing victory points. Although Puzzle Strike’s basic mechanics are very similar, the end game condition changes the valuations significantly. The default purchase in Puzzle Strike isn’t gems – it’s purple. Players need to have access to combines and crashes to stay alive. A player in Puzzle Strike purchasing only purple (along with some gems to make buying purple more reliable) will function in much the same way as a big money player in Dominion. This can lead to a feeling of scripting at first, as it did with my family. Everyone buying purple gets boring really quickly. However, learning the correct valuations in this game is critical. Puzzle chips (the common action chip available for purchase) can serve as a crucial accelerant to push a player into a leading position relative to another player only buying purple. The key thing to know about playing Puzzle Strike is that purple is the meat and potatoes, but other chips are spice that makes the meal work together. Once players start to grasp that valuation, then the game begins to open up and present some real strategy.

Although at first glance it might not be immediately obvious, this is a game that will definitely reward repeated plays. Players need to grasp the tempo in order to succeed. Anyone not correctly prioritizing early buys can find themselves in a deep hole within just a few turns. The game does have a few nice accelerating measures – for example, higher gem piles grant additional draws, so as a player comes closer to elimination, the number of options available will increase. This adds a compelling risk-reward calculation; getting closer to elimination isn’t necessarily a drawback as long as your deck is balanced. The downside, of course, is that it can be particularly unforgiving on inexperienced players. If it were a longer game, I’d consider this a flaw. However, the game is short enough that repeated plays are likely, and I’m always in favor of designs that reward familiarity. Sirlin seems to value this type of design, and it shows in Puzzle Strike.

Since Puzzle Strike’s first release, Sirlin has published an expansion known as the Upgrade Pack. I’ve only ever played the game with the Upgrade Pack components, but I have to say that I’ve come to find them indispensable. The best elements for me are the player mat and screen. The mat, essentially a mouse pad designed to look like an old-school arcade screen, provides clearly delineated areas for the various piles of chips that are created during the game. I think it’s a great add – having played Quarriors, which does something similar with its piles of dice, I’ve often found myself wanting exactly this sort of thing for that game. The mat makes clear to all players exactly what chips are in what state, invaluable from a bookkeeping standpoint. The screens serve a similar function by providing a hidden area to place one’s “hand”. This does address one of the key downsides to chips, specifically that they are more difficult to conceal than cards. I wouldn’t play this game without these two accessories. The Upgrade Pack also contains redesigned character chips for all ten characters in the base game. Most characters have been tweaked slightly, some significantly. Sirlin’s intent was to address balance issues that had surfaced at expert-level play. I’m not nearly experienced enough with this game to be able to judge effectively how well they meet that goal, but I appreciate that I can play mirror matches now using the updated chips. There are also several additional puzzle chips that add some fun options; there’s nothing revolutionary in that mix but they’re well balanced and integrate seamlessly into the set, so I’m definitely happy to have additional options.

I’m glad I put this game on hiatus for a bit. If I had posted my initial impressions back in December, they wouldn’t have been very favorable. Puzzle Strike wears the garb of a typical deckbuilder, but the asymmetry and conflict turn it into something more. It’s a game that rewards familiarity and continued practice, and in an era where a lot of games have a shelf life of less than a dozen plays, I’m glad to have titles like this that push against the philosophy of disposable releases. Puzzle Strike manages to reconfigure a mechanic that’s starting to feel overused into something that might not be exactly revolutionary but is certainly a solid evolutionary step in deckbuilders, one that I’m glad to have in rotation.

Go to the Hemloch page


32 out of 35 gamers thought this was helpful

I love games with unique themes. I particularly like them if they can do a good job of evoking those unique themes in a way that makes sense. Some people don’t really care about themes – that’s why there are a billion games about being a merchant in the middle ages, or building a railroad. (I’m not knocking train games – I have a few that I really like – but exactly how many do we need, really?) On the other hand, some games have really bizarre themes. Hemloch, the latest from John Clowdus and Small Box Games, is one of those games. Hemloch is a city that exists in perpetual night that is gradually coming to an end. Apparently, once the sun comes up, all **** is going to break loose or something, because you need to gain power before that happens. Your minions are going to see to it that you’re in control when Day breaks on Hemloch. I think I’m safe in saying that I’ve never played anything like that before.

Small Box is developing a habit of producing really fantastic looking games. Omen and Shattered Aegis had amazing art, and Hemloch continues this trend. Stylistically, it’s quite different from Omen, but it has in common its high quality and strong evocation of the theme. Hemloch is a lighter game, and the art reflects that – it has a whimsical, almost cartoonish quality to it that feels appropriate. The aesthetic has an almost Tim Burton-like quality, with a spooky air that reminds me of Halloween. It’s dark but not grim, creepy but not sinister. I enjoy it thoroughly.

Hemloch will undoubtedly be compared to Omen in terms of gameplay as well. Mechanically, it shares a few common elements, but it takes those mechanics in such a different direction that the comparison won’t survive the first game. Omen is like a knife fight in a phone booth; Hemloch is more like court intrigue. Players are attempting to gain control of the four Locations that make up the city. This is done by playing Minions to these Locations. Each minion has an influence value that is used to determine control of the location and a special ability that is triggered when the minion is played. In addition, each minion belongs to one of five factions. Each location is home to one of the factions, giving minions from that faction an influence bonus; in addition, each location has an ability triggered by minions from another faction. Players will always perform a minion’s special ability, but location abilities are only activated when a minion is played from the location’s activating faction.

The game is played across a series of Weeks that are represented by the Week deck. This deck consists of one card for each location designated either Night or Day. These cards are revealed one at a time until the deck is exhausted, ending the week. When a location’s card is revealed, the Festival marker is placed on that location, preventing play of minions there while the Festival remains. At the beginning of the game, the Week deck only contains Night cards; as the game progresses, these cards will be replaced with the corresponding Day card for that location. At the end of the week, an Influence Check is conducted at each location; the player with the most influence at each location places one of his or her markers on that location. Markers are each worth one point at the end of the game, two if the marker is touching another of that player’s markers. In addition, an influence check is also conducted at a location when its corresponding Day card is revealed from the Week deck.

Gameplay is very simple – players have two actions available, draw a card or play a card, and may take two actions on each turn. After both players have taken a turn, the next card from the Week deck is revealed, the Festival is moved, and any influence checks required are conducted. An additional action may be taken if the player has a Potion card to use, however, this isn’t always an easy choice, as Potions are worth two points at the end of the game if unused, but only one if used (similar to Omen’s Rewards). Trinkets function in much the same way, but using two will allow a player to gain control of an opponent’s minion. Both Potions and Trinkets are gained through use of certain Minion and Location Special Abilities. The end game is triggered on one of several different conditions: players have filled all openings on two locations with markers, the last Day card is added to the Week deck, one player has exhausted either his deck or his markers, or all Potions and Trinkets have been claimed and points are calculated.

This is a difficult game to describe. It isn’t complicated to play, but it does have a number of diverse elements that are rather unique. Gamers familiar with Omen will find themselves at times in familiar territory, but as I mentioned previously, even design elements that are similar feel much different in this game. Hemloch is, essentially, an area control game distilled into card form. This hybrid creates some interesting tensions – because card draws are by nature random, the game has a high tactical element, with turn-by-turn decisions often focusing on how best to utilize the hand that you’ve been dealt, and yet players need to plan ahead to try to end the game at a time that’s most advantageous for them. As I’ve come to expect from a John Clowdus design, each card can be played with multiple purposes, whether to trigger its own ability or the ability of a target location, or alternately to secure influence in a particular location. These purposes aren’t mutually exclusive, by any means, but the design does mean that it’s very rare to have a dead card in hand. I love to see that kind of design in a game, because it results in an increase in decision points and a corresponding increase in tension and interesting gameplay. As the game progresses and the number of Day cards in the week increase, the pace accelerates and players must be prepared for an increasing number of influence checks, but they also have an increasing control over where those checks will take place. At first, the number of possible ways to trigger end game can seem overwhelming, but in reality that flexibility allows players to craft a strategy that attempts to end the game at the most opportune time.

Hemloch plays quite well above the table. It does have a certain amount of screwage – Minions can be assassinated or stolen, and markers can be discarded or converted. But it never gets quite as nasty as Omen does, and for some reason the game state never feels as volatile. Additionally, Hemloch offers more opportunities for bluffs and feints, which I appreciate. The interaction is meaningful and substantive, decisions real and consequential, but the game doesn’t bog down and manages to retain a very reasonable play time of 30-45 minute without feeling like a filler. In all, Hemloch represents yet another fantastic game from John Clowdus and Small Box, one that looks as good as it plays.

Go to the Risk: Legacy page

Risk: Legacy

78 out of 88 gamers thought this was helpful

Originally posted at – used with permission.

I’m an admitted snob about certain things. I’m the guy who only buys whole bean coffee, grinds it myself, and brews it in my french press. I’m the one at the party who will drink water before touching anything that’s been cold brewed in the Rockies (whatever that means). I listen to music that most people have never heard and read stuff that’s equally obscure. And, of course, I play hobby board games. My wife calls them, dismissively, “your board games” – by which she means ones that nobody has ever heard of, that have a rulebook the size of a small magazine, and that can’t be picked up in a store with a name ending in “-mart”. And I’m ok with that.

There’s a difference between being a snob and being elitist, though. I’d like to think I’m the former without being the latter, by which I mean I’m not under any illusion that what I like makes me in some way a better specimen of humanity than anyone else. Some folks like Folgers, and while I don’t get why anyone would drink that swill, I’ll probably complain about it while watching a movie with more explosions than dialogue with my hand stuck in a bag of Chex Mix.

The world of hobby boardgaming has certain memes that can come across as both snobby and elitist – why Monopoly sucks, for example, or the more recent variant, why Settlers sucks. Or one that I’ve started to find particularly irritating: Hasborg. I get it – Hasbro puts out a bunch of **** and dominates the market. Stuff like Twilightopoly or My Little Pony Uno is a travesty and there’s nothing wrong with saying it. But Hasbro has actually put out some pretty **** good stuff over the past decade. Heroscape, for example, was a fabulous system that’s attracted a great community of fans and, yes, you could buy it in those “-mart” stores. Other notables include Epic Duels, Nexus Ops, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and Battleship Galaxies. They have some great designers putting out some great stuff, even if it doesn’t get the same kind of exposure as their more mainstream fare.

So when a game comes along that’s particularly innovative, the first assumption of most hobby gamers isn’t that it’s going to come from Hasbro. And when they do find out that it’s a Hasbro game and shares a common lineage with one of those downtrodden mainstream titles, immediately cynicism starts to take over. But let the game challenge some of the norms of hobby gaming and the gloves will come off. Destroying components? Writing on the board? Stickers? Permanent changes? Words like “gimmicky” and “disposable” and “bad product design” and “cynical cash-grab” will be among the kinder things said; people who find the premise intriguing will be called “morons” or worse. It’s like watching Comic Book Guy berate a fan who actually reads Radioactive Man #1.

Risk Legacy is the game, and those words are pulled from some of the comments on significant websites. Some people are calling it the game of the year, others are calling it the beginning of the end of hobby gaming as we know it. It’s easily the most polarizing game of the past several years, if not the last decade. And, yes, it’s a Risk game – but it’s not your daddy’s Risk. This version evolves over time. The map will change. You’ll write on the board. You’ll put down stickers, open hidden packets, reveal secret changes, tear up cards, and name continents after your favorite Italian restaurant (yes, this actually happened on my copy – thanks, Paul). You’ll make irrevocable alterations to your copy, and at the end, when all of the packets are open, all of the stickers are used up, and the ink in your marker has run dry, your copy will be completely unique. The board is even stamped with a unique id, just for effect – mine happens to be Earth #6698.

A lot of people are dismissing this as just another version of Risk, which isn’t exactly hailed as a paragon of game design. And, yes, it does start out that way, albeit with some significant changes for the better. The core combat mechanic is the same: attacker rolls three dice, defender rolls two, compare highest results to determine victor with ties going to the defender. You’re still not going to get unit differentiation or terrain modifiers or anything like that. The map is still the same, Australia and all – at least to begin with. But even right out of the box the game messes with the classic formula in some small but substantive ways. Personally, I’ve always thought that the real problem with classic Risk was never the combat, it was the victory condition. Complete world domination requires an unreal investment of time that far outlives the interesting decisions in the game. It encourages certain degenerate strategies like turtling and creates a game that lasts hours too long for what it is. This is compounded by two factors: the starting territory placement allows too many cards to be earned too quickly, and the escalating rewards for turning in cards encourages players to be the last to cash in. This creates a situation where players pick off weak territories while turtling in strongholds, waiting for the big payoff.

Legacy tweaks the formula by changing the victory condition from eliminating all other players to capturing stars. Each player controls a Headquarters piece that is worth one star. In addition, turning in four cards will earn a player one star, and players that have not yet signed the board signifying a victory also receive a star at the beginning of the game. Controlling four stars at the end of a turn will result in a victory; because each player begins with at least one star, two if they haven’t yet won a game, the focus shifts from turtling to aggressive strikes on opposing HQs. Cards are more difficult to earn in Legacy as well – although they’re still a reward for winning a battle, players do not begin the game spread across the map, but rather each player will place eight troops plus the HQ in a single territory from which they expand. This often allows several turns of maneuvering before forces come into conflict. Finally, because the rewards for turning in cards are static, and because cards can be used for either troops or stars, the valuation of holding or turning in cards changes significantly. Gaining more troops means delaying the opportunity for a guaranteed star, which creates interesting decision points throughout the game as short- and long-term goals are placed in tension. Add in variable faction powers and components that are top-notch, and the result is a fun, light, aggressive game that retains the classic version’s table talk and diplomacy while stripping away a lot of the elements that caused sessions to bog down. Our group’s first four games ran about 45 minutes each, resulting in back-to-back sessions in the course of an evening.

All of this would mean little more than another interesting Risk variant, except for the signature trait of Legacy – permanent, game-altering customizations to the components. This is the part of this review where I’m more limited than I’d like to be, because I don’t want to reveal any spoilers at this point for players who aren’t as far along in their game as we are. First, there’s the obvious stuff that’s available out of the gate – scars and rewards. Scars are stickers that alter a territory permanently by doing things such as adding or subtracting from a defender’s die rolls. They’re played at the beginning of combat, providing an element of surprise, but then remain in the territory in perpetuity. Rewards happen at the end of a game and constitute bigger changes to the map. They include changes such as city stickers that increase the population of a territory, coin stickers that change the value of cards, and the option to alter continent bonuses, for example. After five games, our map plays nothing like the first play. The changes are subtle but meaningful, and really shape the strategy and valuations of territories.

Then there’s the…other stuff. I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that the game contains a number of packets of hidden material that are opened and added to the game when certain conditions are met, such as a person signing the board for a second time or placing all of the Minor City stickers on the board. What’s in the packets? …Stuff. Game changing stuff. New cards and new stickers and, I think, new plastic – but I’m not sure because I haven’t opened that bin yet. New scars will come out (that’s in the rulebook), new card types will be introduced (that’s in the rulebook too), and new faction powers will be made available (also in the rules). New rules will be introduced, old rules will be superseded and the rulebook itself will be altered. The game will get more complex – it remains to be seen by exactly how much – and new options will present themselves. And it’s all done in a way that’s meaningful, not gimmicky. The players control their own destinies. You’ll earn the right to name a continent or found a city. You’ll earn the additional faction powers. You’ll uncover more paths to victory and you’ll learn not to let any one person get too powerful. And every decision you make will go on the board in a flurry of glue and ink, set down in permanence for everyone who comes after you to see and to rue. And for my money, that is a truly significant decision.

I understand that this game messes with the established tropes of boardgaming. It does things that are off the wall, outside the box, and against the norm. I get why people want a reset button or why some are trying to find a way to avoid the shockingly obvious conclusion that the design works best when it’s played as intended. But in practice it’s the difference between playing poker for M&Ms or playing it for money – while technically it’s the same game, it doesn’t work nearly as well when it’s not played for keeps. What changes? Well, for one, there’s so much going on that trying to track it in a way that allows do-overs just seems to me like so much extra busy work for not a lot of payoff. But more to the point, one thing that I think is commonly misunderstood about Risk is that it’s a game that happens primarily above the table. It’s not the mechanics that make a game of Risk enjoyable – it’s the metagame. It’s the trash talking and dealmaking and alliance breaking and bluffing and all that comes with it that makes the game fun. Playing for keeps – making the changes permanent – really elevates the game above the table. Not only does it raise the stakes, it creates situations where the game will enshrine those outcomes for future games. If you can take it back, then it loses something – something that may be hard to put into words, but something that’s still very tangible in-game. It loses gravitas.

Will everyone like this? Not a chance. For some, the game goes too far against established norms to be really enjoyable. For others, the core mechanics aren’t significantly different enough from a game that they’ve long since dismissed. And for others, the fact that it’s a game that depends highly on vibrant play above the table will be a dealbreaker. But in my group, I have three guys who haven’t played a game of Risk in years and one, my son, who’s cutting his teeth on a game that owes a lot to something I played when I was his age, all throwing dice, laughing, jeering, trash-talking, shouting, and on the edge of their seat waiting to see what happens when the battles are resolved or the packets are opened. And we’re recording the history that will form the world of Earth #6698 in a way that we can always come back to and revisit. Why would I want to reset that? Wiping out the history of a shared narrative seems far more destructive to me than writing it down and replaying it for years to come.

Go to the The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game page
62 out of 71 gamers thought this was helpful

Originally posted at – used with permission.

But this I will say to you: your quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true. – The Fellowship of the Ring

Among licensed properties for games, the Lord of the Rings has to be one of the most coveted. You can almost picture gaming execs in their boardrooms wringing their hands and saying, “We wants it, my precious.” And there have been several fairly successful adaptations of the license to boardgame form, most notably in War of the Ring but also in games as varied as The Confrontation and Middle Earth: The Wizards. The last is of particular interest, because it was the first attempt to adapt the written works to a card game form. I played it quite a bit during its heyday in the late ’90′s – it was one of my favorite two-player games at the time with a wide variety of strategies and approaches. The primary problem of the game was that it only marginally felt like playing a Lord of the Rings game – the One Ring was so ridiculously hard to get into play and keep in play that a player had to choose to focus entirely on dunking the Ring or ignore it entirely.

This is what I loosely think of as the problem of the Ring for games based in Tolkien’s world: how do you address the importance of the Ring to the narrative without the game becoming scripted? Generally speaking, it seems that games have followed one of those same two paths: it’s either central, or it’s so peripheral as to be ignored. The Wizards is the only game that I can think of that leaves that choice up to the players. War of the Ring makes it central – the primary means of victory for Free Peoples is to get the Fellowship to Mordor, and while FP military victories happen, they are relatively rare (as they should be). FFG’s Lord of the Rings LCG takes the opposite approach. The game is set in the period of time between Bilbo finding the Ring and the Birthday Party, when he passes it on to Frodo. Mechanically, it’s an interesting approach. It fairly nicely dodges the question of what to do with the Ring entirely. Thematically, it’s a bit odd. It’s clear that the game is not supposed to represent an alternate scenario approach to the books – it’s more about filling in the gaps of the story where Tolkien chose to write little. A lot of familiar faces show up; some unfamiliar ones do as well, such as the characters from Middle Earth Quest, which is set during the same period.

The game revolves around completing scenarios, which are represented by a quest deck and an encounter deck. The quest deck is small, thus far no more than four double-sided cards, arranged sequentially. Encounter cards are grouped into sets; each quest will indicate a collection of encounter sets that are shuffled together to form the encounter deck for that scenario. Players attempt to complete scenarios by placing enough progress tokens on each quest card to reach the Quest Point total for that stage, as well as accomplishing any additional objectives listed on the quest card. Of course, the encounter deck will continue to churn out a mix of enemies, locations, and treachery cards to hinder progress and thwart the quest, along with occasional scenario-specific objectives that can be claimed if the right conditions are met. Enemies and locations are played to a central staging area, from where they contribute their threat value to the total threat of the quest. From there, players can travel to locations and engage enemies to eliminate the threat, but they’ll open themselves up to injury or delay.

In order to progress through the quest, players will need to balance multiple priorities during the turn, typically without sufficient resources to handle them all. Each player starts the game with one to three heroes in his or her party. Heroes are important for two reasons: first, if all of a player’s heroes are killed, he or she is out of the game; and second, heroes generate resource tokens every turn, which are used to pay for other cards such as allies, permanent attachments, and one-time events. A player’s heroes determine the kinds of cards that he or she can pay for. Each hero belongs to a particular sphere, and resources from that hero’s pool can be used to pay for other cards from that sphere. Different spheres are better at different aspects of the game – Spirit, for example, is the best questing sphere, while Tactics excels at combat.

Each turn, players will need to commit characters to quests, attempting to commit more willpower than the quest’s current threat. Enemies and locations that have been played from the encounter deck to the staging area add their threat to the total. If the players commit less willpower than the current threat, then their personal threat total is increased by the amount that they lacked. A player is eliminated if his or her personal threat level reaches fifty. In addition, enemies in the staging area will attack players once the player’s threat equals or exceeds the enemy’s engagement cost, possibly resulting in injury or death for a player’s characters. Because characters typically can commit to one task in a turn without the assistance of other card effects, players need to plan carefully. How many characters should be committed to the quest this turn? Progressing through the quest is the route to victory, but overcommitting leaves the party vulnerable to enemy attacks; on the other hand, undercommitting too often can raise the threat level dangerously. Defending against attacks is important to the long-term survival of the party, but attacking can eliminate the enemy permanently – typically, a character can’t do both.

As a co-op game, LotR succeeds fairly well. Because players are working together against the game, the AI has to work well enough to present interesting decisions while not overwhelming players with more than they can handle. If the game is too difficult, then it becomes an exercise in frustration; too easy, and it’s not worth the effort. The encounter deck system is ingenious – it allows the designers to create interesting scenarios by swapping subsets of cards, giving the encounter deck a semblance of customizability and extending replayability significantly. The decision tree for enemies is also well done – because enemies will only engage a player once that player’s threat hits a particular level, managing threat becomes a key part of the game to avoid becoming overwhelmed. On the other hand, because players can choose to engage enemies at will, players must decide whether enemies are more problematic as threat or as attackers. And the Treachery cards that the encounter deck generates add a level of unpredicatability, causing direct damage or ongoing effects that hinder progress, preventing players from simply min/maxing their way through a scenario. These elements combine to create an experience that surprisingly doesn’t feel scripted, but instead feels dynamic and challenging. It’s one of the best engines that I’ve seen for a true co-op game.

It’s not a perfect implementation, though. I don’t think the encounters scale all that well. The game’s balancing mechanism for more players is drawing one additional encounter card per additional player during the Quest phase. This, in theory, increases the difficulty of the quest proportionally to the number of players. In practice, the increased efficiency of having two or more players, each focused on specific roles, more than makes up for the increased productivity of the encounter deck. This is particularly true if playing the stock decks from the core set. Monosphere decks are at a severe disadvantage in this game when played solo. Because each sphere focuses on certain mechanics, they simply lack the versatility of multisphere decks. Multiplayer games also generate significantly more resources than a solo game, allowing far more cards to hit the table in the course of a game. Two players, each running a monosphere deck, will see far more of their decks than one player playing a dual sphere deck. That’s not to say that the game isn’t enjoyable as either a solo or multiplayer experience – the game engine scales well. Particular quests, however, seem to have an ideal number of players at which they’re best. Passage through Mirkwood, for example, is laughably easy for more than one player, while Escape from Dol Gulder is frustratingly difficult solo.

Some players will want to grab decks out of the box and simply play the game. And the game will accommodate that, but I’m not convinced that there’s a ton of replayability there – the game is clearly designed with deckbuilding in mind. A simple method for deckbuilding with the core set is by simply combining two of the spheres into a single deck, removing cards until the deck is the desired size (sticking as close to 50 as possible is ideal), and choosing the most effective set of three heroes to complement your strategy. This actually extends the replayability of the core set significantly – players can try different combinations of spheres and heroes and comfortably expect to get at least a few dozen plays out of the box. The former CCG player in me wants more options, so I do find the lack of a full playset of cards in the core set to be somewhat frustrating. Some gamers will find that to be a dealbreaker – personally, while I’m not exactly jumping up and down in excitement about it, I enjoy the game enough that a second core set was a good investment for me.

Is LotR:TCG the one game to rule them all? Probably not. For my money, the best game out there that gives me an immersive sense of being involved in the narrative of the books remains War of the Ring. The thematic focus in this game doesn’t quite feel like the books, which is I think by design – but it doesn’t connect with me in quite the same way. The scalability difficulties make this a game that plays very differently at various player counts. Still, the game presents very interesting challenges and some innovative mechanics that come together to form a complex but worthwhile whole. As a solo game, it succeeds remarkably well; as a co-op, with the right scenario it offers an engaging and challenging experience. Given the variety that the expansion packs to date have already introduced, I think it’s safe to say that this game is one that will continue to get better as the cardset continues to grow.

Go to the Omen: A Reign of War page
31 out of 34 gamers thought this was helpful

Two player games are a crowded field for me. That’s not a bad thing, to be sure, as I play probably more two player than any other number, but it means that any new two player game needs to be something special. Summoner Wars is my go-to for under an hour; War of the Ring for two hours plus, and in between is a bunch of stuff from Monsterpocalypse to Memoir ’44 to Space Hulk, depending on mood and opponent. And card games are particularly crowded, having to compete with Dominion as well as Summoner Wars. So when I saw the previews for Omen, I was intrigued but unsure of whether it would bring enough to the table to make room for itself. It has some stiff competition on my shelf.

One thing is for certain – this game has the best art of any game in my collection, bar none. All of the art in the game was done by Michael “Riiven” Ng, and it’s simply amazing. It’s very vibrant and almost abstract, conveying more of mood and motion than detail. A lot of fantasy art comes off as cartoonish and sometimes even kitschy – this, however, is something different. It’s dark and moody and pulls you into the game in a way that more traditional art simply wouldn’t.

The art, I think, fits the game. This is a game about two Demigods, sons of Zeus battling to see who will reign supreme over the Greek isles. Players must conquer cities and undertake tasks set by the gods to determine who is most worthy of claiming the mantle of ruler. This is war, and war is brutal business.

Players are competing to accumulate victory points, which can be earned in two ways: Feats and Rewards. Reward cards are dealt in three stacks of four at the beginning of the game; these stacks form the Cities over which the players will battle. Winning a battle grants a player a Reward card from the stack. Reward cards can be played for a significant effect during the game; Rewards that have been played are worth one VP at the end of the game, while Rewards remaining in a player’s hand are worth two VPs. Two identical sets of six Feat cards are also distributed to each player at the beginning of the game. Feat cards detail tasks that the player must accomplish. These tasks include, for example, having five units in one city, drawing five cards in one turn, or forcing your opponent to discard three cards in one turn. Accomplishing these tasks allows a player to flip over the corresponding Feat card; while it’s possible to accomplish more than one per turn, it’s not common. Each completed Feat is worth two VPs at the end of the game.

While Demigods aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, most of the work is done by their minions. Units are the bread and butter of Omen. During the game, units are played to the cities as a means of accomplishing Feats as well as battling for Rewards. Units can be one of three types: Soldiers have an immediate effect upon entering a city and provide on average a moderate amount of strength; Beasts can be either discarded for a powerful ability or played into a city for a sizable addition of strength; Oracles are the weakest in terms of strength but provide an ongoing resource boon by generating cards and/or coins every turn. A smart player will need to balance all three types of cards, knowing when and where to play each.

A turn consists of six phases. The Wealth step allows a player to draw cards or gain coins; a player has three actions to spend on one of those choices, but if all three actions are spent in the same way, he or she receives a bonus card or coin. The Surge step is the phase when units are played to the cities and previously earned Rewards are activated. The Portent step allows a player to activate all of his or her Oracles, building resources for future turns and sometimes, depending on what is revealed from the top of the deck, receiving a boon from the gods. The Feat step allows a player to flip Feat cards if they’ve completed the requirements during the turn. During the War step, battles are resolved and Rewards are earned, and finally players may discard a unit during the Offering step, receiving coins in return.

When the right forces oppose each other in a city during the War phase, it becomes War-Torn and battle breaks out. A city becomes War-Torn when one of two conditions are met: either the opponent has three units in the city, or both players have a combined total of five or more units in the city. (Beasts count as two units.) This is a brilliant mechanic because it makes initiating battles a complex affair. I may want to discard an opposing unit before initiating battle to guarantee my win – but if I do, I also make it more difficult to initiate the battle on my turn. If I play three units to a city where my opponent has a single unit, a battle will take place – on my opponent’s turn, after he has the opportunity to reinforce and assuming that he doesn’t do something funky to discard my units. Battle resolution itself is fairly simple – higher strength wins, with ties going to the player with the most soldiers. Successfully winning a battle grants a Reward card. Rewards can be very powerful when played at the right time – Hades’ Caress, for example, allows a player to play units from the discard pile as though they were in hand. The temptation to play these cards is strong, but playing them eats away at VPs, so each decision is critical to the win. After a battle, the winner must discard down to one unit in the city, while the loser discards down to two. This also presents an interesting set of decisions, as players need to bring enough strength to win without overcommitting and providing an opening on the following turn.

In a nutshell, that’s what Omen is all about. Each decision presents multiple paths, all of which matter. During the Wealth step, players can draw cards or gain coins, or a combination of both. Players receive a bonus by sticking with the same action, but sometimes flexibility is what matters more. During the Surge step, units can be played on the table, or they can be saved for the Offering step, when they can be converted to coins. Knowing when to do either is important. Players will be tempted to save cards and coins to put together a punishing combo – but doing so makes getting hit by a Scarred Minotaur particularly brutal, as you’ll have to discard your hand, ruining several turns of careful planning. On the other hand, playing cards to the table makes them vulnerable to cards such as The Dreaded, which forces a soldier to be discarded from a city. This is a nasty, brutal, unforgiving game where a player can go from being in a dominating position to a broken wreck in a matter of a few turns. It is high on interactivity, screwage, and tension. You’ll never have enough gold or enough cards to do everything that you want consistently. Several of our games have come down to a single coin – had the losing player simply had one more to spend, the outcome would have been different.

I’m excited about this game. It’s unlike anything else in my collection. It’s short, but I wouldn’t consider it a filler – the decisions are too significant. It’s simple and can be learned in fifteen minutes, but it presents an array of complex and rewarding interactions. It’s chaotic, but it doesn’t feel random because each card can be used in multiple ways. It allows players to make good and bad decisions, but it never feels scripted or limiting. It’s rich and substantive and satisfying but can be played in as little as half an hour once players learn the ropes. In short – with Omen, Small Box Games has a winner on its hands, one that will have no problem hitting the table regularly and often.

Originally posted at

Go to the Monsterpocalypse: 2 Player Battle Box page
26 out of 32 gamers thought this was helpful

Privateer Press puts out some amazing games. The problem with most of them is that you need to buy an encyclopaedic array of manuals, more plastic than you’d see at the Screen Actors Guild, and enough art supplies to keep a first grade cl*** busy for a semester. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – if you have that kind of time and aren’t interested in the opposite ***, more power to you. Me, I have a wife and four kids, so no dice on Warmahordes, even if the minis are spectacular. Enter Monsterpocalypse – Privateer’s prepainted minis line featuring ginormous monsters destroying city blocks, kicking ***, taking names, and eating the Statue of Liberty for lunch.

Monpoc (as the kids call it these days) has been around for a while now – since 2008 to be precise – but this past year got a real shot in the arm with the introduction of a new packaging setup by PP. The Two-Player Battle Box opened up the game to a whole new audience: players who are attracted to the theme and intrigued by the gameplay but have zero interest in a blind-buy, collectable minis game. The battle box contains everything that a player needs to get started: two fully playable armies including a monster and thirteen or so units, customized to a specific faction, a double sided map, and nine buildings, plus all of the necessary accoutrements such as dice and health trackers. The armies don’t suck, either – they’re a nice compilation of basic units from the Rise! set, fully playable and more or less balanced against each other. The armies themselves are random selections out of six possible factions but if you can handle that little bit of living on the edge it’s a steal. In fact, the battle box packaging has been so successful that PP released a follow up collection of faction packs containing fixed units from the I Chomp NY and All Your Base sets, one for each faction. If blind buy leaves you cold, Monpoc has turned up the heat a bit in what should prove to be a solid new direction for the franchise.

Enough about packaging – on to the ***********. I’m more excited about this game than I’ve been for any game since Summoner Wars, and that’s saying something. The game itself revolves around a fantastic dice mechanic. Dice in MonPoc come in three flavors: action, boost, and power. Action dice are white and are the bread-and-butter of the game. They’re used as the standard attack dice, but also serve as the resource management component of the game. Boost dice are blue and are added to attacks for certain units. These dice are more powerful than action dice, containing more opportunities to hit, but also are free in the sense that they aren’t limited like action dice but instead are granted based on figure stats and abilities. Power dice are red and are the strongest flavor of dice in the game, having the most opportunities to hit. They’re also the hardest to acquire, as they have to be earned by controlling terrain or destroying figures, and they are only usable by monsters.

Turns can be of two types: unit and monster. During unit turns, a player spends action dice from his or her unit pool to spawn, move, and attack; a spent die is moved from the unit pool to the monster pool. This introduces a great tension in resource management – the more dice spent to spawn and move units, the less available for attacking, as they all come from the same pool. A player can begin a turn with a maximum of ten dice in the pool, giving a real sense of tension and resource constraint. You’ll simply not be able to do everything that you want to do on your turn. Ever.

But let’s be honest – nobody is playing this game for the units. I mean, it’s fine to have hovertanks and pterasaurs and flying saucers and bioengineered ninjas running around the map and all, but they’re really there so that the big guys can fall on something squishy and maybe have a tasty appetizer between rounds of ***********. This game is all about the monsters. Monsters come in two flavors: alpha and hyper. The alpha form is sort of your grade-A, run of the mill gigantic critter (or mecha); the hyper form is its ****** off version – you know, that moment in a monster movie where the beastie goes all transcendent and starts to glow and shoot fire from various orifices. To win the game, a player must destroy both the opponent’s alpha and hyper forms. A monster can switch between forms, but it costs power dice to move from alpha to hyper.

Let’s talk attacks for a moment, because that’s what we’re all here for. Attacks come in two basic flavors: brawl and blast. Brawl is what it sounds – a melee attack against an adjacent figure. Blast attacks are ranged; units can have a range of either two to three or two to five spaces for their blast stat. Certain abilities restrict the kinds of attacks that a figure can use or have used against it, such as Flying, which protects against brawl attacks. Monsters typically are able to use both kinds of attacks, plus a third type specific to monsters – the power attack. Power attacks come in various flavors, such as Body Slam or Throw, and typically involve scenarios such as slamming the opposing monster through a bunch of gl*** and steel and onto a pile of radioactive sludge. They do the most damage when properly used – it’s not like getting tossed through the Empire State Building isn’t going to leave a mark – but they require the use of power dice and specific positioning relative to the target, so a player usually needs to spend a few turns setting up before unleashing a truly devastating attack.

So far, none of this is really all that more complex than something like Heroscape. MonPoc offers a bit more complexity, though, and it comes in the form of abilities. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that the game has hundreds of abilities that units can have. I’m not sure, though, because they’re bewildering and take up seven pages in the back of the rulebook. That’s right – seven pages, in ultra-small font, just for the units from the first set. Abilities are what truly make this game shine. Some abilities add to the range of all of your allied units, some grant extra boost dice, some allow a monster to regain health, some grant extra damage, some create multiple attacks, and so on and so on. Each unit has a set of abilities indicated by a group of icons on the side of the base. To determine what the ability does, players need to pull out the rulebook and look them up. No, seriously. That’s how they work. This is, to my mind, the one flaw in the game, and unfortunately it’s truly epic. Looking up all of those abilities brings the game grinding to a screeching halt. A player could, of course, with sufficient practice and dedication, memorize all of the abilities for his or her faction. I think the level of effort is approximately the same as getting a CPA or so. Fortunately, there’s a dead-easy fix – google and download a set of unit reference cards. Print on business card stock, punch out, distribute to players, and put the rulebook back in the bathroom where it belongs. Something like this should really have been provided as part of the starter sets or something, but as a workaround, it’s a game saver. Don’t get me wrong, though – in spite of the tedium of the out-of-the-box experience, figure abilities make this game what it is. They create the synergy and many of the interesting decision points in the game, they define the purpose and function of each figure, and they give each faction a distinct flavor. In short – abilities good, rulebook execution bad. Fix with fan-made material and all is well with the world.

What puts this one over the top? I’m a sucker for a game drenched in theme. The components for MonPoc are some of the best I’ve ever seen, bar none. The game looks fantastic when set up – I played this at a local shop recently and had half the store gathered around admiring the bits. More importantly, the gameplay really immerses you in a cinematic narrative. The monsters feel like the threat that they should be. They smash their way around the city, leaving death and destruction in their wake. But although this is a brutal dicefest, it’s a smart brutal dicefest; a player will have to deal with insufficient resources and make meaningful tactical choices about how many dice to spend during each phase of the turn and where to position units for best impact. The risk/reward ratio is also satisfying – do you play it safe and do less damage, or do you move in for a punishing blow that opens your monster up to a vicious counter? These decisions are the meat and potatoes of this game, and the result is a very tense, challenging, and ultimately thoroughly satisfying gaming experience.

Go to the Alien Frontiers page

Alien Frontiers

73 out of 80 gamers thought this was helpful

When I was in high school, I became friends with a cute girl that I found absolutely riveting. We shared a class that had a lot of down time, so I had a lot of opportunities to talk to her and decided that I needed to ask this girl out. Finally, after a few months, I summoned the courage, expecting to get shot down – but, surprisingly, she seemed genuinely excited. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as stoked about a first date before – I remember thinking when I picked her up that she looked just stunning, and I thought it was going to be the best date ever – until, that is, I tried to talk to her. She just did not engage in any conversation. For the entire date, I just could not find a way to get her to talk, and the moments of awkward silence were just excruciating. Worst date ever.

So – Alien Frontiers. Everyone has been talking about this game, since last fall when the first 1000 copy print run sold out in what seemed like no time at all. Drake loved it; Barnes loved it; Pete loved it; Vasel loved it. It sounded too good to be true – worker placement with dice, interactivity, screwage, and a play time of less than an hour? Sign me up. After months of waiting, my preorder finally arrived a couple of weeks ago, just in time for CabinCon, and I feel like I’ve gotten enough plays under my belt now to form a credible opinion.

For a small publisher that’s just getting started and a game that was funded through Kickstarter, let’s be honest here – this game has impressive production value. The art is fantastic, retro-scifi stuff that looks like it was pulled off of the cover of a Heinlein novel. The game board gives a tip of the hat to those authors too, with territory names like Bradbury Plateau and Asimov Crater. The tokens are thick and the cards are substantive and should stand up well to repeated plays. And the box even has a divot cut into the side to make removing the board as easy as possible – these guys thought of everything.

So far, so good – this was shaping up to be a great first date. The rules are relatively straightforward – each player begins with three dice that represent the player’s ships. Each turn, a player rolls his or her dice to determine what options are available. Actions are taken by placing dice on the board, filling slots at the various stations. Most stations have a requirement of some kind, such as two of a kind or a total of eight or greater. Docking a die or dice at a station allows the player to take the action associated with that station, such as receiving fuel and ore, building additional ships, stealing resources or tech from an opponent, or landing a colony on the planet. It’s the last that is primary in the game – players are competing for VPs that are primarily achieved by landing colonies on the planet and controlling territories through having more colonies in the space than any opponent. A few VPs are available through Alien Tech cards, which can also be purchased through docking ships at the associated station. Alien Tech also allows a number of other interesting options, including adding or subtracting from a die roll, moving an opponent’s ship from a particular dock, or rearranging colonies on the planet, affecting control of territories. Besides providing VPs, control of territories also provides additional benefits such as discounts at the shipyard or control of the Relic Ship (an extra die associated with one of the territories on the planet).

Alien Tech is rather important to the overall development of the endgame. At the beginning, the choices that a player has can be fairly limited – if you’re rolling three dice, for example, you’re probably not making frequent use of the Colony Constructor, which requires three of a kind. You’re probably also getting locked out of certain docks that you’d like to otherwise use – if a player’s die is in a space, most often it stays there until the beginning of his or her next turn, preventing opponents from utilizing that dock. It doesn’t matter how many doubles you roll if your opponent is parked on the Shipyard – you’re not building any ships until the spaces clear. Alien Tech gives you some degree of control over your own destiny. Dice manipulation comprises a significant majority of Alien Tech cards, meaning that you’re somewhat less at the whim of fate and instead can control your own fate with somewhat better precision.

The game has a decent amount of interaction, although it’s not what I would consider a strong metagame. The Raider’s Outpost gives players the ability to steal resources or tech cards from an opponent, and some of the tech cards allow a player to move ships around from dock to dock or even send a ship back to the stock. Players can block opponents from using a particular dock by filling all of the spaces, and a player can take away or claim a territory bonus by competing for control of the territory. I’ve seen this described as “screwage” – I’m not really convinced that it rises to that level, especially when compared with games such as Omen with particularly nasty anti-player effects, but it’s certainly not multiplayer solitaire and has a meaningful level of interaction among players.

Overall, the game is a lot of fun. It’s light, plays in about an hour, and presents interesting decisions. It has a decent level of player interaction and rewards smart choices. I’d compare it favorably to Small World, not in terms of mechanics but in terms of weight and effect of significant decisions. It’s a light euro that does a lot of things well, including some things that a lot of euros don’t get right, such as decent player interaction and a degree of conflict, however limited.

So why the comparison to my worst first date ever? Here’s the problem I have with Alien Frontiers: the games I’ve played have been almost completely devoid of real tension. For some reason, I just haven’t been able to generate any chemistry with this game. I don’t think the game is scripted by any means – the randomness of the dice prevents that, and you have to take into account what your opponents are doing. But at the same time, I do think there’s an order of priority to the docks that make a number of turns feel obvious. If I roll three of a kind and I have the resources, for example, I’m almost always going for the Colony Constructor. If I get a straight, I’m absolutely going to give strong consideration to raiding. If I have a six and a pair of something, I’m looking very closely at Terraforming Station + Shipyard. The dice in this game feel constraining, for some reason – rather than introducing tension as the dice do in War of the Ring, I just feel like I’m min/maxing my rolls. And in that sense, I think Small World is the perfect comparison. I’ve just never felt a significant degree of tension in Small World, and in almost the same sense as Alien Frontiers, many of the decisions are, while not scripted, at least at a low enough level that they approach the obvious. That doesn’t mean that there are no meaningful decisions – you can absolutely screw up. But once you reach a rudimentary level of understanding, I’m not sure there’s a ton of depth here.

And maybe that’s ok. Maybe the moral of this story is that managing expectations is a good skill to have, whether in dating or in gaming. Not every date can be The One, and not every game can be War of the Ring or Twilight Imperium. Sometimes it’s fun to take things a bit less seriously and enjoy something for what it is – in this case, a well-crafted, lightweight game with decent player interaction, gorgeous production values, and a fun 45 minute experience that’s a good way to begin or close an evening of heavier fare. We can still hang out, Alien Frontiers, even if I’m not going to fall in love. It’s not you – it’s me.

Originally posted on

Go to the Merchants & Marauders page
106 out of 116 gamers thought this was helpful

I’m not sure who it was that made pirates into heroes rather than villains. I mean, nobody wants to play those Somalian lowlifes in a boardgame. Swashbuckling, however, is cool. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend your days jumping around a ship’s rigging waving a sword at your enemies, or crossing the T and unloading a metric ton of steel into your opponent’s unprotected stern? I blame Erol Flynn, or maybe Cary Elwes.

Regardless, piracy has been near the top of the list for themes in need of good boardgame treatment for a long time now. Alderac Entertainment used to publish a great CCG called 7th Sea that had a ton of piratey goodness, but it’s been out of print for close to 10 years now. I tried to get into GMT’s recent rerelease of Blackbeard, but I think someone screwed up and made a game about Blackbeard’s Accountant. I’ve seen a few others come and go, but none of them really seemed to capture the essence of what I want out of a pirate game. Basically, I want something with enough realism that it captures the gamut from Francis Drake to Edward Teach, enough fantasy that I have a good chance of getting my character through the game alive, and enough narrative that I can feel like I’m telling a story of a career of a pirate that might have been, and maybe get to say, “Arrr!” a few times and call for more rum.

A few years ago on BGG, a guy by the name of Christian Marcussen started talking about a pirate game that he was working on, and it sounded awesome. A publisher picked it up, which is always an important step in the publishing process, and things were looking good – until the publisher decided to drop the game so that they could publish a different game with the same name and art. I guess they really got into the whole pirate theme. At any rate, at that point it started to look like vaporware, until Zman came to the rescue and published a stunning edition of Merchants and Marauders, which launched late last year. I give this brief history because this game has had literally years in which to build expectations, and we all know how that usually goes. I’m looking at you, Phantom Menace.

When finally cracking open the box, the presentation doesn’t disappoint. The artwork is fantastic, with a spectacular map of the Caribbean and excellent graphic layouts on all of the components. The captain cards show a good variety of characters, none of whom delve into the realm of caricature. If you’re looking for Long John Silver, you’ll have to search elsewhere. The ships are finely detailed and look great on the board. So far, so good.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting in terms of how a pirate game might play, but Merchants and Marauders isn’t quite it. Not that that’s a bad thing, by any means – if anything, the game develops into something that’s perhaps more strongly narrative than I was anticipating. Every turn, each player can take three actions: move, scout, and port. Movement is simple – a move from one sea zone to another, or from a sea zone to a port, costs one action. Scouting is the act of searching the current location for something, typically a merchant or another ship. Taking a port action is, well, basically everything else, including repairing and upgrading your ship, buying and selling cargo, hiring crew, investigating a rumor, and so on. Players can do any of the above actions as many times as they want during a turn, except that multiple port actions in the same turn are not allowed.

Players are competing to acquire Glory, which can be earned by doing any of the following:
• Defeating another ship in combat, either player or NPC
• Selling 3 or more Cargo cards at a port where the goods sold are ‘in demand’
• Plundering 12 or more gold in a Merchant Raid
• Completing a Mission
• Finding a Rumor to be true
• Buying a Galleon or Frigate (once per game)
• Stashing Gold at a Home Port (up to half of a player’s points)

Ten Glory points wins the game. The great thing about this list is that the paths to victory are numerous. A player’s strategy is going to be largely determined by the captain that he or she is playing. Most actions in the game require Skill Checks, in which a player rolls a number of modified D6′s equal to the skill in question. The dice have skulls replacing the five and six faces on the dice; a Skill Check is successful if any of the dice rolled land on skulls. Different skills are useful for different strategies – Scouting and Seamanship are important for Merchant raiding and hunting other ships; Leadership is useful for Crew combat; and Influence is primarily used for securing Rumors and Missions. A player with a captain having low Scouting, for example, is probably not going to be a successful Pirate, and may want to instead pursue a Mercantile strategy, perhaps supplemented by Rumor-milling with sufficient Influence.

This open-ended design allows for a wide array of narratives to develop. The game has an interesting definition of Pirate – a Pirate is any player with a Bounty on his or her head. This means that nobody starts out as a Pirate, and because it’s very difficult to remove bounties, Piracy is usually a permanent career change. Gaining a bounty happens when a player defeats a ship or raids a Merchant from a particular nation. Bounties can prevent a player from utilizing a Port belonging to a particular nation and make NPCs more likely to target that player, but they also cause Pirates to steer clear, so they’re not entirely without benefit. As a player obtains more bounties, though, he or she becomes a more tempting target for other players looking to make a quick buck, and it’s possible to have a promising career end in a blaze of glory under the guns of another player’s ship.

The game took on an interesting dynamic in the groups in which I’ve tried it: often, it seemed that players were less interested in actually winning the game than they were in seeing how the narrative developed. While there is certainly competition, and at times direct conflict, often that took a back seat to the story that was playing out on the board. That isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing – in our games, there was something of a lack of tension, but it didn’t result in a loss of engagement with the game. This is something of an unusual dynamic, certainly not one that I’ve experienced often, and one that’s difficult to critique. Some groups may struggle with the lack of tension, while others will no doubt react as ours did.

I think it’s fair to say, however, that the result of some of the design choices do make a game that doesn’t force player interaction. It’s entirely possible to play a game of Merchants and Marauders having very little direct conflict. It’s also possible to have a game that’s very bloodthirsty, with a lot of player combat and bounties being taken. I will say that the mechanics of scouting, combined with the combat rules, make engaging an opposing player a high-risk proposition; losing combat can be costly or even fatal. The other challenge that the mechanics present is frequent down time, particularly with four players. Port actions can be rather time-consuming, as can combat. During such actions, the other players have limited options to play forward and are often simply watching the action. In the early game, that’s not too bad; late in the game, these actions can start to drag, pulling the players out of the narrative.

Still, the game remains fun and engaging, particularly with groups that can focus on the evolving narrative and not obsess over optimizing a VP-generating engine. The game does have a fair amount of luck – if that’s not your thing, then steer clear. In this kind of game, though, that’s not a bad thing. The open-ended gameplay and myriad of strategies offer a fantastic way to tell your own story of life on the high seas as a professional pirate – no suit required.

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Go to the Ascending Empires page

Ascending Empires

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I was surprised recently to discover that a guy that I’ve worked with for quite some time is a bit of a gamer. He mostly plays Magic with his kids, but also enjoys some of the more mainstream hobby games like Settlers and Carcassonne. Settlers doesn’t take me by surprise anymore; it’s sort of like the Death Cab for Cutie of boardgames – formerly indie and outside the box, now mainstream and owned by my grandmother. Carc, though, isn’t all that common among non-gamers, and when I hear that, I know that I’m talking to someone who at least might share a few more common references than I usually get. So we spent awhile following an end-of-day meeting recently comparing notes. He asked me what I’ve been playing lately, so I started trying to describe Ascending Empires. “Well, it’s this game about space exploration with these discs…and you flick them around the board…and there’s a tech tree and upgrades…and there’s combat that involves flicking your ships at your opponents’…and…flicking…yeah.” He looked at me like I was nuts. And I probably sounded the part – this is a really tough game to describe in a few sentences.

Ascending Empires was below my radar for most of the first half of the year. Despite the fact that it’s a Z-man Games release, I hadn’t heard much buzz about it at all until around April. The thing that immediately drew me into the concept though was the flicking mechanic. Starship movement and combat resolved by flicking? Pitchcar meets Twilight Imperium? Sign me up. But could it deliver?

The game itself is an odd and interesting melding of civ-lite, dudes on a map, and dexterity. Players are competing for VP, which can be obtained in several ways: occupying planets, building colonies or cities, researching technology, using troops to mine, or defeating opponents’ forces in combat. A stack of VP tokens sits next to the board, and serves as a timing mechanism; when the available VP tokens are exhausted, each remaining player will take one last turn before end of game scoring is completed. This creates a set of varied objectives that allow for interesting tactics and dynamic play.

Gameplay is fast, bordering on frenetic; each player takes a single action on his or her turn, and then play passes to the next player. The result is a game with almost no downtime and a sense of being actively engaged from start to finish. On his or her turn, a player may do one, and only one, of the following:

Take two troops from his or her supply and place them on occupied planets.
Make two Moves as part of this action by launching a starship, navigating across the board, or landing on a planet.
Return troops from a planet to the supply to score VPs.
Build a Research Facility, Colony, or City.
Advance one of his or her Technology tokens by 1 level.

The interesting thing about this set of actions is that players will want to chain actions – in other words, a tactical decision to upgrade Gray tech by one level will typically involve a couple of move actions, a build action, and a research action. That’s four or five turns of actions to achieve one short-term tactical goal. This creates two very interesting and correlated dynamics: there isn’t a ton of analysis paralysis from turn-to-turn, and the opportunity for disrupting an opponent’s strategy is certainly present. What these dynamics create is a feel that’s almost real-time strategy. Players are making small advancements in rapid succession in a way that starts to blur the lines between turns. That’s not to say that the game prevents down time; at points in the game, when a player is deciding which strategy to pursue or reevaluating options after having a strategy disrupted, gameplay will slow, but even in these moments it simply hits the pace of most medium-weight strategy games until a new course is selected and play accelerates again.

I do want to hit on one of the more contentious issues around this game’s release, and the reason I suspect that it hasn’t gotten more widespread attention than it has: the modular board. The game is played on a puzzle board that’s constructed from nine fairly large interlocking pieces that fit together to form a roughly 3′x3′ playing surface (although that’s just a guesstimate – I’m too lazy to measure it.) Each piece has a number of circles cut out of it for placement of the planet discs. The advantages are definite: the board stores easily in a standard-size game box, meaning that this game can live quite nicely in my closet along with all of my other games. It’s a smooth surface that works well for flicking the discs across the surface, and the planets are held nicely in place by the openings in the board. However, the board is not entirely flat because of the seams, some people have reported issues with getting the pieces to fit together properly, and there have been a few reports of warping. Speaking personally – and I can only comment on my personal copy, as I haven’t seen any others – I’m not experiencing these issues. The pieces fit together fine, provided they are aligned correctly – the background art on each corner needs to be compared to the adjoining piece to determine to which quadrant it belongs. This isn’t difficult as the correct alignment is obvious if you’re aware of the need to do so but the differences are subtle. I’ve had no warping – the boards lie as flat as they did when they were fresh out of shrink. And the issue with the seams – well, yes, they can affect shots. But to my mind, this isn’t an issue – it’s a factor that must be considered when weighing options. This game is all about the flicking, but not in the way that you might expect.

By flicking, I’m talking about the act of physically propelling the starship disks across the surface of the board. Technically, you don’t have to flick the disk – you could also push it, or nudge it, or thwack it if that’s how you roll. Bottom line – movement in this game is physical; it feels like a throwback to marbles. It’s an important, perhaps even central, part of the design – but flicking isn’t the game. Movement is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Players need to be able to land their shots, but because there’s an element of exploration, most shots, particularly in the beginning, are short range. Long shots are possible, to be sure, and can open up new avenues for a player – but they also open up risk. And this is where I think the board does its job. If you’re doing short range movement, particularly within a tile, then the seams are irrelevant. If you’re doing longer range movement, then you need to weigh the benefits of making your shot with the risk that it’s not going to work. If it really, really bothers you, then you can hold down the seams or something to make it a bit more smooth. But even if you make it across the seams with no issues, the discs are fairly light. If they hit one of the planets with sufficient force, they’re going to bounce, usually in unanticipated ways. Bottom line – channel your inner Newton. The harder you’re flicking, the more likely you’re going to suffer a bad rebound.

At its heart, I think this game just really works. All of the components come together into an interesting package that’s a lot more than the sum of its parts. And that, I think, is an important thing to remember; this game isn’t a dexterity game. It’s a civ game with dexterity elements. I’ve seen some discussion about how to make the dexterity elements work better, and honestly, I think that’s a bit like painting minis in other games: great if you have the time and energy, but not a central part of what the game is all about, and certainly not necessary to enjoy the game, at least in my view. Ascending Empires is a fun game that presents interesting decisions and solid interactivity while managing to not take itself too seriously. It plays fast and keeps players engaged through the whole game – no small feat for a civ game – while rewarding strategic play and good decision making – not often noted as hallmarks of dexterity games. I think it’s fair to say that in blending elements that aren’t typically viewed as synergistic, Ascending Empires manages to become a game that in some ways is truly the best of several possible worlds.

Go to the Cyclades page


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I love games with a whole pile of dudes on a map. I think it’s mostly because when you have a whole pile of dudes on a map, most of those dudes aren’t going to live until the end of the game. I don’t think of myself as a particularly violent person – in fact, ethically I’d classify myself as a pacifist – but if you give me a choice between a game that’s about building and a game that’s about destroying, most of the time I’m taking the second.

Dudes on a map games come with their own set of tropes that usually define the genre. Typically, if you’re unboxing a game like this, you’re expecting buckets of dice, some form of area control or conquest, unit differentiation, and maybe asymmetric factions or a tech tree of some kind. You’re expecting to buy dudes, move dudes, play cards on dudes, and send dudes to cardboard*. Then you can watch while other people send your dudes to cardboard*, until it’s your turn to buy dudes again. That’s sort of dudes on a map in a nutshell, whether you’re talking Risk or Nexus Ops or War of the Ring.

There are also certain things that you’re definitely not doing in a dudes on a map game. Like not attacking with dudes, for example. Or building stuff that doesn’t do anything. Or auctions. You are most certainly not doing auctions.

But what if your dudes were pretty pious dudes, who liked to be on good terms with their gods? Then maybe they would think that you should give offerings to the gods, so that the gods would do fun things like help you win battles, or not sink your ships, or let you think deep thoughts. And what if your opponents’ dudes were also pious, and in fact thought they were more pious than your dudes? Then you might have to get into some sort of competitive offering war. And that might feel like an auction, if auctions involved shouting and cussing. And what if your dudes were a bit more sophisticated, so that they didn’t just like sending your opponents dudes to cardboard*, but they also wanted to catch a good show on the weekend and have a decent sushi place in the neighborhood? Then your dudes might appreciate a bit of urban development in between rounds of battle.

Cyclades takes the DoaM archetype and turns it on its head. It’s easy to take a look at it and see plastic figures and a big map of the Greek islands and think, “Been there, done that.” But you probably haven’t, because this isn’t your typical DoaM game. For one thing, indiscriminate conquest doesn’t directly move your dial. In fact, player elimination is very difficult to accomplish in this game, and if it does occur, it happens so late in the game that it likely won’t matter. Instead, players are competing to control two metropolises at the end of a full round of play. The most common way to obtain a metropolis is by building (or conquering) one of each of the four building types (Temple, Port, Fortress, and University). Each building is associated with one of the four gods and can only be built after successfully obtaining their favor – more on this in a moment. Alternately, if the gods aren’t smiling on you, then you can march over to your opponent’s building or metropolis and take it. This is much more difficult than it sounds, because you also need the favor of the appropriate gods to go to war.

You’ve probably started to figure out that you’re not doing much without the favor of the gods. There are four gods that grant actions in the game: Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, and Ares. Zeus’ favor grants the ability to add priests to your cause, making offerings go your way a bit more often. Zeus also grants a measure of control over mythological creatures and allows you to build temples, which reduce the cost of recruiting creatures to your side. Poseidon predictably allows you to build and move ships, including engaging naval battles. Poseidon also allows the building of Ports, providing defensive bonuses during naval battles. Ares is Poseidon’s landlocked counterpart, providing for army recruitment, land combat, and the construction of Fortresses, which provide defensive bonuses on land. And then there’s Athena. Athena gives you a philosopher, which provides the awesome ability of doing absolutely nothing. However, if you can recruit four philosophers, then you’re immediately granted a Metropolis. Apparently, enough thinking grants some interesting telekinetic abilities, which I don’t recall from any of the classic Greek myths but perhaps I’m wrong. Athena also allows you to build a University, which also provides the incredible bonus of absolutely nothing. However, you’ll need either Universities or Philosophers to build a Metropolis. There’s a joke here somewhere, but I’m having trouble finding one that doesn’t sound like a political statement. Once you’ve built all four types of buildings, you must immediately cash in one of each type for a Metropolis, which also coincidentally grants the abilities of each of the other buildings.

This brings us back around to the auction part of the game. Only one player can earn the favor of a given god for each cycle. This creates some interesting situations. Let’s suppose that you are eyeballing a rather nice property on your oppoent’s island. You have a bunch of dudes on your island that you want to use to attack, but your ships are out of position. Before you can move in and ruin the neighborhood, you need to get your ships into position to transport your troops. In this case, you need to gain Poseidon’s favor – he’ll allow you to build and move ships. However, he won’t grant the ability to actually attack – that’s Ares’ job. So you need to plan ahead – Poseidon first, then Ares. But your opponents might also want to build ships or move troops, so they’ll also want to get the attention of Poseidon or Ares. The gods aren’t particularly picky – in fact, they’re pretty * mercenary when push comes to shove. Just show them more dough than your opponents, and you’ll be able to harness their power. Apparently, the gods need to eat too.

Easier said than done, of course – every player is trying to do the same thing. This game lives and dies on the auction block. If you have a group of players who get that the auction is the key part of the game, then this will be an insanely tense affair. Not only do the gods make particular actions available, the order of the gods will change from cycle to cycle as well, which can change the relative value of particular choices. The order of the gods on the bid track determines turn order for the cycle – if going first is more important than being able to perform a particular action, then it doesn’t matter who’s on first, that’s your deity. In addition, if you’re outbid for a particular god’s favor, you can’t immediately up your bid – you need to bid on a different god first. This sets up an awesome array of aggressive bids, counterbids, bluffs, feints, and strategic retreats. Do you start an aggressive, high bid on the god that you need this turn, or do you bluff on another god, hoping to get outbid so that you can pounce on your true goal? Do you bid offensively, going for the god that you need this turn, or defensively, attempting to deny an opponent the actions that he or she is seeking? You’ll need to do both to succeed. You’ll need to collaborate against opponents in strong positions – it’s not unfair to say that there’s a bash the leader component to the game, but with multiple avenues to building metropolises, that might be trickier than it seems. This is, by the way, where the do-nothingness of Athena suddenly becomes pure design brilliance: you simply can’t let an opponent start to double up on Athena, because the game will be over really quickly. On the other hand, taking Athena locks you into board position for a whole cycle, so it’s certainly not without tradeoffs. Towards the end of the game, when players are seeking a particular action to close the deal, every bid feels like war. Outbidding an opponent isn’t really all that different from kicking them in the shins and giving them the finger for good measure – it’s that visceral. And, if all else fails, you can always just punt: seek the favor of Apollo, which is essentially the equivalent of a pass, but with the benefit of a gold infusion and the ability to permanently up the production of one of your territories. An acceptable strategy is often to bid up your opponents until they’re sweating, only to secure Apollo and build wealth for a future turn.

The auctions are tense because they represent the primary means for accomplishing particular tasks that are necessary for victory. But in fairness they aren’t the only means; mythological creatures are available for players to call, trading gold for one-time assistance. Creatures introduce an element of surprise to the game. They can allow a player to move troops without seeking the favor of Ares; they can steal philosophers or priests from an opponent; they can destroy buildings or ships or troops. Players need to calibrate not only what actions are available to the opponent via the favor of the gods, but also what options exist for the opponent through summoning creatures. This makes Zeus an interesting choice in the late game – his favor allows a player to cycle through the creature deck, opening up possibilities that otherwise would not be available.

All of this combines into what I think is a simply incredible gaming experience. The game plays unbelievably well above the table – player interaction is strong and visceral, aggressive and strategic. A player will need to count on having his or her plans thwarted repeatedly, and will need to have backup tactics prepared in advance. The moves on the map are important; the moves on the bid track even moreso. And it’s difficult to count any player out – overextending by bidding too high for a key action can provide an opening for another player to jump back into the ring. Cyclades is something of an odd fusion – auctions with combat, dudes on a map with role selection, dice based combat with civ building. It does a lot of things in unusual ways, but the whole is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts. This is what I would consider to be a truly innovative game, one that shows both what can happen when basic mechanics are paired with a strong metagame and what dudes on a map games can be if they dare to think outside the box.

Go to the Survive: Escape from Atlantis! page
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In the beginning was Klaus Teuber. And Klaus Teuber did look down and see that gaming was stagnant, and that Free Parking Jackpot was killing Monopoly, and he said, “Let there be Catan!” And it was so. And Klaus did rejoice, seeing that what he had made was good. And he said, “Let Catan be broken into pieces, and let those pieces be as hexagons, with which others can also create Catan anew.” And it was so – Catan was broken into pieces, and those pieces were as hexagons, and there was much rejoicing around gaming tables everywhere. Except for a few curmudgeons who hate dice, and they were cast outside into the darkness, where there is perfect information and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
And the children of Klaus-Jürgen Wrede looked out upon Catan, and they saw that it was very good, and they said unto themselves, “We should go out to Catan, and take it for our own. It’s way nicer than Carcassonne.” And as they landed upon Catan and began to build roads and settlements, the first Klaus said unto them, “From whence have you come to disturb my island?” And the children of the second Klaus said, “We have seen this land, and it is a good land, fit for the building of roads and settlements. Plus, we have wood for sheep.” And the first Klaus burned with anger at their insolence, and said unto them, “Canst thou not make an original Catan joke? I shall smite thee with a mighty smiting. Hey, that rhymes.” And the first Klaus caused the sea to rise up against the children of the second Klaus, so that the island was consumed, and they were forced to take to boats or to swim for it. And the first Klaus caused the sea to be filled with all manner of vicious critters with nasty, big, pointy teeth. And the boats were wrecked, and the swimmers were made into tasty meals, and amongst the whales and the sharks and the sea serpents, there was much rejoicing.
Thus was born Survive! Escape from Atlantis – and it was very good.
Ok, so maybe the game doesn’t really have anything at all to do with Catan or Carcassonne, besides a superficial resemblance. The original actually predates them both by a significant margin, coming from Parker Brothers of all places in 1982. Now, in 2011, the game has been reprinted by Stronghold Games with great new bits that are somewhat evocative of those more recent classics. The game is played on a board on which an island of hexagonal tiles is constructed. Each player also places ten people figures (seaples perhaps?) on the island, with values varying from one to six. The numbers are printed on the bottom of the piece and are hidden until the end of the game. The object of the game, at least in the base scenario, is to get people with the highest total value off the main island and onto one of the four smaller islands in the corners of the board before the main island sinks. Moving is very simple – each turn, a player moves his or her pieces a total of three spaces. Boats can hold three people and move as one action. People may move off the island into either a boat or a sea space, but once they’ve left the island, there’s no turning back – they have to make a break for the smaller islands.
Unfortunately, while the players are in the process of evacuating the island, it’s sinking beneath the waves. Each player must, during his or her turn, remove one of the island’s tiles, revealing the sea space below. Any people on the tile are dumped into the ocean. Each tile also contains an action on the bottom. These actions come in two flavors: resolve now (generally bad and nasty) or hold for play at the beginning of a future turn (generally helpful). Actions that go into the player’s hand might include move a boat or swimmer up to three extra spaces or cancel an attack by a critter. Resolve now actions include things like placing sharks or whales into the space from which the tile came or revealing a whirlpool that sucks everything nearby into a watery grave. The game ends when one of two conditions is met: either the Volcano tile is drawn, or all figures have either made it to safety or met their demise thanks to some of the friendly neighborhood wildlife.
Creatures come in three flavors (four with variant) and are generally of the nasty variety. Whales smash any boats in the same space, sending the occupants into the water. Sharks devour swimmers already in the water but ignore boats; sea serpents are the nastiest, eating all boats and swimmers in the same space. Creatures move by roll of the die at the end of a player’s turn. In the base game, one die is rolled that determines what type of creature moves, with each creature moving a set number of hexes. In the variant game, two dice are rolled; one determines the creature type, while the other determines distance. This variant also introduces dolphins, which can aid swimmers in the same space by protecting against hostile creatures.
The gameplay is quite simple and can be learned in ten minutes. What’s not apparent from a cursory review of the rules is how unbelievably nasty this game is. This game is a forty-five minute exercise in schadenfreude. There’s very little randomness in the game – most of the player misfortune happens as a result of a deliberate choice of another player. Even simple decisions like which tile to pull are influenced by which of your opponent’s pieces you can place in mortal danger. Although what creatures move is determined by the die, where they move (and who they eat) is determined by the current player. It doesn’t take long before each player is actively at the throat of each of the other players, doing his or her best to send their dudes down into a watery grave. One turn might see a figure sprint across several hexes to steal a boat that another player was in position to occupy, leaving the remaining dudes to swim for it. On the next turn, that same boat might meet its demise under the fins of an ill-tempered whale. It’s a vicious, nasty little game full of backstabbery and screwage that really brings out the worst in people (in the best possible way).
The game is high in chaos, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no strategy. Most of the strategic choices happen at the beginning of the game – because the value of each figure is hidden information, the game opens up a lot of possibilities for bluffing and feinting. Placement of figures becomes an interesting shell game. A player might position his or her high value figures near a boat so that they can claim it on the first turn and make a run for safety – but the classic eggs-in-one-basket tactic can lead to disastrous consequences if the boat happens to meet up with a nearby sea serpent. On the other hand, placing a high value figure in the middle of a bunch of opponent’s dudes opens up the choice to jump into an occupied boat, giving at least one opponent an incentive to send hostiles elsewhere. Once the figures are down on the table, though, the game becomes highly tactical, with priorities changing each turn as the map loses tiles, monsters shift positions, and figures meet their doom.
I don’t want to overstate the depth of this game – Twilight Imperium it’s not. But it’s a ton of fun, well-produced with great bits, easy-to-follow rules, and a lot of replayability. It’s a game that plays well above the table with meaningful interaction and good metagame decisions. There will be yelling, there will be threats, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth – but in the end, it’s a great game that brings out the vengeful deity in all of us.

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