Thursday, September 24, 2015

A pile of Eurogames!

This week was something of a Eurogame binge, having played three games: Imperial, Manhattan Project, and Brass. In case you're not familiar with the term, Eurogames refer to board games typically designed and produced by European game designers and companies (but not exclusively so) that focus on non-zero sum victory goals (so definitely not Monopoly or Risk - think more accumulation of victory points or specific resources), creating and running efficient economies and competing for resources. Games like Settlers of Catan and Carcasonne are two of the best known examples of this genre. Two of the games I've played were very much typical Eurogames (Manhattan Project and Brass) while Imperial was unlike almost any other game I've played.

Imperial looks very much like Risk or Diplomacy at first glance.
I'm running Germany into the ground and lining my pockets at the same time!
There are European nations conforming to late 19th century borders, armies and fleets and money. However, this is where the similarities end. You see, the players aren't the nations, they are devious investors manipulating the nations from the shadows! A player who invests the most into a nation the controls what that nation does, but there's nothing preventing that player from also investing in other nations. Growing the nation's treasury through taxation and war and then raiding that treasure through bonds for all it's worth is quite a viable strategy! For example I started out in control of Germany, I quickly invested in Italy and seized control of Italy for a few turns, then spent a few turns without a country to control (but with plenty of cash and investments in most of the other countries) before once again controlling Germany. I ran Germany into the ground but it didn't matter - what mattered was how much cash I had (not the nation I controlled) and the value of the bonds I held at the end of the game. I'm only scratching the surface here because the game also features a very unique rondel which the players use to issue commands to their controlled nations, a simple but enjoyable combat system, and all sorts of other devious things one can do. On top of that it's a purely non-random game but one with a lot of depth. Imperial is definitely a game I can't wait to play again!

Manhattan Project is a quintessential worker placement Euro game with a few twists that made it far more enjoyable for me than very similar games such as Agricola. The players are countries competing to develop their own nuclear weapons.
 My dinky personal playing space, only six buildings but at least I already have a bomb loaded!
 They use three different types of workers (labourers, engineers and scientists) to take actions dictated on the main board as well as the buildings they can buy. Players have to accumulate resources such as money and yellowcake (un-enriched Uranium ore) and then refine uranium and/or plutonium, research different bomb designs, build said bombs, and then "load" them. Only loaded bombs grant victory points - money and other resources are only means to an end (building the bomb) and provide no victory points. So it's an exercise in creating the most efficient economic chains just like Agricola. But what Manhattan Project does differently is injecting a lot more direct competition and ability to interfere with the other players than most Eurogames have.
 Players can use espionage to send their workers into enemy's buildings denying their use, they can also build fighters and bombers to disable enemy buildings and disrupt their chains. There is a LOT of depth to the game, and I haven't even tried the hydrogen bomb rules or the expansion, but I have already enjoyed it a lot more than Agricola. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the theme as being entirely appropriate, but then again Archipelago is one of my top favourite games and it's a game about the brutal colonization of Polynesian islands by Europeans...

Finally, Brass was a game I was very dubious about, since it's designed by Martin Wallace known for very heavy Eurogames and whose game After the Flood I didn't particularly enjoy. On the surface there is little to recommend Brass - it's a game about industrial development in Lancashire in the second half of the 19th century, and it's butt ugly to boot (just look at it!).
 It also features one of the worst-written manuals I've ever seen. However, we played a few practice turns first, slowly figured out the rules and played a proper game, and surprisingly we had a blast! Players play two cards per turn that dictate where the players can construct buildings or what type of buildings they can place. At the same time players are trying to accumulate money and to spend the coal and iron from their mines or from the separate pool of resources. The game has two phases - a canal phase and railroad phase. During each phase players have access to different buildings, the costs are different, and some locations only open up in the railroad phase. Almost everything gets wiped out after the canal phase (this seems to be Martin Wallace's calling card just like After the Flood) so the players have clear choices between trying to make as much money in the canal phase or to lay groundwork for even bigger expansion during the railway age. There is a lot more to this game but suffice to say I greatly enjoyed it and anyone who likes Powergrid will find a lot to like here as well, provided you can get past the awful manual and visual design (I found some tiles very hard to read because of a poor choice of colour contrast).

Anyway, three new games and I can't wait to play all three of these again! Definitely a big hit with me!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Mage Knight and After the Flood

It only took me two weeks after moving to Doha, Qatar to find a board gaming group. Meetup is pretty amazing for finding people for whatever hobby or past time you're looking for. The group I joined (link here) plays every week, Simon is a very gracious host with a very large playing table, a very large collection, and a fantastic view of the Pearl. So if you're in Doha and you want to play some board games give a shout. Anyway, on to the reviews.

We decided to play two games that two of the players have never played before: Vlaada Chvátil's Mage Knight (2011 edition) and Martin Wallace's After the Flood (a 2008 game). I'll start with the latter however as that was the one we played first. After the Flood is set in ancient Mesopotamia and covers about 2000 years of history with the manual being full of wonderful historical information and trivia about the setting.
Picture courtesy of Dice Tower
At its heart, After the Flood is a worker placement, area control game. Workers are used to generate basic resources and to claim areas where these basic resources can be upgraded to progressively better and better resources. At the end of the game if you have the most workers in a given area you score the victory points for that area. Armies are used to deny areas to the enemy, sack enemy cities, or in lieu of workers when trading resources. Cities can also be upgraded for massive victory point boosts. The game has several unique mechanics to handicap the lead players, for example if one player passes the other players can keep taking turns but every turn they subsequently take requires them to throw away some of their resources. Also, the game is broken up into five turns and on turns 2 and 4 a great deluge (or as the game called it Decline Phase) occurs which wipes out most of the workers off the board, effectively resetting it. In each turn new empires open up for players to raise their armies in so you're constantly planning one or two turns ahead, looking to see where you will be able to raise armies and control vital resources. The other noteworthy thing about the game is that it is designed precisely for three players. Three shall be the number of thy counting, and the number of thy counting shall be two. Not two, not four, not two to three or two to four, three. This makes it a bit weird. So what I liked about it was the whole process of building an effective economic engine to steamroll your empire to victory. The way different resources provided different bonuses (such as upgrading your army or building a bigger army or giving you more workers or upgrading cities) was very well managed. I also rather liked the look of the board and the pieces although many people online apparently complain that the game looks boring - I don't agree, it has a clean aesthetic with Mesopotamian feel and the areas are very clearly delineated. However, would I recommend After the Flood? Well, no. And there are three big reasons for it. The first reason is how combat is resolved. Basically it's like Risk, but only the attacker rolls the dice and the probabilities are HEAVILY skewed in the favour of the attacker (7+ if your army has no upgrades, or 5+ if it is better equipped than your opponent, that means that even when you don't have equipment you'll be killing the enemy 50% of the time). Building enormous army of doom to completely disrupt your opponents' plans seems too easy and the dice rolling is too random and feels out of place in an otherwise Eurogame design. The other reason is that there isn't much replay value to it. It's quite clear what gives the most victory points from the start so as long as you try to occupy areas that produce certain resources (particularly Lapis Lazuli and gold) you'll be able to place more workers and have better armies than your opponents. Finally, After the Flood is - like Monopoly or Risk - a game where you can usually see who's going to win the game by the end of turn three, and yet it takes two more turns to make it a fait accompli. If it wasn't for these reasons I'd definitely recommend it. It was enjoyable enough for a 1.5-2 hour game, but nothing I'd really want to play again. Games such as Samurai, El Grande or Archipelago (my personal favourite) do the same thing but much better.

The other game we played is the esteemed Mage Knight, currently sitting on number 8 at Board Game Geek, which is quite a remarkable feat considering the competition. Mage Knight is a fantasy quasi-RPG game with tile-laying and heavy deck-building mechanics. Each player contains a hero and his or her entourage of followers, exploring randomly revealed tiles. They fight marauding orks and dragons, explore tombs, dungeons, monster lairs, and if you're feeling a bit more evil also storming wizard towers, forts and even cities (although cities may require more than one player to work together). Hero's basic and special abilities, spells, and artifacts are represented by a deck of cards that gradually grows throughout the game, and most abilities and spells have a basic effect that doesn't cost anything and a special effect that costs mana. Mana is generated randomly by rolling a bunch of dice, and it can also be acquired as crystals or tokens by going to certain locations on the map or playing certain cards. So it's also a resource management game as well. OK, to be honest I would do the complexity of the game a grave injustice if I tried to summarize it so just go and watch the excellent (and hilarious!) review of Mage Knight by Shut Up & Sit Down crew here to get a better sense of the rules. Let's just say that there are so many little systems all working together in ways you only begin to appreciate (and develop an awe for) towards the end of the first game you play. There are just so many options you have but the game never throws them all at you at once, instead slowly giving you the tools and awareness as the game progresses. And just look at it! It is one of the most gorgeous games I've ever played!
Image courtesy of
 The production value definitely justifies the rather steep price tag. The heroes are decently fully painted minis, the art on tiles and monsters and cards is excellent, the cities are heroclix like bastions and the way the tiles fit together... Unnnnnghhhhhh.

OK, but is it actually fun? Well... The design - both gameplay and artistic - is amazing, but there are definitely a few hurdles that made the first time I played Mage Knight a somewhat frustrating experience. So what were they? One is that since the map is randomly generated moving around can be quite frustrating and very slow, especially at the start. There are too many impassable barriers (at least in the early game before you acquire various spells of flying and such) that make moving about rather tedious. The other is a problem endemic in deckbuilders such as Dominion: the curse of an enormous chain of cards being played on one turn, and if the player plays the cards in the wrong order from the one s/he intended then they usually start the chain anew. Turns where a player took ten or even twenty minutes were not uncommon. There is also an enormous amount of rules to digest - if everyone already knows the rules then the game runs a bit faster but even so, there's already a huge errata and FAQ online for the game that the players need to be familiar with. The other problem is endemic to all of Vlaada's games (except for his party games) and that is a horrible manual. A lot of spelling errors, referring to the same concept by two different names throughout the manual, lack of a decent index, the way related rules are not always grouped together into logical categories, all make learning Mage Knight much more frustrating than it should be. Even after playing it for the first time I'm not altogether sure that we played it correctly, and I still can't easily tell you all the different ways in which victory points are scored. Lastly, most deckbuilding games contain some form of mechanic whereby you can 'trim' your deck or starting cards to make room for better cards. Mage Knight does not and I often found that I wanted to prune my deck of certain cards permanently but there was no way to do so. Maybe one of the expansions for the game (there are two currently out I believe) introduces this, but the base game certainly does not. However, despite these shortcomings, Mage Knight is the game I would definitely want to play again and again, to try out different heroes (each of which feels very different to play it would appear!), to try out different paths to victory and just to see more of it! I feel like during the first game we barely scratched the surface of different special abilities, spells and artifacts and that's just the base game!

So there you have it: one solid if unremarkable game, and the other an occasionally frustrating but clearly very promising experience!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Forbidden Stars and Dead of Winter review

The two more recent games I've played were Forbidden Stars (Fantasy Flight Games) and Dead of Winter (Plaid Hat Games). I've gotten a couple of sessions on each, but both games have a lot of depth so this review is more of first impressions based on those playthroughs and pouring over the manual.

I'll start with Dead of Winter since that's the one I played first.
Image thanks to Meeplemart
What is Dead of Winter? It's a semi-cooperative board game of surviving the zombie apocalypse, scarcity, the weather and other humans. The players must work together to loot buildings, kill zombies and resolve potentially catastrophic events every turn. The players begin with three random survivors (each with different statistics, story, and a few random items) and go from there, trying to resolve crisis cards that come up every round (gather this much food, medicine, etc.), while also working towards their own personal secret goal that may or may not put the other survivors (that's the characters controlled by players) in danger. Furthermore, there are also helpless survivors (represented by tokens) that cause a drain on the supply of food of the colony and attract even more zombies. The game is absolutely gorgeous and evocative, there are tons of characters each with a special ability and her own stats and backstory represented by a stand-up cardboard figurine. The characters range from politicians, educators, police officers, criminals and soccer moms to the more bizarre like a drunken mall Santa Claus or a stunt super dog. What impressed me about the game was its strong adherence to theme, the production of the components and the art, and that cooperative/backstabbing dynamic going on. However, did I like the game as much as the hype led me to think I would? Not quite, because of how random it is. Not in the sense that everything hinges on a die roll (although the exposure/wound/death die is important) but in how random many scenarios and crossroad cards (those are events that happen on each player's turn) seem to be. Many crossroad cards might be drawn and just dumped into discard because a certain condition isn't met. Scenarios for the overall game range from those rather easy to complete (kill that many zombies) or nearly impossible (survive this many rounds while also making sure you have this much food and oh! More zombies than usual spawn!). Basically how fun the game is really depends on what random scenario, crises, characters and crossroads cards you get. To me this makes Dead of Winter's fun factor inconsistent, so I hesitate to recommend it. Also, with just two players the game ran by fairly quickly, about an hour per session, I'm not sure how much fun I would have with 4 players in the game - especially if the scenario is particularly brutal and might even be (thanks to random die rolls and card draws) unwinnable.

Forbidden Stars is another massive board game from Fantasy Flight Games, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.
Image thanks to Boardgamegeek
It's a 2 to 4 player game of area control and rolling a crapload of dice (as Warhammer demands) to determine who will control 3 objectives first. The game is played on a random map (assembled from 6 to 12 massive and GORGEOUS tiles - seriously, I just sat there and poured over the art on the tiles for a good ten minutes, it's that beautiful!) and it's basically a free-for-all between Space Marines, Chaos, Orks and Eldar. Each faction starts with some ground units, ships, buildings, basic deck of combat cards, and objectives that they need to acquire. The kicker is that your opponents decide which sector of space your objectives are. You want to attract the enemies to a particular sector? Place their objectives there! You want to keep them away from your homeworld? Place their objectives as far away as possible! Players issue commands using tokens placed face down (like in FFG's excellent Game of Thrones board game) but players stack the face-down tokens on top of each other and these are then resolved from top to bottom allowing players opportunities to bluff, double-bluff and triple-bluff opponents. Throughout the game players spend different resources on upgrading their forces, constructing cities, factories and bastions (to protect against orbital bombardments of course!), upgrading their order tokens and upgrading their combat deck. Now combat is quite fiddly and time-consuming and that's a major drawback. Players roll dice, call in reinforcements, then play three combat cards from their hand which might add to their attack, defense, morale or do special actions. It took us a while to figure out how combat is supposed to work, and to be honest it takes too long to play out each battle. So in a 3-4 player game, that means 1 or 2 players are sitting out and twiddling their thumbs for a while when combat starts. Another major drawback is that the rules are scattered between two different booklets and some rather crucial pieces of information are not explained up front leading to a lot of confusion. There are also a LOT of rules and some mechanics seem too fiddly (this is a FFG game after all). There's also the price of the game, it's veeeeeeeery expensive and you could probably pick up Twilight Imperium (3rd edition) for the same price and have an even more epic experience. Finally, while I found that Forbidden Stars has a lot of depth and replay value (each faction plays very differently and there are 4 factions to learn) what it does lack is an element of alliances and diplomacy that other games in the similar vein might offer. It's always a free-for-all and there's not much reason or opportunity to make alliances. Similar games such as Cosmic Encounters, aforementioned Twilight Imperium and Game of Thrones have that extra dynamic, that extra spice that Forbidden Stars lack. Still, if you want a much better game than risk and don't mind spending the cash, it's still a very satisfying and deep experience.

So TL;DR version: Dead of Winter has the potential to be fun but it depends on your luck. Forbidden Stars is very good if you're willing to read a lot of rules, put up with long combat rounds, and not looking for any kind of diplomacy.

Next I hope to review the reprinted and updated Fief: France 1429!

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