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!

P.S. Follow me on Twitter @akritchever and Google+ +Arseni

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ramez Naam's "Nexus"

Mini-review/rant of Ramez Naam's "Nexus" - the first book in a cyberpunk, transhuman, singularity, sci-fi trilogy. Naam has some amazing ideas about emerging technologies and the ends to which people would put them. He can also write great action and has a great sense of pacing (which is beginning to be sorely lacking in modern sci-fi). However, he can't write interesting or believable characters for shit. All of the characters are walking tropes with very little about them for the reader to get interested in. The hacker with the heart of gold, the guild-ridden veteran, the government agent with a Past, the heartless bureaucrat. The other problem with the book is more political in nature. Naam belongs to a peculiar subset of tech geek libertarians - the singularitarian techno-fetishit transhumanists (phewph, quite a mouthful), and he has an axe to grind with everyone who thinks technological progress should be controlled. Personally I consider myself an optimist when it comes to future technologies, but Naam presents technological progress as a stark Us (the good hackers, libertarians, "information wants to be free" types) vs. Them (the bad nasty government that inevitably turns authoritarian), and that dichotomy starts to get tiresome pretty quickly. It ignores the fact that most of the important inventions that make Naam's setting possible have been made thanks to overwhelming government sponsorship - not the plucky V.C. types like Musk or Anderseen or whoever. His worldview (at least as presented in the novel) is too dualistic and naive. I hope the second book will present a more nuanced look at the ramifications of technologies that emerge at the end of the first book, and not boil it down to "technology good, governments bad".

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Dogs of War: A quick review

Just wanted to throw out a quick review of Dogs of War
Picture courtesy of Board Game Geek
, designed by Paolo Mori, published by Coolminiornot, and originally funded through Kickstarter, because it's a great game, albeit with not a lot of lasting power. This is a game by a European designer, it does have some Eurogame sensibilities, but it combines it with the quality of pieces and directly competitive cutthroat gameplay of North American games. The game is played out over the course of four rounds, each round the players (3 to 5 players, 4 or 5 players is best) buy soldiers, then play soldiers and captains (a soldier must be played with a captain and the number of captains the player gets is fixed each round - although opportunities to gain new captains exist, more on that in a bit), to support 1 of 6 noble houses. Now, each player controls a mercenary company that secretly supports one of the houses, but you don't have to support any particular house, so that adds more intrigue to the game. Each house is accompanied by an "Order of Battle" card which is randomized every round. When you play a captain, that captain is placed on a sport on this Order of Battle card which grants the player immediate bonus (extra money, extra troops, extra captains, victory points, etc.) but no one can they go on the same spot (going other spots on the same Order of Battle card is fine though). Players can support the same House, improving its chances of success, or throw down armies in support of opposing houses. So like the Game of Thrones game, there is a constant tug-of-war over which house has a higher battle score, which particularly desirable spots on Order of Battle cards (6 are in play in every round) are occupied and which aren't, and players are constantly at each other's throats. Combined with the fact that each mercenary company has its own special power, and also a deck of Tactics cards that let players perform some sneaky moves (one card is simply titled Betrayal - you can switch sides and even defeat your own captains thereby giving you more victory points!), there are lots of options and opportunities for players to claw their way back to the top.

What I really like about the game is how simple the rules are to explain and start playing, and yet
Picture courtesy of Dice Tower News
how much complexity exists in the game. There are so many different ways to collect victory points. Do you collect House influence tokens that are worth anywhere between -1 (yes, you can actually lose points) to 7 (depending on how well your House performs)? Do you hoard gold, tactics cards, or soldiers (all of which are worth victory points)? Do you throw down all you have to perform a crushing victory for a House and reap a bunch of victory points? Do you form lasting alliances, or stab a fellow player in the back just when he least expects it? Anyone who likes Risk, Game of Thrones, Coup, or Smallworld, would feel right at home. Another thing to like is how gorgeous everything looks. Each mercenary company has their own unique captain sculptures and those are gorgeous looking, the other components are sturdy and beautiful to look at. The manual is very well-written, the rules are very clearly spelled out, and half the manual is actually dedicated to the lore of the setting, the noble Houses, and the individual Dogs of War. I liked the writing and the illustrations are just amazing (reminded me a lot of Warhammer Fantasy with the more colourful palette of Cadwallon). Also, each game is quite fast once everyone understands the rules, a game of 3 players takes about 45 minutes at most.

It's not completely perfect however. For one thing, there are six Houses, but other than being a different colour, there is no difference between them. The Dogs of War (mercenary companies controlled by players) only number 5, I hope they'll come out with expansions to add more, or a way to customize the special ability of each company. Furthermore, with three players it's possible that the Houses players secretly support do not directly oppose each other, which leads each player to simply throw support behind her/her house every round, and no conflict thus arises. The game is better with 4 or 5 players, when it forces players to directly oppose each other. There are only 8 Order of Battle cards (6 random ones drawn every round), I feel like more Order of Battle cards or more variety of options on each of these cards would inject more variety that would add staying power to the game. Otherwise, I feel like a group that played Dogs of War 4 or 5 times would quickly play out the game's appeal. Finally, as great as the components look, the soldier and Tactics cards use this tiny card size format (I think Arkham Horror used them too) which is hard to handle and pick up, but that's a very personal preference. Other than these relatively minor problems, I highly recommend Dogs of War if you're looking for something that lasts longer than Coup, but shorter than Game of Thrones, and has the same cutthroat conflict gameplay.