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Board Game Review

Noria Review – You Spin Me Right Round, Baby, Right Round

Noria is a deceptive game, its lovely artwork which features a massive floating mountain hanging high in the sky producing a myriad of thoughts about what its theme could be, but a wheel-building game of politics wasn’t quite what sprung to mind when I first saw it, I have to admit. But that’s what we’ve got.

So, the game’s big selling point is the sizable, plastic three-tiered wheel on which three cardboard rings sit and can be rotated. Into these rings, you’ll be inserting little cardboard discs that control the various actions you can take throughout the game, with each ring being spun around to the next segment at the end of your turn and thus changing what you’ll be able to do on the next turn.

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The rules, though, do not adequately explain how activating your actions works. The general concept is that you get to activate three discs per turn, only one from each ring can be used, that they must all be in the active bottom half of the wheel and…uh, well I played it as there is a left segment and a right segment, and actions within one or the other could be used with anything falling in the middle being applicable to either.

The problem is that on Youtube some people have interpreted it differently while others are playing the same way I do, and nobody seems entirely sure about who is right. The confusion stems from the adjacency rule which states activated discs must be adjacent to each other, which according to the rulebook is when you are able to freely draw a line between them without crossing over another potential line or an empty space.

The examples given, though, are poor and even the official tutorial video glosses over this subject. The point is I’m still not sure if I’m actually playing the game right, and the fact that the rulebook makes this an issue is insane. It’s a surprisingly dense tome of rules considering the actual game isn’t that challenging to learn once you’ve got it all figured out.

Everything revolves (hehehehe, crappy puns) around this wheel and how good you are at looking ahead to see what you’ll be able to do in the coming turns and whether you perhaps need to adjust things in your favor.

By paying Knowledge tokens you can do two things before taking any of the actions; move either the largest wheel or middle wheel one notch clockwise, or move one action token to another open slot or swap two actions around.

Cleverly, though, these Knowledge tokens are the key to earning more points, but we’ll come back to that later as well as how you actually get more Knowledge tokens.

There’s a lot of chunky, thoughtful goodness going on in Noria, all thanks to this triple-tiered wheel of brain-bendiness. No other player can ever screw with your wheel, either, which means you can concoct long-term plans. It also helps alleviate boredom between turns because while other players are busy taking their turn you can be planning your next couple of moves.

Should you activate the resource gathering disc first? Since it’s on the outside ring it’ll be around for another couple of turns, so maybe you should use the City action now before it disappears for a little while? But then again a little use of Knowledge could shift things around.

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I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s talk about how you win, first, and then get into the nitty-gritty of doing just that. The goal of the game is to acquire resources and then invest them into one of the four Great Projects, as represented by the four tracks sitting at the top of the board.

For every level you advance you’ll score points, but only if you’ve also gone and influenced the politicians in the chamber below the track. On top of that from left to right the projects take harder to acquire/make resources, so early on you want to choose where you’re going to focus your attention. The game gives you the chance to get on the first level of any track right at the very start, though.

Let’s kick off with the most basic types of action you can take, which is gathering up the low-level resources. There are three of these resources and whenever you take the action needed to gather one of them you consult your player-board and for each matching type of flying ship, you get one of that resource. Simples. You start with one of each ship, so in your first turn or two you’ll only be picking up a single resource at a time.

Okay, so how do you get more of these handy-dandy resource grabbing ships? Well, you need to go exploring using the Explore action which lets you either flip an Island tile from the pile and place one of your ambassador tokens on it or travel to an already discovered island, although if there are already other players on the island you wish to travel to then you have to pay a resource for each of them. Each island will have a stack of two different ships and you can take one of them to add to your private fleet. Simple as that.

Islands do have another thing you can do, too, which is to construct a factory on them. On your player-board, you have eight factories, and for every two you construct on an island, it reveals a Knowledge token symbol that will increase your Knowledge Token generation which occurs at the end of your turn. Since these tokens are so useful it’s a very tough choice to make between taking a ship or building a new factory.

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When you do build a factory you’ll cover one of four slots on the island that provide you with either one or two tokens for the more advanced goods in the game.

These tokens get added to the side of your player board, but the goods they show aren’t yours just yet as you’ll first need to use action disc with the hammer symbol to spend resources to actually construct the item, as indicated on the token. For example, a set of wings need two pink resources and one green.

That hammer symbol can also be used to upgrade other actions, flipping their discover to the golden side which indicates that you can use that action twice when selecting it. There is a small limitation in place that means you can’t do more than four actions in a single turn, meaning you can either use one upgraded action and a regular one, or two upgraded action discs.

There’s also the Bonus disc which when used will let you select a different disc and use it twice. If you select an upgraded disc you’ll get to use that one action a whopping three times.

The final action is the City action which lets you do one of two things; either pay resources to advance up to one of the project tracks or purchase a new action disc from the store. All three of the basic resource gathering discs are free, but if you fancy the more advanced actions such as Exploring then you need to pay in the form of resources.

Placing these new actions presents a fantastic decision because the innermost ring contains just two slots that alternate between turns, but a bigger ring provides more space yet fewer opportunities for that disc to come around. Anything placed on the large outer ring will only appear a few times, barring any tweaks made using Knowledge tokens.

Simply moving up the four project tracks isn’t enough, though, as you also need to influence the politicians in order to increase the value of each step on those tracks. To do this you get a chance near the end of your turn to spend Knowledge tokens, and what that lets you do is twofold; firstly, you select one of the small tracks underneath the project you want to influence and then you move the leftmost grey cube from the top slot to the bottom.

At the end of the game, you’ll take the uncovered number to the right of the leftmost cube and use it as a multiplier for the level of the project your ambassador is on, thus if you’re on level four and have a multiplier of five you’d score twenty points, bearing in mind, however, that ALL players on that project track will benefit.

The second part of this action lets you remove the rightmost, top politician cube from any track you want, which obviously means you get to limit the scoring potential of other players.

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It’s an intriguing system but one that only really works with three or four players. With two players vying for political influence isn’t varied enough since of course, you’re going to increase your scoring potential and slap down the other player, but with extra people around the table, there’s a lot more fun in deciding how to shift the cubes, especially as players begin to invest time in other projects as well, deliberately leaping onto the same track as you in order to benefit from your hard work.

In fact, there’s a small penalty for doing just that; every time you want to advance up a project that has other players on it you must pay one basic resource per player provided you’re behind them on the project track.

So, do you maybe just leap onto the first level or two of a project just to score some bonus points? Or do you really invest in progressing up it in order to capitalize on the work your opponent has already done and accepted the fact that you’re going to have to pay extra resources?

There are also two extra political tracks that provide points for your lowest and highest ambassadors on the projects, again something every other player can benefit from so before influencing any of the politicians on these two tracks you’ll need to do some mental math.

It’s a little bit of a shame that influencing the politicians doesn’t feel a bit more thematically fitting. I can’t help but feel that my Knowledge tokens are basically me blackmailing people into supporting me. Then again, despite the beautiful artwork depicting floating islands and resource-transporting airships Noria is pretty light on theme, which is a shame because it feels like a lot of love went into the aesthetic.

There’s also an occasional problem where the political maneuvering clashes with the engine-building of player’s rings. If one or two players suddenly decide to start removing cubes from the politician chamber under the project you’re focusing on trying to rework your whole engine can be a slog.

Noria is a slow game in the sense that it takes a while to build up your rings in order to gather all the resources you need and then convert them into more complex stuff like wings, but despite that, it’s very easy to get shafted and wind up trying to rework everything.

Y’know, going into Noria I really wasn’t sure what the outcome was going to be, but to my pleasure, it wound up being a satisfyingly meaty game with an intriguing gimmick. And yet….Oh, man, I feel bad for saying this but it didn’t connect with me personally.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe it’s a rather excellent game, but I never managed to click with Noria, unlike many of my gaming chums who had a blast with it. The wheel mechanic proved to be a hit with them as they enjoyed the tactile nature of it and how they could visualize future moves.

So, despite how it didn’t quite manage to click with me I believe Noria to be fully deserving of a recommendation.

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Board Game Review

Kingsburg 2nd Edition Review – Roll Me Some Gold

Games usually get a second print run if they’ve done something right, so this second edition of Kingsburg seems to indicate that when it first came out people must have quite liked it. Me? Well, I’m still a relative noob, so I never played it when it first came out or in the intervening time since.

Now its gotten a bit of a royal makeover with all-new artwork, some rather sexy dice and the entirety of the To Forge a Kingdom expansion rammed into the box for good measure. But thousands of people are wrong all the damn time about things, so is this dice-placement game actually any good? Have I really been missing out?

Under orders from the wise and bearded King, your job is to hob-nob with the court advisors in order to gather wood, stone, gold and other valuable things that can be spent on building up your town, adding all manner of walls, statues, churches, barracks, and other things in order to earn victory points and claim the title of Best Builder of Stuff. How you build your little township is entirely up to you.

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Right, so how do you get all this stuff? Three times per round (there are five rounds total) every player will grab their three dice in what is called a “productive season” and hurl them onto the table like they had been personally offended by something the dice had said about their mums.

Players then take it, in turn, to place their dice on the eighteen available advisors who make up the Royal court, matching the number on the dice with those listed on the spaces and combining dice to reach the numerically higher spots which offer more resources. In other words, if you roll a three, a four and a six you could combine them all to reach the 13th spot, or the 10th, or the 9th or the 7th, and so on, or you could just take the number 3, 4 and 6 spaces.

The catch is that when a spot is taken nobody else can go there, and thus depending on your roll you can easily find yourself struggling to get exactly what you want. Everyone’s dice are public knowledge, too, so if you’re feeling a tad villainous you can eye up to your opponent’s roll and then proceed to block them where possible. Man, you’re such a c***. This is why nobody wants to play with you. Or me.

Once everyone has placed their dice all the action spots get resolved, and then all the players get a chance to spend their new resources and goodies on adding buildings to their personal towns. This is the main way of scoring victory points in Kingsburg, but there are a few intriguing limitations due to the local planning office being a bit peculiar; to build the more advanced buildings you must already have constructed the prior ones in the row, so if you want to erect a church you first need to toss up a chapel and a statue.

You’ve got to commit, in other words, perhaps even propose marriage and then settle down to have some kids. This is where all the compelling decisions in Kingsburg come from because while some buildings just give you more points others can do more than just that. The crane decreases the cost of building everything else, for example, while the Merchant’s Guild will produce a steady trickle of gold to line your pockets with.

It’s a simple system to understand and quite a bit of fun. It’s here that Kingsburg is going to divide opinions because obviously, it’s heavily luck-based. It’s tricky to make long-term plans about what you want to build when you can’t ever be entirely sure that you’re going to get the wood you need or the gold, but this also means that you can enjoy swapping your plans on the fly, reacting to whatever you’ve rolled and just going with the flow.

You just have to relax, maaaaaaaaaaan. You can still have those long-term ideas about what civic improvements you’d like to make, it’s just a case of adapting that plan along the way. In other words, if you prefer your games to be about pure planning with no luck involved it’d be best to steer clear of Kingsburg.

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Not everything is sunshine, lollipops and arguing with the local planning office about why you have to have an inn before you can have a market, though, because at the end of every single round a card gets flipped over that reveals an incoming threat in the form of goblin hordes and angry barbarians who presumably want to do some raping and pillaging. I don’t really know what goblins want. More screen time in the Lord of the Rings films?

The point is aside from shiny new churches and farms and other lovely stuff you can also invest some time in your military infrastructure, maybe adding a watchtower, a barracks and a stone wall to keep out immigrants. The bad news is that military buildings typically score very little points, but if you don’t successfully repel the attack you take a penalty, sometimes in the form of a few points and sometimes in the form of a whole building.

Aside from building defenses, there are a few more ways to increase your military abilities; various advisors will offer boosts to your power, and when the fight actually starts one player will roll a die to determine the number of reinforcements the King himself will be sending and that number will get added to everyone’s total.

Just keep in mind that a player’s total combat value is reset at the end of each round. You still get to keep any bonuses that come from your buildings, but any troops gained from being nice to the advisors or from trading in resources disappear. Maybe they wander off to join the barbarians in a bit of pillaging?

It’s a neat choice; do you go all-in on the pretty buildings and hope to weather the invaders? After all, on the back of each enemy card, there’s a rough estimate of the strength, so if you’re close to the total you need maybe it’s worth risking relying on the King’s Reinforcements so you can keep focusing on building up those points while your opponents spend their time shoring up their defenses.

Or do you have a city bristling with pointy objects, soldiers, and enough implements of death to make Satan give an appreciative grin? Or do you just ride the middle-ground and hope for the best? Maybe you can have that church AND a barracks!

Between each of the dice rolling sessions, there are also a few bonuses handed out. At the very start of the round, for example, the player with the fewest buildings gets given an extra dice for the rest of the round, and later on, the person with the most buildings earns a bonus victory point.

I know, for having dealt with that bloody planning permission. Before the final dice rolling of the round the player with the least resources gets granted the Kings Envoy pawn which can be used during any productive season to either take the same action twice, including one blocked by an opponent or to let you build two buildings rather than just one. These little bonuses are a nice way of trying to keep everyone in the game.

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It’s also a game that I feel works with more players taking up the available spaces. With two players the game includes a mechanic where you roll dummy dice and plop them onto the board in order to block some advisors, but it’s just not the same as having real players who might try to get in your way.

Once you’ve got three or four people the order in which you claim spaces becomes so much more important since waiting to claim a certain spot might result in it getting nabbed before you ever get there.

Since this is the second edition of the game a bunch of extra content has been jammed into the box, including town sheets that massively bump up the number of things you can build. If that wasn’t enough there are modules that introduce special playable characters with unique abilities, random events, and more.

In total, you get six expansion modules to play around with, with five coming from the original To Forge A Realm, and a bonus new one added into the mix,   and while their quality varies quite a bit there’s really no doubt that you get your monies worth.

This new edition also gets a few other changes. For starters there are some rather pretty dice which are a superb improvement over the original’s standard dice, I reckon, though I suppose one could argue that these new ones are a bit harder to read at a glance due to their intricate designs.

The new board artwork is a bit trickier because it’s pretty subjective, but personally, I think this new art doesn’t look as good as the original, having swapped out the exaggerated, almost cartoony style for a more serious look that’s rather bland, in my opinion. This was due to necessity as apparently a deal could not be reached with the original artist to use his work, so new art had to be commissioned.

One thing I’m not a fan of in terms of component quality is how the tiny discs that you place on your town sheet to indicate what you’ve built don’t really stand out. It’s a small gripe, but one worth mentioning.

What works about Kingsburg is just how fluffy it all feels. The massive luck element will probably put a lot of people off, but if you can embrace the randomness that dice bring to the table then this a really enjoyable game here that taps into the simple joys of throwing dice around the place and building up your town, and best of all it’s easy to learn to mean you can play it with practically everyone.

It’s easy to see why Kingsburg got itself a reprint, and it’s easy to see why I reckon you should go out and pick it up if you don’t already own the original.

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Board Game Review

Stuffed Fables Review – Enchantingly Fun

As a child – which is assuming I’ve actually progressed mentally from that point, which I clearly haven’t – I had freaking loads of teddies in the shape of monkeys and apes that had pride of place on my bed, their job is to defend me from the potential horrors that lurk within dreams and to act as unwilling test dummies for attempts at performing wrestling moves. Years later I found a drawing online of a teddy bear wielding a tiny sword standing over a young girl as a towering monster leans over them. It’s a beautiful little drawing, a perfect illustration of the importance of a teddy bear. And now here we are with a board game that brings this idea to life.

This is a breathtakingly gorgeous game that practically demands you look at it, admire it, and drool over its beautiful, detailed miniatures and its spectacular artwork. The bag of minis you get look amazing once painted, as proven by some of the photos posted on Reddit and Boardgamegeek.com. Even if you don’t feel like trying to paint them they still look superb straight out of the box and really help to bring the stories to life. Also in the box, you get some shiny buttons that act as currency, and all the cards sport lovely art. The only hiccup is that you don’t get an awesome insert to hold it all properly, or even any bags to put the decks of cards into.

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These pieces are used to tell the enchanting story of a young girl who has just graduated to the big-girl bed, moving from the safety of her crib and its wooden bars. This move brings danger in the form of the evil Nocturnus, though, and thus it is up to the small girl’s faithful teddies to fend off the evil and ensure she gets a good night of sleep. Along the way Theodora, Stitch, Lumpy, and others will deal with their child’s blanket being stolen, the dangers of bedwetting, dark forests and so much more.

Rather than a board, you get a chunky tome of a storybook filled with maps on the left-hand pages, and rules and stories on the right. It’s almost like a choose your own adventure book that’s gotten brought into the modern age with sublime art and an ultra-cute narrative. The beginning of the right page always details any special set up rules for that portion of the story, and then after that, you’ll read specific sections based on what happens throughout the game while also making choices on how you wish to progress. Given the focus on child-friendly gaming it’s perhaps no surprise that’s it’s very, very hard to actually lose, instead, the game gives you numerous ways to get to the end of each adventure.

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Now, it’s here that we hit one of my very few criticisms with Stuffed Fables, which is that the story and the gameplay don’t quite mesh, at least not in my view. The rules, as we’ll chat about, are quite easy to learn, yet an age of 7+ is still recommended and I’d agree with that as there are a few tricky concepts, but the story feels more like it would connect with children around age 2-4 due to many of the tales dealing with things like bed wetting, or the potential scariness of moving to a big bed. That doesn’t mean that older children won’t still enjoy the cutesy narratives of stuffies (as the teddies are known) fighting enemies, using pencils as weapons and rescuing blankets in the name of defending their little charge, I just feel like the designers didn’t match the age needed to understand the gameplay with the perfect age for the story as well as they potentially could have.

My second problem? Well, as you read through the game some of the rules and wordings can be tricky to parse, which can slow the game down, especially if you’re trying to herd children through the adventure as well. My advice is to read ahead of time to become familiar with everything so that you never have to slow things down.

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Everything you can do on a turn is controlled by five dice you draw randomly from a bag. White dice are rolled straight away to grant you extra stuffing which acts as health, while the black dice are added to the to threat track which determines when the bad guys get to do their bad guy things. With those out of the way you can check out the remaining dice; any color can be used for movement, so you just roll as many as you like and move that many spaces around the map, the only exceptions being special environmental hazards that can’t be moved through or that require you to spend a die of the matching color. Red die and green die are used for melee attacks and ranged attacks respectively, though you can only do either of those things if you happen to have a matching weapon. As for the blue dice they have no specific use, but do appear in various skill checks and other situations. Yellow die are again used in a lot of skill checks and special situations, but can also be spent to search for useful items. Finally, pink dice can be used for anything you want, but they don’t get any bonuses from cards.

Along the way, you’ll be fighting various nasty creatures, including creepy spider-like beings with doll heads and chunky bosses who will try to steal items and run away with them. Fighting them is as simple as rolling as many melees or ranged dice as you want, adding any bonuses from your weapons, and then checking to see if the total is higher than the defense value listed on the enemy’s card. If it’s higher then the enemy is beaten, the exception being bosses who might take a couple of hits to put down.

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As for the enemies they activate when the number of black dice on the threat track is equal to or higher than the number of baddies in play. When this happens you roll a black die for each enemy, consult its card and do what it says. They’ll always move towards the nearest possible target barring any exceptions stated in the book. and then they’ll attack using the range and amount of damage shown on their card while also dishing out any special abilities they might have, many of which force players to take a variety of status cards like being scared or torn. Players can store a dice on their character card’s for use later, or they can use it to defend against an attack by rolling it and reducing the amount of damage by that number. If they block all the damage they get to keep the die.

The enemies taking their turn also triggers all the dice that have been used thus far being added back into the bag, refreshing the stock.

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On top of each Stuffy’s special ability, they also get three more skills that can be used by spending heart tokens, and these tokens get earned by doing Lost cards (more on them soon) or during events that take place throughout the story, such as investigating a spot or making a key decision.

But fighting doesn’t take up as much time as you might think after all this is a family game about a little girl. Scattered around the maps are little icons that you can interact with to draw a card from the Lost deck, giving you little encounters with a variety of people, creatures, and odd things, like a ticking time-bomb or someone being bullied. These cards offer simple choices, usually about whether or not to help out or investigate and all of them serve to strengthen the game’s messages, like how sometimes lending a hand will net you a reward in the form of a cool item while other times you’ll get a simple thank you, and both are fine. In fact, the end of each storyline has a “talking points” section which suggests things to discuss with any kids playing with you which is a fantastic little touch.

If there are not any enemies lounging next to the threat track then when there are black dice equal to the number of stuffies a Surge occurs, triggering whatever event the book tells you about. Sometimes it might be the arrival of baddies to fight, either a randomly generated encounter or a pre-determined one, and other times it might be having to do something like revealing a sleep card. These again can do special things depending on the story you’re playing.

There are group tests as well where everyone can contribute a die or dice of the correct color to a track next to the threat track. More co-operation opportunities come in the form of being able to “encourage” another stuffy by giving them a dice or even sharing your stuffing with them, and that’s important because while you can’t die in Stuffed Fables you can lose all your stuffing and collapse, leaving you a bit useless for a while.

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You can even gather up new items for your Stuffy to equip. One way of doing this is using the yellow dice to perform a search action; if you beat the number listed at the top right of the page you get to draw the top item from the item deck for free. You can also visit shops in order to spend buttons that you acquire by beating up the bad guys. Whichever way you choose to get new stuff you’ll get to use pencils as weapons, glue to stop foes from moving and buckets as armor. Again, it’s all just so damn cutesy. I freaking love it.

As you move through each story, often swapping pages as you travel to a new area, you’ll get to trigger lots of different events that get read out by whoever is the Bookeeper for that round. The quality of the writing does tend to vary and has a few issues with swapping between the first and third person at times, but for the most part the writing is solid enough, especially when you consider it’s aimed at children. Your jaw isn’t going to drop at the marvelously crafted narratives or the complex tales of morality hidden beneath the surface or anything like that, but I can guarantee you’ll still be smiling the whole way through. I love it in the same way that at the age of 26 I still love Disney movies and animated films.

You even get special story cards that you don’t look at prior to embarking on a game, instead only grabbing cards as and when instructed by the book. This helps bring an extra layer of discovery into the game that my little nieces loved, and there are even divider cards that list what cards should be where so that you can re-assemble the discovery decks for later, or you can simply mix the cards in with the regular decks as you finish each story.

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If I had any other gripes with the game it’s this; at about 60-90 minutes a single game feels a bit too long for younger children. I think 60-minutes should be the max, rather than the typical running time. With that said, this is a relatively easy game to “save” provided you have a few bags.

It’s so easy to see why Stuffed Fables has become a huge hit. It seeks to create a fantastical child-like wander through its tales of teddies defending their beloved child and succeeds at almost every step. Yes, I don’t feel like the age-range of the story quite matches up with the age needed to understand how to play the game, and yes, it’s not a particularly deep game nor one that has amazing mechanics, but none of these things stopped me from loving every moment of it. It’s a wonderful family game that’s easy to learn yet still satisfying to play, tells fun stories with solid life-lessons, and looks beautiful as well. Best of all while it’s clearly aimed at children a group of adults can still have a superb time taking on the roles of brave teddies defending their child from the world.

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Board Game Review

Firefly Adventures Brigands & Browncoats fReview – Can we maybe vote on the whole murdering people issue

I know, it has been a while since I professed my undying and eternal love for Firefly, a cult sci-fi show that didn’t even get to run for a full season before it was callously canceled by those muppets at Fox, a crime so heinous that I still have not forgiven them. The point is for a show that only ran 14-episodes it still managed to spawn a feature film, various comics, and now numerous board and card games. That’s a hell of a legacy.

So, you open up the box and you’re greeted by a variety of smaller boxes containing the various pieces needed to play the game. But here’s the clever bit; these boxes double as buildings for use in the game, scenery that helps create a better sense of immersion as well as making a line of sight much easier to judge. Even the main game box itself is a giant building that gets used in one of the missions. This is a fantastic idea, and while I’m probably wrong about this I think it might be the only game to do this. It does, however, come with a few key caveats, the first being that these little cardboard buildings are very, very easy to knock around, especially when you’re trying to pick up tokens from inside them or move the miniatures around. They also don’t always fit properly into the grid, and in one case had an off-balance floor. But these gripes aside it was pretty cool to have instant scenery for the game.

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However, you also only get a lowly four missions in the box. More is promised to be launched online for free, but it’s still a shame to pop open the lid and only have four missions to embark on, even if the replay value is reasonably strong.

Still, as the misfit crew of the Serenity, you’re going to rescue a hostage, perform a clandestine drop-off, steal some loot, and generally misbehave. Whereas Gale Force Nine’s prior Firefly: The Board Game was a sprawling beast about the big picture of pulling off jobs in space, this is all about the small scale, the things that happen when you land on a planet and have to negotiate with the local goons, hack a terminal or two and get into some brawls.

You don’t get the entire crew of the Serenity to play with, though. Cap’n Mal, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, and Jayne are all accounted for, but River, Simon, Inara, and Book are all absent without explanation. Thematically it does make sense since River, Simon, Inara, and Book were not part of the core crew who took on the various legal and illegal jobs, but I feel as though we’ll likely see these missing members of Serenity added at some point via an expansion.

Setting up the game is a case of grabbing one of them for mission booklets and then laying down the matching tiles and buildings, as well as any objective tokens and enemy starting locations. It’s a bit of a faff since the artwork depicted in the booklet doesn’t always match the actual buildings, and you have to count squares in order to line everything up correctly, but once you get the hang of it the whole setup isn’t too bad.

Intriguingly there’s no set turn order in Firefly: Adventures, rather it’s the person who is currently at the back of the Moment track that gets to go next. Allow me to explain; on your turn, you can take two actions that are listed on your player board, and each of those actions has a cost in Moments, or in other words the time it takes to do them. When you perform an action you move your little token the appropriate number of spaces along the track. Simple stuff. Then whoever is at the back of the track gets their turn, even if that happens to be you again. Enemy tokens will also get placed on this track, and will indeed always get put at the back when the goons first become alerted and will behave in the same way. There’s an intriguing layer of tactics here as it can often be advantageous for one person to take a few turns in a row, but the missions all have time limits, so you also need to keep an eye on how much time you have left.

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Every ten spaces along the track there’s a star, and the first time a player character’s token lands on or pass each star a die is rolled, then the mission booklet is consulted to see what happens.

You always start with your heroes acting Casual, meaning they’re free to amble around the map without any bad guys doing anything to them. So long as nobody draws attention to themselves by doing something daft like punching a goon in the face of blatantly trying to hack into a terminal or anything like that, you’re able to go about your business. Since missions typically have objectives where you can negotiate with the enemy in order to get information or even move them away from a location is often in your best interest to stay under the radar as long as you can.

You can, however, swap over to acting Heroic at any time you like, and it doesn’t cost an action or any Moments to do so. When you do this you replace your miniature with a green, Heroic one and then flip your player board over to its Heroic side which lists differing actions for each character. The key is that when you go into Heroic mode any enemy that can see you will immediately enter the alerted state, meaning they’ll now actively come after you with all guns blazing and a stern telling off.

That brings us to moving the bad guys around the map and their mechanics. Now, since the players control the bad guys in the sense that they move them around the game makes a note of encouraging everyone at the table to have the enemies act smartly by using cover and making sensible plays, so let’s just assume we’ll be following that guideline. Alerted bad guys will always move toward the nearest Heroic character in their line of sight, but failing that they’ll go for a stroll toward whichever Heroic hero happens to be closest to them regardless of being able to actually see them because obviously they have x-ray vision. Happily, though, goons will return to a blissfully unaware state if there are no Heroic crew left on the board, at which point they’ll make their way back to the nearest goon token and resume their steadfast guarding duties.

Speaking of which, a player can always return to acting Casual provided they meet these requirements; they aren’t wounded, thus you might need to heal up using a different action; they aren’t in the line of sight of any goods, and finally provided they use an action to spend two Moments. What this smartly means is that it’s actually possible to do something Heroic, then go back to acting Casual in the same turn if you time it right. You can also do that thing I mentioned earlier where one player takes a few turns in a row, letting then do something Heroic before diving behind a building and acting Casual again.

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Let’s get back to the goons, though. They come in two distinct flavors; the punchy thugs who like to get up close and personal with your face, and the cowboys who much prefer to riddle your backside with a selection of bullets, preferably while they stay in the cover which makes it harder to be hit. Both types come with a card that lists what they’ll do, but the basic idea is that they’ll always do two actions on their turn and will attempt to get into range for punching or shooting. The only bit of confusion is that the Cowboy is listed as trying to move into a range of six squares at which point he’ll take a shot, but it’s a bit unclear as to whether he is meant to stop as soon as he hits that range or will use his movement to get as close as possible first, which is what my group assumed as that just made more sense unless there was the cover that the Cowboy could take advantage of.

This brings us to fighting since both the players and the enemy use the same system. Provided you have the Brawl or Shoot symbol on your character or on a piece of equipment you can do a bit of fighting. For some fisticuffs, it’s simply a case of getting next to the enemy you want to smack around and then rolling the amount of dice shown. The enemy gets to roll as well, hence the fact that the dice come in two different colors, and whoever has the highest total dishes out a wound on the opponent. Simple stuff.

Shooting can be done at any range in theory, but to hit you need to able to roll a total that is equal to or higher than the distance between you and the unfortunate person, thus if your gun only lets you roll a single die the maximum distance you could shoot is six squares. Or at least, it would be, but to brawls and to shooting you also get to add any of the matching skill icons on your character card and equipment you’re using.

There’s a small twist, too. If you roll the Serenity ship, which counts as a six, then you immediately get to add another dice to your roll, and this applies to rolls for challenges as well. However, for every symbol that pops up a Serenity roll is negated, and if there are more of these symbols than there are ships you automatically fail.

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I love this Casual vs Heroic system that underpins as it can create a lot of fun moments in the game where one player suddenly pulls out a gun and starts drawing the attention of the bad guys so someone else can saunter up to the objective unhindered. You can go in all guns blazing or focus on sweet-talking your way through the whole mission, or a bit of both. It’s also really satisfying when things get screwed up, so you fight a few goons, duck around a building, and go back to acting casual like nothing ever happened, sauntering down the street while whistling a jaunty tune. Sure, it’s a bit daft to think that the enemies suddenly don’t recognize you despite the fact that you just punched one of them in the face, but from a gameplay standpoint it’s a lot of fun to pull off.

I also like how the system encourages forward planning. At the start of the mission you’re given a chunk of cash that’s either based on the previous mission’s earnings or just a set amount of $3000 to play with, and you can use this to purchase gear from a selection of five cards, with cards being replaced as they’re bought What gear should you take in? Should you spend big on guns, or maybe go for things that help negotiate? And which characters should get which piece of equipment? Some characters, like Kaylee, for example, can’t initiate a brawl without a weapon that lists the brawl action, so is it worth giving her a knife or just trying to ensure she keeps out of the way of fights entirely?

Dead bodies play a part, too, because every time you beat up a goon or shoot one in the face you leave a corpse, and if an enemy can see that corpse they’ll be alerted. See? And you thought your mum was just being annoying when she was always nagging you to tidy up after yourself. It’s okay, though, because you can lug these bodies around and hide them behind corners or in buildings.

Along the way, you’ll need to perform a variety of skill checks. Both negotiations and tech challenges mean drawing a card from the appropriate deck and then taking one of the two options listed there. Once you’ve decided you just need to roll and then add any matching skill icons you’ve got to the total. Succeeded and the card will give you a reward, fail and it’ll hit you with a penalty, perhaps forcing you to act Heroic or lose a piece of gear.

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Each of the four jobs all boasts their own special rules and events surrounding these challenges and other things, too, bringing some nice variety to the escapades. For example, in one game you can perform negotiation challenges on goons to get them to move away from their positions at the door, letting you hopefully break-in. In another mission negotiations and hacking terminals slowly narrows down the location of a hostage, or you could just barge through the various buildings until you find the person in question.

As a bonus, the rulebook does include a variation where one person gets to take on the role of the enemy goons. It’s a pretty nice diversion but it also removes the Casual/Heroic mechanic and thereby removes what makes the game stand out in my mind.

By far the game’s biggest potential weakness is the reliance on luck that stems from the dice rolls and the cards. Sometimes no matter how carefully you position your crew or what gear you take into the game it just doesn’t go your way due to bad rolls or awful draws.  Luck isn’t an inherently good or bad thing in board games and when used correctly a hefty dollop of chance can help spice things up, but I’d be lying if I and my friends didn’t sometimes get frustrated by how often our plans were decimated because Lady Luck is as fickle and cold as the person behind the Subway’s counter who won’t give you a little more mayo. God damn you.

The other issue is that the rulebook really isn’t great. In fact, the online FAQ is a must-read since some rules need clarification. The lack of an index is also a baffling oversight. Yes, the rulebook isn’t huge or anything, but having to flip through it to find something specific

So, if you happen to be a fan of Firefly then this an easy sale, though I would say that compared to Firefly: The Board Game this doesn’t capture the feel of the show as much. But if you aren’t a Firefly fan then it’s a slightly tougher sell. This is a light skirmish game with plenty of emphasis on luck over the skill that can create some really fun moments. It’s not a must-have game that you absolutely must rush out and buy, but if you need a light skirmish game to fill a gap in your library then this is a nice choice with a couple of great ideas layered atop some bog-standard combat.

Categories
Board Game Review

Gears Tactics gets the turn-based fundamentals right, but isn’t consistently fun

Gears of War games are at their best when players are pushing forward, chewing through the Locust horde with chainsaw bayonets. The same is true for Gears Tactics, the franchise’s first-ever turn-based strategy game.

But the moment that developer Splash Damage asks players to stand still — whether it’s for a drawn-out boss battle, a defensive mission, or simply to peruse the menu system — the illusion falls apart.

Gears Tactics lacks the pacing that makes the iconic third-person shooters so much fun to play, and it’s weighed down by a reliance on stunt missions that detract from its otherwise solid fundamentals.

A VERY DIFFERENT GAMEPLAY LOOP

A locust leader holds a COG soldier by the throat near the end of act one of Gears TacticsImage: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

Gears Tactics is played from an overhead perspective, with Coalition of Ordered Government, or COG, soldiers and the evil Locust forces each taking their turns before moving to the next round of play. Things bounce back and forth until one side is eliminated, or until that particular mission’s objectives are met.

Gears Tactics might look like a clever clone of Firaxis’ XCOM games, but it’s something else entirely. There’s no grid that provides strict rules for how units can move, so the game actually has more in common with miniatures-based wargames and skirmish systems like Bolt Action, Infinity, and Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team.

That subtle difference gives Gears Tactics the fluidity of movement — referred to as “horizontal platforming” by its developers — that drives the Gears franchise. Units snap into cover, use attacks of opportunity on passing enemies, and generally flit around the board in a very Gearsian way.

An early mission in Gears Tactics asks players to defend a group of civilians on a broken down emulsion mining rig. Here a team of four COGs makes a desperate last stand, back to back outside the rig.

The same can be said of the game’s endless stream of equipment, offered in the form of weapon mods and bits of armor. I stopped getting excited with pickups a few hours in, mainly because another 5% here or there doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The opening hours were a bit dire, in fact, with gear that didn’t get me excited to try it out and soldiers that all pretty much felt the same.

But then I started to understand what the game needs from me to come to life. Gears Tactics relies on a nested series of buffs to generate additional actions during the player turn and to give the action some momentum. If you do something cool during your turn, you will be rewarded for it, and that reward will keep your soldiers fighting.

I STARTED TO UNDERSTAND WHAT THE GAME NEEDS FROM ME TO COME TO LIFE.

Pinion a Locust on your old-school bayonet? Take another shot. Nail a sniper shot at long range? Reload your weapon and take a few more shots. Execute a downed enemy? Everyone on your side gets another action. You can run roughshod over the enemy by chaining your successful attacks together, even against impossible odds. Toss in some deft work with a hand grenade or two and it’s mission accomplished. Learning how to keep things rolling so the enemy barely has a chance to respond feels good, and brings the game the weighty feeling of power and capacity for violence that made the originals so satisfying.

Gears Tactics holds up the standards of the franchise for visual quality, as well. Cutscenes were indistinguishable to my eye from those in Gears 5, as were some of the animations. Every map includes a fully rotatable camera, and the lighting and the textures are all top-notch. In fact, this is the only turn-based tactics game that I’ve ever played that comes with its own benchmarking system.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

A player lines up a lancer run on an unsuspecting locust drone. A blue track, like a ruler, extends from the friendly unit towards the targeted enemy.Image: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

But the game falls apart when it tries to create a cohesive, unified experience. The wires holding everything together are too often visible, and it wrecks what little immersion Gears Tactics manage to build up.

When things are going well for your side, the game can sometimes fail to provide a tone that matches where you are in a level. Soldiers will crack wise with a tense bark, or command new recruits to act more like soldiers. Everyone needs to man up and stay frosty! Meanwhile, the board is completely empty, and you’re just killing time for a few rounds before another wave of enemies invariably drops from the sky. My team never seemed to be as connected to what was going on as I’m used to from other games.

Missions will sometimes stop on a dime, ripping you out of the game too suddenly. It may happen because you’ve failed to protect the main character and need to start over, but sometimes you’ve just accumulated enough of a resource to fulfill the objective and trigger the cutscene, which ends the round instantly. This can happen just when it feels like the mission is just getting good, and during those moments it almost feels like my reward for doing well is taken away. I won the mission, and to celebrate that win everything just kinda … ends?

Players battling a giant Brumak. The beast shows tens of thousands of points of armor. Previous enemies only had hundreds, maybe a thousand points. Red circles show where it’s powerful missiles will land.Image: Splash Damage, The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

This happened more than once — another Boomer had come up from an emergence hole, or an avenue of escape was suddenly blocked off by some explosive Tickers. I wish that Gears Tactics was able to sustain those fun gameplay moments in a way that let me play out whatever would have happened next, rather than kicking me out and making me start over with a new mission while I’m stuck feeling like I wasn’t able to properly bring the last section to a close.

Not all missions are created equal. As I mentioned above, Gears Tactics — just like every other Gear of War game — is best when you’re on the move. Defensive missions in this turn-based adaptation tend to drag on and on, once again killing any sense of momentum or fun.

Meanwhile, I was forced to sit through the same cinematic of the Brumak firing its shoulder-mounted missile launchers more than a dozen times, dragging out the dull experience of whittling down its health. I didn’t celebrate when it finally fell, I just happened to be done with an encounter that felt like an endless drag.

The menus that players use between missions are also poorly designed. That’s especially true of the equipment system, which buries all of your available kit four menus deep. Say that you want to rebuild your lancer, the classic Gears of War rifle with a chainsaw attachment. To find our what your options are for the ammunition magazine, for instance, you have to drill all the way down to the last menu in the chain to see what’s available. Repeat the process for the stock, the weapon sight, and the barrel and it becomes an incredibly tedious process.

There are at least four other weapons in the game, meaning that you’ve got to do this dance dozens of times ahead of each mission to try and stack up the best incremental bonuses for your troops. I would have much rather had the ability to strip every soldier down to their skivvies and dress them up for every mission, instead of playing this dreary game of Tetris trying to figure out how to best spread all the available equipment around.

The fundamentals of Gears Tactics work, but Gears 5 did much more than just work. It pushed the formula forward.

Moving and shooting and cutting up Locusts is a good time, even in a turn-based system, but that’s not enough to sustain an entire game. Every other element of the game — from the class system to the perks, to the way that missions and UI elements are designed — needs more refinement and care.

This is a near miss, but as anyone who has ever played a turn-based game will tell you, a near miss can be all the enemy needs to take you out. This is an interesting, but hardly essential, addition to the Gears family.

Categories
Board Game Review

Wisdom of Solomon Kickstarter Quick Review – Is It Wise To Back

Due to the review copy of Wisdom of Solomon arriving just before the Kickstarter began and the campaign having just six days left as I write this, this is going to be a short review so that you can at least get an idea of how it plays. So let’s just leap head-first into this, shall we? And please, forgive me if my writing is a lot rougher than it usually is, which is certainly saying something.

You’ll be acting as a Governor for King Wisdom of Solomon, the very king known for building the famous temple of Wisdom of Solomon during the golden age of Isreal. It’s your job to expand the King’s influence by constructing new buildings, grabbing resources, and helping out with the temple. Whoever manages to curry the most favor with the King by the end of the game will be crowned the winner. In other words, it’s about victory points, baby.

Wisdom of Solomon is a worker-placement game where players will take it in turns to plop down one of their workers and do the associated action over the course of several in-game years. It’s worth saying right now before we get further into this quick review that Wisdom of Solomon is a fairly bog-standard worker-placement game that does little different or new, so if you were seeking a fresh experience this isn’t going to be it.

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So let’s break down exactly where you can go and do in your pursuit of those glorious points and the favor of the king Wisdom of Solomon.

By visiting the Market you can sacrifice some influence to purchase a max of three available resources, paying the amount shown underneath the resource cube, or you can opt to sell a few of your spare cubes, this time earning the amount of influence shown under the space that you select to sell to.

The key here is that the leftmost spaces are the cheapest and the further right are the priciest, and you’re free to buy and sell from any space you wish, thus the first player at the market each round can get the best possible bargains. It’s even possible to buy low and then sell high in the same turn, if you like, perhaps picking up some copper for two points of Favor before then selling it back for four.

Each round the market gets refreshed with new resources from the limited stockpile so that there are always two of each kind available to buy. The existing resources and the new ones also get pushed to the leftmost spaces so that they are at their cheapest sale values wisdom of Solomon.

These resources can be used to purchase new buildings at the Foreman’s Office where you can pick from the three currently available building cards, with new ones replacing any bought ones at the end of the round. Each building offers a reputation bonus, plus an extra reputation based on which slot it was next to on the board. Finally, buildings also net you special abilities once bought, like earning extra resources when you visit a region of Isreal or even giving you extra action spaces that do handy things like turn brick and into points.

But you can also spend resources to help build the mighty temple by going to the Levite and buying one of the tiles that were randomly distributed on the temple at the start of the game. It’s important to note that for every other worker already on the Levite space you have to cough up an extra resource, so it pays to visit this space early if you can.

Each tile is going to be worth a random amount of Favor, making them a riskier prospect than just buying a new building, but there’s the potential to score some big points. More importantly, once the last tile on the temple has been removed the end of the game is triggered, so you always need to be thinking about when you want to start bringing things to a close or whether somebody else is attempting to finish the game early.

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Visiting the Levite also grants you a Fortune card which you can then play by going to either the Market or the Trader. These special cards do a variety of things, including doubling the resources you gather from your network (more on that later) and letting you select one of your placed workers to take the corresponding action again Wisdom of Solomon.

Another way to grab resources is by visiting the various regions of Isreal, plopping down one of your workers to claim the resources shown there. This is where one of the game’s more interesting mechanics comes into play, because after you take the build action at the Foreman’s you can then take one of your customs houses and place it in any region that has an open customs house slot.

You also then get to take a road piece and lay it down so that one end starts in the region you just placed a customs house in, and the other sits in a new region. The reason for this is that you can’t claim any resources from an area where an opponent has a customs house unless you also have a customs house there.

As for the roads, they form a network that lets you claim resources from connected areas of Isreal, thus if you build your network smartly you could net numerous copper, wood, and other goodies from a single move.

While the rest of the game is quite standard stuff, this little battle for control of Isreal’s various regions is pretty interesting and produces a lot of good decisions, though having to visit the Foreman’s space before being able to play a customs house does help stop one player managing to build up an early network Wisdom of Solomon.

If you still don’t have the resources you want or need the trader is the place for you as it lets you trade a single resource for any two resources available in the resource piles. These piles are quite limited based upon the number of players so that does stop the trader from being abused, but he does feel a tad overpowered Wisdom of Solomon.

The final location resides just outside of the temple and is actually made up of four different spots collectively known as the Holy Places where you can send your workers. Each of these imparts powerful bonuses, like being able to draw three Fortune cards or getting one of every resource. However, there’s a bit of a catch because to use a Holy Place you need to send ALL of your remaining workers there, ending your year until the next round begins.

But as an extra reward for being the first player to claim a Holy Place, you get the first player token, enabling you to get the pick of the board next round. But I have to say that being first didn’t feel as valuable as it does in other worker-placement games. Sure, there are limits to how many workers can be placed on a spot, but you don’t normally find yourself locked out of a location until later in the round. Still, the first pick of the buildings or the Levite can be useful Wisdom of Solomon.

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As for the components they’re…okay. There’s some nice artwork courtesy on the Fortune cards and building cards. nut everything else speaks to the game’s smaller budget, which is of course entirely understandable but bears mentioning regardless.

The board is perhaps the biggest example as it’s brown with buildings that don’t really look like buildings and a temple that doesn’t look like a temple. I’m also not a fan of the temple tiles having plain backs, or the tiles you put on regions at the start to denote that the region can’t produce anything.

The simple truth of the matter is that the Wisdom of Solomon didn’t connect with me. This doesn’t mean it’s somehow a bad game, indeed it’s competently designed from start to finish. But I couldn’t find any reason to get excited about, no reason to play it over the small pile of other worker-placement games I’ve got sitting on my shelves.

The theme feels dry, the components are nothing special, and the gameplay is well enough done, but these days that isn’t quite enough. The only thing that really grabbed my attention was the custom houses and roads because that led to some fun decisions Wisdom of Solomon.

So, should you back it? No. At least, I don’t think so, but at the time of writing the project has been successfully funded, so clearly I’m the odd one out.

Wisdom of Solomon called for £7,500 in Kickstarter funds and has thus far earned twice that. To get the game you need to pledge about £33 with an expected delivery of December. If you wish to back the game or see more about it you can visit the Kickstarter page.

Categories
Board Game Review

Peak Oil Review – Black Gold

Peak Oil places you into the shiny, pointed shoes of someone running an oil empire where you must deal with investing in new technology, drilling for oil and then selling that oil before the world has run out of its favorite fossil fuel and will presumably be turning into a post-apocalyptic scenario quite soon, possibly with some guy called Max blasting around. This all takes the form of a worker-placement game where you have to fight for control of a few different locations across the board while fending off the other players.

To kick off everyone gets given their very own cardboard HQ sheet as well as a private portfolio which represents the companies that you’ve already quietly invested in. These will count toward scoring at the end of the game and are kept secret from everyone else, which is why it’s so delightful to watch as your opponent’s sink cash into companies that will give you some extra points later. You also get two starting workers, a few barrels of oil which represent a tremendous amount of cash and, of course, a burning desire to make even more money at the cost of the environment.

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The world’s oil supply gets represented by a bunch of black barrels, along with red and yellow ones which we’ll come back to later, being put into a bag. The exact amounts are determined by how many players are sitting at the table.

On your turn the first thing you have to decide is whether to move a worker from one action spot to another, or take an action.  However, here’s the catch; if you have the majority of workers at a location then you can do both of the things associated with that space but if you’re in the minority then you can only take one. The areas at the top of the board represent various locations across the world such as Russia only have a single action each, though, so only someone who has more workers than anyone else at that location can send out oil to the refineries. Once you’ve decided whether to take an action or shift a worker across the board you then get to move a second worker, and even a third if you’re willing to pay a barrel of oil for the privilege.

This forms the real strategic meat of the game as you’re constantly weighing up what you want to do against stopping other players enacting their own plans. At the start you’ll just have two workers to play with, but you can get up to two more by recruiting them in order to spread your influence wider and open up more options. However, since you can only take an action before moving anyone around you always need to be thinking ahead while also watching what everyone else is doing so that you can take the actions you need to. Do you risk sending a worker or two away from the space you really want in order to spoil someone else’s plan? How many workers should you shift somewhere to maintain a majority for the next turn? If there’s a country that has a lot of oil sitting in it, should you try to shift your whole workforce there in order to ship it out before anyone else can?

Let’s delve properly into the various actions you can take on a turn. The first spot in the bottom row of actions is Expand, and by visiting here you can increase your available workers by one, recruiting a new pawn and placing in at your HQ for future use. The secondary action available here is to Dispatch all your workers currently on the action spot to another location and immediately activating it. This means that provided you are in the majority you can recruit a new agent and then potentially take another two actions all in the same turn.

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Investing in new technology is your ultimate goal in the game since it provides the big points, and you can do this by heading to the Invest space and putting a barrel of oil on any of the technology spaces on the right of the board, simultaneously increasing the price of that technology when purchasing Start-Up cards and bumping up the amount of points those cards will be worth at the end of the game. Speaking of cards, this spot also lets you take the Start-Up action which you do by selecting one of three face-up Start-Up cards which represent the various technologies and paying an amount of barrels of oil equal to the barrels sitting on the corresponding technology slot. At the end of the game each card will be worth points equal to the amount of barrels on these technology spaces, so it pays to buy Start-Up cards early and then invest in the appropriate technology as the game goes on, but of course you also have to keep an eye on what everyone else is doing or risk handing other players a bunch of free points.

Drilling for oil is how you discover the liquid black resource you so desperately want, so to do this you visit the Develop spot. When you drill for oil you select one of the three region cards sitting on the table and then place the amount of oil barrels shown on the appropriate location at the top of the board. But then you also get the chance to push your luck a little because almost every card has bonus barrels shown on the bottom right, meaning you can draw up to that many barrels randomly from the bag. That’s potentially dangerous, though, because this might result in you drawing a yellow barrel which means having to take a PR Crisis card that will be worth negative points at the end of the game and that also has other nasty effects. If you already have a level 1 crisis you need to take the next level, and if you’ve already got that you’ll need to go up to the horrible level 3 crisis’. Drawing a red barrel works exactly the same, except that unlike yellow barrels red ones are placed back in the bag.

Luckily the  Develop action spot also lets you take the Whitewash action where you can pay a few barrels of oil to have any awkward PR Crisis cards quietly swept under the rug. Personally I imagine this as basically bribing the major media outlets to stop covering the issue.

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Once a region has some oil you need to head there with a few workers in order to ship it to refineries and make yourself a splash of black cash. These refineries are connected to the locations via travel routes, and these travel routes will have randomly selected chips displaying a few different things that can force you to draw barrels from the bag, thus potentially running into some horrible PR crises, or you might just have a few barrels nicked by pesky pirates who will send them to the Black Market. You get to keep all the barrels that make it to the refinery, though, adding them to your HQ in order to be spent down the line. You can, however, pick up Security Tokens from certain Region cards that let you flip over chips to the other side, thus potentially making things easier, or even swap chips in order to help yourself out and hinder someone else.

When you draw barrels from the bag, excluding when you pull out ones in order to supply a location with oil, the first black barrel you draw gets sent to the Black Market, which are spaces beside the various technologies on the right-hand side of the board. Only a single barrel can be put next to each technology, and when those spaces are filled all the barrels get shifted over to the technology.

When you visit the Grey Ops action space you can also place a barrel from your HQ on an empty Black Market space, and then move all the barrels from the Black Market to their corresponding technologies. This Grey Ops space also lets you hire a consultant from the available ones, and these can give you a few extra abilities as well as earning a couple of extra victory points.

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As you come to the closing stages of the game the titular Peak Oil phase is triggered once all of the black barrels have been taken from the bag, representing how the world has finally run out of liqid dinosaur remains. Once this final phase has been activated everyone gets a chance to move one worker, and then going through all the action spots in order each player with the majority gets to take one of the available actions first before removing their workers. Thereafter everyone else gets to take one action on a space provided they have at least a single worker there. Then its game over and time to tally up the points.

It’s actually the closing stages of the game that found to be the most troublesome. As players judged the oil to be running out they became increasingly unwilling to do anything that would force them to take barrels from the bag as it would most likely result in PR crises instead. This slowed the pace down a bit as everyone stopped trying to ship as much oil and instead would just drill, that way they could guarantee removing some more black barrels from the bag, plus drilling cards often have icons which help with end-game scoring. Maybe it was just me and my friends playing the final rounds of the game wrong, but it felt like a problem. The only time it was less of an issue is when one player had a clear advantage and could therefore afford to take more risks.

Everything else, though, is really rather excellent. I’ve got a soft-spot for worker-placement games, anyway, but this one does exceptionally well by having a relatively simple and easy to learn set of mechanics that deliver a lot of strategic depth. I love how you have to really plan ahead to ensure you have workers on the action spots that you need. It creates a lot more interaction between players, too, who all have to be aware of what everyone else is doing or else risk being unable to maximize their turns.

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I’ve also got to commend the production values and general look of the game. The little wooden barrels are a nice touch, the cards are made of good stock, the workers are nice and chunky. It just feels nice to play with, and the blue, stylized art style gives it a distinct look all of its own.

Thus far Peak Oil seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the gaming world and that’s a shame because there’s a really great board game here that strikes a nice balance between depth and ease of learning. I really enjoyed planning out my moves, judging when to drill for more oil, shipping it, and investing in technology, all while keeping an eye on everyone else. Worker placement games can often feel like you’re playing by yourself, only occasionally interacting with the other players, but Peak Oil really keeps everyone engaged with each other, though admittedly with only two players that effect is considerably decreased. Still, I’m giving this one a solid recommendation.

Categories
Board Game Review

Mission: Red Planet Review – Steampunk Mars

Who knows what wonders the Mission: Red planets hold? I mean, obviously, ours has Coke, cakes and video games, so it’s clearly the best, but those other planets out there might hold the resources key to improving those things! Better video games, more types of cake, NEW FLAVORS OF COKE! The possibilities are truly endless.

The idea is you’re sending astronauts to the Mission: Red Planet (which is never actually directly referred to as Mars) in order to mine the valuable resources that can be found there. But the game is set in the year 1888,

so instead of using modern technology to escape the clutches of our beloved planet’s atmosphere, you need to use the mighty powers of steam, top hats, and monocles. Yup, Mission: Red Planet has a steampunk theme that ultimately looks rather pretty but isn’t integral to anything.

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So, here’s how it all goes down; Everybody gets the same set of nine numbered character cards, and at the start of each round everybody will select one of them and place it face-down. With that done, the cards are simultaneously revealed and resolved in order of their number from highest to lowest, which naturally should be done by somebody loudly counting down from 10 to 1.

Getting your little astronauts to surface of Totally-Not-Mars or its orbiting chum Phobos is pretty important, which is why most of the cards you play let you stick one or more of your little plastic astronauts into the three docked rocket cards, each of which has a location written on it matching a spot on the board.

Whenever the rocket reaches its listed capacity it takes off, as represented by moving the card up and away from the little cardboard docking pieces. Toward the end of the round, you shift all the astronauts on launched ships to their destinations and then replace launched ships with new ones.

Some of the cards you play even let you place a new destination on a rocket, an awesome way of hijacking a lift or even to send an opponent to the wrong side of Mars, while other rockets simply have a question mark meaning the first player to stick an astronaut inside gets to pick where it’s heading. I can only imagine it’s the equivalent of realizing that you need THIS TURN on the highway at the last second and veering like a lunatic to get there.

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Aside from just letting you send your little plastic astronauts to the Mission: Red Planet the nine character cards come with a bunch of extra abilities. The Saboteur, for example, let’s you blow up a docked space shuttle, sending all the occupants to the Lost in Space zone that essentially acts as a giant floating graveyard for all the poor astronauts who got a bit unlucky in the battle for resources.

Then you have the Travel Agent who lets you pack three astronauts into a single ship, but if there isn’t enough room for all three then you don’t get to send any at all, and since her number is quite low playing her can be risky if you don’t choose the right time.

Meanwhile, the Femme Fatale lets you put an astronaut on a ship, and then replace an opponent’s astronaut on the planet with one of your own. Or you could play the Soldier who not only lets you put two astronauts into ships but also lets you kill one astronaut on Mars or Phobos. One of my personal favorites was a card that lets you use Phobos as a staging area by taking all of your astronauts there and shifting them to any zone you want.

It’s a fantastic system that’s simple to use, creates endless tension, and leads to interesting decisions that must be made. Maybe you play the Saboteur, but since he’s a number 5 you have to watch in horror as two of the three docked ships are filled and begin to fly away, leaving the only one to destroy is the one you have several astronauts on.

Maybe you spot someone looking to gain dominance in the Phobos zone so you use the Femme Fatale to seduce one of their astronauts, or you use the Secret Spy so the ship launches early. You could even use the Tour Guide to move your own astronauts around on Mars, suddenly shifting the game’s dynamic and leaving everyone else scowling at you like you just stole the last slice of pizza.

Ultimately you’re doing all of this to control territory on the surface of the Mission: Red planet because there are key moments during the game where each zone on the Mission: Red Planet will produce resources based upon the random tile that was put there during setup. Each of the three resource types is worth points, and each production phase will spew out more tokens than the last.

If there’s a tie for control then the tiles are split evenly, and any that cannot be split are simply left for a later round, just waiting to be claimed. The resource tiles themselves are revealed as soon as an astronaut is placed in the same zone as them, so you find out early where the biggest points are going to be appearing, and after that, it’s just a fight to see who gets them all.

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It’s all very tactical rather than strategic. You can’t have a grand plan going into Mission: Red Planet because it will get tossed out the window on the very first round as the fast-paced action unfolds. No, you need to deal with each and every round as it comes instead, focusing on what’s happening now and what you think other people might do.

Every played character is put face up in front of the person who played it until they pop down the Recruiter card which lets them pick up all the discarded characters again, and thus you always know what other players have used and what they have left. You can make educated guesses, but until the cards are flipped over you can rarely ever be sure about what’s going to happen, and so much of the game’s fun stems from watching how a round plays out.

Spicing things up are the various mission cards that give you bonus points for achieving certain goals such as having at least one astronaut in the indicated zones or even having the most dead astronauts floating around in the Memorial, a fun mission that leads to players blowing up ships full of their own guys.

You can draw new mission cards using a certain character, but the deck also contains a few other card types of the card such as discoveries that get placed face-down along the outer edge of the board.  Toward the end of the game, these cards get revealed and heavily affect things in their zone, which can in turn radically alter how points get scored, making for some last-minute see-saw changes.

I know, it’s really easy to see why Mission: Red Planet has been given a second edition and why it’s highly regarded among the gaming community. The ruleset is not overly tricky to grasp but from its rockets brilliance, a clever mix of tactical thinking and chaos that creates lots and lots and lots and lots of fun.

And some yelling, too, because flipping over character cards can be a lot like watching your plans being hung from the rafters and then beaten like a pinata, except instead of delicious candy pouring out its just angry wasps.

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There are a few problems that hold it back from being a truly brilliant game, though. While the fairly heft dose of luck can work in the game’s favor by injecting a load of chaos into the mixture it can also be annoying to have plans ruined through no real fault of your own.

And most important after a few games with my friends, that I thoroughly enjoyed, we all suddenly found ourselves burned out on the action. It’s not a particularly deep game so it for us it didn’t support multiple playthroughs without a good break between them.

Still, that’s not really a massive complaint; not all games need to be absurdly deep and think, and there’s really nothing wrong with something that just wants to be fun. It just so happens that in the case of Mission: Red Planet I have a lot of fun, and then didn’t want to play it again for quite a long time.

It has to be said that this new edition is rather lovely to look at. FFG usually put out good quality products and they’ve kept that reputation up for Mission: Red Planet. The little plastic astronauts look nice and colorful as they are progressively scattered across the Mission: Red Planet and Phobos, the artwork is beautiful and I really appreciated the dial for keeping track of the rounds.

If I was to criticise anything in the production department, other than FFG’s horrible box inserts, it would be that the steampunk art is fairly generic.

All in all, I really like Mission: Red Planet. It’s one of those games that I could use to introduce my friends to slightly more complex things without overwhelming them, the general concept of how to win being easy to grasp. In fact, my little niece of 9-years was able to understand most of it.

There’s still enough going on for the more experienced gamer, too. And while the elements of “take that!” where your ship full of astronauts gets blown up or something can be annoying they never overpower the game. It’s just good, wholesome fun. That also involves killing random astronauts. Good family fun, then.

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Board Game Review

Barker Row Review – Dud Attraction

Who doesn’t love a good circus? Over the years, though, the humble sideshow has faded away because it typically featured oddities and things designed to be “freaks”. This might have included bearded ladies, giant rats, or seemingly possessed items. Barker Row reckons these things are good enough to bring back, though. The idea is to put on the best side-show of freaks, oddities, strange monsters, and mysterious artifacts that you can, with the first player who fills their cardboard grandstand with paying customers being the winner.

It’s an intriguing little theme supported by a deck of tarot-sized attraction cards, each featuring a unique animal, object, or other attraction that will hopefully bring in those paying punters. There are alien artifacts, dinosaurs, three-headed sharks, and all manner of baffling and exciting things to put into your show.  All of these individual cards feature a superb-looking art-style awash in garish colors that differentiate the four suits; beasts, freak, horror, and oddity.

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The production quality continues to be great in the form of the 3D cardboard grandstands. Each player gets one to sit in front of them, complete with a handy reference sheet on the back, and on each of the three levels of the grandstand, you’ll get to place beautiful little wooden meeples that have characters painted onto them. This will be your growing audience, a collection of odd-looking folk that will filter in as you successfully display new attractions. It’s amazing how much presence these grandstands lend the game, and the physical way they are used to score the game really appealed to my young niece, as well as myself.

There is a slip-up in the presentation of Barker Row, though. To keep track of how many cards are needed to successfully play an attraction onto your stage there’s a Strongman’s tower onto which players will clip their own personal little marker. It’s a wonderful idea and like the 3D grandstands it helps give the game a tremendous stage presence, but it’s a case of theme over practicality. Firstly, to make the tower work the designers opted for a plastic clip underneath the base that holds the tower up, but it means the whole thing doesn’t sit flat. It’s also a bit of a pain to awkwardly hold the tower so that you can unclip your marker and then clip it back on slightly higher up. By all means, it isn’t terrible or anything, but in its current form the strongman tower

But let’s start getting into details of how you play the game itself, starting with Barker Row. This spot on the table is where you place the deck of Barker Cards, and in front of that, you put three cards from the top of the deck, forming Barker Row. Each of these Barker Cards corresponds to one of the four suits, plus there are Wild cards which can act as whatever the players desire. Importantly these cards are also placed into Barker Row face-down, the back of each card showing which suit it is but not the cards numerical value.

On your turn, you simply take once card from Barker Row and play it into the Midway, the name given to the spot roughly in the middle of your playing area. When you place it down you’ll also flip it over, revealing its value to the world. Wild cards are only ever worth one, but they do sometimes have a special symbol that means you get to add another card to the Midway.

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The next thing you can do is play one of the three Attraction cards from your hand. Now, to do this you first need to check where you currently are on the Strongman Tower, because that number will tell you the total numerical value of Barker Cards you need to take from the Midway in order to play an attraction. For example, if you’re on the very first level of the tower and want to put down your Oddity attraction, which is the orange suit, then you need orange Barker cards (or wild cards) totaling at least four. If there are enough cards to do something you simply grab the cards from the Midway and toss them into the discard pile like great steaming chunks of garbage. You can then proudly plop your attraction in front of your grandstand, and here the rules nicely encourage you to do so in your best circus voice. “Roll up, roll up! Come one, come all to see the amazing Three-Headed Shark!”

For every attraction, you play you get to snaffle two meeples (known as Rubes) and place them onto your grandstand where they’ll eagerly do absolutely nothing. I mean, they’re made of wood so it’s not like they can cheer or anything, but personally I like to imagine them heckling my attractions while bitterly complaining about the cold and the price of the tickets.

Your attractions aren’t just pretty pictures, though. No, each one has a special power that you can activate at practically any point during your turn. One might let you treat a Barker card with a value of three as having a value of six, for example, while another might let you grab an extra Rube for your grandstand if you don’t use any Wild cards when playing another attraction. Whenever you do opt to use an attraction it gets retired, meaning you have to stick it behind your grandstand.

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Each attraction you successfully play also means you have to move up to the next level of the Strongman tower, thus increasing the amount of Barker cards you’ll need to play your next attraction. This essentially acts as a way of keeping one player from ever running away with the victory, but I did note that it doesn’t always work because typically the most successful player will also however the most amount of special attraction abilities at their disposal.

With that, all done you just draw yourself a new attraction from the deck, and play carries on to the next person.

And that’s it! Barker Row is a wonderfully simple game, one that you can teach in less than five minutes. But as you might have already guessed that simplicity is the game’s big weakness, at least in my beady little eyes.

You see, you’ll rarely ever feel in control while playing Barker Row, instead, you have to simply roll with the whims of chance. You just pick a card from the three available, hope it doesn’t help another person just as much as it helps you and that’s really it. Sure, you could attempt to get in someone else’s way by deliberately not selecting a card they need, but most of the time it’s pointless to do that since it wastes your time and they’ll just play the card to the Midway on their own turn anyway.

The only hint of genuine thought comes in the form of the Attraction powers. Using them at the right time can feel pretty satisfying. However, luck plays a big part here too because some attractions just feel so much more useful than others.

But I think the biggest problem is that the game is prone to prolonged chunks of time where everyone is just waiting around, flipping over cards. The first few turns of the game are spent doing just this, and then later on once the requirements for an attraction have gotten quite high there can be a lot of time where player after player flips over a card, sighs, and concedes their turn. Even more annoying is that after one of these lengthy sequences you might finally be in sight of getting enough Barker cards to play an attraction, only for someone else to use the cards you needed.

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I’ve never been against luck in games, and don’t even mind ones that are based almost entirely on Lady Luck herself, but for me games like that need to use their luck so that they can be crazy or fun or both. Barker Row, though, doesn’t do either of those things. It’s enjoyable, but it never has any really funny moments or daft stuff to take the sting out of the luck, nor does it offer any way for you to mitigate luck or have any genuine say in how things play out.

I like Barker Row. That might surprise you, but I do. Its a lovely presentation is a large part of why. There’s some joy to be taken from checking out the various attractions and playing with their abilities.

Categories
Board Game Review

Azul Review – An Abstract Beauty

Many, many board games involve the concept of laying down tiles to do a variety of things, such as building the board. Azul, though, actually have you laying down tiles to create a beautiful mural. The reason behind this is that you’re a tile-layer who is to decorate the palace of King Manuel I of Portugal after the King became enamored with azulejos (blue and white tiles, originally) of the Alhambra in Spain.

Azul’s beauty is a little more understated compared to some of the other board games out there. It doesn’t seek to entrance and entice with piles of sexy miniatures and oodles of cards dripping in pretty pictures. Nope, Azul is classier than that. It doesn’t feel the need to rip its clothes off and assault your senses, rather it understands the benefits of some sexy lingerie and…bloody hell, what is wrong with me this month?

The point is this is really a rather lovely game to look at. The stars of the show are the chunky, shiny tiles that come in a small array of vibrant colors. They look like juicy sweets and fancy chocolates, which is why I constantly had to keep them away from the prying hands of my littles niece who became utterly convinced that I was hoarding sweets.

I mean, I was, but the tiles needed to be kept away from her regardless. These weighty tiles feel fantastic in your hands, and when they all got chucked in the included cloth bag so that they can be randomly drawn you get this wonderfully gratifying sound as they all move around. And then you get to put them on your own personal little player board and create a lovely picture. It’s like zen but in plastic form.

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At the start of your turn, you must take one or more new tiles from either the various circular factory discs or the central discard pile. The catch is that you have to take ALL of the tiles of your chosen color from that location, so that could mean taking a single blue tile or four orange ones. If there are any remaining tiles on a factory you shove them into the center of the table, or if you took your tile/s from the middle then the very first person to do so gets to grab the first player marker.

Now that you have some shiny new tiles and have hopefully resisted the urge to eat them because they totally look like Starburst sweets you have some decisions to be made. All of your new acquisitions get placed in the left-hand display on your character sheet, ready to be moved over to the pattern on the right at the end of the round.

There are a few catches here, though; firstly each of the five rows contains a varying amount of spaces. If you have three red tiles and want to put them into the second row that has just two spaces you can, but that extra third tile will fall on the ground and smash, as represented by it being put on the special row on your player board where it will be worth negative points at the end of the round. Because you’re a clumsy bastard.

The next thing that you need to know is that if the row you want to use already contains tiles then you can only add new ones that match the color of the existing ones. You can’t mix and match, in other words.

Finally, to actually be able to move a tile from the left-hand rows to the pattern on the right then the row must be completely filled. If it isn’t then at the end of the round all the tiles on unfilled rows just get chucked into the box. What a waste.

The round only comes to a close when all the tiles have been claimed, so it’s pretty likely that no matter what you do you’ll wind up with uncompleted rows and a small mountain of useless tiles.

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Okay, so you’ve managed to hopefully fill a few lines and that brings us to the points-scoring feast where all your hard work will hopefully pay off. On each completed row you take the rightmost tile and slid it across to its matching location in the pattern, while the remainder of the tiles from that row get tossed into the box for later. A single tile scores just one point, but if it gets placed somewhere that makes it part of a horizontal or vertical row of other tiles you get one point for each and every tile in the row.

In other words, it’s a good idea to build up your mosaic of tiles in rows rather than placing a tile here or there, but be careful because if a player completes a horizontal row then that triggers the end of the game. At this point, some bonus points get handed out with completed horizontal rows granting another two points, and every vertical row netting you seven points. Finally, filling in all five spaces of a specific tile type gives you a whopping ten points.

It’s a pleasingly fun puzzle to solve, one that at first glance doesn’t seem all that tricky to work out but is actually reasonably taxing on the brain without ever being frustrating. It’s a tricky balance to get just right yet Azul manages it. The puzzle it offers doesn’t take a super-genius to figure it out, but you’ll still walk away feeling like your brain has been lightly exercised.

If you fancy a bigger workout for the ol’ grey matter you can flip the player boards over to their alternate side where instead of a color pattern for you to follow there’s just a gloomy grey square waiting to be filled up with pretty tiles. The rules here state that no column or row may not contain more than a single tile of each color, thus a seemingly simple puzzle becomes just that little bit trickier.

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What I really found myself loving about Azul was that despite it being an abstract puzzle game it always made sure you were interacting with everyone else at the table. While you certainly don’t have to and it isn’t encouraged anywhere in the rules, there’s a lot of potential conflicts to be found within claiming tiles. Sometimes you’ll just pick up a bunch of tiles someone else wanted without even realizing it, eliciting a heartfelt groan, but you can also keep an eye on what all the other players are doing and deliberately grab things they need, especially if you’ve looked at the table and already figured out that there is nothing else you can do for yourself. In other words, Azul leaves space for you to be an arsehole, and I’m okay with that.

And it’s all just so damned streamlined, too! It’s sleek and shapely and so finely balanced, not a single ounce of excess flabbiness to be found anywhere. Just a few player boards, some factories that look oddly like coasters, a pile of tiles and that’s it. A few pages of rules is all it needs to get you going, and once you’re playing there’s a sense of elegance about it all, a series of simple mechanics that result in difficult choices.

If there’s one thing I’d say is a problem in Azul is that it’s actually trickier to teach than you might think. The mechanics are all quite straightforward and simple, but a lot of people I tried to teach it to struggle a little, largely, I think, because the ideas aren’t the most intuitive. It’s the leftmost rows that seem to catch people off the most, especially since all the other tiles except for the rightmost ones get tossed back into the box to be used later when the bag needs to be refilled.

That’s a small and pretty insignificant problem, though, and does nothing to stop Azul is a lovely little puzzle game that’s good for a wide range of ages and types of gamer. What starts off feeling a bit like a solo game that just so happens to need a few people sitting at the table winds up becoming a tense affair as you eye up everyone else, plan out your moves multiple turns ahead, and even steal tiles that the other players might need. For a game of this style, it may perhaps be a tad too cutthroat for some, but to me, that just adds to the brilliance of this stunning game.