There are no Gateway Games: Gateway Games and Tabletop Evangelism

Okay, maybe that headline’s a bit sensationalist, but hear me out.

I’M SERIOUS. Quit typing! Just… just wait a second, okay?

“Gateway Game” as a term seems to be used a lot to refer to light to medium weight games (mostly German games or euros, but not always) which have simple some-say-elegant rules that are easy to explain, but whose gameplay is at least somewhat interesting to the more serious gamer. (For this reason, it’s sometimes used as a bit of a pejorative, a back-handed compliment on par with “Filler” which I’ll get around to hating on in the future I’m sure.) The ideal situation for such a game (it is told) is when a serious gamer is with a typically non-gaming crowd like their family, someone’s kids who are around for some reason, or their better-mannered co-workers. A game seems like a thing that could fit into that social situation, and someone suggests playing “Apples to Apples” and everyone starts to agree, except the gamer, who has a wonderful new thing planned for everyone.

The implication with the term (similar to “Gateway Drug”) is that people who play such a “Gateway Game” will become more interested in STRONGER STUFF, the types of games that REAL gamers play. By playing “Gateway Games” with people, it’s implied that we’re trying to hook them into our hobby, to get them so hopelessly addicted that they start listening to PODCASTS (gasp) and eventually you’ll find them on the street fiddling with a empty frame of cardboard looking for just one more tile to punch out. A lot of recommendation threads back up this assumption, things like “games to play with my non-gamer S.O.” in particular, how can I drag someone into all of this with me (or at least make them tolerate it a bit more), and “Gateway Games” are often the prescription. It seems like the idea is, there is a “gamer” in everyone, and it just takes the right thing to draw it out, and that thing is “Lost Cities” or “Ticket to Ride” or if your thread is visited by a curmudgeon, an 18xx game because “by golly it worked for me” but wait a minute… maybe that curmudgeon is onto something, there.

Here’s the thing: I play a lot of “Gateway Games.” Sometimes I even play them with the fabled “non-gamer” crowd. They seem to have an okay time of it, but, in all my plays of Carcassonne I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone become a gamer where there was no interest before. To be more specific, I don’t think I have ever seen someone who was ambivalent or negative towards the idea of playing board games develop a positive attitude about it. (I do, though, know one woman who bought a ton of Carcassonne stuff and ONLY Carcassonne stuff. Confusing.)

The situations I HAVE seen with Gateway Games are as follows:

A: You play a Gateway Game with someone who is interested in games, but has not played a hobby board game before. They like it! But then again, they already liked games, so any game they haven’t heard of could be a “Gateway Game” so long as they like it. In that case, isn’t “Gateway Game” actually “Good Game” or the more subjective “Game that this person would like but hasn’t heard of?” (I understand that’s not as catchy.) If that’s the case why aren’t the most popular (or most representative) games “Gateway Games?” Why all this fuss about “easing them into it” like that old parable about boiling a toad or crab or whatever animal people like to boil… anyway isn’t that parable about tricking people into doing something they DON’T like?

B: You play a Gateway Game with someone who isn’t that interested in games. It’s easy to learn so they don’t squawk too much at being asked to retain the rules. They tolerate the experience and have a bit of fun, but they aren’t going to seek out a copy, or probably ask to play it again. At best, playing the game was an equivalent to binge-watching Trailer Park Boys or griping about co-workers or whatever other things people who aren’t playing board games all the time do. In this case…

…well it’s not really a “Gateway” either way, is it? In the first case, the player was sort of already THROUGH the gate, and you’re just showing them around. In the second, our non-gamer was content to like… stare at you through the gate, or maybe through a little window in the gate, and then leave when they got bored of that?

My conclusion is that “Gateway Games” are mostly for the benefit of GAMERS, not non-gamers… and it’s a bit selfish, isn’t it? If I’ve got a thing from my collection that I’m going to sort of impose on social situations to make myself a little more comfortable, because I don’t want to put up with playing Apples to Apples again? So I’ll select a game that I’m willing to bet I’ll be able to explain before somebody says “Why don’t we just play Apples to Apples again?” and hope for the best… but other people don’t tend to inflict their obsessions on others, maybe because their obsessions don’t strictly REQUIRE others. In that case maybe what we’re calling “Gateway Games” aren’t chosen because people who might be gamers are more likely to ACCEPT them, but because people who definitely aren’t gamers are less likely to REJECT them… making the process of identifying which of our acquaintances might be interested in learning Troyes a little bit less socially risky, a little bit more painless.

There’s also a tendency toward games that are “easy,” probably because of the dreaded

Capture

but the implication this has on my guests’ mental capacity is more than a bit snobby. A lot of hipster-esque baggage always seems to come with “accessibility” (yuck) in any form of entertainment. (“This is Sonic Youth’s most accessible record!” said the music store clerk, referring to Sonic Youth’s worst record.) Anyway, I know plenty of brilliant folks who just don’t want to put up with learning any new rules in their leisure time, because they have just spent all day learning how to integrate some new library their boss wants to use with a 20-year-old PASCAL application, and that’s quite enough new and fascinating rules for them, thank-you-very-much.

So, I think I’ll stop calling them “Gateway Games” since that doesn’t exist, and start calling them “Games that don’t take too long and have really easy to explain rules” or “Good Games” for short.

Or, maybe I’m totally off-base here. Do any of you have an example of a time when a “Gateway Game” actually functioned as a Gateway? Where someone said a sentence like:

Capture2
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An Even Weirder Review – Bravest Warriors ENCOUNTERS!

So! First thing to mention: I hadn’t heard anything about this game at all, even though I actually BELIEVED that I had heard about it a long time ago. When I demoed this game at Dragon*Con 2014, I did so assuming it was a different game, another dice game themed around Bravest Warriors whose publisher’s name starts with a C… in fact, it wasn’t until I started thinking about writing this review that it really hit home that there were two completely different Bravest Warriors dice games. Kudos to the publisher on sneaking a game to market without anyone having heard about it at all! Anyway, this one is definitely on the lighter side of things, but if you’re not opposed to a little mostly-mindless dice chucking and luck pushing every now and then, it might be something you’d enjoy.

Encounters! (which I guess is the actual name of the game? awkward…) is a mostly straightforward push-your-luck style dice game. Think Farkel, Pass the Pigs, or Yacht/Yahtzee. Like many games in this genre, players’ turns consist of rolling and rerolling dice until the player either willingly gives up, scoring their points, or fails to meet some condition, losing all the points they’ve rolled so hard to attain. In Encounters! this failure condition manifests itself as an “encounter!” card, blindly flipped up AFTER the player chooses to keep going, but before the dice are rolled. Each encounter is essentially just a target number they have to match precisely using their dice. If they are able to match the number on the encounter, they can score a point, or they can face another encounter using only their unused dice. What’s more, some of the encounters are quite difficult to match with a dice roll, like the 13s, 2s (which have to be beaten twice) and 1s. When a player either backs out and scores their points, or fails, their turn is over.

A couple of simple twists keep this game from being the actual most minimal push-your-luck game ever. First of all, players can spend their points to buy item cards, single-use dice manipulators that can change dice to wilds, manipulate the values on dice, and so forth. These add a welcome layer of puzzle-solving and dice-manipulation to the game.

Secondly, if a player manages to use up all of their dice (through spectacular luck or the clever use of items) they get to essentially restart their turn, keeping all the encounters they already defeated and scoring 2 points per new encounter they flip out. Should they get rid of all their dice again, each new encounter will be worth 3 points, and so on. This provides an interesting step-curve of tension… should you play it safe, or try and push for that big break?

Secondly, when players DO fail (often), everyone else at the table quite heroically scrambles to assist them, using items to turn a failure into a success in exchange for half the points. In Munchkin-esque fashion, whoever solves the puzzle first can slam their cards down on the table, and their offer of help CANNOT be refused. This keeps everyone attentive on everyone else’s turn, trying to quickly figure out how to use their items to solve the current predicament.

Alternatively, the next player can choose to “Coattail” the previous one, picking up where they left off. If the previous player had used 3 dice to beat 2 encounters, the next player can choose to just continue from that point. That means that as you push your luck, you have to consider whether or not the next player will ride your success to victory and play a bit more conservatively.

Encounters! is EXTREMELY light, make no mistake about that. As a push-your-luck filler game, I’d place it as being slightly more complex (rules-wise) than games like Can’t Stop or Incan Gold, but I don’t think the added complexity makes it much more fun. I also think that I feel more “in control” in a game like Incan Gold because I can try and puzzle out my chances before making my decision to continue, whereas in this game the decision to flip another encounter is usually based on gut instinct. The added layer of randomness (blindly flip a card, THEN roll dice to see if you can match it) takes out a lot of the possibility for calculation and managing risk; this makes the game quicker but also less substantial.

The items are very cool, but expensive to buy, so you won’t tend to see a whole lot of them. I think dice manipulation of this kind is very interesting, I just wish the game gave me more opportunities to do it. The few times where you get the option to subtract 1 from a dice turning it into a 2, use another card to make all 2s wild, and then use the two wilds you now have to get rid of all your dice… those plays feel very good. However, they’re just not very common. The game suggests starting with an item in hand for beginner players… I’d suggest just ALWAYS doing that. The game’s much more interesting with the options presented by the items.

The players also have individual powers… which I’m not convinced are really well-balanced. The game isn’t long enough to worry about it too awful much, but it doesn’t always feel great to have someone like Catbug scoring double points when your own power hasn’t shown its usefulness yet this game. All of the powers are at least somewhat useful in the right situations, though.

The theme of the show only sort of comes through. Some powers, like Wallow’s “throw a blanket over it!”-like power, and Catbug’s dimension hopping, make a lot of sense thematically, but the encounter cards are mostly just random stuff from the show (with the “9000% Sexier Beth” card being… a little frightening) and the items have very little in the way of theme either, aside from the Gas Powered Stick which is just perfect. You see, it never runs out of gas.

I had fun with this game, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s enough of a fan of the show to appreciate the references. If you’re not a fan or don’t care about the show, I’d definitely try before you buy… I don’t mind the high luck-factor and mild take-that elements in this game, but I know a lot of people who do (or would, if I ever asked them to play this.) As a dice-chucking push-your-luck game it does just about what it’s supposed to do, and it’s simple enough to be played with kids and families without much trouble. It manages not to last too long, and can even give you the occasional tough choice about when and how to use items. I was a bit disappointed at first because I was expecting something with heavier theme and a bit more depth, but as a quick-playing dice game with a pasted-on but (in my opinion) likable theme, it does very well.

Although, the game doesn’t include any way of keeping score. So, that’s -5 points or something, right?

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An Even Weirder Review – Star Realms

Oh, hey there internet! I probably didn’t see you there because I was too busy owning a copy of Star Realms, nyah nyah. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate the “How’d you manage to get ahold of that!” comments, but let’s be honest: If you’re reading this a couple months after I wrote it, that probably isn’t an issue anymore, the hype has died down, and Star Realms is probably a game that you are ABLE to buy in physical form. The question is… should you?

It’s telling that I was able to buy this game from a store because the store’s clientele was more interested in things that looked like Trading Card Games. Some people have claimed Star Realms is like a TCG-meets-deckbuilder, and despite the design pedigree of two Magic The Gathering Pro Tour vets, that comparison is totally off-base. Star Realms is a deck-builder, perhaps the most streamlined (some might say bare bones) deck-builder I have ever seen. It’s SO streamlined that, if you’ve played any deckbuilder, you probably know 95% of the rules to Star Realms.

You probably know that you start with a deck of ten terrible cards, each of which gives you a piddling amount of one of the game’s two sort-of-currencies, Dollar Money or Laser Money.

You probably know that you can buy cards from a row in the middle that have stronger effects than the cards you started with.

You probably know that removing cards from your deck is powerful, so cards that let you streamline or cycle your deck are in high demand.

You probably DON’T know that in this game YOU CAN DIE.

Okay, well, not TECHNICALLY. The game calls it “influence” and when you have 0 influence you can’t influence anything anymore (because you’re dead) and when you’re the last person influentially alive, you’re the winner. So, Player Elimination and “Direct Conflict?” Sounds like a hook, right? Take THAT eurosnoots! Definitely makes the game attractive to more confrontational gamers, TCGers and AmeriThrashers.

Except it kind of shouldn’t, because shooting your opponent with lasers has never felt more like basic subtraction. Like I said before, this game doesn’t feel much like a TCG, and that extends to the combat. The game is very interested in streamlining DECKBUILDING. To that end, nearly all of the big decisions are about what cards to buy, and what cards to trash… meaning that when you’re actually PLAYING cards, you tend to be on autopilot. With a few exceptions (mostly regarding drawing cards) each turn you can just slap your 5 card hand on the game table, add up the Dollar Money and Laser Money (and occasionally the lifegai- I mean influence gain) and tell your opponent how many points they lose. You’re rarely going to be doing anything clever PLAYING the cards since it doesn’t matter in what order you play your allies, and most of the effects are strictly cumulative no matter how you did them. Your opponent might have some permanent cards called bases that you could choose to damage instead of just slapping them in the face directly… but most of the bases have an ability where they actually FORCE you to kill them first (like taunt in Hearthstone) so you don’t often have big decisions there, either. That’s kind of a drag.

That streamlining isn’t ALL bad though. One thing Star Realms does very well is accelerate the deck-building process by removing some of the genre’s more common bottlenecks. Here’s a good example: A decent chunk of the game’s cards (including the game’s “Silver”) have the ability to remove themselves from your deck in exchange for an additional boost. This allows you to trash a lot of the garbage entry-level cards from your deck as you start to ramp up, while at the same time taking more powerful turns. It also does this without requiring any dedicated trashing cards, meaning that you can optimize your deck even if those cards never show up for you. The game also makes a core mechanism out of Ascension’s “Unite” mechanic. Almost every faction card has an ally ability; for example, a blue card that makes additional Laser Money when another blue card is on your board. Notice the wording differs from “whenever you PLAY another blue card”, so unlike in Ascension where the order you played those cards mattered, here you’ll just get the effects no matter what. This rewards players for focusing on specific factions at specific points in the game, rewarding players who do so (and who draw well) with very powerful effects. The effect of this is that the game snowballs very quickly, which is both an asset and a flaw. On the plus side, the game gets to last 20 minutes and still feel pretty satisfying, but it’s also easy to feel doomed when you haven’t started rolling, likely due to not drawing your ally combos when your opponent did.

One big draw of this game is the small footprint; it’s in a tiny box and plays in very little time. All the components are cards. That’s neat and all, but the actual quality of the cards is not the best… even the life (sorry) influence counter cards have wear on the sides, and they aren’t even shuffled! Just scooted around! I don’t usually sleeve my games, but I’m going to have to sleeve this if I wanna keep it, and if I sleeve it, it won’t go back in the box! SO FRUSTRATING. If you’re the kind of person to be frustrated by that, take note: YOU WILL BE FRUSTRATED.

Anyway, I find it a little hard to recommend this game while Ascension exists. It’s a fine game, but the things it supposedly does better (mostly the direct conflict) don’t make it feel very different from another quite good two-player deckbuilder from SOME OF THE SAME DESIGNERS EVEN and which ALSO has a nice mobile app: Ascension.

Ascension has so many more expansions. Ascension has better component quality (except for maybe the… lets-call-it-unique art style on the first couple sets. I don’t mind that art.) Ascension has clever cardplay to go with its deckbuilding. Most of all, Ascension is AVAILABLE. The Apprentice Edition of Ascension (about the same ‘size’ as this game) is like $9.99 at Barnes and Noble. As of this writing, this game can only be bought in the depths of the White Wizard Temple, after having passed the four trials. Once Star Realms is in circulation, then, it’s kind of a wash. It’s about as good as Ascension, a little shorter but a little simpler, so if you own neither you should try one, and if you own one you don’t need both.

(I reserve the right to change my mind should meaningful expansions come out. The existing promo cards are neat but not game-changers.)

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An Even Weirder Review – Boss Monster

Alright, so I held off on reviewing this game for a little bit, and actually as I type this, I’ve traded my copy of the game away. That might lead you to believe this will be an entirely negative review, and to some extent you’re right. I didn’t really enjoy this game much, and neither did my game group… but there’s an appeal there, and I think if the game is right for you, you probably already know that. Just in case you’re not sure, read on.

In Boss Monster, players are… well… Boss Monsters, building a 2D side-scroller level in front of them out of pieces borrowed from Castlevania, Metroid, and other classics of video-gaming’s post-Atari adolescence. Each turn you may expand your level by one card, either adding the card to the front end of your dungeon, or replacing an existing card with a new one. Each card you add will damage the unending parade of wannabe protagonists, but will also contain some alluring treasures, tempting more adventurers into your lair. Some rooms have special effects, giving you the edge in certain situations, some even letting you demolish them for a one-time benefit. The adventurers will stumble forward, bumping into every trap and monster along the way, until either they die and you collect their soul, or they reach you, giving you a wound. Take too many wounds and you lose. Collect enough souls and you win. About half-way through the game, stronger heroes come out who have more health but are worth two souls. There are also “take-that” spell cards that you can get, starting the game with a couple and gaining others through the abilities on a few rooms. First person to collect the requisite number of souls is the winner.

In the tagline here I compared this game to Munchkin. I think that’s very applicable, and this is much the same kind of game. I’m surprised it hasn’t been totally SAVAGED on BGG, considering the punchline Munchkin has become… nevertheless, Munchkin itself is a juggernaut, pairing mostly-mindless “take that” cardplay with a constant riffing on the tropes of it’s source material (be that vintage D&D, Conan the Barbarian, Star Wars, or what have you). Boss Monster follows this pattern for the most part, but each interesting thing it adds to the formula is diluted, as if the creators were afraid of their own ideas. So many cool concepts are just kind of… half-cooked, here. A few examples:

Placing rooms raises the count of different types of treasures you own, allowing you to attract different heroes (mages like books, thieves like sacks of gold, etc). This is flavorful and cool! But there’s no reason to care which type of hero I get, since they’re just a health value with feet and flavor text. I can’t recall any valuable effects that care about hero types. So I just go heavy into one “suit” and hope that flips out. If I have second place in a suit, I have to hope I draw it and the first place guy doesn’t… or I’m boned.

Some rooms have interactive effects that let me build neat little combos, which is, again, flavorful and cool! The hero BARELY makes it past my ogres, dying in the portal room which lets me draw more cards when heroes die in it! Great strategy, huh? Well, sort of. You see, I don’t have much choice what rooms I get, I just sort of collect them and play them. The effects that let me search the discard piles and so on give me a little more ability to coordinate things, but in general if I stumble into a neat combination of effects it wasn’t because I was TRYING to.

Even the take-that cardplay is kind of watered-down… We get a couple of spells to start with, pretty typical stuff. Shut down an opponent’s room, send them a bunch of extra heroes hoping they’ll get killed, and so on… but it’s very rare to get more throughout the game, so that back-and-forth vendetta-fueled card slinging that powers Munchkin is tempered here by the meager portions we’re given.

So from a rules/mechanics standpoint, Boss Monster is decidedly “meh.” It works, but nothing really sticks out as a handle, a grasping point to wrap one’s mind around…

…but that probably doesn’t matter, does it?

If you’re playing Boss Monster, you’re probably getting together with friends, laughing at the references on the cards, savoring the moments when one player royally screws another one over, drinking (beer or otherwise, depending on your age) and generally having a good time. Munchkin isn’t popular because people like to play Munchkin WELL, to have a winning Munchkin strategy or try out a new one next time. Munchkin is popular because you can get a group of people together with common interests. Boss Monster falls into the same category, I think.

Now, me being a generally unsociable person, that’s not the type of game for me (probably). I’ve been known to play Munchkin with RPG friends but if I’m getting a gaggle of people together to do something nerdy while laughing and talking, we’ll probably play MarioKart or watch a terrible movie or something of that nature. If your group of friends is drawn together by old school RPG stuff (or any of the countless rethemes), Munchkin will do that for you. If it’s retro video games? Try Boss Monster.

…At least until Super Munchkin Entertainment System comes out in Spring 2016. (You hear me Steve? My idea first. Dibs.)

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An Even Weirder Review: The Builders – Middle Ages

Okay, so this is kind of a microgame. I’ve heard it described as a Euro distilled into a card game, which I can sort of understand. I’ve also heard it described as worker-placement which is totally bunk, the game has nothing to do with worker-placement even though you are “placing” “workers”. So for those people looking for pocket Agricola keep looking (at Agricola: All Creatures Big And Small).

The basic structure of the game is this: You’ve got a row of buildings, each of which is worth some amount of money and points, and which requires some number of units of various types of resource to complete. You may take one of these cards in front of you as a job site. You also have a row of workers you can hire, which provide some combination of those resources. You may take these workers into your hand. You may also pay to place these workers on building sites. An apprentice provides only a few resources, but is cheap to place, while better workers will cost more. On your turn, you can take three actions from among these, or you can forfeit actions to take gold from the bank. When the game ends, the player with the most points is the winner.

And… that’s it. Player interaction is limited to taking cards other people might have wanted, but the cards themselves are generally pretty similar and they feel balanced. I haven’t felt “screwed over” by not being able to pick a particular card, I just have to take a minute on my turn to re-assess my possibilities. On my turn, I basically try to calculate the money, resources, and actions I will need to spend to try and complete a building, and do whatever is the most bang for my buck, and repeat. Apart from the action to take gold (which goes from used sparingly to almost never used as the game continues) it’s usually reasonably simple (albeit time consuming for those who aren’t swift at mental arithmetic) to figure out your most optimal actions.

The game plays smoothly and swiftly, and you have a pleasant sense of getting things done, the same satisfaction one gets from checking things off of their to-do list… but just like those errands, the tasks themselves aren’t particularly engaging, they just NEED TO BE DONE. You need to get somewhere near the threshold for ending the game, then take a big point building and use it to throw yourself way over the top In order to do that, you must churn workers around, building a bunch of indistinguishable buildings for money and points. It’s almost meditative in its simplicity and directness, not entirely unpleasant, but ultimately it’s not very engaging.

There is a glimmer of what could have been in the “machine” buildings, buildings whose reward is that they turn into a free worker. If the buildings had powers on them, no matter how simple, that would at least differentiate them enough to make me upset when one is stolen, as well as let me feel like I have a direction other than forward, a real sub-goal. However, the machines aren’t that interesting themselves, and I’m not certain that they do enough to distract from the relentless charge towards the end game.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is functional, it’s just very bland and doesn’t have much to attract the player’s interest. Despite the building theme, there’s never really a sense of “building up” and never a decision of why to finish one over the other or take one card over another, other than “well it’s more efficient.” This game didn’t particularly hit for me, but it is one of those games that I think with just one more mechanism could have hit on something really interesting. Here’s hoping the next game in this series has a bit more meat on its bones (or would that be a bit more gravy on its meat?)

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An Even Weirder Review: Via Appia

I bought this game on a whim because of the gimmick. Not just because I thought it was cool, but because I thought it would be the kind of game that induces two kinds of interesting reactions from people. First, it has an element of tense uncertainty that will have players groaning or shouting excitedly, something few euro-style games have. Secondly, it has an attractive gimmick that will bring people to the table, asking “what are you guys playing?”

Since it was that gimmick that brought me to this game in the first place, I suppose I’ll mention the components first. Component quality is quite high. The quarry machine builds out of cardboard tiles and slots into the board itself, keeping it steady. There are a bunch of wooden disks representing stones, and almost everything else in the game is a cardboard tile, all of which punched nicely. It’s not a colorful game, but it’s attractive.

The game itself is a short, light euro with a mild dexterity element. Players take one of four actions on their turn:
1: They can take income in the form of gold coins or wooden “stones” as indicated on one of the available cards. (They might take both, once income becomes scarce)
2: They can lay down any tiles they may have, building down the road and gaining points for building larger tiles.
3: They can spend gold coins to move their marker down the road, but can only move onto paved tiles.
4: They can play the quarry “mini-game”, loading one of their wooden discs onto one end, pushing it in with the paddle, and collecting tiles that match whatever discs fell off the other end.

One of the things I like most about this game is the number of different ways to score points, with such a simple mechanism. You can gain points by racing along the road to the new cities, by laying the actual road tiles themselves, or by laying the most road tiles in one of the legs of the journey, but all of these things rely on the same cards-to-stones-to-tiles-to-spaces cycle, and feed off of eachother. If one player is laying down a ton of tiles, he might be scoring big, but he might also be facilitating another player racing ahead and scooping up bonus points.

That leads into the biggest fault I could find with this game. An interesting (but maybe not good) thing about the game is that each action you take has a substantial risk of setting another player up for a better move. This is most clearly illustrated by the quarry. Pushing a disk moves everything closer to falling off the edge, and anything that you don’t knock off, the next player has a good chance of getting very easily. Additionally, if no player ever pushes a big disc onto the quarry, nobody will ever get a big (5-point!) road tile… but if YOU load the big disc onto the quarry, you’re opening up that opportunity to all players. There are similar pieces of tension with the other mechanisms in the game. There are usually seven income cards which deliver the player’s choice of either coins or stones, but the last 3 to be chosen award both coins and stones, and the FINAL one to be chosen awards a bonus token allowing a player one additional push when using the quarry! Building stones opens up the road for another player to move onto it, and moving gives other players “free” places to build stones that won’t help you. There were a few times when doing as little as possible for as long as possible seemed like a good idea. That isn’t usually a positive. This game is very short (around 45 minutes), though, so it didn’t bother me as much as it could have.

The game is a nice gateway-level euro, not outstandingly thinky but rewards a bit of look-ahead and awareness of what the other players are doing/can do. The tokens for majority in a given section are hidden, as well as coins, so being aware of whether or not opponents will be able to move forward onto tiles you build, or if you need to place more tiles in that segment to have the majority, can mean a difference of several points. There are interesting choices about where and when to push stones into the quarry, making for a surprisingly non-obnoxious addition of dexterity to a nice lightweight euro. This is a solid buy, if a bit pricey, but hour-long games tend to get a lot more play, so I think I’ll be getting my dollar’s worth out of this one.

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An Even Weirder Review: Hawken

A buddy of mine and I picked up both sets of Hawken on a whim the other day based on Tom Vasel’s glowing impression of it. Most of the time, games that try to combine strategy with real-time aspects seem to fail, but I had seen it work before. Jab: Realtime Boxing is quite a solid game that seems to hang out in a similar niche to this one.

Hawken is pretty simple for a (semi)-collectible card game, with each of the game’s 40-card decks featuring only a handful of unique cards. Cards represent weapons and their ammunition, so if your mecha has a Slug Rifle as its main weapon, you have maybe 12 copies of that same card in your deck. This is sort of novel, but does feel a bit odd at first.

Each round will start with players flipping one card at a time off of their decks in real time, and choosing to play it face-up in a stack of like-colored cards to be used for its ability, or stack it facedown to be used as cover, potentially preventing damage later on. Players can continue to do this as long as they like, however, flipping more cards is quite dangerous in a couple of ways.

First of all, your mecha’s health is represented by the same stack of cards you’re burning through, so for each card you play, you’re essentially dealing yourself 1 damage. Furthermore, many cards have a “heat” rating, which will cause your mecha damage at the end of the round. What’s worse, the heat can only dissapate at a rate of 1 per round, so even spending a single turn at eight or nine heat can wind up in you taking a beastly amount of damage from yourself. So if you’re playing lots and lots of cards, you’d better make sure they’re worth it.

But you might not have time to do that… One you’ve flipped three cards, then at ANY point you can call “FIRE!” (not strictly necessary but very satisfying) and grab the corresponding FIRE! button. The opponent must stop flipping cards as well, though they’re allowed to flip up to three cards if they’re somehow still below that. At this point, there is some book-keeping… players must make sure nobody put cards in the wrong stacks, check their respective speeds (the faster mech can do some free damage or change the “engagement range” one step from long to medium, or medium to short, or the reverse), deal with the heat they’ve accumulated and then each player in turn resolves all of the cards they played. Any new damage is dealt in the form of cards, taken from cover first, then off the top of the deck, and the first player to be forced to reshuffle 3 times loses the game.

So while there are a couple of neat mechanisms here, and some interesting interplay between cards, unfortunately, my impressions weren’t quite as glowing as Mr. Vasel’s. The game’s not BAD, but there are flaws that come out after only a few plays, and still haven’t managed to resolve themselves with fresh plays.

The two packs are Scout VS. Grenadier, and Sharpshooter VS. Bruiser. The first pack contains two mechs that feel very different and care about different parts of the game. The Scout wants to have more speed-granting cards than the Grenadier, getting into close range where his weapons do more damage. The Grenadier has more of the powerful armor cards (which reduces speed, but he can still occasionally win by surprise) and more consistent weapons which don’t have the weaknesses of the Scout’s cards. Of the two sets, this was the most fun, because of the times when the Grenadier managed to barely squeak past the Scout in speed, mitigating the damage, or when the Scout managed to rush to close range and blast away with the flak cannon. The cards here are more flavorful, too. All of the games we played with this set felt close to evenly matched.

The second set of packs, Sharpshooter VS Bruiser, seems less balanced. The Sharpshooter’s weapons have harsh limitations (with the rifle only doing 1 damage unless the player builds a large stack of them, and the sniper rifle losing 3 of its 7 damage unless fighting at long range.) while the Bruiser’s have less limitations (Rifle does less damage if you play more than 4 of them, Missiles do 5 damage instead of 7 unless you have an aiming card). The special ability cards (limited to 2 per deck) seemed stronger in the Bruiser deck as well, with one card giving every Rifle card +1 to its damage. Everything seemed far less conditional, lending to hands where the bruiser could get 3 or 4 cards out quickly and keep the Sharpshooter from either building up a stack of Rifles or getting enough speed to escape armor-piercing “Aim” cards and get to long range to make their rifle effective. These games were all blowouts in favor of the Bruiser.

In both decks, however, there was a major problem. Effects are incredibly swingy, and interact with each other so strongly that it’s possible to cancel out everything an opponent is doing without even noticing. Do you have 3 or more speed? Tow Rockets are going to do less damage. Do you have an Aim card? You completely remove their Armor card. Did you play Thrusters? That’s one free damage against their cover stack. There are so many of these all-or-nothing interactions that grabbing the button as soon as possible seemed like a good idea for everyone except the Sharpshooter. The advantages conferred by some of these cards are too great to risk letting them be cancelled, so as soon as I’d have a good, un-cancelled card, I’d just “FIRE!” immediately, regardless of anything else. It often seemed better to just grab the fire button early even if I was losing, just to reduce the total damage I could take. As a result, the heat track never advanced very far, meaning that mecanism almost never came into play.

Even if it had, there was a grey card which reduced the impact of heat on the game, lowering you TWO STAGES instantly. Of course you never knew if you were going to draw it next round, or just take it as damage this round, so building up heat in anticipation of drawing the coolant card was a very risky proposition. The grey cards in general ranged from absurdly powerful (Camouflage makes all cover cards absorb 3 damage instead of 1! EMP limits your opponent to 4 cards, chosen at random from those they have played!) to extremely situational or just plain weak (+1 to secondary weapon cards, 5 in a 40 card deck, or put 2 cards from your discard at random on the bottom of your deck.)

There are a couple of clunky mechanisms, here, too. First, if you’re forced to reshuffle while you have a lot of cards on the field, you’re going to be taking a lot of “pseudo-damage” which can really turn the tides of the game. Second, cards all being in the same stack makes sense for visibility to the opponent, but there is no such rule for the grey cards and they’re often the most powerful cards. I found that really considering card interactions beyond “X beats Y” was very difficult since the opponent could always stop you from playing cards. This ended up feeling very much like “taking a knee” and the idea of running out the clock and winning by increments doesn’t feel much like mech combat to me. Finally, playing a card is an automatic point of “damage” against you, so tossing unwanted cards into cover seems very good… if hunkering down and hiding until you have a clean shot is a good strategy… well, I guess that DOES match up with most online combat games. (Hey-oooooooo!)

The components aren’t great, either. The cards are cheap but not too bad, the art on them isn’t varied but it’s attractive and thematic, the little board is solid and isn’t warped and the tokens punched out fine. The standees for the mechs are cute but not necessary. The rulebook quality is only okay, though. We had a few questions about grey cards that weren’t answered. (Does EMP make the player shuffle their cover cards, too? What happens if a weapon deals 2 damage to a Camouflaged-d Cover card?) My biggest complaint here is the box which instantly fell apart. It’s one of those giant paper tuck-boxes. At least make it as sturdy as an M:TG starter, guys.

Don’t get me wrong, the game isn’t awful by any means. I found it hard to try to keep track of the interactions between cards as we were playing them. I understand this is part of the reason for making it real-time, but since doing this at real time without slowing down was somewhat difficult, just playing stuff really fast quickly became dominant. Perhaps some customization of the decks would make it more interesting.

Anyway, my verdict is a resounding “Ok.” I have enjoyed other real-time games more, and I think that those games thrive when there are either fewer, weaker, or simpler interactions to keep track of. Anyway, If the game sounds intriguing to you, I would strongly suggest getting the Scout vs Grenadier pack because of my perceived balance issues with the other pack, and the decks feeling like they play in different ways. If you enjoy that I’d pick up the second pack but would use it more for customizing than playing straight out of the box.

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An Even Weirder Review: Relic Runners

Relic Runners was actually an impulse buy for me, something I rarely do anymore with board games. It was a Days of Wonder title (the worst of their titles I have played was a resounding “quite decent”) with an intriguing theme and what looked to be a pretty straightforward set of rules. When I picked it up from my FLGS, the only content on BGG for the game was a preview video which looked intriguing but made the game look quite simplistic… still, I had a bit of faith in DoW as a publisher, and doubted they would have taken a risk on a first-time designer without a good reason.

Got the game home and tore it open. First impressions were definitely positive; the game was gorgeous (of course) with big chunky tiles, a well laid out board, clear iconography, and the gorgeous plastic relics which brought to mind the lavish, extravagant bits of GameWright’s Forbidden Island/Desert. We sat down, played it, and as we neared the last few turns, the table fell quiet… now, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

You see, the board and pieces are colorful and friendly, and you might expect a hectic, risky-feeling experience like Incan Gold or The Adventurers which might bring to mind Indiana Jones films. There’s certainly a bit of risk taking, venturing into the unknown when you explore a new stack of tiles, but surprisingly the game had a much different feel; gears were whirring, teeth were grinding, networks spreading across the board, individual strategies appearing… The game felt much heavier than I’d expected, and I found myself looking many potential moves ahead, plotting how to efficiently traverse and reshape my network of trails.

The game is a very simple game, mechanically. On your turn, you essentially take two moves in either order: one along an unfamiliar path, and one along any number of your own trails. Wherever you end up, you can spend one ration pack to explore and take the top tile of the temple you’re standing on. Each tile may give you points, a one-shot ability, a new trail to place, or a new power to use throughout the game. You can’t block other players except by taking tiles they want. You can’t destroy what other players have built. Despite these barriers on interaction, the game still has teeth because of how the valuable relics hidden beneath the temples are scored. Once two of these candy-like relics are on the board, any player who moves from one relic to the other in a single turn gets to claim the relic from the spot where he ends up, scoring more points the longer his route was. This has an interesting interaction; whoever makes the second relic appear may be in a good position to claim the first, but they may inadvertently open up an excellent possibility for a player to grab that second relic by placing a third… I found myself thinking “I could go here, then make a relic appear there. but if I do that, I’ll be 2 moves away from actually collecting it. Dustin will be able to get it next move… okay, so I need Dustin to make the relic appear, and then I’ll be able to pick it up if I go over here… Oh, but I need to be over there when he makes it appear, so until he does that…”

And the paths to victory… there are a lot of them and they all seem equally valid. I’ve been talking about relics, which score you huge handfuls of points for building long networks, but maybe that’s not the best way to do things. Blue tiles have between 3-5 points per tile, and there’s no stressing over when to take them… well, except that taking the top tile reveals the lower tile, which is usually worth more. Okay. Well, there’s the toolbox tracks! Raising a toolbox to the top of one of the game’s adorable little tech trees will unlock you a big victory point bonus which can boost you ahead as much or more than a big relic grab. But maybe you’ll get locked away from toolbox tokens, and it’ll take you a while to work back up to that big score. Or, what if you claim white tiles and use the incremental bonuses to rack up a ton of chump-change points every turn? Or, what if you take as many rations as you can, hanging out in the wilderness while your opponents waste turns returning to base camp?

Don’t be fooled by the components and light-hearted theme. Underneath the shiny exterior, there’s a brain-burning puzzle, how can you most efficiently (and least efficiently, since long paths are rewarded) use your paths? But wait, does that mean that Relic Runners is a heavy, mathy game?

Well… no? And maybe sort of? But only sort of. It’s certainly not “arithmetic-y” except on the last few turns, puzzling out your most points… but you can plan very far ahead, and you’ll be rewarded for that. The mechanisms are simple, very simple, and the game is still relatively forgiving despite the mathy/puzzley bits. Getting stuck in the wilderness with no rations and no trails nearby can happen to players who haven’t started planning and are still exploring the game, but even so, the game won’t chew up and spit out newbies. There are ways of getting points everywhere, so even someone who is hopelessly stuck in the wilderness will manage to pick up enough to not get totally clobbered.

In short, it’s the kind of game I love. It rewards thought and planning but doesn’t disproportionately reward experience, and doesn’t take a few suffering-filled plays before a new player can start to see the depth. At the same time, it’s friendly and accessible, and pretty much anybody can pick it up with ease and not feel like they’re drowning in a morass of rules. It’s as rules-light as a game like Ticket to Ride, but allows an almost engine-building feel, letting you plan as far ahead as you want, and change your plans as new tiles and relics appear. The sole caveat is that, as light as the rules are, there are a few awkward exceptions. Only one ivory tile, only 5 rations, must stop in base camp, supply chest tokens eventually flip back over, and so on… On any given first play, I guarantee that one new player will miss one of these exceptions, and make some bad choices because of it… (and probably blame me, even though I definitely explained it and also they don’t even know me because they’re in YOUR gaming group) but there is usually a very eager second play immediately afterward, so it can’t really be all that bad.

This is an out-of-the-ballpark hit for me. I hope that, in true DoW fashion, the game expands and expands? But to some extent, I’m confused as to how it could, since the game is SO mechanically minimal… the map is an abstract collection of nodes, the tiles are mostly just values or extra actions… I’m sure they’ll come up with something, though, and I can’t wait to see it.

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An Even Weirder Review: Storage Wars

Storage Wars is an awesome light bidding game with a strong bluffing element and some neat take-that elements which is on the upper end of mass-market, making it perfect for family get-togethers or for use as a light filler. It also really captures the feel of the show, with every “Big reveal” feeling like there ought to be a commercial break right before it. Plus, with a playtime short enough that nobody can object to it, you might be able to get a few rounds in!

I make a habit of browsing the game shelves at big box stores like Toys’R’Us and Wal-Mart, and every once in a while I find the odd little title (something like Monopoly Deal, perhaps) which is extremely fun and playable with family members. So I was back in my hometown for the holidays, and while I was wandering the expanse of Wal-Mart, I happened upon Storage Wars. Now, I was familiar with the show, and several of my family members are big fans of it and its parallel “What is this stuff worth” shows, so I was a little intrigued. I flipped it over and took a look at the back, and found it…

…well, SUSPICIOUSLY Gamer-y, to be honest. I wasn’t disappointed.

In Storage Wars, players start with a fistful of money and a character card indicating specific categories of objects (antiques, collectibles, etc) they’d like to collect. In turn order, players draw three item chips from a bag, peek at them, and stick them into one of four containers. In this way, each player has a little bit of knowledge about what each box contains, and who else might be interested in it, but most of the box’s contents are still a mystery. (Side note: I kind of love the little cardboard storage crates in this game and how the tokens slot into them.)

Armed with this limited knowledge of each crate’s contents, the crates are then auctioned off to the highest bidder, with players able to bluff the bids higher than they know they’re worth; This part of the game felt gleefully like “Liar’s Dice”, or “Skull & Roses”. A player who put two tokens in one crate might successfully drive up the bidding to $800 despite knowing their combined value was only $200… then find out that the total crate was worth $2200 to the winner due to another player’s $1000 dollar contribution, which just HAPPENED to be an Antique! What’s more, certain item tokens are harmful, like Water Damage which reduces to total value by several hundred dollars, or the dreaded Black Mold which obliterates the value of everything in the crate! After three rounds of crate-filling and crate-buying, players total up their goods and their remaining cash, and the player with the most value is the winner.

I mentioned the comparison to “Skull and Roses” earlier, and I think that goes a lot of the way to explaining why I REALLY like this game. Some of the tensest, most fun moments come from pushing the bid on a crate that you KNOW is worthless higher and higher, hoping each time that the other players don’t call your bluff, just to set someone up for a big loss. It’s only really suitable as filler in my main game group, but it’s already gotten several plays among my family (some even without me!) because it’s a simple game using ideas anyone can understand (buying stuff for less than it’s worth). What’s more, the mechanics really do mirror the show (buying sets of stuff with only minimal knowledge) and provide enough player interaction via the damage chips and bluffing elements to give it a nice dose of real “Take That!” feel despite being a series of auctions. It’s also interesting that players have limited starting cash, which factors into their end-game scoring, and makes the last set of crates somewhat more tense as players nearly run out of cash… it’s possible to sell items for half their value, but nobody in our games was wanted to take the bank up on that offer.

I only have a couple complaints with the game, and they’re not really complaints because the game is exactly what it aims to be, but I’ll express them anyway because the typical BGG user might also think the same things.

First of all, the “power level” of the chips is pretty widely spread, from as low as $0 for garbage to $2000+ for safes, antique cars, and such. The median value in our game felt like it was around $400 – $500 dollars, making for a couple REALLY swingy bids where high-value chips were involved. Additionally, the colors aren’t distributed evenly along the chip values, which makes certain types more valuable, meaning certain of the character cards are probably better than the others; For example, “Collectibles” seemed to have a lot of low-cost chips and a few very high ones, where “Antiques” are seemingly a bit more uniformly distributed. Might have been influenced by the specific draws in our games, but I found myself jealous of certain character cards.

Secondly, it’s possible to just draw poorly and end up with very little information about each crate. Drawing nothing but penalty chips, or off-type low value chips, makes it very very tough to figure out what each crate might be worth.

In terms of component quality, things are kind of a mixed bag; The chips are nicely designed and already punched out (fantastic!) and the player cards are on some decent cardstock too. The 4 storage crates are just cardstock fold-ups, which work alright but are kind of flimsy feeling, and the bag for the chips is made of a weird material and doesn’t make it easy to shake and shuffle the chips up. The box the game comes in is functional but made out of pizza-box-feeling cardboard, which is a shame, but I’m not gonna knock too much off it; after all, the game only cost me about $12.

Finally, and this can be a penalty or a benefit, this game had my design brain just BUZZING with ideas. After a few plays, I suggested that we play it by, instead of adding ALL our chips in turn order, adding one chip at a time in turn order. This added something neat, made it easier to use the penalty chips even for the first player, and gave some decisions about holding a chip until last in order to “protect” it? I’d also thought about adding random chips on top of the crates that were public to all players, either revealed before everyone adds their own chips, or revealed to everyone before players start bidding… ooh, and what if players could save a chip for next round? Or pay for the right to peek at another chip in a crate? Or, or, or, what if there were sets of items that were worth more the more of them you got?! Or or or or or…

Anyway, it’s the mark of a really great family game that has me thinking of ways to “gamerize” it but end up questioning if it would benefit from that treatment. Part of what makes this game great, in my opinion, is that simplicity that makes it so accessible. Even without my meddling, Storage Wars is one of the most interesting games of its weight I’ve played in a while, and certainly the best game I’ve bought from Wal-Mart in a long while. If you’ve got a family who like board games but hate “your” board games, this is the perfect middle ground. +$200 if they’re ALSO fans of the show. Look out for the water damage though; the game is cardboard and would lose a lot of value if it got soggy.

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An Even Weirder Review: Last Will

In Last Will, players are heirs scrambling to fulfill a condition of their eccentric (and exceedingly wealthy) uncle’s will. The first player to bankrupt themselves of their share of the inheritance will be awarded the sizable remainder. Players send their errand boys to find new ways of squandering money. Expenses (both one-shot and repeatable) represent events such as extravagant dinners or nights at the theatre. Helpers represent employees, all of whom are untrustworthy individuals who will leech off of you while barely being of any service. Properties are mansions and farms that start of as fixer-uppers and ideally end up as rubble, allowed to decay until you nearly have to pay to get rid of them. Amidst all this are your girlfriends, pets, and employees who will gladly accompany you to make any engagement more expensive.

In Last Will each round feels like a chain of interlinked mini-games, like a eurogame version of “The Eliminator” from American Gladiators. First, players call dibs on slots determining the resources (workers, actions, cards, turn order) they’ll have to work with in a beautifully interconnected manner. What seems at first to be a random jumble of options eventually seems to be optimized and balanced exceptionally well (i.e. the 4 action space is very late in the turn order, making it very difficult to use those actions if a good white card is on the board, etc). Afterward, players must squabble over the pseudo-worker-placement game, spending their top hat meeples (adorable) to claim cards, spend money, meddle with the estate markets. Next, there’s an action point allowance system, put to work in activating various cards in a player’s economic destruction engine; a tableau which can be expanded turn by turn. Additionally, there are a wide variety of interactions between helpers, companions, properties and expenses that can allow for the development of an efficient money-destroying machine.

What’s more, the various cards are all gorgeously illustrated and interact flavorfully (and hilariously)… for example, a visit to the opera may cost 3 pounds, but it costs double if you wish to bring your horses into your private box, A great restaurant will charge you 3 pounds a week for a standing reservation, but start bringing your two beloved greyhounds and you might find the bill a bit steeper.

Additionally, this game has a very high “tabling ratio”, a new term I have just coined which is equal to (P / B) where B is the number of times I bring a game to a game night, and P is the number of times it is actually played. So far, Last Will has a 1. I’ll repeat that: every time I have brought this to my game night, someone has wanted to play it. There are probably a few “Ooh” factors that contribute to this: The graphics in the game are gorgeous, the flavor is not “exchanging mathematics tiles in a medieval land”, and there are tiny top hats which everybody loves and must touch.

However… it is kind of beastly to teach, for a few reasons. The game has some arcane iconography. For the most part it’s easy to understand, but there are some horrendously bad choices. For example, +A means that you gain an action this round, however A+ means something costs 2 actions. There’s a coin drawn on my card, but it’s not immediately clear if that’s a cost, or an effect. Does this card require an action to play, or only when I activate it? What does “orange house and yellow house with some arrows between them, times three, equals ? pounds” mean? The reference on the back of the rulebook is great, but it was passed around nearly constantly, and with slightly different choices, could have been less of a necessity.

The other thing that keeps this game from being a knock-out is that the game’s objective isn’t ACTUALLY as straightforward as it seems. I’d say that the “Aha” moment for a new gamer, when they really get how everything interacts, unfortunately comes riiiiiiight when the game is about to end. I’ve always played Carcassonne with new players without the Farmers, because seeming to be ahead then losing in a landslide is a recipe for disappointment and sadness. This game has a similar problem with the way properties work. It’s easy to SEEM to be winning by buying expensive houses, then suddenly realize you don’t have a chance of winning once a player is very near the zero mark and owns far less property than you. Unlike Carcassonne, this element of the game cannot be magicked away for new players; no matter how hard you explain it, newer players will usually fail to consider the (significant) value of their property when intuitively comparing positions with other players.

Also, maybe I’m being greedy but… Well, the top hats and the little houses are so great. Maybe they’re too great, because it now annoys me that the companions are just dumb little circles? Why not chef hats, kiss marks, bones, and horseshoes? WHY NOT. WHYYYY NOTTTT. Also they roll around. Ugh. Also, what’s up with this polyhedron tower for the turn order marker? Why not a monocle? Why not a walking stick? Heck, why not a REAL TOP HAT. I dunno, I feel like the rest of the game is so gorgeous and flavorful, these components are sort of disappointing. Even cubes would be better, because they wouldn’t roll off the table all the time.

I’ve had fun with this game each time I’ve played it, and would recommend it on the “tabling ratio” alone. Any pleasant game that people want to play this often is a game that will not be traveling to the Geek Marketplace anytime soon. If your gaming group will approve of something medium-weight with a lot of interesting decisions, I imagine this will be a hit there. It’s potentially not heavy enough (and has too much luck) for brain-burner fans, and newer gamers will need a bit of a primer on some of its mechanics before really being able to appreciate this.

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