Friday, July 30, 2010

Card Game Review - The Isle of Dr. Necreaux

Let me tell you about this game idea. It's not my idea, but it's a good one anyway. The game is called The Isle of Dr. Necreaux, and it has huge cool potential.

First, it's a pulp game. That's cool right off the bat. A group of heroes has to infiltrate the island lair of the evil genius Dr. Necreaux, who is holding hostage a whole bunch of scientists and about to blow up a doomsday device and destroy the planet. So far, this is brilliant.

Also, it's a cooperative game, which means there is no bad guy player. All the players are trying to save the scientists and escape in the shuttle, and bad stuff happens, like monster attacks and traps and stuff. That's pretty awesome, too. We'll explore this scary island, fighting horrible beasts and dodging deathtraps on a last-chance mission to save the planet.

To make this work, the game has a big deck of cards, and each one is something the heroes encounter on the island. You draw a card, deal with it, and move on to the next. The scientists are about halfway down, and the escape shuttle is in the last part of the deck. Get that far, and you win - but be careful, because this is a dangerous island.

So far, this sounds super cool, and it should work great.

But it doesn't work. It runs right up to the finish line of the cool marathon and then falls face-first onto the tarmac and suffers a massive contusion, causing long-term brain damage and a permanent speech impediment. What should have been a great success and a ridiculously fun game winds up just being a runway meltdown. It falls victim to the worst enemy of game development - poor playtesting.

There are a lot of potential things that could happen, is the real problem, and many of them were obviously overlooked. In the right circumstance, with the right cards, you can't help but succeed. You'll waltz right through the monster attacks, dodge the traps with ease, and finish the game with enough time on the clock to stop for a smoothie and a pretzel. And if you have the wrong cards, you'll be completely ruined before you get far enough to do anything interesting at all. It would have taken a huge amount of testing to balance all the cards in the game, but it should have been done.

One thing that apparently wasn't tested (and it doesn't make sense to me that it was not) is the speed mechanic. Every turn, you'll decide at the start of the turn how fast to move, and draw that many cards. Draw too many, and you'll get demolished before you can rest. Draw too few, and you'll run out of time. This should have resulted in a tense game where you gamble every turn, pushing just far enough to survive but not far enough to fall into a spiked pit while a brain-sucking monster pulls your gray matter through your forehead.

The problem is most obvious on the trap cards. These cards usually have you roll a die and compare the result to your speed, which basically assumes that your speed is between one and six. Go over six, and you'll either automatically fail or automatically succeed at every trap. But if you want to haul ass and still have a chance to rest now and then, your speed is probably more like nine or ten, which means you get that automatic result every time. Don't even roll. Just read the card and take your damage.

But the worst problem is the cards themselves. For instance, one of the hero cards tells you to add one to any die result in an event or trap, which would be great if half of those cards didn't call for you to roll low, and on those cards, your power might as well say, 'You suck. Have a punch in the teeth.' There's also a device you can find that absorbs one point of damage, which would be barely helpful in a five-player game and makes you completely bulletproof in a solo game. There's a monster that subtracts one from its damage and then doubles it, which is devastating in a five-player game and completely toothless against a solo player. This list could go on for a while, because a huge number of these cards just don't stand up to a careful playtest. It's like they were building a rocket, and rather than do a test launch, just said, 'ah, screw it,' and then accidentally blew up a bunch of astronaut monkeys.

The idea behind The Isle of Dr. Necreaux is more than solid. It's fantastic, and made me want to play from the first moment I heard about it. The game isn't entirely a failure, exactly, but that's mostly because of some cool art and a bunch of ideas that really wanted to work together well. What it really needs is a reprint where they fix all the oversights and outright mistakes, probably by playing it at least 100 times (probably lots more). Unfortunately, I predict shamefully low sales and a near-instant decline into complete gaming obscurity, after which nobody is going to be likely to touch this game with a ten-foot pole.

And that's a shame, because even though I will never play this game again, The Isle of Dr. Necreaux gets me all excited to try some cooperative pulp action. If it had been done properly, this may have been one of my favorite cooperative games. Instead, it's like watching one of those Youtube videos where some stupid kid tries to do a handstand on a running treadmill and winds up with a fractured collarbone and a bald spot on his forehead.


Theme: 7 (great concept, horrible execution)
Gameplay: 3 (glaring gaps in the playtesting process)
Production: 5 (a bunch of cards, a little bit of cool art, and some cardboard circles)
Tested for Errors: -3 (did anyone play this at all?)

Dogstar Games doesn't carry The Isle of Dr. Necreaux, which is fine, because you should not buy it. It's great in concept, but a total mess in practice. A little bit like this:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Poetry Game Review - Cyrano

Reiner Knizia (who is, despite my constant haranguing, a brilliant man) once said that the goal of the game is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning. For most games, that's kind of true. I think if you're being honest, you have to admit that it's more fun to win. But if you're playing Cyrano, that quote is ironclad truth. You'll have the most fun with this game if you're really pouring your heart into winning, but when the end comes and someone has won, you won't care who that person is. You might even win the game, and still be disappointed that it's over.

In case you haven't picked up on it yet, this is about to be one of my 'you are going to love this game' reviews. And the absolutely ironic part of this review is that, when I read the rules, I thought it was going to be more flaming than a San Francisco gay pride parade let by Rip Taylor and the cast of Cats. See, this is the only game I've ever seen that uses writing poetry as a game mechanic.

Admittedly, this is in awfully original game from a couple designers who know how to make games I want to play, so it has the pedigree to kick ass. It's just that the game itself is really odd. You get a theme and two rhymes, and you have to write a four-line poem using all three. You get points for using rhymes that nobody else used, so you can't just grab the most obvious rhymes. Like if you're trying to rhyme 'scoop', you can be pretty sure someone is going to use 'poop', especially if you play with the kind of low-brow miscreants who help me test these wacky games.

You have incentive to write good poems, too, because everyone is going to vote for their favorite. You can vote for yourself, but if nobody agrees with you, you won't get any points for it. You get points for agreeing with everyone else, so it's a good idea to pick the best poem. There's no actual reward for having the best poem, except that it's awfully gratifying to have everyone vote for yours. You don't get points for being a good poet. You get a big, swelled-up head, which is cooler than getting points.

Now, let me say right now that this is the kind of game that no real man is going to go, 'wow, that's what I always wanted to do!' We fix cars and drink hard liquor and swear at people who walk on our grass. We replace leaky plumbing and cook meat in the back yard. We don't write four-line poetry, because we leave that to starry-eyed hippie chicks and artsy college guys trying to get laid.

And yet, even if it is marginally French, Cyrano is an awful lot of fun. There's something about writing poems that appeals to even the crustiest old fart, something creative and lyrical and enlightening. It's even better if we can work in ribald jokes about sex and painful injuries. And since the only real requirement of Cyrano is that you rhyme, there's a lot of room for improvisation, and we found ourselves thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to crack wise and laugh like idiots.

For instance, when the theme of the poem was 'marriage', my poem was about getting honeymoon nookey in Cancun. When we were rhyming with '-ick', one friend had a silly poem about falling out a window and landing on your man parts. Our poems were not art, by any stretch, but one of the most enjoyable poems was a remarkably well-composed tale of a dragon who ate a valiant knight.

The game ended when three of us won at the same time. There are rules for a rhyming showdown, but there's not much point. You don't play this game to win. You play this game to write goofy poems, to laugh and enjoy the nutty inventions of your friends, and to stretch your own creative muscles. You don't have to be a good poet to play this game, which works out for me, because I'm not. Hell, none of us were, especially when we were on a timer.

I can certainly see that a lot of people would find this game absolutely ludicrous, and avoid it like a used heroin needle in a dumpster behind an AIDS clinic. There are no dice, no tense decisions, and no body count. It's about as manly as a lace thong, and yet we all enjoyed it immensely and without reservation.

Not every game has to be a battle of wits fought with meeples or plastic zombies. Some games can be great without difficult decisions and long-term strategies. Every now and then, it's fun to clear away the boards and chits and dice and just let your mind engage in something completely different, and when you're ready for it, Cyrano will be there to entertain you, and maybe persuade you to develop an unexplained interest in Liza Minelli.


Theme: 2 (complete unmanly)
Gameplay: 8 (ludicrous rhyming is actually a blast)
Production Value: 4 (replace the crappy golf pencils at your earliest opportunity)
Limp-Wrist Factor: 3 (surprised me by not being gay)

Dogstar isn't carrying Cyrano, and I would like to be surprised, but they probably didn't think it looked all that manly, either.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Announcement - Ratings System

A month or two ago, someone mentioned I should have a ratings system, so that people could know at a glance which games I like, and compare them to each other. At the time, there were a couple reasons I was opposed to the idea.

The first reason was the most obvious - I am pretty damned lazy. Creating a whole system for rating games is way too much like work. I can make a couple snide jokes at the end of a review and call them my summary, but an actual ratings system might require some effort. And I'm generally opposed to effort.

The second reason was a little more highbrow. It's my opinion that you cannot sum up a game with a single number. That's like if someone asks how the weather is in Tahiti, and you answer, '3'. Numbers should only be used as answers when the question has to do with counting things, usually money, but best-case, tequila shots.

I mean, look at Puerto Rico. This is a brilliantly designed game with lots of strategy and quick-thinking plays, but with a theme as dry as Mojave sand. Compare it to something like HeroQuest, where your decisions are virtually pointless, as long as you choose to kill something, but you get to play a story. How do you compare those two games with a single number? You don't, is what I'm saying. The only thing both those games have in common is that they're both games. Rating them both on the same scale would be like comparing apples and boobs.

But over time, the idea began to sound better and better. Not because it would be some wicked handy reference, because I'm not going to go back and rate all the old games (see reason number one). No, it's worth doing because it has potential humor value. If it's also useful to you, well, I would say that was gravy, except that I really only care if it's funny, so it's gravy I'll take on the side so that it doesn't get in my vegetable medley.

So to make the ratings system good for something, my ratings will not be a simple one-dimensional scale from one to ten, because that's for erudite board game geeks who like to argue about statistics because they have small penises. My ratings system, which will obviously be far superior, will rate games based on a variety of factors.

The first factor will be theme, because that tends to be a pretty considerable separation point between lots of game nerds. This rating will go from 1 to 10, and will be in whole numbers, unless there's bloodshed in the game. Violence, which is awesome, will automatically add .5 to any score. So actually, I suppose the scale goes from 1 to 10.5. Of course, I also reserve the right to put whatever number I want. I might rate a game 3.14, just to be obnoxious, or -25, in cases where I'm irritated that I ever opened the box.

After theme, I'll rate gameplay. If the game is brilliant and tense, with critical decisions all the way through, I'll slap a 9 or 10 on it. If it's Candyland, it gets a 0, because the only strategy you can exercise in Candyland is to hide it from your children and hope they forget it exists.

Production value is the third thing. This is a conglomerate score based on the quality of the components, the appeal of the art, and whether there are any naked girls. Naked girls, like violence, will add .5 to any score. Usually naked girls in games are strategically hidden behind bushes or fabric, but games where you can actually spot a nipple might go past 11, unless they're ugly, strung-out crack whores, but that almost never happens in games. Vegas, sure, but not games.

Finally, I'm reserving room for a floating fourth thing. This could be anything from Component Overload to Short Bus Rating, and will be used almost exclusively as a place to make stupid, puerile jokes about body parts or the handicapped. It won't be much use as a comparative rating, but it might make me giggle, and that's enough for me.

Look for the new ratings system to go into effect on my next review, at which time you can prepare your arguments to tell me that I'm crazy for giving that game a 7 when I gave something else an 8, and then I can tell you to shut up, because I'm too lazy to fix it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pointless Ramble - Pathetic Men

I know I said a few weeks ago that vaping beats hell out of smoking, but there's a downside - battery life. I have three batteries and two chargers, and every now and then, I still find myself jonesing with no way to get a fix. So last night, I left the house at 11:45 and drove to the corner gas station to pick up a pack of Winstons. I don't care, really - if I smoke a pack every two weeks, I think I'm still doing pretty well.

This isn't a story about smoking. It's a story about sad little men. Because the guy working at the Shell station at midnight was a dumpy, balding old man in a dirty polo shirt who spends most of his night trying to get outside so he can smoke the incredibly cheap cigarettes that he sticks in the crack in the windowsill every time someone stops by to fill up the tank.

As I was standing there paying for my pack of poison, I had a depressing thought. Maybe I'm just maudlin because I'm approaching a birthday, with two kids in high school and a mortgage that gets paid late more often than it's on time on a house that needs lots of repairs I can't afford. But whatever the case, I found myself wondering if this poor bastard asking me if I want debit or credit ever saw this for himself. When he was a young man and the world was his oyster, did he ever think, 'you know, I just hope one day I can work at a gas station in the middle of the night, and have nobody on the planet who finds me attractive.' Did he have aspirations at all? What happens to a man to make him a pathetic overnight gas station attendant?

That probably should have made me glad to have escaped his fate (so far), but it didn't. Instead I was saddened that this man, a guy who may have once been an ass-kicking tough guy with a way with the ladies, was now a hopeless washout. Maybe he spent his whole life a pathetic loser, but that's actually more depressing, because instead of being in the twilight of his life, he's spent his entire life in the gloom of mediocrity. I don't know, but when my mood starts to darken, it develops its own gravitational pull, and sucks all the light out of the corners of my mind.

It seems that when you're thinking dark thoughts in the middle of the night, they tend to snowball. It took the smallest of leaps for me to begin to ask the same questions about myself. I'm about 30 pounds overweight, I have a bald spot on the back of my head like a monk's tonsure, and it's been a long time since a girl made a pass at me. I'm a middle-aged man working in a cubicle in an ugly office full of ugly people. My boss is a spineless weasel, and his boss is the kind of bitch that makes people plot her demise. I sit here in my ergonomic chair at my company-approved computer, smiling while I'm insulted and attempting to ignore it when people sell me down the river.

This isn't what I saw for myself. I was going to be take the world by the ballsack and squeeze until I was rich. I was going to have a trophy wife and a hot mistress, an Italian sports car and a huge house. My maid was going to do the laundry, and my chef was going to cook my meals. My secretary was going to be blowing me under the desk while my staff diverted all my incoming calls. In other words, I was going to do a hell of a lot better.

But life is a bastard, and I made mistakes. I don't regret most of them, because I never would have learned the stuff I know now, but it would have been sweet to be in that Ferrari right now, scoring blow for my tasty hooker girlfriend while she was at her topless photoshoot. On the other hand, in the light of day, with a few hours of sleep behind me, things look a lot better.

I have two great kids and a wife I adore. I have a decent home and enough extra income to buy lots of the stuff I want. I may not be rich, powerful or famous, but I'm also not living in a single-wide in Kentucky, all strung out on crystal meth and trying to dodge my child support payments (no offense if you are a hillbilly meth addict). I haven't done everything I thought I would do, but I've done a lot of things I didn't think I would. For every day that I think how badly I've done for myself, I have five where I wonder how I got so lucky. I'm not always a positive guy, no matter how I try, but in a world with a lot of crap, I've managed to avoid getting too much of it on me.

So what the hell does this have to do with games? Nothing, really, but I did have a point that gets awfully close to being about games. Because at midnight, when that poor schmuck manning the register at the all-night convenience store was going outside for his fifteenth smoke since his shift started, I was playing a game (you know, after I got back home). I feel nothing but bad for the overnight gas man, but after a lot of thought, I'm incredibly happy with my life, and I'm really glad I'm not him. I have the chance to play all the games I want, which is great, because I want to play a lot of games. If my hobby were rock-climbing, stamp-collecting or basket-weaving, my life would give me the opportunity to explore those things, and that's not something everyone can say.

So my life isn't perfect. So it's not as good as I hoped it would be. It's still pretty damned good, and even if it gets to me every now and then, I have a lot to be happy about, and a lot that makes me proud of my accomplishments.

And maybe one day I can buy a Ferrari and spend all my money on French whores. Then my life will be complete.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Card Game Review - Straw

I am sick to death of games that involve cruelty to animals. I am putting my foot down. We must not tolerate games whose entire goal is to torture helpless animals, even if those animals do stink, step on your foot, and spit in your face.

I am talking, of course, about Straw, a game whose goal, as clearly stated on the outside of the box, is to do physical bodily harm to a camel. That is just wrong. 'The game that broke the camel's back', it says. How would you like it if a camel came along and sat on you and broke your back, huh? That's right, it would suck. Especially because camels are gross.

But gross or not, no animal deserves to be loaded up with so much crap that it buckles under the pressure and literally breaks its back, with the possible exception of hairless mole rats, because those are nasty-looking little bastards. They look like aliens. I suspect they may be evolved from the chupacabra.

But Straw does not ask us to join in the torture of naked mole rats. Instead, it has players taking turns playing cards that add weight to the back of a camel. This pathetic beast of burden is piled high with gold, bird cages, and even piles of bricks. It's inhumane, especially as this treatment is intended solely to break the camel, and not to actually get all that crap across the desert.

The game continues to taunt this poor animal by offering occasional respite, as if that would help. The flying carpet actually lightens the load, and if that were the end of it, the game would only be somewhat heinous. But there are simply not enough of these cards to relieve the camel's suffering, and sooner or later, the camel will fall.

And when he does, we learn that the creators of the game want you to believe that just because you're not the one that killed the camel, everything is OK! You have piled monkeys, board games and magical lamps on the back of this beast, and now when you all but force another player to kill the camel, everyone gets points except the person who finally murdered the dromedary victim.

As if simply murdering a camel was not enough, we are provided with what someone must have thought hilarious - killing a camel with a straw. Place that one, infinitesimally small straw on the camel's back when he has reached his breaking point, and the reward for being the villain is that only you score points! So we're not just trying to torment a camel to death, we are rewarded if we can be the most creative at it.

And it gets worse! Because they assume we are deviants, they allow us to kill three camels! The game is only over when three stinky, oddly shaped pack animals are sent to an early grave. Then the players tally all the points they earned by making sport of these poor, dead bastards, and the highest score wins.

The indignity never ends. You may think this horrifying theme can be accepted because the game is suitable for a group of adults, but the game play is so simple, and the rules so easily understood, that it is perfectly enjoyable by children. That's right, train your progeny to kill camels with inhuman torture, so that they can grow up and do the same thing to disgusting game designers with twisted senses of humor (but not twisted game reviewers. We get a pass).

Just to drive home exactly how much the game designers wanted us to hate camels, the art on the game is delightfully cute and adorable. It is perfectly suited to a game for children, which makes it all the more offensive when we consider how much kids will take to Straw. With fast, fun gameplay and entertaining art, this screams out to be played by anyone looking for a light card game that they can finish in half an hour.

I am dismayed at the heartless indifference shown by the creators of Straw. They have taken an entertaining game, targeted it perfectly to be enjoyed by adults and children alike, given us quick and easy rules with enough depth to satisfy a casual adult, then thrown in great art. Then they turned it all into a game about breaking the back of a camel.

I would be writing my congressman, if I were not getting ready to play it again myself.

What? It's fun!


Quick, simple rules
Enough depth to be enjoyed by adults
Light to be enjoyed by kids
Fun, casual card game

It is simply wrong to torture camels

Dogstar Games is not currently carrying Straw. Apparently they are taking a stand against animal cruelty.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Board Game Review - Monkey Lab

There's something about a game that includes monkey madcap adventure that screams 'Play Me!' Seriously, monkeys are fun. That's why Speed Racer had Chim Chim and The Man in the Yellow Hat had bleeding ulcers. Even the Murders in the Rue Morgue were more fun because the killer was an ape. Heck, look at 28 Days Later - throw a monkey into something, and it's instantly more entertaining.

In Monkey Lab, you're all genetically altered monkeys who are bound and determined to free their friends who are still locked up in the lab. You dress in ninja garb and sneak into the lab, using tools at your disposal to open cages and free your banana-loving comrades. You'll swing from electrical cables, bash things with boxes, and fight the other ninja monkeys with scalpels (and a monkey with a scalpel seems pretty intimidating. I would be scared of a monkey with a scalpel).

The theme of Monkey Lab is a hoot, though I don't think it translates to the board very well. This is mostly a maneuvering game where you try to get different objects into the various rooms to score points for freeing the caged monkeys. It's not that it's bad - it's actually clever and a little cute. It's just that I never really felt like I was a monkey ninja. A monkey logistics coordinator, maybe, but not a ninja.

A smart combination of limited actions and special card actions makes Monkey Lab an interesting game, even if it's not a mind-blowing must-have. You might move, check out a box, and then grab an item you need, or you might shag it across the board to be close to an opponent when he opens a box. Because you can score by being around when another player grabs some points, there are a variety of strategies that could grant success. You might focus on beating everyone else to the pieces you need, or you might just hang on coattails and earn your points by helping your opponents score. You can also send the idiot security guard to slow down a particularly irritating monkey foe, a move that could be anything from slightly irritating to downright nasty.

The problem with Monkey Lab is that it doesn't take advantage of the fact that you've got monkeys. If I play a game with monkeys, I want unpredictable hijinks, not carefully planned moves meant to optimize scoring opportunities. It's not that Monkey Lab isn't a good game, because we did find it enjoyable, and I would definitely play it again. It's just that it's too dry for a game with monkeys. I wanted to pull cheeky grins before punching a grown man in the privates.

The pieces in the box do everything possible to make the theme come to life. The monkeys are brightly colored, specially sculpted figures that are delightful little monkey ninjas. The security guard is a hefty plastic goober. The art is fun, and the production is excellent.

I don't think I would take Monkey Lab to a room full of drunk buddies bent on playing games that make them either laugh or punch somebody, but Monkey Lab is still a good game. It's got long-term planning, problem-solving, and tricky decisions. The pieces are delightful, the art is cartoony cute, and the game play is fast and fun.

It's just too bad I never got to fling poo.


Interesting and fairly engaging
Cute art and great pieces

A little dry, especially for a game with monkey ninjas

If you're looking for a good family game that everyone at the table can enjoy, you should run over to Dogstar Games and pick up Monkey Lab:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Video Game Review - Red Dead Redemption

I buy two or three video games a year. It's not that I'm cheap, it's just that I'm usually really busy, and many of the games I want to play aren't all that appropriate to play when my 14-year-old daughter has friends over. But when I do buy a game, I tend to buy those go-anywhere games that game nerds affectionately call a sandbox game. Why they call them that, I don't know. Sandboxes are small places full of dirt. Sandbox games are not small, and while there may be dirt in them, they also tend to have water, and trees, and people with guns and maybe prostitutes, none of which are usually found in a sandbox, unless that sandbox is in a very bad part of town.

The television ads for Red Dead Redemption called my name. I absolutely love the Grand Theft Auto games (except for those early, top-down games - those were heinous crap), and so when the guys who make those games decide to make a Western, I'm all over it.

At first I was worried it was going to be a sequel to Red Dead Revolver, which is cool, but all you do is go through levels and kill people. But it's not, it's a humongous sandbox game, which is exactly what I was hoping it would be. I wasn't particularly interested in whether or not it had a compelling story. I wanted to ride a horse, shoot bandits from a moving train, and get into duels in the middle of the street at high noon.

Red Dead Redemption definitely lets you do all those things, but it turns out, it's also got the best story I can ever remember seeing in a video game. For that matter, it's got a better story than many movies I've seen, and rivals some of the best tales ever set in the American West. It's suspenseful, exciting, engaging and powerful. Plus you can totally kill a grizzly with a buck knife, which is another thing you don't expect to see in a sandbox.

The main character, John Marston, is a classic Western icon - the reformed outlaw who just can't escape his rough-and-tumble past. His family is held hostage by government agents who force him to hunt down his 'prior associates' - by which we mean the bad sons of bitches he used to call friends. During the course of his travels, he'll make lots of friends, travel all over the West, and shoot hundreds of people right in the face.

The stuff you can do in this game will amaze you. You can catch and break wild horses. You can hunt wolves in the deserts of Mexico. You can climb snowy mountains and then fall off of them. You'll hunt bounties, save damsels in distress, and board moving trains careening out of control. You can drown a lot, too, because John Marston can't swim, which seems like an oversight in his education, if you ask me.

In fact, there's so much to do in Red Dead Redemption that you don't ever have to finish the story if you don't want. You can hunt elk, cougars and even a spotted jaguar. You can raid outlaw hideouts and spend hours playing poker (and cheating, if you're so inclined).

But there's one thing you can't do in Red Dead Redemption, that fans of Grand Theft Auto will find surprising - bang a hooker. John's a family man, and he loves his wife enough to put himself in harms way over and over, and kill a whole hell of a lot of people to get her back. Not that there aren't women willing to render services, though. This is the Old West, and there are an awful lot of saloon girls willing to bed a bad man, even one as scarred and gnarly as John Marston.

That might give the impression that Red Dead Redemption is less 'mature' than the Grand Theft Auto games, but nothing could be further from the truth (well, honestly, there are things that are less true. Like if I said dinosaurs and humans were alive at the same time, for instance, or the moon was made of cheese). This is so much more mature than any game you've ever played.

For starters, the gore factor is a lot steeper. When you do finally manage to kill a bear with a hunting knife, you'll want to skin it, which gets blood everywhere, and leaves a mangled, skinless corpse on the ground. You don't see that in GTA. And one scene has Marston walking in on a man and woman in an active state of undress - the first time I can ever remember seeing a woman's nipple in a video game that wasn't made by the Japanese porn industry. The language is harsh, the violence is brutal, and the adult themes are off the chart.

But all those things are tenth-grade jack-off fantasies compared to the maturity of the story. This is a tale of a man seeking redemption for his sins, and nobody young enough to describe his age by his grade level is going to grasp the depth of the story. A grown man might spend hours pondering the implications of the finale; a kid is just going to want to be an outlaw.

The GTA games are labeled mature because you can shoot people out a car window and pick up hookers in the park. Those might be 'mature' activities, but they're really just uncontrolled testosterone binges. Red Dead Redemption is mature for the same reason Fight Club is mature. Sure, there's blood, but the fact is, a kid just isn't going to get it. There's more to this story than meets the eye, and it has the kind of ending that will leave you contemplating for hours.

I highly recommend that you avoid any spoilers about the end of Red Dead Redemption. I also recommend that if you're going to play this game, do it soon, because two years from now, this ending is going to be as legendary as finding out that guy from Metroid is actually a girl. Two more extremely important points, if you do buy the game:

1) Finish the stranger mission 'I Know You' before the game ends.
2) The game isn't over until the credits roll.

If you're offended by profanity, put off by gore, or just have a PETA membership, you should keep walking, because this game is really raw and extraordinarily mature. But if you're an adult with lots of time on your hands and a fondness for games that do more than just tell you where to go and who to kill, Red Dead Redemption might be the best game you'll ever buy.


An incredible array of things to do
A staggeringly huge world
A story that redefines what video games can be

Very, very mature - kids should absolutely not play this game

If you need a link to find one of the most popular video games on the planet, you don't deserve to have Internet access.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Board Game Review - Abandon Ship

It's a well-known fact that rats have magical powers. OK, in all fairness, not everyone knows that, but that doesn't make it less true. Think about it - have you ever seen a rat who couldn't get out of a pair of handcuffs? No, you haven't, because they're magical. Plus they have really tiny feet.

It turns out that rats are also able to stop a ship from sinking simply by having two of them working together. This was not actually one of the magical abilities that I knew rats possessed, but apparently, Reiner Knizia knows this, and incorporated that simple fact into a game called Abandon Ship.

In Abandon Ship, a bunch of rats are racing to get off the ocean liner before it goes under. Every so often, the ship sinks a little, and when it does, one rat might drown. But if there are two rats at the same level, that's as far as the ship can sink. Because, you know, magic.

Aside from the magic rat thing, Abandon Ship is actually a pretty cool little dice game. I thought it was going to suck, because it was a Reiner game, but I'm a big enough man to admit when a game is fun, even if I do still hold him personally accountable for Atlanteon. There are seven rats, each in a different color, and a sweet sliding board that depicts the ship that's quickly sinking into the ocean. There are eight dice, one for each color rat, plus a white die, and the dice have different symbols that tell you how you can move the rats.

The trick here is that rather than having one rat you're trying to move, you have a secret tile that tells you three rats you have to represent. Get your rat to the biggest scoring spot, and you're ahead. But if your rat is the only rat at the bottom when the ship starts going under, your rat drowns, which is unfortunate for both him and you. Should you wish to avoid this calamity, simply make sure you have a duet of magical rats who can slow the sinkage. I can't say for certain that this magical ability has been documented, but were it not for the power of two that lets rats keep a sinking vessel above the water line, a whole lot more rats would die, and the game would be called Drown On A Ship instead.

Players take turns choosing a die and moving a rat, and if you make it too obvious which rat is yours, you can pretty much count on the other players to move your rat backwards until it winds up going down with the ship. There's a good element of bluffing here, because if you tip your hand, you're hosed. Of course, if you're not lucky, you're still hosed, but it's a dice game. That kind of thing tends to happen with dice. Apparently rats are not magical enough to manipulate your rolls.

There's not a tremendous amount of strategy or tactical brilliance to be found in Abandon Ship. It's a light, fun dice game with a little bluffing and a lot of luck. It's cute and entertaining, and you can finish in less than 20 minutes. And as an added bonus, it's not a boring math game, which separates it from a huge number of Reiner games.

It even comes with magic rats.


Fun and cute and fast
Tricky, some nice bluffing, but not too taxing

Not a lot of meat. Sort of like a magic rat.

Apparently Dogstar Games is light on magical rats. They aren't carrying Abandon Ship right now. If they do in the future, I'll be delighted to update this link. In the meantime, you can get it at the Alderac online store:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Card Game Review - Arcana

This probably doesn't happen to many other people, but earlier this evening I started writing a review of Arcana and realized something horrible - it wasn't the least bit entertaining. I mean, if I wanted to write boring rules summaries, I could just leave it to Tom Vasel. I had the whole thing written, and went back to check it, and said to myself, 'Self,' I said, 'this review is less interesting than the safety instructions of a box of Kleenex.' So I threw it out and started over.

Arcana is a deckbuilding game from Alderac, only it doesn't really feel like a deckbuilding game, it feels like a kick-ass card game that shows us how many things you can do with the idea of creating your deck while you play. And the first thing I want to get out of the way is the elephant in the room, because he just took a dumper in the corner of my office and he's about to sit on my comic books.

Yes, Dominion was the first real deckbuilding game. Yes, every game after that will have to be compared to Dominion, until enough games are made that people quit comparing them. Yes, I'm started sentences by answering questions nobody asked me. No, I don't give a rat's ass. And no, this game is not Dominion, and while it does borrow from Dominion on a very fundamental level, it is very different and should not be labeled a 'clone' of any kind.

In Arcana, each player assumes the role of a guild in the fantastic city of Cadwallon (that's 'fantastic' like fairies and unicorn farts, not 'fantastic' like awesome, though the city might be a very nice place to visit, but I wouldn't know because I've never been there, probably because it's not real). Each guild has a handful of agents at its disposal, and they'll send those agents throughout the city to exert influence, recruit more help, and lay claim to areas of the city.

As players swipe relics, control locations and persuade important people to join their guilds, those cards are added to their decks. Since different people are good at different things, you'll want to get a variety of people with a variety of skills to make it easier to get more people and places down the road.

Since the Dominion comparisons are inevitable, allow me to explain why this is not Dominion (and it's not like you have the choice of not allowing me to explain - even if you stop reading now, I will have already explained, you just won't actually see it).

The first and most important difference between Arcana and other deckbuilding games is the tense and persistent interaction with the other players. Since there are only five cards available at any time, you'll find yourself constantly trying to outdo your opponents to snatch up the cards you want. You'll scheme and bluff and possibly resort to bribery in order to get the cards, because if you don't, your opponent will get them and you'll get nothing. You don't get to just pay for cards. Everything is a competition here.

The second major difference is that you don't know what cards will be available from turn to turn. There are only ever five cards available, and they're randomized, so it's not like you can look at the available options and decide how you're planning to win the game. You have to play smart and keep your eyes open, and keep in mind what assets you're going to need down the line. Preparation is key here - if you grab up all the military men who appear, you're going to come up short when the only cards available require you to have some clergy in your pocket (quick note - you need either very large pockets or very small priests if you want to have clergy in your pocket).

A third element really sets Arcana apart from the crowd. The art in this game is amazing. Looking at the graphics on the cards make me want to visit Cadwallon, though I can't, because as I may have mentioned, it's not real. But between the theme (which is surprisingly consistent for a card game) and the amazing art, it sure feels like it could be real. I don't really play many RPGs any more, but if I did, Cadwallon would make a great setting for some half-troll druid/archer to run around and kill things. Hopefully someone can see that, and makes this wacky town into a roleplaying game.

Unfortunately, I recently heard that Alderac is sending all the Dust Games stuff to Fantasy Flight, and Arcana is one of those games. That's unfortunate because it means the likelihood of Arcana expansions is suddenly a lot lower - FFG doesn't have a good track record of supporting their smaller games. It's also unfortunate because Fantasy Flight kind of hates me, which is going to make it a lot harder to get Dust Tactics.

But even if Arcana never gets an expansion, it's still a totally kick-ass game in its own right. Do yourself a favor and just play the full rules - there's a beginner version of the rules, but they're not anywhere near as much fun as when you add in the militia and the objectives, and the ability to stash some of your cards instead of having them take up space in your deck is really nice.

Arcana doesn't invent any brand new game mechanics, but it does take some existing ideas and throw a really good spin on them. It's fun and pretty and downright affordable, with plenty of reasons to play it plenty of times. Basically, it's fantastic, in nearly every sense of the word.


Great setting with beautiful art
A great twist on the deckbuilding game
Constant interaction

Some of the symbols can be confusing

If you're looking to score a copy of a really great deckbuilding game in a really fun setting, run over to Dogstar Games and pick up a copy. They've got a great deal on it with very reasonable shipping:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Special Update - Drake's Flames Tuck Boxes

If there's one thing about this hobby that might be a downside, it's the fact that there's never enough money to buy everything I want. For instance, I'm trying to collect enough old Citadel miniatures to play all the expanded monster tables in Warhammer Quest, and I love finding old RPGs at Half Price Books. I would love to have the prepainted miniatures for Okko, and I've been seriously considering buying a handful of cowboy minis and converting HeroScape into a Wild West setting.

And to make matters worse, I want other stuff, too. I really want to buy Midnight Club: LA for my Xbox 360, and there are a bunch of really cool downloadable games on there, to boot - but they cost Microsoft points, which cost money. And I want a nice Fossil watch, one that will look cool enough to wear when I'm showing off my tattoos, but stylish enough to go with a dress shirt. And let's not forget that I have a wife and two kids, and I love buying stuff for them, too. Put all that stuff together, and I need just a little more money than I have now.

It's not like I don't have an income. I have a day job that makes pretty good scratch, plus VixenTor Games and freelance design work. But I also have a phone bill, and a mortgage, and a car payment, and utilities, and by the time I pay all the bills, I usually have just enough to buy a rubber ball out of a grocery store vending machine.

So, to quote my good friend Baldric (obscure Black Adder reference), I have a cunning plan.

I have these tuck boxes that I've designed. I made them for myself, because so many games come with cards, and it's a rare publisher who gives you a good way to organize them. Hell, look at Fantasy Flight - most of the time, the box has one worthless insert that's little more than a folded piece of cardboard, and there are like 300 cards in a box the size of a Buick, and if you just toss them in the box after you play, you'll be sorting them for half an hour every time you want to play.

These tuck boxes were originally just a design I created so I could store my stuff. I made a couple of them that were just white, and then I decided they weren't nearly cool enough. I guess I just can't stand looking at a white surface that hasn't been decorated, so I slapped art all over the outside. Then I decided to pimp my own site to anyone playing with me, and came up with a design with the dice-breathing dragon.

At this point, I probably have a dozen or so of these boxes in various sizes and depths, stuck into games all over my office. They're handy, and I can put one together in about five minutes, so it's worth printing out a few and keeping them handy. I think they're pretty wicked, personally, but that might just be me.

So here's the cunning plan, and as you can probably see, it's not really a very good plan at all. Basically, I'm going to give away these tuck boxes to anyone who wants to download them. The main intent of giving away these designs is to thank all of you for reading. Without you, this site would have died out a long time ago. It's not just your love that keeps me going, either (though I do really appreciate the love, especially from the dickweasels who pretend they're only reading to find something to mock). When you read the stuff I write, it gets more hits, and more hits means companies are more willing to part with their games, which means when you read Drake's Flames, I have less trouble getting free games. That, and every time you click a link, an angel gets his wings.

But I really would like to buy some old-school savage orc archers, and I could seriously use a new pair of steel-toe work boots. So if you download the boxes, and you make a bunch, and you decide they're pretty awesome, you can feel free to PayPal me a couple bucks. If they're only worth a dollar to you, send a dollar. If they're worth ten, I won't turn it down. If you think they're worth a hundred, then you're completely insane, and need to keep your money for your therapist. And if you don't think they're worth anything, or if you just can't really afford it, don't worry about it. Just enjoy them.

And since the main reason I'm putting these up at all is to thank you all for showing up, if I get enough people sending me spare change, I'll make more. I actually have some designs started, including a dragon-scale box I made for my Warhammer Quest cards. I'll even take requests, whether you feel like shipping me cash or not.

A little advertisement for the tuck boxes has been added to the ad box over to the left, and it links right to the PDF of the tuck box file. Regardless of whether you ever intend to send money, please feel free to download them and see if they're any good to you. If you don't feel like paying anything, by God, don't.

Thanks for reading, and I'll be back tomorrow night with a review of... well, something. I haven't decided yet.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Preview - Three New Games from Petroglyph

I know I’ve said before that I’m a total whore for free games. That’s why I’m here at all – well, that, and the love of my adoring fans, who call me clueless and stupid and insensitive and racist (that last one I still don’t understand). But mostly the games.

So when Petroglyph Games offered me the chance to write a preview of their next three board games, and then get review copies when they’re available, it took me less than two minutes to decide it sounded like a good idea. After all, it’s free games.

The idea was, I would ask some questions, and they would answer them, and then I would copy the whole e-mail interview into a post and all my work would be done, then I would sit back and wait for my free stuff. The problem is, e-mail interviews are usually slightly more interesting than reading the warnings on a carton of toothpaste, and so my inherent laziness had to take a back seat to my desire to post something that didn’t make me embarrassed to go out in public. So now, here’s a paraphrased summary of Petrogylph’s next three games, complete with some inappropriate sexual comments and maybe a joke about the handicapped.

By way of reminder (for those of you who don’t have photographic memories), Petroglyph makes Panzer General: Allied Assault, which I enjoyed very much and my wife hated like a yeast infection. It’s a card-based tactical game based on a video game you can download to your Xbox 360. The World War II theme is cool, as is the modular field, but some of the combat can get a little tedious if you’re used to just rolling some dice and ending your turn.

This is important because one of those three new games is Panzer General: Russian Assault. In case you’ve recently endured some brain damage, or are currently on under the influence of powerful narcotics, I’ll explain the theme – it’s Allied Assault, but with Russians. But in the tradition of late-night infomercials, that’s not all!

Russian Assault adds miniatures. It adds other stuff, but that’s specifically what I asked about, because in a game where the cards are the units, miniatures seemed like a superfluous choice. But as the guys at Petroglyph explained, the miniatures let you see where you have tanks, or artillery units, or foot soldiers, but not whores, because while they were definitely part of the war experience, they’re just not that useful in a fight. I don’t know what those miniatures look like, or the scale, or pretty much anything else, but I do know they’ll make it a lot easier to tell, at a glance, whether you’re going to get completely mutilated if you attack those infantrymen banging the hookers in the little village in the middle of the map.

Because you may not all have played Panzer General: Allied Assault, you may not get what an improvement those minis will be. In every game I played, the whole thing was slowed way down as I checked over every card to see if the enemy had artillery in range. These figures will improve the game a bunch. I’m assuming there are other cool things in Russian Assault, but I’m kind of a plastic junkie, so I got all giddy about the minis and forgot to ask about anything else.

If you dig the cards-as-tanks concept, but can’t really get behind an historical wargame, Petroglyph has you covered. Guardians of Graxia takes the modular board and card-based tactics and converts it to a fantasy theme. They have all the usual suspects that have been running around in tights and pointy hats since Tolkien - elves, dwarves, orcs and undead – but then it adds the Boneshadow and the Celethreals. You can tell from the names of these races that they are completely different from anything you’ve ever seen. Yes, that was sarcasm.

I’ll confess that the theme of Guardians of Graxia sounds like a complete retread to me, but the adaptations from Panzer General are going to be sweet. The board is built from the modular squares, but now they’re offset, creating a pseudo-hexagonal thing that should offer lots of new tactical options. Plus all the various dudes have different abilities, and you can build your deck to include the devastating combos that will make you the coolest kid at your Friday night Magic: The Gathering club. You’ll have physical and magical attacks, and shield spells to block damage, and all kinds of goobery fantasy abilities that will make you want to rescue princesses while wearing a battle skirt.

This Graxia place is also the center of the third game from Petroglyph, called Heroes of Graxia. Unlike the tactical wargames, Heroes is actually a deckbuilding game. Think Dominion or Thunderstone, but with beatdowns. The main reason you’re buying the cards is to use them to do bodily harm to your opponents (not literally – I don’t recommend you try to use playing cards as weapons. That could end in injuries to yourself, or worse, bent cards). I’ve said before that deckbuilding games are going to be the Next Big Thing, and Heroes of Graxia seems ready to show how psychic I am. Next thing you know, I’ll have a call-in hotline and a late-night cable show, and I’ll tell you where your uncle left his life insurance policy.

The Petroglyph guys tell me that the various games offer a wide variety of depth and complexity. They’re coming out with a pretty cool variety of games, and there should be a little something for almost anyone, unless you totally hate themed games and really just want to make farms with wooden cubes or deliver mail.

According to Petroglyph, their games should be available at GenCon, so if you’re going to the big show, you might be able to play some demos and see what you think. If my review copies show up before then, I’ll try to tell you what I think before you drop your hard-earned money for them at the con, assuming you’re going to the con, which I am not.

Unfortunately, we've come to the end of the preview, and I never did manage to shoe-horn in a gimp joke. I'll try harder for Friday's article.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Supplement Review - Summoner Wars Expansion Packs

I have to check a calendar, because I would swear my birthday wasn't for a couple months. It sure feels like it, though, because I just got the Summoner Wars expansion decks and I'll be damned if I didn't expect it to come with cake and ice cream, and maybe a lame office party where everyone brings whatever crappy food they either bought at the supermarket on the way to work or threw together the night before, except for that one lady who can actually cook but never makes enough for everyone, so that even when you're the birthday boy, you only get like two bites of the banana pudding before everyone descends on it like a Biblical plague of locusts.

Summoner Wars is a fantastic game all by itself. It might be better than HeroScape, and I love HeroScape (you know, before they changed the bases). It's definitely better than a lot of tactical games you could buy, with layers of interesting game play and incredibly well-tested card powers. If you like games, you should own Summoner Wars.

But then, just because the guys at Plaid Hat Games couldn't let well enough alone, they went and brought us a couple decks of bruisers who make the game even better. Each expansion deck is a new faction you can bring to the table, and just like with all the other factions, they have a very specific feel that makes them completely different and new.

The Vanguard are super-good hero-types, to the point that one of the champions is an archangel. These guys hit so hard they'll knock your pants off, and then you'll have the double humiliation of being beat to death while not wearing any pants.

Traditionally, Summoner Wars units that get hit a lot just sort of curl up and die. But with the Vanguard, you've got priests who can heal your guys, so that the huge bruiser on the front line who is dropping enemies like it was free becomes an even more effective meat shield. Even your summoner is a great healer. Your opponents will be so busy stabbing your champion that they'll never have time to react to those archers who come around the back and tag-team you with arrows until you look like you like that ugly guy from Hellraiser.

And if you're a fan of controlling the board, the guardian knights are going to rock your Pinhead face off. Don't want those goblins picking on the priest? Send a knight to stand next to him, and that pathetic goblin won't have a choice of targets - he has to swing on the guardian. That archangel I mentioned before can fly, so he moves faster than anyone else, and he flies right over anything in the way to stick his incredibly resilient ass wherever it would irritate your opponent the most.

I must confess, however, that as much as I liked the Vanguard, the Fallen Kingdoms are easily my new favorite team. I'm not usually a fan of being the bad guy, but these guys are just a total blast to play. The cards go from 'really cool' to 'fill-yer-pants awesome.'

The thing that makes the undead so fun to play is the ability to swarm the board without depleting your deck. I love playing the goblins, but if my swarm doesn't shut down my opponent early in the game, I end up running out of cards and then standing there like a deer caught in the headlights of a semi truck while banging the truck driver's daughter. But no more! Now I can flood the board and still manage to have cards left when my opponent runs dry.

The skeletal archers are the first example here. When they die, there's a very good chance they go to your discard pile instead of your opponent's magic stack, meaning he's going to need to dump his own cards to fuel his magic stack, making him run out faster than you.

Then add in the zombies. When they kill an enemy dude, that guy turns into a zombie - which enters play from your discard pile. You get free guys that don't run down your deck, and if you play this game, you understand how freaking brilliant that is.

Now add in the summoner himself. His special ability is that he can summon in the middle of the attack phase and bring in guys from the discard pile. Now you get to bring in guys during the fighting phase, and again, they're not coming out of your deck.

But what can you do with all that swarm, you ask? The goblins have a great buddy-up attack thing, and they regularly attack with more guys than should be legal. Their swarm is scary. The undead can't do that.

But what they can do is sacrifice their undead minions. Several cards in the FK deck let you kill your own guys to either reduce the summoning cost for a champion or heal your bruisers. And guess where those sacrificial minions go when they die? I'll give you one guess.

Never mind, don't bother guessing. I can't hear you, and I don't really care what you say anyway. I'll just tell you. They go to the discard pile, which means they're sitting right there, waiting for you to summon them again!

I suppose if you play the Fallen Kingdoms wrong, they would be really easy to kill, especially with the Vanguard. But if you use them right, they're damned hard to beat. I like both decks a lot, but I'll take those creepy undead guys every time. It helps that some of the art looks like it was created while the artist was listening to old Iron Maiden albums and smoking laced Mexican Red.

If you like Summoner Wars as much as I do, you really should get the expansion decks. Maybe you can have a little Christmas-in-July of your own.


2 players, or 4 if you have four decks and want to play teams

Each deck has a unique feel and play style
Same great art style that makes the original so much fun to play
They do what expansions should do - make the original game better


If you enjoy Summoner Wars, you should go here and get the expansions. If you don't enjoy Summoner Wars, then it's possible you have no soul. Maybe the expansions can help.