Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Card Game Review - Sturgeon

Come with me on a magical journey into the mind, where we will think deep thoughts about important questions that settle deeply into the minds of all gamers. The first question we shall examine is perhaps the most important ever to be presented. Namely, who thought breeding fish in a lake would make a fun theme?

Well, OK, ignore Go Fish. That doesn't count, because you can play it with a deck of cards, and as we all know, any games you can play with a standard deck of playing cards are inferior in any way that matters, and appeal only to the unenlightened masses who play poker and bridge and canasta. If those games were fun, we would play them. They have to suck, or they would have listings at BoardGameGeek.

To veer back onto topic (which is really unnecessary, because the original topic is pretty silly anyway), consider Sturgeon. No, not the big fish, and not a misspelling of the guy who gives boob jobs when your rack is lopsided or flat (not you personally, yours are very nice). I am referring specifically to the game from Minion Games where you try to breed two gigantic fish in a lake. It's a cute game, enjoyable in short bursts, and probably a good game for the kids, but it still has one glaring flaw. And that flaw is that you are trying to breed to big fish in a lake, and they don't even eat any people or jump out of the water and bite a car in half, making the theme less exciting than actually fishing, which is a pastime I tried once before I figured out that the main draw to fishing is the option to drink heavily. In the absence of hard liquor, fishing is not an interesting way to spend time.

So the fish in Sturgeon do not eat people, which is unfortunate. They do, however, eat each other, and this is how large fish are created. See, when a man fish and a woman fish love each other very much, another bigger fish comes along and eats both of them. So two minnows can be discarded to let you play a trout, and two trout can be recycled for sturgeon food. Two sturgeon could probably be eaten by something like Nessie or celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme, but once you have two sturgeons, you win.

You can also eat other people's fish, by sending your own fish swimming around the table. Opponents can hide their fish in weeds, but then you can just swim a little more. And every now and then, a fisherman comes around and catches sturgeon, which totally blows if he gets yours, and is awesome if he gets another guy's fish. There are enough little side things happening to make the game interesting without being deep. In other words, you could play this game with eight-year-olds and not want to take your own life.

Unfortunately, like the other games produced by Minion Games, the cards are total crap. It turns out Minion Games got totally screwed by the printers in China, which would be more surprising if I did not know that making money is secondary in the mind of the Chinese printer to screwing Americans. In fact, if you're ever negotiating a sensitive business deal with Chinese printers, keep in mind two things. First, you should assume that the Chinese printer intends to cheat you. Second, you should wear a belt, because otherwise the Chinese printers will steal your pants and leave you negotiating in your boxer shorts.

(A quick aside to Chinese printers offended by my generalizations and stereotypes: Bite me. If I ever print a game, I will not be printing it in China. Also, I always wear a belt.)

There isn't a whole lot of game in Sturgeon. This is obviously true in the case of the actual fish, but it is also true in the light card game of the same name. It is a fun game, cute, not terribly difficult and not very deep. It's perfect for children and people not looking to make a huge mental investment in a game. It's a good family game, especially if your family won't play Agricola.


Cute art
Cute theme
Easy to learn and play
Enough interesting decisions to keep adults playing until it's over

A little shallow (which would stand to reason for a light game)
Unfortunate card stock falls apart while you play

Minion Games has copies of Sturgeon that you can go buy right now. Never mind the crappy cardstock - if you need a light game that you can finish fast without too much mental stress, run over and pick it up:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Board Game Review - Monopoly Revolution

You know how, when you tell a normal person that you play board games, they always go, 'you mean, like Monopoly?' And then you realize that you would have more in common with that person if you were a fan of Peruvian line dancing? And then you try to explain that the games you play go way, way beyond Monopoly, and you don't even like Monopoly? And then they walk away because you start to foam at the mouth a little bit?

Well, that's not going to get any better any time soon. If Hasbro has their way - and considering they have more money than the gross national product of most of Central Africa, they probably will - people will be responding to the mention of board games with, 'hey, I play Monopoly!' for the next two hundred years.

To make sure that nobody ever forgets that Monopoly is available at a store near you, Hasbro releases a new version approximately every thirty-seven seconds. Of course, that number includes licensed versions of Monopoly, like Simpsons Monopoly, Star Wars Monopoly, and the often overlooked Vegas Hooker Monopoly (not available at Wal-Mart). So it is no surprise that they released Monopoly Revolution, because they were overdue for a new version of Monopoly by almost 45 minutes.

Monopoly Revolution does virtually nothing new, except that everything is different. You still have the dog and the horse and the shoe, but now they're not little pewter sculptures, they're groovy line art on a clear plastic doodad. You still have all the same properties in all the same places, but now they're wrapped around a smaller, circular board. Jail and Free Parking and Go are all right where they should be, but the funny little Monopoly dude has been replaced with crisp vector art. The redesign is sleek and cool and new, with all the soul of a hospital X-ray machine.

Come to think of it, not everything is the same - you don't have money any more. The money has been replaced with credit cards, which you plug into the sides of an electronic gizmo that plays music and takes your money, sort of like a pickpocket carnival monkey. This one change means that you don't really need a banker any more, because the machine does it. It also means that you don't have to make change. You don't run out of $100 bills. You don't have one sneaky bastich swiping stray hundreds and hiding them under the board for a rainy day, which is defined as landing on Connecticut with four houses.

The electronic thing also replaces the Chance and Community Chest cards. You still have the spaces for them, but now when you land on one, you hit a button and it tells you what happens. Also, every now and then, it will go off and start making noise at random moments, causing the current player (or whoever just put their card in the machine) to be subjected to a random event like winning a beauty pageant or paying ungodly amounts of money for repairs.

If you always hated Monopoly because the money was a pain to sort or it looked outdated, Monopoly Revolution will change your mind, unless the fact that you can't sort money is an indicator of how retarded you are, in which case you are still not going to like Monopoly because there's still math. If you always hated Monopoly because halfway through the game, you know who is going to win and can't do a damned thing about it, then you are still going to hate Monopoly, because that still happens. But if you always liked Monopoly, but would rather have cool new art and a computer to do your accounting, you are going to love Monopoly Revolution.

Come to think of it, this game could not have a more inappropriate name. There is virtually nothing revolutionary about this version of Monopoly. It is almost exactly the same game that has been gathering dust in closets all over the world for 75 years. Making something prettier and easier to play is not revolutionary, unless your standard operating procedure is to make ugly games that are a pain in the ass. And while I could come up with many derogatory things to say about Hasbro, they do have good artists, and they're usually pretty good at making games that are easy to play. So this is more like 'Monopoly: Prettier and Easier'.


Easier to play
Moves much faster now

Still Monopoly (only a con if you dislike Monopoly)

No freaking way Dogstar Games is carrying Monopoly Revolution. Try Target.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Expansion Review - Wrath of the Elements

I reviewed Thunderstone a few months ago, and decided that it was 45 minutes of fun, which would be great if it didn't last an hour and a half. When I got Wrath of the Elements, the expansion for Thunderstone, I was optimistic. I wanted to like Thunderstone, and really hoped the expansion would fix all the problems.

It didn't.

Really, my main issue with Thunderstone is that so often (and by 'so often' I mean 'every frigging time I play'), it feels like the dungeon critters are too damned hard to kill. You need to have a good light source, a couple powerful heroes, and some kick-ass weapons to defeat the really tough enemies, which would be fine except that I never seem to have all those things in the same hand. My deck can have plenty of light - but then I never get a hero. I might have all the weapons I could hope for, but never any light sources. And if I do manage to put together enough heroes in one place, it's all I've got in my hand.

So what ends up happening is that you spend turn after turn trying to draw and get everything you need in one hand, but you never really manage it, and wind up irritated and bored after spending half an hour cycling through your deck.

The new dungeon dwellers in Wrath of the Elements do not make this any better. Some of these bruisers are really hard to kill. It's not just that they're powerful, either - I mean, they are, but they also have requirements like, 'you need magic attack and weapons and then all your clerics die.' So you finally get lucky enough to draw the cards you need to kill something, and then all your good cards get killed. Like it wasn't hard enough to clear this out before.

However, if you already like Thunderstone (and are good enough at it that you can actually build a deck that kills things), there's a lot here that you're going to like. Take the horde, for instance, a bunch of bad guys of increasingly violent persuasion, and you score points based on how many you can kill. Or the traps that can kill your heroes or disease everyone or suck away your victory points like a line of cocaine on a bathroom mirror. Or the guardian who actually leaves the dungeon and starts attacking the players, destroying cards every turn.

The new stuff you can buy is also pretty cool. The warhammer is a good weapon, but give it to a cleric and send him after some zombies, and he's a powerhouse bad-ass. The creeping death spell can not only weaken the monsters, but in sufficient quantity, you can clear the entire dungeon in one play. The amulet of power can let the weakest heroes equip great weapons, and what's more, it glows like a beacon, letting you ignore light penalties far into the dungeon. The new heroes are also a blast - the blind monk can get immensely powerful by destroying all the light sources, and the gladiator can equip multiple weapons with a ludicrously high strength (and in some cases, even use weapons from other players). These new cards also create a lot more interaction, because stuff like the tavern brawl actually lets you attack other players with the cards in your hand.

One thing I really liked was the huge variety of optional rulesets and game types. You can play solo now, or you can play campaigns where you basically play two games in a row and take your total score from both. There are actually quite a few variant rules that you can use to mix up your games, bringing new life to the game in ways I personally hadn't considered before.

But you still have that pesky problem where you end up going around the table, round after round, wishing someone would just kill that tough SOB in the first spot so you could get something to happen. Happily, we came up with a solution for that, too - we house-ruled.

Now, I normally never review a game and include a house rule, but our rule turned the game from an exercise in frustration into a really exciting experience. We simply added one more option for your turn - now you can rest, visit the village, delve the dungeon, or prepare. When you prepare, you discard as many cards as you want, and redraw that many, and then your turn is over. This new rule found extensive use, and we proceeded to play the best game of Thunderstone I've ever seen. No more discarding the one hero you need because you couldn't pull light. No more buying the crappy weapon because you can't afford the good one. Just lose a turn, and come back to it next time.

I would never play Thunderstone by the written rules if I didn't have to, because I don't think it's very much fun. Or rather, I haven't ever enjoyed the second half of a game of Thunderstone. But with this one tweak, Thunderstone (especially with the awesome stuff in Wrath of the Elements) turned into a game that I would play on a regular basis. Suddenly, I would rather play Thunderstone than Dominion, and I adore Dominion.

The final summary here is that if you like Thunderstone, you'll love the expansion. If the original irritates the hell out of you, Wrath of the Elements isn't going to make it any better. But if you've got a copy hidden away somewhere gathering dust because it bugs the piss out of you to play it, try it with the prepare action. You might find yourself in the possession of a game you actually want to play.


Lots of new stuff in every category
Same awesome art
More interaction than before
New variant ways to play

Still overstays its welcome

Dogstar Games doesn't have Wrath of the Elements yet, but I can only assume that once they do, they'll have a good deal on it. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bored Game Review - Pressure Matrix

In the future, the game shows will suck.

Well, maybe not all of them. If that old video game Total Carnage gets made into a game show, I'll watch the hell out of it. But if Pressure Matrix is a glimpse of game shows to come, I'll be watching a lot of Wheel of Fortune re-runs.

Pressure Matrix has everyone competing in a contest where you have to run really fast, all over the place, and every turn, you hit a spot and score something. Eventually, the grid gets all blocked off, and then the game ends and the person with the best score wins. The art on the cover is really cool, with this futuristic dude running down a hallway. That art alone made me ask for a review copy, because it looks exciting and edgy and, well, futuristic.

The cover art, sadly, was the last time I enjoyed Pressure Matrix. Because as soon as I opened the box, I started feeling bad. Not like, 'man, I feel bad because I pushed you out of a plane and the only thing that saved your life was the giant cactus that broke your fall.' More like, 'I just ate three pounds of fried meat and washed it down with spoiled milk, and now I feel bad.' The sinking feeling I began to have was initially caused by the bland, unattractive tiles with lots of words on them that you shuffle to create the board. Then I took those out of the box and looked at the playing pieces, which were brightly colored but were all sculpted as if they were running while carrying a huge load in their shorts.

But the illness really started when I actually played Pressure Matrix. One of us actually said, 'I think I would rather have a root canal.' Personally, I would rather play an annoying board game than have oral surgery, but I completely understood his meaning. This game is painfully bad. Not scrape-your-jaw-with-a-metal-blade bad, but definitely bad.

See, how this works is, you roll dice to move around a grid made up of these tiles. Each tile has four things you can do if you land there, from scoring points or costing everyone else points to saving special moves for later. And every time you use a spot, you block it out, and when a tile has all four spots blocked, you can't move there any more. The game is over when you can't move at all, which unfortunately does not coincide with how long it takes you to wish that the game would end so you could stop.

The problems are multiple and rather obvious. At the beginning of the game, there is virtually no way to affect the ability of the other players to move. You can land on the 'make some other poor boob lose points' spot, but that's about as much interaction as you're going to get. You'll roll the dice, spend five minutes looking at the various effects offered by the spaces you might be able to visit, then move and do something irritating. The sky is practically the limit - you can move almost anywhere, because it takes a while before the board gets blocked up enough to limit your movement. There's just not much planning, virtually no meaningful decisions, and to compound the problem, the board is covered with stuff you have to read every turn.

As you approach the end of the game, the board goes from wide open to claustrophobic. All of a sudden, you have almost no moves to make, and if you thought you were short on decisions before, you're definitely limited now. It essentially comes down to whether or not you can move, not where you move, and so there's no decision to make at all. And the decision you make - assuming you have one - has virtually no impact, and requires no planning at all.

Essentially, Pressure Matrix could be programmed into a computer and played out without any human input at all. It's dull and unattractive, and if this is the best game show the future has to offer, we had all better pray for a future full of really good live theater, maybe like that slave girl who dances for Jabba the Hutt. I would watch that, especially if the alternative were watching constipated guys running all over a boring, repetitive checkerboard until they just stopped moving.

I wouldn't suggest anyone actually buy Pressure Matrix. It's got great cover art, but if that's really important to you, maybe you can just buy the poster.


Neat art on the outside of the box

Everything inside the box

I started looking up images for boring game shows, but you know what happened? I got bored.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cheesy Game Review - Defenders of the Realm

I'm not normally a fan of cheese in my games. I kind of like my games to be like the cheese shop in that Monty Python sketch - you know, completely uncontaminated by cheese. Tight design, efficient rules, and a damned good reason for every part in the box - these are marks of a good game. Using those criteria, Defenders of the Realm should be a failure.

Somehow, though - and I don't know that I could say how - it's not. In fact, it's an extremely fun game, complete with Stilton, Camembert and Limburger, and maybe a little Venezuelan Beaver cheese. It's a cooperative game designed using almost all the same ideas you see in Pandemic, but where Pandemic is efficient to the point of feeling sterile, Defenders of the Realm is campy, almost sloppy.

The first sign that this game is long on cheese is the rulebook. Every so often, as you read through the rules, you'll stumble across some blatantly obvious errors of written English that threaten to confuse you. And if those grammatical and typographical mistakes don't throw you off, then you're ready to pull out some crackers and have some appetizers. The rules are peppered with quotes ostensibly coming from the evil monster generals marching on Monarch City. These masters of wit have such lines as 'count on it hero meat' and 'not gonna happen!' Apparently the authors felt that the best way to convey a powerfully thematic atmosphere would be to include taunts invented by third graders.

Then you get to the art. Now, this is about to be a slightly unfair criticism, because a couple decades ago, this art would have been the cat's pajamas. Sadly, Larry Elmore is a fine artist, but his stuff looks so outdated today, he might as well put leg warmers and shoulder pads on all the girls (and in at least one case, he did). The art is obviously skillfully created, but it also looks like most of it came right off a D&D calendar page from 1987. And that's not all - the board is covered with these huge circles connected with dotted paths, and these circles are the different areas of the board. I hate to be obvious, but would it have been so bad to actually create a map? Maybe it would, actually - this game board is covered up in quality fermented curd.

The object of the game is to kill the four monstrous generals - the demon, the lich, the dragon and the orc. These bad guys will destroy the land, spread like a virus (yeah, I meant to do that), and march on the capital city. If one of them makes it to the city, you lose. You also lose if you have to place a minion and you don't have any. You also lose if the land gets totally ruined. You also lose if you succumb to the foot-like odor of fine cheese, because you'll miss the chance to play this really fun game. It's a desperate fight, and you have to be vigilant if you want to win. A little luck won't hurt, either.

Your heroes are mostly yanked right out of a second edition Player's Handbook - the barbarian (who, by the way, looks like an 80s Lita Ford), the cleric, the ranger, the wizard and the rogue (though we used to just call them thieves). All have great art by Larry Elmore, if by 'great art' you mean 'stuff that was awesome when we all wanted to look like Huey Lewis.' They also have cheesy super powers, but unlike Pandemic, which has tightly crafted abilities that must be used to their absolute maximum potential, these are just helpful a lot of the time, and sometimes, they kind of suck. The dwarf is great against dragons, but anyone can go ahead and fight them. The powers are important, but not crucial, except for the wizard, who will save your ass so many times you'll put him in every single game.

And apparently, no attempt was even made to balance these heroes. The rogue, for instance, is incredibly useful, but if you pull the paladin, you'll be cursing your way through the whole game. Some heroes should be considered mandatory, and some should be shoved back in the box and ignored. Take the heroes who look the most like cheesy LARP characters, and you'll do just fine. Wait, no, they all look like that.

The game gets more intense as you destroy more generals, and by the end you may be just one bad decision away from complete destruction. Even with their generals gone, the minions keep cropping up. It's actually kind of messy, with lots of room to make stupid mistakes and correct them later, as long as you're lucky. It's fun, and not too hard, and not too easy. It does take a couple hours to play, especially if you win, but you probably need time to digest all that fine cheese anyway.

Defender's of the Realm is kind of messy. The art is good, but outdated and dorky. The rules are sloppy, and the 'flavor' they added smells like ballpark nachos. And yet, even with the chaotic design and ridiculous design decisions, Defender's of the Realm is one hell of a lot of fun. It's a lot more fun than Pandemic, not in spite of the cheese, but because of it. It's not clean, but it sure is full of flavor.


Tons of cool plastic
Great flavor, including brie and sage darby
Fun and thematic

Takes a long time to play
Some seriously silly design decisions

Dogstar Games does not carry Defenders of the Realm, which is an enormous oversight on their part, because it is so damned much fun. I figure you can probably find a copy somewhere, if you put your mind and your credit card to the task.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Board Game Review - A Touch of Evil

I wish games were like music. Not because I want to be a board game virtuoso, but because I want to have groupies.

If games were like music, some companies would be super bands. Like Fantasy Flight would be KISS, Rio Grande would be The Police, and Mayfair would be Captain and Tennille. And some companies would be one-hit wonders, but with rabid fans who follow them in beat-up VW bugs when they tour.

Flying Frog would be Men Without Hats.

Last Night on Earth was Flying Frog's Safety Dance. It's an incredible game that will one day fetch the kinds of prices usually reserved for old copies of Space Hulk and misprinted pennies. The game came out and Flying Frog was off to the races, with a game so hot they couldn't figure out what do with it. So they made expansions and more expansions and the fans kept buying them, and they decided they needed a second album.

And the second album was called A Touch of Evil, and fans everywhere bought the album without listening to any demo tracks, but then when they got it home, they were disappointed and ended up just using the album cover and a credit card to sort the seeds out of their weed.

A Touch of Evil looks like it should be fantastic. It looks like a grade-A winner. More plastic miniatures, more cool photography-as-illustration art, and more heavy-theme wackiness. It even has the CD that you're supposed to play while you're battling evil.

But the problem with breaking out with a killer song like Safety Dance is that the follow-up has to be awesome, or you're going to lose some momentum. Last Night on Earth set an incredibly high bar, and while A Touch of Evil isn't a bad game, exactly, it's certainly no Safety Dance. It has a good beat and I can dance to it, but you won't be driving down the road tapping out the bass line while the guy on the radio tells you about the traffic. You also won't be jonesing like a crackhead to play it again, like I sometimes do with Last Night on Earth.

The idea is solid. You have a team of investigators, made up of a wide variety of characters, and you're all trying to find a way to stop some ancient and horrible evil that is haunting an Early American New England town. You'll check out the windmill and the manor, investigate the covered bridge and the abandoned keep, and fight ghost soldiers, wolves and assorted evil minions. Meanwhile, the town elders will be conspiring with their own secret agendas and the evil will be growing stronger. The dastardly villain will continue to claim lives, and it's up to you to find out where he is and how to kill him.

So theme-wise, this is a winner. It's like playing out that Johnny Depp movie where he fights the Headless Horseman and a whole slew of crazy people. Intrigue, murder and conspiracy are wrapped around this town like a dark blanket. But when it comes to making you feel like you're part of a story - the thing that made Last Night on Earth such a tremendous success - A Touch of Evil just sort of flops.

There are a few reasons why this isn't as fantastic as Flying Frog's first game. For one thing, turns can take a few minutes. You move with a die-roll, check out some location or other, and try to either earn investigation points or spend them to get an advantage over the villain. The problem is that it's a little overly abstracted, and while I get that investigation points represent information you're learning about the monster, I don't really follow how you can spend them to buy a horse. Plus it takes longer than it should, because you're probably reading and playing a card nearly every turn, and if you don't all know what every card can do, it can slow down the whole process.

Then you've got the fact that there are two ways to play, and the default method is competitive. For some completely inexplicable reason, you're all competing to kill the villain, and not working together. I can't see any reason for this, and in a six-person game, all the counterplays and backstabbing and otherwise doing harm to your fellow investigators just slows it down more. It's practically laborious, but you'll find yourself playing it out anyway, just because you remember how great Flying Frog's other game was. It's sort of like how you listen to a second album even though you don't like any of it just because the first time you touched a boob, you were listening to the first one.

It does improve considerably with fewer players, and feels far more cinematic and believable when played cooperatively. It's still not quite as engaging as Last Night on Earth, but when all the heroes are on the same team, it feels quite a bit more like taking part in an unfolding drama. When you're cooperating, you all go visit the evil bad guy at the same time, and then he probably stomps a mudhole in you, because he's way tougher in cooperative mode.

A final complaint, and the one that I think harms Touch of Evil the most, is that the story tends to get repetitive. Sure, there are four different villains, but they basically work the same every time. You send your people to flip cards and learn stuff, then once you've built up enough juice, you go get the bad guys. The bad guy might change every game (well, for the first four games, anyway), but his identity is mostly window dressing. The villain will kill the elders. You'll investigate. There just aren't that many twists and turns, and every story is pretty much the same. In that regard, Touch of Evil just doesn't hold a candle to Last Night on Earth.

But don't count Flying Frog out just yet. Any day now, you'll be able to pick up Invasion from Outer Space, where Martians invade Planet Earth and fight carnival folk. That looks like Flying Frog is returning to their roots. Who knows, that might be their Pop Goes the World.


Same fun art style, executed nearly as well, as Last Night on Earth
Mechanics meant to tell a story
Great setting and entertaining cooperative play
I may take some heat for this one, but I like the CD

Too many players slows it to a crawl
Not much variation in the stories you get to tell
Competitive play doesn't fit the theme very well

Played with the right size group, A Touch of Evil is a fun game, even if it doesn't measure up to Flying Frog's first outing. If you're interested in it, run over and get it from Dogstar Games, where they have a great discount on it:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Card Game Review - Nile

My last review discussed Legitimacy, a game that can be labeled a disaster in just about any way that counts. And that's unfortunate, because Minion Games actually has some design chops. I can tell there's some smart in there somewhere, because one of the other games they sent, Nile, is very good.

Nile is a card game, Euro-style. You're all trying to plant a wide variety of veggies, which would be a lot easier if the river didn't keep flooding and locusts would just quit eating your wheat before you could harvest it. There are several elements that combine to make Nile a bit of a nail-biter, and a group of smart gamers could really get a kick out of it.

I do have one serious complaint, and I'll get this out of the way right off - the cards absolutely suck. Not the art, because that's actually pretty good, but the actual physical stock on which the art is printed is complete garbage. I'm not sure that's just a metaphor, either - the cards actually seem to be created from pressed industrial waste. They crumble, crack and fall apart while you play, making shuffling more destructive than simply holding a lighter to the box. That's one hell of a downside, honestly, and might be enough reason all by itself to make you avoid this otherwise very fun game.

My suggestion would be to buy the game and just sleeve everything before you play. You may want to hermetically seal the sleeves, just for good measure, and maybe heat-press them flat to remove air pockets, but if you protect the cards, you're likely to enjoy the game. There are five crops you could plant, but you can't plant unless you can beat the other players, and you can't plant them if the Nile has flooded that crop type, but if you have them when the river comes washing over them, you can harvest them and score some points.

That's not all, though. You have to decide whether to hang on to your cards or trade them for new cards (and in the process lose a lot of cards). You have to decide whether to plant the crops you can plant or speculate on where the next flood will strike. You need cards to play, but you can waste time trying to get them if you're not careful. There's a careful balance that must be achieved, and since the winner of this game usually wins by a one-point margin, you have to be on your toes.

As the game progresses, you'll have a widening variety of crop types, and you'll get more focused on the crops you really need to win. It's pretty obvious at any given moment which player is ahead, but like I said, you're never ahead by much, and one slip can totally blow all your plans. Which brings me to my second complaint - the locusts.

Three times during the game, a swarm of locusts is going to blow through the valley and eat the biggest crops. In this case, the players who thought they were about do pretty well are going to wind up with nothing, and probably be a little bit pissed. A completely random draw can destroy all your careful planning and smart card play, and it's mighty damned irritating. In fact, when the locusts destroy everything you've built for the third time, you might be of the opinion that the locust card should be removed from the game entirely. I'm fairly positive there were several thousand Egyptians who would probably agree with you on that point.

However, locust card notwithstanding, Nile is a very smart game. There are a lot of times you're going to call your friends bad names, which is the mark of a fun game. Play poorly, and you're guaranteed to lose, which is another good sign. Play well, and it just means you've got a fair shot against everyone else. It's a shame Minion Games decided to find such a crappy card printer, because Nile shows just how good their games can be. It's smart, fun and tense, and that means a fun game where I'm from.


Excellent card game with constant difficult decisions
Neat art
Everyone is in the running the whole game

Horribly cheap cards
That damned locust card

If you're in the mood for a tense, smart card game, and you don't feel like spending a mint, you can run right over to Minion Games and get yourself a copy of Nile:

Friday, August 13, 2010

Board Game Review - Legitimacy

Think about how many people you know. Exclude any that you met just because of games - they skew the data for this intellectual experiment. Your lawn guy, your barber and your mailman - they all count. So let's say you know 200 people you know through the course of your daily, non-game-related life. You probably know more, but 200 is an easier number.

Now think how many of them are game nerds. If you're like me, that number is 1 or 2, and that number counts yourself. Extrapolated to society as a whole, we could estimate that less than 1% of the world's population plays games, especially when we consider places like Botswana, Sumatra, and Kentucky. Last time I went out and counted, there were 6.7 billion people in the world. That means that the world has less than 670,000 game nerds (and frankly, I find that number awfully generous).

So now consider how many game nerds play, say, theme-heavy move-and-roll games. I'm going to say that of those 670,000 people, maybe 10% enjoy games like Talisman. So that gives us more like 67,000 gamers in that particular segment.

Our next step will be to figure out how many of those gamers are in the United States. I could do a bunch of random extrapolation and come up with some numbers, but basically, I'm going to guess that the US holds around 20,000 gamers who would consider playing Talisman. And as I said before, that's awfully generous.

So what's my point? Quality control, that's what. Every year, hundreds of games are published, and for reasons that boggle the mind, many of them thoroughly suck. If you're trying to sell a product to a sub-market that is practically a sliver in humanity's pinkie toe, why would you turn out unoriginal, boring crap? Ego comes to mind, or possibly a complete lack of sense. Other than that, I'm stymied.

I mean, look at Legitimacy. In this game, you're all the illegitimate bastards fathered by the late king, and one of you is about to go out and claim his job. You do this by rolling a die and moving that far. Move the right amount of space, and you may be able to get a card, which will often let you move just a little bit farther.

Oh, and sometimes you stab people.

That's basically the game in a nutshell, but it's not the end of the review, because that would be a stupid review. You might almost think that the addition of violence would make this a potentially viable game. And that would be a complete failure on my part, because Legitimacy is a failure on nearly any level that matters.

Let's start with the components, because that was my primary complaint. Specifically the cards (which make up most of the stuff in the box) are cheaper than anything else I have ever used in my life. I am not making that up. They literally fell apart in our hands. One shuffle, and half the cards broke. Yeah, I said that right - they didn't bend, fold, spindle or mutilate. They broke. After ten minutes, the cards looked like they had been played a hundred times, which was impossible, because nobody would play this more than once.

Unfortunately, the crappy stock was the least of the problem. The cards had more misprints than a low-budget porn mag made in some hacker's basement. There were white strips where the front of one card got printed on the back of another. There were blurry pictures where the colors didn't line up right. There was even one card that was printed once with the correct back of the card, and over the top of that was the front of a completely different card. These were very obviously created by the absolute lowest bidder in a far-away third-world nation. I've never seen worse cards in any game.

The rules were equally offensive. The rules themselves were written well enough, but Legitimacy plays like a mean-spirited Candyland, only without all that colorful cheer. You can get stuck in a swamp and miss every other turn for fifteen minutes. You can wander around picking up random, pointless treasure cards. And then you can walk up to someone and punch them in the face to steal their stuff, except that unless you've got way better cards than they do, the odds are about 50/50 they're going to take your stuff instead.

As a matter of fact, that's what finally ended the misery during our game of Legitimacy. One player finally got sick of the stupid and beat up a few opponents, grabbing enough crown jewels to turn them in for the crown. Then we all cheered, not because we were happy for our friend who had won the game, but because finally, it was over.

To return to my original point, Legitimacy is a perfect example of the kind of game that should have undergone a great deal more critical analysis. The creator probably believed emphatically that his game was fantastic, but someone at the newly-formed Minion Games should have said, 'you know, it might not be best to release a completely worthless disaster as one of our first titles.' If there were as many sports fans as gamers, you could get away with this. But the problem with gaming as a hobby is that the producers of the entertainment do not outnumber the recipients by a wide enough margin, and so when someone scoops a dog turd out of the yard and puts it in a box, they are not going to be able to sell it. Stamp 'New York Yankee's Dog Crap' on the box, and you can move at least a thousand.

In summary, publishers, please exercise a little judgment when deciding what to publish. There are not enough of us to consume every possible game that gets published. We need better games, not more of them. Look at what you're producing, and if it's as bad as Legitimacy, just put it away and try to forget it ever happened.


Cute art, when you can see it past the printing mistakes

Boring roll-and-move
Cards that crumble like stale cornbread
No reason to exist

Don't buy Legitimacy. Don't even play it if someone else buys it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Expansion Review - Growing Hunger

One of my favorite games of all time is Last Night on Earth. I've never played that game and not had a total blast, even when the humans mop up the zombies like spilled orange juice on a linoleum kitchen floor. I've played every scenario at least once, and many of them a lot more than that (I really like the one where the survivors have to protect the manor house, especially if I'm the zombies, because it's so crazy easy to kill them when they're all stuck in one place). It's like every game is a story.

But since I've played the game so many times, it does get a little repetitive. I know all the cards, all the pickups, and how often I can count on seeing Just What I Needed save the survivors from certain doom. It's still crazy fun, but it might be nice to try something a little different. And that's why I was all excited to get Growing Hunger, the first expansion for Last Night on Earth.

People will sometimes quibble about what makes an expansion worth producing. Some people say that an expansion should take the game in a new direction, provide new ways to think about the game, or somehow reinvent it. Those people are going to be really disappointed in Growing Hunger, because it doesn't do any of that. And if you were expecting a whole new way to play, then you should probably be playing something else. Last Night on Earth may have lots of stuff you could add in to trick it up, but when the rubber hits the road, it's pretty darn simple. It's not a strategic masterpiece of tactical recreation that will force you to use the parts of your brain that you usually reserve for nuclear physics or coming up with good lines to score with hot dames in bars. It's a brilliant game, but the brilliance comes from the story, not a series of well-planned maneuvers and crucial decisions.

So it's no surprise that Growing Hunger does not provide any twists that make Last Night on Earth play completely different. Instead, it gives us a whole lot more stories to tell. You'll get three new scenarios and four new heroes, all with enough information to turn your zombie game into a new kind of horror movie. There are lots and lots of counters, and you'll probably never use half of them because the rules for them didn't come out until later expansions (I didn't make that up. They really did that. I know, it sucks). There are new map boards, so that you can finally investigate the grocery store that was oddly absent from the original town. And most important, there are a bunch more zombies.

Now, if you play Last Night on Earth a lot (and haven't heard anything about Growing Hunger, maybe because you live in a cave), you'll probably be saying, 'Hey! That doesn't help! You can't have that many zombies in play anyway!' Well, there's one more thing Growing Hunger brings to the table - lots of optional rules. These optional rules can be used to customize your games, and they also see use in the new scenarios. The zombie apocalypse has the zombies all over the map now, which helps because they're going to need them to take over the world. Which is what they will do, unless the heroes can stop them.

In fact, when you add in the optional rules with the new scenarios, there are now lots of new ways to stories to tell when you play Last Night on Earth. The new rules don't reinvent the game or turn it into a whole new beast. Instead, they allow you to tell new stories, and since the reason you're playing in the first place is to see how the story goes, Growing Hunger is just the kind of expansion this game needs.

The characters are new and diverse, including a cop, a gruff short-order cook and a bag boy who reminds me of the dorky kid from Zombieland. There's also my favorite new character, the porn queen. I know, the card says prom queen, but I like mine better. Besides, how do you think she got that popular in the first place? That's right, a sex tape. Worked for Paris Hilton!

The new map boards are pretty cool, too, especially because the pickups are more than the old 'get something out of the discard pile'. If you're not worried about running out of hero cards, you can hit the Piggly Wiggly for some extra supplies - but watch out, because zombies are spawning out of the walk-in freezer. And if you desperately need a card to be back in the draw pile, you can run to the antique store and shuffle it back in there. The new maps add more options to the game, meaning more potential stories.

It's not all awesome, though. My biggest complaint is the fact that they've included a bunch of counters that aren't even referenced in this box because they want you to buy the next three expansions, which should have been one expansion, but got split into three boxes so they could make you pay three times. Of course, if you actually do pay three times, that's your dumb ass. It's not like they're selling heroin to school kids. If you don't want it, don't buy it - and I don't want it, because I think that sucks.

A minor problem, and one that will iron itself out over time, is that the optional rules and new cards are going to give rise to lots of 'wait, how does that work again?' incidents. Last Night on Earth already suffers from a bad case of look-something-up, which is kind of inevitable but a bit of a pain in the ass. When you add in the new rules, mix in some new buildings, and toss in a bunch of new cards, you're looking at a whole new batch of questions that will send you to the FAQ (I'm assuming there's an FAQ somewhere. I don't know, I just make up the rules as I go).

Ironically, both my negatives could also be considered positives, and since I totally love Last Night on Earth, that's what I decided to do with them. Instead of bitching about getting stuff I can't use, I'm going to be excited because I got extra stuff. And rather than complain about the new layers of complication, I'm going to be excited to explore new ways for my zombies to eat hapless high-school athletes and promiscuous porn stars. And when I look at it like that, add in all the new ways to tell a crazy zombie story, and toss in the free Web scenarios you can get from the Flying Frog site, Growing Hunger is one of the best expansions I've ever owned.


2-6 players who want to have one hell of a lot of fun

Great new characters
Cool new boards
Lots of new counters and bits
More zombies!!!
All combine to make lots more stories come to life at my kitchen table

A little bit of 'Hey, kid, the first one's free'
New, potentially confusing rules

If you play Last Night on Earth enough to have played every scenario, you really ought to go get Growing Hunger. Dogstar Games doesn't have it right now, but I'm sure you can get it somewhere. I traded for mine.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Card Game Review - Mad Zeppelin

It amazes me sometimes what games make the cut and get published, especially when I look at all the very good free games available to print and play. How do those games not get bought up, and so many stinkers make it all the way to distribution? I mean, some of these games are even published by big publishers who should know better, and yet, I could still go print out a copy of Zombie in My Pocket.

I'm referring specifically to Mad Zeppelin, a game that defies all logic as it applies to publishing. There's a game hidden somewhere in this box, but I'll be damned if I can figure out where. It's got amazing art and a funny theme, but somehow it completely fails to deliver on nearly any level. It's like a really hot hooker that won't have sex with you but still wants to get paid.

It's hard to say what Mad Zeppelin does to give you the gaming equivalent of blue balls. It gets right up to the edge of being interesting, but falls apart when it matters. The story is cool - you represent a rotating cast of miscreants attempting to toss valuable cargo off a zeppelin to the people waiting below, only to get into the cargo hold, you have to bribe the guards. It's campy and silly and looks like fun.

Plus the art is extraordinary. It's difficult to look at Mad Zeppelin and not want to play, because the character art is so expressive and fun that it's almost worth buying just as decoration. Sadly, it's not worth buying if you're looking for a game.

Every turn, you'll get two enemies of the state. This is largely random, so you'll never know if you're going to get the pretty boy with the cheese-eating grin or the sidekick with the abnormal growth condition. Some combinations of cards are great, like the voodoo queen and the old guy in the steam-powered wheelchair that let you guarantee a shot at scoring that turn. Some pairs totally blow, like the strange doctor and the society dame that effectively do just about nothing for their entire turn.

The object is to toss these crates overboard, scoring points for everything you're able to throw, but sometimes the character cards you pull combine with the dice that hate you to make sure you're not able to do anything at all with your turn. Then you have to sit there and seethe while all the other players are chucking cargo like confetti.

The trick of the game, I suppose, is to effectively use the two cards you get to do something impressive. Unfortunately, we never did figure out how to do that, and moreover, we hated the game so much that we never went back to see if we could learn how. This was not one of those where we finished and said, 'Hmmm, maybe with some work, this could be fun.' No, this was one of those games where we said, 'Hey! You've won the game! Thank GOD!!!'

It really is a shame that this one is as great a failure as it is, because Mad Zeppelin is not only a great-looking game with a fairly amusing theme, it's from one of my favorite publishers. Alderac is bringing the heat when it comes to games. They're like the old FOX network, where they would try things nobody else would consider. Sometimes they run Brisco County Junior and the world is better for their existence, and sometimes they have The Ben Stiller Show. But they keep pushing the envelope and putting their best foot forward, so even if Mad Zeppelin is dead on arrival, there's a good bet they've got something else that will blow your doors off. Rush N Crush, for instance.

Mad Zeppelin is one of those games that came out of Dust Games, which means the license is scooting over to Fantasy Flight Games. That probably means that if it is ever rereleased, they'll do it with far too many rules, in a huge box, charge way too much for it, and have about 75 pieces of plastic you don't need. And every game nerd on the planet will fall over themselves to buy one.

Except me. Next time, I'm finding a hooker who puts out.


Fantastic art
Amusing idea
Exceptionally high-quality cards

Takes your money but doesn't put out

I was going to post a picture of a prostitute here, but I have to draw the line of poor taste somewhere.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Annual GenCon Rant

It's that time of year again, kids. When the fat man rolls up in big red ride and brings joy and cheer to all the gamers of the world. Only in this case, the fat man is in a YuGiOh shirt, his vehicle is littered with mostly-empty Mountain Dew cans and discarded candy wrappers, and the joy and cheer he brings is accompanied by copious amounts of horribly offensive body odor. Also, he probably has a foam sword.

Yes, it's GenCon season, and for the first time in five years, I'm NOT there. It's hard to explain to your average nerd why I'm happy to miss the biggest show in gaming, but since I write about this catastrophe of hygiene once a year, many of you have probably heard most of this already.

In the past, I've been at GenCon because I was working. The first year, I was there with a press pass, writing an article for Knucklebones Magazine. For the next three years, I was manning a booth for VixenTor Games, selling dice towers and adventure bags and dice boxes and hating nearly every minute of it. But this year, VixenTor Games is taking a break. The only excuse I have to be called a journalist is this site, and let's face it, I'm about as much a journalist as Ryan Seacrest. So I skipped it, and man am I happy about it.

The thing is, a huge number of my friends are there right now. They're probably all at a bar somewhere, drinking and slapping each other on the back and getting ready to go back to the hotel and play games for five or six hours. They'll be laughing and joking and yelling at each other (all in fun, of course, unless some of them get really drunk, and then it's all in fun and inebriation). And I'll be here, home, writing about not being with them. That's actually kind of depressing.

But then I think about what I get to avoid because I'm not at GenCon. I get to avoid a 15-hour drive. I get to avoid looking for parking in downtown Indianapolis, a city that defies rational exploration and invites travelers to get hopelessly lost. I get to avoid rude locals who hate tourists. I also get to avoid rude hotel clerks, rude GenCon staff, and rude nerds.

I get to avoid staying in a hotel with two or three other people in a room that has fewer beds than guests (that happens every year). I get to avoid walking all over a steamy hot town, dripping sweat everywhere, just to get back to my hotel room and discover they've turned off the water (that happened last year). I won't have to ride in the world's slowest elevators, taking fifteen minutes to get twelve floors, unless I decide to hike down twelve flights of stairs and arrive at the ground floor dripping sweat on anything within ten feet, and all because the Embassy Suites managed to have one of their elevators break down right before every occupant in the hotel tried to leave at the same time (that also happens every year).

I won't have to push my way through an enormous convention hall that, despite being four square city blocks, is bursting at the seams with pimpled adults dressed like Jedi Knights and social throwbacks arguing that there's no way their paladin would have died if the DM hadn't forgotten about the potion of putrescence. The restaurants I visit this week will be completely clear of elf ears, demon horns, fairy wings or alien contact lenses.

Another joy to which I will not be party is the unbridled pleasure of dealing with the degenerate assholes who run the show. Out of, say, ten GenCon staffers, it seems that at least nine will be so unfriendly that their faces are locked in a permanent rictus of disapproval and disgust. The security guards are abusive. The check-in staff are disinterested. The people setting up the hall look at the vendors like we were all just tracked in on the bottom of their shoes.

However, I also won't be playing all the year's hottest games before anyone else sees them. I won't be visiting my favorite booth, a guy who sells second-hand miniatures at prices that make me wish I had taken a second mortgage. I won't be sampling any of the delicious beer found in many of the Indianapolis mini-breweries, either, and I'll miss that more than anything else.

So there are parts of GenCon that I actually like. I love how, after the hall finally closes and my friends are all finished running their tournaments and counting their money, we all get together to drink and enjoy each others' company. I really like being right in the middle of the business of games, even if much of that particular business is overrun with sleazeballs and rank amateurs.

I really don't miss being at GenCon. The cons outweigh the pros by a massive amount. But if I could plan a perfect vacation, I would be on a beach in Cancun with my wife all day, and in downtown Indianapolis during GenCon season at night.

One of these days, I'm going to go to GenCon and never actually go to the convention. That's going to rule.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dice Game Review - Delve: The Dice Game

Here's a little primer on how to be completely unprepared for a week of game reviews.

1) Schedule your gaming for a Saturday morning, have a bunch of multiplayer games ready to go, and then somehow arrange it so that nearly everyone cancels. Thanks to illness and generally being wicked busy, my usual Saturday group wound up with only two of us, and me without any two-player games ready to play.

2) Get busy yourself. I spent the weekend doing a bunch of other projects, including assembly of a print-and-play game I intend to review, probably next week sometime, assuming I have a group next weekend.

3) Get sick. This is especially helpful if you want to miss an update and instead, spend two days in bed. I've just now felt well enough to come turn on my computer.

All of these factors combined in a sort of perfect storm, meaning I'm rolling up on Tuesday night, missed my Monday night review, and none of the games I have are ready to review. So rather than come up with some lame excuse, or write a diatribe I made up just to fill space, I'm going to tell you about my favorite free PnP solo game, called Delve: The Dice Game.

While this is not a review of some hot farming game or big-box extravaganza, Delve is definitely a fun, if light, little game. It's also ridiculously affordable, being free. And where most PnP games will require you to print and assemble tons of components, all you need for Delve is the adventure sheet and the rules. You can start playing after printing two sheets of paper.

You'll also need a good-sized handful of dice and a pencil. Then you sit down at the table, and spend fifteen minutes rolling dice until you either lose all your characters or win. It's a fast game that you can finish while you're waiting for your kids to get dressed for church, especially if, like mine, they insist on coming out of their rooms wearing dirty jeans and then complaining bitterly when ordered to change, and then spending even more time when you make them go comb their hair because they look like they slept outside.

The gameplay is actually pretty simple. You've got four characters, each of which allows you to make combos with the six dice you'll roll. Like most dice games, you keep a few and reroll a few, looking for dice combinations that result in the greatest number of hits. Do you push your luck and go for the wizard's chain lightning, or just count on the fighter's low-brow direct damage? Are you wounded enough to sacrifice some damage for the cleric's healing, or should you pour all your dice into the rogue's crippling strike to drop the giant in one round? Choose right, and you'll kill every skeleton for three miles; choose wrong, and you'll want to have some lube handy.

Obviously, as with any dice game, there's a lot of luck here. If the dice hate you, you're going to die before you get halfway through, and if your luck is ludicrous, you're going to win without breaking a sweat. The monsters hit on lucky rolls, too, so you could wind up rolling total crap and getting destroyed, or you could mow through everything like wet toilet paper and finish off the boss wondering why this was a big deal. But most likely, you're going to be challenged, you may lose someone, and it could go right down to the wire.

There aren't a huge number of decisions to be made in Delve. You're going to roll dice. That's about it. But choosing the right combination with the right dice at the right time is key, and is important enough that if you finish an adventure, you have enough sense of accomplishment to have enjoyed yourself.

The main downside to the game, in all honesty, is that it lacks replay value. Once you finish an adventure, you could play it again, but it will be boring. You'll have to print a new adventure every time you want to play it, but you probably won't bother, because there's not much point in doing it twice. On the other hand, there are several adventures to choose from, and they're all free. Some are better than others, but it's worth playing through the whole batch. And if you're feeling particularly industrious, you could create your own, and maybe even whip up some of your own characters. Who knows, maybe a half-dwarf druid is just what you need.

All the files for Delve can be found at Board Game Geek. Just search on 'Delve', and it'll pop right up. It's free, fun and fast, and thoroughly worth the time and the sheet of paper you'll spend on it.


1 player, who is probably waiting for his wife to finish getting dressed

Quick dice game
Fun and fast, with a few tricky decisions
Free, with virtually no components to create yourself

Very limited replay value

If you need a game you can play by solo while you wait for your wife to finish her makeup, you can download all the Delve files here: