Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Board Game Review - Dungeon Twister: Prison

A guy asked me the other day if, having reviewed games for going on a decade or so, my taste in games had changed. I would not say it has - my favorite game is still an old-school dungeon crawl from the early 90s. But one thing has changed - I don't really like Dungeon Twister any more.

I reviewed Dungeon Twister more than three years ago, and back then, I thought it was a pretty cool game. Even now, as I write about how I really did not enjoy Dungeon Twister: Prison, I can remember having a lot of fun with the original. I had a few of the expansions, including the one that let me play with three players (it also lets you play with four, but unfortunately, that requires knowing three other people who like Dungeon Twister, and I only knew two). I liked all the cool abilities and neat stuff that came with the game, so I was actually quite surprised to find out how little I like it now.

It may be that I just don't like Dungeon Twister: Prison. That's kind of odd, though, especially when you consider how much I love games with tiny plastic people. Dungeon Twister: Prison is like the super-deluxe version of Dungeon Twister, with plastic miniatures, a huge tray to sort the minis from other expansions, and even a solo version of the game. It's completely compatible with all the previous iterations of the game, and gives you a place where you can store all those other parts so you're not lugging a steamer trunk full of boxes every time you want to play.

One thing that will put you off Prison is the way it tells you the rules. With the original game, it just lays out the rules, and then you play, and that's the end of it. But in Prison, the rules are parceled out to you in tutorial games. This would be fine, except that for the life of me, I cannot imagine playing a game this involved with someone who needs an entire game to just practice moving your guys. The game is pretty darn straight-forward. Why I needed to play five learning games before I actually used the rules is beyond me.

On the other hand, some of those tutorial missions are far more interesting than the actual game itself. They don't use all the figures, and they don't use all the boards. You're right up on top of the other guy from the beginning of the game, which means you're constantly trying to ration your cards to get the most bang for your buck, because the other dude is about to send a 600-pound colossus barreling down on you to cram his foot so far up your ass you can use it for a toothbrush. Some of those games were pretty interesting, and they were generally over in fifteen to twenty minutes.

But when we tried to play the full game, we were very bored. We actually ended the game early when I looked at my wife and said, 'I am not enjoying this at all,' and she said, 'neither am I', and I said, 'let's burn it.' We didn't burn it, because it's good trade fodder, but I can tell you right now I won't be playing that game again. In fact, I disliked Dungeon Twister: Prison so much that now I don't even want to play the original.

I think the difference between Prison and the original game is that the tiles in Prison have too many walls. I remember being able to chart crazy paths through the dungeon, dodging pit traps and smashing gates and making good time to the other side. But now I can't even get to the next tile without spending half my turns spinning the rooms, because the walls are actually completely blocking half the board. And once I spin the rooms and open up one area, the other side of the table is blocked off by walls. What used to be a tense game that would make my brain sweat turned into a frustrating exercise in wasted time.

It's sad, really, because this version of Dungeon Twister is dead sexy. The plastic miniatures are great, and the option to play solo is a very cool addition. The tray is great, the art is gorgeous, and there's nothing about this game that doesn't jump up and say, 'play me!' Well, until you play it. Then you won't want to play Dungeon Twister. You may just want to play Twister, which is a fun party game for naked college kids.

The funny thing is, if you're a big aficionado of Dungeon Twister, you really should pick up Prison. It's built to work perfectly with all your other expansions, and the storage tray alone is a thing of beauty. I wouldn't recommend using the new rooms, but the character abilities are crazy fun. The pieces are great, and if you just really wanted to play a game and don't have any friends, you can even try the solo version.

In fact, if you are a big fan of Dungeon Twister, and really want to pick up Prison, I'll trade you mine. I'm sure as hell not ever playing it again.


2 players

Great pieces
You can consolidate all your other boxes into this one
The new character abilities are very cool

Not as much fun as I remember

If you are a big Dungeon Twister fan, you should pick up Dungeon Twister: Prison, and maybe just not play with the boards that are inside. Noble Knight Games can hook you right up:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Update - The Dogs Are Back

I want to thank everyone who was concerned for my dopey dogs. It's been a tough week and a half, and it wore us down worrying about our stupid pets. But yesterday Animal Control decided they were harmless jackasses, and not hardened killers, and so as of last night, both dogs are back home. They cost us a mint in boarding fees and animal-at-large citations, so we may be feeding them ramen noodles for a few weeks, but they're back home where they belong.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Expansion Review - Jungle Elves and Cloaks

I usually like to have something worth saying before I start typing up one of these reviews. Like, I want to tell you reasons you will enjoy the thing I'm reviewing, or reasons I hated it, or ways that it is better than some other thing. Optimally, what I say in a review will have some bearing on your decision to buy (or not) the thing I review. You know, in a perfect world.

So I find myself a little non-plussed at tonight's review. The thing about Summoner Wars is that if you already know you like it, you're going to get the expansions. And if you're not sure if you'll like it, you'll start with the base game and work up. And if you know you don't like it, then there's absolutely no reason on Earth that you're going to go buy two expansions to a game that you don't even like, and have probably already traded for a copy of some dreadfully boring game about sorting colorful blocks or campaigning for a dogcatching job in medieval Venice. Because if you don't like Summoner Wars, you're probably a big fan of games where nobody dies. Or rolls dice.

I could tell you about the cool new cards you'll find in the Jungle Elves expansion pack. I could tell you how freaking cool it is that they've got freaking LIONS. I could tell you how all the event cards are chants that do something wicked, like make you run faster or hit harder or heal up. I could describe how the elf units in this box can charge across the field like their asses were on fire and their balls were catching, steamrolling the opposition into a mushy paste fit only for consumption by toothless swine. But telling you how incredibly cool the Jungle Elves are isn't going to help make up your mind to buy them, because you already know if you want them.

There's also all kinds of stuff I could say about the Cloaks. I could talk about how they're all about denying your opponent the chance to use his resources, with event cards and unit abilities that discard cards right out of his hand or steal his magic or just make him sit around with his thumb in his ass (depending on who you play, you may not need a card for that last one). I could tell you about these wicked but subtle unit abilities that let you play a thoroughly defensive game and still ruin your opponent's chances to attack, because you keep smoke-testing his lion riders without having to roll any dice. I could tell you how your guys are kind of weak, but they don't have to be strong because your opponent is going to spend most of the game trying to figure out how to afford one or two cards, and then you're going to steal those cards and throw them in your own magic pile, and then he's going to punch you in the teeth. Which is awesome, except for the punching. But again, just because I tell you how much fun it is to play the Cloaks does not mean you're any closer to knowing if you want them.

I could simply throw my hands in the air, give up all pretense of intelligent discourse or useful information, and just tell jokes about body parts. After all, I've kind of built this site around crude humor and suggestive innuendo. In fact, that might be the best course of action in this case, because telling you about the new Summoner Wars expansion decks is unlikely to produce any fruitful knowledge. So here's a quick crude joke.

A guy takes a small monkey into a bar. The little critter eats all the olives, then he eats a bunch of ice cubes, then he runs over and eats the cue ball off the pool table. The bartender is pissed, so the guy explains, 'yeah, he eats everything in sight. Little bastard. I'll pay for the damage.'

A week later he's back in the bar, and there's that damned monkey. The monkey runs over to the bar, grabs a maraschino cherry and shoves it in his ass. Then he pops it out and eats it. The bartender is disgusted and yells at the guy. The guy says, 'yeah, he still eats stuff, but ever since he ate the cue ball, he measures everything first.'

You're still no closer to knowing whether or not you want the Summoner Wars expansions, but at least now you might be laughing. You might not, either - it's not like I wrote that joke myself. I just think it's funny.

I guess that the best course of action to let you know if you want the Summoner Wars expansions is to tell you that they're available. If you haven't played Summoner Wars, you should fix that right away. If you have and you didn't like it, don't tell me about it, because I'll just call you names. If you do like Summoner Wars, the new expansion decks are a blast to play, and you should get them right away. What else do you need to know?


Still 2 players (or 4 in teams)

Jungle Elves are great at rushing the enemy with brutal attacks, and keeping your opponent on his heels
Cloaks will make your opponent weep in frustration as you routinely steal all his crap and use it against him
Both decks are awesome. You should get them.


You should go get the Cloaks and the Jungle Elves. You should do that right now.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Movie Review (Sorta) - To Kill A Mockingbird

Last week, I took my kids to the movies. This was a big deal because for one thing, the theater didn't actually open until the next day, so it was kind of a celebration pre-opening thing. For another thing, we went to see a digitally restored copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, which is an absolutely amazing movie. I realize that it's not exactly a nerd movie, or one likely to appeal to gamers in general. I also realize that my event reviews are not usually about stuff I did that was as intellectually challenging as To Kill A Mockingbird. But I kind of don't care, because I really enjoyed the movie, and I want to talk about it. Forunately, I've got this sweet website where I can put stuff I write. Lucky me!

If you haven't seen To Kill A Mockingbird or read the book, count on me spoiling it for you. When we get to a point where a movie has been out since 1962, and is a huge part of American lore, I think the statute of limitations has expired on spoiler warnings. In fact, since I want you to be able to follow along, I'm even going to sum it up real quick. Mostly because, prior to last week, I couldn't remember any names past Boo Radley and Scout.

So here's the skinny. It's the 1930s in a small Southern town, and this lawyer named Atticus has two kids named Scout and Jem (it was the South in the 30s. Apparently names were just silly). Then there's the creepy guy who lives up the street (Boo Radley), and the rumor is that he stabbed his old man with scissors. This lawyer dude gets a case representing a black guy named Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping and beating a white woman. Tom didn't do it, and he couldn't have done it, because his left arm doesn't work since he stuck in a cotton mill or some damned thing. But an all-white jury still finds Tom guilty, despite the fact that Atticus does an incredible job of defending him. Bob Ewell, the father of the girl who was beat up (she never was raped at all, that part was a lie), is very angry at Atticus because he made the country dick-ass look like a lying hillbilly, and let everyone in town know that his daughter had tried to give Tom a handy. So Bob tries to kill Scout and Jem, but Boo Radley pops out and caps his ass with a kitchen knife, and they all live happily ever after. Except Tom - he got killed. Oh, and Bob - he also got killed.

The first thing that struck me after I left the movie was that Harper Lee (the book's author) was trying to make a point. At first glance, that point might be, 'be nice to black people.' When you wrap in Boo Radley, you might also add, 'be nice to that weird kid who lives up the street and stabbed his dad with a pair of scissors.' But that doesn't really make sense when you're considering the title. A person who names a book something so obscure is obviously making a point, and it's not 'racism is bad.' Sure, that's about the only thing anyone remembers about To Kill A Mockingbird, because most of us were forced to read it in ninth grade and all we remember was that the black guy didn't do it. But while that is a huge theme of the story, it's not the message we're supposed to get.

Three parts of the film frame the movie. The first is kind of innocuous, because it's just a conversation about shooting birds that occurs over the dinner table. Atticus is explaining to Jem that it's cool to shoot some birds, but it's a sin to shoot a mockingbird. Mockingbirds don't do anything but help. They don't roost in the garage, or eat your cat food, or crap on your car. They just sing and make our lives better, and so it's bad to kill them.

The second part is pretty obvious. The trial of Tom Robinson reveals that he had been helping the white girl he supposedly raped. She would ask him to fetch firewood or bust up chifferobes (I had to look that up, so don't feel bad). But then she got a little jungle fever and tried to jump his bones, only he wasn't up for that, and he ran off. Then her old man, Bob Ewell, came in the house and beat the crap out of her. All Tom did was help. He never hurt anyone. And for all the trouble, he was found guilty of rape and got himself killed.

The final part is kind of the undercurrent in the film. Boo Radley is the creepy dude that nobody has seen in a long time. Scout and Jem certainly haven't seen him, and they're scared of him. They kind of harass him and his family, because he's the weirdo in the run-down house. But Boo is always putting out little toys and trinkets for Jem and Scout to find, and at the end of the movie, he saves their lives by stabbing the crap out of Bob Ewell. The sheriff rules it an accident, and says Bob fell on his knife, because he says that to drag poor Boo out into court and try the whole thing would be rotten. Scout agrees, and says it would be like killing a mockingbird.

So, you see, it's not a book about racism. It's a book about treating people right. Harper Lee tells us that if a person hasn't ever done anything wrong, and all they are is nice, it's really crappy to cause them harm. That should be a pretty obvious lesson, but for a lot of us, it's not as obvious as you might think. We often assume things about people and treat them poorly, never knowing whether they are actually decent because we've already decided that their haircut means they suck. Take that weird old lady in purchasing who never stops talking, and who always walks funny, and who should have retired five years ago. It might just be that she's alone at home, and she might be really nice, and make you lemonade or darn your socks or something, if you ever listened to her and didn't keep making excuses about why you had to run away and couldn't stick around any more. That's not the only example - the nerdy kid at the back of the class, the quiet foreign exchange student who never says anything, the football star that we all hated just because he was the football star. Maybe they're not as bad as we think (but they probably are).

But that's not the only point Harper Lee was making. If you get this far, you're already doing pretty well. You see the racism angle, and think that's the point, but then you get deeper, and you get to the part where you should not be a dick, and think that's the point, but that's not really the whole push of the book. See, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley were congruent characters, but there was another set of congruent characters, and they should not be ignored. In fact, I think that if you miss this last part, you only have half the picture.

The last two congruent characters were Bob Ewell and... the dog. If you read the book or saw the movie recently, or if you just have a good memory, you'll remember a scene where Atticus has to shoot a rabid dog in the street. The dog is pure bad. It's not capable of anything good, and can only cause harm. Furthermore, that dog would totally kill a mockingbird, if he could catch it. So it has to be put down, because that's what you do with things that are all bad.

Bob Ewell is all bad. He beats his daughter, doesn't provide for his family, and his perjury causes the death of an innocent man. And so, the best thing that can be done with Bob is to stab his ass to death. That's what you do with things that are all bad.

The real point that Harper Lee is making is two-fold. On the one hand, do not harm people that are just plain good. And if someone is doing harm to people that are good, smoke 'em like a pack of Kools.

Now, just because you get the point a book is making does not mean it's ancient wisdom. Sure, some of Harper Lee's morality play makes sense. But you can understand what the book is saying without believing that you have to take it all to heart. You don't actually have to kill people who are all bad. And seriously, who decides? Do you decide who is the mockingbird and who is the rabid dog? Because that's more responsibility than I want. Also, I don't want to go to prison, so it might be best to not kill people.

Oh, and the movie was good.

So there's my 'review' of To Kill A Mockingbird. I apologize for using my ordinarily half-witted column to get all academic. I just wanted to talk about a movie I really enjoyed, and my kids were all, 'yeah, we got it Dad, now shut up.' So lucky you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Board Game Review - Castle Ravenloft

This might be the least timely review ever written. By this point, every other reviewer alive has chimed in about Castle Ravenloft. It was one of last year's biggest releases, and everyone had to talk about it and argue about it and disagree about it and either proclaim it the best game ever created, or call it a heaping pile of rabbit pellets. And while all that was happening, I found myself completely unable to get a copy, so that when I do finally get around to reviewing the game, I might as well be reviewing checkers.

However, thanks to Noble Knight Games, I finally have a copy of the latest big hitter in the dungeon crawl game category, and so I can now tell you why I will be playing it for a good long time, and why I am now even more upset that it will be several months before I can get a copy of Wrath of Ashardalon.

If you've been living somewhere outside a Tibetan monastery for the last six months or so, you've probably already read half a dozen reviews about Castle Ravenloft (in fact, you have probably already decided whether you want a copy). So you probably already know that it's a fully cooperative game where you go traipsing around inside Count Strahd's gloomy house, investigating corridors and rooms and being attacked by an incredible number of monsters while looking for loot. You have characters ripped right out of Fourth Edition D&D, like a dragonborn fighter and dwarf cleric, as well as a variety of unfriendly inhabitants who will pop out and hurt you.

Given the wealth of knowledge available for Castle Ravenloft, I'm not going to bother describing how everything works. You can't swing a dead lolcatz without hitting a review of the game, so I'm positive someone has told you how you draw cards and roll dice. Besides, that stuff is boring. Instead of being boring, let's just skip right to the good parts and the bad parts.

A fully cooperative dungeon crawl is hard to create. The problem is, a dungeon master is able to make monsters act tricky, and prescripted monster reactions make them predictable. And that means that instead of a tactical game, it becomes almost a puzzle game. You'll find yourself attacking less attractive targets just because they're on the right tile, or killing silly rat swarms because the treasure might let you level up.

But just because you know what the monsters are going to do, that doesn't mean the game isn't tense. The game is not very hard to win, and that's why it isn't tense. I grant you that I've only played three times so far, but we never had any trouble winning. We had fun, and wanted to play more, but we never really had a moment where we said, 'holy crap, we're all going to die!' Maybe future adventures get a little more difficult, but so far, we have sailed through them.

Another problem with Castle Ravenloft that might make it less fun is that it lacks some of the feeling that you're playing out a story. It's a little too technical and dry, and just doesn't ooze theme the way I want it to do. Every attempt has been made to pull a tale of derring-do and dark adventure out of the randomized tiles and plastic miniatures, but that story is at odds with the game itself.

For instance, you're going to draw a monster on every tile. You know this. If you don't draw a new tile, you're guaranteed to have to draw an encounter card, and then something bad will happen to you. Again, you know this. And so rather than a story or tactical battle where you're sneaking through a dungeon, you wind up with a game where you're pushing forward, trying to clear out one tile before you pull another, ignoring some traps because you won't need to pass that tile again, or arranging your miniatures to best exploit your various powers. It just doesn't create a cohesive story.

Another blow against the story is the fact that your characters cannot improve from one dungeon to the next. You start every adventure at first level, and maybe reach second level before you're done, and then the next time you play, your ranger forgot all the crap she learned last time. That shoots a hole right through the middle of the story. I like a game where each adventure feels like another step on a path, where every villain I destroy is just one step closer to the final confrontation. The scenarios build toward the eventual hunt for Strahd, but it feels like anyone could do any of them whenever they want (mostly because they can).

Story or not, however, Castle Ravenloft is fun. It's fun to tromp through a dungeon, discovering room after room, hacking away at zombies and ghouls and giant spiders. Traps pop up and shoot spears at our heroes, and scary mists roll through the hallways, making us soil our trousers and cry for our mothers. It may be a tad academic, but it's all dungeon romp, all the time.

And unlike my favorite dungeon crawl game of all time (which would still be Warhammer Quest), there is more to do than just cut things. The first adventure had me scrambling to escape the castle, and the second had us searching for the lost icon of Ravenloft in an overrun chapel full of monsters. In the third, we battled a very unfriendly kobold sorcerer and destroyed his infernal device. Other adventures have still other goals, and the game is full of specialized markers and tokens that afford you the chance to do something besides maraud from room to room and kill things (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Another strong point in Ravenloft's favor is that it is pretty darn sexy. The art is great, and the miniatures are straight out of the D&D miniatures game (though they don't have paint). There's even a huge scary dracolich, which is a cross between a dead wizard and that mean kid from Harry Potter. The tiles look neat, with piles of bones and altars and coffins and stuff, and the game has a decidedly polished look. No rookie designer built this game, I'll tell you that.

Now, in my completely biased and unfair opinion, any dungeon crawl game that wants to compete has to measure up against Warhammer Quest. And while Castle Ravenloft does some things better than my favorite game, it has downsides. Where Warhammer Quest really feels like a tale about a group of warriors battling through a dank dungeon to defeat ancient evil (or maybe just rat-people with bad hygiene), Castle Ravenloft lacks some of the flavor. The option to improve from game to game is one of the greatest things about Warhammer Quest - that, and the non-stop, fast-paced action. While Ravenloft moves very quickly, and affords the players lots of choices to make, you're going to start every adventure with a first-level guy, regardless of how long you've been playing.

There are a few other reasons that Warhammer Quest beats Ravenloft, but they're very small. I like Warhammer art, for example, and I've never been able to sign off on some of the silliness of D&D (dragonborn being one good example). On the other hand, Ravenloft offers a much wider variety of game, with lots of different games coming out of just the one box. Combat is actually faster than Quest, and it's a tighter game with a lot less accounting and record-keeping. While I am not persuaded, I could definitely see where a gamer might think Ravenloft is actually better than Warhammer Quest. I know which one I prefer, but it's awfully close.

Finally, Castle Ravenloft has an incredible amount of staying power. Never mind that there's already an expansion (not really, of course - Ashardalon is a stand-alone game, but it provides a lot more toys to throw in the toybox). Once you play all the scenarios in the box, Ravenloft provides enough doodads and widgets for an enterprising game nerd to create nearly any kind of adventure he wants, without having to buy anything beyond a pen and a sheet of paper. When you can play the same game twenty times and still never play the same thing twice, you're getting your money out of your investment.

So now you know why I totally dig Castle Ravenloft, and why I will be playing it a lot more, even though I still have Warhammer Quest regularly calling to me from the shelf where it is stored with reverence and pride. Sure, it took me a long time to get a copy and write a review. Better late than never, I suppose.


1-5 players

Great adventure game
Lots of options and tons of replay
Incredibly slick production
Fast and easy to play, with slick rules that are easy to resolve

A little dry
Characters don't get better between adventures

Castle Ravenloft is already priced to be a deal, considering how much awesome is in the box, but if you want to save even more, Noble Knight Games has it right here:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Event Review - Fixing the Fence

I was going to write a review of To Kill A Mockingbird tonight. I took my kids to see a remastered version of the 1967 classic last week. Then the next morning my dogs got out, ran a mile in the middle of the city, and killed some lady's cat on her front lawn. Now they're in quarantine and we're waiting to find out if they're going to be euthanized (which is a pretty way to say that some city employee with an eighth-grade education is going to stick a needle in them and pump them full of poison). So the movie review got canceled, because my mood is way too dark to discuss classic film.

The dogs got out because one of them is a little jailbreaking pain in the ass. She has knocked out so many boards that it got past the point that I could patch the holes. I needed to flat-out replace them, and just hadn't got around to it. My wife let them out the back door before the sun was up and then went back inside, and now they're in the hoosegow waiting to find out if they're going to hang.

This weekend I fixed the fence. Yeah, that does sound a little like closing the barn door after the horses are gone, but we're pretty sure the investigator for the city is going to stop by the house, and we want the house to look like we don't want our dogs to run away. If you've never sunk fence posts, allow me to recommend using something heavy, like a ditch witch or something. Digging a three-foot-deep hole with a shovel hurt my back so bad I was almost in traction. But the cement set up just fine, and that post isn't going anywhere for a long time. I am glad I only had to sink one post, though. After having to buy all that wood, I don't have enough money left over to go get a massage.

Another task that sucks is tearing out old wooden fence. There were places on the fence where I'm pretty sure a spark would have lit the whole thing, and it would have gone up in one loud 'foosh!' like in a cartoon, leaving nails hanging in the air for a couple seconds before they tumbled to the ground. We discovered lots of varieties of wood-dwelling insects in our repairs. I got to bond with my son when he wouldn't handle a board because he kept finding ants on it. Can't blame him - fire ant bites are one of the many reasons it sucks to live in North Texas. Still, that meant I had to do it. You would think a boy old enough to have hair on his face would want to prove his stones, but I guess we'll keep waiting on that.

Aside from lots of splinters and a gigantic bruise on my leg from a flying two-by-four, fixing the fence was uneventful. It was the gloomiest repair I ever did, though, because half the time I'm cursing the idiot dog who caused this much grief, and the other half the time I'm hoping against hope to get her back. My house is in a state of pre-mourning, waiting a week to find out if we're going to be celebrating their return or cremating them and putting their urns with the other dogs we've lost in the last sixteen years.

I know that, as reviews go, this was entirely worthless. Seriously, who needs a review of fixing a fence? It's a crappy job, and it hurts, and it's especially bad if you're only doing it as a semi-futile gesture to try to get the investigator guy to see how much you want your dogs back. But it's also kind of my weak-ass excuse to explain why you're not reading something worthwhile here. And I suppose at some level, it's just me bitching, and maybe me thinking there's any reason for anyone to care. Which there isn't, unless you really like my dogs.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Board Game Review - Forlorn: Hope

Victory Point Games has a slogan that's kind of a double-edged sword (as well as a cheesy riff of an old Shakespeare line). The slogan is, 'The gameplay's the thing.' On the one hand, that sounds like a company that specializes in games that are fun to play (as opposed to all those game companies who are chasing that elusive demographic of people who like games that are not fun to play). But the flipside of that slogan says, 'we focus on gameplay, because we can't afford to make pretty games.'

I've only played three games from Victory Point, so there may be better examples, but the best example of their mantra that I've seen so far is Forlorn: Hope. This game does Space Hulk better than Space Hulk, and yet it looks like it was dragged behind a car that was driving through cat puke.

The idea of a few select marines hunting aliens in a space station hasn't been original since the 1980s, but that has not stopped the waves of companies who make bug hunt games. But where many of those games turn into dungeon crawlers in space, Forlorn: Hope is a very deep and exciting game with lots of strategic and tactical decisions. It plays fast, but not so fast that you miss the good parts.

The game is the classic quality versus quantity thing. The aliens pop out of eggs and swarm all over the place, but instead of being just the one basic type of space bug, these aliens mature. They start as hatchlings, but if they can eat some dead marines, they can turn into super aliens, and they can shoot laser beams from their eyeballs and cut down trees with their hands and leap over buildings in a single bound (wait, no, it's a space station, there are no buildings to jump).

The marines, on the other hand, have machine guns and squad leaders and flamethrowers and hand grenades. And if the damned bugs would ever quit coming out of the AC vents, the marines could mop 'em up pretty quick. But like any good bug hunt game, the aliens can spawn every turn. The marines, on the other hand, will never get reinforced. They will just get cut down and turned into all-you-can-eat buffet lines.

At first glance, Forlorn: Hope does everything Space Hulk does. You spend points to move your marines, and you can double up on the same guy, while the aliens just get to move every monster once per turn. The marines have a couple specialists and leaders, while the bugs just have a couple stronger bugs. You traverse frighteningly narrow corridors, shooting aliens or bum-rushing marines, all while trying to reach your goal.

You even have overwatch. But where Space Hulk lets a single marine fire away forever at oncoming insects, Forlorn: Hope makes the marines hold their action points so they can interrupt the killer critters. And where marines in Space Hulk jam their guns every other turn, marines in Forlorn: Hope actually clean their weapons often enough that the bullets don't get stuck. Finally, where Space Hulk marines are really bad at shooting things, Forlorn: Hope marines can hit their targets nearly every time, until the corridors basically look like the inside of a fat guy's colon.

Once you start playing, the differences become really apparent. Your marines are actually competent, which is a nice change of pace, and the action point system means you probably have many more options on your turn (unless you roll crappy. Then you don't go far, because you'll need those points to interrupt the aliens). The aliens are also a lot better at what they do, and don't tend to suicide in anything like the same overwhelming numbers.

Both Space Hulk and Forlorn: Hope are highly tactical games where every move counts. But where Space Hulk has a lot of abstraction in the rules (blip tokens, for example), Forlorn: Hope just feels a lot more like a recreation of a desperate space station battle. Where the genestealers seem to be simple-minded fodder rushing to their demise and hoping for the lucky break that gets one of them close enough to gut the marines, the Xeno player in Forlorn: Hope can use his various alien types to set up entire strategies based on a lot more than laying down and dying.

To further diversify and vary the way the aliens play, they can use some of the random mutation cards to grow thicker shells, or spit acid, or just have a handful of goobers turn into super mutants. These cards are not game-changers, but if played well, they can provide a nice edge that will serve to frustrate the marines just a little bit more.

Forlorn: Hope improves on Space Hulk by providing more options for both players, more tactical depth, and the feeling that nobody on the board is entirely useless. Some marines may end up being distractions, forcing the aliens to pay attention to them or risk a deadly crossfire, thus buying time for the flamethrower guy to cook the bug nest and wipe out all the little monsters before they grow out of their Huggies. Or a couple aliens might hang out just beyond the corner, daring the marine to use all his action points, while a couple brutes flank and go after the prime targets further down the hall.

Possibly the coolest thing about Forlorn: Hope is a feature that Space Hulk misses completely - solo play. You can set up as the marines, and let the game run the monsters. It still plays incredibly smooth, but will still be a considerable challenge. Granted, the first solo scenario is kind of a waste, since you're just going to stand there and shoot the critters as they rush you, but the second one requires lots of forethought and no small amount of luck. I would really have liked to see more solo scenarios, and I'm hoping I can find some fan site that will put more out there for me to play.

With tactics and strategy that improve on Space Hulk dramatically, and options and depth that is simply missing from the older game, Forlorn: Hope is still not as fun as Space Hulk. Surprised? Then you don't read Drake's Flames very often. Call me a shallow whoreling if you want, but games are more fun when they look sexy. Poorly cut cardboard chits are no replacements for lovingly sculpted plastic miniatures. A paper map that curls at the corners can't hold a candle to embossed corridors and spectacular illustrations.

Which is not to say that Forlorn: Hope is flat-out ugly. I mean, yes, it is, but that's because the component quality is straight-out-of-the-dollar-store ugly. The art is actually very good, especially the drawings of the marines and the aliens. It's kind of a shame they're shrunk way down and slapped on cheap cardboard.

While I am not going to take the time to crank out a super-pimped version of Loot & Scoot, it might be worth it in the case of Forlorn: Hope. I really like it, enough that I played several games with just the stuff that came in the plastic bag. And I like it enough that I have been looking for cool space marine figures and interesting xenomorph bad guys. I'm considering sculpting the space station maps into some pink insulation foam and painting them up to look bitchin'. I might even improve on the equipment and wound counters. If I had a version of Forlorn: Hope that looked as good as it plays, I might even consider selling my copy of Space Hulk. After all, how many bug-hunt-in-space games do I need?


1-2 players

Quick play with lots of depth
Excellent execution of a gaming standard
Exciting and tense with options galore
Cool illustrations

Components-on-the-cheap suck some of the fun out of the game

Forlorn: Hope is a very, very fun game. Once I gussy it up, it will be better than Space Hulk. If you want a copy of this bad-ass game, you can get it from Victory Point Games:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Card Game Review - I Say, Holmes

I just decided that this is Victory Point Games week. I'm saving the best for last, so for the mid-week review, I'm going to tell you why you should, under no circumstances I can imagine, play I Say, Holmes.

I like Sherlock Holmes. I like stories about Sherlock Holmes, and games, and even that total reinvention-slash-blasphemy that featured Iron Man as the title character. So I was pretty excited to play I Say, Holmes, because the VPG site said that it was a game about solving cases and stuff.

That was not true. I Say, Holmes, was not about solving cases. It was about getting rid of your cards. I didn't solve anything. I didn't even figure out why it was printed on miniature index cards that stuck together and were impossible to shuffle.

Here's how it works. Everyone gets six cards. One person plays a card, and the person after him has to play a card that works with that card. So if one guy plays a card that moves everyone out to the country, the next player has to play a location in the country. The bottom of every card lists the cards that can be played next, and if you can't play, you have to draw a card.

Then you have villains. If the villains escape (by running out of cards), the player with the villain probably wins. If someone manages to play an arrest card on a player holding a villain, that guy probably wins. If someone hides the game so you end up playing something else, then everyone wins.

You can also make other players draw more cards or show you their cards or other nefarious stuff, and that should make this an interesting game. But there's one hell of a big problem - you probably don't have a choice.

That's right, you probably do not get to decide what card you play. The odds are very good that you only have one card you can play (assuming you have any), so you have to play it. It might help you, and it might send you back to London without a potty break, so you end up soaking your trousers on the way back to 221B.

There's a narrative in here somewhere, but it doesn't really make any sense, thematically. You all go out to the country, then you turn right around and come back, because nobody has a card that does something else. Then someone plays a clue card and someone else draws some cards and someone else is suspicious, but the overall point here is that you have almost no options, and no story developing at all. Those times that you do have options are few and far between, and don't really feel like you're doing anything. In fact, I commented after my second game that it felt like I had just played War, but it was mercifully shorter.

If the game had just been this weak, I could have forgiven it, to some extent. I mean, I do like to play a game where it feels like I'm doing something, and not just playing the only card I could play, but at least it would be a light and somewhat pointless game with art from old Sherlock Holmes books. But the guided-tour gameplay was just the tip of the iceberg.

For starters, the cards are tiny. And they don't have rounded corners. And they're printed on rough cardstock so that they feel like an arts-and-crafts project. I know VPG is all about the cheap components, but this was seriously difficult to play. Cards got stuck to other cards. People kept dropping their hands because it's actually kind of difficult to fan your cards when you have to hold them in three fingers. You couldn't draw properly, or shuffle properly, or anything else, and it was damned irritating. Seriously - if you're going to make a card game, how about some cards? I don't want to play a game printed on Post-It Notes.

And the graphic design on these munchkin cards is abysmal. It looks like the entire game was built in a free word processor by eighth-graders with an extra credit assignment. That could almost be forgivable, but consider this - Victory Point Games was started as a class project... at the Art Institute of California. An art school. A college, in fact, an institute of higher learning devoted to teaching people how to create good art. It's like advertising a culinary academy by sending out burnt cookies, or promoting a music college with CDs of Taylor Swift.

The poor design is compounded by the fact that I've seen other games from VPG, and while some are a little on the 'we saved money by using stock art' side, they look good. I Say, Holmes is simply embarrassing, and should not be in production. It sets a poor example, especially when the other games look so much better. If this were the first VPG game you ever played, you would be left with a sour taste in your mouth, and a huge desire to avoid ever playing another one.

Happily, I Say, Holmes was not the first game I played from Victory Point Games. I know they have some cool games, because I've played them. And come Friday, I'll be reviewing Forlorn: Hope, which is fun and cool and not anything like I Say, Holmes. Which is actually redundant, because if it's fun and cool, it's already nothing like I Say, Holmes.


3-8 players

The illustrations were neat. Probably because they were made 100 years ago.

Tiny, unmanageable cards
Really bad design
A theme that doesn't go anywhere
Lots of forced game play with very little reason to play

I wanted to show a picture of an embarrassed dad at the end of this review, but unfortunately, Billy Ray Cyrus doesn't have enough sense to be embarrassed.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Board Game Review - Loot & Scoot

I talked to a guy one time who said that you can't judge a book by its cover. It didn't really make sense. I mean, if the cover says, 'Introductory Theoretical Physics,' it's a safe bet that the romance dialog is going to be a little forced. And if the picture on the front looks like it was drawn by special ed kids in a second-chance reform school, it's probably not destined to be a New York Times bestseller. I mean, I can judge a lot about a book by its cover. I'm pretty sure the guy who said that was drunk, though - he was sleeping under a bridge and pulling at a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey. Clearly, he was wrong.

But that got me thinking - maybe you could extend that piece of faulty wisdom to other things. For instance, can you judge the quality of a game by the art on the box? Maybe you can, especially if the box is actually a big sandwich bag and the art is just pictures of cardboard chits fighting other cardboard chits.

Victory Point Games is hoping that you don't judge their games by their covers, which is particularly interesting because their games don't actually have covers. Their games come in plastic bags. The pieces of the games are all printed using what appears to be a crappy inkjet printer. And the dice they include in the plastic bags are so small that they could be a choking hazard, but only to very small cats.

When we opened Loot & Scoot and started playing, someone at the table remarked that it would make a passable prototype. They said it would be perfect for taking to a convention and asking someone else if they would publish your game. They were incredulous when I told them that they were playing the fully published version of the game. They were especially dismayed when we started punching out the cardboard squares and saw that they were all cut wrong, so that every piece had dangling paper hairs sticking off every direction. It really did look like a rookie production, and I confess that we immediately judged that book by its non-existent cover. We put it back away and played Nightfall again.

But after we finished Nightfall, we decided to give it a shot, and I'm glad we did, because Loot & Scoot is actually a pretty entertaining push-your-luck dungeon-style game. Each player controls a dungeon and a team of adventurers, and you take turns raiding your opponents, killing their minions and running off with their belongings. In the end, the most successful adventurers will manage to return home with barrels full of loot. The less impressive heroes will wind up as dragon food.

Every turn, you have several options for improving your adventuring team and making them more impressive. Because a good variety of heroes will allow you to more easily defeat monsters, you have to balance your desire to rush into dungeons and mad-cap kill everything against your need to create a balanced and capable batch of head-bashers. So you have to decide - do you want to upgrade your squire into a knight, or buy another priest? Invest in cheap hirelings whose main purpose is to die before their time, or sink the cash into a seasoned wizard?

And then you have more choices when you get to the dungeon. If you go for the cheap kills, you can rack up more bodies (and more loot), but if you decide to push your luck and go for the big bad monsters, you might make it out with the dragon's trove and be the richest bunch of home invaders in the kingdom.

All these choices combine with a considerable luck factor to make for a game with a very pleasant balance of dice and planning. It's not a tricky game, and nobody is going to sit around for three minutes trying to decide on a move, but it's got enough spine to be worth playing. Like I said, I'm glad we gave it a chance.

Not only am I glad we decided to try Loot & Scoot, but I'm glad I brought my own dice. I would have been stone blind in ten minutes using the dice that came with the game. They were apparently scaled down to be easily manipulated by mice who play craps in the wall of Vegas casinos.

In fact, what Loot & Scoot really needs is a massive overhaul. The dungeon boards should be bigger, and printed on heavy card so they don't curl at the ends. The monsters should be cards or at least much bigger counters, and they should have art. Miniatures, or at least cut-out standups, should be a requirement to play the game. The components in Loot & Scoot actually make it less fun to play, and that seems like one hell of an oversight.

I did enjoy Loot & Scoot, and I think it's a clever and entertaining game. However, I'm probably not going to play it again, because I don't have the time to properly decorate it. I need a big sheet of foamcore board, some nice art, and maybe a blank deck of cards. To let you know how much I prefer an attractive game, I paint all my Warhammer Quest miniatures because I think the game is more fun when the figures look cool. That's way more trouble than is required to enjoy the game, but for me, aesthetics matter.

Because screw that homeless wino - I do judge a book by the cover.


2-4 players

Light and entertaining
A nice balance of luck and strategy
Easy to learn and quick to play

Looks and feels really cheap

If you're not as hung up on quality production as I am, you can get Loot & Scoot from Victory Point Games:

Friday, March 11, 2011

Card Game Review - Warhammer Invasion

My wife is awesome. I'm going to tell you why.

First, she's a trooper. She's had chronic, near-debilitating back pain since an idiot doctor couldn't stop talking golf long enough to do her epidural properly and gave her permanent damage to her spine. She has fibromyalgia, which was misdiagnosed by her doctor, who then proceeded to overdose her on vicodin and predisone. The overdoses resulted in a weakened bone structure, so that her knees were so weakened that they gave out while she was walking and went sideways on her, resulting in weeks of physical therapy (and she still walks with a cane). And on top of that, she still works.

Second, she plays games with me. She wasn't a gamer at all until I married her, but she'll play just about anything. In fact, the other day, while she was on the way back from a doctor's appointment, she stopped in at a game store and bought me Warhammer Invasion. This wasn't a reward for remembering to take out the trash, or an anniversary present, or even a bribe. She just saw it and thought I might like it.

She was right. She often is. She is, like I said, awesome. Warhammer Invasion has everything I like about collectible card games, but since it's a living card game (that's Fantasy Flight's moniker, not mine), you don't actually have to spend five grand to complete your collection.

The starter set comes with four full, pre-made faction decks for orcs, chaos, empire and dwarfs. You have a capital board, and the object of the game is to send your troops over to the other guy's capital and light it on fire. I wouldn't recommend actually lighting it on fire, incidentally. Your homeowner's insurance might not cover intentional damage to your kitchen. They may claim you are too stupid to own a home, and just kick you out and make you live in a FEMA trailer.

Every deck has a very different play style, which is one thing I like in these kinds of games. The orcs are pretty straightforward - they crush things a lot. But the others require a little finesse to work properly. The empire is most skilled at moving around and getting resources where they need them, while the chaos guys are great at giving the good guys a bad case of Nurgle flu, so everyone is in bed when your wacky demonoids come riding down the hill to burn the barns and dry hump the farm animals. The dwarf units are Chuck Norris kinds of tough. You can also buy expansions that let you play good elves and bad elves, and both kinds of elves also have cool powers. The bad elves, for instance, are really, really mean.

Warhammer Invasion requires you to create a solid balance of strategies. Focus too much on boosting your income, and you'll leave yourself open to constant nut kicks. But if you spend all your energy on the offensive, slamming your opponent every chance you get, he's going to eventually build up past your ability to break through his defenses. Cards are allocated to lots of different places, and do lots of different things, but the basics of the game are easy to understand and play smooth right out of the box.

You can also do some killer deckbuilding, even with just the cards you get in the starter set. You can have the orcs ally with the chaos guys, and now your orcs will blow through your opponent's defenses like Refrigerator Perry blitzing a pee-wee football quarterback while the gold-armored tough guys are barfing into airline bags because your chaos demons gave them all bad tuna salad. You can make alliance decks with the good guys, too, but everybody knows the bad guys are more fun.

The best part (well, the best part for my wallet) is that while you can expand this game eight ways from Sunday, you don't have to quit your meth habit just to afford new cards. You can actually get every card ever made for the game, and you can get them for about $300. That seems like a lot of lettuce, until you consider how much you would pay to complete just one release of Magic cards. Then it's a hell of a steal.

So you've got cool Warhammer art (that should go without saying), great interacting card abilities, variable strategies and killer tactical plays. You can customize your deck for the kind of game you want to play, and you can finish the whole game in half an hour. You can expand the game without spending your kids' college fund, and you're not going to always lose to the guy who has more money to spend on cards. What's not to love?

Well, unfortunately, there is one thing. In every game we've played so far, there's a point where we both know who's going to win, even though there are still two or three turns left. When the high elves have been so beat down that they can't draw cards or pay for the ones they have, and their defenses are in tatters while the orcs just keep bringing out more green-skinned super soldiers, it's all over but the crying. We have not had a game be even remotely close, because all the really important stuff happens at the beginning. There's a kind of balancing escalation act, in which both players are trying to get richer while maintaining their defenses, and then at some point it kind of tips one way or the other, and then the final outcome of the game is a foregone conclusion. It's your classic runaway leader situation, except it's more like a runaway freight train full of unstable nitroglycerin and chemical waste with a NASA rocket strapped to the caboose.

That problem, though, is really more of a late-game inconvenience. The game is taut and exciting most of the time, with lots of opportunities to make smart plays or screw the pooch with a dumb card combination. Yeah, the ending goes on for a turn or two even after the game is decided, but right up until then, Warhammer Invasion is more fun than a room full of porn starlets and rubber sex toys.

I've already bought one expansion for Warhammer Invasion, and I'll be buying a lot more. We have had this game for less than a week, and already played six or seven games. My wife likes it, I like it, and we're trying to rope our kids into a big team game. This game has legs, and I know that we'll be playing it for a long time to come.

So to finish off this review, I'm going to run down a bunch of reasons my wife is awesome. One - she bought me Warhammer Invasion, just because she likes me. Two - she read the rules herself, and taught me how to play (that's usually my job). Three - she likes the game, and encourages me to go to the game store at the corner and buy expansions.

You can buy Warhammer Invasion, and then you can have as much fun as I'm having. Unfortunately for you, you can't have my wife.


2 or 4 players

Great art
Intuitive rules
Easy game play
Tons of planning and strategy and smart plays
Great expandability
Lots of reasons to play it again
All the fun of a CCG, none of the crazy money sink

Late game tends to be pretty one-sided

While I can't tell you where to get a wife as awesome as mine, I can definitely send you to Noble Knight Games to pick up Warhammer Invasion:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

General Video Game Rant - Video Games Are All Grown Up

Video games are just about as old as I am. I was just young whelp when pinball halls started to feature stand-up arcade games, and we were the first family on our block to own an Atari (probably because the other families on our block were retirees). I’ve watched video games grow up with me, from the Nintendo Entertainment System and the original Playstation to the Xbox 360 and the rise of online video games. And one thing I’ve noticed is that where old games were considered cutting edge if a disembodied voice could say, ‘Warrior needs food… badly’, now the various characters in a game can all cuss violently in accents that betray their origins, and their mouths move along with the words.

In fact, I can remember when lots of blood was cutting edge. When we used to stand up with light guns in a noisy arcade and blast zombie brains all over each other before we wandered off to finish our pizza and play another round of miniature golf, that level of bloodshed was shocking. Compared to games now, where your game is for children if heads don’t explode and limbs don’t fly off on their own when you fire a plasma rifle into an enemy’s face, those games were incredibly tame.

To a certain degree, I miss that age of innocence. You could nuke cities from space, destroy aliens by the truckload, and repeatedly kick a man in the face and still never have any idea what blood actually looked like (until I mentioned at school that I had spent my lunch money on Pac Man, after which point the miners’ kids gave me the opportunity to see a little of my own blood). My dad was a preacher, so we tended to be horrified by harsh language – and now random characters in video games use profanity that would make sailors blush.

And lest we glaze over the third point in the adult triangle of sins, our games have sex in them now. I played a game last summer that had the hero walking in on a couple doing the horizontal hula, complete with swinging boobs and flashing nipples. Growing up, a game was racy if the female characters had low-cut blouses.

For some people, this is horrifying. It’s a symbol of the continued degeneration of society. But for people who actually know a little history, it’s humanity being human. Look at the pulps of the 20s and 30s – some of those stories had more sex than Ron Jeremy in a Nevada cathouse. There were twisted acts of violence that would sicken grown men used to CSI and reality television. Those stories were incredibly twisted – but every now and then, the adult elements allowed the writers to create some really great stories. Without some of those seedy bits, a lot of those stories would have been too tame to be interesting, assuming they could have been told at all.

Video games are just a form of entertainment, albeit one tied inextricably to the advance of technology. As technology continues to evolve at an ever more rapid pace, so does our entertainment. Where Nintendo was able to get away with some interesting game ideas, now big console games are simply too expensive to dabble in experiments. Old games could be made by a couple coders and an illustrator, and the illustrator was optional. Now the big releases require huge teams with wide arrays of talent. Just look at the credits on any video game you plug into your PS3, and you’ll see more names than a Hollywood blockbuster. Games have to appeal to a wide market, because otherwise they’re just too expensive to make in the first place.

But it’s not all bad. For one thing, this advance in technology and maturity has given video games the ability to tell better stories than ever before. It’s not happening as often as I might like, but as games evolve, so do the stories they tell. In fact, I can think of several games where the plots are more involved and interesting than lots of big movies. And where movies have to develop at a breakneck pace to keep audiences interested, video games can take 30 hours or more to get to a resolution, and so they’ve got tons of time for character development, sub-plots, and red herrings.

The addition of adult themes also allows games to explore more powerful thematic material. Red Dead Redemption, for instance, uses the format of the video game to explore ideas and concepts seldom found in all but the most high-brow novels or films, themes like the consequences of actions and the efforts of men to forge their own destinies. I am aghast that any adult would allow a teenager to play it, however, because these themes are far too mature. Where an adult can ponder the big questions posed by the game, kids are just going to want to blow stuff up and be outlaws. Never mind the sex, profanity or gruesome violence – kids shouldn’t play Red Dead Redemption because there’s no way they’ll be able to get it.

For those of us who mourn the lost days of innocence, where we destroyed hundreds of goblins and never once saw a drop of blood or heard a foul word, the cause is not lost. Just because the most mainstream outlets are largely ruled by games targeted at frat boys and would-be gangsters does not mean that nobody is making cool games. If you check out Armor Games or Ponged, you can find enormous catalogs of those simpler games that you can play right inside your web browser – and the good ones still have more content than you ever saw in the original Metal Gear. Innovation is alive and well in video games, even if it’s not at Microsoft. Just check out the awesome games you can download from Steam, or even the Xbox Live marketplace. As an added bonus, those games tend to be cheaper than a cup of coffee (assuming you like double mocha latte espresso half-caff with cinnamon, and can’t just drink a cup of joe like normal people).

In fact, the driving pace of technology is giving us more and more places to find interesting games. I haven’t scored an iPad yet – I still need to sell a little more plasma before I can afford mine – but games for phones and mobile devices are getting more and more interesting. A while back, I reviewed UniWar, which I still play on my Blackberry on a regular basis.

I can only assume that five years from now, I’ll be able to download an iPad game that includes all manner of lewd behavior and foul language, or be inundated with Flash games consisting entirely of naked butts and decapitations. But by the time those outlets are glutted with retreaded pap and gratuitously adult content, there will be some new place for the tiny developers to show off their brilliance and create fantastically original games.

So while I might miss those days spent in darkened arcades, wandering from machine to machine and playing games that were never more adult than Saturday morning cartoons (which I also miss, by the way), there’s no way you’ll catch me wishing things would go back to the way they were. Innovation and originality will find a way, and the more the market evolves, the more ways there are for me to find brave new worlds, meet exciting new people, and kill them before I bang their wives.

Quick note - if you want a greeting card with that picture at the top of the column, you can get it here:

Monday, March 7, 2011

Expansion Review - Thunderstone: Dragonspire

Once again, I'm handing over tonight's review to my favorite (read: only) guest reviewer - my dad. He likes Thunderstone, and I don't, so I sent him Dragonspire and he reviewed it for me. Saves me playing the game (which, as I mentioned, I don't like) and gets me out of writing a review. It's like a one-night vacation. So while I kick back and go to bed early, you can enjoy this in-depth look at the newest Thunderstone expansion. Give it up for my old man! And don't forget to tip your waitress.

Dragonspire Sets the Bar a Notch Higher

It’s just arrived! I’ve been waiting for this game for a few weeks now, and can hardly wait to open the box and see what’s inside. Actually writing this as I open it up! And here it is! Oh, yeah! Cool new cover artwork, though it looks like the dragon has four eyes – and it’s not wearing glasses. Um, a bit weird, but it’s the artist’s prerogative, I guess. No, hold on, I can’t get past this. This dragon is REALLY weird – it looks like a Chinese dragon instead of the standard Smaug-kind. Forked tongue coming out of the mouth, with a head that looks like a black widow. Dragons are cool for cover art, but . . . . Nuf’ said about the box. Let’s get past the shrink wrap and see what’s inside.

If you began the Thunderstone journey with the original game, then bought Wrath of the Elements, one of the first things you discovered was that your original rulebook didn’t fit in the new box even though everything else did, and you still needed the old rulebook. Enough people must have carped about it that AEG heard, and listened, because first thing you see when you open the box is the rule book, not just tossed in on top of the components, but it has its very own niche to lie in. OK, I’m getting over the Chinese-forked-tongue dragon, this is good. Flip through the rulebook and it looks well done – illustrations done exceptionally well. This is better.

Beneath the rules is the first Thunderstone gameboard. First impression – this is way too big. I can build my dungeon in a lot les space than this. The board that came in my game has a smear of, I guess, glue, or someone had a cold when they packed the box. At first I was a tad unhappy about this, then I remembered my son sent me the game gratis, so I can’t get too upset about small smears of glue, or whatever it is. I’ll get back to the gameboard when we discuss game play.

First packet of cards I pull out of the box has a new Thunderstone showing. Opened it up and found behind it ANOTHER Thunderstone. First one reads, “Gain 2 Victory Points for each other Thunderstone you have at the end of the game.” This is WAY cool – better and better! After the Thunderstones are the five basic cards you use in every game: the dagger, torch, iron rations, militia and disease. This is a good thought on AEG’s part, since those of you who are buying each installment of the game are probably finding that some of these cards are getting frayed. New art, too. Didn’t say it was GOOD art. Take for example the torch. I like the old torch MUCH more than the new one. There’s this green hand holding what looks kind of like burning seaweed, and behind it what kind of looks like a missile warhead. I had to ask my wife what she thought it is, and she thinks it’s a knight’s helmet. Guess so, but it could be the Tin Man. Think I’ll stick with the old torch. Then there’s the Iron Rations. The new card has especially good art. But it really, really, really looks like a still-life of a picnic lunch, including the cutlery. The old Iron Rations look like REAL iron rations – like Lembas or hardtack. Now THAT’s Iron Rations. Think I’ll stick to old here, as well. But then there’s the new Militia. SO MUCH better! While the old looks like a punk Conan, new guy looks like a real militia. BTW, the artwork looks like Richard Geer. This militia looks like a real bad-ass, but that’s a bit of a contradiction since he can’t even lift a real sword. Like the artwork, though.

I pull out the second packet of cards and see it’s the new randomizers. Not just the randomizers for Dragonspire, but for ALL Thunderstone games so far. AEG, you’re really rising in my estimation! I’d heard that the randomizers had different back-printing to differentiate them from the other cards, but not until just now did I realize that each category of randomizer is different from the others – monsters have their own backs, heroes their own, etc. This is huge! I just may buy some stock in AEG. I think that with the release of Dragonsipire, Thunderstone has “come into it’s own.”

The quality of Dragonspire is obviously a cut above what’s preceded it. I LOVE IT when a game series only increases in quality with each installment. I’m sure we all know of some game that, with each expansion, the quality seemed to decrease. (Avalon Hill often let me down in this regard.) But AEG has only shown greater concern for higher quality and game play. Dragonspire has set the standard a notch higher. It may yet satisfy those who have disdained Thunderstone because it wasn’t up to the standards of Dominion.

That said, we run into the inevitable comparison between Thunderstone and Dominion. I’ve read comments by Dominion fans who say some pretty nasty things about Thunderstone. Seems to me, the worst thing Thunderstone fans say about Dominion is that it lacks theme. Not too nasty, and oh-so-true, don’t ya’ think? For me, theme in any game is of essential importance. I readily admit, Dominion is a very good “game” and a slick product. I can enjoy it, and I agree the mechanics are smooth and well thought out. But then – it just keeps cropping up – it has no theme. There are moments when I feel Dominion has no soul. For my own personal analogy, I think of Dominion like wine tasting. A bunch of folks get together and sip wine holding their pinky fingers out, eat expensive cheeses and pretend they can pronounce French. In juxtaposition, Thunderstone is kind of like a cold beer just pulled out of the creek and a bratwurst cooked over the campfire on a stick. Wine tasting is certainly a viable hobby, but for me personally, I’ll take the campfire every time. And the same for a choice, for me, between Dominion and Thunderstone. Love the campfire, even if I get ashes on my bratwurst.

Well, I can’t describe every card as I pull them out, so let me give a run-down of those cards that deserve “honorable mention”.

New monsters: Eight new monsters. I really like the Bandit – these guys are TOUGH! You have to have 3 - 5 Heroes present to defeat them, so if they’re in the dungeon, you’d better stack your deck with a lot of Heroes. If you also happen to have the Giants in the dungeon, then you’re in definite trouble, because every time you fight one of them a Hero is gonna’ die. This would be a very difficult combination. The Hydra Dragons are also pretty tough. But let me add here, the artwork for the dragons is great (except for the Hydra, IMO) – they should have used the Wind Fury Dragon for the cover art. And if you like diseases in your deck, then you’ll especially love the Undead Plague. Yeah, it’s one of those cards that gives you a disease every time you fight one, and three cards that give EVERYONE a disease. Your friends will thank you for that.

New Heroes: There are eleven new heroes. The Chulian Rat makes for a more interactive game, since levels 2 and 3 require all the other players to discard a weapon. Kinda’ cool. And then there are the two Heroes we’ve heard about: the Phalanx and the Veteran. These two cards both introduce new concepts to Thunderstone. The Phalanx has only two levels, but as you get more in your hand they become exponentially stronger. The Veteran adds a fourth level, and these guys are strong in their own right, and get stronger if you have them feed another hero to the monster. I guess veterans are like that. But without a doubt, my favorite art of Drangonspire is the Hero Gorinth. This guy fulfills all the criticisms of those who claim Thunderstone has comic-book art, and validates all those who love comic-book art. This guy is AWESOME! He looks like one of the homeless guys here in Reno. The Amateur Gorinth isn’t all that special, but as his levels increase he becomes potent – you can discard a card and get magic attack equal to its gold. (Hmm, what if I discard a disease in the middle of the battle?) But what I most love about this guy is the art, and I like the Stoneguard Brute art as well.

New Village cards: The Burnt Offering – kind of like cheating the gods – destroy one card, even a disease, and draw an extra card for your next hand. Like getting to rest and work out at the same time. The Frost Giant Axe is great, attack +4, but you need a he-man to lift it. In fact, it would take three Richard Geers to pick it up. It offers the opportunity to help you find a guy strong enough to lift it. (Then watch the Veteran toss him to the monster – HA!) The Quartermaster is a powerful card when he shows up in either the village or the dungeon. You’ll want some of these guys in your deck. The Scout is pretty darn cool. You can pad your own deck, or lay boobytraps in the dungeon for the next player to enter. And I find the Guide to be an especially great help – lets you buy another card in the village, and carries Light +2 into the dungeon.

New Traps: Dragonspire traps are, well, “Draconic”. Man! These traps are nasty! If you want a challenging game, include these.

New Treasures: Also having to do with dragons, except these are all figurines. Some provide real help, while others are kind of ‘nyeh. (I played one game with them, but the treasure I wanted to get most, the Ivory Dragon, was stuck beneath the Thunderstone. That treasure can give you a HUGE amount of experience points.)

The last cards that need a comment are the “Settings”. These introduce an entirely new concept into Thunderstone. They basically move you to a different site with varying effects. For example, if you get sent to Feayn Swamp, there are no light penalties (swamps are sunny places). Actually, I’d like to see more Settings which are outdoors. Seems to me, giants inside dungeons would be very cramped. Well, nice feature that will provide even more variety for those who are getting a bit tired of the same old dank dungeons.

Let me end my foray through the box by mentioning the Experience Point tokens. I’m relieved to see them. I’m a very focused gamer and often find I forget about those EP cards lying on the table. These tokens stand out, besides being quite cool, and it’s a lot easier for me to remember to level up my Heroes. A nice addition, and one more indication of the upgrade in quality AEG has put into this game.

The box itself has the best arrangement for holding our expanding collection of Thunderstone cards thus far. This box now holds most the cards from the original Thunderstone, the two expansions, promos and the 500 cards from Dragonspire. But if you have everything thus far you won’t get them all in, so you’ll have to make some decisions about what to leave out. It’s been suggested that you keep the Radomizers out, but I like using them, so I want them in my box. But there are some cards I don’t personally care for, so they’ll have to sit in one of the previous boxes to make room for the ones I want for game play. WARNING: Don’t do what I did. I tried to fit ALL the cards in the box, just to see if they’d go, and I got most of them in. Unfortunately, the box was so tightly crammed I had a hell of a time getting them out.

The Rules: Because of the stupid mistakes in the rules to Doomgate Legion, I read these rules carefully. Again, AEG has taken notice and these rules are the best yet. There are a few punctuation errors, but nothing to throw you off the game (looking at the cover you might think there are only seven monsters, which includes the Elemental ● Fire Giant). And since this is supposed to be a stand-alone, they cover every detail of the basic rules with the few special rules that apply to this game. Very good job. For the uninitiated the rules for setup could be a bit confusing, but whereas the original rules had one paragraph on setting up the dungeon, Droagonspire has six paragraphs, which is necessary to explain dungeon features, Guardians, etc. At the end of the rules they’ve also added a variant for a cooperative game. (I haven’t tried it.) Funny thing about the rules, though – the gameboard isn’t mentioned in the rules at all. How weird is that?? Feels like the gameboard was an after-thought. Maybe explains the bugg, er, glue.

Game play: Ummm, if you’re a Thunderstone fan (and if you’ve read this far you must be) then you already know how it plays. Apart from the Settings, no huge new concepts. Not many light items, so you’ll really want to incorporate the other Thunderstone cards. The first game we played we had the Bandits in the dungeon, and after setting up, the Assassin was in Rank 1. The Assassin requires you to have 5 heroes in your hand to attack. OUCH! It took quite a while before we could clear her out. I was a bit disappointed with the Phalanx – inexpensive, but you need several of them to get the punch they offer. I tried out the gameboard just to be able to say something about it. My first impression of the gameboard was validated; it takes up a lot more space on the table than what I’m used to. Not only that, but it’s upside down. If you follow the rules setting up, then the dungeon deck is on the left, and Rank 1 is on the right – in which case the board is upside down. I used it in a game with a veteran gamer and his girlfriend, who is NOT a gamer, and they both liked it. (She did quite well, btw, coming in second and burying Chaz.) Personally, I don’t care for it, but I suspect many will appreciate it.

Dragonspire comes with the same number of monsters, heroes and village cards as the original game, so it’s a stand-alone in it’s own right, but for me, possibly because I’m spoiled with all the expansions, it feels a bit limited. But it does play well by itself; I know, because I played it twice with only the cards that came in the box – including the seaweed torch. If this is your first Thunderstone purchase and you like the game, you’ll want to buy all the preceding games as well.


Some awesome art.
Upgrade in quality.
Great new concepts – especially the Settings.

Some atrocious art.

I can’t think of any other negative aspects to Dragonspire. If you enjoy Thunderstone, you’ll be very pleased with this new addition.

OK, so let's say you just read my dad's review, and now you have two thoughts on your mind - you want this game, and you think Drake's Flames is good reading (go with me, it's a hypothetical). Well, do I have the answer for you - if you order this game from Noble Knight Games, you kill two birds with one stone! You get the game, and you support Drake's Flames. Here's a link for you:

Friday, March 4, 2011

Card Game Review - Death Angel

Space Hulk is one crazy fun game. The new one, with all the different sculpts and the embossed floor tiles, is both fun and stunning to gaze upon. I like the quality versus quantity aspect of the game, and it's fun to blast creepy aliens with space marines in power armor. So I was really surprised when I played Death Angel, the card game based on Space Hulk, and didn't like it at all.

The story is the same. You have a team of marines, and they go tromping through the corridors of a derelict chunk of spaceship hurtling toward civilization. Along the way, ugly purple monsters pop out of the ventilation and slice the marines like a key lime pie. Then the leftover marines fire hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition into the aliens, and then you clean up because Mom needs the table to make dinner. Good times.

In Death Angel, the entire trip through the genestealer killing fields is abstracted. A location card tells you what part of the ship you're in, and a couple of blip decks tell you how many more psychotic aliens are left there. Once the blip decks are empty (usually because the aliens have decided to join the party and dance with the marines at the world's most horrifying luau), you flip another location card, and now you're there.

Another abstraction replaces the part of the game where you decide to shoot the bad guys, because you've got all these teams of soldiers, and they can't ever do the same thing twice in a row. So you shoot with two teams while the other two wander around with their thumbs in their assholes, because they shot last time. Not to worry - those two guys will probably die, and then the other guys won't be able to shoot because they just did. This is only an upside because if you die early, you can stop playing.

In fact, every part of Space Hulk, from the dark corridors and special rooms to the terrifying brood lords and flamethrowing marines, is abstracted. You don't count off movement and range. You don't advance slowly and set your guys to overwatch. You don't spawn around the corner and rush the bad guys forward. The bad guys are just cards that sit there until they're summoned, and the good guys are always facing the wrong way because they can't turn around and shoot at the same time.

Combat is basically a matter of the marines playing action cards to try to kill the genestealers, and then the genestealers chomping on the marines until their stomachs are distended like your fat Uncle Frank after Thanksgiving. There's a die in there that tells you how likely you are to kill something (not very) and how likely that something is to kill you (extremely). Fighting tends to go something like this:

1) Choose two guys out of your half dozen survivors to shoot.
2) Roll the die for each of them.
3) Curse because you missed twice.
4) Roll for every bundle of genestealers attacking your marines.
5) Curse because they all hit and dragged your soldiers to an untimely death.
6) Flip the table.

I get that cooperative games are supposed to be tough. It's not fun if you can win every time. But you know what is even less fun than winning every time? Losing every time. Call me a candy-ass if you want (and if you do it from far enough away that I can't throw something heavy at you), but when I play a cooperative game, sometimes it's fun to win. I don't want a game to slaughter me without effort before I get through the first door.

To be perfectly fair, you can win Death Angel. I did it. I played four games (both with other people and solo), and won the last one. I was surprised, but then, my luck was unbelievable. I mean, it was almost unholy. And I still finished with just one guy who rolled like Jesus was his co-pilot and managed to wipe out six genestealers all by himself. And when I can only win the game because I'm just that lucky, it's too damned hard.

To make matters worse, even though I won that last game, I still didn't like it. I only won because I was lucky, and furthermore, it was just a card game. It wasn't Space Hulk. There were no claustrophobic tunnels. There were no clever crossfires. There were no flame-filled corridors, or charging monsters, or desperate last stands. It was a card game, and it was missing nearly everything I love about Space Hulk.

In fact, it reminded me of something completely different - a Euro game. If a German designer had set about making a complicated puzzle game and then added a die roll that tilted all the odds in favor of the bad guys, he might have wound up with Death Angel. Only because he was a German designer, it would have been about floating bathtub toys, and it would have been called Der Ruber Quakkies.

If I want to play a cooperative card game ruled by luck... well, never mind, I don't want to do that. If I want to play Space Hulk, on the other hand, I own it, and I'll just play that. It's more fun, and I have this cool soundtrack thing that I can play on a laptop to make sounds like gunfire and screaming genestealers. Whatever mood grabs me in the future, I can be reasonably certain I won't be wanting to play Death Angel again.


1-6 players

Cooperative game with the Space Hulk storyline
Very affordable

Too damned hard
Overly abstracted
Loses everything awesome about Space Hulk
Not very much fun

I should point out that while I did not like Death Angel, I know lots of people who did. If you decide that you might like it, you can find a copy at Noble Knight Games:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Board Game Review - Pastiche

The other day, a friend of mine mentioned in passing that I hated Euro-style games. The thing is, I don't. I like lots of games that are made in Germany and are all about harvesting beans or preparing dinner. And to prove that I like games that aren't all about gunfire or topless women, here's a very positive review of a game called Pastiche, in which players make copies of historic paintings. No bodies anywhere.

In truth, you're not actually creating paintings. In Pastiche, you just have to collect the right colors to reproduce paintings from hot-shots like Renoir and Van Gogh. And unlike people who actually paint things, you're going to lay down hexagons in order to match splotches of primary colors and then take cards based on what you matched. That's completely different from the way actual artists come up with colors, because what actual artists do is pick the colors on a computer by clicking little boxes and stuff (I'm pretty sure nobody bothers to actually mix paint any more. Now they just pick color palettes on their iPads).

There are lots of layers to Pastiche. Kind of like an onion, except that it doesn’t make you cry, and it’s a very bad idea to cut it up and put it in chili. The first layer is where you choose what art you want to reproduce. There are four paintings available for anyone, and each player also has two more. You can trade yours for the ones in the gallery, thereby stealing them from everyone else and making them worry because you think you can finish that really hard painting before they can finish their really easy ones. Some paintings require a lot more colors, and so they’re worth a bunch more. Some require very difficult colors, like bisque and gray (which, by the way, are really easy to pick on your iPad, but very difficult to mix in Pastiche). And if you do a bunch from the same artist, you get a bonus at the end of the game, so sometimes it’s worth making a low-scoring painting to pick up a few extra points later.

Then you’ve got the part of the game where you have to actually pick up colors. To do this, you have hexagonal tiles with splats of red, blue or yellow, and you put them down next to other tiles that have red, blue or yellow, and get colors based on which splotches are next to other splotches. Yellow and blue make green, for instance, and if you can mix all three in one place, you can score brown (which is not a reference to heroin - you actually get the color brown).

This part of Pastiche is interesting because there’s a lot to consider. You have to complete your paintings to win the game, but you don’t want to set up your opponents for their turns. You might pass up the spot that gets you that teal swatch you’ve been eyeballing and block your opponent with a tile you didn’t really need, and then when you say, ‘I’ll just take the blue,’ your opponents will cuss you. At least, my daughter will cuss you. I don’t know about the people you play.

You also have to consider the third layer of Pastiche when you’re working that second layer, because you can trade your color cards in certain combinations to grab other colors. The only way to get a black or white card is to trade three matching colors – but you can’t use this method to get a primary color. It’s pretty tricky, and there’s a lot to consider. What this means is that while the entire game finishes in 45 minutes, it would only take 20 if everyone could just take their turns and stop staring at the board, then at their tile, then at the board, then at their tile, then put down the one tile and pick up the other one and start staring again, with interludes to stare at their paintings.

For a game that is pretty easy to learn (not like ‘play this with people who have never even played Monopoly’ easy, but definitely ‘play this with people who can handle Carcassonne’ easy), Pastiche sure does make your brain sweat. Will you go for a bunch of low-cost Degas pieces and work the combos, or will you put your head down and plow forward on that Monet that will score you a boatload of points? Will you grab the spot that gets you four colors, or will you block it with a primary to stop your opponents? Will you sit for the next five minutes trying to figure out how to arrange your yellow and red tile before you change your mind and place the blue one? Actually, that last question was rhetorical. You will totally do that.

I don't pretend that I'm not a fan of games with bloodshed. I like to sack villages and ride off on the women. I like to blow stuff up and get money. But I like just about any game that challenges me to think and plan, as long as it's interesting and not as dull as Puerto Rico. Pastiche does that, and as an added bonus, you get to spend the entire game looking at some of the finest art mankind has ever produced. Sure, it slows down a little when it's not your turn, but since you're going to spend the entire time that everyone else is playing to plan your own move, it's not as bad as you might think. And since you can finish in less time than it would take you to get an oil change, there's still time to watch reruns of Law and Order after the game is over (which, if you have cable, is always playing on one channel or another).


2-4 players

Lots of depth
Timing and planning and smart moves are essential
Spend most of an hour looking at the best art ever made

It will take so long to plan your move, it will surprise you when you're done in less than an hour

I am totally surprised - Noble Knight Games does not have Pastiche yet. But then, it just hit the US like, three days ago, so give 'em a week or so. It's a fun game. It's worth waiting.