Monday, January 30, 2012

Card Game Review - Forceball

I have to admit that, by and large, I hate games about sports. I guess the way I see it, if you want to play a game that simulates baseball, go outside and play baseball. The only exception is when the sport I'm playing is A) exciting and potentially dangerous, and B) not real. Then I don't mind them in a game so much.

In the case of Forceball, in fact, I like the game a whole hell of a lot. It's a card game consisting of exactly 55 cards and some rules. That's it, unless you count the box. That's even smaller than Fluxx! And yet there's a ton of game to play in this little box. You could set up whole tournaments, only you would have to get actual prizes, because this game is done. Don't go looking for promos and limited-edition miniatures. It's all in this box.

Now, nobody expects a game about a sporting event to be completely realistic, and in this case, that's good, because Forceball really is just a card game. You'll build a pile of cards to say how fast you're moving, and discard from your hand to power up your shot. While it is fun to picture a fast-moving, cutthroat game of zero-gravity, full-contact field hockey, you're more concerned with managing your hand of cards than you are with moving the ball up the field.

In fact, that's kind of why this is such a brilliant game. You don't have to keep track of individual players or field position. All the stuff you would track if you were really a coach is abstracted through card play. What you have to consider is keeping up your momentum by pressing your opponent, reserving your strength for the big plays, and running down the clock when you're ahead.

So many decisions have to be made as you play, starting before you even drop the first card. You'll have to decide if you want possession at the whistle, and choose the card that has the best chance of giving you what you want. You'll decide which plays to execute based on your speed and force, as well as paying attention to whether you're pushing for better field position (by having more cards) or driving hard to score before the buzzer. Is it worth throwing a high-stick to make your pass into a dribble, or should you try to bluff past the defense with a weak play and a lucky shot?

Forceball is not just about the cards, though. Parts of it are all about getting in your opponent's head and psyching him out (that's a phrase the kids used to say when I was a kid. I don't know if they still use it. And I don't care). When you ask to raise the stakes, are you bluffing to get a cheap score, or are you really that confident? Do you have the card power to back up that desperate mid-field pass, or are you just trying to sucker your opponent into dumping all his cards before you let him have the ball? Are you really dumping off the play with an unimpressive tackle, or are you just setting up the other guy for a sneaky shot?

This sounds like it could be a tricky game, and honestly, it kind of is. When you're playing with the full rule set, there's quite a bit happening, and if you just dove into the deep end of the pool, you could get overwhelmed pretty fast. But the rules do a great job of stepping you through five different leagues, with each one building on the one before. You can sit down with a friend and go through the rules together, and after an hour, you will have not only had a very good time, but you'll understand all the nuances of Forceball.

Forceball is, quite simply, a great game. For a deck of 55 cards to offer such a brilliant experience shows an incredible dedication to fine-tuning and testing. The deck is exactly as big as it needs to be - more cards, and the clock would be too long. Fewer cards and you would hamstring your options. You'll be able to plan and strategize, bluff and maneuver, and engage in a great battle of wits. And with the gorgeous art on the cards, you'll be able to envision every painful tackle, every last-minute block, and every desperate shot. If you're looking for a bad-ass two-player game, you owe it to yourself to pick up Forceball.


2 players

Great art
Incredible depth
Ridiculously affordable
Bluffing and planning and smart card plays
Just plain great
Everything you need in one affordable box

Nothing I can think of

Seriously, Forceball retails for ten bucks. TEN. That's less than I paid for lunch. And if you get it from Noble Knight Games, you can get it even cheaper!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Board Game Review - Chaotic Connections

I have said over and over that I will review anything that anyone sends me. And it's true, because it's almost always a win-win for me. If they're really fun games, I get to play really fun games, which is great all by itself. If they're mediocre games, well, at least I have review fodder and something I can trade for something I might actually enjoy. And if they're just plain awful - well, then I get to tell you how much they're like ugly babies that should have been left to die, and that is just plain fun (not leaving babies to die - that would be horrible, unless they were little lizard babies and ate mice and stuff like that show where the aliens come to the world pretending to be peaceful and end up trying to eat everybody).

One example of a game that will be much more fun to review than it was to play is Chaotic Connections. It really should be subtitled, 'Ticket to Slide Down Chutes and Ladders,' but I don't think that would have sold many copies. It's a game with a map of the United States and you have to build track - er, build connections between all these major cities. You do this by playing cards that say stuff like 'put down some ugly cardboard squares and pretend they mean you actually drove your car through Arizona.' No, they don't say that. That would just be silly. Obviously, I am paraphrasing.

Chaotic Connections is an example of a game created by someone who A) doesn't play very many games, and B) has no idea what they're doing. These people parted with an ungodly amount of money to hire a patent attorney (the game is patented - I am not making that up) and a PR firm (the people who sent me the game) and yet decided to save a couple bucks on the art by using clip art that probably came with their copy of Windows 98. They didn't have the sense to hire a professional graphic designer or a talented illustrator. It kind of looks like they did the art themselves, using a Rand McNally atlas and the drawing tool in PowerPoint.

It is impossible not to have misgivings about a game when you look at the box and think, 'this looks like a junior-high art class project.' And when you see the poorly perforated cardboard squares, the intensely cheap generic pawns and the little plastic holders used by anyone who puts cardboard standups in their games, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the game is just plain horrible.

And this is one time where you would be perfectly safe judging a book by its cover (incidentally, there are also many books that you can accurately judge by their covers, making this one of the least meaningful phrases ever employed, right behind 'it is what it is' and 'elegant mechanics'). Chaotic Connections is, quite predictably, crap. There is virtually no strategy or tactical thinking involved in playing this game.

You set up the game by getting yourself four cities that you have to connect. You can connect your cities using your opponents' roads, which is nice, because otherwise the game would take an unbearable amount of time. As it is, you can finish rather quickly, making the game more like having sand in your underpants, rather than live lobsters. Your turn consists of drawing a card and then playing one of the four you're holding. About a third of the cards tell you that you must play them regardless of whether you want to use them, rendering your decision-making process about as relevant as that of a mollusk with a tennis racket.

If the cards were somehow interesting, and the best possible card not immediately obvious to anyone with an IQ high enough to prevent their drooling into their sippy cups, there may have been something here worth playing. But the cards are not interesting, and even a brain-damaged badger could tell which card to play, so it's just plain dumb. You'll spend ten minutes going through the motions of playing cards and placing chits in their most obvious locations, and then you'll realize that you hate the game enough to help anyone win if it will make the damned thing go away.

I would worry that someone with multiple brain cells would actually purchase a copy of Chaotic Connections, but given the ridiculous art and pathetic attempts at production value, no game nerd with any amount of common sense would invest good money in this horrible game. This is not some public service where I warn potential game geeks of the dangers found within the box. This is one of those cases where just about anyone can take one glance and know without a doubt that they would be better served spending their money on pre-scratched losing lottery tickets. If you want to have fun playing a game, try - well, try anything else at all.


2-6 players who really ought to have made better decisions

Ugly enough that nobody should be fooled into buying it

Holy God, there are just too many

Why on Earth anyone would think they were going to turn a profit with a game this horrible is a mystery to me. Suffice to say that you should not reward this poor judgment with your money.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Board Game Review - Canal Mania

Here's yet another review from my old man. It's starting to become a habit. It's a good thing his last name is also Drake, or I would have to rename the site.

First off, just to get this off my chest, how did anyone imagine that a game with the title “Canal Mania” would sell? From the title you’d think it was in the same genre as “Party Mania” or “Monkey Mania.” May I forever be exempted from playing games with the word “Mania” in their title! But my friend has wanted to play this game for quite a while, and he defers to me at times, so I acquiesced. Good call – “Canal Mania” is actually a very good game.

Theme: I love history and have studied it since I was kid. Well, my knowledge is stunted in the period this game covers. Seems that in the late 18th century in England there was a rash of canal building. (Who ever heard of that?!?) So players build canals to towns and cities, and then move goods along the canals. Does this sound familiar? Think “Age of Steam” and “Railroad Tycoon” with canals instead of tracks.

Game Play: Just as you do in AoS and RRT with track, in CM you build canals between points. But CM has a twist of its own reminiscent of “Ticket to Ride”. Instead of destination cards, in CM you have a stack of cards that are contracts from Parliament to build canals between specific towns and cities. Now here’s one of the MAJOR differences between track-laying games and CM. In CM you don’t have any money, nor do you have stocks. You never know where the money to dig these canals comes from. You just have a contract and you “get ‘er done.” To build a canal, you draw cards that allow you to build locks, aqueducts, and even tunnels. (A canal through a tunnel?!? REALLY?? My historical knowledge is feeling threatened.).

What is probably the biggest difference between Canal Mania and most railroad games is in moving goods. In many railroad games the players place blocks on cities during game set-up, and move the goods as the cities are connected by tracks. In Canal Mania no goods blocks are set on the board during set-up. Players have to take a card with a goods icon and place a good in the appropriate city. This is radically different! The rules dictate where the goods are to be placed – and there are only “goods,” all one color, with no differentiation on which city they GO TO. No, in this game, the rules dictate where the goods START, and you score points according to the number of cities and towns the goods cube goes through until it reaches its destination. When I first saw this mechanic, I didn’t like it. It was a conservative knee-jerk reaction. But there are some very real weak links in the way the goods are placed in the rail games (no pun initially intended, but then I liked it), and as I played Canal Mania I began to appreciate this new way of placing and delivering goods. After one game play, my mind is pondering this and wondering if there isn’t a way to combine the ideas to come up with an even superior goods mechanic. Well, point is, this does radically change the game strategy over rail games. At the beginning of the game I was building canals like crazy, as I would in RRT. But then goods began to move between cities and I found I hadn’t built my canals strategically, and I wasn’t moving any goods. In games that will follow I’ll know to build FROM cities and not just connect towns.

For what is a smaller version of a rail game, Canal Mania does take a while to play. After a few plays you might be able to get it down to 90 minutes, but the three of us, all veteran gamers, took over two hours for our game. Actually, I love long games, but to a lot of gamers this can be an issue.

Components: Canal Mania is not a slick production, like RRT or other Euros. Don’t let that deter you. The components are of good quality, but on the small side. The game board is absolutely functional, but it doesn’t show any attempt at artistry and you won’t need a table the size you’d use for RRT. The pieces are also perfect for game play, but again they don’t show any panache. The canal pieces are small, but they work great for playing the game. The cards, as well, don’t show much of an attempt to be works of art, but again (broken record here?) they’re great for playing the game. If you’ve been spoiled by the Euros on the market, you might be a tad disappointed, but don’t let that put you off. It’s a great game.

Final thoughts: This is a Euro, so that means luck is at a minimum. Three of us played the game, and there were times when we were each in the lead, and other times we were each dragging the tail end. We ended in a close pack, though I’ll admit I came in last, due to the fact of my rush to build canals between towns and wasn’t starting from cities. I’m looking forward to playing it again, and I have some definite strategic ideas that should let me accumulate a lot more victory points.


A fun, lite game.
Components are of sturdy quality.
Allows for different strategies.

Not up to the component quality of most Euros.
Game length could be an issue for some.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'man, where can I get that game?' Unless you're thinking, 'I do not want to play that at all,' in which case, I did not actually know what you were thinking. OK, to be perfectly honest, I don't have any idea what you're thinking. You could be thinking about dolphin farts (and if you weren't before, I'll bet you are now). But in case you were thinking what I thought you were thinking, here's a very handy link to my good friends at Noble Knight Games:

Monday, January 23, 2012

Internet TV Review - The Booth at the End

There are not very many good things about having your house catch fire. Really, I cannot recommend it to anyone at all. However, through a convoluted series of coincidental annoyances, I discovered something that is absolutely awesome - Hulu.

Of course, saying that I discovered Hulu is a little like saying that Christopher Columbus discovered America (how do you discover a place that other people have already visited, and that is already occupied when you get there?) I knew about it, and just hadn't ever bothered with it. It was too much trouble to watch TV on my laptop. But when our rat-trap rent house wasn't cable-ready, we bought a Roku and decided to just watch what we could stream.

And I'm glad I did, because otherwise I never would have seen The Booth at the End. Yes, I could have watched it on my computer, but I hate watching TV on my computer. I can barely stand to watch a YouTube video on my computer. But give me Internet shows on my television and let me sit on my sofa, and I'm in.

The Booth at the End is an artsy morality play about a guy who sits in a diner all day and gives people what they want, as long as they pay his price. His price is always a task, and it's almost always morally repugnant. The guy who wants to save his son from cancer has to kill a little girl. The girl who wants to be prettier has to rob banks. The old lady who wants her husband to get over his brain pain has to blow up a cafe. (Don't worry, I didn't spoil anything - you'll get all that before you're halfway through the first episode.)

The whole show takes place in the diner. There are shootouts and murders, romance and drama - but you never see any of it, you just hear about it when the perpetrators come back to report their misdeeds to the man in the booth. And yet you can't wait to find out what happens, even though you're only going to get the action second-hand. Will the old lady detonate her bomb? Will the fat guy nail the stripper? Will the man in the booth ever use the bathroom?

So many elements intertwine to make The Booth at the End a riveting piece of television. The show asks you what you would do to get what you want, but it does it without judging you for answering incorrectly. You'll sit there, watching the father struggle with having to take a life to save his son, and wonder what you would do in his shoes. You don't hate anyone for their decisions. The show doesn't have any villains.

In fact, while you might think that the dude in the booth is a bad guy, he really isn't. People keep asking him, 'Why are you making me do this?' and he always responds, 'the choice is always yours. I'm not making you do anything.' And in the end, he's not a bad guy. He's not a good guy. He's more like an instrument of fate, a guide on the path of free will. More than one of the people who come to see him will thank him for what he's done, and some of the grateful customers will surprise you.

Many Internet-only shows rely on what are quickly becoming irritating tropes, like dumb comedy, over-the-top CGI, or stupid stunts. For The Booth at the End to do so much with so very little is a fantastic indicator of the strength of the writing. You'll be glued to your seat through more than 90 minutes of a guy having conversations in a diner, and when you're done, you'll be disappointed that it's over.

The story isn't the only things riveting, either. The characters in this show are dynamic, three-dimensional and interesting. Even the shallow losers are capable of surprising you, and they'll change as the show progresses. The man in the booth seems to be little more than a plot device at first, but with the help of an inquisitive waitress, he, too, shows that he is human (even though he may not actually be human).

I could talk for a lot longer about all the reasons you should watch The Booth at the End, but I really don't want to spoil it for you. Plus if I go on too long, I'll build up all these expectations and then you'll be desperately disappointed. So here's a link. Check it out:

Friday, January 20, 2012

General Gaming Postulation - Gamers or Wargamers

My old man continues to bail me out, this time with an interesting discussion regarding the nature and the various flavors of gamers. Personally, I prefer cookies n' cream, but at the same time, I try not to lick gamers, unless they are very attractive females, and even then my wife strongly disapproves. But when they do taste like cookies n' cream, then either they're absolute keepers, or they need to wash their hands.

Oh, yeah, the article.

There are gamers, . . . and then there are wargamers.

I’m a wargamer heart and soul, both by nature and nurture. I discovered games when I was 14, with Monopoly and Risk. I rarely played Monopoly, but I used to ditch school with friends so we could play Risk. When I was 16 I bought my first Avalon Hill game, Afrika Korps, and from that defining moment I’ve been a wargamer ever since.

Unfortunately, I live in Reno, NV, where there is only one true game store, and for some odd reason in the flux of the universe there are almost no wargamers in this city. So a couple of months ago I began going to a Saturday afternoon group of gamers hoping I could find someone who would oblige me in playing a wargame now and then – and they have. Several Saturdays ago only Denis showed up and he and I played one game of Up Front (I taught him) and one of Memoir 44 (he taught me). A very positive experience. But the next Saturday there were four of us. We played a game about building towers in the Middle Ages – it was OK, then a card game that had as much theme as white rice, and then closed with Nefarious. Nice components, but I was a bit lost the entire game. (Every week I have to learn a new game with a new mechanic – I often feel like a newbie gamer.) We talked about possible games for next week, and a couple of the guys suggested Pret-a-Porter. Now I don’t know much French, so as far as I knew it could have meant The Decisive Napoleonic Battle for Pret. I asked, “What’s the theme?” and was told, “Fashion.” It was one of those “deer in the headlights” moments for me. Dumbstruck could describe my reaction, and in total honesty I replied, “You’re kidding me.” I really meant it – they were kidding me, right? Four American guys playing a game on fashion?!? (Now as sure as I’ve ever submitted a post on this site, someone’s going to come to the defense of Pret-a-Porter. I can hear it now – it’s just as violent a game as any wargame, but this is fought with needles instead of bullets.)

Well, I’ve begun contemplating the differences between “gamers” and “wargamers.” As I mentioned last Saturday to the group, as a wargamer, theme and historical context are important to me in a game. Then I suggested to these guys that theme wasn’t important to them, and they all agreed. In fact, one guy responded, “Absolutely not at all.” So after some reflection I’ve decided to make a list of some of the differences I’ve found between “gamers” and “wargamers”. After reading the list, I’d very much appreciate feedback and more contrasts to add to the list.

Love history.
Theme is important.
Game balance isn’t very important; historical accuracy of the game is the issue.
Have a great imagination – they can picture the game in their mind as they play (like watching a movie).

History was a boring subject in school.
Theme is not that important. The game mechanic is more important than how it relates to theme.
Game balance is critical.
Possibly more analytical – I suspect they don’t have as great an imagination.

This is just a starter list. Please add more and let the discussion begin.

OK, you heard the man, discuss. And remember to keep it clean.

Ha! No, you don't have to keep it clean. That was a joke. But if you are going to make it dirty, I would appreciate it if it tasted like cookies n' cream.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Board Game Review - Fealty

After the fact edit: I just realized that I repeatedly mention cardboard squares in this review, and the main playing pieces are, in fact, circles. Man, am I embarrassed. Especially because there's a picture, right there, with a picture of cardboard circles. Imagine my discomposure.

I recently obtained a copy of a game called Fealty. It is not, as you may have supposed, a game where you have to work for other people in exchange for pretty much nothing at all. Instead, it is a game where you put down cardboard squares and then, when you're finished with that part, put down some other cardboard squares. At the end, you count how many cardboard squares you put down, and if you put down the most, then you win the game. At this point, the other people at the table now have to work for you for free. Except they left that last part out - that's my personal house rule.

In many ways, Fealty is very similar to Neuroshima Hex, except that it is played with squares, so it's probably more accurate to call it Neuroshima Square. Except that it also does not have a theme about robots and mutants and nuclear fallout, because it has a theme about knights and barons and nobles and stuff instead. And you don't shoot anyone, either, you just get in their way so they can't do their jobs. In that way, the game is a little like working for the government.

Now, just putting down squares would be boring, so each square does something different, and you can't wait to see what other people are going to put down, because you have to choose a card that you play before you put down your square. And the card will tell you who goes first and who will probably beat up the guy who goes first, except that Fealty is a non-violent game that does not endorse beating up guys at all. Like I said, instead of beatings, you just bother people.

So once you choose your card and see what card everyone else has chosen (you all do this part at the same time), you put down the square that matches your card. Maybe your square is called a knight, and he will let you put down some smaller squares at the end of the game, as long as nobody else blocks him with their own squares so that he is unable to reach the squares where he wanted to put down smaller squares. Or maybe your chosen square is an agent, who is very fast and good at capturing cities, but who gets a lot of wedgies from knights (knights are bullies. Everyone knows that). And then you can put down your agent, and he will let you move one of your other squares, like the one who is the important nobleman who doesn't do very much at all. This is especially handy if a square you previously placed on the board is now blocked by either an opposing player's square or, in the worst case, that lady from HR who never returns your phone calls but who is absolutely not going to let you have a poster of Megan Fox because she is way too hot, even if she is wearing a tent.

You have to be very careful as you put down your squares, and you have to think very far ahead. In this way Fealty is once again a lot like Neuroshima Hex, because all the pieces you put down will interact with other pieces and set off square piece chain reactions that will eventually destroy the economies of small square countries. Planning is important, but if you're not good at planning, it won't matter because other people's squares will completely ruin all your plans anyway.

Once you have all had several turns to put down different kinds of squares, you will put out some other tiny squares that will let you know all the places where imaginary people will be forced to work for you in exchange for pretty much nothing. Putting down these little squares is how you win, so you want to put down a lot of them, but if you didn't plan very well (possibly because you got a headache after five minutes and quit trying to plan), then you will not get to put down very many small colored squares, and you will lose. And if you're at my table, then you have to wash my dishes. In the tradition of ancient codes of fealty, I will let you keep a soap bubble.

It is important that I note that I did not enjoy playing Fealty very much. I am sure there are people who will find this game intriguing and involved. I am not one of those people. If you took a jigsaw puzzle, started doing the puzzle, and then every five minutes, someone came up and moved all the pieces and added pieces from a different puzzle, you would know how I felt playing Fealty. It's like a puzzle where the solution changes every two minutes. It's not very fun to me. It's more aggravating. Plus if I have knights and barons and woodsmen and stuff, I want to stab someone. I do not want to just get in their way and make loud noises so they forget what they were saying.

However, as much as I did not like playing Fealty, I know that other people will like it. Some people like doing very confusing puzzles. Other people will just like that your squares never do any punching. I actually read a few places where people thought Fealty was a gem, but they were obviously wrong, because Fealty is a cardboard box full of cardboard squares, and none of those would make very good jewelry. However, if you play a game where you have to work for someone to get a giant bucket of nothing, maybe someone will let you make rings and necklaces from their copy of the game. It will be not be very nice jewelry.


2-4 players

Rewards careful planning and strategy and stuff
Lots of replay, because you can just use a different deck and then your squares do different stuff
Interesting, and there's lots of interaction

Design is effective, but a little bland
Not really very much fun

You might like Fealty. I don't, but you might. So if you want it, you can get it from Game Salute:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Board Game Review - Manhattan Project

Minion Games had a decidedly rough start. Where a lot of new game companies lead off with a smash hit, they started out with four games, of which two were decent, one was stupid, and one was an absolute travesty. Not to mention the fact that their cards literally fell apart. Basically, the initial offering did not impress.

But they're not quitters over there at Minion, and things are really starting to come together. They've had some good games come out since those early tragedies, and now, with the release of Manhattan Project, Minion Games finally has a flat-out fantastic game. In fact, we played EVO and Manhattan Project this weekend, and had more fun making a-bombs than we did killing dinosaurs.

The theme of Manhattan Project is pretty much what you would expect - it's World War II, and you're all making bombs. The race is on, and the first nation to have their bombs ready to drop is going to win the whole shootin' match. While Einstein and his crew are busy making Fat Man and Little Boy (and his brothers are making bagels), the Germans are hard at work making Existentialist Brooder and Black Turtleneck. Japan, Russia, France and Britian are all in the running to perfect the technology needed to blow giant radioactive holes in the other countries before they wind up pissing glow-in-the-dark KoolAid.

The important thing about Manhattan Project, though, is not what you do, it's how you do it. You start off with a small labor force of untrained workers, and you'll have to school them up to be engineers and scientists. You'll need to build factories, dig mines, and establish universities. You'll refine yellowcake into uranium and uranium into plutonium. You'll call air strikes on your enemies to shut down their enrichment plants, and send spies to sabotage their mines. And just to keep everyone happy, you'll have to send one guy to make beer runs every now and then, because the other guys are so busy.

At first glance, there's so much happening in Manhattan Project that it can be intimidating. But when you realize that all you have to do is tell people where to go to work, it's a lot more manageable. Send your high-school grad to college to get a scientist, then send your scientist to research atomic power. Send another laborer off to mine up some yellowcake, then send an engineer to supervise a factory and make a couple airplanes. Then, since these are government employees, they will all leave work at 3:30 in the afternoon after having spent the day checking out YouTube videos. And when all your people have been allocated, you'll have to spend a turn recalling all your placed laborers so you can do it all again tomorrow.

What happens as the game progresses is that you're essentially building a machine, one that you fuel with your workers to get the output you need to make your bombs. This is a tricky balancing game, where you'll need to get universities and factories, mines and reactors, and you'll need to be careful not to get too many or too few. It requires a solid strategy from the outset, smart timing to take advantage of opponents' weaknesses, and now and then, a little bit of luck.

You'll also have to watch your opponents closely. If one player has a lot of yellowcake, it might be a good idea to bomb his enrichment plants so he can't use it. If another guy has a huge number of fighter planes, you might be best served to beef up your own air force for defense. If someone is looking for money to pay the pizza guy, make sure you're in the bathroom so you can eat for free.

Manhattan Project isn't just the best game to come out of Minion Games since they started, it's also one of the best games I've played in the last month or two. And that's saying a lot, because I've played some pretty awesome games recently. It's intense and exciting, which is especially remarkable from a game with such a European feel to it.

Now, I would be remiss if I threw out a blanket 'buy this game' suggestion for Manhattan Project. While I think an awful lot of gamers are going to love this, it is going to be a bigger hit with people who love Railways of the World than with fans of Last Night on Earth. Plus it can slow down a little with more players, a problem which is just exacerbated by those turns when all you do is pick up your workers and say, 'next.' If you have a short attention span, or only enjoy games where you get to count the bodies, you probably ought to avoid Manhattan Project. But if you like long-term planning and careful strategy, there's a really good chance you'll wind up taking any opportunity you find to build bombs and blow up cities.


2-5 players

Brilliant theme - making bombs is awesome
Outstanding components and great art
Planning and strategy mixed with timing and tactics
Tons of grueling decisions
Hilariously awesome interaction that lets you bomb your friends and spy on them

Can slow down with too many players (three is probably perfect)
Very little violence (might not be a Con if you're a Quaker)

You can't buy Manhattan Project yet, because it's not out for a few more weeks. But Minion Games has it up for preorder, if you just have to get your mitts on it:

Friday, January 13, 2012

Expansion Review - Thunderstone: Heart of Doom

It's time for another review from the guy they called Mister Drake before they called me Mister Drake, by which I mean my dad. This was a big help tonight, because I didn't have anything ready at all, and since I've already spent most of the night hooking up my new computer, I probably wouldn't have had anything, anyway.

If you haven’t had a good look at what comes in the new Thunderstone expansion, Heart of Doom, I’d say you’re in for a pleasant surprise. There are some great new concepts in these cards, and more player interaction. The theme of Thunderstone is strongly reinforced and sweetens the cards we have so far. In fact, this is my favorite expansion to Thunderstone yet.

After opening the box I pulled out a packet of cards, and the first card I saw was “Grognard”. Ah, a beautiful introduction to the game, and it elicited a smile. As I opened the packs of cards and read what they do, I was immediately hooked. Some great ideas here, and again some great artwork. Unfortunately, I’ve only played this new expansion once, but after this initial play I have very good impressions.

One of the best things about the expansions to Thunderstone is the increasing player interaction they’ve promoted. Heart of Doom is, I believe, the best in this regards so far. For example, the Highland Soldier (not sure if this is a female or male soldier, female I think – kind of scary). If you destroy the level one Hero you can steal a treasure from another player. Not interaction that promotes marital bliss when you play this on your wife, but it’s interaction all the same. And then there’s the Ritual of Cleansing. You play it on a player, and you can play it on yourself if you want, and that player draws 5 cards from the bottom of their deck and destroys 2. It can be a blessing or a curse. I like that twist. And then there’s the touch of brilliance of the Grognard (yes, it’s an old French term for a war veteran, but we all know that today it refers to US). If you have traps in the dungeon and you trigger one, and the Grognard is along, you can choose another player to suffer the effects. Hmmm, it does reflect the attitude of some guys I’ve gamed with.

Tis true that the artwork in some of the earlier expansions fell pretty flat (I’m still very unhappy about the replacement to Iron Rations. The original card looked like Lembas, or maybe K-rations, but the newer artwork looks like a full three-course meal, with plates and silverware. Should have changed the name of the card to Picnic Lunch.) Anyway, point I’m trying to make is the artwork in Heart of Doom is especially good. Two of the Heroes, Isri Thrower and Nyth Bowman, are beautiful to behold. Kudos to you, whoever you are who did these cards. About the Isri Thrower, she really does throw stuff – from weapons to any odd item you may have in your hand (so she can even throw a lantern if she has one with her). As always in a collection of this many cards, some of the art doesn’t inspire, but the exceptional far outweighs the bland.

Game play isn’t greatly impacted by any new game mechanics – new rules cover all of one page, only two points. But some of the cards utilize the mechanics we’ve learned so far in new and wonderful ways. All-in-all a great expansion.

Two cards especially impact game play:
The Short Spear adds Attack +2 when equipped to a Militia. All of a sudden your Militia aren’t taking up as much space in your deck as they used to. And then there’s the Chalice Mace. This is a heavy item, but those scrawny clerics know how to heft these – if a cleric picks one up, it requires three less strength. They also add +1 to your light, so if you put some clerics in your deck you’ll absolutely want to match them with this mace.

I won’t try to cover every card, but I do want to note those that deserve Honorable Mention:

The Guardian “Heart of Doom”: The worst nightmare of a Guardian yet. This card will stop all players in their tracks and take a while before anyone can take him out (Health of 25! But 15 VPs!!!). Think you’ll sacrifice a turn and send him to the bottom of the deck? You can do so, but the card has the clever caveat, “If this card is not defeated, the player loses.” Holy crap! Like getting punched in the solar plexus! As a final touch for the games so far, this one is classic. How could you not love this guy?!? And if you let him breach, that’s the shootin’ match – the game’s over. Nice touch!

Monster Abyssmal Darkspawn: These guys are truly dark – they cause rank 1 to be take on a much higher light penalty. They slowed our game down appreciably as we all started drawing more light sources. I like these guys for how they twist the game.

Monster Basilisk/Animal are really wimpy and should be easy to take out. But they all gain Health for heroes, items, weapons, etc. that are revealed. They’re still too weak to slow you down too much, but they add a fascinating quirk to the dungeon. Yep, I like these guys too.

Lizardfolk Humanoid: If you like monsters that are hard to take out and slow down the dungeon for a bit, then you’ll love these guys.

Spider/Animal: The spiders aren’t that hard to kill (except the Queen), but if they breach someone’s going to die – you can lose several Heroes to these cards. In our game we didn’t have any breach, but their threat was noted. A great addition to the cards.

Undead/Spectral: Every time you take on one of these guys, you have to destroy or discard something. And yeah, I like these monsters.

And some cards I don’t care for:

The Dopplegangers: Some guys like these, but I for some deeper existential reason I just don’t. They look like some of your friends in the village, but these guys are evil. Kind of a Jekyll and Hyde syndrome I guess. And by the way, what are they trying to get away with in the dungeon anyway? They should be lurking around the street corners in the village. If I met the blacksmith in the deepest pit of the dungeon, what are the odds I’d ask him to sharpen my blade? Maybe they have a place in some dungeons, but I’ve called Homeland Security on these guys in my games.

I'm running really low on review copies, which means I'm going to be counting on Noble Knight Games to hook me up with a few I can't get otherwise. And for that kind of thing to keep happening, and for me to keep reviewing the stuff you ask for, they have to know they're appreciated. So if you're going to buy games, I would consider it a personal favor if you would get them from Noble Knight. And it never hurts to drop my name when you do it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rip-off Game Review - Haunted Village

My wife used to teach college history to freshmen students, and she learned that if there's one thing college freshmen do very badly and very often, it's cheat. She would regularly read a paper from a student she knew damned well was incapable of stringing four words together coherently, and the paper would be brilliant. These stupid college kids were apparently unaware that the internet could be used for more than Facebook and porn, because my wife would almost always find their papers published somewhere online, and then the student would get a big fat zero and a free trip to the dean's office.

I always kind of thought that would be cool, to find some cheating lowlife and expose them as a fraud, but didn't figure I would ever get the chance. Then I received a review copy of a game called Haunted Village, and after a quick visit to BGG (thanks, T.K., whoever you are), discovered that it is a carbon copy of a free Print-and-Play game called Fatal Frame. It's not similar to that game. It IS that game. It's not a coincidence. It's blatant.

Unfortunately, it's not as though the guy who made Fatal Frame can do much about it. For one thing, the free version is based on a big-name video game, and even uses licensed art. Kind of tough to start screaming about copyright infringement when your game is already infringing (though in all fairness, the print-and-play game is free).

The second problem, and the one that makes any legal action almost completely impossible, is that the publishers of Haunted Village are in Russia. Yeah, good luck with that lawsuit. Sure, they stole your entire game, swapped out the art and pretended they came up with it (even going so far as to credit a Russian guy as the designer), but I'm just not sure where you'll find an attorney willing to work on contingency for an international lawsuit that's probably worth a little less than a mortgage payment. It's about as ethical as the Chinese people who pirate DVDs, but there's really no legal way to stop them.

There's supposed to be a review in here somewhere, and while I haven't played Fatal Frame, I have played Haunted Village, so I guess I should tell you about it. I enjoyed the game, before I knew it was a blatant rip-off, and now that I do know, I'm going to go download the original and have it printed at Kinkos. Then I'm going to be disappointed that I couldn't have lost Haunted Village in my house fire.

The idea is that you're entering a village full of ghosts (thus the unoriginal title of the copycat game). You have to beat the boss monster hiding in the old church, but to do that, you have to claim a certain number of ghosts. In the original game, you do this by capturing them with your magic camera. In the fraudulent edition, they get rid of the camera and you just collect ghosts. How you do that is unclear, because the people who remade the game were unoriginal bastards who couldn't come up with a plausible way for that to make sense.

You wander from location to location, finding horribly screwed-up monsters and battling them. Some things you can find will help, like holy water and crucifix, and sometimes, other players will totally hose you. It's fun and fast, and pretty easy to follow, once you get the hang of it. Once you collect enough ghost souls, you can rush the church and fight the big bad guy, who is called 'the boss' in Fatal Frame and, because they are so creative, the plagiarists called him 'the boss.'

Fatal Frame (and by extension, Haunted Village) could have wound up like one of those dull European games where everyone is doing their own thing and nobody is getting kidney punches, but instead, the designer (Fourhman, not Igor the Russian) added some great ways to interact with the other people at the table. Actions can steal weapons from opponents or move them to unfortunate locations. You can play ghosts on them to slow them down or steal their cards. And when the game is winding up, and everyone is rushing to the church to be the first one to smoke test the Big Bad, it can get downright cutthroat. And that makes it awesome.

This isn't a particularly complicated game, honestly, but we all had a very good time playing it. I really wish the creator of Fatal Frame had made it without the copyrighted stuff, so that he could sell it to a publisher who was not operating out of the back of a shop where they also made fake IDs to sell to Libyan terrorists, but I do have to thank Haunted Village for bringing Fatal Frame to my attention. Even though Fatal Frame is a free game, it's more attractive than Haunted Village, whose artists would not be able to find a job in the United States unless they were willing to draw comic book porn. Fortunately, they are also in Russia, and can probably use their talents to make counterfeit labels to sew onto fake Levis.

So, in my final assessment, do not buy Haunted Village, because it is a horrible rip-off and makes no attempt whatsoever to credit the original source. Instead, go download Fatal Frame, because it's a very fun game - though in all fairness, it will take quite a bit more work to play it. But at least you won't feel like you have to shower afterward.


2-4 players

A fun ghost hunt
Lots of interacting with your fellow ghostbusters
Cool game that tells a story while you're playing it (especially if you're playing Fatal Frame instead)

Flat-out stolen (Haunted Village, not Fatal Frame)
Not a lot of planning or long-term strategy

For God's sake, don't give money to fur-hatted Siberian assholes. Instead, check out this very cool game at the source:

Important note: I did email both the creator of the game and the Russian game thieves. I have verified the contents of this review, though of course the unoriginal foreign bastards said the original guy knew all about it. He did know all about it - after the game was printed and sold. And Fourhman isn't credited anywhere, because the Russians were apparently just hoping he would never find out. Sorry to blow your cover, cheaters. Now go see the dean.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Board Game Review - EVO

History can show us countless examples of games used as propaganda, like when Careers taught me that if I wanted to get ahead, I needed to let my boss win at golf. Usually these are amusing or at least innocuous, but sometimes they are downright perfidious. Take, for example, EVO.

This reprint appears to be a fun, confrontational game about saving dinosaurs during an era of rapid climate change. But it is actually a horrible attempt to brainwash our children to become Nazi perverts. I don't care how beautiful it is, I simply cannot condone such a twisted set of ideals.

You can first begin to see the darkness of EVO from the object of the game. Everyone has a herd of dinosaurs, and the end of the world is quickly approaching. Only one herd can survive the meteoric apocalypse, so every player is fighting to make his own group the master race. This master race will be pure, and probably blond, and all others will die out. They are clearly dino Nazis.

Now, if EVO were a boring, unimpressive game, this message of hatred and fear would probably go largely unnoticed. But the publishers of EVO have made their manifesto so much more insidious by nesting it inside a game that is very interesting and very fun. Your kids will want to play. Your friends will want to play. And when they do, they will be exposed to the subtle indoctrination of Aryan superiority, as represented by extinct giant lizards.

The game itself is a balancing act of a few different cool ideas. There's a neat bidding segment where the players try to procure the best genetic upgrades for their race of superior beings, followed by a cool maneuvering phase in which you'll all try to get your dinosaurs to safe land before they either cook up or freeze to death. This is accompanied with some brutal dino-on-dino violence, in which the Nazisaurs will attempt to prove how much better they are by stomping opposing dinosaurs to death.

Unfortunately, the next phase of the game introduces a new perversion. Once your herd has moved around, you have to lay some dinosaurs. This is clearly sexually deviant. There is just no excuse for laying a dinosaur. I could see it if the dinosaurs were replaced with sexy Amazon women, and I could even let it go if they were circus freaks or something kinky. But bestiality? That's just not right.

To make matters worse, my daughter actually said she was going to birth some dinosaurs! She was obviously falling under the spell of this exceptionally entertaining game and its twisted message of Aryanism and sexual deviants, when she was prepared to actually give birth to more dinosaurs! It's downright criminal!

So after you have performed illegal acts on your elitist dinosaurs and added new dinosaurs to the herd (probably half-human, half-lizard mutant hybrids, after all that inter-species perversion), you will have to check and see which ones die. Because of the rapidly shifting climate, dinos in a previously healthy jungle may suddenly find that it's far too hot there, and just keel over and die. If you have equipped your dinosaurs with some heat-regulating mutations, you might save a couple, and if you have the right genetic upgrades, you can also pop out a few baby lizards to replace the ones who melt. Of course, this just furthers the subtle undercurrent of perversion, but it does give you a good reason to make more little lizard people.

The very last part of every turn gives every player mutation points. These points are used for two things. First, they let you buy more mutations, which will hopefully keep your sex toy fascists around another turn. Second, the player with the most points when the meteor crashes down is the master race, and wins the game. So you have to spend them to make your dinosaurs more hardy, but you have to be careful, because they're both currency and victory points. Cool, huh?

So the creators of EVO had wrapped their little subversive propaganda inside a delightfully entertaining and exceptionally fun game, but to make it look even more like a candy bar offered to a child from a white panel van, the game is nothing short of visually stunning. Every single piece of art in the game is magnificent, from the box cover to the event cards. You'll want to play this game just because it's so darned pretty, and then they will have you right where they want you - enjoying the hell out of a game about Nazi degenerates.


2-5 players

Lots of interaction, including considerable dinosaur violence
A seamless mesh of several different game ideas
A nice blend of strategy and tactics
Seriously attractive
Pretty darn fun and quite thematic

May convince you to become an Aryan pervert

Finally, I'm reviewing a game where you can save a few bucks! Just head over to Noble Knight Games and pick up this sexy new reprint of the classic game, and don't pay retail if you can help it:

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Board Game Review - Flash Duel

A long time ago, in a galaxy - well, actually, in this galaxy. And really, not that long ago. Like maybe a year or two. OK, so not all that long ago in our galaxy, Dave Sirlin started a game company to publish a bunch of games simulating fighting video games. The first of these games was called Flash Duel, and it was pretty damned cool. It was not original, or anything, because it was basically Reiner Knizia's En Garde with special powers, but it was better than that game and quite a bit more fun. It also came in a semi-crappy wooden box and had ten different guys you could play. It really wasn't much game, but what it was, was pretty cool.

Then Sirlin made more games. Puzzle Strike took Dominion and made it competitive (and a lot more interesting) and then Yomi did the same thing for Rock-Scissors-Paper. Puzzle Strike was a big hit, because of how much better than Dominion it was, and then Yomi made a huge splash by being a very cool game.

But in the meantime, people kind of forgot about Flash Duel, because it was almost just an experimental game that didn't really have enough substance to enjoy a lot of staying power. And since Dave Sirlin wasn't really of a mind to have his games fade into obscurity, he reinvented Flash Duel and turned it up to 11.

The new Flash Duel is not just a reboot of the original. Where the first version had a simple format and a limited selection of characters, the new one doubles the guys you can play and has no less than seven different game modes. You can still play the original, head-to-head duel, but now you can also play in teams, solo, or in a huge four-on-one battle royale against a very angry purple dragon (he is angry because he is sick of people calling him cute).

The regular game of Flash Duel is still just as engaging, light and entertaining as it ever was. You maneuver, plan, manipulate your hand and gamble in an attempt to get a hit on your opponent before he can smack you. It's fast and fun, and you can finish a whole game in about ten minutes. There are even ten new characters to use, that add all kinds of interesting strategies and stuff to avoid.

The new game modes for Flash Duel really do add a lot to the game. The solo game has three levels of difficulty, from playing against an idiot drone to battling the dragon by yourself. You can also play the medium mode where you fight the stone golem who trains the fighters. All are interesting, though I think the game is better when you're playing against someone else. There are achievements you can gain as you play, as if you were playing on your Xbox, but while they may seem like a cool way to make a board game feel like a video game, they're actually pretty dumb.

The best new thing in Flash Duel is the dragon mode, where four players take on the dragon. Now the game gets really interesting, because while the dragon is basically just a skinny purple guy with a cute lizard head, he is also a total bad-ass who will beat the bejeezus out all comers. That's why it will take you four people to bring him down. He'll maul you retarded.

Sooner or later, though, you may get so good at killing the dragon that the dragon decides he needs to recruit help. Then you can play the dragon mode, but add in a traitor who actively works to hose the other players. Now the game has an element of Battlestar Galactica, which Dave Sirlin doesn't think is a good game because he is wrong.

If you liked the original Flash Duel, you're going to love the new version. If you thought it was a nice diversion, but weren't too crazy about the lack of meat on its bones, the new Flash Duel will offer a whole lot of reasons to like it and give you something to sink your teeth into. And if you thought the original was stupid and trite, then you were wrong, but you're still not going to like the new one. Me, I think it's awesome, but I really liked the original, and I like this one at least twice as much. Maybe a little more - my accounting is sometimes a bit suspect.


2-5 players

Everything you loved about the original, plus a LOT
Ten new characters
Several new game modes allow for some very interesting game possibilities
You can play this over and over and over

Still essentially a light game, even with the heavier modes

As much as I would love to tell you where you can save a few bucks on the new Flash Duel, it's one of those Game Salute games that you can only get for full retail. But if you decide you want to pay full price for it, you can find it at the Game Salute page.

I had a hell of a time getting this review posted at all. We haven't had actual internet for a week, and it's made posting a serious ordeal. We're working with a cell phone set up for tethering, which fails every third time I hit a link, and on top of that, this week has been an absolute Charlie Foxtrot, what with moving into a rent house and what-not. So there are only two reviews this week, and what's more, this one doesn't have an image or a link, because I don't have enough 'net access to go get 'em. Bear with me - I played some great games this weekend, and will have my regular dose of three reviews next week. Thanks for your patience.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Card Game Review - Tschak

This is not a review of a Russian game. I just thought I would get that out of the way right now, because it very well could be, if you just look at the name. But in this case, 'Tschak' is not a translated word from a foreign language. In this case, 'Tschak' means roughly the same thing as 'Shnick' or 'Fkow' or maybe even 'Kpam'. From Webster's Totally Not Real Dictionary:

Tshcak (not really a word, vt)
1. The sound one hears when one cuts off a monster's soft parts with a very sharp weapon.
2. The feeling of having your tentacle chopped off by a very sharp weapon.
3. The process of removing tentacles with very sharp weapons.
Grimbolg's axe is sharp enough to throw down some serious tschak.

In theory, the goal of Tschak is to enter a dungeon with a team of adventurers and kill monsters and steal treasures. In practice, the goal of Tschak is to build three solid plays from a hand of ten cards in order to maximize point gains and minimize penalties. Obviously, the title of the game is slightly removed from the actual game play. So there is some abstraction.

In fact, there is very little need for the dungeon theme at all, aside from providing a springboard for some very entertaining art. You're going to get ten cards, and then you're going to see what rewards and penalties you'll compete for this round, and then you'll figure out how to play three hands before you bundle up your cards and pass them to the next guy. Basically, it's a trick-taking game. It's got virtually nothing to do with dragons, skeletons or angry dwarves, unless you play with Vern Troyer and Nicole Richie (in which case you still won't have a dragon).

But it is fairly challenging. The thing is, the playing field is pretty much level, with most of the luck of the draw inherent in a card game being mitigated by the fact that everyone is going to play with the same hand eventually. There are four rounds, and forty cards, and ten cards played in each round. When you finish a round, you pass the cards and play a round with the cards someone else was holding last turn, and see if you can do any better than they did. You don't rely on getting a lucky hand. The winner is the one who plays his cards better than everyone else.

Honestly, Tschak is not generally my kind of game. I like maneuvering tiny robots around a map to battle other tiny robots and then rolling dice, or moving miniature barbarians around miniature dungeons and fighting miniature goblins and then rolling dice. But my wife prefers traditional card games to hobby board games. She whips my ass at Spades every single time. And she very much enjoyed Tschak, which means it's a game that is going to see some serious play time in my house.

Tschak does have many of the elements I like to see in a game, whether it's a card game or not. It provides for strategy from the beginning of the game, and rewards the player who sticks with one consistent plan. It also requires flexibility and quick decision-making, because you're going to have to determine your plays at the top of every round (or one card at a time, depending on how good you are at playing card games, which means that my wife does it once at the beginning of a round, and I end up doing it every time I have to play a card). There are several different strategies you could employ to win, and part of winning the game is playing to your own strategy while countering your opponent's plans.

Tschak is not a game that I would replace if I lost it in a fire, except that my wife likes it. I'm kind of lukewarm on it, because I like games where people die. But I do enjoy playing it, and I really love that my wife likes it, because that means I'll get to play it with her. It doesn't really live up to the name, and I certainly don't get the impression that I'm dealing out bloody tschaks (or even minor fwiks, fleshy ktumps, or devastating prakaows). It's just a fun trick-taking game that the whole family can enjoy for thirty minutes, and then we can put it away so my teenagers can go back to texting their friends and I can go back to worrying about the bills.


2-4 players

Cool card game that rewards strategy and good card play
Fun for the whole family, as long as the kids are out of grade school
The art really is great

Theme could be replaced by a story about drunken field mice in a steel mill (though you would need new sounds)

I really hate that I keep reviewing games that aren't out yet, but unfortunately, all the games I was going to review kind of got torched when my house caught fire. I can't tell you where to get Tschak, because it won't be out for a month or two.