Cooperative Series: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Image by tmredden

There are lots of factors that go into a great game, but what I love most are those that leave you with memorable moments.  When you start tabling up a game, I love it when the group starts talking about those crazy I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened moments that have happened before, often a long time ago.  Sometimes it comes from a brilliant or terrible move, other times from an incredible string of good or back luck.  Whatever the cause, I always look for games that give you those lasting memories.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a game entirely about those types of moments.  At the start of the game, all the players are working together to explore a creepy old mansion, dealing with whatever threats they encounter.  Bad omens are everywhere, though, and at some point one of the players betrays the rest which kicks off a showdown (The Haunt) between the traitor and the remaining heroes.  Here’s what makes the game work:

+ Simple Rules: Betrayal’s rulebook is very short with fairly straightforward rules. You can teach players the basics in a few minutes and as the game starts off purely cooperatively you can explain how many things work as you play.  That low barrier to entry really is key to Betrayal’s success as players are able to focus on the fun things happening instead of worrying about individual rules.

There will be ambiguities at times, but the rule book sums it up nicely: “Don’t let [questions] slow you down. [Come] to an agreement as a group for what makes the most sense and go with it.”

Image by mikehulsebus

+ Theme: With such a simple rule set, Betrayal at House on the Hill really is all about the theme.  There are several different characters in the game, all based on horror B-movie stereotypes.  Players explore the mansion by revealing random tiles resulting in  a different mansion layout each time, adding to the suspense and replayability.  Most rooms result in you drawing an event card causing some sort of crazy thing happen to your player.  All of the flavor text on the cards and the events in the Haunts really nail the horror movie theme.

+ The Haunt: At some point during the exploration phase, enough bad omens will have been encountered and the Haunt will begin.  Haunts are scenarios that give the story and rules for how the second half of the game plays out.  A quick look at a table in the rules tells you which haunt to play (or you can just pick one you haven’t played yet) and which person betrays the group.

Then the brilliant part starts: the heroes are given one booklet to read while the traitor is given a separate booklet and ideally walks off into another room.  The booklet give you a description of the scenario, your goals and what you know about the other side.  What really makes Betrayal shine is that you do not have perfect information about your opponents goals!  The heroes may know that the traitor has turned into a shambling zombie and you need to kill him, but they may not know that if the zombie traitor makes it to the laboratory they’ll get to inject themselves with a serum that turns them into a super-mega-zombie! (Don’t worry, I just made this scenario up.)  Having that bit of hidden information really makes the game work.  It adds a level of suspense and urgency to what would otherwise be a very simple game with dice-based combat.

As I mentioned earlier, the game comes with fifty different scenarios and any given scenario will probably take around an hour to complete.  That’s a lot of replay value for one game!  Even if you have played a scenario before and know the “secret” to it, the special rules are usually written to prevent you from being able to spoil or break the win/loss condition for either side.  Of course I would never choose to play a scenario I’ve done before because the real fun comes in discovery during the haunt, but it seems like replaying a scenario shouldn’t break the game.

While I really enjoy Betrayal, there are a couple of things that could easily sour someone on the game:

Image by mikehulsebus

– Randomness and Balance: With all the randomness in tiles, cards and dice you are bound to have some players feel like they are getting the brunt of the bad luck.  The scenarios themselves aren’t necessarily designed to be balanced, and that can be further compounded based on what random things have happened leading up to it.  That level of randomness and chaos is bound to be a major turn-off for those looking for a deeper gaming experience.

– Rules Ambiguities: You will run into times when the group needs to agree on how something works as all the cases and questions that come up from scenarios simply can’t be covered in the rules.  Generally it’s not too difficult to come to some sort of consensus, but this is not a game to play with “rules lawyers” that feel the need to find every answer to a question in a rulebook.  As the rules explain, make a quick decision on what makes the most sense given the theme and move on.

– Replay Value: While there is a nice variety of events and omens, you will probably have seen them all after a couple of games.  Most of the cards have a variety of outcomes based on dice rolls so things will rarely play out exactly the same, but more cards would always be welcome.  While you will run into the same cards from game to game, the Haunt adds enough to keep things fresh.  Still, I could see some players getting tired of having the same event cards come up, especially if you play two or three games back to back.

If you like light, highly thematic games, Betrayal at House on the Hill is sure to deliver.  It’s fast, easy to teach and may result in more memorable moments per dollar than most any other game.  For me, Betrayal is a great game to table up a few times a year.  There’s not enough depth to make it a staple for your game nights and the fun is in the discovery and randomness, so I find it’s good to let some time pass between plays so everything feels fresh all over again!

Make sure you get a copy of the new second edition (green box versus the red box of the first edition) as the rules and scenario books are much better written and edited.  Note that some people have been having issues with warping tiles and cards, but it sounds like Wizards of the Coast will send you replacements if you get in contact with customer service.

Cooperative Series – Saboteur, Bang! and Shadow Hunters

Following up on Forbidden Island, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at a couple more light cooperative games. Both are card-based hidden role style games that support a wide number of players. Originally I was going to hold off on comparisons between cooperative games until the end of the series but these three fill such a similar niche I thought it best to talk about them at the same time.

(image by samoan_jo)

Dwarves love mining for gold. It’s a pretty simple job unless there are traitors amongst them! Veins of coal and broken equipment are surely signs of dwarves gone bad. Will the loyal miners be able to out the saboteurs and find the gold in time?

Yes, Saboteur’s theme is a bit silly but it works well given the game’s mechanics. Three target cards are set out face down on the table: two show lumps of coal and the third is the gold mine. Eight spaces away from these target cards is the mine entrance. At the start of the game each player is dealt a loyalty card saying if they are a miner or saboteur. Players have a hand of cards showing various tunnel configurations, broken and repaired equipment. On your turn you play a card to either extend the tunnel system or break or repair someone’s equipment. The loyal miners win if they reach the gold mine before the deck runs out, otherwise the saboteurs walk away victorious!

That’s really all there is to to the game. It’s simple, fast and very fun. The goal cards are face down but there are some cards in the deck that let you peek at one or more of the goals to help you figure out where to go. Saboteurs want to slow progress to the gold mine while miners want to get there as fast as possible. The coal veins are dummy targets; reaching one does not end the game but it does result in wasted time and cards.

(image by spearjr)

If you start your turn with broken equipment in front of you your turn is skipped until you or someone else plays a matching repair card on you. Breaking equipment is great for both sides but also have risks. The benefit is obvious for the saboteurs but can easily give your identity away. Miners want to slow the saboteurs if they can but a wrong guess means they are stopping a fellow miner from taking a turn. It’s a very simple form of hidden loyalty and you’ll be accused as being a saboteur for only having a hand full of dead end tunnels as often as you will actually be a saboteur but that’s all part of the fun.

Should the saboteurs stop the miners, they each receive gold nugget cards based on how many saboteurs were in the game. If the miners reach the gold mine a number of random gold nuggets cards (showing one to three nuggets) are randomly dealt and picked in order from the miner that played the connecting tunnel. The winner is whoever has the most gold nuggets after three rounds.

Rarely do we play exactly three rounds. In fact we usually don’t even care about the score that much as the scoring is fairly random. Saboteur’s fun is in the sheer simplicity of the game and mechanics. A single round usually doesn’t take more than ten minutes making it the perfect filler game. Play as many rounds as you want until you are ready for something else!

(image by samoan_jo)

I’m really surprised that the Wild West theme isn’t used more often in board games. Gun fights, duels, train and bank robberies, gambling, expansion of the Western frontier, cattle rustling… it seem like there’s no end of possibilities!

In Bang, players are dealt out secret identities placing them in one of three factions: the sheriff and his deputies, outlaws and the lone renegade. Only the sheriff is known from the start; everyone else will spend the game trying to figure out who their allies are while taking down their opponents. The sheriff and deputies win when all the outlaws are face down in the dirt, the outlaws win by taking down the sheriff and deputies and the renegade wins by being the last man standing. Your identity is only revealed when you are killed, though, so you need to try and figure out loyalties by where the lead is flying.

Unfortunately, for me Bang really only delivers on the theme. Here’s a rundown of what I think does and does not work:

+ Theme: Yep, the Wild West theme is great and overall it fits well mechanically. I can imagine a massive shootout in an old dusty western city where the lead is flying and you aren’t quite sure who is friend or foe. In an homage to spaghetti westerns all of the cards have both English and Italian text which is a lot of fun, too.

+ Range: One of the most clever mechanics is that your weapons have a limited range. Pistols have a range of one while rifles may have a range of three. Range is counted by player order to your left or right, so a weapon with a range of two lets you shoot at people seated up to two places away from you. I love the concept of range actually being how physically far away people are seated from you and have never really seen that used in a game before. Very fun.

(image by Nodens77)

– Iconography: Cards use icons to depict what ability that card confers. Unfortunately I find the symbols confusing at best. Some can be easily explained and intuited while others have long descriptions in the rules that are not on the card. I know this has been addressed in the new version of Bang but I still think they could have come up with better symbology.

– Loyalties, Randomness and Length: Unfortunately I don’t think the secret factions really do much for the game. Only the sheriff is known from the start so you sort of figure out who’s on your team by who fires at the sheriff and who fires at the people firing at the sheriff. Unfortunately your ability to attack and defend are entirely up to the luck of the draw. This not only makes it difficult to properly play your role but can also result in wildly varying game lengths. Sometimes the game will be over in fifteen to twenty minutes, other times it can take over an hour for people to finally draw the right cards to kill their enemies. This is especially painful since the game features player elimination and the game mechanics simply aren’t meaty enough to support a game of that length.

In the end I’ve been very disappointed with Bang. It seems like a really cool game but I’ve never had fun playing it. The confusing icons and heavy luck factor combined with potentially drawn-out game play and player elimination has not resulted in an enjoyable experience.

(image by drakecoldwinter)
Shadow Hunters

Take the Western theme off of Bang and replace it with monsters, monster hunters and humans. Welcome to Shadow Hunters. There are a few differences but overall I found the experience to be extremely similar to Bang. Keep in mind my impressions are based on a single play:

+ Loyalty Guessing: Many hidden loyalty games have you guessing a player’s loyalties based on their actions over the course of the game. Shadow Hunters uses a pretty clever mechanic where you can play a card on them that will force them to reveal some information to you. Only you and your target get to see the card and their result is usually a yes/no style response or choosing between two actions based on what faction they belong to. It’s a nice mechanical way to help you narrow down friend and foe.

– Lack of Strategy: Every turn you roll dice to determine which action to take. Usually you’ll end up resolving a card which is either some sort of event, item to use or one of those loyalty guessing cards. The actions are broken up into regions on the board and after resolving your action you may attack someone else in the game region as you.

(image by Grimwold)

There are two problems. First, you don’t get to make many decisions as your action is determined by a die roll at the start of your turn. You also immediately resolve cards you draw so there’s no hand management. Your only real decision is who to attack and generally you’ll wait until you know who’s on your side, which is pretty easy thanks to the loyalty guessing cards. Second, the game length can be variable as your position on the board (and who you may attack) is random. If you keep missing your targets you’ll never get to smack them around.

I do think Shadow Hunters has some clever mechanics but the game really was not at all satisfying. The loyalty guessing cards are fun but you can often know someone’s loyalty after a single card play and figure out the rest by who attacks whom.

In Conclusion

I think some groups will find a lot of fun in both Bang and Shadow Hunters. They are certainly not bad games and bring some cool mechanics to the table. Unfortunately I find both to be very unsatisfying experiences. Saboteur’s strengths are its simplicity and fast playing time. If Bang and Shadow Hunters could be played in a shorter fixed amount of time I think they’d be much better; they just don’t sustain themselves when the variable game length pushes on the long side.

Not only is Saboteur the cheapest of the three, it’s also the most enjoyable. There’s a lot of fun to be had in that little deck of cards!

Quick Hits: Defenders of the Realm, Carson City

Defenders of the Realm

Defenders of the Realm has been hitting the table a lot lately, going over particularly well with my Monday night group. This time we decided to work in the free mini expansions that Richard Launius provided on BoardGameGeek. Here’s a quick look at the expansions and what they bring to the game:

(image by holepuncher @ BGG)
Winds of War – Winds of War adds a side board and a new deck of cards. Whenever Quiet Night darkness spreads cards are revealed or heroes play special cards they are stacked up on the Winds of War board. Every three cards triggers a random event that the heroes must deal with. These are extremely nasty but usually may be canceled by discarding cards or making other sacrifices.

We’ve played with this twice now and I would almost consider it an essential expansion. There are some very powerful special hero cards and little reason to not play them all. Now with the Winds of War events players need to think very seriously about when to play these specials. Is it worth the risk of the event that may happen? Can we afford to negate it if it’s too harsh? Those added decisions add a lot of fun to the game.

Forging of Heroes – With Forging of Heroes, the players level up their heroes and unlock their three special abilities instead of having them available from the start. Experience points are earned by killing groups of enemies, completing quests, building magic gates and wounding generals. To make up for this increased difficulty the evil generals start off of the map and slowly enter the game, giving the heroes more time to deal with the threat.

I think Forging of Heroes is a good addition as well. It puts much more importance on quests and building magic gates; generally you only did those when absolutely necessary in the main game as you often just had to fight fires all the time. With the slower start you have time to work on quests and will need to so you can level up and unlock your powers. Like Forging of Heroes it adds in more decision points which is great.

(image by Titus SWE @ BGG)

My only complaint is that players rolling poorly in combat or stuck with a tough quest will struggle to earn experience, preventing their heroes from reaching their full potential. It can be a little disheartening to see your teammates fly through levels while you are stuck at level one. This variant may also add more time to the game which may or may not be a good thing depending on your group.

Be sure to print out Winds of War, it is an incredibly simple way to add in more fun decision making. Forging of Heroes is a clever way to add in a leveling-style system and encourages players to take time performing actions you may otherwise ignore in the base game. It does increase the complexity and length of the game, though, so it will not be ideal for everyone.

Carson City

(image by aqwerty @ BGG)
We’ve had Carson City on the shelf for awhile now but haven’t had a chance to table it up until recently. Homesteaders really captivated us so we got a bit distracted!

Carson City is a worker placement game where players are cowboys settling a new town in the Western frontier. You earn points for the buildings you contribute and money you’ve earned. Overall the game is a fairly straightforward worker placement style game but does have a couple of things that make it stand out:

Parcels – Purchased buildings must be placed on the land grid. A building’s income is determined by adjacent squares; for example, the bank’s income is increased by adjacent mines and homes. I like having that spacial competition in a worker placement game. It also adds in another level of player interaction which is sometimes missing in these types of games.

(image by francobollus @ BGG)

Duels – What’s a Western town without duels? Most worker placement games only allow a single player per action. While that’s true in Carson City, multiple people may attempt to take the same action but must duel to see who emerges victorious and performs the action. Duels are resolved by a simple roll of a (massive) six-sided die plus your on-hand weapons and cowboys in reserve. Worker placement games tend to be fairly passive-aggressive so it’s fun to see some serious direct competition.

We played two games back-to-back and my feelings are still mixed. At its core, Carson City seems like a very solid worker placement game. There are multiple paths to victory and you get that delicious tension of not having enough actions to do everything you want. It also plays fairly quickly – around 90 minutes – but doesn’t feel like it is lacking in decision making. There are a couple of things that are keeping me from instantly falling in love with it, though:

Story Arc – I’ve talked about the importance of story arc in board games before and Carson City falls a little flat. With only four rounds of play you don’t build much of an internal engine; the game seems to end at what I would generally consider to be the midpoint of most other games. Given the game’s fast play time I don’t mind as much but you do feel like the game is ending just as you’ve started to get going.

(image by francobollus @ BGG)
Luck – Generally I enjoy a bit of luck in my games but I think the duels may hurt Carson City. I’ve only played two games but both were essentially won and lost on duels. Risk management seems to be central to the game; you can take measures to increase your odds in a duel but it also seems like you’ll have times where you just have to take a chance. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but seems very counter to the solid euro underpinnings of the design.

I need to get more plays of Carson City in before I pass judgment. If every game comes down to the last couple of duels I think the game will lose a lot of its luster, but if over time strategies emerge that better incorporate risk management and solid planning I think it could have some good staying power. I certainly enjoyed it enough warrant revisiting, which is a good thing!

Cooperative Series – Forbidden Island

(image by keebie @ BGG)
I love games with depth. Give me lots of interesting strategic and tactical decisions, multiple paths to victory and interesting rules that hold up to repeat plays. Many of the cooperative games I’ve covered so far have many of these features but also take an hour or more to play. As much as I love epic gaming sessions, though, sometimes you just want a quick filler or something with an easier rule set if your audience isn’t your normal gaming group.

Enter Forbidden Island, Matt Leacock’s simplified version of Pandemic. It has many of the same core features as Pandemic but streamlined to play in less than a half hour. Instead of curing diseases, players are treasure hunters trying to seek out ancient artifacts and return them to the helicopter before the island sinks. It’s an impressive simplification of a great cooperative game, although some may find it a little too watered down:

(image by @ mikehulsebus BGG)

+ Components and Price: Forbidden island is a beautiful game. It comes in a neat tin container, has some really nice artwork and awesome (but unnecessary) plastic figures of the treasures you are trying to collect. For $15 retail you’ll be hard-pressed to find better components and quality!

+ Easy and Fast: As I mentioned, the game is very simple to learn and plays quickly. While the mechanics don’t allow for as much interesting decision-making or teamwork as Pandemic, the fast play time makes up for the simplicity. It also makes it a fantastic introductory game for new or younger gamers.

+ Modular Board: The game board is made up of tiles representing the various island locations. Every time you play you’ll end up with a different island layout and combined with the randomness of the flood deck you will have different priorities every game. There are also variant board layouts online which add more challenge and replay value.

(image by TunaSled @ BGG)
– A Little Lacking: I think some will find the game a little too simplistic, lacking real decision making. At the end of your turn you draw flood cards to see which parts of the island start to sink. At first they are flooded – which can be remedied by players shoring up those locations – but will sink into the ocean if they are hit again. Used flood cards are reshuffled and placed back on top of the deck when you hit a water rising event. Like Pandemic, this means you know which locations will hit again after the water rises, allowing you to set your priorities. Unfortunately the player actions are more limited and the map smaller so these decisions seem less interesting and more luck-dependent than in Pandemic.

Forbidden Island probably won’t hit the table much with serious game groups – Pandemic and Defenders of the Realm offer up much more interesting game play but Forbidden Island wasn’t meant to deliver that type of experience. What you get is a beautiful game that offers up quite a bit of fun in a small package. I was a little taken aback by Forbidden Island’s simplicity after my first play and wasn’t entirely sold on the game. Coming back to it with proper expectations, though, I found myself enjoying the game a lot for what it offers.

For the simplicity, components and especially the price I think Forbidden Island is a fine game.

Cooperative Series – Fury of Dracula

(image by ColtsFan76 @ BGG)
I’m relatively new to the board game scene so I missed out on Avalon Hill, Milton Bradley, Games Workshop and others in their prime. Thankfully many classic games from that era are finding their way into reprints and redesigns by new publishers, giving new gamers like me a chance to see what all we missed out on!

Fury of Dracula is Fantasy Flight’s reprint of the 1987 game of the same name. One player is Dracula, running around Europe hiding from the team of hunters trying to bring the Count down. Dracula will forever disappear if the hunters take too long, but defeating him is no easy task – especially once the sun sets. The hunters will need to work together to pick up Dracula’s trail and have the strength to defeat him. Dracula, on the other hand, will need to be crafty in his movements and use his available tools wisely to set traps for the hunters and throw them off his trail.

Dracula may be looking for fresh blood, but not everything about this game sucks:

+ Hidden movement – I love the mechanic of hidden movement. Playing as the hunted is usually the most entertaining as you try to outsmart your opponents, but it’s also fun for hunters to work together and try to give Dracula as few escape opportunities as possible. The game’s length and difficulty does hinge around the Dracula player, though; poor play or mistakes can make the game incredibly easy for the hunters.

(image by Jasly @ BGG)

Fury of Dracula also uses a pretty clever card system for tracking Dracula’s movement. The Dracula player has a deck of cards representing all of the location on the map. Each turn they put their next destination face down and also place an encounter marker on top of the card. The movement track is eight spaces long so Dracula essentially keeps a history of his last eight movements. This gives the hunters a chance to pick up Dracula’s trail but will have to encounter the token Dracula placed on that location card. It also means Dracula can’t double back on his trail (without the use of some special cards) as he only has one of each location on the map. It’s very clever and a great way to handle Dracula’s hidden movement.

+ Gorgeous map – I’m a sucker for maps and Fury of Dracula has one of the nicest maps I’ve seen in a board game. The design is clean and clear and I love the color palette. It is bound to turn some heads when set up.

+ Event cards – On their turn the hunters have the option of drawing an event card. Unlike most decks, they draw from the bottom because the card back designates if the event card goes to that hunter or to Dracula. It’s a clever risk-reward system as the event cards give the hunters some nice bonuses and abilities but they risk giving cards to Dracula to make him more powerful or easier for him to escape.

Unfortunately in some ways I find the concept of the game better than the actual implementation:

(image by Filippos @ BGG)
– Event cards – While there’s a fun risk/reward system for the hunters in drawing event cards, they can take some of the fun out of the game depending on the timing of certain events. For example, some events allow the hunters to scout out areas on the map without moving there. If they get lucky and pick Dracula’s hiding spot early in the game the hunters can quickly mob Dracula, resulting in a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.

– The hunt – Trying to pick up Dracula’s trail or trying to avoid the hunters is a lot of fun. Unfortunately once the hunters pick up Dracula’s trail the game can often turn into a big of a slog as they chase him down. Dracula has some tricks up his sleeve during nighttime but during the day it’s not too difficult for the hunters to corner. Yes, it will take several rounds of combat for the hunters to ultimately defeat Dracula but it often feels like just a matter of time.

– Combat – I’m really not a fan of the combat system. Ultimately it is functional but highly unintuitive and I generally have to relearn how it works each time we play. There’s essentially a rock-paper-scissors style element with card plays and some dice rolling to determine which player wins the battle. My main complaint is that between the charts, symbols and text used there’s no way you can just look at a card and even begin to guess how the combat system could possibly work. Once you understand it there’s actually some subtleties and I do like that Dracula is far more powerful at night, but I do find combat to be the least interesting part of the game.

(image by Filippos @ BGG)

– Length – Often running a solid two hours I feel like the game can outstay its welcome. Mostly this comes towards the end when it’s fairly clear the hunters will win. At that point Dracula could just toss in the towel but that takes away some satisfaction the hunters get from finally capturing their nemesis. The length can also be highly variable based on how quickly the hunters manage to track down Dracula, which isn’t always a fault of the game but can still result in an unsatisfying experience.

Fury of Dracula is at its best when Dracula manages to elude the hunters for a couple of days, giving him time to run around and force the hunters to really stretch themselves thin and cover as much ground as possible. When you get that fun game of cat-and-mouse going the game is fantastic. Unfortunately my last couple of plays have been pretty unsatisfying with Dracula getting revealed early via event cards, ending the game long before any buildup happened.

In the end I think Fury of Dracula is good to pull out from time to time for the fun of the hunt but doesn’t have quite enough going to keep it hitting the table on a regular basis.

Cooperative series – Defenders of the Realm

(image by Gryphon Eagle @ BGG)
Matt Leacock’s Pandemic sort of took the gaming world by storm. There had been other successful cooperative games in the past but Pandemic proved there was serious demand for purely cooperative gaming. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery so we’re starting to see a rush of cooperative games hit the market and Defenders of the Realm is one of the newest entries.

Four evil generals are marching towards Monarch City, sending their minions out to defile the land and bring about a new era of evil. Players are the heroes of Monarch City, stepping out to defeat the generals and maybe earn a little extra glory along the way. Defenders of the Realm is mechanically very similar to Pandemic: four colors of generals, minions that spread across the board when too many fill one area and players collecting sets of colored cards to defeat the generals. The heroes save the day if they defeat the generals; unfortunately if any general marches to Monarch City, if their minions taint too much of the countryside or become too populous the heroes lose. Like many cooperative games there are many ways to lose but only one way to win.

At a glance it is easy to see Defenders of the Realm as a Pandemic clone. Once you dig into the game a bit, though, you’ll see that Defenders has enough to stand on its own:

(image by rsolow @ BGG)

+ Hero Abilities – Each player controls a unique hero with special abilities, not unlike the roles in Pandemic. All of the heroes are very powerful and have fairly unique abilities, though, so every turn you feel like you are doing really awesome stuff that nobody else at the table can do. Some of the heroes are certainly more powerful than others but I think they all give you the satisfaction of contributing something special to the team.

+ Dice-based Combat – Some purely cooperative games break down into a group puzzle solving exercise, leaving little room for individual decisions. Defenders of the Realm certainly has some of that but combat against minions and generals is dice-based. Nothing is guaranteed so it is much more difficult to determine the optimal move for any given player. Sometimes there are clear actions you need to take but other times – especially early in the game – players are more free to do what they want. Some will go for big risks, others will play the safer odds.

+ Taking Down Generals – In order to take down generals you need to collect cards matching their color which determines how many dice you roll in the epic showdown. What I really like is that multiple heroes may meet up and take on the general at the same time, giving a nice epic feel to battles against generals. Players run around the countryside keeping minions at bay and when they are ready to strike they meet up and assault the big bad guy. It’s also crucial to be prepared because failure against a general can be devastating.

+ King’s Champion – This small competitive aspect may be more important to some groups than others. Players win or lose as a whole but individually earn points for completing quests and slaying generals. At the end the most renown hero is declared the King’s Champion. This is generally a fun little bonus for our group but I could see where other more competitive groups might play to become MVP. It’s a small touch but I think it works well and doesn’t add any extra complexity.

As much as I enjoy Defenders of the Realm, the game isn’t without fault:

(image by Titus SWE @ BGG)
– Graphic Design – Eagle Games always seems to struggle with graphic design. Larry Elmore’s artwork is great but the font choices are questionable at best and the map is a hindrance. It’s a map of a fictional fantasy world and the locations on cards are referenced only by name. Each time you read off a location players have to scan the board to figure out where they go. Familiarity does come with time but it would’ve been nice had the cards given you some reference on where on the map to look. A small complaint perhaps but it is an annoyance.

– Game Length – Unlike other cooperative games there’s no real built-in timer for Defenders of the Realm. The game only escalates as you kill generals so it’s possible to get into maintenance mode where you are just keeping up with everything that’s going on without making any real progress. Sometimes it can take awhile to get the right mix of cards to take on a general, so you spend a lot of time cleaning up the countryside hoping to draw the cards you need. Depending on the number of players a game can easily take 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I don’t feel that the game outstays its welcome but it does play long compared to similarly styled game.

– Story Arc – I feel that great boardgames follow some sort of story arc. You build over the course of the game to the climax with spikes of tension along the way, ending with a quick winding down to the conclusion. Due to the game’s pacing being mostly in the player’s hands, I feel that there’s not a very strong arc in Defenders of the Realm. The game is highly oppressive which adds to its challenge and sense of urgency but you don’t always get a very nice progression. Constantly being at that heightened state can make the game feel relatively flat.

(image by EndersGame @ BGG)

Overall I’m very pleased with Defenders of the Realm. It is challenging – giving the game plenty of replay value – and each game seems to play out a little differently. Sometimes the generals march straight on to Monarch City, forcing you to content with them quickly. Other times minions spread out of control, sending the heroes scrambling across the countryside. It really evokes the fantasy theme and offers what seems to be a fairly well-balanced gaming experience. Unfortunately I think the game’s length may turn some away from it, especially with similarly-styled games running much shorter. It’s also too bad that Eagle Games still struggles with graphic design issues.

If you have the time to play a longer cooperative game and can live with some poor graphic design choices, I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in Defenders of the Realm.

Cooperative Series – Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft

(image by scottandkimr @ BGG)
Dungeon crawls all share a similar formula: kill things, get stuff. The excitement comes from the random encounters you have and the loot you find in the process. Several board games have tried to capture this excitement over the years to a varying degree of success. Wizards of the Coast took cues from modern board games and video games with the release of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, especially in the highly tactical combat. I’ve played some 4th edition and have always thought it would translate well to a board game. Not surprisingly Wizards of the Coast felt the same and they’ve started turning some of their classic adventure modules into cardboard, starting with Castle Ravenloft.

Castle Ravenloft is a cooperative dungeon crawl for one to five players. Unlike other dungeon crawl board games, Castle Ravenloft is strictly cooperative, meaning the heroes play against the game system and pre-programmed monster intelligence instead of a live opponent. The game comes with over a dozen scenarios, each with varying layouts and goals. Players explore the mostly random dungeon, trying to complete their mission while fighting off monsters and surviving dangerous encounters. If any hero should permanently die the group fails the mission, strongly highlighting the cooperative nature of the game.

I’ve managed several plays now and overall I’m very pleased with the system Wizards has put together. Here’s a quick rundown of the highs and lows of Castle Ravenloft, broken down by classic D&D alignments!

Lawful Good

(image by Toynan @ BGG)

* Scenarios are fast, usually playing in an hour or so. Your first learning game will take longer but once players understand the system turns go quickly. I appreciate the overall simplicity of the rules and should questions arise players can easily agree on what is best in the spirit of the game. The overall turn structure is simply activating your hero (moving and attacking), explore a new tile if you end on an unexplored edge, resolve an encounter if necessary and active your monsters. Quick and easy, just as it should be.

* I love the card-based monster system. When you place a new monster on the board you take the corresponding card and place it in front of you. At the end of your turn you activate all of the monsters in front of you, following their pre-programmed commands. This is great as it essentially splits the role of dungeon master across all the players. It also adds some interesting tactical decisions as you often prioritize targets based on when they will next activate. I’ve found it to be a very elegant solution to what is often a difficult problem in a dungeon masterless dungeon crawl.

* The game system forces tough decisions on the players. You want to stick together to help each other out and take advantage of special abilities and synergies but encounters often affect all heroes on a tile, meaning multiple people will get injured if you stay bunched up. Also, if you don’t explore new territory you are forced to resolve an encounter which are often worse than any monsters you may run into. This means players need to decide if they split or stay together and how close together they work. It’s a great balancing act and leads to some really fun situations.

* I feel like Wizards of the Coast did a great job of keeping the spirit of 4th edition while distilling it down to the basics. The five characters included in the game keep the themes of the classes from the full roleplaying game but greatly simplify their powers and abilities. Mechanically Castle Ravenloft is nothing like Dungeons and Dragons but I think it captures the overall spirit of the system.


(image by Zelgadas @ BGG)
* Health is the currency of Castle Ravenloft. Players are knocked unconscious if they drop to zero hit points and the group fails the mission if any player starts their turn unconscious with no healing surges remaining. I like how health management is one of the most important parts of the game as it forces players to think about positioning and the risk/reward factor of exploring over drawing encounter cards. Unfortunately I think this also lends to a small scaling problem; I’m not convinced the difficulty of extra monster activations and encounters balances against the extra pool of health another player adds.

* Overall I really like the minimalistic design. It roughly follows the aesthetic Wizards has been following with 4th edition overall and I think it is clean and clear. Yes, it’d be nice if some of the cards (especially the treasure deck) had artwork but in this case I’ll gladly take function over form. It may not be quite as eye-popping as other games but the design is very functional which I appreciate.

Chaotic Evil

* The encounter deck is your true enemy in Castle Ravenloft. It is filled with all sorts of nasty stuff that will whittle away at your health. My main complaint with the encounter deck is that you often have no control over the results outside of rolling the die. It becomes more apparent later in a scenario when you are done exploring tiles and are resolving encounters each player turn. Overall the game feels balanced as many of the scenarios I’ve played have been extremely close wins or losses but the constant encounter fatigue can wear on you. I wish more encounters gave the players decisions to make instead of just causing damage with a die roll.

* Generally speaking monsters are programmed to attack the nearest hero which will almost always be the hero exploring a new tile. If you explore you are almost guaranteed to have that new monster take a swing at you. Again, this isn’t mechanically a problem but it does take away a little bit of tactical choice from the player.

(image by Toynan @ BGG)

* While game tiles are made up of 4×4 squares and player movement is defined in squares, the real unit of measurement is tiles. Monsters attack and move by tiles and heroes generally either attack adjacent enemies or by tiles. Outside of scenario-specific rules there are no terrain or dungeon features on the tiles that impact the players outside of walls and corners. Terrain plays a huge part in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons and I think it is too bad there’s no difficult or special terrain to navigate.

Overall I’m very pleased with Castle Ravenloft. The rules are simple, the game plays fast and it certainly scratches the dungeon crawling itch. I’m very impressed with their simplified take on 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons combat; in fact, I think some concepts could serve to make the roleplaying game combat system more enjoyable! At the same time I do feel the encounter deck’s constant oppression of the heroes does detract from the experience a bit. I understand its purpose and it makes for some very tense moments but generally it feels like the game is just beating you down turn after turn no matter how well you do. It gives the game a much more “beer and pretzels” feel – which is fine – but I know some will want a deeper, richer game. Castle Ravenloft is as much an experience as it is a game.

For a first attempt I think Castle Ravenloft is certainly a success. I’ve been pleased to see the designers have been active in discussions on the game and look forward to seeing the system evolve over time. If you like pure cooperative games or want a fast, easy dungeon crawler experience, give Castle Ravenloft a try. It isn’t perfect but is a very solid first attempt.

Cooperative review series

Cooperative games are all the rage these days. Most board games pit player against each other with one claiming victory over the rest. Some games, though, have players working together against the game system (strictly cooperative) or in a many-against-one scenario (semi-cooperative). There are even sub-genres within semi-cooperative games: some with set adversaries from the start and others with a “hidden traitor” aspect where you discover who is and is not loyal to the cause over the course of the game.

These are certainly not new concepts but cooperative games have seen a major resurgence as of late. I’ve covered some cooperative and semi-cooperatives games here already: Pandemic, Battlestar Galactica, Shadows Over Camelot and Space Alert. Lately my gaming groups have been on a bit of a cooperative kick, though, so I thought I’d take some time to dig a bit deeper into the realm of cooperative gaming.

My next few reviews are going to cover a wide variety of cooperative games, both old and new. For the most part, each will be discussed on its own merits. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the games I’m thinking of discussing:

Lord of the Rings
Defenders of the Realm
Arkham Horror
Dungeons and Dragons: Castle Ravenloft
Red November
Ghost Stories
Forbidden Island
Descent: Journeys in the Dark
Last Night on Earth
Fury of Dracula
Betrayal at House on the Hill

Some discussions will certainly be more in-depth than others but hopefully I can give them all a fair shake, even if it has been awhile since I last played some of these. Maybe it’ll be a good excuse to go back and revisit a few, although some may ultimately not make the cut if I’m not comfortable enough with my knowledge of the game. At the end of the series I plan on compiling my thoughts on how they stack up against each other, grouped by mechanic (cooperative, one vs. many, traitor). There’s a lot of ground to cover but I hope to get through them fairly quickly to help keep the thread going.

Are there any games not listed that you’d like to see included? I can’t guarantee I’ll have a chance to get them tabled up but I’d love to hear about other cooperative games I may not be aware of! Right now the most obvious omissions from my list are Castle Panic, The Republic of Rome and Battlestations. I have access to both The Republic of Rome and Battlestations but doubt they will have a chance to hit the table any time soon.

I’m a big fan of cooperative style games. I find they often provide a low barrier of entry for new gamers as they are often more comfortable working together with more experienced gamers instead of against them and rules questions are easily answered without giving away individual strategies. There’s also a lot of fun to be had in the camaraderie of rallying against the odds of a challenging game system or flying under the radar and keeping your treacherous motives hidden. Cooperative games provide a very different and highly enjoyable social gaming experience than traditional versus style games.

My thoughts on these games will hopefully get posted over the next few weeks. If the thought of cooperative gaming already has you excited, though, check out some of my earlier posts or grab any one of the games I’ve mentioned above. If you’ve never tried any cooperative games before you are most certainly in for a new experience! For those that love cooperative games, I’d love to hear about your favorites.

Space Alert

(image courtesy karel_danek @ BGG)

In space, nobody can hear you scream. Apparently nobody told that to Vlaada Chvátil (designer of Space Alert) because this game is anything but silent!

Space Alert is the latest in the wave of cooperative games that have been hitting the market lately. I’ve talked about some like Battlestar Galactica, Shadows over Camelot and Pandemic but Space Alert is an entirely different beast. Players are members of a star ship, hopping to new sectors in space and dealing with (read: destroying) whatever they encounter. Space is unforgiving, though, and the crew will struggle to keep their ship in one piece!

The game takes place in two parts. Part one is the planning phase which is played out in real time to a CD soundtrack. Yes, that’s right: a CD soundtrack. Each player has a track with 12 spots where they will play action cards designating what they will be doing on that turn. The catch is that you are planning your actions out in real-time as the soundtrack barks out commands. A single mission lasts seven to ten minutes and is divided into three phases. You may only play cards on the spots that correspond to the current phase you are in, making planning even trickier. The soundtrack is going to give out commands like:

“Phase one ends in 20 seconds.”
“Data transfer.”
“Threat T+3 zone blue.”

(image courtesy fehrmeister @ BGG)

There are a variety of things that may happen but the core of the game are the threats. The ship is divided into three sections (red, white blue) and the soundtrack will announce which turn (T+3 means turn 3) a threat appears. You then draw a random card from the threat deck to see what appears in round three and what you need to do to deal with it. Then players start planning out their actions, turn by turn, to figure out what needs to be done. You are free to move your pieces around on the board to help you visualize but you are not actually doing anything in this phase, only programming your actions for each turn.

Once the mission is done, the game board is reset and the resolution phase of the game begins. You now walk through the actions and events turn-by-turn to see how well the crew’s plans work out!

It may sound simple but the game is anything but. Resource management is key and you’ll be fighting it your entire mission. The ship has a limited amount of energy and firing weapons and powering shields draws from the energy pool so you must make sure there’s enough energy in the right place at the right time. Taking down enemy ships is also often tricky as typically you need to coordinate attacks from multiple guns at once if you want to do any real damage. Threats will also attack back and you also need to plan for when they’ll be firing and what you need to do to prepare for it. Do you try and take it down before it does much damage or raise the shields to absorb the hits? Once you play the full game (there are several introductary scenarios to help you get up to speed) you’ll also have threats on board your ship to deal with, screen savers to keep from kicking in, battle bots to control and windows to look out of.

(image courtesy Meat @ BGG)

If Space Alert sounds crazy, that’s because it is. This is, without a doubt, one of the most insane board games I’ve played and I love every second of it. When you first see two CDs in the box you’ll cringe, afraid of what that could possibly lead to. Thankfully the “soundtracks” are really bare-bones audio files that mostly just have the computer voice barking out commands. There is a lot to coordinate across all players and you’ll scramble to get everything worked out and planned before the next phase begins. Failing to deal with a threat will typically either damage the ship which causes it to perform less efficiently or may cause players to delay a turn. Delaying can be very bad as all of your actions will slide down one spot to the right, meaning everything else you had planned is now one turn off from what you originally expected. Truly devistating when coordination is such an important part of the game.

I can see where some will really not care for Space Alert. It is a stressful game and requires a lot of communication amongst the group. You need to be a very assertive player; you won’t do anything unless you start planning out actions but to succeed you need to coordinate with your fellow players. You also need to be very tolerant of others’ mistakes as all it takes is one person doing the wrong thing on one turn for all your well-made plans to fall apart. Failure is always an option (and a likely one at that) in Space Alert; some may not enjoy seeing themselves or others make mistakes that cost the game for the whole group.

(image courtesy filwi @ BGG)
I love this game. The real-time planning phase is brilliant and is unlike anything else out there. Random encounters mean near-infinite replayability and when you use everything the game has to offer it is pretty much impossible to fully plan out all of your moves correctly. Sometimes you’ll look back and curse one mistimed action that cost you the game while other times nothing clicks for the group and hilarity ensues. The more you play with the same players, though, the better you’ll become at communicating efficiently and the better you will do. Each mission takes 7-10 minutes of real-time play and probably an equal amount of time to resolve. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself playing two, three or more missions back-to-back.

I wish words could do this game justice but it really needs to be experienced to appreciate. Vlaada Chvátil is quickly becoming one of my favorite game designers and I will always be up for some Space Alert.

Shadows Over Camelot

(image courtesy Erich @ BGG)
Board gamers tend to be geeks and geeks tend to love Monty Python. It’s inevitable that Monty Python quotes will occasionally come out during gaming sessions. Pull out Shadows Over Camelot, though, and it is a guarantee. If you want to have some fun, keep a running log of how many seconds it takes upon pulling out the box before the first quote comes out. The results may (or may not) surprise you.

Shadows Over Camelot is in fact about King Arthur and the Round Table. Dark forces are taking over the land, Camelot is under siege and one of the knights may even be a traitor! Similar to Battlestar Galactica, Shadows Over Camelot is a cooperative game with a traitor element. Each player is a Knight of the Round Table and at the beginning of the game everyone is dealt a secret loyalty card that says if they are loyal or the traitor. Given the game’s setup there is at most one traitor but it’s possible there may be none, adding a bit to the suspense.

Players work together completing quests and try to out the traitor (if one exists). As quests are completed, white swords are placed on the round table and black swords are added as quests fail. The game is over when all 12 spots on the table have filled. If half or more of the swords are black, evil prevails and the traitor – if there is one – wins the game. Should the knights manage to have more white than black swords, though, they have kept evil at bay and rejoice merrily.

(image courtesy kilroy_locke @ BGG)

At its core, Shadows Over Camelot is really a rummy game of sorts. You are trying to collect sets, straights and pairs of cards to play on different “quests.” Some quests – like the duel against the black knight – may only be attempted by one player at a time, while others allow multiple knights to work together. You may only play one card per turn so generally you need to work together to complete quests in a timely fashion.

Completing quests quickly can be important because at the start of your turn you must first “progress evil” which involves drawing and resolving a card from the deck of bad things. Generally these cards push a single quest closer to failure. As these bad things come out on each player’s turn it really is important that the players work together; it’s not unusual to see your hard work go down the drain quickly with a few bad card draws.

The knight’s special powers and the traitor mechanic really make the game. Each knight has a rule-breaker specia
l ability that they may use on their turn. King Arthur, for example, can exchange one card with another player while another knight may use special white cards as a free action. Some knights work well together, others just help the group as a whole. You really need to make sure you put your special powers to use as they can easily be the difference between winning and losing.

(image courtesy flieger @ BGG)
Then there’s the traitor mechanic. At the start of the game a deck is built consisting of one loyalty card per player plus one traitor card. These cards are shuffled and one is dealt to each player. Players look at their card in secret and now know their role for the game. Odds are there will be a traitor but there’s a small chance there’s none so that adds a fun unknown element. The traitor has a very important part to play as they want to influence events so that the heroes lose but want to keep their identity hidden if possible. Most cards are played and discarded face down so you never know the true value or type of card someone got rid of. The traitor could, for example, sit on the quest for Excalibur and throw away all of their best white cards. While each white card discarded moves the Excalibur quest one step closer to victory, by burning their best cards the traitor is making the group weaker as a whole.

There’s a lot of subtlety when it comes to playing the traitor. Once there are six swords at the round table or six siege engines at Camelot, players may start making accusations. If the player make a successful accusation then one white sword is added to the table; guess wrong, though, and one white sword turns to black which can be devastating. Should the traitor make it to the end of the game undetected, two white swords will turn to black which will almost certainly equal doom for the good guys.

Unfortunately I think there’s almost too much subtlety when it comes to playing the traitor. My main complaint is that, as the traitor, there’s really not a whole lot you can do. Sure you can waste some time on a quest here, throw away good cards there and try to generally play sub-optimally without giving away that you are the traitor but none of those actions are all that exciting. Shadows Over Camelot is a challenging game all by itself. There’s often not a whole lot the traitor even needs to do to tip the game in their favor.

(image courtesy kilroy_locke @ BGG)

Mechanically the quests work but I also find they are not all that exciting. All you do is play cards in various ways on different locations. That’s fine, but when battling off the Saxons and Picts involves playing a straight and dueling the Black Knight has you playing two pairs… well, that doesn’t do much for the theme. You are also only allowed to play a single card per turn. This forces cooperation as players need to work together to complete quests quickly but it also means that your individual turns aren’t all that exciting. If you have a straight in your hand you may spend the next five turns at the Picts playing them down, which can be quite dull as you wait for the other players to go.

Given my complaints you might think I dislike Shadows Over Camelot. Quite the opposite! I think it is great fun, especially with the right group of people. By the nature of the game the traitor can often be difficult to weed out but it is really necessary for the heroes to do so if they want to succeed. Drawing from the “bad deck” each turn means that the group’s priorities are constantly in flux. A single quest can easily go from nearly complete to just about to fail in a few turns, so the group is always re-evaulating what needs attention and trying to coordinate how to best tackle the issues at hand.

(image courtesy IntvGene @ BGG)
What really impresses me most is that I don’t think I’ve found anyone that just does not like Shadows Over Camelot. The rules take a little while to explain but are pretty straightfoward once you start playing; combine that with the gorgeous art and components and the Knights of the Round Table theme and you have a game that you can teach to anyone and have fun. I’ve played with gamers and non-gamers alike and it goes over well every time. The game is not without its flaws but the good parts are good enough to make for a great gaming experience. Personally I find Battlestar Galactica to be the more engaging cooperative/traitor style game but Shadow Over Camelot‘s relative simplicity makes it a better introduction to cooperative gaming.

Note that there is an expansion for the game called Merlin’s Company. Stay away: you have been warned. Some folks complained that they had pretty much “solved” the base game so Days of Wonder put out an expansion to bump up the difficulty level. Unfortunately I found that the expansion just sucked all the fun out of the game. The main offender is that you now have random encounters as you move from quest to quest and usually the encounters involve bad things happening like you losing your turn. You are already so limited in what you get to accomplish each turn that I found this expansion to be maddening, not fun. Stick with the base game and enjoy.