Cooperative Series: Betrayal at House on the Hill

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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.”

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+ 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.


Image by Peter D

In my thoughts on 2010, I mentioned one game I really wanted to try but missed out on was Navegador, the latest in the rondel series of games by Mac Gerdts. While I enjoy Antike and have warmed up to Imperial, neither are games that really demand my attention. When information on Navegador came out it looked like it may finally be the rondel game I’ve been wanting. Thankfully I received a copy from my BoardGameGeek Secret Santa shortly after the new year and have had a few opportunities to table it up!

Players in Navegador are Portuguese sailors navigating the African coastline trying to expand the Portuguese empire. You discover new colonies to trade with, build up your production capabilities at home, construct fleets of ships for exploring and look to the church for more manpower.

Navegador takes place over three eras triggered by a player sailing into specific sea regions on the map. Over the course of the game you will be able to collect privileges from powerful Portuguese families to earn you victory points for various game aspects you have focused on. For example, one will give you points based on the number of factories you have built while another earns points based on the number of colonies you have settled.

There are really three things that drive Navegador:

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* The Rondel – Mac Gerdts loves his rondel and it makes yet another appearance in Navegador. For those not familiar, the rondel a circle of actions players traverse to choose their actions each turn. You start the game on any rondel space but may only advance up to three spaces for free on future turns. This creates a somewhat a pre-programmed sequence of actions but you decide how quickly you move around and which actions to take or skip.

Unlike Antike and Imperial, I think Navegador really makes the rondel shine. In those other games your choices around the rondel were generally obvious and the game was more about what you did within those actions. Navegador flips that around and really puts the emphasis on deciding when and where to stop around the rondel. Only the market action appears twice so skipping any other action means some time before it will be available to you again. I think the order of the actions is really well designed as you’ll find yourself making extremely difficult decisions on how quickly you need to get around the rondel.

* The Market – While the rondel drives your decision making, the market really is the focal point. It’s the only portion of the game featured twice on the rondel – a good clue that it will see lots of action.

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Like many other games with markets, prices fluctuate as goods are bought and sold to simulate supply and demand. Here, though, the concept of goods is abstracted out and you simply receive cash for your exchanges. Selling goods from a colony to the market back in Portugal will earn you money and drive prices down while using your factories takes goods from the market, driving prices up and giving you a return on the profit margin made. You want to sell when prices are high and manufacture when prices are low.

Again, this isn’t an innovative mechanic but not many games make it such a central part of the game or do so as elegantly. Everyone will be using the market and the trick is figuring out who is buying or selling what and when so you can find the perfect time to cash in big. Of course that ties back to the rondel; sometimes to get that big payout you’ll have to pass up other actions that may earn you points or build your economic engine.

* Finding Your Niche – It’s no surprise I’m pleased with Navegador’s multiple paths to victory. What really makes Navegador interesting is that a strategy’s viability depends on what everyone else at the table is doing. The player to your right will heavily influence your choices as you want to avoid following in their footsteps; ideally you play off of them while carving out your own niche. This aspect is certainly found in other games (Puerto Rico immediately comes to mind) but I’ve found it works really well in Navegador. There are enough different strategies and they compliment each other nicely so you can find something that fits in with everyone else. You need to be aware of how your choices ripple down to everyone else; you don’t want someone else to cash in too big from you! Yet letting any single player go uncontested in any aspect of the game will almost certainly mean victory while everyone else butts heads.

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Going into Navegador I was hoping for a fun rondel game. What I discovered is one of the more fun pieces of cardboard I’ve tabled up. Heavy use of the player-driven market mixed with carving out your scoring opportunities easily lend Navegador to repeated play. There are many difficult decisions to make but the rondel helps narrow your choices on any given turn and allows you to plan a couple of turns ahead. While there’s no direct player interaction you need to be aware of what everyone else is doing so you can benefit most from their actions while helping them out as little as possible. It doesn’t hurt that the game features a beautiful map and quality components that help sell the theme even if the mechanics do feel a bit abstract.

If you enjoy a solid Euro-style game or are a fan of Mac Gerdts’ other rondel titles, be sure to give Navegador a look. It has easily shot to the top of my list.

Thoughts on 2010

I wasn’t originally planning on writing a year in review or top list from 2010, but looking back there were a lot of great (and not-so-great) games that game out over the past year. Here’s a fairly random list of my thoughts on gaming in 2010:

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* Fantasy Flight Games – What a year for Fantasy Flight. They started off big with their release of Runewars, which is currently my favorite game. That alone would have been enough to make me happy, but they also managed to come out with Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game, Dungeonquest, Space Hulk: Death Angel, Battles of Westeros and they just squeaked out the new Battlestar Galactica expansion at the end of the year. And those are just the games I was interested in! I’m not entirely sure how they plan on topping themselves in 2011.

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* Surprises – It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised and a few games turned out far better than I expected. First was Nuns on the Run, a great hidden movement game that I had passed over until playing at a friend’s house; now it has found a place in my collection. Next is Armorica, a tiny little card game that holds a surprising amount of fun. The rules are really poor but we think we figured out how to play and I was really amazed at how simple yet fun it is. At only $12 retail it’s very easy to recommend. Finally, I was happy to discover that 7 Wonders was worthy of its hype. It’s a fast, easy card game that scales well from three to seven players which is something you rarely see.

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* Disappointments – My biggest disappointment was probably Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft. It’s not a bad game and I do enjoy it but I think it doesn’t live up to its potential. The event cards work well as a balancing cooperative game mechanic but thematically they don’t make much sense. It is very much a cooperative game over a dungeon crawler and I was hoping for the latter. Fans have done work to create alternate rules that I’ve been meaning to try out but haven’t had the motivation to table it up again. Oddly enough I’m still very interested in Wrath of Ashardalon because I think this game system has an incredible amount of potential.

Next disappointment was Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York. At first glance it looked like a really interesting war/area control game with gorgeous components. What I discovered was essentially a souped-up version of Revolution: an extremely chaotic hidden action mechanism that felt like a crapshoot while playing. I think I may actually enjoy the game a little more on future plays but this is a great example of having completely different expectations going in and coming out very disappointed.

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* What I Missed – Even with everything I managed to play this year there were still plenty of games I didn’t get around to! I think the game I’m most interested in is Navegador, Mac Gerdts’ next entry in his rondel series. Merchants & Marauders may be the pirate game I’ve been looking for but it hasn’t made its way into our group collection yet. I’m not entirely sure why but for some reason I keep finding myself drawn to Constantinopolis, even though it doesn’t look to bring much new to the table; it may simply be that Fantasy Flight published it! Mystery Express looks like it could be a playable version of Mystery at the Abbey and on the war game front I’d love to try out Commands & Colors: Napoleonics and Washington’s War.

Happy New Year everyone! I look forward to what cardboard 2011 brings to the table.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game

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Fantasy Flight has been on a roll in 2010. Early in the year they released my new favorite game, Runewars. That alone would be impressive but they didn’t stop there. More recently they’ve come out with Space Hulk: Death Angel (a very fun cooperative game I plan on covering as part of my cooperative series soon), Battles of Westeros (interesting take on the Battlelore system), Dungeonquest (crazy dungeon romp) and Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game (referred to as Civilization from here on). I love civilization building games so there was no way I could pass up giving Fantasy Flight’s take on the genre a go.

Kevin Wilson was the designer behind this new version of Civilization and I admit that had me a bit hesitant going in. Kevin has done some fantastic work at Fantasy Flight, most notably Descent: Journeys in the Dark. My only concern was that his designs are often fairly – if not overly – complex and I was hoping this could be the Civilization game our group could play in an evening. While it shares the same name, it has nothing to do with the Eagle Games published title. This is an all-new take based on the classic Civilization PC series, clearly drawing heavily from Civilization IV and Civilization Revolution.

While am I a big fan of the series (particularity Civ Rev and Civ V), I’m not going to do any sort of comparison. Suffice it to say that I’m extremely impressed at how well Kevin managed to take concepts from the video games and turn them into cardboard form. Here’s what really makes the game:

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+ Multiple Paths to Victory – Civilization games are known for allowing the player many different ways to win the game. Culture, science, military and economics are all valid choices in the game, each with their own unique victory conditions. Sometimes paths may intersect but each requires players to plan their path and execute better than their opponents. It really is a race game with the player that most effectively executes their strategy while keeping their opponents at bay coming out on top. While I have certainly not played exhaustively at this point I am comfortable saying that all the victory conditions seem well-balanced and fun to boot.

+ Technology Pyramid – Researching technologies has always been a big part of the computer games and we’ve seen this concept in board game form before. Certain technologies lead to others and players need to decide which path to follow. It’s a classic formula but certainly restricts players, forcing them down predetermined paths.

Kevin tossed this idea out the window and instead introduced the technology pyramid. Level one technologies form the base; each level two technology requires two level one technologies to support it and so on. This is a fantastic system as it still requires some degree of required early technology research but gives players the freedom to pursue whatever paths they wish. Yes, it can lead to humorous situations where you learn how to fly airplanes and later come back to figure out how to make pottery but I’m perfectly happy to make that trade-off for the freedom this system allows. It’s an extremely elegant design and really is the keystone to the game.

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+ Modular Terrain – I love games with modular terrain and Civilization doesn’t disappoint. The map is made up of four-by-four tiles that are revealed as players explore. There’s a variety of terrain that provides different resources and you’ll encounter friendly and hostile barbarians. Terrain is important and the land around your starting area will certainly impact your overall strategy but has never felt too limiting or imbalanced.

+ Unique Civilization Abilities – Each civilization (six come with the game) has a special ability or two and start with different learned techs. It’s very clear that some civilizations are certainly geared more towards certain victory conditions. For example, the Germans are a good military force while the Russians can have easy access to technology. At the same time I think each can succeed in at least two different paths if not more; sometimes those bonuses are just as important in helping you towards another goal. I’m not entirely convinced they are all balanced, but they never really were in the computer games either. I’ve seen all civilizations do well and that’s really all that matters.

As you can tell, I’ve really been enjoying the game. I was afraid it may end up overly complex but Kevin designed a very clean, intuitive game packed with lots of fun and great replay value. There are a just a couple of things that keep it from taking the throne away from Runewars as my favorite game, though:

~ Game Length – While not as epic in length as Twilight Imperium 3, Civilization can push the ability to get a game in an evening. It’s not impossible, mind you, but the game length seems to be highly variable. There’s the obvious learning time for new players but even with a group that knows the game well I’ve found that some games simply end up at more critical decision points than others. Three players seems to be the sweet spot for balance and game length, clocking in around a little over an hour per player. Time per player actually seems to go up when adding a fourth, simply because there’s more difficult decisions to make and often more deal making as well.

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– Combat System – While I’m listing this as a downside to the game, let me first say that I think the core combat system is actually quite good. There are three different types of military units that battle in a rock-paper-scissor style system. It works well and does a nice job of reflecting modern computer strategy games. My only complaint is how your armies are tied to your units on the board. Military is represented in two ways: by plastic figures on the map showing where you have presence and by a deck of cards representing your military forces. When you battle you draw from your deck of forces and do combat. It’s a nice simplification from having lots of different units running around the map but it has the unfortunate side effect that a battle on one side of the map can diminish your military strength on the other side of the map as they both pull from your same pool of military units. Retreating is not possible so you are forced to play each battle out to its bloody conclusion. There’s also no way to voluntarily remove figures from the map so your army figures can actually become a serious liability if someone is heading for your cities. Ultimately this means you need to decide very early if you will be playing offensively or defensively. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but things get ugly if you find yourself having to change tactics mid-game.

When all is said and done, though, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game really nails what I want out of a civilization-style game. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in civilization style games or someone interested in a solid direct conflict game playable in a few hours. You really feel like you are building your civilization from the ground up, exploring new lands, making deals with and fighting against your neighbors. I’m really amazed at how well Kevin Wilson managed to take the complexity of the video game series and turn it into a board game while really keeping the spirit of the series. I think they’ve already confirmed an expansion is in the works and I’m hopeful that maybe they will address the issues I have with the combat system.

I even enjoy it so much that I put together a player aid to conserve some table space and help players better plan their strategies. Check it out over at BoardGameGeek!

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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– 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.

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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.

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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: Alien Frontiers and Britannia

Alien Frontiers

(image by CleverMojo @ BGG)
I enjoy a dose of luck in my games and especially love clever dice mechanics. Alien Frontiers had a lot of buzz leading up to its release, in part due to it being funded through Kickstarter and also due to the high component quality. The game saw a fairly limited release but a friend of mine got his hand on a copy and we were able to table it up the other night.

First off it is a beautiful game, especially for a small publisher. The artwork is a little goofy but nice (sort of retro sci-fi-esque) and doesn’t distract or muddle up the cards or playing area. I thought the game board was very clean, easy to understand and overall rivaled productions from larger publishers on the market.

Players are trying to colonize a new planet, using their spaceships to gather the resources needed to build new colonies. The game ends when someone builds a target number of colonies (based on the number of players), earning points for each colony built and for regions on the planet where they have the most colonies. Dice represent your ships and on the start of your turn you roll to determine which actions you can take. Each space station on the board requires different sets of dice to activate; some areas need pairs, triplets, or a straight while others will accept whatever you have available. Stations generally gain you energy and ore which are needed to build colonies on the planet.

(image by soosy @ BGG)

In a typical worker placement game, players go around the table placing workers out one at a time and resolving them once everyone has placed. Alien Frontiers plays with that formula a bit. When a player places their ships (dice) they immediately take the corresponding action. The catch is that you don’t pick your dice up until the start of their next turn, meaning those spaces are tied up for everyone else. It’s a pretty clever system and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it used more in future worker placement games.

While the dice mechanic is fun I found the area control portion of the game lackluster at best. The four player game ends when someone builds their sixth colony. There are eight regions on the planet so you will likely end up focusing on only a couple of regions. Usually area control games have some interesting back-and-forth for domination of an area but not so in Alien Frontiers. Player colonies are too limited for there to be any interesting jockeying of position.

Unfortunately this led to an underwhelming gaming experience. The dice action mechanic is clever but there didn’t lead to interesting enough decisions, both in ship and colony placement. Granted my rolls were fairly poor overall which may have impacted my feelings toward the game but I think more competition in the colony placement portion of the game would help a lot.

Alien Frontiers does play quickly, though (under and hour) so a little lack of depth is forgivable for faster play time. There are options to use more colonies in the game which would help address my issues with limited area control but I’m afraid the game might outstay its welcome with increased play time. It certainly doesn’t feel like a bad game but there are other diced-based games (Yspahan, Kingsburg) that offer up more interesting decisions for the players. Maybe future plays will result in a better understanding of the mechanics and better competition for resources as well. I’m interested to see how the game holds up under repeat plays.

(image by Toad @ BGG)

It’s been quite awhile but we finally managed to get in another game of Britannia. Players control different nations as they invade the island of Britannia over the course of one thousand years or so. It’s long, epic and seriously fun.

I’m most impressed by the game’s balance. I’ve played several games now and never does one nation seem too powerful or the game too predictable. Every player is strong at different points in time, giving them a chance to shine (where shining results in destroying lots of opposing armies). Some nations are destined to be very populous on the map while others are generally minor players serving as an annoyance. Even with such asymmetry and lots of dice rolls it always feel like every player has a chance to win and it’s all about the choices they make.

By no means am I a history buff but I enjoy the balance Britannia has found between historical accuracy and replayability. Nations come into play and receive reinforcements at specific points during the course of the game, leaders rise and fall and players earn points for holding specific territories during scoring rounds. Everything matches up nicely with the small bit of history I do know but the game gives you plenty of room to play. Nations get most of their points for holding territories that were historically significant to them but there are plenty of extra points to be earned by bending history to your will. I’ve seen games where a starting nation only lasts a handful of turns, others where they survive until the very end of the game. There are always certain nations that act as major forces in the game but the decisions players make and the outcomes of battles result in a highly dynamic game.

(image by filwi @ BGG)

I do have a couple of small complaints,. First, the first edition by Fantasy Flight has some print errors on the board. They are easily accounted for but are still irritating. Thankfully if you are picking up a new copy it should be corrected. Next, there can be a fair amount of down time for some players. Everyone has high and low points during the game and the low points may see you doing little for a turn or two. Some nations – like the Caledonians – are going to do little over the course of the entire game and may cause some frustration for their player. Finally, the game does take awhile. Our games often clock in near six hours, relegating it to weekend play. An experienced group of players could likely play in four hours but I doubt we’ll ever get to that point.

Britannia isn’t a game you’ll see hit the table every week but if you enjoy epic, well-balanced games and marching armies around to smash your opponents you will find a lot to love. I would encourage everyone to play it at least once for the experience. It’s one of those games you will think about for days and weeks after you finish!

Kickstarting Eminent Domain

The fine folks at Tasty Minstrel Games – makers of Homesteaders, one of my recent favorite games – are hard at work on getting their latest project to the printers. Eminent Domain (designed by Seth Jaffee) is a deck-building style game reminiscent of Dominion and Glory to Rome. Seth also designed Terra Prime, another Tasty Minstrel game that I will hopefully be talking about after it hits the table again.

To get Eminent Domain out in a reasonable amount of time, Tasty Minstrel is turning to the community to help fund the project. You may find more information on the project at Kickstarter:

Eminent Domain at Kickstarter

They even have the rules available:

Eminent Domain rules

You may pledge as little or as much as you’d like. $35 will get you a copy of the game shipped to your door (additional cost if you are outside the US); it seems like a great deal if you have any interest in this style of game. What makes Kickstarter great is that you pledge your support but will only be charged if the project meets its goal. If it’s something you are interested in there’s no risk, you are only helping it see the light of day! They have until November 23rd to make their goal so head over to Kickstarter and see what it’s all about.

I’ve made my pledge and plan on giving away a couple of copies through some sort of contest here once the game is released. If you pledge to the Kickstarter project and enter my content when it happens you’ll get a second entry! That’s right, your single pledge could get you two copies of Eminent Domain! With a deal like that you are losing money by not pledging.

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!

Interview at Grinding to Valhalla

For those that may be interested, Randolph Carter over at Grinding to Valhalla just posted an interview with me. He’s been doing interviews with folks in and around the video game industry (particularly MMOs) for a couple of years now and has a very extensive set of interviews on the site. Lately he’s started to make a shift towards cardboard and as part of his adventure has started branching his reviews out to the world of board gaming.

Many thanks to Randolph for the opportunity. If you have some time I highly recommend looking through his catalog of interviews, there’s some great stuff in there!

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.