Monday, June 30, 2008

General Gaming Rant - Biting the Hand That Feeds Me

I have a theory that I like to call the 80% rule. The theory is, 80% of everything is crap. Pick any sample group, and 80% is worthless. It's not a hard and fast rule - I would say that more than 80% of humans are worthless, but less than 80% of workers in overseas relief charities are time-sucking wastes of space. But the general rule applies - for any random sampling of anything, most of it sucks.

That rule applies to board games, too. Specifically, it applies to publishers. I have many complaints about the people who make games, and while not every complaint applies to every publisher, I tend to think there are more companies that suck than don't.

My first general complaint is probably the most obvious - crappy games. Seriously, why don't these people run these games through some testing? Ask some gamers, for crying out loud. You know, some easy questionnaires, with questions like:

Should we make a game with really boring art and practically no rules?
Should we make this game that is all luck and has no real purpose?
Should we make the figures for this miniatures game twice the size of every other miniature you could buy?

They could ask me. I would tell them. Where are the testers for these things? It's like on American Idol, where the worst singers in the world audition and then leave crying, saying how the three industry professionals who have been in music for decades don't know anything about music. Someone, somewhere should have said, 'no, Emma Jean, don't go on American Idol. You suck. Stick with macramé.' But even if someone had been honest enough to tell poor Emma Jean that she sounds like a dying meerkat, she would have gone on the show anyway. Which is great for me - I love to laugh at the freak show. But it's not so great for publishers, who end up making crap because their mothers told them they were handsome games.

Of course, part of the reason these publishers make crappy games is that the market is so small. New games make most of their money in the first few months, so every month or so, a game company is going to need a new game to sell. If you look at some of the really big companies, they publish, on average, one new game a month. Without a lot of foresight and some really rigorous testing, that means some crap is going to get squeezed out (yeah, that slightly gross bit of wordplay was intentional).

But I'm not particularly sympathetic to the rush-to-publish problem. You don't have to release a game before it's ready, and it's not like the FBI will raid your office if you decide that a game sucks and pull the plug on it. There are some really obvious examples out there of games that were destined to fail before they ever printed up a copy of the rules, and just slowing down might do a world of good. Focus on quality over quantity, and make gamers trust you. If you get bad reviews and sales in the toilet, you've got nobody to blame but yourself.

Another problem I see in publishers is small minds. Everyone plays games, and if game companies would admit that they have a market beyond the cave-nerd who dresses up as Gandalf for GenCon, they could sell their games in Target and make millions. It's nearly impossible to find someone who hasn't played Monopoly, or who doesn't know the rules to at least three different card games. Gamers are out there, and assuming that the public at large is not a viable target audience is a good way to make sure you never get any bigger.

Not every company suffers from this problem, of course. Hasbro and Out of the Box are two that spring to mind - their games are on the shelves at Wal-Mart and Toys R Us, making them far more successful and frankly, the giants in the industry (well, not Out of the Box, but they are pretty damned huge). I'm not saying I don't want to see hobby games at specialty stores - you can't really sell AT-43 at K-Mart (you don't want to scare Martha Stewart, or she'll shiv you) - but most Euro games could draw consumers like flies on turds if they were on the shelves at your local megamart.

And speaking of small minds, allow me to lodge a personal complaint - failure to take advantage of media outlets. By which I mean 'not enough review copies', which is obviously a self-serving complaint, but I maintain it is still accurate. There are big companies out there who never, ever send games to online reviewers. Well, let me tell you something - when Wolf Blitzer has a blog, the Internet is a big player. Not to ruin your world scheme, Mister Small-Time Publisher, but if people don't read about your games on the ol' Interweb, they may not read about them at all. I'm not suggesting you send free games to every yahoo who ever started a gaming blog, but it's not hard to tell which reviewers are going to be worth the postage. I think when a reviewer has more than 50 reviews under his belt, he may just know what he's doing.

And while I'm nitpicking about review copies, let me just say that giving a reviewer a free game does not mean he's obligated to say nice things about it. If your game sucks and a reviewer tells you so, you should be glad he bothered to write about it at all. Lots of publishers get this, but way too many don't. Say something honest about a horrible game, and a publisher will cut you off so fast your head spins. Now THAT is small-minded.

My final complaint dovetails into the small minded complaint, and has to do with poor accessibility. Part of the reason the market is so small is because these friggin' games are hard to play. Battlelore is an awesome game, but the rules are 80 pages long! You'll never get a casual gamer to read a tome that thick! But they'll play Stratego, because the rules can be printed on the inside of the box lid. The desire to play is there, but most people don't want to wade through a dissertation to try a game.

And the themes don't help, either. Monopoly has the easiest theme ever - Wall Street. So why, when a game could have rules just as easy to follow, would you make the theme ancient Egyptian tea gardens? Again, I'm not saying I want these rules applied across the board, but it might be nice if publishers started assuming that normal people might want to give these games a shot. I can look around my office and see dozens of games that could have been marketed to a bigger crowd, if they had just done different art and a different theme. Sure, your game might appeal better to the pimply nerd if it has dragons and vampires, but you might be able to sell it at Target if you could tone it down a little.

I guess, all things considered, publishers do the best they can. I think they make bad decisions just as often as anyone else, and they tend to assume they're part of a teeny tiny market when they're the only ones who could change it, but they do make games. And without them, I would have to write about the exciting world of corrugated recycling, so I probably shouldn't complain too loudly. Not that self preservation has ever stopped me from speaking my mind.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wii Game Review - We Ski

Way down deep inside, I'm just a child. I mean, outside making childish jokes about body parts and bathroom habits, I'm just a big ol' kid (but with gray hair and a bald spot). I try to deny it whenever possible, by drinking dark beer and playing games where I get to kill things.

So when my wife bought Wii Fit and We Ski, I turned up my nose. They were far too silly and childish for me. She can do the hula hoop exercise, and try to float down the river in a rainbow bubble - I'll stick with blasting aliens until their arms come off, and then stomping a mudhole in their green-blooded corpses.

And then she started playing We Ski. Passing through the living room on my way to wrestle a grizzly and chew a bicycle in half, I saw her laughing and waving around those goofy controllers and genuinely having fun. And my inner kid decided to give the grizzly a break. Instead I picked up a pair of those ridiculous wand controllers and jumped in on the action.

It took about two minutes to be totally hooked. I gave my Mii a cool ski jacket and bitchin' skis, and then raced some loser down the mountain with my wife right behind me. Then we skied some slaloms, then moguls, then I went off a ramp and did a back flip in the air.

Yeah, that's right - I flipped over in the air. On later runs, I did a bunch of other silly stunts, too. It was awesome. Even when I hit the ground on one ski, slid sideways into an embankment and went down the rest of the hill on my face, I was having a blast.

And those few competitions were just the very tip of the snow-covered mountain. The enormous free ski mode lets you explore this gigantic mountain with nine different runs, varying in difficulty from really easy to prepare-to-meet-your-maker. One run might be a winding, twisting path through the forest, another is iced over and scary fast, and yet another has moguls and jumps and terrifyingly steep slopes. Each run requires a different set of skills - one will see you attempting crazy flying stunts, while another has you tucking your poles under your arms and crouching as you hurtle downward, hell-bent for leather.

And the mountain is alive. Well, not really - there are no animals, and it's not like the hills actually have eyes. But there are fellow skiers all over the slopes, and they'll challenge you to races or stunt contests or tests of skill. Some people want you to find stuff for them. Others want to take your picture. Still others are just really stupid, and run into you no matter how hard you try to ski away from them, making me wish there was a hack that let me whip out an Uzi and plug their sorry asses for ruining my score.

At times, We Ski is really irritating. Sometimes it doesn't feel like the controls respond as quickly as you might like (my biggest problem with Wii games in general, actually). Sometimes you'll have a perfect run, and then some asshole will ski right into and send you tumbling. And sometimes, it'll just be kind of dull, as you wander between ski runs, looking for the elusive ice cave or the bell on top of the mountain.

The biggest disappointment is the Wii Fit balance board. My wife does so much stuff with Wii Fit that I know that board can do a lot. But all you do when you ski on it is lean left or right to steer. You can't even brake by leaning back or speed up by leaning forward. The board can be used for a lot more, but We Ski is actually easier to play without it, meaning that you could buy the game and enjoy it even without having Wii Fit.

So it's not Grand Theft Auto. So you'll probably get bored after a month or so. It's still a hell of a lot of fun, and you can release your inner eight-year-old for a while and just enjoy the slopes. If Tony Hawk does a skating game for that crazy Wii board... well, if they do, I hope it's twice this good, but even if it's not, I'll play the crap out of it. Because when a game makes me forget that I've got clients waiting, and a mortgage, and deadlines and bills and chores and errands and just throw myself down a mountain, it's worth every penny and then some.


Easy to learn control scheme that will take a while to master
The whole mountain is available right from the start
Lots of unlockables and customizables (neither of those is actually a word, kids - don't use them in your term papers)
Relaxing and fun and slightly addicting

Not much point to the Wii Fit balance board
Can get slow
No guns, axes, chainsaws or bazookas, but plenty of people you may want to kill

We Ski has me enjoying more time with my wife than I have for a long time. I suggest you run right out and get it. You can get it here:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Crappy Game Review - Mutant Chronicles CMG

Here's a hypothetical:

You're in a bar. You're talking with a very hot woman, who you're pretty sure is about to invite you back to her place, where you can meet her extremely open-minded female roommate. So far, so good, right? You're thinking the worst that could happen is, she could be saving herself for marriage. Well, you're wrong. You're in for a disappointment much bigger than that - she's a dude.

In the past, I've compared games I didn't like to boogers, poop and prison sex. Now I can add surprise transvestites to the mix, because the Mutant Chronicles CMG could only have been more disappointing if the miniatures all wore short skirts that let you see their hanging johnsons.

When the word first hit that we were going to get a pre-painted Mutant Chronicles game, I was giddy. The game could suck, and I would still buy it by the bucketload, because the minis almost had to be awesome. Even if I didn't want to play, I could use them in other stuff. I could use them in sci-fi RPGs, or other minis games, or put new bases on them and turn them into Heroscape customs. Boy, I couldn't wait to see these minis.

For those who don't know, Mutant Chronicles is one of the coolest science fantasy/alternate future franchises in gaming. I don't even know the whole background, but I know there are cool demons and cybernetic heroes and four-legged horsey monsters with giant weapons. The awesome factor is off the chart. The old classic, Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel, is a decent game, but the miniatures are outstanding. Then there was Warzone, the Mutant Chronicles miniatures game, with tons of great figures. But now we were going to get new figures, and we wouldn't even have to paint them! I almost wet my pants when I first heard that Fantasy Flight was going to give us this awesome game.

And then the news came - the game was a lesbian. No, even worse, the miniatures were supposed to be 54mm. That's insane, kids - I have action figures smaller than that. Sure, miniatures games are basically toys with rules, but these would be the only 54mm figures in my collection (assuming I bothered to get any), so they wouldn't work with all my other miniatures. The idea of buying huge lots of the figures even if the game sucked - that's out. Now the only way I'm interested is if the game is fun. And even then, I'll buy the base game and play it with Warzone figures.

So then I played the game. Turns out, the game is gay, but not because it has a thing for girls. The game is gay because it has a thing for men. Sure, the game looks great in a tight skirt and halter top, but drop that thong, and you're about to have yourself a Crying Game moment. Not only are the figures humongous, but the game is total ass.

It seems like it has promise, at first. The starter includes all the cards for all the figures, so it should be easy to sub in other minis (of course, the ones you bought are useless for that, because they're FREAKING GIGANTIC). And the dice mechanics are similar to Descent or Doom, with numbers and explosions on the dice, and different colored dice, so that you can get range and damage in one roll. That's handy - but it's implemented horribly.

First off, the game is incredibly unbalanced. The demons are overpowered, big-time. They have more life, more dice, better dice, and more deadly abilities. The humans suck, but they cost just as much.

And even if you can figure out how to build a human army that's more than cannon fodder, the game itself is boring. These ludicrously large figures don't allow me to use my miniature terrain (all built to accommodate 25-30mm figures), and besides, you have to play on a flat hex map. So you can't build a fire base on a hill, or a blasted factory, or anything else. You have to use their crappy, ugly map, because the figures all have to stay on their hexes. At least with Heroscape (which also plays out on a hex map), you can make just about anything you want.

Finally, the rules blow. They're not interesting at all. There's promise, but there are weird order marker rules and goofy initiative (for instance, if you win initiative at the beginning of the game, you've got it the whole game). You can put a guy on guard - but then he either quits guarding at the end of the turn (stupid if you're the last guy to move) or he doesn't get a turn next time, making guarding any time a pretty lame proposition.

And don't get me started on the pricing. The base game goes for thirty bucks, and you get six figures. That's five bucks each, not counting the game (and there's no reason to count the game, because it sucks). Then the boosters are twenty smackers, and they each have four figures. Five clams per miniature is insane.

And finally, allow me to address the entire reason FFG gave us for making these figures the size of my old Star Wars action figures - detail. These are supposed to be wicked detailed and beautifully painted. Well, they're not. I've got 28mm figures with more detail, and the paint jobs are awful. In some places, the dry brush is so bad, it looks like it was applied by slapping it with the unwanted part you found on that not-exactly-a-girl.

The end result is a game that at first had all the appeal of one of those drunk chicks from Girls Gone Wild, and then wound up with an Adam's apple and hair on her chest (not to mention the bait and tackle in her pants).

I wish I could have been in the strategy session when they decided to make stupid big figures. It seems like the idea had to come from someone who has never played a miniatures game. Some marketing goofball, probably, said, 'hey! Let's make 'em as big as those old-school GI Joes my neighbor used to have (but not me, I only had educational toys)!'

Fantasy Flight couldn't have done a better job of making me not want anything to do with the Mutant Chronicles CMG, and my wallet is better off for it, so I suppose I should thank them for saving me hundreds of dollars. My psyche, on the other hand, may never recover from finding a sausage where I was expecting a pie.


The entire game is included in the base box, including all the cards
Interesting dice mechanic

Odd, nonsensical rules
No ability to customize the map
Obvious and confusing errors in the rulebook
Horrid paint jobs are only made more evident by the elephantine figures
Way too expensive
Has a penis

If you really love this game, you might also get a kick out of this guy:

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Board Game Review - Return of the Heroes

It's hard to find good heroes any more. Why, in my day, we had to kill dragons with fireplace pokers and then carry the damsels off on our backs while we ran away from black knights. These kids today - they don't know how good they have it.

Take these pansies in Return of the Heroes. Sure, it's a German game, but still, they could show a little backbone. They just wander around the countryside, getting stupid missions like 'visit another hero's house' or 'buy a staff and take it to the boat' or 'take this little girl to the potty.' Makes me sick! I remember having to kill fifty giants with just a jock strap and a rubber flotation device.

And every hero gets a heroic quest. Bah! Their heroic quests are for sissy boys! One hero has to buy candles, for crying out loud! Another one has to feed honey to a bear! Not like when I was a young hero - we had to wade hip-deep through the Swamp of Endless Despair, fight the Black Demon of Doom, and then steal the virginity from a dozen white priestesses, all before the sun went down!

But then, our quests had some rewards. Why, after I rescued the princess from the steam-belching, dog-faced lizard-eater, the king gave me half the kingdom and a week stay at his private harem in Dubai. But what do these pathetic heroes get if they can escort Bambi to his home in the glade? Wood cubes and a gold coin! And if they finish their heroic quests, they get a precious stone. Precious stone, my ass - I've passed bigger kidney stones than what these candy-ass kids get for finding Juan's Relic or the Signet Ring.

Those wood cubes get these whippersnapper heroes a little experience, but if you want some real experience, try storming the frozen mountain wearing a loincloth and a Kermit the Frog mask. We had to do that! Uphill, in the snow, both ways! Now that's how you toughen a man up! Wooden cubes! Ha! In my day, we wiped our asses with wood cubes! The more splinters, the better!

The problem is, giving these upstart heroes everything easy doesn't do them any favors. Why, I had to endure the endless doorbell rings of the geriatric mailman for three days, and if these punks think they can handle that, well, let me tell you, beating up a big frog just doesn't prepare you for the real bad guys.

I mean, just because the heroes are panty-waisted girly-men, doesn't mean the bad guys get any nicer. That nameless villain who darkens the whole country isn't going to sit in his castle and send these damned kids love letters. No, as soon as one of them gets one of those silly precious stones, he starts sending out servants, all over the place, so that after a while, you can't piss up a tree without hitting a blood-thirsty assassin. And let me tell you, a piss-soaked assassin is not going to be very happy.

I weep for the fate of the world when these fancy-pants heroes, whose exploits till now have been delivering boots and killing bees, have to face that nameless villain. Sure, their precious stones let them face off against one of the guardians of the dark castle, but all that prancing about punching wolves and delivering gold bowling balls doesn't mean you're ready to deal with a real bad guy. They'll need real gear, man's gear, the kind we had when we were heroes. Why, I had a sword so big, I could put up a sail and use it for a boat!

And so what if they get past the guard? That bad guy isn't going to kill himself, you know. These heroes aren't even going to know what they're fighting until they get there, and it could be anyone - the black knight, the warlock, the six-armed goddess - and you better believe those bruisers are ready to scrap. Sure, in my day, we scraped the mud off our boots on guys like the deep one, but these punk kids aren't going to learn how to kill a demon by selling candy to girl scouts.

Bah. In my day, we fought the villains with spatulas and rubber dog crap, and then we screwed all the nuns and rode off on the gold thrones. That's the way it was, and that's the way we liked it!


Great adventure game that plays different every time
Easy combat, but still deadly
Ignore the old man, this is a really fun game

Lots of really cheesy CGI art
Some really stupid missions
Nearly impossible to find

I thoroughly enjoy playing Return of the Heroes, even if I do wind up with the quest where I have to kill the giant frog to steal his golden volleyball. Sadly, the game is really hard to find. This is the only place I could find online to buy a copy:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Board Game Review - Bootleggers

Gangster movies are awesome. And the best gangster movies are the ones about old-school gangsters like Capone (Untouchables was awesome - one of the few times Kevin Costner didn't make me wish he could act). So it stands to reason that a game where you get to be a gangster during prohibition just has to be good.

I was really lucky to get in good with Eagle Games when they were still a going concern, and Bootleggers was one of the first games they sent me (another was Blood Feud in New York, which was horrible despite being a gangster game). And since receiving Bootleggers, I've played it dozens of times, which is more than I can say for 90% of the games in my overcrowded office.

Bootleggers is a really cool mix of Euro and Ameritrash. You've got that Euro thing where you just wish you had one more thing you could do, and you set that against a kick-ass theme and a penchant for violent crime. There's not a whole lot of luck, but there's enough to give you a shot if you just suck at the game, and at the same time, there are moderating factors for the luck. For instance, if you roll really well and get to make a buttload of whiskey, the next turn, the copper comes to your still and smashes up all your profits. I'm pretty sure that happened to my uncle, only he wasn't making whiskey, and the guys who smashed up his garage were just junkies who stole his lawnmower. So never mind, that might not apply.

I'm not going to go far into the nuts and bolts of the game. God knows the game has been reviewed enough - if you want to know how it all works, go read one of the countless bland reviews posted by people who are literate, but really dull. I prefer to be interesting and illiterate. It's worked out so far (odds are, this one is going to be both illiterate and dull. That's what I get for not starting the review until 2 in the morning).

But I will tell you some of the coolest things about the game, like the influence markers - you use these to track how much control you have over the speakeasies in the game, which is, you know, fine, but then they're awesome because they're actually little gangsters with tommy guns and violin cases. And the little trucks you use to show where you're parking your whiskey actually have these flat beds that will hold the little wooden whiskey crates. These things are not necessary - they could have been cardboard counters or plastic sliders - but they sure are cool.

Another cool thing is the way you figure out who goes first. Having first crack at the new gangster recruits, still improvements, and trucks is key to winning the game - but it's not going to happen all the time. You don't roll a d20 and check for initiative (not that there's anything wrong with that). Instead, you hire some muscle, and the more you pay for it, the more you'll get. Only since the muscle is hired by playing from a limited hand of cards, if you blow your high cards early on, you'll be left with scraps and leftovers by the end of the game. It's important to time your big muscle purchases, and even then you can get into a gang war with another player and lose, even after you've hired every two-bit thug and gun-toting hoodlum on the street. I hear the same thing happens at the Irish Festival every year, but I haven't been in years. That might just have been me and the Guinness.

The game tends to build to the end, and while it is more fun than a jug of white lightning, it's usually fairly obvious by the end whether you have a shot at winning. A slow start won't cripple you, but it sure doesn't hurt to come on strong right out of the gates. You'll need timing, forethought, and just a little luck to win, but once you get far enough ahead of the pack, you probably have it all sewn up.

Bootleggers is a party favorite. I've been to at least three different parties where we played this wacky gangster throw-down. The rules take a little explaining, but once you get going, it makes sense and is really easy to play. And any game where you can hire a girl to distract an opponent, bang him and take all his money is good in my book. In fact, any time you can hire a girl to have sex and steal money is great, whether it's a game or not.


Great mix of play mechanics
Incredibly awesome theme
Tons of fun
Really awesome components

Hard to recover - when you get into last place, you tend to stay there

Bootleggers is clever and fun with a wicked theme and little plastic mobsters. If you want to try it yourself, Funagain has it damned cheap:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Board Game Review - Succession

Board gaming is one hell of an unfair market. Hundreds of games get made every year. One or two always come out swinging and do really well, bunches more hang in there and turn a profit, and some get completely forgotten. And to make matters worse, some of those really hot games suck like the vacuum of space, and some of those that get forgotten are wicked awesome.

Take, for instance, Succession, from Your Move Games. This is a ridiculously fun game full of deal-making and back-stabbing, and yet almost nobody has ever heard of it. That's a damned shame, because if you break this out at a game night, your friends will love the game, and if you play it well, they will be hiding your body in the desert (which, now that I think of it, may not be a point in the game's favor).

In Succession, the king is about to die, and he's about to name an heir. The problem is, there's no chance it'll be you. You're just some scrubby hanger-on. But all is not lost - if you can get the next heir to like you the most, you'll be in a position of power that will let you get away with doing stuff like hiding fire ants in your enemies' underwear drawers or lighting bags of dog poop on their front porches (if there's a use for power that's better than making other people miserable, I don't want to know about it).

But the trick is, everyone at the table is trying to beat you to the punch. The squire is a big favorite with Galahad, the king's knight, the royalist is in good graces with both the king's son and his daughter, and the tax collector is cozied up to Archie, the bishop. So your character has two jobs - choose a candidate and become his favorite ass-kisser, and then get that candidate to become king.

Neither is an easy job, because while you're out sending flowers to the king and putting the merchant queen's name on the card, someone else is trying to sneak aphids into the bouquet. And if they do succeed in screwing up your grand gesture, they may even wind up taking the credit for sending the flowers in the first place!

The politics of Succession is played out in intrigues and votes. Players take turn starting intrigues, like hiring bards to sing songs about senile kings and then beating the crap out of the bards for offending the senile king. Candidates for the throne will have their standing with the king rise or fall, and the candidates will, in turn, give blame or credit for the intrigues to the players. The truth is completely irrelevant here. You might actually hire the bard in Ulysses's name, blame him for the bad song, and credit Archie for beating the piss out of him, without either candidate having even been in the country when the concert happened. And then you can spin it so that Ulysses blames one of your rivals for getting him in dutch, and Archie thanks you for working out the whole deal, whether you did anything or not.

It gets a little confusing, and may take a couple rounds to work out all the rules, but pretty soon you'll be making underhanded deals and selling your friends down the river. You'll steal credit for plans in which you never had a hand, then blame someone else for things you did. You'll lie, you'll cheat, you'll steal, and if you do it all really well, you'll win.

And then your friends will be hiding your body (hopefully that doesn't bother you too much).

My son and daughter love this game, and invented a new term for how they intended to pay me back for repeatedly cheating them out of successful endeavors - weasel-poo. Don't ask what that means, I just know that my daughter has made it very clear that she owes me one million weasel-poo. I figure I'll be paying back that debt when she's in high school and I keep having to tell her, 'you're not leaving this house wearing that!'

My wife, on the other hand, hates this game. She absolutely refuses to play it. That's something to keep in mind - not everyone is cold-hearted and devious enough to enjoy Succession. It requires the ability to detach the part of you that helps old ladies collect their social security checks from the part of you that steals the money after the checks are cashed.

So as much as I love Succession, it comes with a warning, something like, 'DO NOT PLAY IF YOU CAN'T LAUGH AT THE SPECIAL OLYMPICS.' If you're too nice, you'll just wind up with hurt feelings. But if you can put aside your instinct for hugging baby kittens and volunteering with the mentally handicapped, you can have a grand ol' time.


Great political maneuvering
Intense deal-making
Great art by Studio Foglio (they do Girl Genius, and they rock)

Not for people burdened by things like conscience and sense of fair play
Components leave a little to be desired

If you like a little good-natured blood-letting among friends, you can get a copy of Succession right here:

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Party Game Review - Ca$h N Gun$: Yakuza

The heist had gone better than anyone had hoped. Tino and Igor had cased the joint, the Yakuza had neutralized the guards, and Mr. Black and Huggy had helped them all get away clean. But it all went to hell when they got back to the safe house, and now Mr. Black found himself staring down not just one, but two steel swords, while his partner Huggy held a gun on Tino, who was trying to cover half the room with his sawed-off shotgun.

Black chickened out and take cover. He dropped under the table just as all hell broke loose. The two sword-swinging dames ended up stabbing each other, Huggy put a bullet in Tino and Igor shot Huggy right in the leg. The bodies hit the floor around Black, and the two thugs still standing started divvying up the pile of loot that was scattered all over the table, still warily covering each other with throwing star and automatic.

"Dangit," thought Black. "I wasted a Bang! Bang! Bang!"

If you've played Ca$h N Gun$, that scene might be a little familiar. All we're missing is the Mexican bandito and the martini-swilling Asian chick. But then, Ca$h N Gun$ never had swords before, and there's no way you trusted anyone enough to have partners before now.

Yakuza changes all that. What was a hilariously awesome but randomly chaotic party game is transformed into the ultimate gun-toting, bullet-slinging, loot-grabbing bonanza. If you can put together at least six people (and up to nine!), you can't have a lot more fun than you will playing Ca$h N Gun$: Yakuza. In fact, if you announce that you'll be playing Yakuza at your party, that might be a better draw than free beer. Unless your friends are drunks, in which case you should tell them there's free beer and Yakuza. Your friends will swarm your house like ants on a picnic.

Now, don't bother buying Yakuza by itself. It's an expansion, and you have to have the original, or all you've got is a box of cards and foam weapons. While that is exceptionally cool, there's not a whole lot you can do with that. But add those foam swords, shuriken and a shotgun to the six foam pistols and pile of ill-gotten gain from the original Ca$h N Gun$, and now you've got a game that will make people remember your party when they're old enough to need prune juice and a colostomy bag.

When you play Yakuza, you're no longer on your own. Now you've got at least one partner, and if you have enough players, you have two. You set up ahead of time and work out signals for who to shoot, and whether to use blanks, and if you're planning on dropping out. You'll casually switch your gun to your right, throw a subtle finger sign to your partner, and on three, both of you prepare to gun down an enemy at the same time. It works great, and this game has never been more fun.

And the contents of the new box make the game absolutely hilarious. Yakuza don't have guns - there's just no class in noisy pistols. Instead, they tote swords, but now they can only threaten people sitting next to them. But they also each get a shuriken, which they can use to wound anyone at the table, even changing their mind after they see who drops out. And the original cast of goofy gangsters isn't left out in the cold, because now you get a double-barreled sawed-off shotgun, which only the old-school thugs can tote, but which can menace two guys at the same time.

The body count tends to be a lot higher in Yakuza. And if you like games where you shoot people and take their stuff, a game where you kill five of your closest friends should be a pretty obvious choice. It takes about a half hour to finish a game, but that'll be half an hour you'll enjoy more than you would if you were sitting around swapping coal for sheep or invading Urkutsk.

Every now and then, I really rave about how much I like a game. It happens enough, however, that I fear I may have diluted the effect when I tell you that you should get up, right now, and go get a copy of Yakuza. And if you don't have the original Ca$h N Gun$, you'll need that, too. I can't think of a game that's more chaotic fun than Ca$h N Gun$: Yakuza, and if I had some way to spend your money for you, I would have the game coming to your house (or apartment, or basement) right now.

Seriously. Get this game.


Takes an awesome game and turns it up to 11
Foam swords, foam shuriken, and a foam shotgun
Adds a lot of strategy to Ca$h N Gun$
Makes my favorite party game into an even better party game

There are no cons, and if someone tells you there are, you should stick a foam pistol in their belly and 'persuade' them otherwise

If you don't buy a copy of Ca$h N Gun$: Yakuza, scary Japanese mobsters will come to your house and stab you with foam weapons. Save yourself. Go here and get a copy:

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bad Game Review - Temple

If you're a regular Drake's Flames reader, you've seen me go on at length about how great the games are that come out of Small Box Games. Dirge, Elemental Rift and Politico are really cool games, and they deserve every bit of praise I ever gave them.

But you kind of have to take my praise with a grain of salt, because I don't make any secret that the guy who makes the game, John Clowdus, is my friend. And you can't give your friends bad reviews, right?

Well, I'm really sorry, John, but yeah, I can. I don't want to at all. I want John to make nothing but brilliant pearls of games that make me want to quit every other game just to play Small Box games. But nobody knocks every pitch out of the park - just sniff around any big game company, and you'll be able to find some stinkers. John has made four games in less than a year, and three out of four, to quote my good friend Meatloaf, ain't bad.

The game I'm about to beat down like an ill-behaved teenager is called Temple. It's classic Small Box - great wood pieces, cloth map, neat cards, all in a nice, compact box. But where it falls apart is when you actually break it out and play it.

I tried this game several times. I tried it with just my wife, and we both finished and looked at each other and said, 'uh, where's the game?' So I figured maybe it was better with four, and tried again. And again, we finished up with the feeling like we had been expecting vodka and got dishwater. After the third play (we played the alternate rules this time), we just felt like Temple was like day-old popcorn with no butter or salt - it looks like it should be good, but ends up being empty and bland.

The premise seems like it should be interesting. You wander around a temple, trying to curry favor with the ancient South American gods by making sacrifices or dodging curses. Only there's just not much to do, and it seems like the winner is made by a completely arbitrary set of conditions over which you have virtually no control. Movement is dictated almost entirely by where you start your turn and what cards you're holding, so it's rare to have an opportunity to make a tough decision.

If it was put together differently, Temple could have promise. Part of the problem may have been the theme. If the theme had been deliberately aimed at kids, I would have thought it was pretty darn cool. If you wander around a magical land trying to buy magical fruit, and the art was all cutesy and kiddie, this might have worked. As a game for children, Temple shows promise. For nearly any discerning gamer, Temple will be painfully boring, and you may not want to try to get kids to enjoy a game where you make sacrifices to Mayan deities. If they were mall shopping, that might work, because it would change the target market.

I really hate to have to pan a game from Small Box Games, and not just because John is a friend. He's making a really great run at a really tough gig in a painfully competitive field, and he's doing damned well. Dirge sold out in less than two weeks, because it's a great game and people are figuring out that Small Box Games kicks ass. John's games show integrity, and the materials he uses show that he loves making games, and wants his fans to enjoy them as much as he loves making them.

But if I were to give Temple a good review, it would compromise the entire reason I started Drake's Flames in the first place - to have the chance to be perfectly honest about the games I play, and not cater to publishers, or readers, or editors. I love skewering a bad game from a big publisher and roasting it over an open fire. I love being able to break loose and compare games to snot, or poop, or prison sex. If I start lying about whether or not I like a game, I may as well quit writing and start selling lemons at CarMax.

So if you can find Politico, Elemental Rift and Dirge, you should buy them. And you should not buy Temple. Just don't tell John I said that.


The same high-quality, built-with-love components you see in the rest of Small Box games
Interesting theme

Not very much game here

If you really think you need this game, here's the perfect food to go with it:

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Puzzle Game Review - Zen Benders

I'm often kind of hard on Out of the Box Publishing. Too many of their games look like they hire their graphic designers straight from podiatry school, and the games are often so simplified that they don't even need rules. So it's nice when I get something from them that I can say, 'hey, that's cool!'

Zen Benders are cool, and I appreciate that. Not only do I like the fact that they're pretty cool little puzzle games, but I'm happy with the fact that I don't have to compare their prospective audience with retarded children scooping paste out of a bucket with dirty fingers and shoveling it into their drooling gobs.

The best way to describe a Zen Bender is to remind you of those little sliding puzzles you used to get when you were a kid, where there's a grid of little squares and you slide them around until they make a picture. I used to love doing those little puzzles. If they made them with naked women on them, I would do them now. Sadly, they mostly depict bunnies and kittens and other stuff that's not really that interesting to an adult - at least, not one who appreciates boobs and whiskey more than puppies and wildflowers.

Zen Benders don't have naked women on them, either, but I can see past that deficiency. What they have are nine cubes in a little tray, with different images on each side of each cube. Unlike those old sliding puzzles, where you had exactly one image you could make, these let you make a whole bunch of pictures. The pictures are things like a really long wiener dog, or a race track, or a dragon. And you take a picture out of the bottom of the compartment and slide and turn the cubes until the image matches.

The rules are still really simple, but the execution is what's brilliant. Some pictures have almost nothing but blank spots, and maybe three sides that make a picture when they're together, and those are easy. And then some don't have blank spots at all, and every cube has to be showing a different side, and those can be pretty tricky.

These are more addictive than heroin for the first couple days that you have one. I actually lost sleep solving all the cards on the race track Zen Bender, and then happily went plowing through the rest of them. Of course, I have kind of a compulsive personality when it comes to puzzles - being a young nerd meant I had more puzzle books than friends - and if you're not as fascinated by a good puzzle, you may think I'm insane for not being able to put these down.

But if you do love a fun puzzle, you should pick up a Zen Bender or two. If you're a hardcore and want to sweat a little, the race track Zen Bender is the toughest of the batch. If you're a candy-ass when it comes to puzzles, start with the wiener dog. You can give them to your kids for long car rides, and then maybe they'll go half an hour without trying to stick writing implements in each other's ears.

Ultimately, you'll probably burn out on the little puzzles. If I had one suggestion for Zen Benders, it would be to make them harder. By the time I was finishing the really hard puzzles on the race track, I had figured out the pattern and could solve any puzzle, easy or hard, in about a minute. It wouldn't be hard to ratchet up the difficulty - just make more diverse cubes, which would let you make more interesting pictures, and make you work a little more trying to put them together.

But then, you can get one of these wonderful little puzzles for like eight bucks, depending on where you shop, so if you do get tired of one after four or five hours, it's still cheaper than a prostitute, and lasts longer, too. And to get even more mileage out of your Zen Benders, Out of the Box has free downloads for more challenge cards, and if you're really looking to stretch that eight dollar investment, it's not hard to make your own challenges.

Pick one up, is all I'm saying, and see if you can even put it down before it's time for dinner.


Incredibly clever puzzle game
Very high-quality materials and design
Awesome packaging
Fun diversion

Gets easy too fast
Not enough diversity

If you like clever little puzzles, you should get some Zen Benders:

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Card Game Review - Mu and Lots More

I despise the umlaut. That's the little widget that puts two dots on top of a letter 'u'. Unfortunately, the umlaut is pretty popular in Germany, so popular, in fact, that they include the little bastard in their alphabet.

I don't have rational reasons for hating the umlaut. It's more like when a person really can't stand asparagus or collared greens. I guess if I thought about it, I would say that I hate the umlaut for two reasons. First, I don't know how you pronounce it. And second, I don't have one on my keyboard, so if I actually want to type the umlaut with a couple dots on it, I have to go to a considerable amount of trouble (one of the few times I wish I wrote this site from a Macintosh). But rational or not, I dislike the umlaut enough that I sometimes swap it out for curse words.

I got a game from Rio Grande that's called Mu and Lots More. It's actually four games in one, all with odd names (unless you're from Germany), and one of them has one of those hell-inspired umlauts. Since I'm not going to a ludicrous amount of trouble just to include the umlaut in this review, you have two options. You can either imagine that the 'u' in 'Mu' has two dots on top of it, or you can mark on your monitor with a pen and write them in yourself. Personally, I would choose the first option, but that's up to you.

All four games in this box are card games. Specifically, they're trick-taking games. If you've ever played Spades, Hearts or 500, you're familiar with trick-taking games. In case you've grown up in a cave, I'll explain the theory.

Everyone has an equal number of cards (usually their share of all the cards in the deck). One person opens, or plays a card face up. If you have a card in that suit, you have to play it, and if you don't, you can play something else (like trump cards, which beat suit cards, unless the suit is trump. Card games have weird terminology.) For the record, I suck ten kinds of umlaut at trick-taking games, especially against my wife, who is to trick-taking games what Amarillo Slim is to poker. But I still like to play games with my wife, even when I get my head handed to me, so I play trick-taking games regularly.

These four games all start with trick-taking, but they use customized decks built from the 160 cards in the box (no game uses all the cards), and then they get crazy. Like in Njet, where you get your hand, and then you take turns blocking out spots to decide what will be trump, and supertrump, and how many points each trick is worth, and other stuff. This lets you turn a horrible hand into a brilliant hand, or if you're me, it lets you turn a great hand into a stinking umlaut of a hand.

The other games are just as wacky. Was Sticht (yeah, all the games are hard to pronounce) doesn't even bother keeping score - you just have particular tasks, like picking up the last trick or taking no tricks or whatever, and you have to complete yours before your opponents complete theirs. In case you're curious, my wife beats the umlaut out of me at this game, too.

In Meinz, you're limited to taking only two tricks per hand, so you have to time your play to take the best tricks at the best time. And it's called Meinz because if you really want a trick, you can just holler, 'Meinz!' and then it's yours. Also, when you holler 'Meinz!', French resistance fighters will come and punch you in the umlaut.

The title game, Mu (insert your own umlaut, should you so desire) is the most complex. In this one, you bid your cards to decide who is the chief and who is the vice, then you can play some of those cards that you bid, or not, and there might be two kinds of trump, and there are other rules complicated enough that they are confusing as umlaut.

Now, I may not be a fan of the umlaut, but I really like three of the four games in this box. They remove a lot of the luck from cards - you can't complain as much about having a bad hand, because more than any other card game I've played, what you have matters less than how you play it. I don't like Mu because, on top of having an umlaut in the name, I can't figure out how to play it. I know that's pathetic, but we tried and failed to play Mu, and so I'm out.

But don't let the confusion of Mu stop you from buying this box of card games. For one thing, you may be able to figure out the game and end up liking it a lot - I can't say, you may be smarter than me. For another, the other three games are awesome, and really favor the good player over the lucky player (which means I am umlaut out of luck every time). If you like to play cards, pick up Mu and Lots More. You'll be glad you did.


Three great trick-taking card games in one box (and one confusing game)
All the cards for four very different games
Brilliant rules that reinvent the trick-taking game
Really high-quality cards

It hurts my head to try to figure out how to play one of the games
There are way too many umlauts

I heartily recommend Mu and Lots More to anyone who enjoys trick-taking card games. You can get it here:

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Board Game Review - Clue DVD Game

The city never sleeps. It's a cruel mistress that wakes me up in the middle of the night, and never with a warm kiss. It pulls me from my warm bed to tell me stories of mayhem, crime, and murder. Then it drags me around by my wrinkled necktie, making me look at the dirty underbelly of the place I call home.

Take the case of the Clue DVD Game. Sure, I know what you're thinking. You've heard this song before. The tune may change, but the words are always the same - doesn't matter if it was Scarlett or Mustard, Green or Plum, because in the end, Boddy's dead and it's my job to figure out whodunnit, and where, and how. It's an old song, and by now, it's a boring song. Trust a board game and a rotten whore of a home town to make a murder dull.

But this case is different. This time, the city wants to make me work harder than ever before. This time, my harsh lover tells me a tale, not of murder, but of burglary. She still wants me to find out who did it, and where, and what got pinched, but now I have to figure out when the dirty deed went down.

But this time, she gives me a little help. Instead of wandering around at the random whims of a single die roll, she lets me go right from room to room. No more standing outside in the hallway while some other gumshoe gets the dirt on Peacock in the ballroom with the candlestick. No more standing outside the kitchen, one damned roll away, listening to White put the screws to Mustard and his stinking revolver.

And I have other help, help that dirty slut of a city hadn't considered when she hauled me up in the middle of the night to wander around Tudor Manor and help some crusty old millionaire recover his purloined tchotckes. This time, I can ask the butler for help, and he can sing like a canary. This time, I can ask a copper for help now and then. And this time, a wrong guess isn't the end of the line.

Maybe the city doesn't hate me as much as I love her. Maybe she doesn't mind if, as the hunt for the sticky-fingered villain progresses, me and all the other private dicks sometimes share our information, throwing cards into the evidence room for everyone to see, whether we like it or not.

And then again, maybe she still hates me. Because in the end, if the head copper on the DVD asks for a card and I don't have one to give, it's curtains for me, sister, and don't bother bringing flowers. So it looks like that dirty bitch might still have the last laugh - if I can't solve this case before time runs out, the bad guy gets away and I flat-out lose. That's what I get for guessing wrong.

That's what I get for loving this city. And that's what I get for loving this game.


Reinvents Clue - and makes it fun again
The DVD means you can make an accusation and not outright lose the game
Really neat components

Cheesy 3D animation looks like bad Nickelodeon cartoons
Can slow down a little while you access the DVD

I hate Clue. And I love the Clue DVD Game. Go figure. If you want to see why this game is so much fun, go here and get one:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Board Game Review - Seismic

I'm from California. I was born there, grew up there, graduated high school and college there, and lost my virginity there (not all in that order). I live in Texas now, which is too hot, has no beach, and yet still suffers from the same number of stupid broads with fake boobs, but now I have to live with hick accents and too many NASCAR fans.

And yet, even coming from there, I think the concentration of idiots is higher in California than nearly anywhere I've ever been (and that's saying something, because I've been to Florida). For starters, people don't seem to be the least bit concerned about the fact that they're on top of one of the world's weakest building foundations, the San Andreas fault line. These slack-jawed dingbats have more money than sense, and think being rich will save them from all the natural calamities that seem to hit Southern California more often than anywhere outside Southeast Asia (which, as anyone can tell if they watch the news, is the natural disaster capital of the world).

You can drive up the coast and see houses built on cliffs, extending out over the beach below. Have these dopey bastards never seen a mudslide? All it would take is a little ground jiggle, and your living room washes out to sea on the next tide. And tall buildings - why would anyone build anything taller than two stories? I've seen enough earthquake movies to know what happens when the ground starts flopping around like a jello shooter at a frat party, and you couldn't pay me enough to work on the top floor of one of those skyscrapers in downtown L.A.

Apparently, the creators of Seismic agree that Southern California is a little bit accident prone, because they want you to act out the creation of a freeway system in a city that's more or less destined to slide off into the ocean. You place all these little hexagonal tiles with roads coming off every direction, and then you put work crews on the roads to claim them.

Then, at regular intervals, earthquakes hit San Andreas and pieces of freeway disappear. The frequency of the earthquakes is 100% random, and could happen anywhere from six times a game to none at all, which gives you just about the same amount of notice that those drooling buffoons get, the ones who live in Newport Beach and build houses on stilts.

At the end of the game, you count up all the roads where you have work crews, and if you've got the most connected road segments, you win.

Seismic is a tile-laying game. It feels a lot like Carcassonne, where you place tiles and then place scoring markers. Normally, I don't like tile-laying games, and as fate would have it, Seismic doesn't change my mind. For one thing, it's really ugly - easily the most unattractive game I've seen from Atlas Games. For another, it's not deep at all. For one more thing, it's a tile-laying game, and like I said, I don't tend to like those.

I won't be playing Seismic again. I didn't like it, my family didn't like it, and I doubt I could talk my friends into it. I'll hold onto it until I do another contest and then give it away. Maybe someone else will like it - probably the same kind of person who would decide to build a rickety home on a fault line.


Really easy to learn and play
Beautifully illustrates the dangers of living in precarious housing in Southern California

Way too basic
Some of the most boring art I've ever seen in a board game

Want to play Seismic? Move to L.A. and you can play it for real.

Monday, June 2, 2008

DVD Game Review - Indiana Jones DVD Adventure Game

My office is getting crowded with review copies. I think it goes without saying that I play everything before I review it, but in case you think I make this stuff up, I promise that my opinions are based on actually playing the games I write about (except for Monster Quest - I never did finish that one. I just couldn't get through a whole game without wanting to puncture my larynx).

The problem is, it can sometimes be tough to find people who want to play these games. Like AT-43 - I've got it, and I've read the rules, and I really want to play, but my son is the only one who will play with me and he hasn't been passing all his classes for a long time, so he's a little bit grounded. Or Ca$h N Gun$: Yakuza, which I want to play so bad I can taste it, but it needs at least six people and there are only four in my family. I'll get opponents sooner or later - probably sooner once school gets out - but right now, if I put an Indiana Jones game on the table, I can get players. So you get to read about the Indiana Jones DVD game, because my family will play it with me.

In fact, I think that's the main selling point of the Indiana Jones games - people will play them. They're not particularly inspired, I haven't seen much in the way of interesting game design, but they'll still outsell Twilight Imperium by like three trillion copies because they have Harrison Ford on the cover wearing a leather jacket and a fedora. Suburbanite yuppies who think they're living on the edge when their sofa doesn't match the TV cabinet are more likely to enjoy these games than your average basement-dwelling game nerd.

So the question for the erstwhile game reviewer becomes, is the game any fun? And the answer should be pretty obvious - if you're a hobby gamer, this is not your bag. Indiana Jones Life was more fun than I thought it would be, but it's still not Risk 2210. You're not going to schedule a game night with your other gamer buddies and break out the Indiana Jones DVD Game. These are not hobby games, and honestly, they're not supposed to be. They're mass-market games for families or friends who like Indiana Jones, and that's about it. June Cleaver might pick this up for Ward and the Beav... but of course, she couldn't play it, because the Cleavers didn't own a DVD player.

In the DVD Game, there is actually a little bit of game here. In fact, I've won every game I played because I played better than my family members. It's not a random dice-fest like Life or a complete crap shoot like Akator Temple. There are room tiles that contain fights, traps and secret doors, and you move around the board exploring an ancient temple, searching for the relics from the first three Indy movies. Whenever you hit one of the special spaces, you choose an icon from the DVD and get a special challenge.

The DVD actually kind of works, too. It randomizes the game and keeps it interesting, by frequently inflicting random events or making the challenges all different. Unfortunately, the challenges all involve rolling dice, so they're not very interesting - until you get to the relics.

The relic challenges are very interesting. Like if you're after the Holy Grail, you have to pass three challenges, just like Indiana Jones did in Last Crusade. If you're trying to get the Ark of the Covenant, you have to navigate a room full of asps (very dangerous - you go first). And if you're looking for the Shankara Stones, you'll find yourself careening through caverns in a mine cart. These are actually the most interesting parts of the game. It would have been fascinating to survive a nuclear explosion inside a refrigerator, but that may have stretched credibility just a bit.

The downside to the challenges is the movie clips. It seems odd to complain about having to sit through movie clips in a DVD game, especially when they're clips from some of my favorite movies, but by the seventh time you have to watch Indiana Jones say, 'why did it have to be snakes', it gets old. The single greatest failing of this game is the inability to skip the movie scenes and just play the challenge already. The second greatest failing is the voice acting - it's supposed to be Salah, but it sounds like Chuck Norris pretending to be Hugh Grant.

Once all the relics have been collected, the temple starts to collapse. You all take turns trying to get out of the temple, and every so often the DVD will tell you to remove a bunch of tiles. If you're standing on a tile that disappears, or if your path back home is cut off, you get buried alive. You can still count up your score, but everyone who survives is going to get a lot more points than you are, which can make it real tough to win the game if you wind up under a pile of rubble, even if you are carrying the Holy Grail.

I can think of a few groups of people who might really dig this game. If you're looking for a game the whole family will play with you, this might be a big winner. If you have friends who stumble over the Monopoly rules but still want to play games, they'll be able to wrap their heads around this one and have fun. It's also a good gift for your friends who wear sweaters around their necks and play doubles tennis. I'm not putting it in my top 50, but it's one that I'll probably play again.


Indiana Jones
Fun idea
Fun game
Neat movie clips
Easy to learn

Quite shallow
Can't skip the movie clips
Voice acting apparently recorded by Scottish circus clowns

Great fun for casual gamers, worthless for hobbyists, you can get your copy here: