Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Board Game Review - Ghost Stories

I don't tend to have a soft spot for cooperative games. Generally, I subscribe to the Conan rule that he used to determine what is best in a game - I like to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women. So when I got Ghost Stories, I was pessimistic. I just couldn't see myself enjoying a game where I don't get to poke anyone's eye out.

But then I played Ghost Stories, and I've changed my mind. For one thing, you do get to crush someone, it just turns out they're ghosts. And for another, the game is just crazy fun.

The theme behind Ghost Stories is one of the driving factors that makes it so enjoyable. From the title, I was expecting a bunch of kids teaming up to defeat the supernatural because their parents won't believe them, so they just have to go take on the bad guys themselves - you know, the formula plot in about one out of five movies made for children the studios think are stupid. Instead I get a tiny Chinese village that happens to be the resting place for the funeral urn that imprisons Wu Feng, the Prince of Nine Hells. This little village is about to suffer some pretty serious trauma, as a horde of Chinese ghosts come hunting for the urn to release their leader and destroy all life on the planet. The only thing between the ghosts and the annihilation of the human race is a band of four Taoist monks, and if you ever watch kung fu movies, you know those Taoist monks do a lot more than wear sexually ambiguous robes and swing incense. These monks are bad-ass kung fu masters, capable of battling ghosts on their own terms with the magic, speed and old-fashioned know-how you only see in movies where people can run across water if they move fast enough.

As is the case in most cooperative games, every turn a player has to do something that would cause his side to lose. In this case, you draw a new ghost card every turn and place him in one of the areas surrounding the little village. Many ghosts have special powers, like the ability to haunt a building in the village or curse the Taoists or maybe just bring new ghosts with him. And the Taoists have to run out and try to exorcise those ghosts using the traditional old-school ghost cures like sticky rice and incense. The players battle ghosts using a couple of dice with different colored spots, and they have to roll as many spots as the ghosts' power - a ghost with two yellow would require two yellow spots, for instance, but a couple yellow Tao tokens could be used if the player can't get the roll he needs.

The village is more than willing to help, and it's a good thing, because those Taoists are going to run out of magic beans in a hurry on their own. One villager might be willing to give them a few Tao tokens, another might offer a Buddha statue that can capture a ghost without a fight, and yet another might just let them drink some tea and take a load off (a nice place to unwind after a hard day getting punched in the pancreas by hopping vampires). Without the help of the villagers, the Taoists don't stand a chance - but without the Taoists, the village is going to become ground zero in the world's worst catastrophic supernatural event. So it's only fair the lazy bastards chip in now and then.

As the game progresses, the ghosts start to take over. There are only four monks running around, and you can have up to twelve ghosts at any time. You can call on the sorcerer to kill them for you, but his spells are powered by life force (specifically your life force), so that's always a desperation move. Sooner or later, a monk is probably going to buy the farm, and then everyone else has to decide - risk a curse to bring him back, or keep fighting, but down a man? Those ghosts keep coming until Wu Feng finally makes an appearance, and when that big bad sumbitch finally shows his face, you want everyone at their best. Of course, the odds are, when that horrible bastard makes an appearance, everyone is tired, beat up, and low on resources. But if you can bust Wu Feng like a giant marshmallow man, you win the game, so everyone pools resources and gives it the ol' college try in one last, desperate bid for the continuation of humanity.

The thing about Ghost Stories is that it's possible to win, but it's not easy. In fact, you're likely to lose about half your games. This desperation makes it exciting and tense, and when you finally do manage to send Wu Feng howling back to Hell, you'll feel like celebrating, even if you do have two kung-fu masters taking a dirt nap and the other two bleeding from every major orifice. You have to play smart to win, and even then you can still get hosed by a bad run of cards or a couple crappy die rolls, so it's always thrilling. It's about the best hour you'll spend not hurting your friends.

With increasing levels of difficulty to keep it challenging, a neat expansion with more themed ghosts and a new building, magnificent art and some of the best cooperative interaction I've ever seen in a board game, Ghost Stories has shot to one of the top spots in my house. I may not always have an audience for Last Night on Earth, but I know I'll be able to get a crowd for Ghost Stories. And now that I can hear the lamentations of the ghosts, I can't wait to play again.


Starts fast and never slows down
Incredibly interactive
You don't have to attack your friends
An absolutely silly amount of fun

Hard as hell
Rules seem confusing until you start playing

Ghost Stories kicks ass. Go get it here:

Monday, December 29, 2008

Board Game Review - Supernova

I have had it with irresponsible game designers. So many of the people who create our favorite games have virtually no concern for our well-being, or the impact their games might have on our lives. Would it be so hard to include a warning label now and then?

My most recent aggravating designer created a game called Supernova. It's his first game, but ignorance is no excuse for negligence. His game should have come with a warning label, something like I would find on a pack of cigarettes. I would encourage the publishers of Supernova to add the following copy to the cover of every game:

"CAUTION. Intense excitement possible. Risk of heart failure. Check with your doctor before playing this game."

Most games are fun, and many get me fired up and excited, but rarely does a game get my blood pumping so hard that my hands shake and my chest seizes up. Supernova was so thrilling and tense that I could literally feel my heart thumping in my chest (and when I say 'literally', I don't mean it like many ignorant people mean it, as though it meant the exact opposite of 'literal'. I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone say something like, 'I literally crapped my pants,' and want badly to say to them, 'then you should go change, you disgusting maggot.'). I mean, what if I have a bad heart? I could have died!

Worse yet, Supernova gives no indication that it will be too intense for some people until you've played a few turns. In this game of exploration and conquest in outer space, up to five different races are fleeing their solar system before the sun explodes. The first few turns are routine, nearly mundane, with players doing little more than just placing a few pieces on the board and moving towards the planets. At this point, players might have absolutely no idea how bad this game could be for anyone equipped with a pacemaker.

The first hints of palpitations might begin to occur the first time two alien races meet up in a battle. The entire battle system is conducted using battle cards, and while it looks a little odd when you read about the system, it actually works like a charm in practice. Battles are fast and intense, rife with strategy and timing. Pick a fight on your turn, and you may be too weak to defend yourself later. But if you don't pick a fight, you might allow an opponent to build up and fortify until he's going to run roughshod over you. It's a balancing act, and calls for some careful consideration. And when you do decide to fight, and you're waiting for the cards to flip, you may be just a little bit panicked - this could go very bad for you, if you're not careful. The apprehension can be dangerously thrilling. I heartily recommend milquetoast panty-waists avoid this game like an electric fence. Play Puerto Rico - that game is great if you can't stand excitement.

And it just keeps getting worse. As you play, you can't help but run up against your opponents. Resources are extremely limited, and if you want to get paid, you'll have to steal something from the other players. You can't let them sit there all peaceful, because frankly, you need that moon to get enough money to buy the tech upgrades and research you'll need to survive the supernova of your sun. And if they keep that planet the whole game, you won't have anywhere to put your people when your own solar system goes up like a road flare (besides, planets are worth a boatload of victory points). So you'll keep fighting, and defending, and pulling tricky moves, and you'll never know for sure what your opponents are going to do, and waiting for the semi-inevitable flank attack will give you seizure fits. Make sure you have your nitroglycerin pills close at hand, and write me to see when I'm filing the class-action lawsuit. By God, somebody is going to have to pay for getting me this riled up. It's just not safe.

As if everything up to now wasn't enough to give you a coronary, then you get into the endgame. The last couple turns are absolutely crucial - at this point, some players are trying to secure the gains they've made, and others are trying for a last desperate grab before the sun explodes. You might have a great plan in place, but overlook one element, fail to notice a player hoarding resources, ignore a seemingly innocuous card held in reserve, and you could watch your best-laid plans crumble to dust. And the worst part is, going into that last play, you're hoarding, and maneuvering, and sneaking, and scheming, and not only are you sure the other players are all doing the same, but you're hoping against hope that nobody notices what you're doing. If could be enough to induce arrhythmia or even aneurism.

To make matters worse, this game is long. It took us nearly five hours to play our first game, and the last two hours were nail-biters all the way. It could have gone any direction at nearly any time, and the smallest mistake would have been disastrous (and, in the end, it was). We not only suffered potentially harmful heightened blood pressure, but we had to live through it for two hours!

It doesn't even get better after the sun blows up, not right away. First you have to count up the scores. In our game, the scores were incredibly close - as in, we were all within one point of each other. The entire game could have been decided by one single, minute decision! Just one thing going the other way, and we would have seen a complete reversal. Even as we were putting away Supernova, we could not stop talking about it, and we were all agitated and over-excited. It's just not safe to allow people to unknowingly engage in activities that are so prone to extreme excitement.

So I'm angry. I'm calling an attorney and the local news and my state representative. This kind of foolishness has to stop. Sure, more responsible game designers might make more boring games, but they could also save lives. Supernova is so intensely exciting that it could actually threaten your health, if not your very life, and this madness must not be allowed to continue.

I'll bet I could get Jack Thompson on board with this.


Every decision counts
You won't notice the time passing
Intense and incredibly fun
Absolutely gorgeous design (though some of the illustrations are a little odd)

Could be life-threatening
Rules are a bit of a mess - I guarantee we did something wrong

If you think you have a strong enough heart to play Supernova, you can get a copy here:

Friday, December 26, 2008

Board Game Review - Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a very good game. It's got magnificent strategic potential. It requires an amazing amount of planning, maneuvering, and intelligent placement. There are tons of different ways to win - control buildings, ship goods, hire colonists, and lots more. In other words, it has all the makings of a nearly perfect game. There's a good reason it was #1 at BoardGameGeek for so long.

And I would rather have my teeth cleaned with a band saw than play it again.

In Puerto Rico, you're each in charge of a chunk of this paradise island in the colonial Caribbean. You take turns choosing specific people to help you - the settlers will build plantations, the mayor will bring in colonists you can employ, the craftsman will turn your raw crops into saleable goods, and if you're ever just short of cash, you can get the prospector to make you a few bucks. All in all, there are eight different people who could help you out on any given turn, and during the course of the game, you'll use every one of them.

In fact, every time you use one of these guys, so does everyone else. So if you call on the captain to ship some finished goods back to Spain, everyone else gets to ship their stuff, too. If you use the builder to put up a processing plant for your indigo fields, everyone else will have a chance to build coffee roasters or tobacco dryers. The reason picking a role is tricky is two-fold. First, different players will need different things at different times, so if you can sell to the trader when nobody else has any product, you'll hose everyone else. And second, if you're the one using the card, you get an advantage that nobody else gets, like cheaper haciendas or the option to start rock quarries or more victory points for shipping your goods.

So that's the basics of the rules for Puerto Rico (in a nutshell - there's more, and if you want some boring rules summary, find a boring game reviewer). You take turns using the services of these subcontractors, trying to plant stuff, process it, sell it and ship it. It's not that hard to learn, though you'll want the rules handy because there are lots of little rules that will pop up with the different building abilities and special stuff that happens with each assistant role. There's an insane amount of strategy and thinking ahead. It really is a very good game.

So now you're saying, 'But Matt, if it's such a good game, how come you won't play it?' And I'll tell you why - it's frigging boring. It's cerebral and clever, two things I usually love in a game, but it's also completely dull.

For instance, can anyone tell me what happened to Spanish ships in the Caribbean in the 1500s? Yes, little Tommy in the back of the class? That's right, PIRATES. And war with France and England and everyone else in the civilized Western world. And restless natives. And other stuff that was actually interesting, and yet makes no appearance at all in Puerto Rico (the game, as opposed to the island, where interesting crap has been happening for centuries).

Seriously, how does this little Utopia have any relation to the actual Puerto Rico? Sure, you grow crops and hire colonists. But there is absolutely no body count of any kind. You don't even discard a wooden colonist disc every now and then and pretend they just got fired from their day jobs. I mean there is absolutely no actual interesting action of any kind. These people don't even get the flu and call in sick.

And there's just no tension. You're never sitting there going, 'oh, man, I hope that guy doesn't grab that thing and hose me out of this other thing, but if he does, I'll come back at him with this killer move that will make him run home to his mommy and cry himself to sleep tonight.' You never feel like any particular move is crucial. Basically, you never get anything even resembling that rush of adrenaline you can get from lots of other games (I don't know about you, but when I've got a carefully constructed offensive in the middle of the board, and I'm hoping desperately that my opponent doesn't see the one move that will prevent me from taking his queen with a sacrificial bishop in two turns, my heart beats a little faster). You'll never need to take heart medication with Puerto Rico, though you may need NoDoz.

Another reason Puerto Rico is less fun than cleaning grout is that there is no opportunity to interact with your opponents. Five people sit around a table, each playing the game independently and rarely having a chance to actually compete with anyone else. You try to build faster, or time your actions to give yourself the best shot, or otherwise manipulate stuff to your advantage, but you never get to actually do anything to your opponents. I wanted to hire a bunch of dockyard thugs to go over and intimidate the factory workers into staying home for a couple days, or send some Portuguese pirates to intercept the ships and send all the indigo and coffee to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (which might not be in the Atlantic, but I don't really care).

Call me a neanderthal if you want, but when I play a game with other people, I want to interact with those other people. And I want stuff to happen. I don't care if there is a brilliant amount of strategy, or careful and meticulous planning, or any other awesome stuff, if there's no opportunity to actually play the game with other people. Puerto Rico, while inarguably a well-designed and tightly constructed game, feels like you're sitting around a table, all playing the game by yourselves and waiting to see who does the best at it. Hell, on your turn, you usually end up helping everyone else! I don't want to help everyone! I want to burn their crops in a slave uprising and send a cadre of elite shock troops to sieze their homes!

The worst thing is, I can think of a dozen things that could have made Puerto Rico interesting. You could even just add a couple more helpers. If I had my way, you would remove one of the prospectors and add two more guys - the commander and the pirate captain. The commander would let you hire soldiers to terrorize your opponents, and the pirate captain would let you steal goods from other people. That would be enough for me. That would make me choose - do I produce some goods right now, hoping that my next opponent doesn't see an advantage in swiping my barrels of coffee, or do I strike first, hiring a band of mercenary bloodletters to tear down an opponent's warehouse and burn everything inside? Now we're talking. Now we've got something interesting. Now we've got tension.

As I've said many times (and yet, I know some knee-jerk reader will still jump right over me saying it and get all pissed because I slammed their sacred cow), Puerto Rico is an undeniably good game. If you can enjoy a slow, intellectual game with very little interaction between the players, Puerto Rico should be at the top of your to-buy list. But if you like to feel alive when you play a game, or if you want a contest rather than a mutual exercise in resource management, or if you like games where people die, you might be better off watching paint dry.


Incredible strategy
Great opportunities for long-term planning
Absolutely brilliant

Extremely limited interaction with other players
No tension
Nothing actually happens

So you say you don't mind a game where nothing happens? You can get a copy of Puerto Rico right here:

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Board Game Review - Zombie Town

In the spirit of the holiday, I wanted to write about something that represents how I feel about the entire Christmas season. So I'm reviewing Zombie Town, because I live in fear of a long period of time where hundreds of mindless, violence-prone cretins swarm all over what would normally be a nice part of town, and reduce it to a massive catastrophic event. Zombie Town is kind of scary, too. The only way the game could be more like Christmas is if, after they ruin the town for everyone there, the zombies spend the next two weeks spending gift cards and returning unwanted salad shooters.

In Zombie Town, a bunch of really stupid people have decided to build their homes around a cemetery, where the dead come to life and maraud all over the surrounding area (a little like people who buy homes close to the mall, and then Christmas comes and the brain-dead shoppers maraud all over the surrounding area. Only the zombie thing would be better, because zombies don't listen to Bing Crosby. Or drive). The players are people just trying to survive by barricading their homes, finding frightened survivors, and trying to grab up as much real estate as possible at the kind of prices you can find in a zombie-infested cul-de-sac (that price being paid in bullets, rather than 30-year notes).

Every turn, you can move, then take three actions. These actions are things like rescue survivors (by playing a card from your hand), barricade a building (by playing a card from your hand), equip a gun (by playing - never mind, you probably get it), shoot at zombies (this is totally different, because now you play a card from the combat deck), or exploring a house to find cards to add to your hand. Several of the houses have special abilities, like the wood worker who will let you build barricades, or the nurse who will heal you, or the gun collector who will reload your weapons (though he won't loan you a shotgun). If this was a Christmas game, there would also be a fat guy in a white beard who stinks of whiskey and fondles your kids, but happily, it's not that horrifying. It's just zombies.

Every turn, you move some zombies. This starts out with just one a turn, but by the end of the tenth turn, every player is moving ten zombies, so you can put together a pretty nice little zombie horde and really blow through barricades and defenders alike (unlike Christmas, where you get just a few stupid shoppers early on, and then come Christmas Eve, every numbnuts on the planet tears through Wal-Mart to blow through discount racks and the toy aisle). If a zombie moves into your space, you shoot it. It's not hard, but you might run out of bullets before you kill as many as you might like.

You win the game by controlling houses, saving survivors and killing zombies. So one guy might make himself safe as hell, holed up in a big house with a blockade that could turn Britian into a third-world country, save a few dudes, give them guns, and wait out the apocalypse - but that guy will lose the game. The guy who wins just runs from house to house, rousting out the neighbors, defiling their toilets and claiming the homes for himself. And when you try to stop that guy by throwing huge hordes at him, he'll shoot them all, and all the zombies you fed him to try to make him die just end up giving him more points. It's a little frustrating, to tell the truth - but not nearly as frustrating as stopping in at Walgreens for a pack of smokes, just to spend twenty minutes behind some mullet-sporting dildo buying his kids off-brand Matchbox cars and novelty cigarette lighters because he waited until the last minute to remember that he's morally obligated to contribute to an artifical retail extravaganza. Give me zombies any day - at least with the undead, you're allowed to stick a kitchen knife through their brain pan to keep them from breeding. That hillbilly probably has eight kids with three different women, and you're not allowed to kill any of them.

The end of Zombie Town is ultimately unsatisfying. As you play the game, you're likely to spend nearly every turn thinking, 'this is a stupid game, but I'll finish it to see what happens.' And then you finish, and you ended up successfully defending your domicile for ten turns while some other jackaninny went door-to-door like a gun-toting Jehovah's Witness claiming every piece of real estate and mowing down zombies like they were paper dolls, and that douchebag wins the game, despite getting all his neighbors killed. This is the only way that Zombie Town is worse than Christmas - at the end of Christmas, you get a day off work and time with your family. At the end of Zombie Town, you just have to clean up 100 plastic zombies.

Of course, Christmas does tend to have nicer decorations than Zombie Town, which is a plus if you don't hate the sight of fake snow and cheap tinsel (but I do hate those things, so Zombie Town is still better). The cards in Zombie Town are little bitty things that are nearly impossible to shuffle. The backs of the cards are black-and-white and as cheesy cheap as the font the designers used to make the logo. The best components in the game are the 100 plastic zombies, which would be a lot cooler if they weren't all holding severed arms. The player figures all have retarded flattops. It's funny, because the illustrations in this game are great, and the graphic design looks like tenth-grade art class.

Looking at the game as a package, there really isn't much redeeming here. The game play is not particularly tricky, and is mostly just luck with some random running around. The cards scream 'CHEAP!' so loud, you'll wonder why they aren't asking you for spare change. The best thing I can say about Zombie Town is that it's mildly entertaining. No, wait, that's not the best thing I can say.

The best thing about Zombie Town is that it's not Christmas.


Mildly entertaining
Lots of zombie figures
Great illustrations

Kind of a stupid game
Boring, small cards make the game more frustrating than it already is just because you're playing it

If I had one Christmas wish tonight, it would to regain the hour or so that I lost playing Zombie Town. Maybe this guy can get it back for me:

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Board Game Review - Draco Mundis

Here's a little disclaimer, right out of the gate - I have no idea how you do mescaline. I watched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so I know it's a drug. I know it's illegal (though it might be OK in Amsterdam, where you can get stoned and score with a hooker and never have to worry about being caught in a sting and winding up on COPS). But I have no idea what mescaline really is, or how it affects you, or pretty much anything else about it.

What I do know is that mescaline is a funny name for a drug. So when I wanted to say that Draco Mundis is checkers on a controlled substance, I chose mescaline. Which one of these is funnier - checkers on speed, or checkers on mescaline (note that I skipped over checkers on vicodine, which would just be checkers, but played with Rush Limbaugh)?

In Draco Mundis, everybody has the same bunch of tiles. You've got explorers and journalists and sherpas and airplanes and lots more - but most importantly, you've got dragons. The goal is to rampage around the board, capturing as many of your opponents' pieces as you can, but especially dragons. And if you can sneak your journalist into the enemy campsite, that's even better. You move all these guys around, a little at a time, trying to capture pieces from your opponents. So checkers, but on drugs. Specifically mescaline, because that's funnier.

Every tile has different abilities, strengths, and movement. The machine gun truck can move one space in any direction, has pretty decent fighting power, and can blow up the enemy campsites. The hunter can guard a campsite to keep the journalist out, and he's a tough fighter, and he moves pretty fast. The dragons are slower than Christmas, but they're better fighters than anyone else in the game, so it's still not a good idea to tangle with them if you don't have to. If there had been a drug-dealing hipster to sell you your fix, that would have further reinforced the concept of checkers on mescaline, but I don't think that would have got through marketing, and the last thing we need is Jack Thompson and Hillary Clinton deciding board games are ruining America's youth.

The first thing you do, before you really start playing, is place all those tiles face down on the board. There are so many of them that the board is nearly full up. The only tiles that go face up are the explorers, and since you can't activate any of your other tiles without a character next to them, they're pretty important. If every tile was face down at the beginning of the game, you couldn't move anyone, and then you would just look at each other and call it a draw. Then it would be checkers on thorazine, which might be a big hit at a mental hospital, but would be less likely to draw players who had not yet been lobotomized.

In fact, the placement phase of the game is crucial to the game as a whole. Scatter your guys randomly, and the guy who placed all his tiles strategically is going to crush you like a beer can at a frat party. You want to hide your campsite to prevent your foes from grabbing it, and you could put the impassible tiger territory next to it, except that there's a 5 point penalty for doing that. It's kind of a tax on stupid - if you can't figure out not to put your campsite next to a place overrun with man-eating tigers, you deserve to be penalized.

Once the game gets going, it's pretty much a flurry of action-packed madness. Since you can only do two actions on your turn, you'll be done before you know it, and if you have set up poorly, there will be plenty of opportunities to get beat down before you can react again. You'll maneuver carefully, avoid leaving openings for opponents, and basically do all the stuff you would do in checkers if checkers was hopped up on hallucinogens.

There's so much to do in Draco Mundis that the first play should be considered a learning experience. Until you've actually finished a game, you're not really going to understand why you want to arrange your starting pieces in a diagonal line, or why you want to stick your campsite in a defended corner, or why the airplane is actually a cleverly disguised drug mule. You'll probably blunder through the first time, wondering why you decided to put this on the table. But stick to it, finish the game, and you'll discover that there's a huge amount of potential for clever play and flat-out fun.

A word of caution - if you hate Dungeon Twister, you're not going to like Draco Mundis. Cristophe Boelinger does not care for games of chance, and when he makes a game, there's no luck anywhere (also, he looks a little like a skinny Fabio, a fact which is not remotely relevant, but worth mentioning because most game designers look like George Constanza). Careful game play and tricky maneuvering are critical, because you absolutely cannot rely on a good roll to get you out of a tricky spot. The only way this game could be more Euro is if it was about farming (oh, and if there were no body count, but what fun would that be?). Unlike most Ameritrash games, if you lose Draco Mundis, you've got nobody to blame but yourself (and the other people at the table). And maybe the drugs - but hopefully, you'll let the game do all the narcotics.


Rewards good planning and foresight
Fantastic art
Fast-paced game play with lots of opportunities to screw up

No luck at all (not a con for me, but you and I might not always agree)
Your first game might be a little rocky

I can guarantee that Draco Mundis will hit my table again. It's exciting and tense and clever and fun. You can get your own copy right here:

Friday, December 19, 2008

Board Game Review - Order of the Stick

I read a bunch of webcomics. I like the idea of getting something for nothing, even if it's just five minutes of entertainment, three times a week. And one of my favorite webcomics is Order of the Stick, a D&D spoof that manages to be regularly hilarious while telling an exceptionally exciting story. And because I also like the idea of supporting someone who is willing to entertain me regularly, I picked up a copy of the Order of the Stick Adventure Game (OK, technically, I swapped a dice tower for it, but it wasn't free, so that still counts).

If you're not a regular reader of Order of the Stick, the adventure game might not grab you right off. All the art is done with stick figures. Everyone has a round head, lines for legs and arms, and one or two distinguishing characteristics that set them apart, like Durkon's beard or Haley's ponytail. The dungeon corridors are gray blocks inside two black lines. Even Xykon the lich is just a round skull on a twiggy body. If there was Order of the Stick porn, it would be confusingly boring, but really hilarious.

But if you do read Order of the Stick, the art is probably enough to make you smile, all by itself. And the Dungeon of Dorukan should be familiar - it's where the dysfunctional group of adventurers first battled Xykon. And now you can join in!

Each player adopts the role of one of the main characters in the comic, and then the whole party descends into the dungeon, killing monsters and stealing their stuff. Players can help each other in exchange for loot, and they can also totally hose each other by playing big bad monsters, stabbing them in the back, and otherwise accelerating their opponents' untimely demise. Each character plays very differently, thanks to the customized schtick decks. Elan, the most helpful dude in the game, has lots of powers that let him his pals, which gets him lots of loot. Belkar, on the other hand, has plenty of opportunities to hurt his friends and steal from them. Each character feels and plays differently, and they all feel very true to the comic.

The monsters in the dungeon are as varied and goofy as the monsters in the comic. You might fight the two-headed puppy named Fido/Rover. You might have to battle a Lumber Hulk, or a beige dragon, or those two red cockroaches who do a running commentary like the two old guys from the Muppets. And the iconic villains are in there, too - the entire Linear Guild is represented, and they have powers that let them help each other out.

Monsters enter play when you go into an empty room, and your opponents get to decide what you'll fight. If they're feeling generous, you can face a cowardly kobold. If you recently irritated them, they might just stick you with an ugly ogre and a horde of undead. Then you fight them, and if you win, you get some loot.

The game uses an interesting mechanic for making you want to help your opponents. It's handy to kill a monster, but you have to be paid for your assistance, and the more you get, the more your help is worth. Sometimes you'll be offered a reward you really want, and sometimes it might be more fun to turn down the reward and watch your opponent get pummelled. This is a total blast - sometimes you'll offer to reward someone with a great loot card and then swipe it out from under them, sometimes you'll step in to help and turn coat to help them get skewered, and sometimes your devious plots will backfire and you'll wind up broke, wondering why your butt hurts.

As the game progresses, the dungeon goes deeper, and when you reach the bottom, you must find and defeat Xykon. Only Xykon was holding the whole place together, so once he dies, the whole dungeon starts to collapse, and it's a mad dash for the surface. Once there's only one player left in the ground, the game ends and you tally up your points. The person who had the best overall performance (measured in several different ways, including how much money you have and whether you were the one who beat Xykon) is the winner. This is not always the player who killed the big bad guy - for one thing, that guy is probably going to be the last guy out, and for another, if you play well, you can get by just on ill-gotten loot and a flashy smile.

My kids love Order of the Stick, so they were both excited to play. We made a mistake, though - we started at 9:30 at night. I told them it might be a while, but they didn't seem to mind. By midnight, though, neither of them really gave a crap whether Vaarsuvius was a dude or a chick. They just wanted to go to bed. And we were playing the short game - if we added another level or so, the game could have gone on another hour or two. As it is, they were almost grateful when I won, so they could go to bed (one of the best features of their getting older is that they go to bed on their own. Of course, this feature is offset with moody outburts and an assumption that I am a complete idiot, so all things considered, I probably wouldn't mind having to persuade them to sleep now and then). This is not a game you play if you're short on time.

This is also not a game to play on a small table. I have a gigantic kitchen table, and we filled that sucker. The dungeon takes up an inordinate amount of room, and then you add schtick cards, loot cards, battle cards, stairs cards, defeated monsters, traps and other stuff, until your table looks like the catch tray for the world's biggest paper shredder. It took me like twenty minutes to pick up all the stuff. There are just lots and lots of components, most of them cards, in something like ten different decks.

If you're a fan of Order of the Stick, and you like adventure-style games, the Order of the Stick Adventure Game should be your next purchase. It will make you laugh, and in fact, it encourages you to laugh. There are exciting, tense battles. There are hilarious monsters. There are completely horrible back-stabbings. My kids were delighted to go to bed, but they both said they want to play again tomorrow. That's a winner in my book.


Exciting and fun
True to the comic
Lots of funny moments
A ridiculous number of components

The short game takes at least two hours. The long game could go until dawn.
Lots of rules. I'm pretty sure we played some part wrong.

I highly recommend Order of the Stick for anyone who likes a good dungeon crawl game. Get it here:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Board Game Review - Marvel Heroes

Some of the greatest advances in culinary genius have come from some really unpredictable sources. For instance, how drunk did that first French guy have to be to see a slug crawling out of a his garden and think, 'man, that would go great with some bread and a nice merlot'? Sometimes adding a completely unexpected ingredient has turned an otherwise mediocre meal into a masterpiece.

And then there are those times when you've got all the right ingredients, stuff that should be almost impossible to screw up, and you still have a bland, unremarkable dinner. There's no reason bread crumbs, savory spices, chicken and salt has to make a boring dinner, but to this day, I still won't eat baked chicken. It's not that the dinner is bad; it's just that it's not all that interesting.

So before you get the idea that I've decided to turn this into a cooking school (and it's best I don't - I would want to team up with Gordon Ramsay to bludgeon Rachel Ray with a tenderizing mallet), let me tie this in to board games. There are more than a few games out there that seem like they would be impossible to screw up, and yet even when you toss in all the pieces that should make an excellent game, they somehow go together to make a mediocre experience.

In Marvel Heroes, you start with what should clearly be the cornerstone of a brilliant game - superheroes. And not just any heroes. We've got Wolverine, Spidey, Cap, Hulk, Thing, Iron Man and lots, lots more. The mainstay heroes of the Marvel Universe come traipsing through Manhattan to do battle with Super Skrull, Doctor Doom, Magneto and more villains than you can shake a pair of metallic tights and a dorky cape at.

But you can ask anyone - a theme alone does not make a good game. Well, you can ask me, anyway. Your co-worker who comes in every Monday jabbering about whether his favorite team covered the spread probably couldn't tell you whether you can base a game's worth on its theme alone, but then in all fairness, I still don't understand why a man in motion gets a yellow card during a game of pickle in the end zone. Happily, Marvel Heroes has more than just a great theme, and someone else can figure out why their favorite players are in penalty boxes during corner kicks.

For starters, it's got great components. There are 16 superhero figures and four villains, all sculpted by Bob Naismith, one of the finest miniatures sculptors in the field. There are bunches of cards with some of the greatest comic art ever made (including my favorite villianess-turned-quasi-heroine of all time, White Queen, who I mostly think is awesome because I'm male, and she has a totally kickin' booty). There are eight really cool dice with biffs, pows, and exclamation points. There's a great board that looks like Manhattan. The pieces in the box are damned pretty, and totally look like the great pieces that make up a great game. Now how much would you pay?

But wait, that's not all! In Marvel Heroes, you've got a really cool asset allocation thing using plot points to activate your heroes. You can send Captain America or Daredevil into the city pretty cheap, but bringing out Hulk or Doctor Strange can be a little more pricey. You can also save a little by sending in heroes to support your main guys, and you can play ally cards to show up for a couple issues. Colossus can show up, take a couple good thumps for you, and then go back to Russia to be a good-natured, one-dimensional stereotype again. Hey, it's comics. If you want character development, play the board game adaptation of East of Eden. That should be awesome, because who can resist a slow-moving, plodding character study?

Turns are even pretty cool. Every turn, up to six different incidents all over the city call out for superhero intervention, from attacks in the subway and jewel heists to flying saucers and toxic gas clouds. Some heroes are better suited to particular events - Mister Fantastic is good at dealing with science problems, while Hulk is just really good at smashing stuff. You assign heroes to deal with a threat, and their abilities help determine just how dangerous the problem really is, and then the other players get to spice things up by adding heroes. And this is still comics, so it's really not as big a stretch as it should be for Omega Red to show up with Skrull warriors and Sandman as backup. OK, yes, I read enough comics to know that's unlikely, even in comics, but seriously? Am I the only one who read the Spidey clone saga? That was so silly, it should have been a Laurel and Hardy movie.

All these various factors go together to make what seems like it should be brilliant. Choosing heroes, choosing threats, manipulating die rolls, and then using Magneto to rip out Wolverine's metal skeleton (ignoring the fact that adamantium is not ferrous, and should not be subject to a magnetic ability) - these should be the pieces of a really awesome game.

Unfortunately, Marvel Heroes is a board game version of baked chicken. You've got great ingredients - superheroes, cool dice, involved turns, lots of decisions to make - and yet somehow, they don't come together to make a game that demands to be played. For one thing, turns seem to take longer than they should. A three-hour game might only get through the third or fourth turn, which means Iron Man might spend a whole afternoon surfing porn on his suit's computer while Hulk and Captain America do all the actual crime-fighting. The ability to play your opponents' archvillains means there's almost always something to do, but it's never that exciting, even when you do get to use Red Skull's dust of death. When it's not your turn, you might be watching two other players do everything interesting while you plan how you're going to do one thing that takes five seconds before the action passes right over you again.

That's not to say Marvel Heroes is a bad game, exactly. It does have a great theme, and it executes the theme very well. It has very nice pieces and some excellent strategic depth. It's just not as brilliant as it looks like it should be. All those great parts don't come together to make a great game. In fact, all those great partsmight just come together to save what would otherwise be a really boring stinker of a game. But whether there are low points that offset the high points, or great parts that save a game from complete suck, Marvel Heroes ends up being decent, rather than kick-ass or awesome. If you love the theme and have some patience (two things that might be mutually exclusive, or you would be more interested in games about Shakespeare than games about comic books), Marvel Heroes might really appeal to you. I don't hate it, but I probably won't play it again any time soon.


Great components
Excellent theme
Interesting mechanics
Cool superhero fights

Slow - which is not a good feature in a game about comics
Some rules impair the theme

Marvel Heroes doesn't suck, so if you feel like giving it a whirl, you can get it pretty cheap right here:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Crazy Game Review - Jungle Speed

I was going to review Marvel Heroes tonight, but a reader reminded me that I haven't written about Jungle Speed for Drake's Flames yet, and since I got a copy when I was writing for Knucklebones, figured there's no time like the present. The game is a little old, but my kids still wear me out with requests to play it. So I'm blowing the dust off the bag and preparing to regale you with the mad hijinks of Jungle Speed.

First things first - yeah, I said 'bag.' Jungle Speed comes in a zebra-striped drawstring bag. There may have been a box at some point, but if I ever had one, I don't remember it. In the bag you'll find a bunch of square cards and a wooden pillar thingy called a totem. The cards are mostly just colored patterns and shapes, with a few wacky special cards to make sure someone goes home with a broken collarbone.

The reason you'll want to make sure your health insurance is current is that the game is almost entirely physical. You're supposed to play with one hand in your lap and the other on the table, but good luck getting my 12-year-old daughter to play by that rule. Most of the time, she's got one hand barely touching her deck and the other hovering right next to the totem, and if you try to beat her to the grab, she'll claw you like a psychotic wolverine. Good times.

The pile of cards gets dealt face-down in equal parts, so everyone starts out with the same number of cards, and then you start taking turns flipping cards. If you flip over the same symbol as the player before you, both of you have to try to grab the totem. If you're too slow (perhaps because your hand is already bleeding and you've got a broken index finger), you have to take all the cards from the other guy and add them to your own draw pile. Since the object of the game is to dump all your cards, competition to grab the totem can be hectic (in this case, when I say 'hectic', I mean that when it comes time to grab for the totem thingy, the level of violence can parallel that seen in dockside bar brawls or professional wrestling. Unless your kids are better behaved than mine, in which case you probably get a lot more sleep).

If you grab the totem when you don't have a match, you have to take all the cards from all the other players. Plus you have to live with them saying, 'Ha, Dad! You're dumb! These don't match!' You can remind them that they rely on you for food, but my kids know that's an empty bluff. Hopefully you can finish the game quickly and then play them at something that requires patience and intelligence, because then your kids will get all squirmy and you can beat them so badly that they have to wash the car just to get you to stop mocking them. But don't feel bad for them - they didn't think it was such a raw deal when they were pointing at you and making monkey noises.

Every now and then, a player will flip a special card, and then the rules change. Like you might have to all play at once, or you have to match colors instead of shapes, or you all just grab for the totem at the same time. This last one is likely to result in some pretty cool scars, especially if you're still having trouble persuading your kids to clip their fingernails.

That's pretty much it. You keep going until one person runs out of cards, and then you put the game away (handling the cards carefully to avoid getting blood on them) and go wash out your wounds with hydrogen peroxide. You may also want to take this opportunity to set any broken bones or (worst-case scenario) call an ambulance. Don't worry, the ambulance won't be for you. It will be for whichever kid grabbed the totem last, leaving you with a giant pile of cards while they do an end-zone dance and call you a horse's ass. Kids sometimes tend to forget that you're bigger than they are.

In all fairness, we've played Jungle Speed at my house several times, and have not yet had to bandage any wounds. Very competitive children (or very competitive adults who would rather slap the crap out of their children than lose a game) have caused more than one accidental slap on the hands, and once my daughter did scratch the hell out of me, but that's more because she chews her fingernails until they're all like jagged glass. It's actually a fast, interesting, intense game that you can finish in a hurry and put away. Or, if you're playing with my kids, you can finish in a hurry and then shuffle the cards and play again, just to keep the little brats from complaining so loudly that the neighbors call Child Protective Services.


Easy to learn
Hilarious hijinks
Kids can beat ol' Dad

Incautious play can result in minor injuries
Not a huge draw for a bunch of adults

If you have kids you want to entertain with a game about paying attention and then beating each other, Jungle Speed could be a lot of fun. You can get it here:

Friday, December 12, 2008

Board Game Review - Caledea

I review an awful lot of small-press games. Partly because I have a soft spot for the upstart entrepreneur forging his way in a field dominated by big games from big companies with big budgets, and partly because small-press people are often more willing to send me review copies (let's face it, when every third gamer on the planet is discussing Dominion, Rio Grande doesn't need me very badly. I got into this gig for free games, and small-press publishers get me more free games. Kind of a no-brainer). Because I tend to root for the underdog, probably like most people out there, I tend to go a little easier on them. That's not to say I'm going to lie and tell you I like a game if I don't (see Temple or Cambria), but I'm less likely to compare a game to retarded monkeys flinging dung if it comes from someone who is putting together a company on a couple hundred bucks and a student loan stipend.

I'm telling you all this because I want to make it clear that I know I show bias. I know that when it comes to reviewing small games, I'm about as fair and balanced as Bill Maher supporting a gay marriage bill. I know it, and I admit it, and in this particular case, that doesn't matter, because Caledea is easily the best small-press game I've ever played, and I don't feel any need to exaggerate or gloss the low spots just to play nice. In fact, it's a damned sight better than most big games you can buy with plastic pieces and linen cards. If I pick my favorite games of 2008, Caledea will be on that list (though I am more likely to pour salt in some old wounds and make a list of the greatest trainwrecks of 2008, just because I get a lot more personal enjoyment from being mean).

The thing is, if you base your buying decision just on first impressions, you'll walk right past Caledea without giving it a second look. It comes in a pizza box, for crying out loud. The board is a modular thing mounted on a sheet of foamcore board. The pieces are wooden cubes that the creators of the game painted by hand, and the gold coins look like they were stolen out of a six-year-old's dress-up pirate set. Hell, the cards aren't even all cut the same, and the rules are just a Microsoft Word document that looks like it was printed at the office inkjet.

But if you walk right past Caledea after reading this review, you're a piss-drinking dumbass. The guys who made this game are brilliant. It's an excellent, high-body-count, abstract wargame. It combines everything I love from both Ameritrash games and Euros. There's violence, maneuvering, tactics and strategic planning with quick turns, limited actions and resource management. It's like the Caledea guys got their Ameritrash chocolate in my Euro peanut butter. Turns out, these are two great tastes that taste great together.

I don't generally go deep on the mechanics in my reviews, because usually you can find some total sleeper of a game review that will bore you to tears with technical explanations, and those reviews save me a lot of trouble. They're dry as overcooked chicken, but they tend to be horrifically informative. Only Caledea is both new and small, so it might be a little tricky to run down a bland encyclopedia review. Just for you guys who love long, boring reviews (and I do read the comments at BGG, so I know you're out there) I'll give it a once-over so you get the idea. And before you fill up the comments section with inane whining, yes, I do know there are two reviews at BGG. Every now and then I do my homework.

In Caledea, you're trying to accomplish one of three goals. You win if you can kill every unit that's not your own, or if you can destroy all the other capitol cities, or if you manage to reinforce your own capitol and turn it into a city fortress. Rather than having every player start out exactly the same, each of the nine possible nations you can play has a different set of strengths and weaknesses. If you like to be aggressive, you can play the guys who haul ass around the board, and if you're a defensive player, you can play the team who can build cheap castles (these guys probably hire day laborers, so their insulation is probably full of holes and you know damned well that air-conditioner is going to fail the first time the mercury goes over 90). And every nation has a different preference for resources.

The board is a 9x9 grid broken into nine 'countries'. Each of these little countries posseses two resources, so one spot will have swamps and rivers, and one will have buffalo and hills, and one will have buffalo and swamps, and so on. Your nation will particularly value two of these resources, and the spaces that feature both of your resources (and there's only one such space per country, for a total of nine per board) will let you raise armies and levy taxes.

You're limited to a small number of actions per turn, and the first thing you'll want to do is get more resources. Only this can take a while, because you have to move your troops all over to grab locations. Building a castle is an action. Upgrading a unit is an action. Moving an army one space is an action. Because of this, turns go lightning fast, because you say 'these guys move. Your turn' and then your opponent does the same thing.

Combat is a simple dice-off, with the more powerful units having a better chance of winning (though there's still no reason a grunt can't clean a toilet bowl with the general's head, if he's lucky or defending on his home turf). Strength in numbers is important when you're aggressive, but since it's basically impossible to resurrect a dead soldier, you have to balance your desire to maim the other guy with your desire to not get your face kicked in. You posture, position, race for resources, strike where your opponent is weak, and otherwise do all the crap you would do in a more traditional wargame, but now you're only taking like ten seconds a turn and you're not fighting over a map of Europe.

As the game plays out, you'll expand all over while trying to limit your opponent's ability to do the same. Careful maneuvering can get you a massive bank of resources - but if you try to move too fast, your opponent will sweep in and destroy your capitol while you've got all your soldiers out running ROTC recruitment programs at the local YMCA.

My wife generally does not like wargames. She's a big fan of card games (see Monday's column) and she'll play a lot of lighter games with me, but her eyes glaze over if I bring out Memoir '44, and she'll run screaming from the room if I put down Squad Leader (not really - mostly she just says, 'not a chance, asshole' and I go back to my office to play crappy Internet games while she and the kids finish watching NCIS). And my wife loved Caledea. I seem to have pulled the golden ticket - I have a wargame I'll play any time, and what's even better, she'll ask me to play! I don't even have to do all the dishes or brush the dogs.

And as far as the crappy components go, I wouldn't change them for anything. The creators of Caledea are planning a more professional production in 2009, and I don't want it. The board is beautifully illustrated. The cubes are bright and colorful. The plastic coins might look a little cheesy, but you know what? Fantasy Flight would have made me punch out five sheets of cardboard. These plastic coins are so cool, I wonder why more games don't do that (just kidding - I really do know plastic is more expensive than cardboard). The rookie-night production feels pure and authentic. You can look at this game and know that the guy who assembled the game is passionate - he believes in what he's doing, and he wants you to know it.

Now, before you just run right out and get Caledea, let me warn you that I have gamer friends who I don't think would like it. It feels very Euro, even with bloody battles and dead people (both of which make up the main occurences in my favorite games). If you're a Euro-snob or Ameritrash bigot, Caledea will probably not be your favorite. If you hate luck in a game, allow me to be clear - Caledea is not chess. It's also not Carcassonne or Agricola or Risk 2210. It's quick-moving, simple, straight-forward and fun. Not all my gamer buddies will dig that. But I do, in spades.

So maybe you've reached the end of this review and you're thinking, 'meh, I don't like games from small companies, and I love eye candy'. If you're thinking that, you're a narrow-minded dingus. If I tell you that Caledea is the best small-press game I've ever played, and you're still hung up on the cheap packaging and the paper, pre-cut counters, then you deserve to go buy a case of Mutant Chronicles CMG and never even realize that you paid $600 for a giant plastic turd. In a time when games are getting more and more expensive, Caledea shines as an example of how games should be made. Small-press or not, cheap or not, Caledea is easily one of the best games I played this year.


Incredibly fast
Easy to learn
Lots of options means tough decisions
You can finish a 2-player game in about half an hour
Innovative and deep

Seriously low-budget production values (but I love 'em anyway)

Caledea has everything I love in a game. If you want to love it as much as I love it, go here and get one:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Totally Lame Excuse Night

Here's the breakdown of crap I do:

1) I own VixenTor Games. We make game accessories (and when I say, 'we', I mean 'I'. I like to use the royal plural first person. It makes me feel more important. It also makes it sound like I'm not one dork making wood boxes in his living room and pretending it's an income).

2) I write this site. I don't need to use a 'we' here because it's pretty obvious that I don't have help. If I had help, I would be better at this, and you would be reading a review, not lame excuses.

3) I have a family, with two kids and wife who collects stray dogs like old ladies collect Precious Moments statues. We spend an absolutely ridiculous amount of time (and king-size wads of money) taking care of animals that were never ours and that I sure as hell never wanted. This is a large part of the reason I write this site - without it, I could never get games, because all the money goes to buying kibble and hookworm pills.

4) I have a day job as a graphic designer for the government. Yes, the government uses graphic designers. Cool, huh? Only this week, we were printing a gigantic catalog in Minnesota, where the temperate in this part of the year ranges from 'Holy Moon Pies, that's cold' to 'Sweet Merciful Jesus, I can't feel my nipples'. And for a book that big, someone has to go look at every page and make sure the color is right. And that someone is me.

To make an irritatingly long diatribe short, I just flew in from Minnesota tonight (and boy are my arms tired). I have four days worth of emails to answer and I've been living on three hours of sleep a night because the press check is 24/7 with short breaks while they set up new presses. I'm so tired I can't see straight, and I have to get up at the butt-crack of dawn to get to work tomorrow, because the government doesn't offer comp time even if you have been working non-stop for four days in a row.

So to sum up - lame excuse, no review tonight, try back Friday night and I'll write about - oh, hell, I don't know, something. I have a stack of games here the size of a water buffalo waiting for me to write about them, so there will be something here Friday.

Monday, December 8, 2008

General Gaming Rant - Games For Everyone Else

I'm traveling until Wednesday, so I don't have a new review for you today. I was considering bringing some games to review while I was here, but did you ever try to fit a three-foot long board game into your carry-on luggage? It's not impossible, but it would have meant I had to leave my toiletries at home, and I didn't feel like spending four days without a toothbrush. The guys I'm traveling with are probably happier for it, too.

So instead, we're talking about card games. And just so we're clear, you can forget about a nerdy discussion of your favorite cardboard crack. I'm talking Rook and Spades and Hearts, not Magic and Legend of the Five Rings and World of Warcraft. You know, the games normal people play.

See, normal people do play games, and lots of them. They know ten different ways to play Gin Rummy, five ways to play poker and six ways to cheat at cribbage (I'm not actually sure you can cheat at cribbage. I've only played cribbage once, and either I was too drunk, or the guy who came up with the game was drunk when he made it, and I thought it was only slightly more nonsensical than an episode of Jackass). My in-laws can sit and play Spades for five or six hours at a stretch, and beat the hell out of me every time. I can see a flanking maneuver from fifty yards out, manage my dice rolls to mitigate luck, and build an army that controls the map and maximizes ranged attacks - but I'll be damned if I can figure out when I should call trump or bid seven.

It's funny, because lots of card games can be an awful lot of fun, but we've gotten so spoiled by plastic figures and linen-printed game boards that we've forgotten that normal people can be happy with a deck of cards and a stack of plastic chips. Yet where we're the fringe because we can discuss cooperative mechanics and luck factors, my father-in-law can tell you without effort how many sevens have been played into the kitty after six hands. But then, my father-in-law also wears Glad Wrap on his arms when he goes to bed and kills squirrels out his windows using a high-powered BB gun, so maybe I should find another example.

Then consider all those old ladies at the Blue Hair Bridge Club, deciding when North bids four and betting their pensions on a game where one player at the table has to sit out every round. These biddies could run circles around you or me, taking three rubbers out of three while we sit there trying to figure out how to win a contract, but you'll blow their minds if you slap down a meeple.

And how about poker night? How many regular dudes get together once a month to sit in the basement around a card table smoking cigars and playing dealer's choice for penny antes? Lots, that's how many ('lots' is a technically-calculated figure based on extensive research, which mostly consisted of remembering all the times I got drunk, played poker, and smoked cigars until I was broke and throwing up in the bushes outside).

Of course, at this point we're talking about specific groups of people playing specific games, but we still haven't really talked about the non-gamer who just has a couple decks of cards and can, at the drop of a hat, sit down to play a few hands of whatever grabs them. Go Fish, Old Maid, Hearts, War - these are the games that get played at Thanksgiving or Christmas or weekends at the cabin with family and friends. When you consider card games, casual gamers play just about as many games as we do. They just don't go to conventions and stay in hotels for three nights just so they can get in ten hours of euchre.

And they buy stuff, too. Poker sets can be more expensive than that silly 3-D Catan set that had all those plastic mountains and came in a wooden treasure chest. People will get cribbage pegs with diamonds in the end (and that's madness, because if you're going to spend that much money for a game, don't buy pieces that you know damned well are going to roll under the couch or get stolen by your cat). This is a far bigger market than hobby games, with lots more people and lots more money. As an added bonus, there are not nearly as many casual card players living in their moms' basements and dressing as Sailor Moon.

So what's the difference? Why can't I get my in-laws to try Maginor? They're playing games already. Is it that much of a stretch to try Heroscape if you're already playing Crazy Eights? The answer is simple:

Well, duh.

A deck of cards is easy, portable, and not the least bit nerdy. An adult with a box full of plastic zombies, on the other hand, is a grown man who still plays with toys. Do you crow about the quality of pre-painted miniatures? Because most people don't. There's a simple component difference - we like games with full-color paintings and sturdy, colorful pawns, where most people are happy with cards printed in two colors. We have scoring tracks around the outside of our boards; they're just fine with a pen and pad of paper.

And our games are tricky. Most people just don't think in terms of tactics, or long-term strategy, or careful planning. For most people, that's work. We dig it, but that's not normal. We probably grew up on this stuff, or we discovered that it was actually fun to move plastic people around a paper map. Our games require a commitment, and it's not just financial. You have to have time and a whole lot of attention span to be able to get behind lots of our games.

So if you're wondering how you can get your family to play more games with you, consider playing their games instead of trying to get them to play yours. You can probably find someone to play rummy, but you know as well as I do that if you ask your mom to try Descent, she might try to have you institutionalized. And in all fairness, a lot of those card games are actually pretty fun, and there are hundreds of different games you could try until you figure out one you can dig. Canasta is a pretty fun game, if you can put together enough people for it, and as an added bonus, you don't have to persuade anyone that you're not about to blow up a national monument.

But you know what? I'm still totally going to play my wacky fringe games. I just spent a pile of money of World of Warcraft miniatures and that never-ending money sink of a CCG, just because I dig the premise (and I want to write about them in the vain hope that one day, someone at Topps thinks I'm a big-time gaming hotshot and decides to send me free stuff). I don't think there's a snowball's chance in Hell of getting my father-in-law to try either one, and I may only ever get to play when I can hook up with my closet geek buddies, but I don't care.

In the end, I guess I'm just a grown man who still plays with toys.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Board Game Review - Cave Troll

Writing reviews is hard work. It's two in the morning, I've had nearly no sleep for 24 hours, and I can't think of a damned thing to say about Cave Troll that will make you want to go out and buy it. That's a real shame, too, because it's a fun game. I suppose I could write the kind of review you can read anywhere, and just tell you about the game in excruciating detail until you fall asleep at your desk and wake up drooling on your keyboard, but that's not really my bag. The way I see it, a job worth doing is worth doing well (at least, that's what my old man used to tell me. He also used to say, 'I love work. I could watch it all day.' Not that this last saying has anything to do with Cave Troll, game reviews or losing sleep. I just wanted to write some extra crap to put off trying to come up with brilliant witticisms another couple lines). So I'll do my best here, and if you hate me later, you can join the swelling ranks of the official Matt Drake is an Asswipe Club. They have jackets.

So Cave Troll is a re-release done by Fantasy Flight a few years ago. Or maybe it was recent. I don't know. It has all these little plastic dudes, which is about standard for them, though it's surprisingly affordable given the sheer weight of plastic in the box (I know it's affordable because I had to buy it. FFG doesn't send me review stuff since I said the Mutant Chronicles CMG had a penis). It also has lots of cards with different backs and a swanky cool dungeon board.

The goal of Cave Troll is to get paid. That's not the world's most original goal, but what's interesting is how it's done. Every turn, you can do four different things. You could play a card to bring out one of your guys. You could move a guy one room. You could use an artifact (if you've found one). Or you can have a complete lapse of memory and not remember what the fourth thing is, and be too lazy to look even though the game is sitting three feet away from me. Actually, that last one is not an option in the game, though it is one I use from time to time in real life.

Come to think of it, the way the cash-grabbing is done is not all that original, either. This is a basic area control game, where you move your dudes from spot to spot and try to score gold. You don't fight with the other people in the dungeon - not even the monsters. If the cave troll steps into your room, he kills you. If the orc comes in, he kills you. If the knight walks in and hits the orc, the orc dies. There's no die rolling, just instant body count. Which is good if, like me, you like to see some bodies stack up now and then but just can't be bothered with the details.

The thing that makes Cave Troll interesting is the different abilities of your figures. The dwarf can double the score for one room, and the barbarian is a big bruiser who counts double for area control. The knight blocks people from moving into the room. You even control the monsters on your team. The cave troll can walk into a crowded room and break wind bad enough to clear it out, and the orc can kill people, and the wraith can make people leave by doing what all really old people do - telling you about their gout and kidney stones while you're trying to eat dinner.

Now, the thing is, this is actually pretty abstract. If you're looking for a story, it ain't here. The emphasis is on the mechanics, not the theme, but the theme is still pretty fun. You maneuver, you shift, and you plan, and then the wraith shoves someone out of the room right before the troll comes in and smashes them to grape jelly, so it's not like a boring math game despite being a game about placing assets to maximize returns. Come to think of it, when I say it like that, it does sound a little boring. But it's not boring, it's fun, I swear.

There's even an alternate game where all the figures have different powers. Like in the first game, the troll can't move, but in the alternate, he's just really slow. It takes a while for his short bus to get from stop to stop, I guess. If you get tired of getting your ass beat at the game one way, you can mix it up and lose a completely different way. It's awesome.

Despite being easy on the wallet, the pieces in Cave Troll are really nice. You might have a little trouble figuring out which one is the orc and which is the barbarian, but since the orc is on a square base and the barbarian is on a round base, it's not that hard to tell the difference, and you're probably just stupid. All the parts of the game are neat and fun and pretty, and the art is totally kick-ass. Like, totally.

So now I'm at the end of the review, and I'm looking over it, and I'm thinking to myself, 'next time, I need to start writing before HBO starts running shows about hookers.' Because for one thing, when the shows about real-life hookers come on, I don't want to be writing, I want to be watching TV. And see, they don't come on until really late, so I should totally be done writing before then.

Maybe next time I'll start earlier, and then I can enjoy whore-based TV shows guilt-free.


Neat pieces
Fun theme
Excellent execution of a fairly common game concept

Some of the figures can be difficult to tell apart
I could think of something more hilarious if I was less sleepy

Cave Troll is a good game. You can get it pretty cheap from Wargamers HQ:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Board Game Review - Hurry 'Cup

Before I jump into this review, allow me to point out the little widget called 'Followers'. It's over on the left, at the bottom, underneath all the other crap you never read because you've been here before. If you're logged in, you can click that little dingleberry and sign up to follow my reviews. Then you can add other sites to that list - I personally recommend What It All Looks Like if you like photography, or Yehuda for some off-the-beaten-track gaming info, or The Horrors of It All if you dig really old-school horror comics. And then instead of having to visit every one of those sites every day, you just log into your reading page, and it tells you when those sites have updated so you don't have to spend ten minutes surfing just to find out I still haven't written today's review. I just added that little doohickey, so let me know if it's not working right. Hopefully it will save you a little time and let you stay up on all your favorite reading. Just a service I provide, because I care about you. Not to mention that having like 600 followers would definitely make it easier to get free games.... like Hurry 'Cup.

Last week I reviewed Formula D, which is easily the best racing game I've ever played. It's so fun, I almost want to scrap this review and just write about that game instead, even though I already wrote about it once. I mention this because Hurry 'Cup is also a racing game, but it's a whole lot more family-friendly. Not that there's anything in Formula D that could be the least bit objectionable, but when a game is willing to tell you, 'your engine catches fire and your driver goes up like a Roman candle,' it's not always a good sell for the six-year-olds (I should point out that the rules don't say anything that interesting - they just say, 'you are eliminated from the race.' But we've all seen Nascar crashes, so they're not fooling anyone).

Hurry 'Cup, on the other hand, is great for the kids. It's one of those games that people are always telling you is great for young and old alike. That's hogwash, really - the only adults who like games targeted at four-year-olds are either mentally retarded or playing those games with their own kids. The rest of us don't want to play with anyone who might poop his pants and eat a booger. But it's still a game a grown man could easily enjoy with his non-gamer wife and pre-teen kids.

In Hurry 'Cup, you set up a bunch of hex tiles, more-or-less at random, and then you race on them. There are a couple cool features working here. For one thing, there's the cup from which the game gets its name. Every turn, you roll as many colored dice (known as fuel tanks) as there are players - so if there are three of you, you might roll red, blue and green. But you roll them in a little plastic cup, then slap them down on the table. Then you lift the cup, and you have to all scramble to grab the pawn that matches the fuel tank you want. If you wanted the green 4 but were too slow, you might get the red 1 and grumble an awful lot. Should have been faster, chump (I have no room to talk - my daughter beats me to the grab nearly every time. She would probably win, too, if she would look at what she's grabbing and not just try to snatch the first thing she can).

The reason you don't just grab for the highest die is that lots of these tiles have speed limits. You'll roll the accelerator die and add it to your fuel tank to see how far you go. But if you come to a speed limit area when you're moving too fast, you come to a screeching halt and your turn ends. So the guy who got the 2 and then rolled a 4 on the accelerator die will only be moving 6 spaces, and you might have a total of 10, but if you hit a speed limit 60 spot after moving twice, he'll fly past you like his wheels were coming off.

There are also a bunch of special tokens that you can trade for one-time advantages - you can hit the nitrous to jump forward one space, or be a road ace to avoid rolling the accelerator, or otherwise get away with breaking some rules. Timed well, these tokens can save your bacon. If you move your whole turn and wind up right behind a speed limit 70 spot, that might be a great time to hit the nitrous and take that spot now, so that next turn you can keep hauling ass. But if you use them wrong, they're almost completely wasted. It's all a matter of timing and just a little planning.

The art in Hurry 'Cup really improves on the theme. The cars are great. The track is gorgeous. The start area is awesome. There are even more adjectives I could use to describe the rules and the race tiles and the little plastic cup, but there are only so many ways to say, 'very attractive' before I'm going to have to repeat myself. Even better, Hurry 'Cup comes with something I've never seen in a game - postcards. There are six cards in the box, each showing one driver or team and their car. These aren't card-sized art pieces - these are actual postcards, all ready for you to write, 'wish you were here' and drop in a mailbox.

A few things keep this from being a big-time gamer's game. For one thing, it's not very deep. It's not supposed to be deep - it's a family game, not a nerd game - but if you're reading this and you don't work for a publisher, you're probably a nerd, and if you do work for a publisher, you're almost certainly a nerd, and so either way, you are probably going to get a lot more bang for your buck with Formula D.

Another thing that keeps this from rising to the game nerd top spot is the fact that the game comes with boatloads of luck. Your dopey nephew could totally beat you on his first game if he rolls better than you, or just manages to continually grab the pawn you wanted but didn't get because frankly, you're slow, and your reflexes are shot, and you should know better than to drink that much bourbon and then try to play games with kids who overdosed on Pixie Sticks and fruit cobbler. Lots of this luck is balanced out with the tokens and the pawn-grabbing thing, but you still have to roll that extra die, and if you're tied at the top of a wide-open straightaway and you roll a 1 and the other guy rolls a 6, he's going to be throwing gravel on your windshield until he disappears in a cloud of road dust, and it doesn't matter whether or not you've used your air horn to get first pick of fuel tanks.

So if you're the kind of guy who rents a hotel room in the town where you live so you can stay up with friends all night playing games, Hurry 'Cup may not be your cup of tea. It's fun, but it doesn't have the legs you'll find on Formula D. Hurry 'Cup is a cute, loveable, outgoing librarian who laughs at silly knock-knock jokes. Formula D is a red-hot lounge singer with a plunging neckline and a dry martini. Both can be enjoyable, but if you're taking the guys out for a night on the town, the giggling schoolgirl isn't going to be your first pick.

On the other hand, if you have kids or casual gamers just looking for a fun game, it might be better not to call the service and invite that smokin' dame in the skin-tight gown and the ruby lipstick. The kids will get a lot more out of a game where they try to steal dice from you and then drive comical cars around a twisty and exciting track that can be mixed up every time. The luck will keep the play balanced between the long-time gamer who can analyze every move and the grade-schooler who just wants to grab stuff and roll dice. The tokens and careful planning will give enough of an edge to the hardcore gamer to keep him around for just one more game with the nephews, who probably want to play again and will quit halfway through because they'll get distracted by a shiny stone.


Fun, fast game with easy rules
Challenging for adults and easy enough for kids
A nice combination of reflexes and strategy

Not much depth
Lots of luck

If you play games with casual gamers or kids, you should look into Hurry 'Cup. You can get more info here:

Monday, December 1, 2008

Board Game Review - Stonehenge

You know those bumper stickers that say, 'I have a multiple personality, and so do I'? That sticker should be on Stonehenge, because it's like five games in one box. It would be a lot more interesting if one of those games was a serial killer and the other four games didn't know that their components were being used to murder people until they solved the murders just one step ahead of the police and then had to fight each other to try to turn themselves in. But even though there are no murders or late-night trysts with women of weak moral character, Stonehenge is still pretty interesting.

Possibly the most interesting thing about Stonehenge is the concept of the game. Usually when we discuss games, we talk about the themes and who you play and what your goals are and how the mechanics work. But Stonehenge was conceived as a board game version of a deck of cards - you can play a whole bunch of different games with the pieces, and they might not have anything in common at all. You can have really dumb games like War or 52 Pickup (actually, I kind of like 52 Pickup, as long as I can get someone else to pick them up). You can have complicated games like Bridge or Canasta. You can have easy games like Go Fish or Old Maid, or you can have really fun games like Gin Rummy or Poker. So basically, Stonehenge is more like a boat full of Cuban immigrants - they all do something different, but they all have the same purpose. Except in Stonehenge, the goal is to make original games, and in a boat full of Cubanos, the goal is to make it to land before the boat sinks and the Coast Guard has to take everyone home.

The box contains all these different pieces so you can play different kinds of games. There's the board, with a bunch of rings and numbered spaces. There's the plastic stone thingies (called 'trilithons' if you're a snooty nerd). There are discs and bars and cool little druids and a deck of cards. The whole idea is that you use these components to make your own games, or you play games written by other people. Just like a deck of cards, you don't use every piece for every game, so the same way you have to pull a bunch of cards to play Pinochle, you might eliminate some of the pieces to play any particular game. Or the same way you have to freebase cough syrup to be able to enjoy Cribbage ( that might not exactly relate, but I really hate Cribbage).

And just like a deck of cards, some of the games suck. There's one called Chariots of Stonehenge that is really, really dumb. I don't know how the guy who did Risk: Godstorm came up with this Owen Wilson of a game, but I can see virtually no reason whatsoever to play it. You use these little discs to decide if you're going to go fast or set up blockades, and cards to determine where you can set up roadblocks. Except it's really stupid to set up blockades because then you don't go as fast and the guy who just put all his discs in the 'go fast' hand zooms around and wins with virtually no effort. If everybody does the same thing, the winner will be the person who got to go first. This is a colossal failure of a game, and I have no intention whatsoever of playing it ever again. A real stinker. If I got the rules wrong, feel free to shut up, because I'm not playing it again unless it will get Joss Whedon to do another season of Firefly.

There are also light, easy games. The High Druid plays super fast, with easy rules, and you can run through the whole game in about fifteen minutes. You just take turns placing discs on the numbered spaces, or moving bars to redefine areas. If you have the majority in an area, you control it at the end of the game, but if you tie for the most, the discs in that area will go to the guy in third place. It's fairly clever, and pretty darn light. It's not like you're going to devote your life to mastering this game, but it can be a quick, fun diversion. It might be best to play it with the same eight-year-old who is always pestering you to play Go Fish, but you may want to have him get his own copy, because you know he'll get dirt and chocolate all over everything.

Magic of Stonehenge is a (very slightly) complicated game. OK, in all seriousness, the thing that's complicated is that the rules are a little confusing, but then, Canasta isn't really that difficult if you know what you're doing. In this game you're trying to get all your discs on the board by playing the high card - but if you lose, you have to move your markers down by the amount on your card, so if you play a 29 and someone else plays 30, you lose a whole hell of a lot, and might just have your disc fall off the board completely. I actually like this one (maybe because I won) and would play it again. There's good planning, timing, and a little luck.

And then you've got games that are just plain cool games. Auction Blocks might not be about to replace Texas Hold 'Em tournaments on ESPN2, but it's a pretty slick game. You're trying to bid on these colored stones by playing cards, but there's a trick to it - if you're the low bidder, you don't get the stone, but you get two cards, and if you win the bid, you get the stone, but you can't get new cards at all. So you have to weigh your opportunities, strike when you're strong or when the prize is juicy, plan ahead, know when to bid low and when to bid high, and otherwise just play a pretty clever, surprisingly deep game. Of all the games in the box, Auction Blocks was easily my favorite. I thought it was a whole big pile of fun.

And then, just like with a deck of cards, there's the game you never actually played because you couldn't find a fourth player for Hearts and had to settle for three-handed Rummy again. I played Stonehenge with three people, and Arthurian Ghost Knights is a four-player game, so I didn't play it. It looks OK, but you can't tell until you play, so I'm not going to comment on it. I do know that it was the next one up after that retarded Chariots game, and at that point I really wanted to try something that didn't have druids. Hell, after that Chariots game, I just wanted to donate the box to Salvation Army.

So those are the five games that come with the box, but Titanic Games is doing what should be done with a set like this - running a forum for inventing new games. The game library there has 38 games, many of which are, I am sure, complete turds. Some of them might be awesome. I don't know, because I'm not going to go play 38 games to tell you if they're good games. Play them yourself. God, what am I, your nanny?

I love the idea behind Stonehenge. The pieces really do lend themselves to thinking up games, and they are some really nice pieces. That Looney Labs game, Icehouse, is kind of similar, with all these games you can play with a bunch of pieces, but Stonehenge is actually a big box of parts instead of a little cardboard tube full of dayglo pyramids. It can be tough to make a racing game out of a bunch of plastic triangles, but a track from 1 to 30 can definitely be adapted that way (as long as you use a mechanic more useful than 'hold your stones in your hand and then move', which is more of an inner-city dance-off than a viable game mechanic).

But there are a few reasons Stonehenge wasn't a bigger hit. For one thing, I don't believe any one of these games would have been published by itself. Individually, none of these games is a write-home-to-mama success. Sure, you get five games in one box, but none of them are about to become your new favorite. It's like getting a sampler box of candy, but all the samples have coconut in them. It doesn't ruin the box, but it might have been nice to get a truffle or cordial cherry.

Second, even on sale, Stonehenge costs about five times as much as a decent deck of cards. Titanic has it for $20, which is a good price given the quality of the pieces, but it's not like you're going to go buy three copies just so you can combine them (though I'm sure someone did). Cards are relatively straight-forward - four suits, nine numbers, three face cards, aces and maybe jokers. That's a pretty simple tool box, and it's incredibly portable. Compared to a deck of cards, Stonehenge is as portable as a plate of soup.

Finally, while Stonehenge is a pretty awesome idea, the various pieces don't seem to slide together the way a deck of cards does. Like in a deck of cards, you've got four sets of 1-13, or you've got scaled values of 1, or you've got face cards versus number cards. But in Stonehenge, you've got cards, and plastic people, and little circles, and bars, and big clunky plastic/stone thingies that block the view of the far side of the board. They just don't all inter-relate as well as a deck of cards, which is why there just haven't been lots of fledgling game designers popping out of the woodwork. There's no According to Hoyle for Stonehenge (and not just because Hoyle has been dead a long time).

So the potential buyer of Stonehenge needs to know why he's buying this game. If you're getting it because you want to make your own games, or you want to see what kinds of things other people can do with the pieces, or if you just have a family that likes easy games and lots of variety, Stonehenge could be a brilliant pick. In fact, if I had to pick one game to take to a deserted island for a year, this would be it, because of the potential for limitless variety. But if you're buying it because you think it's going to be the Next Big Thing, you're about to be disappointed. Especially if you buy it for the racing game.


Pieces are extraordinarily high quality
Lots of potential
Some fairly decent games

Not more than the sum of its parts
At least one game pops out dead on arrival

There are people for whom Stonehenge may be one of their favorite purchases. If you think you're one of those people, you can get it real cheap, right here: