Friday, February 27, 2009

Announcement - Introducing Dogstar Games

Some people write game reviews because they want the respect of their peers. Some game reviewers like being insiders in their favorite hobby. And there are lots of game reviewers who just provide information out of a sense of offering something back to the community.

Me, I'm in it for the free games.

But there's a problem. See, when I started Drake's Flames, I decided that since it was my site, with no editor-in-chief or established rules or allegiance to any particular game makers, I was going to write the way I like to write. I was going to be funny when I could, irreverent when I wanted, and downright unapologetic all the damned time. If anyone was offended, screw 'em, they can go read a nice Tom Vasel review (who, incidentally, is awesome).

That worked great for a while. I made some people laugh, and I helped some people decide what games they wanted, and I scored piles of free games. Publishers thought I was funny, so they sent me stuff because they figured people would read about their awesome games because those readers liked my off-color humor.

And then I wrote a couple ugly reviews, and the stream of free games started to slow. It turns out people don't really dig it when they give you free stuff and then you complain about it. Who knew? But I didn't let that stop me - I just kept saying horrible stuff about people I didn't know because I thought they made crappy games.

Predictably, more publishers started to lose my Rolodex card. One or two at first, but now I think they're writing each other warning emails. 'Don't send that Drake bastard any games - if they're not good, he'll insult your ancestry and compare you to a retarded jackass, and the jackass will look better for the comparison, and you won't sell as many of your bad games because people will know that they suck.'

Heh. I love that. I may have started this for free games, but the punk-rock-street-thug-don't-give-a-damn-about-my-bad-reputation part of me started to get a big head. Every time I lost another publisher, I giggled a little - but then I started to worry, because I was down to small-press guys and new startups (and Asmodee, who has never been afraid of bad press and sends me everything without me having to beg like a leper with tin cup. So buy some of their games. Specifically, buy Formula D, because it's just about my favorite game from 2008).

Enter Jason, owner of my new favorite game store. Dogstar Games is an online retailer carrying a wide variety of board games, card games, CCGs, roleplaying games and minis games. And it turns out, Jason is also a reader.

You can probably see where this is going, but in case it's not clear, I'll spell it out like you were four (of course, if you are four, you're not only an incredibly precocious reader, but your parents should be ashamed of themselves for letting you read this site). Dogstar Games is now the sponsor for Drake's Flames. I'll still review anything anybody sends me, but Dogstar Games is going to keep me supplied with free games so that I can keep telling you what I think about them without having to resort to reviewing cheap crap I got at the Barnes & Noble 75% off sale.

Now, this is awesome for me, because I'll be getting free games. But this should be pretty good news for you, gentle readers, because starting real soon, you'll be able to get honest opinions of games you might actually buy, instead of reading about Thomas the Tank Engine's Roundup Rodeo (I don't think that exists, by the way, because if it did, I probably would have bought it so I could have something to write about) because most of the big publishers would rather send me improvised explosive devices than review copies. And even better, I won't be putting up some lame-ass 'support this site' button and begging for your spare change like a bum outside a bus depot.

Instead, I'll put up a 'support that other site' button. Dogstar Games has a good selection of hobby games, and lots of their games come with free shipping, so any time I review a game that A) I like, and B) they carry, I'll be posting a link to Dogstar Games. And I ask just one favor - if you want that game, buy it from them. Because if this works, and they get more sales because you read about them here, I'll get more free games. I would tell you about their great prices and stuff, but in case you're not paying attention, I get free games. I don't know how much they cost.

So if you dig this site, go to Dogstar Games and look around. If you see something you've been wanting to pick up, get it there. And start requesting games - my email is in my profile, and you can always just post your requests in the comments area below every article.

How about a link?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Abstract Game Review - Rumis

In the heart of what is now South America (or maybe Central America, I suck at geography), in the ancient land of Maya (or May? I also suck at history), a wise old group of architectural geniuses made gigantic structures out of huge rocks. They were so good that they didn't have to use mortar, mostly because the rocks were freaking gigantic and they weren't particularly likely to go sliding around.

In order to plan out how these gigantic rocks would be cut and fit together, these brilliant Mayan architects used a set of carefully crafted blocks. They carved these blocks out of walrus tusk, which was particularly impressive because they had to go a really long ways to find walruses to harvest for tusks. But they made the long trek to get walrus tusk so that they could make these really groovy sets of blocks, and then they used these blocks to plan out how they were going to build their temples and towers and walls and stuff. They had to do use these tricky blocks because they were too stubborn to just build stuff out of wood, which is especially crazy when you consider that they were right in the middle of a rainforest.

These blocks were shaped like a pile of Tetris pieces, if Tetris was in 3D, and actually I think there was some kind of 3D Tetris thing, but I was in college then and mostly spent my time studying, drinking or chasing skirts. Anyway, these clever little walrus tooth blocks were stacked up on a little grid to make sure that the towers would last until the Mayan calendar gave out and the world ended. (Incidentally, I have it on good authority that the Mayan calendar ends when it does, not because they foresaw the end of the world, but because at some point some Mayan dude came around and said, 'what the hell are we going to do with 700 years of calendar? Stop already!' That, or they were trying to avoid paying overtime.)

Now, hundreds of years later, you can get your own sets of these crazy blocks, and you can even use them to play a game! In fact, when you buy Rumis, you get four sets of colored blocks, each in a different color, and you can gather some friends and all of you can try to build ancient Mayan architectural wonders. Of course, since these are plastic and not gigantic rocks or specially farmed walrus ivory, they kind of slip around, so your Mayan temples will probably not support a human sacrifice, which is just as well because those are really not as popular as they used to be.

You also get a wonderful lazy Susan - you know, one of those spinning plates where you can put your honey and then spin it really fast so it flies off and splatters all over the kitchen table. That way the board can rotate so you can look at your structure from every direction, to see if you can fit one more piece without having to lift your sorry ass up out of your chair and walk around the table.

The goal of the game is to try to cover up all your opponent's pieces and have the most pieces on top when everybody runs out (you are, after all, not Mayan architects, and don't really need to build gigantic rock towers. Hell, if you had enough real estate to build a pyramid, you could probably also afford to hire a builder, and not have to conquer a small country for slaves to push your humongous stone cubes into place). You can play nice and just try to leave yourself openings at the top, or you can play nasty and block your opponents so that they have to sit there with a bunch of pieces in front of them and no moves. So you don't get to rip out any hearts with ritual obsidian knives, but you do get to really stick it to your friends, and that's nearly as much fun.

Rumis is a cool abstract game with really nice pieces, though the plastic slides around too much and gets really wobbly when towers get tall, so you're not sure if you're building ancient Mexican towers or playing a game of Jenga. But it looks super pretty, and it's fun to play, and you have lots of chances to be mean to people who like you. If you're looking for an abstract game you can play with people who don't usually play games, Rumis is a good choice.

But if you're looking for a good way to plan out complex structures that you'll subsequently build out of enormous stone blocks, you'll need to get some walrus teeth and get carving. Or better yet, just hire a contractor. No wonder the Mayans are extinct.


Neat pieces
Cool idea
Tricky game that requires forethought and dimensional thinking
Great opportunities to be horrible to your friends

Pieces are too slickery, and towers fall apart when they get too tall

If you're building Machu Picchu in your back yard, Rumis won't work. But if you like abstract games, you can get a copy here:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bidding Game Review - For Sale

Game designers are filthy liars. They want us to believe some of the most ridiculous stories. According to game designers, I could walk from Iraq to Japan in less than a week. I could cross the Bering Strait by hopping across floating ice cubes. If I lived in feudal Japan, I could trade my grandmother for an army. And now this Stefan Dorra wants me to believe that I could buy a $1000 tepee and flip it for ten thousand dollars.

Dorra is perpetrating his fraud with a game called For Sale. In this game, you bid on different pieces of real estate, then you sell that real estate for huge profits. Except that Dorra thinks I'm gullible enough to believe that I could buy a castle in Switzerland for six or seven grand. How stupid do these game designers think we are?

For Sale tries to get us to believe that everyone really is equal by giving every player the same amount of money to start. That's obviously not true - look at Paris Hilton. That dame is born with an entire hotel chain in her wallet, and I'm stuck paying my own student loans. But no, For Sale tells us we each get a pile of coins worth nearly twenty thousand. Seriously? We're all equal, and that's all we get? That wouldn't even pay my mortgage for a year, yet I'm somehow supposed to use it to become a real estate tycoon?

The lie is furthered by telling us that we could buy ridiculous properties for this little pile of coin. Every turn, we're all allowed to bid on a number of properties equal to the number of players - a cardboard box might be up for grabs alongside a space station and a penthouse apartment. Everyone bids, and the lowest bidder takes the crappiest property, so if you end up taking that box for $1000, you just paid a hell of a lot of money for a cardboard shanty that probably smells of pickles and stale urine. On the other hand, someone else might get Skylab for less than the price of a used Geo Metro. That Stefan Dorra believes I would ever think I could get a space station for less than ten thousand dollars is an insult to my intelligence.

This bidding goes on until all the properties are claimed, and then the lie gets worse as we try to sell these properties. Now there are bills up for bid, and we blind bid for them with our properties. So now I might be able to sell that bum's sweet home for seven or eight thousand! Come on already! What kind of scammer would be able to sell a homeless guy a home for that much money? The last time I sold a homeless guy a refrigerator box, all I got was a pile of aluminimum cans and a recipe for gravy.

Once all the buildings have been exchanged for bills (and let me tell you, someone in make-believe land got a hell of a deal on Castle Neuschwanstein), everyone counts up their money, and the person with the most money wins. It's that simple. At least this part is honest - money can buy you happiness, or at least a win.

Now, while Stefan Dorra might be a sickening liar, he does know how to make a pretty decent game. While this sounds pretty simple, it's actually full of gut-wrenching decisions and requires good card-playing skills. The first phase is a tricky process of trying to outbid for the big properties while hanging onto your money for the medium-sized properties, so that you don't wind up picking up a doghouse. The second phase is all about bluffing - sure, your opponents know you have the highest property, and you know they know that, so will they go low to save their good cards, or go high, hoping that you try to take the big money with a mid-grade card? For a game with really easy rules that takes like 20 minutes to play, there's a surprising amount of interaction and tricky play. That makes it a pretty decent game in my book.

I cannot condone the underhanded trickery of which Stefan Dorra seems fond, but if you can separate the foulness of his lies from the brilliance of his game, For Sale might actually be a pretty good purchase. It's not too deep, but it's certainly not shallow, and it can be downright enjoyable as a quick game you pull out when company is over.


Easy rules
Quick play
Lots of tricky decision-making for such a small game
Great bidding mechanics
Fun art

It lies

For Sale is fun and light, even if it is full of the devil's lies. You can get one here:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Console Game Review - Rock Band 2

I was going to review For Sale tonight. I played it several times, had the review half-written in my head, and even had a couple ideas for stupid puns. And then my daughter's friend wound up spending the night, and she likes Rock Star, so we broke out the instruments and tore it up in the living room. And now instead of talking about a bluffing/bidding card game, I want to discuss kicking ass and taking names with fake guitars and a plastic drum set.

I wasn't into the idea of Rock Band at all. I thought it sounded stupid. I tried Guitar Hero in a Toys R Us, and thought it was one of the dumbest things ever. I couldn't have felt more retarded. So when my wife used the money my old man gave us for Christmas to buy Rock Star 2, I was not particularly pleased. I had plans for that money, plans that included games that didn't involve the television (and for Christmas, she also bought me Soul Caliber 4, which is total ass, but I haven't been able to bring myself to tell her that I would have much rather had Battlestar Galactica, so I played it anyway and pretended to like it).

My kids, on the other hand, were thrilled. They were so excited to break it out, set up the drums, wire up the guitar and microphone and get after it. Because, see, kids are dumb. They'll chase any trend, no matter how lame. For evidence, go to your local mall and look for a store called Hot Topic. It's door-to-door dumb trendy crap for kids who are trying to be different, just like everyone else. And dumb trends are the only way to explain Ugg boots.

At first, my kids were the only ones playing Rock Band 2. I was busy wishing I were reading through the rules for Dominion while I pretended to enjoy the books my wife bought me with the gift card my mom gave me. And then, as I sat there pretending to be enjoying myself, my kids played Eye of the Tiger.

I admit freely that I'm still stuck in the 80s. I was in eighth grade when Rocky 3 made Eye of the Tiger a huge one-hit wonder smash hit, and I still want to jump around in my drawers like Tom Cruise in Risky Business when that song comes on (and yes, I know Tom Cruise was listening to Old Time Rock N Roll. Don't bother me. I'm working here). So they started performing Eye of the Tiger, and my daughter was singing it, and she was murdering it. Totally ruining it. I couldn't stand it.

I walked up, took the microphone from her, and started to wail out the lyrics like I had big hair and lightning-striped tight pants. I tore it up. I even danced some. I mean, I was a total horse's ass - and I was hooked.

The next day we bought another guitar (Rock Band 2 only comes with one). My wife took over as lead singer, I play bass, my daughter is our drummer, and my boy is the baddest lead guitarist since Santana (you know, if Santana had a fake guitar with color-coded buttons instead of an actual instrument). I made a guy in a black t-shirt with no sleeves, torn jeans, and some frightening mutton chops. My son looks like Axel Rose and my daughter has pink hair and Gene Simmons make-up. My wife has a weird green pony tail. Our band is called the Toadstools, and we ROCK.

In case you're completely unaware of Rock Band 2, possibly because you live in a cave in Peru, here's how it works. You've got the capability to add up to four instruments - two guitars, a drum set, and a microphone. As a song plays, colored bars will scroll past, and you have to hit the right note at the right time (unless you're singing, and then you have to sing the right lyric). You get a score based on your accuracy, and you can play harder levels with more notes that come at you faster. Suck a lot, and you'll fail out. Kick ass, and you'll get lots of stars, which means money and fans.

But a mechanical explanation does not tell you why this game is so damned much fun. It's fun because you really get to feel like a rock star. You're Jon Bon Jovi, or Angus Young, or that one-armed dude from Def Leppard. You're rocking your pants off. I got all kinds of sweaty playing Rock Band 2 tonight, and I was just playing bass. Incidentally, I also came within half an inch of completely destroying the coffee table when I kicked out some jams (you won't ever hear me say that if it's not ironic), and I nearly fell over on top of my daughter's friend (who is incredibly skinny and probably would have died immediately).

The game comes with something like 80 songs, and you can download a whole hell of a lot more. We already downloaded a bunch of Cars songs (my wife is also an 80s fan) and Margaritaville (I have fond college memories of Jimmy Buffett. And no, I was not a stoner. I just liked the song). But you can get by with what comes on the disc - Modest Mouse, Nirvana, Lit, and even an AC/DC song. Sadly, the AC/DC song is Let There Be Rock, which as anyone knows is nowhere near as awesome as Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, but it's still AC/DC, so that's pretty cool.

I feel silly admitting my fondness for Rock Band 2, but at this point, I don't care. I love growling out the lyrics to Ace of Spades and then yelling to my kids (who are in the same room), 'Thank you Chicago!' (I do not live in Chicago). I love jumping up and stomping as I slam out the last bars of White Wedding. And I never get tired of playing that really fast riff in Eye of the Tiger with the guitar held over my head while my kids roll their eyes.


Feel like a totally bitchin' rock star
Customizable levels of challenge
Lots of music to choose from, with more available to buy online

You will feel stupid even if you're having fun
Only comes with one guitar
Selection of music needs work - I want some Van Halen, dammit

If you can't figure out where to pick up a copy of Rock Band 2, you don't deserve a link anyway.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Board Game Review - Age of Steam

Warning - this review contains more bathroom humor than normal. I mean, more than normal for me, which is a lot of bathroom humor. It might end up being a little bit gross. If you whine afterward and say something like, 'dude, you're sick, and you need help, and I'm mad at you' - I'm warning you right now, I'm just going to laugh because you were dumb and kept reading.

That's it. Last warning.

OK, here goes.

About five years ago, I worked with a guy who regularly used the phrase, 'taking a steam.' This phrase did not refer to a person enjoying a sauna like a mafia boss or porn starlet, sitting in a wooden room wearing just a towel, waiting for either a hitman or another girl (one of whom would be carrying towels and have a gun hidden, and the other would be about to drop her towel). No, 'taking a steam' was the work-friendly term he used to describe visits to the bathroom that required a longer-than-usual stay, and sometimes a little Lysol air freshener.

Now, if you know anything at all about Age of Steam, you know it has nothing to do with smelly bathroom visits. However, having spent years of my life referring to extended bathroom trips as 'taking a steam,' I have been chuckling quietly every time I heard about a train game that sounds like the world's longest bowel movement. I mean, a ten-minute steam is one thing, but one that takes so long they name an age after it? Don't anyone light a match!

Of course, Age of Steam is about trains, not poop, so the grade-school joke runs out pretty fast, especially if you haven't been calling your toilet visits 'steamers'. You might be thinking that the reason I started out with that 'taking a steam' story was to say that the game stinks, but not to worry - I think it's a blast. And not like a nasty, spend-the-afternoon-in-the-can blast, either. I just wanted to share some crude humor.

Age of Steam is a game about the early days of trains in the USA. Players represent railroad tycoons trying to build the most profitable train lines. It's a lot like Railroad Tycoon, in which players represent railroad tycoons trying to build the most profitable train lines, except it fits on your table, and the rules are a lot easier. You issue shares to get startup money, and then you use that startup money to build rail lines between cities, and then you move goods on our lines, and then you get paid, and then you give all your money to the shareholders because you're not earning fast enough. Then you do it again, like seven or eight times, and then you see who is the richest railroad mogul.

If you only play a couple turns, you might get the impression Age of Steam is a really hard game. Early on, you'll probably have to issue shares every turn to have the money to expand, and then all the money you make will go into paying for the shares. If you're aggressive, you'll be broke, and if you're not, the other tycoons will grab up all the sweet routes and you'll be left shipping pork rinds between Poughkeepsie and Toronto. Once you get going, though, you'll be able to earn so much money that your railroad will grow like hungry baby elephant (happily, trains do not make near as much solid waste as baby elephants. They make actual steam, whereas the baby pachyderm makes that metaphorical steam I discussed earlier).

The thing that marks Age of Steam as a really great game, rather than merely enjoyable, is the fact that you'll have dozens of choices every turn, but you'll only have to learn a few rules. It's not as simple as a Reiner game, or anything, but the rules are easy to learn and quick to play, yet provide incredible depth. You'll be torn between building your rails to expand and saving your money so you don't have to issue shares. Should you try to move goods first, to get the jump on your competition, or should you expand your rail line so you can make those really long hauls? When it comes time to bid for turn order, do you crap or get off the pot?

And it's so popular that there are expansions all over the place. In fact, the copy I got from Eagle Games has two expansion maps right in the box, in case I get bored of shipping jelly beans to Pittsburg and want to haul Egyptian hashish all over Barbados. There are like 30 expansion maps, which will keep you enjoying Age of Steam for a very long time.

Now, there are a lot of people who get really mad about this game. Unreasonably mad. They get all red-faced, and grunt a lot, and... come to think of it, there's another poop joke working here. They hate that Eagle Games released a third edition. They think FRED screwed it all up. They complain about missing rules (which aren't missing in my copy), or inferior components (which is dumb, because these pieces are AWESOME), and otherwise have a conniption until they fill their pants.

Those people are dumb.

This is a ridiculously good game. I can't wait to play it again, and many more times after that. If you're not into train games, avoid this one - it's the definitive train game - but for everyone else, you're going to love Age of Steam, no matter which version you pick up.

As an added bonus, you can read the rules for Age of Steam while you're taking a steam.


Perfect balance of rules complexity and depth
Really awesome components, including cool little plastic trains
Just plain totally kick-ass game

Some people don't like the most recent edition... but they're dumb

It's been a while since I played a game as fun as Age of Steam. You can preorder one here:

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hooray For Long Weekends!

A rich douchebag pulls up at a stop light in his Ferrari. He's feeling pretty cool, like he could race the wind, and when an old dude on a bicycle pulls up next to him, he yells, "Hey, old-timer, wanna race?"

The old man is not impressed. 'Sonny, in my day, I could have beat your fancy car on foot.'

The rich guy is a little ruffled, but before he can reply, the light changes. So he slams the gas pedal and takes off, leaving the old man in a cloud of burnt rubber. He looks into the rearview mirror and laughs at the old man disappearing... and then the old man isn't disappearing, he's closing incredibly fast.

The guy slows down. He's flabbergasted. And the old man on the bicycle screams past - literally, he's screaming his lungs out as he shoots past the Ferrari like it was parked. In seconds flat, the old guy is far ahead, and the compensating asshole isn't having it. He guns it again and shoots forward.

It's no surprise that he catches the old guy (still screaming like he was sitting on a cattle prod) and flies past. He laughs to himself.

"Try and catch me now, grampa!"

He looks into his rearview, waving goodbye - but once again, the old guy is closing. The rich dick is amazed. His jaw drops. He can't believe when the old man shoots past again, screaming like a banshee.

The Ferrari asshole knows when he's beat. He cruises up next to the old man, who has stopped screaming and now is just panting for breath.

"Damn, old man, you sure can ride that thing. I give. You win."

The old guy looks over at him, his hair blown everywhere, bugs in his teeth, eyes wild, and says,

"Whatever you say, sonny! But for the love of God, let me unhook my suspenders from your side mirror!"


This joke is what you get instead of a review tonight. I had Monday off, and enjoyed an incredibly busy three-day weekend. And while I had a good time and got a lot done, I also didn't sit down long enough to write a review. So I'll have one Wednesday night, when I review Age of Steam. In the meantime, feel free to tell this joke to your friends. I didn't come up with it, so it's no skin off my nose either way.

Friday, February 13, 2009

General Rave - Tom Vasel Rules

I think it's time I cleared up a little something important:

Tom Vasel is awesome.

In the last year and a half since I started writing Drake's Flames, I've taken more than one unsubtle jab at the undisputed (in my mind) king of board game reviewers. I've suggested that his reviews are boring, for instance, or that he provides too much information and not enough commentary. I think one time I said something nice about him, but mostly I just make fun of him, his show and his reviews in general.

And it's completely unfair. Tom's podcast, The Dice Tower, is an industry giant. If he likes your game and talks about it on the show, you'll sell a bunch. He's so big, you can't afford not to send him copies of your game. He's the most-referenced game reviewer alive today (that might not be true - I have done no research of any kind). When world leaders want to know if they should buy Arkham Horror or Fury of Dracula, they call Tom Vasel (that's actually very unlikely to be true).

To make my spurious accusations even worse, Tom's a hell of a nice guy. I haven't actually met him in person - he lives in Korea, for one thing - but he's a great sport and he's great about helping out new publishers. While many reviewers get all self-important because they write for big money, Tom just keeps cranking out reviews with nothing but free games to show for his work, and he still manages not to get a big head about it.

As if these weren't two great reasons to be ashamed of myself, I have a big one saved up for last - Tom has personally helped me get VixenTor Games off the ground. He and Sam Healey (the under-appreciated cohost of The Dice Tower) talked up my dice towers in multiple podcasts, and even helped me run a contest that got me even more exposure. So now I'm not just attacking a big name who happens to be a nice guy, I'm taking shots at a guy who has personally made me money. And that ain't right.

But it is funny, and that's kind of what I do. I love to mock popular people, because it makes people laugh. I like to say wholly inappropriate things about people who are less fortunate than I am, because while some people might be outraged, others laugh until Mountain Dew shoots out their noses. It's not always pretty, and to be completely honest, it's not even always funny, but I do my absolute best to be as entertaining as possible, and like the saying goes, you can't make an omelette with sardines because that would be nasty (that's a bit of a paraphrase, and come to think of it, it doesn't make any sense).

To make matters even more complicated, Tom and I have completely different styles when it comes to reviews, and different opinions on what it means to write a review. Tom often spends more than half of a review explaining mechanics; I don't think a reviewer's job is to tell you the rules. Tom's opinions are generally a quick summation after a relatively objective description of the game; I try to be as subjective as possible and let you read an FAQ if you want to know how the game works. Tom tries to give his audience a fair and balanced view of the game that won't hurt too many feelings if he doesn't like the game; I try to present my most honest opinion, along with some moderately humorous and often offensive colorful language. Tom is beloved throughout the hobby gaming world; I have a growing list of publishers who won't return my calls (and I think one of them sent me an anthrax letter). Tom is family-friendly; I'm crassly opinionated with occasional bathroom humor.

So allow me to be perfectly clear on this point - I like Tom Vasel, and I think he's a bad-ass game reviewer and a nice guy, to boot, and I hope he keeps reviewing games until we're both pushing 90 and living in Florida, and all our reviews start with, 'in my day...'. And also allow me to be clear on this point - he's a great big target, and my mocking phasers are permanently set to 'cheap shot', so you'll see more cracks about Tom Vasel and The Dice Tower and over-informative, under-amusing game reviews for as long as I write this site.

See, there was one right there.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Card Game Review - Geek Fight

I'll be the first to admit that I write reviews for the free games. It's a pretty decent racket, too, except when I get a box full of crappy games that I have to play anyway. I don't know why, but it seems every third game I get in the mail is a dull Reiner game where you do a lot of math.

But you may not want to spend hours every week writing boring, unreadable tripe about games that suck just so you can save a few bucks, so you may want to find an alternative method of procuring games. For most people, that alternative method is to just pay for them, and in all honesty, that's probably the ideal method. You get to be a lot more choosy about your games when you actually buy them instead of just relying on marketing departments to overcome their common sense and send you free stuff just so you can compare it to dog puke.

Diving Dragon Games, however, thinks there's yet another way - get someone else to pay for the game. They have a wacky semi-collectible card game that is almost entirely funded by advertisers. Every game card features an ad, so you might be playing the game while you look at an ad by those weird guys who make swords based on video games and pointy ears so that nerds can look like Spock (if Spock had acne and a fat suit).

For an idea like this to work, the game has to be pretty good. People pay good money for a game and still quit if it sucks, so how much patience can you hope to see if your game is free? That's right, about none (unless it's going to a reviewer, who you hope is willing to give it a fair shake even if it was a freebie, which is why you probably don't send me games). So Geek Fight (that ad-funded game I just mentioned) needs to have some chops if it hopes to work as an advertising venue.

Right out of the gate, Geek Fight looks pretty good. The cards are all the size of business cards, but printed on really thick stock with a very nice laminate. Expenses were not spared on the printing. The art may have saved a few bucks - it appears to have been created by a variety of artists whose talent falls somewhere on a spectrum that starts with cheesy low-budget RPG artist and goes all the way up to slick but undiscovered genius who probably smokes too much weed to get off his ass and send out his portfolio already. But the deciding factor here is the theme.

As you might have guessed from the name, Geek Fight is about nerds who beat on each other. It plays to every bizarre and irritating gamer stereotype ever, including the smelly nerd, the random anime cosplayer, the gaming wannabe with too much cash, and the asswipe convention security guard (and if you've ever been to GenCon, you know every one of these is based on actual people. Especially the dickhead rentacop). The idea is that you're at a con, and you have this team of nerds, and you decide to beat up this other team of nerds using stuff like overloaded dice bags and foam swords, and they'll fight back with horrible armpit stink and concession stand hot dogs.

Now, this might be exactly your cup of tea. You might think a game about nerds beating up nerds is incredibly clever. And it sort of is, but being a nerd myself, I would have loved the game if it were about space rangers killing aliens or goblin defenders repelling the dwarven menace. See, I'm the guy the game mocks, and while I'm a huge fan of self-referential humor, I'm actually a much bigger fan of the games that are played by the guys that the game mocks. The theme just doesn't grab me, and that's the first strike on Geek Fight.

At least the rules are pretty straight-forward. You have to have exactly one fighter in the ring - when one gets beat down, you bring out another, and if you can't, you lose. You attack every turn, subtracting your strength from your opponent's health. You can spend resources to bring out weapons and use tactics, and some things work better with some fighters, so you can sort of build your mini decks to take advantage of their strengths. It's pretty basic, really, and I think that's a second strike.

See, I like a game where you can be tricky as sin, where you concoct the perfect brew of heinous misdeeds ahead of time to lay low your foes, where no decision is an easy decision. But in Geek Fight, the decisions are generally pretty obvious - you have to attack, and it's not like there's a reason not to swing. If you have stuff in your hand that you could play, you probably should, so that you can get the bonus. Opportunities to be conniving are few and far between, and that means that to be really interesting to me, the game would need to fall back on a great theme... except I don't really care for the theme, which meant that Geek Fight got stale on me after I played it three times.

But you're not out on two strikes (to flip over to a baseball euphemism instead of a gamer metaphor), and Geek Fight does at least get a base hit. The game isn't totally intolerable, just a little uninspired. The theme may not include zombies (as anyone knows, zombies make any game better), but it's fairly amusing. And the idea behind the game is pure genius. In fact, the concept is the saving grace here. Watch - five years from now, every major game publisher will have an ad-supported game, and ads will go for seriously rich cash, and Geek Fight will be a huge collector's item, with full sets going for hundreds on eBay.

So give it a shot. Take a look. See what games are going to look like when your kids are out of high school, and at least take the damned thing for a spin. You might like the theme, and it might be a great little filler game.

And hell, it's practically free.


Some decent gaming concepts
Ad-supported gaming could be the wave of the future

I don't dig the theme
Gameplay not particularly compelling

Seriously, it's like a dollar. Give it a shot:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

TCG Expansion Review - World of Warcraft Raid Decks

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed the World of Warcraft TCG, which is unfortunately costing me a ton of cash these days, and taking up an inordinate amount of my time. I mentioned that I thought raid decks were cool, but didn't really expand on them, because they're so awesome they require their own review. So before much more time slips away (and before everyone quits playing the WoW TCG to move on to the next big cardboard time/money suck), here's a quick write-up of the coolest thing to happen to collectible card games since Magic.

If you play collectible card games, you're almost certainly aware that many of them can be played with multiple players. These are almost always team affairs or a sort of deathmatch mode, where everyone is essentially on equal footing. Some of my favorite games of Magic (back in 1993, when the game was new), were five-player games where we each played a different color, and you had two allies and two opponents, and you won when everyone got too tired because the game lasted like three hours. But like Virginia Slims, we've come a long way, baby.

Raid decks are an all new way to play a multiplayer CCG. They're particular to the World of Warcraft TCG, but that won't be the case for long - sooner or later (probably sooner), some other publisher is going to create all-against-one decks that totally piggyback on this idea. It's sort of like how right after WizKids made the pirate game where you built ships out of reprinted credit cards, and then out of the blue, Wizards is making a Star Wars thing with spaceships you make out of reprinted credit cards. Or the way Wizards invents the collectible card game and then everyone on the freaking planet is making one, including Upper Deck (the people who make this game). So I guess there's kind of a people-who-live-in-glass-houses thing, and we can't really blame some other publisher when they come up with total rip-off concepts (though it will make me a little angry if Wizards tries to patent the idea).

Raid decks simulate the part of the online game where you get a bunch of friends you haven't met together in one place that doesn't exist so you can send your digital heroes against some preprogrammed supervillain to win electronic weapons so that you can beat up other virtual bogies, or just gank other people's guys. Only in the card game, you get actual friends around an actual table in your actual house, and the raiders each have a regular deck made from all those expensive cards you own, and you have this special deck that can totally beat the crap out of them.

These raid decks are incredibly impressive. In a straight one-on-one brawl, there's no way a standard deck could beat a raid deck. They're not even remotely fair. It would be like a Hulk Hogan versus Stephen Hawking cage match (which I am hesitant to admit has a certain twisted attraction). So if you're going to go after a raid deck, you'll need friends.

Normally, three players would face off against a raid deck, but normally, you would also have a whole bunch of cards and be really good at the game. If you're new to the World of Warcraft TCG, you may not even understand how much you suck until you've played against a raid deck. You can build three decks that you think are fantastic, just to spend four turns in a row watching everything you play crumble to dust while the bad guys laugh at you and body-slam you out of your wheelchair.

Take, for instance, Magtheridon's Lair. In this raid, your intrepid heroes have to mount an assault on a bunch of evil channelers who have this creepy devil dude chained up, using his blood to power their spells. First you have to beat the channelers, and honestly, they're not that much trouble. But then when you beat them, Magtheridon himself is unleashed, and holy CRAP does he deliver a beating. He'll clothesline you right out of the ring and beat you with a metal chair until you're just lying there saying, 'help. help.' in a raspy robot voice.

But not every raid deck is the same. For instance, Magtheridon has a couple allies he can summon, but for the most part, he's flying solo. Onyxia's Lair can break off a bunch of irritating whelps, but otherwise the black dragon pretty much fights on her own. The Black Temple and Molten Core decks, on the other hand, have several difficult minions and villains who get a lot tougher over time. It almost feels like you're vanquishing one boss monster after another, and a surprisingly cool story-telling aspect develops over time.

If you're very good at the TCG, the raid decks might not offer a whole lot of challenge for you. But if you're new to the game, or just kind of suck at it, they can be really damned hard. Happily, you can take the edge off a little by adding another player or two. For instance, our raid players got totally destroyed by the Black Temple, and then took a pretty painful beating from The Molten Core, before they just added a mage and built decks to be cooperative. Then they killed Magtheridon without losing anyone, and they're looking forward to taking a shot at Onyxia's Lair.

One of the reasons these raid decks are such a draw (beyond being a really fantastic way to play a CCG) is the treasure cards. If your heroes can manage to tag-team the big boss to death, they can open the foil-card treasures (or they can just open them anyway, totally defeating the purpose of their existence, but that wouldn't be nearly as much fun, would it?). These are some of the most amazing equipment cards in the game - super-powerful stuff made for a variety of deck types that will make nearly any player drool. I don't even know if they're tournament legal, and since I don't play tournaments, I don't care. Our players are all excited to include these totally bitchin' weapons in their standard decks, though, and so they can't wait to see what they can find if they could just get past those fire demons in Molten Core.

If you're already sinking hundreds of dollars a week into the World of Warcraft TCG, you might as well divert a couple bucks to try out a raid deck. If nothing else, you can get your mitts on those cool foil treasure cards, and if you can find a loot card to sell on eBay, you can even justify the purchase to your wife when she asks why you keep spending all the grocery money.


Fun way to play a cooperative multiplayer CCG
Like a dungeon crawl with cards
Awesome treasure cards

Can be really hard or really easy, depending on your players and their decks

You can buy raid decks pretty much anywhere that sells the TCG. Try Amazon. They've got some decent prices.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Wretched Game Review - Gem Dealer

You know, Monday I was so happy to be able to write a good review of High Society, because it was a Reiner game and I don't really like Reiner Knizia very much (we were OK after that big party where he kept us up all night playing 'Wang Chung' until dawn, but when his pet monkey violated my garden gnomes, that was the last straw). That review felt like a healing stream of good will, bringing us back together so that I could finally forget how the extermination in his attic sent all the raccoons to my house.

That healing stream is stopped up now, though. If there ever was flowing water, it has dried up like the swimming pool after he emptied the cat box into it and I had to have it drained. And it's not about the midnight fireworks or clown-shaped mailbox, either - it's all due to Gem Dealer.

This horrifyingly stupid bidding game is one of the worst examples of Reiner Knizia selling a game just because he's Reiner Knizia. No other game designer alive today could have sold this game to a publisher. It's like he didn't even try it before he sold it - just scribbled notes on a napkin, signed it, and got a fifty-thousand dollar advance.

The game is really simple. There is a huge pile of gems in the middle of the table - lots of really cool plastic nuggets in five different colors. One player starts, and he picks a color and bids on it. Everyone who bids loses their money, and the winner gets that gem. If you can get gems in four
different colors, you win. I've added my own additional winning condition - if you can figure out how to erase the profanity Reiner put in my lawn with fertilizer, you win.

The problem is, you don't have enough cards to be competitive in more than one or two colors, and there are wild cards that can be used to really blow you out of the water. Drawing cards is all luck, so you might wind up with a total powerhouse of cards, or you could sit there and watch one guy collect four gems in a row (this is actually the ideal scenario in Gem Dealer, because it ends the game and then you can stop playing). It's not like a decision is ever tricky - if you can up the bid, you should, and if you can't, there's not much you can do but draw a card. You don't have control unless you're the first bidder, and if you are the first to bid, you choose the color where you have the most points in your hand.

There might be strategy, but I sure as hell didn't see any. I never saw a single time when I had a tough choice to make, and if I didn't have enough to outbid, I didn't have a choice anyway.

The upside is, it's over a lot faster than that time Reiner's kids spent an afternoon screaming Woody Guthrie lyrics at each other in the back yard while my dog was recovering from hernia surgery. You can finish in less than ten minutes - which is, unfortunately, still more time than you're going to wish you had spent playing Gem Dealer.


The plastic gems are cool

Virtually no decision-making
Completely unbalanced luck
Stinks more than the limburger Reiner smeared in my garage

Don't buy Gem Dealer. And be glad you don't live next to this guy:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dice Game Review - Roll Through the Ages (The Bronze Age)

Developing a new civilization has to be one hell of a tricky day job. I mean, my day job is to make catalogs, and that can sometimes be tough, but taking a civilization from stone weapons to the Great Pyramids just seems like it would really be a bitch. Between famine and pestilence and sex scandal in the White Palace, being in charge of an emerging civilization must have been harder than a job as Christian Bale's manners coach.

Now, if those ancient tribes of primitive leaders had just had a set of wooden dice, things might have been a lot easier. I mean, when I played Roll Through the Ages, we managed to build cities, erect monuments, and develop irrigation in less than an hour. Can you imagine how much more difficult it would have been if we had actually been required to hire slaves and make them drag big stone blocks around? God, the paperwork alone must have been a nightmare.

Roll Through the Ages makes the whole thing easy. You start off with three cities, and each city lets you roll a die. The dice are all the same, but they have crazy stuff on every side, like one side will have three pieces of wheat, another has a jar of something-or-other, another has some people on it, and other sides have coins and skulls. The skulls are the ones to watch for, though - roll a few of these, and you might get invaded by Huns or give all your opponents smallpox (OK, that's actually kind of fun).

Every turn, you have several things to manage. You need food to feed your cities, and the more cities you have, the more food you need. You need goods and coins to develop stuff like medicine and granaries and architecture. You need workers to build more cities, and erect those gaudy monuments that must have seemed totally unnecessary at the time, but ended up being used by enterprising locals as tourist attractions for centuries (showing that the Bronze Age rulers had an incredible amount of vision). And all the while, you have to keep ahead of the Joneses, because it would be just like those damned Babylonians to go and build the Great Wall first, and leave the Chinese looking like copycats. Let's face it - nobody goes to visit the other Machu Picchu.

As the game progresses, bad stuff is going to happen. You'll roll too many skulls and wind up with drought, or invasion, or really itchy scalp way before anyone invents Selsun Blue. And when that happens, you lose points. You have to keep track of all these lost points, because at the end of the game, you subtract all those points from your achievements. It doesn't do much good to develop masonry if everyone revolts before you even get to build a brick outhouse.

When all the monuments have been built, or someone finishes five different developments, the game ends and everyone counts up their scores to see if they were the most impressive budding civilization. The player who built the most impressive civilization, as shown by adding up all your good stuff and subtracting all your disasters, gets to pretend he's King Tut. Everyone else gets to hit him with an orange in a sock for pretending to be King Tut.

By and large, I really enjoy Roll Through the Ages. It's a ton of luck, what with all the dice, but it's still fairly even. Poor planning at the beginning can sink you at the end, and a few bad rolls will ruin your day, but for the most part, the luck works out. In fact, the luck is part of the game - you roll and make the best of what you get. Since you get three or four rerolls (though you have to keep skulls), you'll have a chance to do something, even if it does end up being getting invaded and making an incredible number of clay pots.

There are a few problems, though. For one thing, there's virtually no player interaction. In fact, the game includes rules for solo play, because you never really get to stick it to your opponents (or invade them and use them as slaves, which would be way more fun). There's a little competition - you want to build the big monuments first, and you can hurt everyone else with pestilence if you roll just right - but mostly it's a bunch of people all taking turns playing a solo game and comparing scores at the end.

The biggest problem, ironically, is a direct result of multiple competitors. I haven't done an in-depth study of the game (because I have a job and a family and a television), but it seems to me that the best way to win is to build a bunch of cities really fast and then build the biggest monuments as quick as possible. You can have all kinds of calamities if you can go hide inside your pyramids. This means that there's not much reason to devote much time to the developments, which is kind of disappointing because the developments were one of my favorite parts of Roll Through the Ages. It does make the game go fast, but that's not always what I want in a game. In this case, I really would have liked the option to develop engineering and coinage before I went off to build the Parthenon. Instead, I can just spend two turns dumping all my workers into a monument and rack up a huge score for it.

But even with the lack of interaction and the abbreviated ending, Roll Through the Ages still barrels of fun. It's a fast-paced dice game where it pays to take risks and you can't ever have enough food (kind of like being a teenager). You can break it out and finish in less than an hour, and if you really just like the way it works, you can play all by your sad, lonesome self.


Really neat wooden components
Quick and intuitive
Risky - who dares, wins (unless they die)
Lots of chances to plan ahead and still be flexible

Not enough opportunity to ruin your friends
Ends before it really gets going

If you like dice games with a good element of risk management and long-term planning, pick up Roll Through the Ages. You can get it right here:

Monday, February 2, 2009

Card Game Review - High Society

If you read my reviews on a regular basis, you've probably noticed that I really don't like Reiner Knizia. It's nothing personal (although his last name does kind of sound like a Polish pastry). I think he's a genius. But I also think that after some huge early successes, he's spent the recent years of his career trading on his name. He makes half-assed efforts at weak math games and sells them to major publishers because they can put 'Reiner Knizia's' at the beginning of the game titles.

So it is with great joy that I review High Society, a bidding game designed by Reiner Knizia. And before you get defensive about your personal gaming hero, I like it. I'm happy because I get the chance to prove that I can judge every game on its own, without bringing my own personal bias to bear (again, if you read my reviews, you know damned well that last bit is a lie - I'm all about personal bias).

High Society is not a big game. It's published by Gryphon Games, rising from the ashes of Eagle Games to put out a handful of light, easy games, and continue to sell all those gigantic Eagle games that hardcore gamers love to spend all afternoon playing (in fact, when Gryphon Games sent me a bunch of their most recent games, they threw in Age of Steam, which I'll review later - as in, after I blow an afternoon playing it).

In High Society, as with nearly every Reiner game ever made, there's a theme that's only slightly weaker than a Near Beer (I'm still not sure why Reiner puts themes on his games at all. It would seem a lot more honest to just call them all 'Math Game X', where X is the most recent math game created by Reiner. X is currently in the hundreds). So since the theme is almost entirely pointless, I'm not going to tell you what it is. Guess from the title, or go look it up, I don't care.

Each player has an equal hand of cash cards. There are a bunch of card-sized tiles, and every turn one will flip up and everyone will bid on it. Most of these are numbered 1-10, and the 10 is really valuable, and the 1 is... well, not. Then there are cards that double your score at the end of the game, and these are great, as long as you can grab a numbered tile or two before the game ends. Bidding goes around in circles, raising or dropping out, and only the winner has to pay. This is important - you may want to raise the bidding to break your opponent, but raise too far and you'll wind up paying too much. It's a tricky balance. It's like my good friend Kenny Rogers used to say - you gotta know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em. Oh, and when to run away, but I don't think that applies to this game unless you're playing with your in-laws.

The real kickers are the three bad cards. These can make you discard a number card, cut your score in half, or just cost you points. You don't want these cards (which, unless you're stupid, you could figure out on your own). There are only three of these, and the bidding works the same way - except that the first person to fold takes the card and keeps his cash, and everyone else has to pay. If you can afford to bleed your opponents, this is an excellent way to make someone else throw away all their money. But if you're not careful, one of your opponents might just accept the calamity, and then you end up paying when you're probably already short on cash, and then instead of being all clever, you end up with egg on your face (which may or may not be an improvement for you).

The game ends when auctions finish for all the score doublers and the score halver (is halver a word? I don't know. Someone industrious can go look it up, if you want, and then criticize me for my weak grasp of my mother tongue). At this point, everyone totals up their scores - but there's one more poke in the eye. If you're the person with the least cash left in your hand, you're automatically out. That's right, you could have the winning score, but if you left yourself bankrupt, it doesn't matter - the math police come and take away all your points, letting someone else run off with the win while you have to play Atlanteon and that horrible Lord of the Rings game that Reiner made for kids.

The end result of all this tricky bidding is a really tense and strategic game of high-stakes bidding. Not every round is crucial - until the game ends and the player who grabbed at the cheapest card winds up beating you by one point. You can't afford to go all in, ever, and you can't afford to let the really big fish swim past. So you have to bid up when the good prizes are out there, because if you let someone snatch the hot cards without a fight, they'll have plenty of ammo left to beat you down later. Even the seemingly weak cards are important, because every round is an opportunity to either score or cost someone else some money. You won't know the winner until the last hand is over.

In the end, High Society is a quick, fun bidding game with a theme more watery than American beer. It's amazing how much tension can build in a game you can play in twenty minutes. But the greatest thing about High Society is that when you finish, and you just barely wound up in second place, you'll want to look at everyone else and go, 'rematch, bitches.'


Very well-designed and tense
An amazing amount of strategy for such a short game
Rules are easy and make sense
Really quick game

Completely pointless theme (which should go without saying - it's a Reiner game)

If you want a lot of game crammed into a short period of time, get yourself a copy of High Society right here: