Monday, March 30, 2009

Board Game Review - Age of Conan

I don't think I'm a very good nerd. I'm definitely a nerd - don't get me wrong - but I don't think I'm very good at it. Like, I haven't been watching Battlestar Galactica, and I don't really care if I ever see Watchmen. The only reason the Princess Leia slave outfit appeals to me is because the girl is almost naked - it could have been a bikini on a Victoria's Secret model and got the exact same thrill factor. And to really bring home how bad I am at being a nerd, I've never really been all that into Conan.

Now before you pull my geek badge, allow me some points in my defense. First, I have read a lot of the comic books. I saw the movie when I was a kid. I know that King Conan ruled Aquilonia. I also know that I would totally do Brigitte Nielsen, whether or not she was dressed as Red Sonja (I saw a picture of her from 2008, and she is aging quite well. Not Morgan Fairchild well, but still pretty damned good). I like Conan, I just always thought parts of it were silly, and I thought Howard was kind of a crappy writer.

So while I was interested in a Conan board game, I wasn't quite as giddy as some of the guys I play games with now and then. I'll be hard-pressed to turn down a good game with friends, though, so we rolled that puppy out last weekend and I have to say - it's a tall glass of pure distilled Kentucky awesome.

Even if you're not a Conanophile, even if you never bothered to see that second Conan movie, Age of Conan is going to rock your face off. Hell, just the components are ten pounds of gorgeous in a five pound bag. There are different sculpts for every group (as there should be - even I know that Aquilonians don't look like Stygians, though until I played this game I didn't even know Turan existed). The board is huge and beautiful, and the cards are amazing, and even the freaking dice are nice. I'll grant you that the colors are a tad garish, but when you sit down at the table and this behemoth is set up all over the place, you're going to be glad you decided to drop a car payment on a wargame.

And there can be no mistake - this is definitely a wargame. Even if you only know about Conan from stories your friends told, you still know a Conan game has to have some pretty considerable violence. Heck, there are counters called 'Crom! Count the dead!' and at the end of the game, the player with the most of them gets a pretty nice little point boost. You can send out emissaries to make allies, but if you want to win the game, you have to stomp other kingdoms into the mud.

Age of Conan also includes one of my favorites gimmicks - dice that tell you what you can do on your turn. I love when a game does this. You roll a bunch of dice, and they have different symbols on them, and you choose one and do that. Like you might choose a military die to start a war, or choose an intrigue die to try your hand at some politics. If you're close to the end of the pool, there won't be as many dice left, so part of the strategy behind choosing a die is trying to remove options for the guy who comes after you. This particular mechanic is brilliantly executed, and ensures that to be competitive, you have to balance a long-term strategy with short-term flexibility. Plus one of the dice lets you take turns with Conan.

The Conan part of this game is continued genius. It's an extended tantric orgasm of genius. Every so often, everyone will bid to try to control Conan and profit from his adventures, and having Conan on your side can be a powerful help. Plus if Conan is in your country, you don't want your neighbor to be able to control him, because he can also do a pretty slick job of slapping you around like a vampire witch.

The theme in Age of Conan is executed with what approaches flawless integration of game and source material. Sorcery will help the Stygians turn the tides of battles, while military superiority will push the Aquilonians to victory. Conan may show up and run roughshod over a region one day, and then be helping to repel invaders the next. And to round it all out, the game ends when one brazen player attempts to make Conan the king (or when nobody does and Conan gets bored and moves into a trailer with his old lady to make handcrafted wrought-iron sculptures).

Crowning Conan is unlikely, risky and difficult - but it can be done, and while it doesn't necessarily guarantee a win, it's pretty close to it, because the player who can make Conan the king of his country gets a pile of points. The downside is that if he tries and fails, Conan chops off his head and turns it into a cereal bowl, so you really don't want to blow this if you decide to give it a shot.

And that brings me around to some of my complaints. Just because it's a concentrated espresso shot of kick-ass does not mean the Age of Conan is without flaws. My biggest beef is that a couple good swings of luck is all a crappy player needs to win. You can play with a genius unrivaled since Napoleon Bonaparte and still lose because another guy happens to pull the right card at the right time. You can roll the action dice and wind up without one single thing you can use to further your plans. You can set a gigantic army against an incredibly tiny one and be completely repulsed. I may be old-fashioned, but if I play better than anyone else at the table, I want to win.

Part of the reason that I mind the luck in this game is because it takes so long to play. It's one thing to lose a game after an hour because the dice flipped you the bird, but it's a real whip to lose the game after five hours just because the wrong card hit the table at the wrong time.

But two complaints are not enough to make Age of Conan anything but white lightning kick-ass. This is still one hell of a fun game, and even if you're not a fan of huge Austrian barbarians with lantern jaws, Age of Conan is one of the most thematically perfect, deeply intelligent, and just plain thrilling wargames I've played in my whole life.


Absolutely amazing components
Perfectly executed theme
Lots and lots to do

Takes forever
Unbalancing amounts of luck

I am delighted to announce that Dogstar Games has Age of Conan. And it's $30 cheaper than I would have had to pay at my local game store, and comes with free shipping. And for the icing on the cake, when you buy from Dogstar Games, you give them good reason to keep sending me free games, which allows me to offer you reviews of games you actually want to play, instead of crap I picked up at yard sales. So go here and get it, or the next review I write might be Pictionary:

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Announcement - Feral Instinct

There's an old saying that has been on my mind recently:

'Those who can, do. Those who can't, write snarky comments and make crude jokes.'

I've been thinking a lot lately about games in general, and specifically reviews. See, I strut around my little rooster pen crowing about how this game is great and this game blows goats, but what have I done to show why you ought to pay attention, besides make some cracks about transgender prostitutes and illegal narcotics? Sure, I've been writing about games for a long time, but how does that make me any more an expert than anyone reading my casually offensive rants?

For that matter, why do we believe any game reviewer? Why does one guy's opinion have enough merit that we go back over and over to see what he thinks, especially when that one guy's total accomplishments include just playing a lot of games? Hell, if my readers don't play lots of games, they're either horribly confused or just waiting to see what poop reference I make next.

So that got me to thinking, and that got me to scheming, and that got me to doing something.

I'm going to make a game.

I know it's hard. I have several friends who make games, and a whole lot more who playtest games. I've seen the amount of work that goes into making something useful and enjoyable. I've seen what happens when you take short cuts, and I've seen the results of long hours of hard work. I know that making games is no picnic, and it's not for sissies who are afraid of failure. But I think it's a worthwhile endeavor, and I intend to see it through and make something I can play.

Here's the thing, though - I'm arrogant enough to think that people should read my typewritten vomitus, but I'm not arrogant enough to think that I can make a good game all by myself when the closest I've ever come to game design is making boxes so you can roll your dice. So I'm going to enlist some aid, and that's where you come in (unless you just stopped by to see if this was a music blog. You might not be much help in that case).

I'm going to openly ask for comments. I'm going to ask for people to email me and ask me if they can help me make a game. In short, I'm going to try something really tough so that I can earn a little street cred, and then I'm totally going to pawn off as much as possible on other people. Specifically, you.

Now, I've already got a game started. If games were babies, this one would be somewhere between Mom and Dad having to tell the kids that they were testing the mattress and finding out if we're having a boy or a girl. It's a card-based combat game where kung-fu style animals duke it out with magic, swords, bows and the occasional loud fart. It's called Feral Instinct (a name chosen by my daughter, and thoroughly approved by me).

So if you would like to help me prove that I'm capable of more than just abusing other people who have worked harder than I have, please email me (my email is in my profile) and let me know. I don't have a whole lot so far, but maybe we can start one of those silly Yahoo groups and swap files and figure out how to block spammers from posting pictures of naked girls. I honestly don't have this all figured out just yet, but I know one or two of my readers have made games, and I figure maybe we could trick those guys into kicking in a little aid now and then.

And feel free to add comments to this post. After all, if it takes a village to raise a child, it probably takes a global community to help me make a game. I'll update now and then with progress reports, and maybe once we get something cool put together, I'll put out an official Drake's Flames game, and then you can all play it and say, 'now, here's a guy who knows his business.' Or, just to mix it up a little, someone out there can compare my game to a pile of stinking dog crap.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Card Game Review - Rank

I hate to do this. Honestly, no kidding, I take no joy in this... but I have to beat the bejeezus out of a John Clowdus game.

In case you're not familiar with super small-press games, John Clowdus is the genius behind Small Box Games. This one dude has made some really awesome games - Great Potlatch, Elemental Rift, and especially Dirge are some really wicked fun games. And the really amazing thing is that he does it all himself (well, his wife helps). I mean, aside from having cards printed, John Clowdus hand-assembles every game. He is a really clever game designer, and he regularly turns out really brilliant games.

But not even Babe Ruth hit a homer every time. It took us three games to make up our minds (as a matter of fact, I was going to write this review last night, and decided I need to play the game again before I did). Rank turns out to be one of those games with an unfortunately prophetic name - after playing it several times, I have come to the conclusion that the game is actually rank (as in, smelly. As in, it stinks. In case you needed me to spell it out, I didn't like it very much).

The object of Rank is to assemble a big army. It's a two-player game, and you're both pulling off the same pool of dudes (plastic refugees from Through The Ages, as far as I can tell). You have cards numbered 0 through 4, and you take turns drawing and playing them, with different card combinations producing different results. So if there's a 0 in the middle, a 2 on the left and a 1 on the right, and you play a 1 on the left, you have to take it back because that's against the rules.

In fact, the prohibitive rules are my first complaint with Rank. It can be tricky to remember what cards you aren't allowed to play. In fact, there are times when only two numbers of the potential five are even playable on the sides. So if there's a 1 in the middle and 3s on both sides, you can play a 0 or a 4, and God help you if you don't have those. You might be able to play a 1 or 2 in the middle, but you better hope that's something you want to do. It's a pain in the ass trying to remember what you can't play, and it limits your options so badly that it can be tough to find something you want to do anyway.

Every time the number in the middle changes, it means something different when you put together a hand. Like when there's a 0 in the middle, you'll be mostly recruiting new dudes, but when there's a 3 showing, you'll be killing off the other guy's soldiers. You can see the brilliance in this mechanic - but it feels like there was the start of a resolution mechanic here, and instead of using this idea in a whole game, the mechanic became the game. As a tool within a game, this would have been pure genius. As a whole game, it's like if you were playing Risk, but you got rid of everything except for rolling to see who won a fight.

To make matter worse, you're limited to some very small hands of cards, which means it can be really tough to make the play you want. I might desperately need to recruit some workers, but only have cards to promote my non-existent workers into non-existent soldiers. You don't so much decide what to do as you just play whatever you can when it's your turn.

Now, I'm sure John could point out how I'm playing this wrong. I mean, I'm reasonably certain I have the rules right, but John probably knows how to find some strategy in this game. I don't, unfortunately, and while John and I are friends, I'm in Texas and he's in Georgia, so he wasn't able to demonstrate the game. I'm left feeling like I played a game that almost worked, and wondering what John was thinking when he made it.

Hopefully John will still send me free games. I'm reasonably sure he will, and I hope he does, because when he's on, he's really, really on, and he can come up with ideas you just plain never saw coming. But the downside to thinking this far outside the box is that every now and then, the wacky ideas stink. Sometimes they're downright rank.


A spark of genius is hidden in this game

It's hidden pretty deep

You can't get Rank. It's sold out. If John has any sense, it won't be reprinted.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Random Game Review - League of Pirates

You know when you need to choose between two people? Like, your dog just puked in the living room and you're trying to get your wife to clean it up, and you flip a coin to see who has to break out the paper towels and carpet cleaner? You might also roll dice, draw cards, play a little rock-scissors-paper, or pick a number out of a hat. Or you could use the latest method I've found for conducting a completely random binary poll - play League of Pirates.

League of Pirates is a really nice game, if by 'really nice game' you mean the same thing as when you say that the hot secretary at work is a 'really nice girl' because she wears blouses so thin you can see her bra, and so you're always sabotaging the thermostat to keep the office too cold. Because, see, it's really pretty, but really, really dumb (I don't know if your hot secretary is dumb. Come to think of it, I don't even know if you've got a hot secretary at work. In fact, there's every possibility your office doesn't have a secretary at all. Hell, you might not even work in an office).

Every turn in League of Pirates starts with a thrilling dice-off (and by 'thrilling' I mean 'not the least bit thrilling'). Each player picks up five dice and rolls them, trying to get a 1, 2 and 3, and then score highest on the other two dice. You each roll three times, trying to get the highest score. The winner gets to take an action; the loser gets to sit there and wonder why he thought playing this game was a good idea.

This dice roll is a neat way to decide who gets to take a turn, as long as you want the same result as flipping a coin, but want it to take like ten times as long. There's no skill in this roll at all, and three times out of five you won't actually get the 1-2-3 you need anyway, and the other player will get a crappy roll and still win. And then there are those frequent moments when neither of you manages to roll 1-2-3, and so you get to roll again. You can see how this game mechanic is far superior to drawing straws, as long as you really like to roll dice for just about no reason at all except that the dog threw up after raiding the cat box for snacks.

So once you've finished this hideously protracted rolling thing, one of the players can do something while the other player wishes he were playing something else (and wondering if it might be worth it to just concede and clean up the puddle that is currently soaking into the pad). The actions you can take include:

* Draw a disc from a bag to see if you need it
* Draw three discs from a bag to see if you need any of them
* Try to steal a disc from your opponent (using a dice-off similar in brilliance to the 1-2-3 thing)
* Set sail with your full crew of discs to make the game end
* Just clean up the dog puke, already

The idea is to get the discs you need to fill your card so that you can say, 'Yay! The game can end!' and you can get back to doing something less inane than playing League of Pirates, like scrubbing the back of the refrigerator. Since you have virtually no control over whether you win or lose the game, you can't even celebrate winning, except that it means you get out of picking up the barf under the coffee table.

Now, I'm being pretty hard on League of Pirates, and I have to say that there is a redeeming feature to this game. The dice are really nice, and you get ten of them, five white and five black. I took the dice out of the game and put them in Warhammer Quest, which comes with really crappy dice. So there is one reason to buy League of Pirates - nice dice. Or you could just buy a set of dice. I guess that's up to you.

So the next time you're wondering how to decide which of you has to give the dog a bath, just reach for a couple dice. Don't pick up this game unless you want to take twenty minutes to do what you could do with five seconds and a coin flip.


The dice

Everything that is not the dice, including the rules that tell you how to use the dice

After an exhaustive search of the Internet, I've found this excellent place to get yourself a copy of League of Pirates:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dexterity Game Review - Pitchcar

Sometimes, my kids get tired of playing games with me. I've never been one of those dads who lets the kid win just because she's younger and tends to cry when you take her last territory, or who goes easy just because the boy just got turned down by the girl he likes at school and is contemplating black eyeliner and droopy hair to show how horrible his life has become and how much angst is welling up within him. I think that when they beat me at a game, they ought to earn it. It cheapens the win if your opponent throws the game. Plus I like to win.

So they were pretty happy when we broke open Pitchcar. The old man's age, experience and wily nature is no good in a game where all you do is flick a wooden disc. And it helped my daughter's hormonal imbalance when she got to take all those little wooden roads out of the box and build a big winding course all over the kitchen table.

See, Pitchcar is one of those dexterity games where you don't need a lick of sense to win, just timing and accuracy and a little luck. I'm getting old and slow, so both the kids have better reflexes and muscle control than I do (except for when they forget that they have elbows and knock the entire track onto the floor because their gangly limbs fly all over the place like a Blue Angels show where all the pilots are dropping acid). And as far as not needing any sense - the kids have me there, too, because they're teenagers who think they know everything, and coincidentally have the common sense of a herd of Canadian geese.

Luckily for my teenage wastelanders, you don't need common sense to play Pitchcar (well, not a lot of it). You've got this big track made of interlocking wooden road pieces and plastic rails, and your cars are round wooden discs, and you take turns flicking your cars with one finger. The cars get chucked around the track, ostensibly sliding along the rails, but more likely winding up underneath the stove when my daughter gets angry because she still can't make that hairpin turn and my ludicrously-athletic-but-too-cool-to-play-sports son manages to fly through half the track in one toss.

There are a few rules about running into other cars or landing upside down or careening off the board into your father's nose, but for the most part, the rules can be boiled down to one sentence: Flick you car until you round the track three times. These are rules that my kids can understand, and never have to fall back on the old, 'you didn't tell us we could do that!' claim (when you know damned well it was one of the first things you said before the game started).

The divide in skill between the old geezer and his petulant children widens even further when you add in some extensions. You can buy extensions that let you create bigger, wilder tracks. You can create a second level of track so that your son can brood over it when he can't get up the hill, or an overpass with a tunnel that can make your daughter stomp her foot and whine when her car bounces off the front of the tunnel entrance. You can make intersections, cloverleaves, and a whole heck of a lot more, and even better, you can make a track so big you'll need to put three tables together in the back yard to hold it all.

The most important thing about Pitchcar (aside from being a game where my kids can beat the hell out of me) is that it's an insane amount of fun, even if you do spend five minutes scooting halfway up a hill and then sliding back to the bottom. In fact, once my daughter got past her mood swings and my son forgot to be coolly indifferent, I actually saw my kids smile. If you have moody teenagers in your house, you'll know how rare that is. Usually the only time my daughter smiles is when she's pretending to like someone, and my son only smiles when he comes up with a really horrible new nickname for his sister.

Pitchcar seems a little expensive when you first see the price tag, but when you open the box, you'll see where your money went. The boards are all laminated wood, and they're solid and heavy and damned nice. They slide together like they were greased, and stay in place even when your daughter overshoots her car and smacks the crap out of the overpass. In other words, the pieces in this box are really nice, and they're well worth the cost. Plus you may get to see your teenagers smile, and if that's not worth a box of wooden tracks, I don't know what is.


Sturdy and attractive track pieces
Cool game mechanic that has nothing to do with out-thinking anyone
Fun, fun, fun
Your teenagers might smile

Your kids can probably beat you (might be a pro - it is in my house)

I regret to inform you that you cannot currently get Pitchcar at Dogstar Games, probably because I just got it and they haven't had time to get it in. If they get it later, I'll change this blurb so you'll go spend money there. For now, you can get it here:

Monday, March 16, 2009

Board Game Review - Power Grid

My primary goal as a writer is to entertain. Specifically, I like to make people laugh. I'm no Maddox (for one thing, I stick to naughty words you could hear on Saturday Night Live), and I will never be Dave Barry, but I give it my best shot. Unfortunately, tonight's review is for Power Grid, and I'm horribly afraid that there is absolutely nothing funny about this game.

Let's start with the theme. In Power Grid, you're all power moguls building power plants and trying to supply cities with juice. This is completely not funny. I mean, what kind of joke do you make about something this horridly mundane? Do I just fall back on Seinfeld and say, 'who is the marketing genius behind this game!'? No, I don't, because even that lame bit is not the least bit amusing when applied to a game where you dive head-first into the big business of selling electricity. Hell, you don't even get to electrocute anyone. I could at least exploit that for some dark humor, but no, nobody gets so much as a static shock when they grab the car door.

So how about the game play? Can I mock the game play? Sadly, no. The game is incredibly well-designed, and I personally found the rules and game play to be nearly flawless. It's so balanced, with virtually no luck, that there is no opportunity to compare it to anything even remotely amusing. I can't even pull out a tired chimps-flinging-poop joke, which is sad, because chimps flinging poop are almost always funny (unless they are flinging poop at you, in which case I find it terrifically hilarious, but you probably are not as amused. Especially if they're accurate).

Every turn, you'll get a chance to bid on power plants. The person who is winning the game has to bid first, which actually gives a huge advantage to the person who bids last. This fantastic balancing mechanic carries through the whole game - at any given time, the person who is sucking the most has the best chance to get ahead. It really controls the runaway leader factor, which is excellent game design (but not very funny).

Power plants can be fueled by resources, which you will have to buy to keep your cities lit up. Some of these are very cheap at the beginning of the game (like coal), and some are a bit pricey (like uranium). If you can get a wind farm, these are great, because they require no resources, but they can be really expensive. A nuclear plant is expensive at the beginning of the game, but will be a great investment when you're buying cheap uranium and everyone else is fighting cage matches to get the last few bits of coal.

Once you have resources, you build connections to new cities. All the cities are in Germany, so there's some humor value there, I suppose. Frankfurt is a funny name for a city, as is Dusseldorf. In fact, I like the way you can combine both of those to make some fairly juvenile double entendre - 'I would like to Frankfurt your Dusseldorf' - but all things considered, that's not that funny. In fact, you can flip the board over, and then all the cities are in the United States. Good luck using Chicago and Miami to make a good sex joke - 'I have a huge Chicago, and would like to put in your Miami'. See? That's not funny. That's stupid.

Making connections between cities can be really expensive, especially if they're a long ways apart. You have to lay a lot of pipe between distant cities (now we might have something we could work with - 'I'm going to lay pipe from my Frankfurt to your Dusseldorf' sounds pretty dirty), and you have to pay a lot of money to connect those cities. There's a lot of strategy in picking your connections, too, because early on, you get to monopolize any city you grab, and can pretty easily block your opponents from getting any good land.

As the game progress, your coal and oil plants will start to get pretty costly, and you may even wind up with no resources to power them. At this point, if you've thought ahead, you'll have some nuclear plants and wind farms, which are actually cheaper to power by the end of the game, when the coal and oil are running short. These will also power more cities, so that you can expand more and earn more money (and win, which is another nice benefit).

Now, in all this, there is one funny thing - garbage. See, some power plants run on garbage, and what's even more fun is that the garbage is more expensive than coal or oil. I have to wonder what kind of natural resources Germany produces that its garbage is more expensive than oil. Apparently German garbage is much nicer than the spoiled vegetables and beer-soaked paper towels that I throw away. Apparently German garbage is full of processed plutonium. That might be why German people have so much trouble being funny - they are morose because their garbage is making their hair fall out.

But the garbage is just one brief moment of humor, and the game itself is completely devoid of mockable hijinks. It's easy to pick up the rules, but it's a real bastard to try to keep track of all the details. It's like a college-level economics lesson. If you like micro-managing resources and carefully planning for future shortages, you'll probably love Power Grid - but you're not likely to laugh. If you prefer games with pratfalls and unlucky dice rolls, Power Grid is going to make you sleepier than a Xanax and a bottle of Wild Turkey.

I guess the only really funny thing about Power Grid is that it gives me a fantastic opportunity to mock German games in general. I have joked before that Americans and the French make games with body counts, and German games have such exciting themes as farming and delivering mail. Power Grid further shows us that German people must be very boring people. That's probably why they like David Hasselhoff so much - that guy only quits smiling when he's laying drunk on the floor and eating fried chicken while he cusses at his offpsring. Quick quiz - what do Benny Hill, George Carlin and George Burns have in common? I mean, besides being funny (and dead). The answer? Not German.

So in the end, Power Grid is a really good game, if you like games that play like a twelfth-grade economics exercise. But it is unfortunately not really very funny.


Really deep, especially considering the fairly straight-forward rules
Very attractive, with very nice components
Requires lots of planning, flexibility and strategy

Very much an economics game, which may turn off many players
Not funny

If you've got smart gamer friends, they're going to love Power Grid. And I personally think you should get it from Dogstar Games, because A) it's cheap, B) you can get free shipping, and C) they support this site, which keeps me from begging for scraps from my readers. So go here and get yourself a really good (but totally not funny) game:

Friday, March 13, 2009

Board Game Review - Giants

Many years ago, on an island called Easter Island (not sure where the Easter part came from, but the Island part is pretty obvious), there lived a tribe of peaceful people with a fondness for things made out of stone. This actually worked out great, because the island didn't have much of anything except rocks, which gave the Easter Islanders plenty to do in their free time.

Since they had so many rocks, the Easter Islanders would cooperate to make really huge stone heads, often with torsos, and give them hats. Then they would drag these gigantic stone paraplegics to the graveyards located on the beaches and post them as guardians. Obviously, the Easter Islanders were not very smart - how useful is a guardian going to be with no arms or legs? Maybe they were hoping that when tomb robbers came, a very strong wind would blow the giant stone men over onto the robbers. Needless to say, that plan did not work out very well.

In Giants, brand-spanking-new from Asmodee, you get to play as these very dumb people. Just like the Easter Islanders from way back when, you will carve huge stone dudes, fail to give them any limbs, drag them across the island and then put hats on them. The player who drags the biggest statues to the farthest graveyards will win the prestige of being the hardest working moron.

Every round, players will compete to move their statues across an absolutely gorgeous map of Easter Island. You'll have tribal markers, which you will use to bid on the right to make new giant pieces of Art (you know, no arms and no legs, hangs on a wall?), you will trade them for half-tablets that do not cure headaches but do pile up in the kitchen until your wife yells at you to take your hobby into the garage, or mark their statues as they move across the island. You will place workers to carry these monstrous paperweights, and use a couple special tribe members to help out now and then.

Because Giants is trying to emulate the horrendous short-sightedness of a tribe of people who thought it would be a good idea to completely destroy all their natural resources while trying to eke out a living on a barren rock in the middle of the Pacific, you'll also be able to dig huge stone hats out of the ground and chop down the only trees that provide you with any shade, windbreak or homes for the animals you may want to consider eating later. The good news is that you can use the logs from these trees to drag those ridiculously oversized statues all over the place. The bad news is that you will eventually devolve into slavery and cannibalism. Hopefully when some other tribe member cuts out your liver to make a nice stew, you can be buried close to one of those giant guardians.

The game is a constant balance of resources and opportunities. If you place the sorcerer in the village to raise more workers, you won't have him around to get you more tribal markers. You'll need the markers to put on top of your statues after you move them, so that other people can't steal them, and the greatest thing is, they look like little colored toupees. Apparently after the Easter Islanders carved these gigantic, impotent guardians, they decided it would have been nice to give them hair, but the implants weren't working. Even today, you cannot use Rogaine to make hair grow on a rock (unless you also smear spaghetti on it, in which case you can put it in the refrigerator and forget about it until your rock winds up with a beautiful white-and-green afro). So if you spend all your markers on getting magic tablets and bidding on the right to carve giant amputees, you won't be able to put wigs on your statues, and then other people will steal them from you (the Easter Islanders were apparently very superstitious about hair, and would not steal anything with hair on it).

One of the coolest things about the game is the cooperative element. You probably won't have enough workers to move your statues where they need to go, but if you plan the right route, you may be able to take advantage of workers placed by your opponents. If you do, they get points, so often players will place extra workers on the best spots just to pick up a few points for helping carry gigantic stone men instead of building boats and going to a bigger island that might have, say, a sustainable economy. Obviously, Easter Islanders had a passion for helping other people carry gigantic stone things, especially if they were hairy, but not much interest in long-term survival.

This is not an easy game to learn. The rules have a few tricky bits in them (though the rulebook is pretty good), but to understand what strategies will solve what problems, you'll have to play it a few times. It's a little complicated, and understanding the value of chopping down trees versus making stone hats will be very important. There is also a ton of tactical placement, difficult timing decisions, and long-term planning with short-term flexibility. In other words, if you like games that make you think, Giants can fill that bill. It's a little ironic that a game where you play people who thought it was a good idea to bury your family in the sand requires you to be so very clever to win.

One more note about Giants that bears special mention is that the components in this game are amazing. You probably could have guessed that, since it's an Asmodee game, but everything in the box is really, really nice. For example, workers are little plastic men cast in your color - but every color worker is a different sculpt. That's not even remotely necessary, but it sure is cool and adds just a little bit more to a game that's pretty darn cool in the first place. The one complaint I have is that the markers and hats don't tend to stay in place on the giant heads very well.

I was going to close this review with a pithy comparison to the Easter Islanders and the ever-increasing consumption of the American people, but we don't want this to turn into a political statement, do we? No, we don't. Because that would take all the fun out of pointing out how stupid the Easter Islanders were to destroy all their renewable resources for something lame like giant stone cripples and their headwear.


Incredibly deep - lots of strategy, tactics, timing and tough decisions
Gorgeous components
Cool competitive cooperation

Kind of a weird theme, and nobody dies
Rules can be damned tricky
Game can drag for people who don't completely follow what's happening

If you think you're smart enough (and don't mind a theme about making giant stone heads), you can get this game from Dogstar Games. And remember - if you want this game, and you like this site, the best way you can support Drake's Flames is to get the game right here:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dungeon Game Review - Warhammer Quest

It's possible that this review is motivated by more than a simple desire to educate and entertain. In fact, it's completely likely that a third purpose of this review is to brag loudly that I own a copy of Warhammer Quest in absolutely fantastic shape. Heck, I had to take the plastic off the cards and cut the figures off the sprues before I could play. I mean this puppy is cherry. While I'm bragging, I have a very large penis (that may or may not be true, or even relevant. I just felt like adding in an extra brag).

Of course, that brag (that I have Warhammer Quest, not the dick joke) is completely lost on you if you're not familiar with Warhammer Quest, so allow me to drop some enlightment on you in the form of a completely unobjective game review.

Way back in the olden days (you know, 1995), Games Workshop used to make some really cool board games that riffed off their Warhammer minis games. Over time, the miniatures got all popular with unattractive guys who spend too much time in the back room at the game store and not enough time with girls. The board games, on the other hand, did not make quite as much money (probably because they did not require a new codex every two years that made everyone go out and spend another mortgage payment on plastic soldiers). So despite having some really hot properties on their hands, Games Workshop stopped printing them. More than a decade later, those games are pound-for-pound more valuable than a bar of gold (that is almost certainly not true, but since I don't know how much you can get for a gold bar, I could actually be right).

There are a few reasons why Warhammer Quest fetches such a high price on eBay these days. For one thing, it's sort of rare. Not ridiculously so - they're not like original copies of the Gettysburg address, or a signed DiMaggio rookie card - but they're not easy to find at anything like a reasonable price. If you do find a copy, it's probably in a beat-up box and missing half the pieces, so finding a copy that was just this side of brand new was not just lucky, it was AWESOME. Almost as awesome as my great job playing online video games and reading webcomics for six figures a year (I might have that job - but a reasonable person would ask himself why, if I make that much money, do I have to write a review site for free games).

The enormous number of awesome pieces is another reason Warhammer Quest costs more than a new television (if the television is very small). The figures in this box are absolutely, without contest, the best you'll find in a dungeon game. It goes without saying that they're better than anything else made at the time, but they're actually nicer even than what you'll find in Descent. And that's saying something, because those Descent minis are pretty damned cool.

It's not just the miniatures, either (though there are nearly 100 minis in the box). The dungeon tiles are fully illustrated and completely gorgeous. The tiles connect to each other using plastic clips in the form of fully sculpted doors. There are bunches of cards, and optional tiles, and little cardboard counters. By way of bragging further, I punched most of the counters on the set that I got a couple weeks ago. Also, I drive a Maserati (this is definitely not true, but it would make a pretty cool brag).

The game itself is hailed by many as the greatest dungeon game ever. The rules are fairly easy to learn and follow (unlike the current reigning dungeon game champion, which has to have online FAQs and fan-created indexes just so you can remember what happens when you get spider web on you). One enormously awesome feature is that you don't need a dungeon master - all four players can join in on the same side, so you don't wind up with one guy who has to be the bad guy all the time because he's the poor bastard who had to read all the rules.

As players explore, dungeon cards tell them which room to place next. There are junctions and dungeon rooms and corridors and horribly dangerous objective rooms where everyone pitches in to try to overcome huge bad-ass villains who could totally eat your head (and frequently do). You draw event cards when you explore a new room, and most of these event cards tell you all about the hordes of monsters that swarm into action and carve on your heroes like overzealous prison tattoo artists. In case you're wondering, I have prison tattoos so cool they'll make your great-great-grandparents cry in their graves (no, that's not true either, but it would be pretty cool, right?).

Now, a lot of dungeon games provide a good amount of replay value. HeroQuest can be played like 20 times before you even need to start making your own adventures, and Descent has the Road to Legend expansion that would require a team of four guys about two solid weeks of Mountain Dew and caffeine pills to finish a whole game. But Warhammer Quest - now THIS is a replayable game.

For one thing, you don't need to run out and buy big fat expansions (though there are a few of those out there). You can play out the part of the game where the heroes return to the town - or not, if you don't feel like it. You can add new monsters simply by buying a few miniatures and adding them to the mix - or not, if you're not in the mood. You can gain skills, and keep cool treasures, and get tougher so you can fight meaner dudes. You can start with the main game and play for years without ever worrying about buying more stuff. But let's face it, if you spent $250 to get this game off some eBay scalper, you can probably afford to pick up a few skeletons or beastmen.

There's even rules for turning your Warhammer Quest game into a full-on RPG, complete with a game master, and then you really never need to leave your mom's basement (except maybe to go to rennaissance festivals). You can run your heroes through dark, dank dungeons, while one guy tells you all about the scary kobold wearing a headdress made of human ears, and then says, 'Gimme a roll!'

Yes, I am exceptionally proud of my copy of Warhammer Quest. It's ridiculously fun, with years of playing goodness and a huge online library of fan-created support material. The components are absolutely top-notch. And as an added bonus, I'm dating Heidi Klum AND Tyra Banks.

Figure out for yourself if that last brag was true.


Enormous piles of great miniatures, beautiful dungeon tiles, and lot of other cool stuff
Simple to learn and challenging to win
Fully cooperative
You can even play it solo!

Can be a little arbitrarily 'holy crap that's hard!' if the dice hate you
Sweet Jeebus it's expensive

If you think I can link you to some retailer selling Warhammer Quest, you're delusional. Look for it on eBay, or be like me and just be this damned lucky.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Party Game Review - Cranium WOW

Quick lead-in comment - Asmodee has a new customer service email, and they asked me to post it here. So I am, because they send me fricking everything and I know where my bread is buttered. It's Enjoy.

Allow me to get this out of the way, right up front - I have no idea if there is any functional difference between Cranium WOW and previous versions of Cranium. For that matter, I'm not 100% certain the game is even supposed to have WOW in the title. The box cover is a little confusing, with crazy phrases all over it and words going this way and that like a Robin Williams comedy sketch, from back when he was on cocaine every time you saw him.

I can tell you that the game inside the box is pretty damned wacky. There's a wacky board, and some wacky pawn-thingies, and a bunch of wacky activities. It's like a wacky overdose - the pawns all look like cartoon people with huge melons, and they all have a hole in the middle of their head so you can put a hairdo or hat on them (hairdos and hats are also in the box), and the board has lines looping all over the place while little colored cartoon freaks dance in circles. Between the pawns and the board, it's kind of like watching an episode of Ren & Stimpy after finishing a bottle of tequila and a Red Bull.

But if the art is wacky, the actual activities in the box are even wackier. The activities come in one of four flavors - act stuff out, do something creative, answer bizarre questions or play around with words. You'll be split up into teams, taking turns, with one person on your team trying to get you to guess 'umbilical cord' by sculpting a baby out of modeling clay. And in case you're curious, a clay baby with an umbilical cord looks an awful lot like a tiny John Holmes.

Or you might have to draw out your clues, Pictionary-style - but with your eyes closed. Spongebob Squarepants looks even more psychedelic when drawn by a 12-year-old with her eyes closed. The eyes weren't even on the goofy square body.

Maybe you have to spell a word backwards, one letter at a time, taking turns while the other team tries to follow along and make sure you're spelling the word correctly (except, you know, backwards). You may have to look at a list of beers and pick the two that are not lagers (I did just fine on that one, in case you're curious), or unscramble 'CABIN HALL MANOR' to get 'Abraham Lincoln.' It's pretty much flat-out madness - but it sure is fun.

This is not like any other party game on the planet (except for all the other games called 'Cranium'). It revels in its crazy activities, and there are a huge variety of them. If you're really great at trivia, the Data Head cards will let you stretch your mental muscles and display our knowledge of total crap that nobody cares about. If you like to impersonate celebrities, the Star Performer categories might just let you stand up in a crowded room, squint, and say, 'Are you talkin' to me? You must be, because I don't see anyone else here' (whether or not you shave your head into a mohawk is completely up to you). Maybe you like to do charades with someone else's body, or define 'gambol'. Whatever stupid human tricks you know, there's probably an activity where that will come in handy (unless your trick involves lighting farts, because while that is insanely hilarious, it probably won't help you win Cranium WOW).

Now, the thing is, you have to play Cranium WOW with people who are in the mood to enjoy themselves, who don't mind looking like retarded penguins in front of grown men, and who have a very flexible set of personal boundaries. If you're playing with some douche with a rod up his ass, he'll suck the fun out of the room like cat litter on an oil spill. If anyone starts to get angry, the game goes south really fast - I know, because when my daughter took five minutes trying to draw, 'vending machine', and drew completely nonsensical shapes all over three sheets of paper, my wife was ready to sell her to gypsies and get a dog instead.

But if you like to have the kind of wacky hijinks usually reserved for people who mix sleeping pills with peyote, Cranium WOW might be just the thing for your next gathering. And as an added bonus, you don't even have to do any drugs.


A silly, fun blend of nearly every bizarre party game ever made
Lots of hilarious activities will have you in stitches
Really cool art and fun components

Absolutely no fun with really serious people

It's no surprise that Dogstar Games doesn't carry Cranium WOW, because they're a pretty serious hobby gamer store. This is the kind of game you find at mall book stores (which is where I found mine). You can find one here:

Friday, March 6, 2009

Card Game Review - Money

Here's the story as I imagine it:

Gryphon Games was trying to find games they could publish to start a new company. Reiner Knizia was trying to find some way to get paid. So he walks up to Gryphon Games and says, 'Look, I've got the brains, you've got the brawn, let's make lots of Money.' So Gryphon Games picks up Money and publishes it, along with a bunch of other bidding games, and there you go.

Now, if you read my reviews often enough, you know I'm not exactly Reiner's biggest fan. You may be waiting to see me take apart Money and tell you all about how it's a lot like a used colostomy bag stuffed into a full bag of douche. But I'm not. Because while the best things in life may be free, you can give them to the birds and bees - I want Money.

Money is a combination between a bidding game and a set-collection card game. There are several different currencies, and you want to collect a whole bunch of the same kind of cash to get paid. There are bills on the table, and you can see what they are, but to bid on them you have to take some of the money from your hand and try to swap it for the cash that's already out there. You may have to pay some big bills to get the kind of cash you want, but what do you want? Money for nothing? Chicks for free?

You'll blind bid with a bunch of money cards you hope you don't need, and so will everyone else. The person who puts out the most cash will have first dibs on the cards that are out - or he can swap them for someone else's bid. Sometimes that's actually a pretty good idea. Sometimes you'll see that someone is bidding exactly the kind of currency you're trying to collect, so you'll just go on, take the money, and run.

The trick here is that if you don't have enough of one kind of currency, it's worth just about nothing, but if you can collect a bunch of it, and have some triplets, you'll really rack up your score. If you can manage to get every note of a single kind of currency, your score for that pile of cash will be huge. But you might have to give up some pretty sweet bills to make that happen. You might get what you need, but you'll work hard for the money.

This is a really fun, really fast game. Twenty minutes after you start, you'll be counting up your score, and you'll have time to try it again - and you'll be looking forward to it, because it may seem odd for me to like a Reiner game, but Money - it's a gas. I may even have to reconsider my general opinion of Reiner games. Maybe, just maybe, Money changes everything.


Really clever and full of tough decisions
Fast and easy to learn
Really nice cards
You'll play this game for the love of Money

May lead to really awkward, painfully forced, barely hidden references to songs you probably wish you would never hear again

If you've got Money, I've got the time to play it. You can get it here:

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Board Game Review - Battlestar Galactica

I can't trust you, and you can't trust me. You might be a sleeper agent in disguise. You might have been waiting your whole life to betray me. And I might have been doing the same to you. There's really no way to know for sure. And we might both be honest souls, loyal to the core, and still end up shooting each other just to be on the safe side.

And that's Battlestar Galactica in a nutshell.

Of course, there's a lot more to it than that. Battlestar Galactica (the new one from Fantasy Flight Games, not the old one from back when Starbuck was a dude) is ostensibly a cooperative game. The players are all doing their best to find Earth, with the Cylon horde bearing down on them, attacking them at every opportunity and stealing all the green M&Ms. But where cooperative games like Arkham Horror or Ghost Stories have all the playes working together, Battlestar Galactica borrows a page from Shadows Over Camelot by ensuring that at least one of your shipmates is working for the bad guys.

Every player chooses a character from the show (the new one, not the old one, where Apollo was kind of cool and not a whiny little baby). Each character has different skills and special abilities - Starbuck and Apollo can fly Vipers, Adama is the admiral, and Roslyn is the president, and other characters have other skill sets (sadly, nobody has a cool robot dog). There are other characters, too, who would probably be a lot more familiar to me if I had been watching the show since it came out. But my only real exposure to the show was when I rented the premier from Blockbuster Online, back when I didn't have cable.

You get cards based on your skills - Adama gets leadership and tactics cards, while Starbuck gets cards related to flying and playing a character who is supposed to be a guy. There are five different colors in all, and you'll only ever have two or three colors. At the end of every turn, you'll draw a crisis card, and something bad will happen. You'll have a chance to avert that disaster if you can play the right cards - but if you play the wrong cards, you actually sabotage the effort and can make the humans fail. A very clever destiny deck adds two random cards, so most of the time you don't know if the bad cards came from crappy luck or a sleeper agent trying to kill everybody.

This is really where the game gets intense, and people start accusing each other of everything from blowing up the hangar bay to drinking the last beer. The real bitch here is that it's often nearly impossible to know for sure whether one player is bad - I can protest my innocence, but I'm not allowed to actually reveal my allegiance beyond saying, 'no, guys! I swear that green card wasn't mine!'

Paranoia runs rampant, with accusations flying left and right, until someone does something stupid (or gets hosed on cards) and winds up having to defend himself from being thrown in the brig. When you're the player everyone suspects, you better hope you've got some good cards, or you'll be cooling your heels in lockup, unable to do anything beyond playing a harmonica and bouncing a baseball off the walls.

There are lots of ways for the Cylons to win, but only one way for the humans - jump far enough away that they find Earth (or Kobol, or whatever they call it on the show for the sake of suspension of disbelief). Every time the humans jump, the admiral has to choose one of two crappy results, and if the result really hurts, the admiral might find himself locked up while an actual robot sympathizer takes over the helm.

Battlestar Galactica is a ridiculous amount of fun. I played it a few times before Dogstar Games sent me a copy to review, and every time is intense and wacky and fun. The logic involved in trying to figure out who is a toaster gets positively mind-bending, and even the Cylons are trying to figure out who's loyal. Basestars perpetually plague the Galactica, and Apollo and Starbuck are constantly busy trying to shoot down enemy fighters and repel boarders. And the whole time Boomer is trying to fix up ships, she might just be a skinjob waiting to destroy everybody and ruin the whole thing for the humans.

If you're a fan of the show, this game probably gets a lot better. I can't say for sure, because like I said, I only saw the premier on DVD (and I watched it all the time when I was a kid, but that doesn't count because the only traitor was the goofy-looking Count Baltar, and you knew right from the start that he was no good). But if you're a little more sci-fi educated than I am, you'll recognize all these characters, and then you'll probably enjoy the game even more.

On the other hand, if you're a fan of games where lots of crazy stuff happens, crap blows up all the time, you get in space battles, and you're never sure whether your best friend should be shoved out an airlock, it doesn't matter if you liked the show, you're going to absolutely love Battlestar Galactica.

Of course, I could be just a subversive traior trying to separate you from your money, working for the forces of evil and commercial liquidity. You'll never know until you buy the game and decide for yourself. And even then, I still don't think I can trust you.


Ridiculously intense
Careful plays and loud arguments
Great components
Paranoia has never been this much fun

I could be lying

For a group of gamers who love theme and scheming, Battlestar Galactica will be a surefire hit. And if you want to support this site, you should buy the game at Dogstar Games (and get free shipping!):

Monday, March 2, 2009

Board Game Review - Conquest of the Empire

A few years back, Eagle Games was at the top of its game. It had some of the biggest, greatest, most beautiful games you could buy. Bootleggers, Age of Mythology, Attack! - these were huge games, and they were awesome. Back then, Eagle Games was a mighty juggernaut of gaming awesomeness, and every new release was practically guaranteed to be huge and pretty and expensive and fun (except Blood Feud in New York - that game was in my collection for exactly as long as it took to trade it for something else).

Well, unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. They didn't exactly die, but Eagle Games is no longer the kingpin of big-box pseudo-wargames. Happily, they are still selling some of those old titles, including my favorite of theirs - Conquest of the Empire. It's not exactly original to Eagle Games, though. It was first part of the Gamemaster series that also included Shogun (retitled Samurai Swords later) and Axis & Allies, back in 1984. It was rereleased over a decade later, this time with two sets of rules. Classic rules let you play the game the way it was originally released, and the new rules use the same components and map to create a completely new game.

I'm going glaze over the classic game because frankly, it bores me a little. No, it's not a bad game, but it's basically Risk: Rome with a few twitchy add-ons to mix it up. It's still strategic and interesting and tactical and whatever else, but it's not a new kind of game. I could play a bunch of other games and get the same basic experience. Yeah, now there are roads, but frankly, I don't care. It's not bad, but when you've got a better game right there in the box, why bother?

Now, the new rules - oooh, there's a game. It's incredibly unique, and does a fantastic job of making you feel like a manipulative, scheming senator vying for his shot to be named Caesar. You can raise armies, steal seats in the senate, forge alliances and force through unfair taxes. You can create chaos or enforce order, and in the end, a little luck and a lot of clever manipulation will win the day. And Martin Wallace's name is in there, and when that guy isn't really pissed off about the new Age of Steam, he makes some pretty damned cool games.

One of the coolest features of the new Conquest rules is the alliance. Every turn, you'll bid to declare who is allied with whom. This is a little complicated, but basically, the guy with the most money decides who goes first, who can attack him, and who he can hit. This can be just plain critical - you don't need a big army if the only people who can attack you are your friends, and you can cut the feet out from under the big military power if you prevent him from striking the places he wants the most. It can cost a lot of money to nail this down, but if you can get it, winning the alliance bid can be awesome. The greatest part is that, unlike Diplomacy or other political games, you don't always have a choice in who your allies will be, and until another bid comes up, you're not allowed to break those alliances.

And it gets even better. You'll need armies at some point - sooner or later, someone is going to want to take what you have - but they're not the deciding factor. You can be underhanded and sneaky and rely on politics over military might. It helps to have the biggest army - but it's even better to have the biggest friends.

Through a series of careful manipulations, feints, bluffs and timely card plays, each player will try to weasel and brawl his way to the big seat. You'll buy influence and soldiers, wage massive land wars, raise armies and establish relationships with Egypt (I think the best thing the Egyptians bring to the table is a wealth of hot nubile females, but I can't verify this in any history books. But if you think I'm wrong, look at what happened to Anthony - he would have had a shot, if he hadn't decided to shack up with Cleopatra. Oh, and allow me to encourage any prospective empress to avoid keeping jars of poisonous snakes just laying around. You never know when you're going to slip and put your hand into one of them).

The board for Conquest of the Empire is huge, and the game is appropriately long. It will take several hours to play this whole game, but it will be several awesome hours. I've only been able to play it two or three times, because it can be tough to round up players who want to dedicate this much time to a game this involved, but suffice to say, I'll play it any time I have a whole evening to blow on just one game.

Not everyone is going to love Conquest of the Empire as much as I do. Some people have short attention spans and want to play some themeless Euro that finishes in an hour. Some people don't like to see bodies piling up like firewood at an Aspen ski lodge. Some people just have an aversion to really long rule books. So leave those people to enjoy a nice game of Apples to Apples, and break out a game of Conquest of the Empire II to separate the men from the boys.


You can lose most of your battles and still win the game
Great political intrigue
Theme so thick you could chop it with an axe
Beautiful components in a hugely heavy box
Tons of scheming, strategy and manipulation

Takes a long time
Fairly complicated rules

You can't get Conquest of the Empire at Dogstar Games, which is a damned shame, but you can get it here: