Monday, August 31, 2009

Card Game Review - Musketeers

I have a bit of a rant that I intend to wrap into this game review. The rant is about pure abstracts with themes. I love a good abstract game, like Ringgz or Ingenious, and I enjoy a good themed game, like Colosseum or HeroScape. And of course, at some level, every game is an abstract, but the thing is, some games don't need a theme at all (for reference, see nearly every game Reiner Knizia ever made). If you're going to make a good, solid abstract, let it be a good, solid abstract, and let it survive on its own merit. Slapping down some pictures of sissy-boy Frenchmen in pleated collars and silly hats does not mean that your game has any relation to The Three Musketeers.

The thing is, Musketeers is a really fun game, a very clever little abstract that plays in about fifteen minutes and leaves you wanting more. The only problem is, there's no reason that I can see for it to have a theme at all. Throwing brown food coloring over a scoop of mashed potatoes does not make it a chocolate shake. There's nothing wrong with mashed potatoes, especially if they have plenty of butter and some chives and little pieces of bacon. But when you try to call them something more than they are, it's just not all that honest. Let the potatoes stand on their own.

In Musketeers, each player is a rapier-wielding agent of the crown trying to steal gems from the cardinal. That's the theme, anyway. You have battle cards, ranked from 0 to 10, and every turn you'll have to fight a contingent of the cardinal's guards, with values from 4 to 45. Everybody throws down a fight card, and you add your scores together. If your collective score is higher than the guard's score, you win, and the player who dropped the highest card gets a gem card. If you lose, the lowest card earns its player a jail card. There are only three gem cards, so you'll be stealing them by the end of the game, and there are only three prison cards, which you hope someone will steal from you.

The brilliance here is that, before you start doling out cards, you choose three cards from your hand to be your scoring cards. If you put all your highest cards as scoring cards, you won't be able to use them to win fights, but if you bogart all the best cards for fighting the guards, your score will suck. It's a balance, and you have to be careful with it to win.

Nine rounds of Musketeers (a full game) takes about fifteen minutes. You blow in, you play your cards, you add up your score. It's fast, fun and exciting. You want to guess what everyone else will do, based on the value of the guard, and try not to wind up with the lowest card when the guards win. You'll want to dump your chaff as you play, but you want to do it when you think your opponents will carry the fight - because if you dumped your zero on a losing fight, you're going to cover one of your scoring cards with a prison and cost yourself some serious points.

Musketeers is a good dollop of some seriously fine mashed potatoes, the kind you get in an expensive steak house, with gooey cheese and stuff mixed in. It's a great game, really. It plays brilliantly, and while it might seem a little odd when you're explaining it, you'll understand it after two hands. And since it plays fast, there's no reason you can't just play it again. Or, if the one guy who is always late manages to show up halfway through a game, you can just put it away when you're done and go on to whatever four-hour marathon you actually planned to play that night.

The only problem is, there's no reason for it to have a theme. It's like trying to put a theme on Backgammon, or Hearts, or Gin Rummy. It's completely stapled onto the game with virtually no reason to exist, and it has to end up costing the publisher some serious scratch to get someone to come up with all this beautiful art. You're not going to finish playing Musketeers and feel like you just got done buckling some swash. You're going to finish and think you just played a very clever card game with pictures of poofters with swords.

To be fair, it's not as though the muskeetering actually detracts from the game, and it might even help it a little, if only as a vehicle for pretty pictures. But if the game were completely honest, it would have minimal but tasteful graphics, large numbers with tie-breaker pips, and it would not try to gussy itself up. A good abstract card game survives on the game play alone, and the theme is little more than a marketing tool. And yet you see this over and over again, especially with European games - designers or publishers who put a tie and jacket on a work horse and pretend it's a ballroom dancer.

Musketeers is an excellent game, fast and short and smart. There's just no reason it had to be called Musketeers.


Easy to understand
Fun to play
Lots of bluffing and interaction
Really nice art on really nice cards

Pointless theme (which is a weak con, so you should still get the game)

If you're looking for a great, quick card game to play while you wait for the other table to finish Agricola, you should go here and get a copy of Musketeers:

Friday, August 28, 2009

General Rant - Piles of Games

I got into game reviews because I wanted to get free stuff. I don't try to hide that. I've said that from the start. And over the years, it has worked incredibly well. The trick is to write a ton of reviews, and get people to notice you, which I gotta tell you, is not as easy as it sounds. When I started writing reviews for, I had one company that would send me stuff, and I could occasionally scam stuff from small press guys. When I wrote for Knucklebones, I got more games, but they were only the games Knucklebones wanted to send me (I got lots of crap, but managed to miss Tide of Iron). And for the first few months that I wrote Drake's Flames, I got all excited when eight people read the site in a day.

Now I have a couple thousand people a week stop by and read my idiocracy, and I get plenty of games. In any given week, three to five games show up at my house, often completely surprising me. That sounds pretty awesome, until you consider two things:

1) I have to write about every single one, regardless of whether or not I want it, and

2) Many of these games suck ass like a street whore.

Over the last eight years, however, I have managed to put together a lot of really great games. I have Warhammer Quest, which is so much fun it makes me spend money like Donald Trump. I have Cosmic Encounter - the new one - which is one of the best games I have ever played, and I'll use nearly any excuse to get it to the table. Colosseum, Railroad Tycoon, Caladea, Formula D - I could go on, but the point here is that I have an amazing collection of games. If I never procured another game, I would have enough to play until I died, and every game would be awesome.

And that's the problem right there. I want to play those games again. I would love to play Dice Town once a month. I would break out Ghost Stories every time I could put four people in one place. But instead I get new games, and play those, and never actually get a chance to play many of my favorites more than a few times before they wind up gathering dust as I plod my way through another hack game that has all the grace and appeal of a rabid, overweight swamp rat.

Now, I know this plight does not generate much sympathy, and honestly, it shouldn't. Let's face it, in the long list of things to bitch about, getting too many games is a fairly pathetic complaint. It's like whining about having too much sex, only instead of toning my physique and allowing me to experience multiple orgasms, I get to spent a lot of time sitting around tables with people who wear t-shirts that announce their faction allegiance and debate whether Star Trek is better than Star Wars (it is not. Star Wars is better).

And I really shouldn't complain, because it is really fun opening up new games all the time, and playing new stuff just about never gets old. I've discovered hundreds of incredible games that I would never even have known existed. I've made some amazing friends. I play games every weekend with some really great people, and every now and then I even sell some spare games and scrape up a little coin. Really, life is good.

But every now and then, I look at my office and think, 'what the hell is wrong with me?!' Seriously, does anyone actually need 200 board games? What's the point of discovering new favorites if you never get to play them again? And how stupid is it that sometimes I can't find the game I want because it's under a huge pile of other games? If you have 47 different flavors of ice cream, but can't ever find the pralines n' cream because it's behind the rum raisin and mint pistachio, what's the damned point?

I happen to know that I am not the only person with my particular problem. In fact, game reviewers are not even the worst game hoarders. I may have a lot of games, but aside from recent review copies, I have maybe two I haven't played. I have friends who have dozens of games that are still in the shrink wrap. I know people who have thousands of games. I've seen photographs of game rooms where bookshelves line every wall, overflowing with games that have to be categorized by title and theme. And I know damned well they haven't played all those.

I have an excuse. I have to write about the games, and I sell, trade or donate 80% of everything I get. Heck, last year I gave about 50 games to the local church youth group, and another 50 to the Boys and Girls Club. But if you have more than five games that you've paid for and never opened - why? And if you're not going to play it, why not sell it? Or donate it? Or use it to prop up the corner of the table so that it quits rocking and spilling those meeples all over the middle of medieval France?

I'll tell you why - it's because we're stupid. We convince ourselves that we'll play them some day, and we like owning them for the sake of owning them. We like to be discussing a game and say, 'yeah, I have the first printing of that one', and we try not to mention that we've never bothered to remove the shrink wrap. We are convinced that one day, we won't have any obligations, and we can sit around playing games until our house looks like one of those sad homes where old people have been piling newspapers since before Jesus was born, only instead of a giant, inhabitable fire hazard, we'll just smother from the smell of all that plastic.

And you know what? Screw it. I like having these games. I like that I've found a way to feed my hobby without having to break the bank. I love having people over, and putting thirty games on the counter and saying, 'if none of these look good, I have more.' I love punching a new game, and reading a pretty rulebook filled with colorful examples, and just sitting in my office and saying, 'yeah, that's fun, and that's fun, and that's like a dog turd shoved into a cardboard box.' And most of all, I love writing this site. If nobody ever read it, I would still probably write it, but I wouldn't update as regularly, and I would probably end up writing about the abcess on my cat's ass because nobody sends review copies to a dork who has two readers (and one of them is his wife).

So the next time some athletic type with an animal embroidered on his shirt says, 'gawd, what do you do with all these games? Are they even any fun? I would so rather be playing golf,' just hit him over the head with a copy of Age of Conan, then push a giant pile of Magic the Gathering cards over his body. Strategically place the ships from Starcraft all over the room to mask the impending scent of decay, and enjoy the peace of knowing that you own more games than you'll ever play.

That's what I do, anyway.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Card Game Review - Aquarius

There's a reason behind the name of publisher Looney Labs. At first guess, you might think it's because the games are a little goofy, light-hearted and sometimes just silly. Look at Fluxx - this is a fun game, but it's pretty much random and pointless. And a game company that makes light, silly, fun games could easily be called Looney.

But the answer is even more unpredictable - the people who make the games are actually named Looney. In one of the most amazing confluences of space and time, the Looneys are not only designers of some slightly crazy games, but they are also complete hippies. I've never actually met Andrew Looney, but I always imagine him looking like a young Tommy Chong. I almost end up wondering if he changed his name at some point, or if his name was the reason he bought his first VW bus and made a card game that played best if you were stoned.

Aquarius isn't gong to help me figure out if the name came before the tie dye, but it certainly does shore up the argument that the Looneys are straight out of 1968. Starting with the title, this game has Woodstock and bell bottoms written all over it. You start with an element, and you're trying to connect pictures of your element in a long chain. You've got fire and water, air and earth, and for a fifth element you can explore while you're singing folk music at a commune, you get space. And just to make sure we know this is a hippie game (as if we couldn't have guessed), the player with the longest hair goes first. Yes, really.

The cards are kind of like dominoes, with each card showing from one to four elements. The game play is pretty simple - you put down cards, matching elements, and try to chain seven of your element in a row. Since your goal is hidden, you might bluff and put together a few other elements at the same time. This can be risky, but it could also be really clever, especially if you can play the 'everybody change goals' card and swipe the fire from your opponent just before it gets finished.

Game play is easy, but deep enough to be engaging. You'll understand it right off the bat, but it might take half a game or so before you know when to close off a chain, when to connect two or three at a time, and when to use an action card to take the pivotal card in your opponent's chain out and make him want to slap you (only he won't, because he makes love, not war).

My favorite thing about Aquarius, though, is the art. The new version has some really awesome graphics. I smile every time I open the box. The art is just plain light-hearted fun. It's eye-catching, simple, and really pretty (plus the 'move a card' action actually has a picture of a VW bus). When you've played a game of Aquarius, you might be tempted to just pour lacquer over the whole thing and seal the game into your table forever. I'm considering blowing up some of the art and making posters. Yes, really.

This is the third game I've reviewed from Looney Labs, and I love it. It's a very pleasant mix of relaxation and smart play, and should be enough to rope nearly anyone into a game. It's not a meaty game, but it's not supposed to be. You can kick back in your beaded suede jacket, throw your straight hair over the other buttcheek, put on some Mommas and Poppas, and enjoy a hooka while you play a groovy card game. Or, if you're like me, you can play in the fifteen minutes you get between checking your Blackberry and programming the DVR.


East to learn
Just the right mix of mellow and clever
Really enjoyable art

May give you the munchies

You can, like, totally get Aquarius right here, man:

Monday, August 24, 2009

Board Game Review - Hunter: Deadly Prey

My friends are never going to believe me any more. They'll call me crazy, or stupid, or both. Because when I played Hunter: Deadly Prey at GenCon, I hated it. They did, too. One of them got up from the game and started playing something else, because he hated the game that much.

They're not going to believe me, because I have to tell them we were all wrong. This game is really fun. It has a few flaws, which I'll discuss in excruciating detail, but if you play it right, Hunter: Deadly Prey is intense, exciting and knee-deep in theme.

No, really guys, I swear. It's good. See, we played it wrong. And I don't mean we glossed a few inconsequential rules. I mean we played it completely wrong.

Hunter: Deadly Prey is a semi-cooperative game where everyone is competing against everyone else. One player is the monster, and everyone else is a hunter out to get the monster. The monster is appropriately dark for a White Wolf game - a necromancer, or a body snatcher, or a horrific night stalker, for instance. Every monster has a special ability, like the avenging spirit's ability to negate the penalties for acting by day, or the mad scientist's ability to use his science to aggravate the hunters more than normal, or the werewolf's ability to pee on the carpet and chew up red pens on the sofa (I may be confusing that particular monster with my own dog).

The hunters do not have special powers - but there are more of them, and they get stronger over time. By the end of the game, it can be really tough for the monster to do much more than slow them down a little, because they'll have some grit. Facing down a school full of orphans will toughen up anyone. They have to explore the city and get clues as to the location and weaknesses of the monster, so that they can face it down and kill it.

And that's the first place we screwed up at GenCon (there were many places we screwed up, in case you were wondering). The city is abstracted by a pyramid of cards. Not like a vertical pyramid that will fall down if you shake the table - that would be stupid (that's not what we did wrong. We were drunk, not retarded). Just a bunch of cards laid out flat, with six at the bottom and one at the top. Each city card represents a challenge for the hunters, and also a resource they can exploit, or clue they can follow, if they defeat that challenge. The hunters build a chain of cards from the bottom to the top, and when they get to the top, they fight the monster, and if the monster is lucky and smart, he eats their faces.

We didn't get this part. We didn't understand that these cards represented clues and challenges and resources. We thought we would flip a card and get to stab somebody. All the violence in the game is completely abstracted - even when you fight a minion, you don't roll to hit him, you just sort of test the encounter and try to come out ahead. This bored a room full of guys who were up too late after killing a couple cases of beer, and we didn't bother to build the theme around the cards.

When I played with my kids, though (don't worry, they're teenagers - I would never play this with children who could have nightmares afterward), we were able to put it together and build a story. The soldier ran down some clues at the dockyards, which lead him to a discarded cell phone, which in turn lead him to a contact at the city park. The doctor, on the other hand, asked around and offered her help at the homeless shelter, which lead her to a book of apocryphal scriptures that offered clues to how she could cure the werewolf's curse. Sure, we could have said that my son flipped the four-point general card, traced a path to the five-point general card, and then took the seven-point general card, but that would be ludicrously boring. It would also be exactly what we did in an Indianapolis hotel room at two in the morning.

As the hunters collect clues and close in on the monster, the monster is in turn messing with the hunters. If they only act by day, they're pretty safe, but they may run out of time and let the fiend slip away. But if they act at night, the monster can totally mess with them - and it's awesome. This is another place we screwed up - the monster just sort of watched the hunters flip over cards. It was dull and stupid. It was like we could have renamed the game Hunter: Real Estate Agent.

But if you do it right, this is spectacular. The werewolf found out that the soldier was talking to the contact at the park - and he attacked the park, burned it to the ground, and killed the contact. And he made no less than four attempts to destroy that damned apocryphal scripture, but I'll be dipped in werewolf poop if the doctor didn't block every single attack. I almost got it twice, but she just kept reinforcing it and protecting it, and in the end, that's what did me in.

The exciting theme isn't the only reason this is a fun game. Every city card has a calling, a certain skill most applicable to it. For instance, the planetarium is associated with scientific study, while the white magic coven is linked to occult knowledge. In the final confrontation, you count the cards you control that match the monster's hideout, and if your total strength in those cards is higher than the monster's, you beat him. And if it's not, he uses your kidney as a croquet ball.

This means that you have to control cards that match the top card - but the monster is most likely to attack those cards, because he knows you have to control those cards. Only he can't afford to blow all his strength attacking those cards, because he still has to have some power left if the heroes make it to his hideout. So he sneaks around, sends his minions to attack, and tries to swap out the cards in the city with other cards, to ruin the hunters' chances of beating him.

There's so much more strategy than we saw when we were sitting around tipping back Shiner Bocks and listening to the pinball machine (yes, there was a pinball machine in the hotel room. No, I'm not explaining that). You have to keep some points in reserve, time your plays, weigh the consequences of risky actions, and sometimes just be lucky. The soldier put together an amazing string of brilliant plays to break through to the last card and confront the monster, and he persuaded the doctor to help. If he had not broken off an exceptionally impressive chain of killer maneuvers, I would have chewed his legs off and used them as coat hangers. Instead the soldier shot me, then the doctor lifted my curse, so that I ended up dying, but I was redeemed. The whole thing ended up playing out like a horror movie with a happy ending (but one of those angst-filled horror movies where everyone defeats personal demons and feels bad about themselves).

And the ironic thing about that ending is that by getting the doctor to join him, the soldier lost the game. The doctor had more points, and getting the points for beating the werewolf put her ahead by a wide margin. After he spent the whole game poaching her resources, sabotaging her efforts and tagging on her coat tails, he ended up in a position where he could only stop the monster by giving the game to his opponent. Which he did, because in the end, the game is more about the experience than it is about the win. The soldier and the doctor were at odds the whole game, but in the end, they put aside their differences to defeat the monster. Forget the score, this game was about the story.

So my GenCon buddies are not going to believe this, but I really enjoyed Hunter: Deadly Prey, and would definitely play it again. However, they will still bust my chops if I don't point out the problems with the game. And honestly, I like this part.

Let's start with the art. I would say I don't know when I've seen art this bad, except that I do know when I've seen art this bad, because it was when I used to review White Wolf RPG books. There's a picture on the cover of the box that looks like someone just took a photograph of a goth emo kid and smushed his head in Photoshop. That's on the cover, for God's sake. What the hell were they thinking?

The card art is, in places, unforgivably hilarious, and often has nothing whatsoever to do with the text. Like the soothing demeanor card that shows a picture of a guy with a wrench (I suppose being concussed by a pipe wrench might be soothing, until you woke up). Or the lucky charm, with a picture of a girl about to be crushed to death by an industrial accident (bad news on the lucky charm, sister). Or the wrench in the works card, which shows a girl with a humungous butt wearing cut-off shorts and shooting a gibbering Lovecraft beast in the gaping maw (why she's got her ass stuck out that far is beyond me). But my favorite is spoilsport tactics, which bears a picture of what looks to be an asshole - not like a mean guy, but like an actual poop-chute. You're not doing your game any favors when your monsters look like close-ups of bungholes.

Another huge problem is that if you walk into this thinking you're playing a kick-ass game of monster bashing, you're going to be disappointed. And since it's freaking called Deadly Prey, I figured there would be a little mortal danger now and then. But no, the worst that can happen is you have to take a hardship and find out your bank account is empty. That's not Deadly Prey, that's Hunter: Credit Card Fraud. The only time anyone might die is if the hunters get to the top of the pyramid and actually face the monster, and that normally only happens once a game - unless the monster is particularly clever and not too unlucky, and gets the chance to run away before anyone has to get hurt. Anyone for a rousing game of Hunter: Prey Who Just Wants To Be Left Alone?

So I grant you, there are some problems, and the problems are the reason that a bunch of guys who had spent several days playing games where people got crushed under boulders or blasted by asteroids thought that a game where you establish rapport with foster kids to learn what they know about the church was a little lame. And I'm telling you, friends who are reading this review, we did it wrong. It's almost a roleplaying game, and if you fill in the gaps as you play, this really ends up feeling like an interesting story. If you do it wrong, though, it feels like you're playing the world's worst Monopoly clone.

I absolutely promise that I was completely prepared to destroy this game in the review. I mean, I really thought it sucked, and I couldn't wait to compare it to freezer burn on rotten dog food. But I'm glad I played it again (after reading the rules again and finding out the several dozen rules we missed the first time), and I'm glad to report that not only can I recommend Hunter: Deadly Prey, but I'm sticking it into the part of my game collection that I intend to keep around a while. It's not a fast game of monster brawls, as the name would suggest, but it is a really fun game for anyone willing to pour themselves into it.


Some incredibly deep strategy that you may not even see the first time through
The opportunity for an unfolding, epic story
Lots of tough decisions and careful card play
Enough different monsters, city cards and hunters that you won't play the same story twice

Not at all hard to screw up (even sober - the rulebook is long)
Some hilariously bad art
The name is not exactly truth in advertising
Can be a little slow

I really enjoyed Hunter: Deadly Prey. If you can deal with a game that requires lots of cerebral interaction and a bucket of imagination, you might dig it, too. You can get it here:

Friday, August 21, 2009

Board Game Review - Pirate's Cove

I love the old Days of Wonder games. They were like boxes of toys with rules. Since I'm just barely a grownup, I love toys, and toys with rules are even better.

Pirate's Cove is one of those old box-of-toys games. It's got fantastic pieces, gorgeous art, cool spinners, and some totally bitchin' plastic pirate ships (I believe that when you say 'bitchin', you're actually supposed to leave off the 'g'. Otherwise it just means you're a whiner). Opening the box is like Christmas morning. I don't usually start off a review by talking about the sweet pieces, but in this case, man, you gotta see this game to believe it.

The rules aren't half-bad, either. Basically, you're pirates, and you're trying to get all famous by plundering and fighting and kicking ass. If you happen to score some rare booze and pen a little pirate ditty, well, that's just gravy.

You do all this crazy stuff by sailing around a circle of islands and doing pirate stuff (talking like a pirate is optional, but recommended). You have a navigation wheel that you secretly set every turn to announce which island you'll be plundering that turn, and this is important because if you go the same place as someone else, you get to shoot them. Sadly, they get to shoot you, too, but you would be kind of sissy pirates if you only ever fought unarmed pleasure cruises (historically accurate, maybe, but still sissy).

Combat can be dicey, because if you lose, you have to go fix your ship. This can be expensive (apparently even pirate mechanics overcharge), and can take you out of the game for a while. Happily, it kind of happens to everyone sooner or later, unless they're either really lucky or total girly-pirates, so it will probably balance out. Unless you're really unlucky, in which case it will totally hose you, and your friends will laugh at you.

The fights are played out with some pretty basic die rolling, with bonuses available for people who have stocked their ship properly. Since you know you'll be fighting sooner or later, it's a good idea to visit the upgrade islands - but if you do, you may have to skip the island with the really kickin' night club (it appears to be my night for dropping the 'g'). There may be some really awesome treasure available at the unemployment office (otherwise known as Crew Island, where you can also pick up some out-of-work fry chefs to man your cannons), but you might be stocked up on crew and really need cannons. Choosing which island to visit is the main decision you'll make every round, and it's not always an easy choice. You might want to rumble and kick an opponent in his wooden teeth, or you may want to second-guess and try to dodge fights while you fix your sails. There are a lot of factors in choosing your destination.

Fighting, however, tends to be a big fat festival of luck. You roll dice equal to your cannons, and hope for 5 or 6, and that's about it. There are cards that can help, which you may or may not have, but the ship fight is really about half luck and half preparation. Surviving is often a matter of not having been in a lot of fights before.

There's more to this game, but not a whole lot - legendary pirates you can beat for huge fame, battle cards to let you win fights, parrots that can suck up cannon fire better than the hull of your ship (these are probably magic parrots. I wish they made one that could soak up credit card debt). But you don't need a whole lot more. It's not a particularly deep game, and there's a whole lot of luck, but it's fun. The fact that it's incredibly attractive helps make it more fun, too.

Now, Pirate's Cove might be really pretty, and fun, too, but it's got some serious drawbacks that keep it from hitting my table very often. For one thing, you're pirates, and yet you want to avoid fights whenever you can. You're like little rabbit pirates. And not cool anthropomorphic rabbit pirates, with hats that fit down over floppy ears and patches over cute bunny eyes, but scared wuss pirates who hide and run away all the time. You're almost always going to be more successful if you avoid confrontation. The best way to win a fight is not to be in one in the first place, which is fine for real life, but boring for pirates.

And then there's the complete random element. Battles are so capricious that you can float in with a crappy boat and still have a decent chance at punching a big hole in your foe. If he's had a few turns to beef up (which probably happened because he managed to avoid fighting), you might be in trouble, but there's still a chance you could punch him in the junk a couple times before he sends you back to the chop shop to see if you can get a deal on a used mizzenmast, and try to talk down the mechanic for labor.

But my biggest beef with Pirate's Cove is how losing a few fights (fights that you were probably trying to avoid) is likely to virtually take you out of the game. You can't battle with a weak ship. You can't take on Long John Silver. You're going to get your ass kicked all over the place, and you'll never get to score any money. And since this is a short game, being behind for even a couple turns is a real nutkick.

Of course, you might still manage to score some crazy huge treasure, watch everyone else get into fights, bury it and wind up winning. So you can totally suck the whole game, then come from way, way behind to win by a landslide. That's kind of irritating. I know I'm complaining about a lot of stuff (and sometimes complaining about both sides of the same issue), but there really are some serious problems with Pirate's Cove.

Don't let my complaints completely put you off, though. This is an easy game to learn, the theme is great, the pieces are brilliant, and it can be a lot of fun. It's not deep, and the luckiest person is probably going to win, but it's still a kick to break out when you don't feel like playing a game where you have to plan every turn ten minutes out.

And it is super pretty. I can't emphasize that enough.


Fun pirate theme
Easy to learn
Moves quick
Visually stunning

Massive luck swings
Not hard to get way behind
No reward for combat

You can get Pirate's Cove here:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Update - Feral Instinct

A few of my regular readers know that I have been working on making a game. This is not because I want to be a game designer or publisher or anything. I'm not trying to sell it and become the next Richard Garfield. I just figured that anyone who talks as much trash about game designers should know how the process works.

So I started working on Feral Instinct, where anthropomorphic kung-fu warriors whoop up on each other. It's sort of like D&D meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I have four characters - Stoat, Bull, Newt and Fox. I've built the game, printed cards, and tested it a few times.

And here's the verdict - I'm not a game designer. This is hard. I don't have time to play it over and over and over, and I don't know anyone who would want to play it, anyway. I kind of dig it, but it's got too many problems. I can, as a reviewer, look at it and tell you that it's got too much happening at once, there are blatant typos, and it's confusing as hell. I can tell you that, but I can't figure out how to fix it.

So for now, that project is on standby. Instead, I'm going to try to bite off something I can actually chew. I would love to actually have a playable game, so I have started work on two new games. One is a card game about truckers, and the other is a board game where bums compete in athletic events to earn bottles of Wild Turkey. I might also do one about hookers.

The way I see it, if I'm going to make games, I want them to be as thoroughly ludicrous as this website. I want to see the kinds of themes that make people embarrassed to admit to owning a copy, but still break it out so that everyone can laugh at it. I don't care if I ever make any money at it. It's just a lot of fun to make games, and if I'm doing something to have fun, I intend to make it as much fun as I know how. And since I'm not a very good game designer, the way I know to make them fun is to make them crass and funny.

So thank you to everyone who took a look at Feral Instinct (and don't worry, I'll keep plugging at it here and there, it's just not a priority any more), and keep your eyes peeled for the next part of my mad scheme to experience game design. I'm calling it Haulin', because I don't think my wife will let me test a game with my kids if I call it Haulin' Ass.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Board Game Review - The Tower of Mystery

It may come as a surprise to some of my regular readers, but the best part of reviewing games is not the free games. Of course, that's pretty awesome, even if it is sometimes a little tough to get people to send me review copies after I compare their last game to skin disease. But it's not the best part.

The best part is all the friends I've made because of it. I have more friends now then I have in my entire life, and I can point it all back to writing about games. For instance, at GenCon, one of my closest friends called me while I was in my booth and told me I needed to haul ass over to Ovation Productions to get a look at what he said was the best game he had played at GenCon. He had been chatting me up to the people in the booth, and he scored me a review copy. Now that's a friend - paving the way for me to score a free copy of his favorite GenCon game.

Apparently, my friend did not play many games at GenCon this year.

The Tower of Mystery is a... well, OK, hold on. It's not a kids' game, exactly. It's not really a heavy theme game, unless your theme is what the world would look like on psychedelic mushrooms. It's also not an abstract, because you're supposed to be exploring this tower and picking up all the wacky treasure, which includes mostly Tower Bucks and cards that spell 'TOWER' (I swear I did not make that up).

I guess The Tower of Mystery is really a bizarre Chutes & Ladders clone that mostly resembles an acid hallucination. There are seven towers, all round, with spaces to land where stuff happens. There are four turrets, and you have to get to those turrets to collect turret tokens, and you also have to get the cards that spell the magic word (which in this case is TOWER. Yeah, watch out Houdini). Then you sit in a turret and declare that you have everything you need, put it in front of you, and shag ass for the door.

Now, so far, this is just kind of a wacky Ravensburger-style game. But it gets super-crazy when you see what happens on all the spaces. Like the hot air balloon that sends you to another room in the tower (that happens a lot in real life - you're just walking around some medieval ruin, and the next thing you know, BAM, hot air balloon). Or you can pick up Tower Bucks, or Mystery Cards, or maybe you can lose them. Maybe you look at all of another players cards. Maybe you draw one of the incredibly random and flailingly bizarre Turret Cards, which probably doesn't affect you since you're not in a turret when you land on it, unless you actually are in a turret - and if that confuses you, then welcome to the party.

Moving around the board is also pretty darn random. You roll two dice, and they have numbers and colors, and you might move some spaces by the numbers, and you might just skip to another spot, or you might just roll a 'park your ass' result and not go anywhere, in which case you have to do whatever you did last turn. All the towers are round, so you have to start off by saying which direction you want to go, then roll, then find out you should have gone the other way. There's an optional rule that says you can roll first, then pick your space, and I would totally do that if you play this game. In fact, when I was playing Tower of Mystery with my friends that night, I wish we had used that pick-your-space rule, because man, this game can get long if nobody musters up a win.

There's so much totally random crap on this game board that you may wonder what kind of people would play it. The game sells itself as being a hundred dimensions of fun, and I confess to wondering what those dimensions would be. It's not that I didn't have fun - I did, which is freaking amazing, given the plethora of mistakes made by the game's designer. It's just that I don't even begin to understand how you have 100 dimensions of anything. Do they just mean that there are 100 different spaces where random crap can happen to you without you having any control over them? That can't be it, because there are only like 30 different effects (which is about 25 too many). I can't figure out the tagline at all. Maybe I need to smoke more peyote.

The real problem with The Tower of Mystery is not that it's a bad idea, because it's not. It's got a ton of potential. The problem is that it's about as focused as a cloud of fruit flies on a rotten canteloupe. It just meanders all over the place and never gets anywhere. There's a lovely amount of player interaction, but good luck controlling it. There are a few interesting decisions (mostly timing and direction of movement), but they get snowballed by the stupid crazy crap that can throw you into complete maddening frustration.

While we're discussing the way this game wanders around like a drunk teenager in Ensenada, let me run past the graphics for this sucker (I'm running because I don't want to go slow enough to get any on me). These guys most certainly should have hired an illustrator and a graphic designer, unless they did hire an illustrator and a designer, in which case they should have those people shot. The board looks like it was built in SketchUp and finished off with crap the designer found on It's so busy it will hurt your eyes. None of the icons look like they go with the other icons. Basically, the graphics work was a monstrous failure that somehow ended up looking confusingly charming.

Possibly the worst part of The Tower of Mystery is how poorly it was tested. The guy in the booth assured me that it had been play-tested extensively, but I have my doubts. It seems like it might have been played hundreds of times - but just by one guy who was smoking a blunt and listening to Pink Floyd while he watched Wizard of Oz. There are rules completely missing, scenarios that contradict each other, and no balance to the cards - you might get a couple you can use to win the game, or you might have 25 cards and nothing you can use. The game needs a maximum hand size, some consistent icons, reworded text on the cards, and a lot more fixin' besides.

Now, after doling out a beating on The Tower of Mystery, allow me to make this one qualification - we did have fun. That surprised me, because I can't emphasize enough what a disaster this game is. We had to house-rule a couple scenarios that got left out of the rulebook, but we actually got a kick out of seeing what horribly stupid thing would happen next. Some Mystery Cards were ridiculously overpowered, and some were worthless, but they were all fun. We didn't really care who won or lost, since we had virtually no control over the process, but it was a blast continually undermining each other with cards that would completely ruin our flimsy, half-baked plans. We even had one case where I got hit with a screw-you card that blew my plans, but somehow accidentally gave me all of my buddy's money. Maybe we were just punchy from being up late, but this was a stupid bunch of mindless fun that we all enjoyed. I don't know how many times I was laughing until my eyes watered, holding my sides and saying, 'so stupid!!'

So it's really great to have made friends who would get me free games, even if those games do totally suck. I would be a liar if I said The Tower of Mystery was a good game, but it is fun, and it will probably be a big hit with kids, especially if they have head injuries that impair their judgment.


Random, silly game with lots of chances for dopey fun
Fun - half in spite of being so stupid, and have because it's so stupid
All that chaos means you're not likely to see the same game twice
Undeniable charm, like a retarded kid who smiles a lot

Meandering and unfocused
Feels untested and sloppy
Really poor visual appeal

If you want to play a wacky game that gives your kids a chance to stab ol' Dad right in the kidney, you can get a copy of The Tower of Mystery right here:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Perfectly Legitimate Excuse

So it's Saturday morning, and you've got your bowl of cereal and your coffee and you're about to sit down and read whatever hilarity I intend to drop on you to make you shoot that coffee through your nose and into your cereal bowl, and all you get is a lame excuse.


So here's the excuse - I played a game tonight so I could review it, but I think it sucks. It went poorly, and I may have made mistakes, but there's no way I can get that first group to play again. I'll have to take it home and play it with my regular guinea pigs, so I'll have to get back to you. I don't have a backup handy, so it's excuse day.

If it makes you feel any better, that's not even a low point of my day. It was almost all worse than that.

So I'm sorry I suck, but I swear I'll write something awesome Monday.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

General Gaming Rant - GenCon

Ah, it's that time of year again - GenCon week. You can smell the excitement in the air. For those of you who have not been here before, it smells like hair grease and buttcrack sweat. I freaking hate GenCon.

I know, right off the bat, I just lost half of you. Hold on, I'll try to lose the other half.

Maybe it's because I work the show. That might be it - but I don't think so. My first year I wasn't working, and I hated GenCon. The first year I just cruised around the hall for four days, then went out and drank at night. That doesn't sound too bad, but it still sucked.

Or maybe it's because my idea of the perfect vacation is not going to some almost-a-big-city suffering from a drastic loss of industry, sweating my ass off walking around the only town I know more humid than Orlando, sharing a hotel room with more guys than we have beds, and spending sixteen hours a day playing games. Call me crazy, but I would prefer a nice beach, some rolling surf, and complimentary margaritas. At the price I pay for a booth, it could probably be cheaper.

Or maybe it's the nerds.

Yep, that's it.

Until you stand in a hotel lobby, waiting to check in to your one-bed hotel room that you'll share with three other guys, and overhear a woman who is very excited tell a man who is very excited that they'll be making Halo armor in a workshop, and the woman's friend is holding a lightsaber made out of an office light bulb, it's tough to completely grasp how intensely nerdy GenCon really is.

Let's start with the stink. It's not as bad on Thursday, because many of the party animals who show up here bathed before they got on the plane. But by Sunday, you're sitting in a crowded hall with people who have not washed their assholes since Lincoln was in office, and at times the smell can make your eyes water. You'll be begging for a whiff of raw sewage.

Or how about the freaky son of a bitch who was throwing a tantrum at the check-in desk? Yes, this was a fine specimen - stringy black hair halfway down his back, a beard growing in random patches, and a lovely bald spot right on top. Add in a black t-shirt, black jeans, and a belly that juts outs over both, and I think I can tell you why he has to pay for sex.

While walking back from the garage where I parked my car (it's about eight blocks from the convention hall, which means that most of the fat bastards who visit here would need a Careflight ambulance to take them to a Jack in the Box before they got halfway there), I saw a man who looked like 600 pounds of butter shoved into a pup tent. I saw a couple grown men wearing Yugioh shirts (they had gray hair and pony tails). I also saw two women dressed like they were serving wenches at Medieval Times - except they were in sneakers, and they were carrying plastic boxes full of toys.

And the show hasn't even started yet! I'm really wondering what kind of oddities I'll encounter for the next four days. Will I get to see a man in a corset again? Will there be old ladies wearing skirts that fail to hide underwear I could use as a parachute? Or will it be tame, and there are just going to be goofy throwbacks who live on Pocky sticks and Mountain Dew who think they're really cool because they have a mohawk (which, incidentally, has not been cool since Mister T).

Look, I'm more than willing to admit that I'm a nerd. I have an extensive collection of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys, sixteen boxes of comic books, and more board games than some small towns. I like movies about superheroes. I can tell you the functional differences between Advanced D&D and 3rd Edition, and I've seen every episode of Firefly, twice.

But I am also a functional member of society. I know that even if I'm at a convention geared toward nerds, there is never an excuse for a dude to have hair past his kneecaps (well, there might be, but it mostly involves being stranded on an island with nothing but a lifetime supply of Pantene Pro-V). The only scenario I can imagine where I would tuck my t-shirt into my jeans and pull my pants up past my navel is if my pockets were full of water-activated piranhas and the tide was coming in. And you would have to club me over the head and dress me while I was unconscious before you'll ever catch me wearing a pair of purple capri pants - but I'll be damned if I didn't see a cat with exactly that outfit today. His flaming red beard and shaggy hair might have said, 'I'm a man who doesn't own a mirror,' but his pants are saying, 'I dig hairy men.'

Being a nerd is fine, but it's not a badge of honor. There's nothing wrong with enjoying the stuff we enjoy - lightsabers, kung fu movies, and miniatures games are all awesome. I love 'em. But you're still part of the whole world, a country of people who work and drive and go to the grocery store, and when you tip the scales somewhere between 'ginormous' and 'Shamu', you should never, ever wear a bikini. Especially if you have a dick.

Apparently, GenCon serves as an excuse for the absolute bottom of the social barrel to pop up and show off how totally bizarre they are. I guess the theory is that as long as you can find someone weirder than you, then you must be OK. Sorry - you are not OK. If you are over 35 and have never kissed a female who weighed less than you do, then you are not OK (or you're really small). If you can't piece together three sentences without a snort and an awkward giggle, then you are not OK. If you can't talk to a pretty woman without blushing and staring at the floor, then you are most definitely not OK (you are also not OK if you can't talk to a pretty woman without staring at her breasts - but if it's just a quick glance to hold the image in your head for later, then you're probably fine).

There's nothing wrong with belonging to society as a whole. There's no downside to being fit enough to jog a block or two. I'm not calling for a cessation of nerd activities, but would it kill you to take off the foam demon horns when you go out for a drink? And it may sound like I'm harping on the weight problem here, but let's not dance around it - these people are fatter than normal. They are not healthy, either physically or emotionally, and yet they still wallow in their abnormality and wear it with pride.

At this point, I expect I have hurt some feelings. I am sure there are several readers who think I am a big mean bully who likes to mock freaks and fat people. Well, I might be mean, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. It just means that you have surrounded yourself with people who lie to you and tell you that being a complete aberrant is not bad for you. Nerd stuff can be awesome, but you need balance, and that's what is missing at GenCon.

I have to be here four more days. I cannot pretend that I am looking forward to it. I have friends who plan and save all year, and this is their big annual vacation. More power to 'em, but if I wasn't getting paid to be here, you couldn't drag me to this show with a team of magic unicorns lead by a strange woman selling Halo armor.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Board Game Review - Agricola

Agricola is the kind of game that barely needs another review. If you're enough of a hobby gamer to visit Board Game Geek, you already know that it's the biggest thing going right now. It's typical Eurogamer fare, especially the theme - you build a farm, so right there you know this one came from Europe, because Americans make games with body counts. You have to raise a family to help you till the fields and milk the cows, and maybe get a job. I was kind of excited at first, because I thought that when you can't make enough food to feed your family, you could kill them off, and that would give me some body count (thereby fulfilling the prerequisite for it to be a man's game), but sadly, you just have to go beg, and then people think you're dumb and you lose points, but everyone lives.

Agricola is a little like Puerto Rico, in that you take turns taking actions, except that when you take an action, nobody else can take it. So if you send Mom to go chop wood, nobody else can chop wood, and if you send Dad to fish, he gets hit in the face with a frying pan when he gets home from his fishing trip and Mom has blisters and splinters and Dad smells like whiskey.

You start out with a little two-room hut, and if you want more family members, you have to get more rooms. You need more family members if you want to grow your farm - each family member gives you one action in every round - but every family member is also another mouth to feed. And you don't want to have to kill off Bessie the cow just to feed Junior, do you? (Actually, there's a good chance Bessie lives in your kitchen, so you may very well be looking forward to making that smelly beast who craps in your easy chair into a steak dinner.)

So you'll turn over land, and build rooms on your house, and plant grain, and gather clay bricks and stone, build fences, and otherwise just keep doing stuff to make your farm bigger. One of the actions you can take is 'family growth', which is a polite way of saying that Dad put on some Barry White and Mom put on her sexiest wool undergarments, and nine months later, you've got one more setting at the dinner table.

And you're not just farmers, either. Junior might grow up to be a Guildmaster, and Mom might take a night job as a potter, thereby turning what was previously just a hobby she learned at the local junior college into a source of income. You might also build a wood-fired oven, or plant some fruit trees, or maybe even let Dad convert the garage into an office with a writing desk so he can work on that novel he's always said he would write, but never really got around to it. Chances are all he'll do in there is watch ESPN and drink beer, but a man needs his space.

The trick to understanding Agricola is to know how the scoring works. At the end of the game, you get points for having grain, for having a better house, for having a big family, for having lots of livestock, and even for stuff like having a big oven or a well. You can show your disdain for the dirt-working sodbuster and become a rancher, or you can plant like a madman and have a huge farm. You can become a minister, or a local woodworker, or lots of other stuff. The point is, the paths to victory are nearly endless, but you have to know which paths will pay out.

For this reason, your first play-through might be a little muddled. I admit that in my first game, I was lost for about two turns, and barely managed to make enough food to keep Mom from starving after the first harvest. But as the game progresses, you'll get the hang of it, and understand where to make trade-offs and which things you just have to have. You'll pass on the chance to score a pile of clay bricks just so you can ensure that you go first in the next round, because by God you're getting some lumber this time.

I've heard some criticism that Agricola is not a very interactive game. You can't run down to your opponent's farm and burn it down, or get his daughter knocked up (farm girl stories notwithstanding). It might have been cool to be able to spell profanities in your neighbor's yard with fertilizer so that the local pastor ran off in shock when he came for Sunday dinner, but it's really not necessary. Agricola has lots of chances to be as cutthroat as you want to be. No, you can't send a swarm of locusts, but you can grab all the clay and leave your opponents spending another turn gnawing on raw wheat because they can't get the materials to build an oven and bake some bread. Careful play can even let you shut out a player entirely, blocking him time and again from getting the resources he needs to catch up. Of course, you have to balance your back-stabbing with your need to get your own farm up to speed, but the point is, there's plenty of interaction here.

And the really crazy thing is that you can play Agricola solo, too. You can play it with your kids, or just with your wife. You can play with up to five people, or as few as two, and it's a great game every time. It's immensely flexible, able to accommodate pretty much whoever you can get to play with you, even when you can't find anyone.

On top of being flexible, Agricola is just a really fun game. It might seem at first like you're just taking turns grabbing stuff, but you'll have to plan your moves carefully, even to the point of knowing what you intend to do three rounds from now, with fallback options in case you get shut out. The theme might not grab you - it sure left me cold before I tried it - but once you try it, you'll like it. It's like The Sims: Medieval Farming. I started being particular about which family members did what, because Lil' Opie was a mad fisherman and Pop was a kick-ass brickmaker (on top of being a failed novelist). I got wrapped in the theme, and didn't even mind that I didn't get to kill anyone.

There's a damned good reason Agricola is ruling the charts at Board Game Geek - it's a damned good game. It was obviously playtested incredibly well, and the execution is about as flawless as I can imagine a game being. I enjoy playing Agricola an awful lot, and hope to have a chance to play it many more times.


Tons of options, and lots of ways to win
The theme is actually really fun
Neat art and high-quality components (though I'm getting a little tired of wood cubes)
Scales incredibly well for any number of players
Wicked, wicked fun

Who do I have to kill to make game companies quit using wooden cubes?

Dogstar Games has a great price on Agricola. And if you buy it from them, they'll keep sending me games, which means I can keep reviewing stuff you want to read about. Good deal, huh?

One more thing - I'm off to GenCon tomorrow. Come see me in booth 2402, unless you're a stalker who hates me because I called you either an ignorant lackwit or retarded douchebag. I'm taking a laptop and updating from the show, so the reviews can keep on comin'. I might even score a review copy at the show and fill you in on the low-down on what's new and hot.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Card Game Review - Take Stock

I've been getting a lot of review requests recently for games by Z-Man Games. Unfortunately, I've never actually received a review copy from Z-Man. Not for lack of trying, of course, but so far, no luck. I really want to try a few of the bigger games from Z-Man, though, like Pandemic and Wasabi and that crazy Arabian Nights game, so I have a plan. I'm going to write some amazing reviews that impress those guys so much, they decide they can't live without my opinion.

Then I'll beg.

It's not a great plan, but I'm working on it.

The first game in my master plan is Take Stock. This is a smallish card game that has been out for a few years. It was designed by Simon Hunt, one of the most likable Brits you'll ever meet (that is largely irrelevant, but I'm in the process of sucking up). It's basically an economics game where you try to increase the prices on the stock you own while tanking the prices on the stuff you don't have. It's kind of tricky, and while the rules are written very well, the game itself is a bit complicated at first. Once you get the hang of it, it's damned cool. And I'm not just saying that to be a brown-noser (though I'm not ruling it out).

There are five kinds of stock, and a deck full of numbered cards that can be used to either increase the stock price or grab a few shares for yourself. This is the first place that the game gets really clever. Because the best cards can be used to either improve the price of the stock or be converted into shares, it can be tough to decide which cards to use when. If everyone owns corn, you would probably rather own more of it than pump the price and help everyone, but if you're the only guy with tech stock, it could really help to shoot that one through the roof.

Then you've got market cards. These are crazy stuff that can happen in the market, like stock crashes and splits and audits and freezes. You can use these to protect your own stocks, hurt your opponents' stocks, or just spawn chaos that kicks everyone else right square in the nuts (unless you're playing with women, in which case it might be better to aim for the face). You have to discard just to see the deck, and then you have to decide if you want to play right away or save something for later, so again, there are some really tough decisions to make.

So there's a fair amount of stuff going on here, but it never gets slow, because you only have a few things you can ever do. You could bump a stock, grab some shares, or play the market - and that's about it. You draw, you play, your turn is over. Which sounds like it could be a little shallow, but I'm here to tell you, that ain't the case. Holy crap, is this an involved game.

For instance, say you've got two shares of oil, which is at 4 with a split. Your friend has one share of oil and two entertainment, and your wife has three jewelry shares valued at 6 apiece. You're holding a 10 in gems, which you could use to bump the price or cut yourself in for a couple shares, and you've also got a stashed market card that will crash the entire market and make everything nearly worthless. You draw an oil card that could end the round with oil at an all-time high - but then your buddy gets to share in the spoils. So do you end the round with the oil card, get yourself a couple more shares, get some gem stock, or crash the market? You've got only one action, but lots of options - and this is really simplified. It can be a quandary just deciding what to discard.

(In case you're wondering, the correct answer to the above question is to play the jewelry stock to improve the value of gems. No, you don't win the game, but you also don't sleep on the couch.)

The game tends to come down to a close finish, unless one of you really sucks or is intensely unlucky. Play too hard, too early, and you might wind up with no stock options to close some deals - but play too conservative, and you might not be able to catch the leader. In either case, though, it will probably be fairly close, so this is one game where it's not over 'til the fat lady sings.

Take Stock isn't just a well-designed game full of cautious bluffs and bold finishing moves. It's also easy on the eyes. The art is surprisingly nice for being as functional as it is, and the cards are that sweet textured linen that feel so sexy in your hands (they may not be sexy to you. It's late, and I've been working pretty hard the last few days). This is a high-quality, high-production game that's meant to last.

So I really liked Take Stock. And I admit freely that I am trying to kiss a little backside for some free games (especially that Arabian Nights game - my kids would love that!). But I also don't care how much I want free games, I don't give a positive review if I don't mean it. I really like the Looney Labs people, and I want more of their games, and the first review I wrote for them, I said the game was like stinky cheese wrapped around spoiled fish left by the cat box. So when I tell you that Take Stock is an intelligent game with tons of difficult and meaningful decisions, it's true.

However, I'm not above ingratiating myself to the head guy at Z-Man. If all his games are as good as Take Stock, then he's got one hell of an eye for picking games, even if he does kind of look like a horror movie clown.


An incredible amount of difficult decision-making, especially given the limited actions
Plays really fast
High production values
Simon Hunt is a great guy (this part is just me kissing ass again)
A close contest that rewards good play over just being lucky

Rules are a little involved (though you'll most likely figure them out with the first game)
Cards could have used at least titles - had us passing the rulebook like a doobie at a Grateful Dead concert

You can get yourself a copy of Take Stock at the Z-Man Games website:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Almost A Miniatures Game Review - Arcane Legions

My favorite part of being a game reviewer is when I get free games. And my favorite part of getting free games is when I get free games that aren't out yet, because then I get to be all, 'Ha! I got this game before you did, and I didn't even pay for it!' It's awesome for two reasons - I get free stuff, and I get to gloat about it. It rules to be me.

Today it rules to be me because I got to play Arcane Legions, and it also rules. This is the newest creation from some of the guys who made WizKids, and then had to find different jobs because WizKids crashed like a meth junkie and Topps shut them down (OK, I don't actually know for sure that everyone involved in Arcane Legions is ex-WizKids victims of the company's demise, but it sounds kind of amusing to say it).

Arcane Legions bills itself as a miniatures game. I'll get to why I say 'bills itself' in a minute, but first I'll tell you why you should consider picking up the starter set when it comes out. Then I'll tell you why you should buy boosters, too. Then I'll tell you that I'm considering selling a kidney to fund my future purchases, except that I won't have to do anything that drastic because it's not going to be that expensive to collect.

In Arcane Legions, each player controls an army of regular troops mixed with some supernatural help. The Romans have minotaurs, the Han have terracotta soldiers, and the Egyptians have ambiguously gay spearmen who may or may not be dead already. This is a mass combat tabletop game - you don't care what one individual guy is doing, particularly, only what the unit is doing as a whole.

The miniatures come in two flavors. The special figures, like minotaurs and sorcerors and giant zombies, are all separate and painted. The rank-and-file guys, like your archers and soldiers and quasi-homosexual zombies, are all unpainted gray, and come on sprues you'll have to chop apart. Every figure has a peg in the bottom that you stick into this little tray that has a bunch of holes in it, and you'll put a card overlay between the figures and the tray to tell you what kind of unit it is. The overlays have holes that tell you where you can put your guys.

Moving and attacking and defending is not all that crazy tricky, though it is fun and really fast. The regrouping is the really cool part (and thus the part I actually want to discuss, instead of spending a long time talking about rules minutiae until all my readers abandon me for a bland-but-informative review posted by some uncreative cave nerd who writes reviews to score Geek Gold - as opposed to me, because I am an uncreative cave nerd who writes reviews to score free games and gloat about getting them before you do).

Regrouping is the coolest part of Arcane Legions. Reading over it, this part might seem like a pain in the ass, but it's really not, and it's really useful. Just about every card has more holes in it than it has figures. When you regroup, you take figures out of their holes and stick them in other holes, and this is how you go from hauling-ass-across-the-field formation to stabbing-people-in-the-privates formation. It takes just seconds to go from being really fast to being really good at hurting people.

The other rules work really well, too - movement is measured with the long side of a unit tray, and turns are accomplished with a hip little turning widget. Combat is a basic roll-off, comparing dice like Risk. Taking a hit means taking a guy out of your tray - and since every guy contributes somehow, you get weaker every time your unit is hurt. It's really cool, and completely negates any need for accounting. When you check to see how hard you hit, or how well you defend, or how far you can move, just look at the cards and see where you've got figures. It's that easy.

Each player takes turns giving eight orders. This goes really fast, and whole turns can be accomplished in just a minute or two. And if you're being attacked, you have to be there to roll dice and decide who dies, so it's not like you're standing around with your thumb up your ass for your turn. It's fast and easy and works really well.

So to sum up before I go on - you should buy a starter for Arcane Legions (you know, when you can, because I have one and you don't) because there are enough figures in the box for two players to play whichever army they want, using easy and intuitive rules, and finish in less than an hour (maybe 90 minutes, if you're slow). And it's really fun.

Now I'll tell you why you should get the boosters, too (and for this part I can't gloat, because I'll have to buy them, too). This is where the WizKids people take all that stuff they learned from people who would bring little scales to the stores to buy the blind boosters with the bigger figures (if you are one of those people, you should know that you are a douchebag). You can still just pick up one booster, if you want, but they'll also be selling bundles of eight boosters that guarantee you'll get at least one of each collectible figure and card in that set.

Yeah, you read that right. This is a collectible game that doesn't have to be blind purchase. Madness, right? No, more like AWESOME. Now you don't have to buy a case of boosters and wind up with 50 kamikaze zombies just because you were hoping to get that one black knight guy. It's like they flew a giant flag that says, 'Suck it, eBay scalpers.'

Wanna see it get cooler? Because it does. There are no commons in the boosters. See, that's cooler, right? When you pay for some rare figures, you get rare figures, period. No more trying to figure out if you can melt down all those worthless kobolds and resculpt them into a dragon. If you really want the commons (and you might need some), you can buy them separately in army packs. So cool I can barely stand it.

But the lovely people at Wells Expeditions knew I might overheat from all the awesome, so they brought me back down by including some stuff that sucks. That's pretty considerate, I think.

For starters, this is not a very pretty game. Miniatures gamers tend to play games like this for the eye candy, and frankly, that ain't here. The sculpts are not all that impressive, most of the figures are unpainted, and the figures that are painted look like the really early days of Mage Knight, when everything looked like it was painted by a color-blind rhesus monkey. And you get terrain, but you have to cut it out, because it's just a piece of paper that vaguely resembles a rock or a bunch of trees. You don't build it - it just lays flat on the table. Woo hoo.

Then you've got some assembly time. If you want your army to look like you didn't just hand your four-year-old a scalpel and a cutting mat, you're going to have to spend a fair amount of time trimming flash and gluing stuff together. There are painted shields, but they're not attached to the figures. If you leave a big stump underneath a figure's peg, it won't sit right in its hole. You can't just break this out, read the rules and play. There's a time investment here.

And my biggest complaint, and the main reason I won't have to spend very much money on this game, is that you could replace every figure with a peg. All the powers are on the cards, not the figures, so you could put Egyptian zombies where the Roman archers are supposed to go, and it won't matter at all. The only reason you need the miniatures is to see at a glance whether you've got four attack dice or five, or if you can move four times, or if you can use your special power.

You can't really call the figures window dressing, either, because if they were just there to be pretty, they would need to actually be pretty. Not that the figures are butt-ugly, but they remind me more of the plastic army men that you can get in plastic bags from the toy aisle at Safeway. Warhammer 40K is safe - nobody is going to quit spending hours painting super-detailed Genestealers just to paint these Chinese archers. I guess you could paint them, but I'm not certain it would be worth the trouble.

I don't want to get hung up on the sex appeal here. No, the figures are not all that hot, but the game is. The problems I have with the game are completely superficial, and once the website is live and I can create my own unit cards, I can make tournament-legal customs. There's going to be organized play support, so there will be tournaments, and I am pretty darn sure I will be entering. If you live in North Texas, and you decide to go to an Arcane Legions tournament, please don't cheat, and please play poorly. Not only are there special, limited-edition figures available at these tourneys (which I assume will be prizes), but I just like to win.

And as far as getting free games before you can get them? Well, what I have is a demo kit. It's not actually a starter, though it is equivalent to a starter. So my gloating will end when Arcane Legions is actually available, because then I will have to go buy it, just like everyone else.


Rules are easy to learn and intuitive
Regrouping adds a killer tactical element
Plays fast, and has lots of strategic and tactical decisions
Collectible format that doesn't have to be collectible
I have it and you don't

Just not all that pretty
Might take a while to put together (but not as long as, say, Warhammer)
Once the game is actually out, I'm going to have to pay for it

Obviously, if Arcane Legions isn't out yet, I can't link you to a place to buy it. But here's the site where you can stay updated on news and stuff:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Card Game Review - PowerMage 54

Usually, when small-press publishers send me small-press games, they're actually whole games. They might be printed on a home inkjet and mounted on a piece of cardboard, but they're whole games. They also tend to be innovative and interesting and something completely different.

PowerMage 54 is not particularly innovative or completely different. It's a deck of cards - you know, ace through king, four different suits, and a couple jokers. So you could use PowerMage 54 to play Canasta, as long as you had enough decks.

But while it's not all that innovative or different, it is interesting. Because there's also a game here, one with cool rules and fast card play. I admit to being surprised by the game, because I was initially completely un-wowed (that is not a word, even if I did hyphenate it). Once I played the game, I realized that PowerMage 54 is fun, and would be fun even if you couldn't use it to play Pinochle.

The concept is simple - you use superheroes to beat the hell out of each other. You start with 100 points of life, and as people play attack cards on you, that number drops. You can play defense cards to block damage, and healing cards to get better - but if you leave it there, it's just a lame combat game.

The reason PowerMage 54 is not a lame combat game is because of two things - thump cards and PowerMages. PowerMage is kind of a dorky name for superheroes, but since some comic book company actually owns the rights to the word 'superhero', the guy who made this game had to come up with something else. Most of the good words are taken by someone, so I guess the creator of the game had to make do with PowerMage, which sounds like the cast of Harry Potter on anabolic steroids.

All the face cards in this wacky deck are PowerMages - individual brawlers with super powers. Each superhero has a power, which you can use as long as you don't mind losing the card. But the real strength of the PowerMage cards is that without them, you can't play thump cards.

Thump cards are multipliers. You can use them along with an attack or defense card, as long as you can show a PowerMage to go with 'em. So these three-card combos are how you really lay down some pain - a lowly 10-point attack played along with a 10-point thump can take an opponent out of the game in one hit. Of course, unless you time this hit pretty well, your opponent can probably play a card combo to block, and walk away with a bruise over his eye instead of a gushing scalp wound and a shattered skull.

To really ratchet it up a notch, the thump cards have powers, too, but you still have to have a PowerMage to use them. So now about a third of the cards in the deck have cool abilities, but you have to decide if you want to give up one ability to exploit another.

I was thoroughly amazed at how much fun I had playing PowerMage 54. Not only does the attack/defense mechanism work really well, but the special powers create some really tricky timing elements. You might throw down a serious bucket of whoop-ass on one turn, but if you do, you may have just emptied your hand of all your good defense, leaving yourself wide open. If you know your opponent has the card that lets him turn your attack back on you, you have to lure that card out of his hand before you can throw in the real beef-eater attacks, or you might wind up laying in a bathtub full of ice and wondering how much your opponents are going to get for your kidney.

The main reason I was so surprised to have this much fun playing PowerMage 54 is that it doesn't look like it should kick ass. The art on the cards is simplistic and a little amateur-hour, probably because the guy who made the game also did all the art. You see this a lot in small-press games, but it's nearly always a mistake. It certainly is in this case. Hopefully the game can sell enough copies that the dude can afford to spring for an illustrator, because I think the main thing keeping PowerMage 54 from selling well is that it looks like a rookie production.

The price is certainly not keeping this game from being big - at only seven bucks for a deck, you could pay more for a piss-poor deck of novelty cards from a New Orleans street dealer (of course, those cards are very likely to feature nipples, which obviously increases their value considerably). The cards are nice - not ten dollars nice, but they're worth seven bucks, for sure. Add in the fact that you get a really cool game that could be repurposed to play Hearts, and there's hardly any reason not to buy this game.

I expect that a lot of people reading this review are still going to pass on this game. That's kind of a shame - PowerMage 54 is a fun game. But it's also understandable, because if nothing else, geeks tend to be total suckers for pretty pictures, unless they're the kinds of geeks who play ugly European games and then brag about how much smarter they are because they don't like things that are pretty.


Neat, intuitive game with lots of opportunities for smart timing and slick plays
Decent-quality cards
Cheaper than it should be
You could use it to play Gin (and maybe drink gin while you play, thereby tripling the value)

Art is below average, and is probably hurting the game

I highly recommend that you go to this website right now and order a copy of PowerMage . It's fun, easy to play, and best of all, there's violence: