Saturday, October 31, 2009

Announcement - VixenTor Games Half-Price Customs

Since I started Drake's Flames, I don't believe I've ever really used the site to front for VixenTor Games, aside from the occasional side mention or the ad over there on the side of the page. But this is a special scenario. Frankly, my 15th anniversary is upon me, and I have an idea for a really great gift, but I need cash for it. So I'm shamelessly promoting my own stuff here at my review site for the sole purpose of drumming up enough dough to buy my wife an incredibly awesome anniversary present.

In order to score the cash I need, I'm running a sale at VixenTor Games. Until the end of November, I'll make you a custom dice tower for half of what I usually charge. These are one-of-a-kind, custom-designed dice towers made from wood and covered with graphics designed especially for you. Usually I charge $300 for one of these towers, and I sell about six a year. But right now, because I have this killer wishlist of a gift idea, you can get one for $150. And to sweeten the pot a little, if you order by the 20th of November, I'll ship it in time for you to have it for Christmas.

This is just about the ultimate gamer accessory, if you ask me, and I'm not the least bit biased. To see what kind of impressive crap I can come up with, check out the Custom Towers page at VixenTor Games. And to place an order, email me at

As an added incentive, if the sale scores me enough dough, I'll even tell you what the anniversary present is. You know, once my wife gets it - she reads this site sometimes, so I'm not spilling the beans.

So now I'll quit pimping my own stuff and get back to saying bad things about people I don't know.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Card Game Review - Warlord (4th Edition)

I'm sad.

When I reviewed the Warlord: Learn to Play set, I was hopeful. I enjoyed it a lot, but it was a little limited, and I really wanted to construct my own deck and see what else was in the game. I was all excited to see more, and when I wrote to the guys at Phoenix Entertainment, I really wanted them to send me a bunch more cards so I could really put the game through its paces. And they did, so that's not why I'm sad.

In fact, I'm delighted to say that Warlord is everything I had hoped it would be. It's fast and exciting and deep and just plain fun. Where the Learn-to-Play set had just two factions (and one of them was the mercenaries, so that's not technically a faction anyway), now I have six. Where the Learn-to-Play set had only a limited number of cards, now I have a huge variety, and I can build a deck just the way I want it.

In fact, when you have the whole collection of the 4E cards, you'll have so much versatility, you won't know what to do with them. Will you play The Chosen, and sacrifice your followers to summon demons and dragons? Will you be the Deveranians, and hurl deadly fire spells while calling familiars to protect you? Or maybe you'll try the Elves, raising the dead and attacking from a distance. The options are wide open, and as you flip through the cards, you'll start to see some amazing combinations and strategies.

On top of having six factions with six different play styles, you've also got new abilities and feats. Powerattacking seems to be a favorite of the Dwarf decks, while Defend is big with the Free Kingdoms. The Elves have thieves and assassins who can Sneak behind enemy lines and go on panty raids. These abilities aren't limited to any particular faction, exactly. It's more like there are particular play styles that work better with specific decks, and so you'll see some Marksmanship more often in an Elf deck than you will in the Nothrog.

The game is still just as exciting as the Learn-to-Play set, but now it's far more balanced. For one thing, you can use the pre-built decks, but the option to customize your deck means that if you see a fatal flaw, you can correct it. Every faction has strengths and weaknesses, and you can hone your deck to try to shore up those soft spots and capitalize on your hard hitters, and that means that the play balance is provided as much by the players as it is by the game itself.

If you absolutely hate buying two cases of boosters just to wind up with 37 copies of the same worthless common that you only keep so that you have something to line the bird cage, you're going to love Warlord. In order to have all the cards in 4E, you don't have to buy several cases, set up complicated online trades with guys in Sweden just to find out that your cards in German, or mortgage your house so you can afford singles. You just buy all the sets and you'll have everything. No random boosters. No renting storage units to hold your extra commons. Just buy the cards, and you'll have them. It feels so much more honest than, say, World of Warcraft CCG. I swear that game's distribution scheme was invented by a credit card company.

Another serious high point of having all these cards is that you can start to really see the background and story behind Warlord. The Nothrog are the goblins and trolls and orcs and other ugly bastards that fantasy fiction loves to use as whipping boys and moving targets - but with siege engines and suicide bombers, they're not going to be kicked around for much longer. The Deveranians are wizards, and cast so many fire spells, they have to keep a supply of Bean-O on hand at all times (with all that flame around, they can't risk a poorly-placed methane explosion). The Chosen lead their thralls, who all think they're good leaders and so they'll willingly give up their lives, not knowing that their masters trade their souls like tokens in an Oklahoma casino. The noble Free Kingdoms stand against the bad guys, laying down their lives for truth, justice and hot pirate nookie. The Dwarves weigh in for the heroes, snapping necks and cashing checks, but they're a little preoccupied with the Elf necromancers and undead horrors.

I really love playing Warlord now. I love that the Learn-to-Play deck has different cards that you can't get in these sets, so it doesn't feel like a wasted purchase. Everything I liked about the starter set is in the full game, but it's so much better, it's like comparing Pop-Tarts in your kitchen to fresh pastries in Paris (unless your kitchen is in Paris, in which case I have to wonder why you're bothering with Pop-Tarts in the first place). All the stuff I love is in there, but now it's way more fun.

So I really love Warlord, but I'm still sad. I have a whole lot of cards now, and my wife really likes the game, and I can play just about as often as I want. But the problem is, now that Phoenix Interactive has sent me the first six sets for 4E, there's really no reason for them to send me more. Which means that I'm going to have to buy the cards now, plus any new releases, and since this is my new favorite CCG, I know damned well I will. I'm sad because between Warlord, Warhammer Quest and Legions of Steel, I'm never going to have disposable income again.


No blind purchase
Incredible depth of play
Lots of different styles
Tons of customization
Easy to learn, but not a game for sloppy tweaker kids who can't pay attention to details
If your opponent is good, mistakes will really cost you
Excellent pacing - turns could be over in seconds, but you'll agonize over every one anyway

I'm going to have to buy a lot more cards. My kids are getting socks for Christmas.

If you would like to discover a new addiction, man, do I have the game for you. Go here to get your first fix:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Board Game Review - Scrappers

I’m not much of a philosopher. I tend to take things as they appear, unless they’re ugly or slimy or gross, in which case I leave them where they were. But the new game from Privateer Press, Scrappers, has me asking a lot of questions for which there can be no answer, and then I start asking stuff like, ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ and ‘how do I know when it’s love?’ and ‘why did anyone ever think Sammy Hagar could possibly replace David Lee Roth?’

See, the game is about these goblins who make stuff, only they’re not called goblins, they’re called bodgers, which sounds like badgers, but they are, in fact, not animals at all. They’re goblins, but they work in a factory and make weird stuff. What does this stuff do? That’s what I’ve been asking myself!

Pieces and parts flow from one end of a long conveyer belt to the other, and these bodgers run around trying to pick up the pieces they need to assemble one of these devices that, as far as I can tell, has no purpose other than to be built. The bodgers may know what the machines are for, but we never will. That’s one of those mysteries of the universe, along with the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop.

The next part has me asking myself about the nature of free will, as the bodgers are not free to simply move around the conveyer belt and grab the pieces they need. The players (who, in an incredibly existential move, assume the identities of the not-goblin/not-badgers) each have three cards a turn, and the bodgers may only move when they push the buttons on those cards. They may not choose which buttons to push – they must push them in order, from top to bottom, and only have the option not to push the next button down. Are they slaves to their own minds? Are they automatons controlled by a greater power? Why did Fox cancel Firefly but renew Dollhouse?

I may be over-thinking this a little. The card thing is probably just a cool mechanic meant to limit your movement while forcing you to consider various options for maneuvering around the board. In fact, I would be fairly surprised to find out there is a deep philosophical meaning behind this whole thing. It probably is just used because it works so well.

See, if we quit trying to think deep thoughts, we can see that the card movement provides a staggering amount of strategic depth for a mechanic so simple. You could play the card that lets you move, swap places, and then reverse the conveyer belt, thus putting you in front of the card you want, or you could pass, hoping that your opponents will act, giving you the opportunity to come back into the round, but now with more cards than they have. You might accept a less desirable action just to hold on to the card with all the fight points, so that you can have a better chance to win the brawl for the piece you want and also deprive another player of the chance to improve their own machine. You’ll scheme and plan and try to think three turns ahead, and then your head will hurt even more than if you were trying to figure out why the dryer only ever eats one sock.

Scrappers includes optional rules for adding new characters to the game, but considering the amount they add to the game, these rules should not be considered optional. I wouldn’t even consider playing without them. The rival bodger competing for pieces just so she can throw them away is an irritant, but the child bodger who runs around the factory floor chucking pieces into the trash is positively frustrating. However, if you manipulate these two extra characters properly, you can set up some amazing chained actions that have everyone else cursing your name while you strut away with the piece you just stole.

At any rate, after everyone is done moving, they grab the part in front of them and add it to their machine, if they can. This is when fights break out, because two bodgers might be fighting for the same part. Where people (or goblins, or badgers) might settle such a dispute with violence, the bodgers continue to display their strange, inexplicable behavior by playing more of those cards with the buttons. The fact that there’s a fist on the card might indicate bloodshed, but nobody dies, so it’s obviously not very interesting violence.

It took me a full game of Scrappers to begin to see the genius in the game. At first it seemed a little bit like I couldn’t control the way the game went, but as I began to see the layers of deceit and tactical risk-taking, my eyes were opened to yet another mystery of the universe – how is it that a game can be boring on a first play, and brilliant on the second? And please, ignore the fact that we played it wrong the first time. I prefer to blame the magic of philosophy for my enlightenment, and not my discovery that Scrappers is actually a damned smart game. If you’re just hoping to see lucky cards save the day, you’re going to fail, but if you can plan a complex series of moves and outmaneuver your opponents, and make the best of whatever you’re dealt, Scrappers has the potential to blow your mind, at least for about half an hour.

Then you can go back to wondering what I wonder most of the time when I see women on television:

‘Are those real?’


Really great art
Very entertaining concept
Simple maneuvering game with multiple layers of depth and strategy
Lots of chances to bluff, stall, plan ahead, or otherwise think outside the three cards in your hand

Slow burner – might take a game or two to see the genius, and you might still not like it
Sammy Hagar. That has nothing to do with this game, but he really does suck

If you like a quick game that will make you think and then curse and then think about cursing, you can run over here and get yourself a copy of Scrappers:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Event Review - Fashion Show

When you think fashion shows, you probably think of all the glamor. The celebrities hob-nobbing with effeminate designers. Society's elite sitting next to the runway, looking shrewdly at the clothes that will be all the rage next year. Champagne, glitz, supermodels, and money everywhere.

None of those things are at a Dillard's fashion show in the mall.

In fact, I can think of very few reasons you would attend such a fashion show. Basically, the list goes:

A) You are related to one of the models.
B) You are a friend of one of the models.
C) You work for Dillard's and you're pissed because you have to work on Saturday.

Now, if these models had been leggy supermodels, I think the turnout would have been a lot higher, but since this was a fashion show for clothing for young girls, the only guys coming out to soak up the sex appeal were dirty old men. The rest of us were there to be supportive.

For the record, my daughter's best friend was modeling a dress and fake leather jacket, so my daughter asked me to take her. I was not there in any pedophilial capacity. I thought it sounded like the kind of kooky event that would make a decent article. My mistake, and now you know how boring my weekend was when the most exciting thing I did was go to a fashion show in the mall.

The whole thing was kind of an exercise in self-indulgence, and I would be surprised to find out that Dillard's sold enough dresses to pay for the show. A full third of the clothing was cheesy prom dresses, the satiny kind that girls think make them look like red-carpet celebrities, but really just looks like they would match the rented tuxedo worn by their pimply date to the homecoming dance. I admit to knowing virtually nothing about fashion, and even less about fashion for teenage girls, but either I'm getting pretty old (and that's a very likely possibility) or Dillard's is not a good place to pick out fashionable attire. I think it might be a combination of the two. This was not Milan, I'll tell you that.

I'm not sure how this modeling thing works for teenage girls. It looked like the show was put on by a third-party, second-rate modeling firm, and the girls probably had to pay for their spot. They got head shots out of it - my daughter's friend wound up with a package of photographs that looked remarkably like the kind of thing you get at Glamour Shots (also in the mall, by the way). I do know they didn't get to keep the clothes, because my daughter's friend was disappointed that she didn't get to buy the dress she modeled (she was fine with not getting the jacket - even a 13-year-old girl knew that fake bomber jackets haven't been cool since Indiana Jones was fighting Nazis).

The best part about the show was that it was over in half an hour. My daughter hugged her friend, being careful not to get makeup on her shirt, and then we went out for Chinese food at one of those absolutely horrible buffets where they serve a whole lot of dishes that all taste bad but you still wind up eating too much, probably because they have cobbler. Super Mega Dinner Buffet, or something.

So my recommendation? If your daughter asks you to take her to the fashion show in the mall so that she can support her friend, see if you can get the wife to go. That way you can sit home and bogart the television while the house is empty.


It's good to do stuff with your kids that doesn't involve dice or meeples
A great opportunity to see clothes you should not buy

Cheesy clothes will remind you that you're too old
None of the models are old enough to be hot
Barely worth mentioning, and would have gone unmentioned if I had done anything even remotely interesting this weekend

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Special Update - They Call Her Dingus

Today was one of the best days I've had in a very long time. I had a great morning, great breakfast, my wife asked to play games with me, my kids go along - it was like the world was working in concert to make this a beautiful day. And to top it off, to put that cherry on the top of the whipped cream that was adorning my banana split of a day, I picked up a stalker.

I know there are a lot of people who wouldn't want a stalker, and if my stalker was a real hide-in-your-bushes, get-a-restraining-order stalker, I would probably not be all that delighted. But no, my stalker is an Internet stalker, and she hates me somethin' fierce. I adore Internet stalkers. To paraphrase Marv from Sin City, I love Internet stalkers. No matter what you do to them, you never feel bad.

(You may be wondering how I know my stalker is a woman. I know this because no man in his right mind would take this woman's user name. Also, someone called her 'ma'am', which sounds pretty girly to me.)

My new best target took some generalized offense to something at Board Game Geek, and decided her best course of action was to look up all my reviews and find something objectionable in each one. Sadly, she is a lazy stalker, and only found a handful. But what she lacked in quantity, she more than made up for in quality. Here's a lovely sampling (links first, then quotes):

OK, I loved her work so much, that's not a sampling, that's the whole collection. For those who don't really feel like digging through a bunch of lame jabberwocky, I've pulled some excerpts:

Dingus: "A rinky-dink website?" Have you explored it?

No, stupid. I make a regular habit of making completely unfounded claims about other people's work without ever having given it a glance.

Also, you'll notice that I put that the person's name is Dingus. This is not me mocking her. This is her actual user name. It's merely the happiest of coincidences that her user name is what I wanted to call her anyway.

Let's do it again, shall we? Why yes, I believe we shall.

Dingus Was Her Name-O: Maybe you should move on to one of the other websites. Here on BGG we like knowledgeable, thoughtful writing, not just spouted opinions that need to be corrected by responses (that get more thumbs than your posts, by the way!).

You know you're doing something right when some PMS avenger stalks you all over the place to tell you that your reviews are just opinions. Because where I come from, that's exactly what a review is - an opinion. Man, women like this are why men go gay.

Oh, sorry about pissing in your Wheaties. Were you eating that?

One more for the cheap seats.

Dingus MacDingus of Clan MacDingus: Basic respect and courtesy are crucial to discussions here, and are the norm.

I made a short list of things that are basically respectful and courteous, following the example set by Dingus (I never get tired of that name):

Speaking for the group without the consent of the group
Calling people unintelligent if you disagree with them
Mean-spirited sarcasm
Insults meant to be demeaning
Internet stalking

So, Dingus, welcome to the spotlight. Thanks for showing up, and seriously, thank you for spouting off like a retard. I know how much you like it when I call people retarded, so that one was special for you.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Card Game Review - Chaos Isle

I've said before that if you can't afford art, you've got no business making a game. Good, consistent art and well-crafted graphic design make a game more fun, and more than that, they show commitment to the product. If you cheap out on art, you're liable to cheap out on components, and if you're cheap there, you're probably cheap in playtesting, too. Quality publishers know this, and they also know that good art shows the customer that you're serious about your game. Bad art means bad game.

I'm also wrong a lot.

Chaos Isle seems out to prove that you can have amateur art, inconsistent design, and a rinky-dink website, and still have a really fun game. In fact, I'm a little amazed at my response to Chaos Isle, because it seems to violate every rule of professional game design. Most of the cards have gorgeous art by Swedish illustrator Christer Degerman, but you can clearly see where the designers of Chaos Isle ran short on bank and drew some themselves. The monsters are terrifying and creepy and evocative, and then the characters look like they were drawn by a high-school sophomore who just bought 'How To Draw Manga.' And let's not talk about the intensely bad drawings on the task cards, which appear to have been slapped together with clip art and Microsoft Paint.

And the graphic design is a little confusing, too. There are four kinds of cards - missions, characters, enemies and equipment - and they all have the same picture on the back. They just have the logo in a different color and a word at the bottom to tell you what to expect on the other side. This makes it a bit confusing to sort them, and it's especially unfortunate because it would have been easy to fix by giving them different pictures on the back. Of course, that would have required three more pieces of art, and from the looks of some of the card art, budget was a pretty big consideration (as in, it was a big factor - obviously, the budget was very small).

If you combine the widely varied quality in the card art with the unfortunate graphic design choices (and the card-back thing is just one example of weak design - there are more), the average game snob is going to giggle through his nose at Chaos Isle. But like I said, I'm wrong a lot, and I gotta tell you, I can't wait to play Chaos Isle again. It's like a heaping spoonful of B-movie awesome.

Every player represents a survivor of a man-made localized apocalypse at an island called Chaos Isle. You're all apparently either really stupid, totally crazy, or you're just not fluent in English, because otherwise I cannot imagine a single good reason I would ever visit a place called Chaos Isle. It's like taking a vacation to Enema Bay - I don't care how warm the water is, I don't want it shoved up my ass.

The main reason to avoid Chaose Isle (aside from the unfortunate and prophetic name) is that the totally crazy Doctor Z has created hordes of bizarre monsters. The funny thing is, these monsters are called zombis, and that's funny because in nearly every case, they are not the least bit humanoid. Especially the Corpsemare - that's a horse. Apparently Doctor Z thought that if he dropped the 'e' off the end of 'zombie', nobody would notice he was making giant worms and very irritable mole rats.

Your goals are all different. One survivor might be trying to create a bomb that will destroy the zombis, another might be looking to scavenge enough gas to get the chopper started, and yet another might just be trying to infect the food supply and turn the entire world into monsters whose theme songs would be a cross between Iron Maiden and Pink Floyd. Your mission cards tell you what you're trying to do, and it's always a matter of collecting enough resources.

The resources are carried around by the zombis. For a completely inexplicable reason, the flying skeleton is likely to have a gas can and a barrel of gun powder stuffed into his body cavity, which you can recover when you kill him (I actually like to think of this as if he was guarding the resources, but it's funnier to imagine him flying around with a bottle of nitroglycerin and a cooler of blood samples). Every time you kill a zombi, you get to keep the card, and when the resources on your cards add up to the requirements of your mission, you win the game. But the tricky part is that the zombis don't exactly sit around like clerks at a convenience store. They fight back, and some of them are mean as hell.

If you play Chaos Isle enough times, or even once with enough people, someone is going to get killed. And this is where it gets awesome, because if you die, you're not out. If you die, you're a zombi. And instead of trying to gather resources, you fight the other players. If you can manage to kill everyone else, then you win even though you lost. This crazy element turns player elimination on its head - you might actually be hoping to get knocked out of the game, just so you can try eating everyone else.

Now, Euro nerds are going to hate Chaos Isle like it came with a supply of flesh-eating bacteria. Every turn, you flip three enemy cards, and decide which to kill and which to avoid. You can't dodge the real fast ones, and those are always the meanest. So you roll two dice to hit, then the monsters roll to hit, then you roll again, and this goes on until one side is dead (that one dead side? That could be you). I don't usually like games with this much luck, but this one is so thematically entertaining and madcap hilarious that I don't have any kind of problem with it. In fact, the luck makes it better - and you won't hear me say that very often.

Another brilliant feature of Chaos Isle is that you're not stuck playing just one kind of game. There are four modes in the base game, including solo rules and a hilarious survivor mode. Then there are three expansions (and if you're going to get the game, get the expansions at the same time. You'll be glad you did). Each expansion includes two more ways to play, from zombi cage match and ultimate big-game hunting to cooperative and team play. If the game ever gets stale, you can switch it up and try something new.

I really hope there's at least one more expansion in the works, though, because there's an element of Chaos Isle that is missing, and is glaring in its omission - the option to screw with the other players. I really wanted to see some enemy cards that would let me steal from my opponents, or send more monsters to see them, or make them blow some combat rolls. This is already such a chaotic, blood-frenzied dice fest, there seems no reason to me not to spend the entire game trying to torpedo everyone else at the table.

And you know what it means when I hope they make an expansion? It means I'll buy it, sight-unseen, because I really like this game. I've played it several times since I got it, trying different game modes and mixing in different expansions. I'll play it several more times, even though I don't have to play it because the review is done, just because I really like it. It's over in like ten minutes, it's hilarious, and it's a blast.

After playing Chaos Isle a whole bunch this week, I've even changed my mind about the art. The character art really is cheesy and low-budget, but it grows on you, and makes the 'heroes' of the game more entertaining for their campy presentation. I'm not suggesting a professional artist wouldn't have been a welcome addition, and I still wish they could have afford a seriously talented graphic designer, but this style tells me something when I play this game - these guys are having fun. They love cheap schlock, and if you like it, too, then you'll like their game. It won't be one you pull out when the in-laws visit, but it might just become your next guilty pleasure.


Smooth, easy play
Crazy cool theme
Fast as lightning - over as quick as you want it to be
Lots of different ways to play
Neat art on most of the cards
Campy game that just feels like fun

Invest heavily in dice - you might wear out a pair every time you play
Seriously rookie-night production (though that doesn't bug me like it did when I opened the box)

Right now, the guys who make Chaos Isle are just itching to get you on board. They're offering everything you can get for the game, plus some totally bitchin' zombie dice, for ten bucks off the total price. That's a great deal, and if you can get behind a fun, campy, crazy card game that plays different every time, go here and buy the bundle:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Board Game Review - Chaos in the Old World

I'm a fan of a good theme. I can recognize a good game, and I really like Agricola and Race for the Galaxy, but my favorite games always have some backstory, and probably some good old-fashioned killin'. So Chaos in the Old World seems like it should be a flat-out winner on theme, except for one teensy little factor: You're all demons.

Maybe I just don't have enough villain in my genetic code, but I like being the good guys. When I played Star Wars as a kid, I wanted to be Han Solo (and not just because the cute girl from next door was always Leia). I never wanted to be Mola Ram or Doctor Doom. I want to be the debonair, swashbuckling rogue with a quick wit and a fast gun. I don't mind games where I wind up being the bad guys, exactly, as long as someone gets to be the heroes, and even then, I end up silently rooting for my opponent to beat me just so the Ring can make it to Mount Doom.

But in Chaos in the Old World, the players are the four chaotic powers (also known as demonic deities or 'bad guys'), and you're in a contest to see which of you can be the first to rip the Old World to shreds and eat its liver with a nice chianti and fava beans (I should note that Hannibal Lecter is an exception to my 'be the good guy' rule, because he tends to kill bad people a lot and is ludicrously cool. I also like Dexter). You'll corrupt, despoil, murder and foul the nations of the Old World in a mad rush attempt to destroy everything before your opponents can turn their own little corner of the continent into a Hell on Earth (otherwise known as Newark).

However, even if I do kind of wish I could be the good guys, this is one hell of a good game (yeah, I meant to say that). It seems like it should be a lot more difficult or complicated, and take a lot longer, but it turns out that it's a balanced, exciting game with little room for error and an incredibly tight design.

The basic mechanics can be learned in the first ten minutes. You all use your power points to play cards and summon followers, then you fight each other, then you ruin things. Obviously there's a little more to the game than that, but if you can grasp the basics, the rest follows right behind. You'll find that within a turn or two you'll know exactly why you may want to bring out that fat demon with his guts falling out, or infect a country with a disease, or try to seduce the beautiful princess (honestly, if you need me to explain why you might want to seduce the hottie in the tiara, maybe you should be reading about My Little Pony Monopoly).

WIthout knowing anything about the game, you might think Chaos in the Old World is a little like Risk. You've got these fantasy-themed bad guys who summon armies of evil minions, and you've got areas to fight over, and yeah, that sounds like it could be a global domination clone. It's not, though. It's all about placing your guys carefully, calculating whether you can take The Empire with one more cultist, weighing the odds of beating the Bloodletters in a fight, and then tearing limbs off the local peasants to see if they taste like Little Debbie snack cakes.

Some of the genius in the game is that each of the four Chaos gods plays very differently. Slaanesh wins by corrupting the world's rulers, Tzeentch wins by exploiting dark magic, and Nurgle wins by spreading disease. Khorne wins when he kills all those other pansies, or if he can clean out your bowels (a little double-meaning word play - you know, because corn is good for pooping). The different ways in which these villainous deities get stronger depend on their overall goals, and the actions they can take tend to manipulate the game to either further their own goals or slow the others. A careful balancing act is required to advance your unholy plans while keeping your opponents from getting ahead.

While each demon plays differently, they all have one thing in common - if you make mistakes, you will lose. One cultist summoned in the wrong nation, one card played when you didn't need it, one miscalculated die roll, and you'll hand the game to your enemies (at least, until they do the same thing). In a lot of games, the luck tends to allow the weak player the chance to beat the old pro. In Chaos in the Old World, the dice serve to keep things interesting between the players at the top - a contest between two skilled players might be decided by dice, but if you outplay everyone else, you'll win.

I think the thing that surprised me the most about Chaos in the Old World is that it came from Fantasy Flight. Not that they don't make good games, but when FFG makes a big-production game, it tends to be a little on the sloppy side, and often far more confusing than is necessary. Chaos in the Old World, by comparison, is tighter than a kettle drum made of human skin. There are no unneeded components, and unlike some of the other huge games from FFG, you won't be so busy trying to figure out your own turn that you can't follow what everyone else is doing.

Of course, Fantasy Flight wants to make sure their games are recognizable, so they had to make some sloppy errors somewhere, or we might think the game was made by Rio Grande (no, we would not. Rio Grande specializes in games where nobody dies. FFG specializes in games where so many people die that they put blood on the game board ahead of time). So to keep from disappointing the fans who have come to expect stupid playtest errors and glaring mistakes, they went ahead and misprinted the Slaanesh card, and made a mistake or two in the rules. I recommend this game, and I recommend that you absolutely NOT play this until you've read the FAQ. Otherwise Slaanesh is going to win an awful lot.

The flip side of the slop that Fantasy Flight seems to deliberately work into their games is that they always have the prettiest games. While the game board does depict a map drawn on skin and fastened with rusty fishhooks, the graphic design is fantastic. Plus you get a whole bunch of cool pieces of plastic that look like hookers with crab claws or globs of snot with droopy eye sockets. It's gruesome and distasteful, but man, is it pretty.

In fact, with all the glitz and killer game play and razor-sharp balance, I can overlook the fact that I want to be the good guys. This is a brilliant game, demons or not. It's unforgiving and fast and exciting, and by the end of the game you'll be ruining nations and slaughtering innocents and laughing the whole time. Don't sit down to play unless you brought your thinking cap, but if you're up to the challenge, you'll find that Chaos in the Old World serves up an incredibly good time.

Maybe next week I can be Johnny Quest. You can be Hadji.


Seriously tight game play
Well balanced despite having vastly different objectives
So, so pretty
Rewards great game play and penalizes mistakes

Theme is objectionable at best
A few sloppy errors really mar the finished piece

Good news for anyone who has been paying attention: Dogstar Games carries Chaos in the Old World! In case you're new, this is good news because Dogstar Games supports Drake's Flames. And that's good news because, when you've pissed off as many publishers as I have, it's nice to have a way to score those popular games you really want to hear about so that you don't have to read three reviews a week of small-press games printed on corrugated cardboard because they're the only people who still send review copies (except Asmodee - they're awesome). So go here, save like twenty bucks off retail, and tell 'em thanks for keeping this site in business:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pastime Review - Geocaching

There's an old saying that says children should be kept in a barrel and fed through a hole until they turn 17. My mother always said that when they turn 17, you should plug the hole. After spending most of an afternoon wandering around in the car with two teenagers and a GPS unit, I tend to agree. Only, I think my mother got the age wrong - the hole should be plugged as soon as they learn to talk.

We were doing this new-fangled thing called geocaching. It's got virtually nothing to do with making your kids cooperate, and is basically an exercise in using a GPS device. It's quite a bit more involved than just following your in-dash navigation unit, though.

The way this works, one person takes a thing and hides it, then he goes on the geocaching website and posts the GPS coordinates for wherever he put it. Then other people go to that site and see the coordinates, and they tap them into their GPS unit, and they go find it.

Now, I'm not going to lie - this does sound a little retarded. When I think of activities that I would enjoy, 'going somewhere' doesn't top out the list, especially when that 'somewhere' is a shrub in the middle of the city that is enjoying regular use a homeless man's toilet. At a glance this has all the appeal of trying to find your buddy's upstairs bathroom when you're over for dinner and his dopey kid is bogarting the guest crapper.

Happily, I tried geocaching anyway, and it turned out to be an awful lot of fun. For starters, I saw parts of my neighborhood that I didn't even know existed. The first cache we hunted up was less than a mile from my house, so we walked. We crossed a creek on stepping stones, skirted a tiny graveyard, ducked through a hole in a chain-link fence, and strolled around an incredibly small park with a wild thicket growing behind it. And the coolest thing is, I didn't know any of those existed before we left.

Now, it's not all a bed of roses. GPS isn't perfect, and at that first site, something was messing with the satellite signal. It's one thing to know we're within three feet of the thing we're hunting - I can commit to a little digging around if I know I'm close. But there's no way I'm hunting through all the underbrush within 100 feet of where the GPS says I should be standing just because the freaking satellites keep sending me to the wrong place. The walk was fun, but it's ultimately frustrating to do all that work and be standing where you're supposed to be standing, just to be told five seconds later that you have apparently stapled your ass to the underside of a passing military helicopter, and are whisking north faster than you could drive.

That irritation nearly made my kid decide it was all a waste. He's 14, so he can go from happy to emo in 3.6 seconds. Take note, kids - sulking on the couch because your GPS unit wandered around like a bum on a Night Train bender is not the best way to encourage your parents to spend time with you. It may be a good way to encourage them to advance the clock on the hole-plugging, though.

Maybe if I was just playing around with this geocaching thing, I would have let my son's adolescent petulance keep from trying it again. But I wanted an article, and so far, the article could be called 'walking around' and would be about as interesting as instructions on a shampoo bottle. So my wife and daughter jumped in, and they looked up a couple more sites, and we went off again (but this time we took the car, because no freaking way was I walking across the city with my bonehead son, my ditzy daughter and my wife with her torn ACL).

And now we saw how much fun it is to find the cache. The first one was a plastic box stowed deep inside some shrubbery behind the Little League ballpark, and inside there was a baseball to sign, and a little army man with a dogtag that told us to move him to a new place and log where we found him (we didn't do that. It was our first time. We weren't even sure we could find another cache). There's all kinds of cool stuff you can put in these geocaches - geo coins to commemorate finding the hidden treasure, ledgers to sign to show you found them, and even party invitations. They might be big enough to hold a bag full of baseball cards (so you could 'trade' with the bag), or they might be smaller than a film canister, like the one we found stuck on a bridge over a culvert in the park.

We're total rookies. There are people who are way better at this than we are, and who hunt caches the way I play games. These people love to challenge each other, so they might hide them in really obscure spots with clues that make Riddler look like a third-grader with a joke book. You can find them in the middle of the city, or under a log in the middle of the desert. You might even have a series of caches, so that the first one tells you how to find the second, and the second tells you how to find the third, and the third tells you how to find the lost afternoon you spent driving around and crawling through bushes. There are a wide variety of games that serious geocachers play, and I just scratched the surface.

I'll probably do it again, even with my family. Hell, listening to bickering kids builds character. Plus it was fun, and it might be cool to have our own little coin or token that we stick in the caches when we find them. We could put a little logo on the token, and be known all over as Team Flamers.

On second thought, maybe we'll skip the tokens.


Great way to get out of the house and get some exercise
An entertaining treasure hunt
Fun for the whole family
Actually go outside - that yellow thing in the sky? It's the sun

GPS can be unreliable, especially if there's interference from nearby stuff

Friday, October 16, 2009

Board Game Review - Clue Secrets and Spies

I think there was this big board meeting where the CEO of Hasbro (who has probably never actually seen a game in his life, and whose children only play with educational toys made from rare wood) read a spreadsheet or an online post or some random comment somewhere and found out that devoted hobby gamers didn't play Hasbro games any more. So he looked down a long conference room table and said to his presidents, 'make the games cooler.' So they ran right to the VPs, and said, 'look, the CEO says to make the games cooler. Where are we on that?' And the VPs said, 'where are we on what? That thing you just mentioned, just now? Oh, yeah, we're right on top of that.' And they ran to the game designer guys and said, 'make the games cooler, or we fire somebody.' Meanwhile, not one of those stuffed shirts stopped to realize that hobby gamers don't tend to buy their games at Wal-Mart, and no amount of reinvention is going to turn a Reiner fan into a Hasbro fan.

But be that as it may, those Hasbro game designers are pretty good at what they do. They made HeroScape, for starters. Then RISK: Black Ops, then Monopoly City. And now they've gone and totally recreated Clue. But I still think they're dreading the moment when the CEO decides it's time to reinvent Yahtzee

The new Clue is not Clue at all. In fact, it bears almost no resemblance to the classic (and boring) wander-around-a-big-house-and-accuse-people game that I played when I was a kid. It still has the colors, but now instead of Professor Plum and Miss Peacock, they're all agents - Agent Mustard, Agent Green, Agent Scarlet - you get the idea, I hope, without me having to list all six (though I'm really only missing Agent White at this point, and since I just mentioned her, that pretty much covers the whole range). However, the colors are the very last time Secrets and Spies has anything in common with old-school Clue.

In Secrets and Spies, you're not trying to find a murderer, you're trying to catch Agent Black. He starts at the top of the scoring chart, and the agents start at the bottom. You get a hidden character card to tell you which of the budding spies you really are, and you try to score points until someone finally nabs Black.

You score by completing missions and attending meetings. As the game progresses, the various agents will pick up cool spy stuff like guns and microchips and big frickin' diamonds, and you'll have a mission card that tells you which two things you need. As long as you can get both things in the hands of any agent, you score - the agent holding the right items moves up one space on the score track, and you get to keep the card. It may seem odd to be scoring for anyone at all, but at the end of the game, you get a point for every mission card you're holding, so your guy can reveal himself and leap forward.

The meetings are not nearly as asinine as that board meeting from the first paragraph. These are secret spy meetings, and you don't even know which two spies have to meet up. There's a secret meeting location on a card, but it doesn't tell you who to meet. You have to get an agent into the city, and then you use the little blue light (batteries included - thanks Hasbro, for not sending me to Walgreens on Christmas morning) to scan the card, after which point you know who you have to meet, but nobody else does. You get those two people together in that city, and they each score. And again, you get to keep the card while the two agents go back to a seedy hotel room and knock boots (you have seen a James Bond movie, right? As long as both people are attractive, and at least one is a girl, there will be sex).

I wouldn't say this is the world's most brilliant game, but it is certainly far more enjoyable than the old version. You can't activate the same agent twice in a row, so there's an element of blocking your opponents while you're manipulating your own guy to get the big score. You have to think ahead, because you have limited action cards you can use in order to send your pawns all over the world in search of the elusive microchip and the perfect chicken fried steak (which, as every red-blooded American knows, can only be found in the Southern United States, and is quite possibly the world's most perfect food).

One thing that does make Secrets and Spies the kind of game that is going to leap off the shelves at Target is the art. The graphics for this game are downright cool. They're all Hollwood high-tech spy thriller groovy, with clear plastic pawns and little digital numbers and drawings that look like stuff you see in Mission: Impossible, but that you know real spies never really bother with because that would just be unnecessarily retarded.

Another neat factor is that you can use your cell phone while you play. Well, technically, you just use one phone, and pass it around the table, and text messages might come in on your turn. These are kind of cool, and might give you some extra moves, or close off a city, or otherwise kind of mix it up a little. Sadly, this part comes off as just totally gimmicky and a little pointless, because the messages don't come in very often and you only get six of them in the whole game. In fact, if you play fast enough, you'll finish before the secret spy messages stop coming, and then you'll just be sitting there hitting 'delete' while everyone wonders why your phone keeps buzzing at you.

So Clue: Secrets and Spies isn't the next big thing. So it's kind of a kids' game. So what? It's still Hasbro, and Clue has always been for the youngsters (or very bored adults). It's not a bad game, and parents might even enjoy it the first couple times. It's tricky and fast-paced and interesting, at least until your ten-year-old who thinks he's Maxwell Smart keeps bringing it into the kitchen while you're trying to do the bills and says, 'will you guys play with me?' with those big puppy dog eyes that tell you that if you don't drop everything, he's going to grow up to sell drugs to kindergartners.

The reinvention train might be jumping the tracks around here somewhere, but with Secrets and Spies, it hasn't derailed yet. I just hope that when they reinvent Scrabble, they don't send me a review copy


Quick, engaging game play
Easy rules
Very cool art
So completely NOT Clue (hell yes that's a pro)

A little simplistic
Too many gimmicks

If you've got kids who want to be spies when they grow up, and they're suckers for slick graphics and trendy gadgets, you may want to pick them up a copy of Clue: Secrets and Spies:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Event Review - Texas State Fair

Hi. I'm Matt, and I'm an addict.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about gaming in general. Well, mostly about my gaming. It happened while I was playing a game with my family. None of us was having fun, but we still felt some need to continue playing. For my part, I think I was convinced that if kept trying, I would end up having fun at some point. Basically, I was playing to recreate an experience I had years earlier, when I really enjoyed some particular game, and spent years trying to recreate that fun experience. Sort of like a junkie chasing his first high.

In fact, I took a long look and realized that a whole lot of my gaming hobby had a lot in common with a drug addiction. I sometimes spend money I can't afford to buy games I don't need, then never even play them. I spend copious amounts of time playing games, to the exclusion of taking part in life as a whole. I make terrain I never use, read rules for games I won't play, and create custom pieces I don't even try to get into play. Sure, it's fun, but I could spend that time actually seeing what life has to offer.

So I'm changing things. I still love gaming, and I'm not going to quit, but I'm going to make a point of, you know, doing stuff. And once a week, instead of a game review, I'll tell you about what I did. This is (hopefully) going to wind up in some amusing stories, and might also let you find out about some cool stuff you could try to broaden your own life. Then you won't have to feel so bad about spending three nights a week playing crappy Euro games. The first article is going to be about my recent trip to the Texas State Fair, which will hopefully let you know if it sounds like something you might enjoy. So without further ado, enjoy my thrilling tale of an incredibly bizarre day.

Last week, my employer had Fair Day. We took a day off work and went out to the Texas State Fair.

For those of you living somewhere civilized... I mean, outside Texas, the State Fair is a really big deal in North Texas. They hold this huge shindig once a year for a month or so, and have car shows and animal shows and an absolutely stultifying quantity of fried food. They'll fry nearly anything - Twinkies, Oreo cookies, bacon and peanut butter sandwiches. The big draw this year is fried butter.

So my co-workers and I decided that we would take the train, cruise Fair Park for a few hours, and then take the train home. We boarded the Dart Light Rail and were promptly joined by what has to be one of the weirdest people I have ever met. An art student on her way to class felt compelled to show us the children's book she was illustrating, and what followed was a scene that could have stepped out of an hallucination fueled by psychedelic mushrooms and sleep deprivation.

The first page has a kid in his room surrounded by butterflies. That would have been cute, but the girl explained that the butterflies were there as representations of locusts found in the book of Revelation. The book got weirder, as did the explanations. Here are a few intriguing excerpts:

"Jesus was the first vampire."
"I preach the Gospel, but I do it in a really sinister way."
"The boy is hallucinating about the flour, because his mother bakes with love."
"The cats told him to tell Long Tom that ol' Coot is dead."

Those might sound odd to you, but these were actually far more bizarre in context. I asked her if she did a lot of drugs, but she assured me she did not. That was actually more disturbing, because if she's not doing drugs, then she's just naturally that weird.

When we switched trains, we had the dubious pleasure of enjoying the company of yet another strange person, this time a drunk man who claimed to have fourteen kids, but couldn't remember their names. He told us he lived with his mother and taught people how to play pool for a living. I was disappointed when that trip ended, and we all agreed that taking the train was a fantastic idea, and that we should do it again soon.

The fair itself? OK, I admit we didn't do much. We gave it the old college try, but we were bored. The fried peaches and cream was delicious, and the slice of pizza the size of my head filled my belly just fine. The car show bored hell out of me, and I can't pretend there's any part of me that wants to spend an afternoon smelling pig crap and looking at baby cows. So when it started raining, we got back on the train and went home.

I found the fair mostly boring. So what if there's a ton of food? Most of it will give you the runs within twenty minutes, and if it doesn't, it's probably because your arteries are already clogged with bacon grease and hardened vegetable oil. If I go to a car show, I want to see flying cars and glass roofs and body styles that look like the Batmobile. All we saw was a bunch of new cars, and I could see that in a shopping mall parking lot. I didn't even see any bitchin' Camaros. And like I said, I'm not a fan of barnyard animals.

However, if you want to see parts of your town that are usually hidden, I highly recommend taking a local train. We saw incredibly cool abandoned buildings, fascinating architecture, parks overrun with rampant vegetation, and the kinds of people you can't even meet at GenCon (and that's saying something). If you really want to see a cross-section of your environment that you usually take for granted, I highly recommend some public transportation, especially if it's a train (way more fun than the bus, because you're not on the road).

I feel better already. I'm going to review a game Friday night, and I'm playing Chaos in the Old World this weekend, so there's a cool game review for next week, too. If you have suggestions for stuff I can do instead of playing games, let me know. For this weekend, I think I'll try geocaching. There's gotta be some ludicrous jokes in there somewhere.


The train ride was fascinating, and a thrilling way to see things I don't usually get to see

The State Fair has virtually nothing I want to see
Fat food with a side of fat food topped with fat food
Boring car show

For more information about the State Fair:
And for more info about the Dallas Light Rail:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Board Game Review - Monopoly City

It's kind of nice, every now and then, to see an old franchise get a little pick-me-up. Sure, there are like a bazillion versions of Monopoly right now (bazillion, in case you're wondering, is a slightly smaller number than a bajillion, but greater than a metric assload). But the thing about all those themed Monopoly games is that, no matter what you call them, they're just Monopoly with a thin veneer of theme slapped on to get the suckers to buy it. (My in-laws, for instance, own Monopoly Yankees, where you build monopolies by collecting several baseball players in sets. My mother-in-law will make absolutely ludicrous trades if she can get Derek Jeter, because he's dreamy.)

Monopoly City, however, is not just a repaint. It's a whole new game, with the heart and soul of Monopoly, but with enough interesting twists to make old fans into new ones. Unless they're actually old, but have always been fans, in which case it might make old fans still be old, but get them to buy another version of Monopoly.

At the very basic level, this is still Monopoly. You've still got the same basic board layout, but instead of Baltic and Mediterranean. now the slums are Summergate and Seaside. Boardwalk and Park Place are replaced with Diamond Hills and Fortune Valley. The names might be changed, but it's the same game - for now.

The twist is that each property now has an associated neighborhood, and you can build office parks and housing tracts and schools and prisons. Get a monopoly, and you can build a skyscraper. Get two, and you can build Monopoly Towers. Get three, and... well, then you can do all that stuff, but now you have three monopolies.

The game works the same way. You move around the board, buy properties, improve them, and charge rent to the other players. But several things make this version a whole hell of a lot more interesting. For one thing, you can build on a property right out of the gate, so you could have one single spot on the board with astronomical rent, even if you don't have the rest of the properties in that color. It's expensive, but feasible.

Another important change is that auctions are going to happen a lot more often, thanks to varied Chance cards and several auctions spots on the board. Because anyone with any sense knows that you never pass up on a property if you can afford it, these auctions can get pretty pricey, pretty quick. To keep it interesting, there's a little electronic doodad that times it out and warns you when the auction is about to close, because the high bidder at the end of the auction wins, even if someone else would have gone higher. This panic-mode bidding war can cause players to make really stupid bids if they get carried away. My daughter, for instance, paid ten million dollars for a property that was worth one million. Then she was mad at me for a very long time.

So far, I'm hooked. This is a cool new way to play Monopoly (a game I already love to play), but with several new elements that balance out some of the more irritating things about the old classic. But when you add in hazard buildings like sewage treatment plants and landfills that can ruin property values, and then you add in stuff like schools and parks to protect your high-rent districts, you wind up with a pretty clever balance that keeps the far-ahead leader from running the table. You can even build a stadium, so that you can get a little extra green every time you pass Go.

There are more differences, and they're cool, but in the end, this is still Monopoly, but better. The best negotiator is probably going to win, but not even a silver tongue can make up for crappy luck, and if someone else manages to roll like Jesus had a personal stake in the game, there's not a whole lot that being smart can do about it. It's faster than traditional Monopoly, has a bunch of cool plastic buildings, an electronic widget, and a little bit of an equalizer for the guy who goes around the board four times and never lands on a property, thereby watching everything get snatched up while he sits there looking at his one orange property and collecting spare change every time someone walks past on their way to drop a couple million on a new parking garage.

Now, there are a few things to keep in mind. For starters, it may seem like there are a lot of ways to avoid rent, and to a certain degree, that's true. There are taxis and rent dodges and railroads, and all these things can help players move to where they want to go without having to land on those backbreaker properties. However, this means that there are exceptionally strong incentives to make sure you trade - you need several properties in a row, because if I own every other spot, it's going to be easier for me to avoid yours. A little strategy management can hook you right up.

Another thing that might look like a hiccup is that you can't always dictate what you get to build on your turn. The electronic gizmo tells you what you can build on your turn, so you can't always get the condo you want, and have to settle for a strip mall. Where the rent dodging didn't bother me as much, I found this a little irritating. If I can afford a house on every property, don't tell me I can't buy it. I want to spend my money, dammit. It's not doing me any good in my pocket (unless I land on something expensive, and then that's my dumb ass for not saving up).

If you already hate Monopoly, Monopoly City isn't going to change your mind. But if you like the idea of Monopoly and just wish they would fix the broken parts (like the time thing, which is resolved with a timer in the electronic doohickey), you should run right out and pick up Monopoly City. And if you only play games where people die, then you can ignore this review and go back to reading about Space Hulk and seeing every third gamer nerd on the planet get excited and show how he painted his genestealers.


Still Monopoly
Evens out the luck factor
Speeds up the game
Lots of cool new toys

Still Monopoly
I want to build more stuff

If you're a Monopoly fan, you're almost certainly going to like Monopoly City, and you can get it right here:

Friday, October 9, 2009

Card Game Review - Desperados

Desperados is a boring game. Knizia fans will love it.

There are times when I wish that was all I had to do to write a review. It would save so much time if you could just take my word for it. But since I doubt I could carry much of a reader base if my reviews were all two sentences, I probably ought to explain.

In Desperados, players are prospectors who open mines and then extract gold, silver or copper. Then they hire gun-toting hoodlums to steal mines from the other players. Then they take naps, because the game is boring.

In typical Doc Knizia fashion, Desperados is a lot of math and tricky number play and not a lot of theme. Now, I will give the game one point right off the bat - the miner-forty-niner thing feels a lot less artificially grafted than most of Knizia's work. In fact, it's nearly high praise that I can't actually think of another theme that could replace the prospector backstory, given the way the game plays. I would love to incorporate a joke about processed meat or illegal narcotics, but really, I think the crazy prospectors actually work here.

Every turn, you can do one thing (that's pretty much a Knizia rule). You draw a card, play a card, or pass a card to your partner. If you play, you can open a mine, put some coins on a mine, close a mine, or try to steal a mine. And since the game is supposed to be four players working as partners, you can slide a card to your partner to say, 'hey, look at this double gold coin! Why don't you open a gold mine?'

The problem is, even the parts where you play claim jumper cards is not interesting. There's not a lot of planning, or hand-building, or sacrificing current rewards for long-term payoff. You just kind of play your cards and see if you win. It's not Go Fish or War, but it's not much fun.

However, I fully expect to be chastised by Reiner Knizia fans who tried the game at a store or convention or something and think that it's the best thing since a caveman saw a cow and said, 'man, I'll bet that thing's ass would be delicious if I threw it on a fire.' It's got all the traditional Knizia markings - limited actions, succinct rules, and a whole lot of adding. This one even has multiplication. It's not completely devoid of potential, and if you love games that you can learn in five minutes and play in fifteen, Desperadoes may be right up your alley. That's not me, but it might be you.

Now, while I think the game is boring, I may keep it anyway. The art in Desperados is awesome. Instead of flipping through the standard book of stock images that seems to get used in nearly every Knizia game, Gryphon hired a really good illustrator. It's cartoony as hell, so don't think you're getting a Van Gogh here, but the pictures (particularly the bandits) are a boatload of fun.

In fact, I may end up grateful that the game is boring, because I won't feel the least bit upset about sticking the desperado cards to my wall with thumbtacks to decorate my office.


Easy to learn
Plays fast
Classic Reiner Knizia elements
Really fun art and a really nice tin

Low on interesting options
More math than I like to do in a fifteen-minute card game

Desperados is kind of boring, but you might like it anyway, especially if you're boring. You can find it here:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Board Game Review - RISK: Halo Wars

I know a lot of snooty gamer types aren't big fans of RISK, even the new one, because you can get it in Wal-Mart and there's a lot of die rolling. Then there are a bunch of snooty gamer types who hate Halo because it's a video game, and those are for the unwashed, unintelligent masses. Stupid people play video games, and smart people play board games.

Well, I love RISK, and I love Halo, so RISK: Halo Wars was a double-shot of kick-ass espresso with a lemon twist. I especially love the new RISK, now that they made the win based on objectives, rather than complete global domination. RISK: Halo Wars is built on top of the new version of RISK, with a tweak or two to make it a Halo game. And that means I just had to try it.

Man, was I disappointed. Not because it sucked - it's still really fun, especially because it's still RISK. But I was disappointed because I have RISK: 2210 and RISK: Star Wars, and those both start with classic RISK and take it in thematically brilliant directions. Halo Wars is not similar to new RISK. Halo Wars IS new RISK, but with a couple additions stapled onto it. It's like if your old high-school girlfriend got a boob job - she might look better, but she's still just as much fun in the sack (unless she's really let herself go, which she may have, because it's been a long time since high school - but to be fair, can you honestly tell me those love handles and beer gut are an improvement over the six-pack you were sporting when you were 17?).

The map for Halo Wars is of a new planet, but it's a remarkable planet in that it is almost identical to Earth. All the continents have new names and new shapes, but they connect in the same way to all these other continents, and have the same number of territories, and provide the same number of bonus pieces. You can push some borders around a little, but just calling it Pacifica does not mean that we suddenly don't know that's Europe any more. If I wear a paper mask I find on a cereal box, it doesn't make me Count Chocula, even if I do use a silly accent.

Combat is the same as it always has been, except for the heroes, who provide almost no help and then die just to respawn on your next turn. Win a battle, get a card, control the right spot and complete an objective - if you've played new RISK, you've seen this one. Just because the army units look like Halo guys doesn't mean this is a new game.

I might have been a little more impressed if I hadn't played some really awesome RISK spin-offs. RISK: Star Wars adds space battles, cards, and a Death Star that can blow up planets, and it feels like a Star Wars version of RISK. RISK 2210 adds nukes, moon bases, undersea colonies, and a whole lot more that makes it my absolute favorite RISK version. But Halo Wars adds weak-ass heroes and figures that look like candy and pretends to be a new thing, and it's just not.

Now, this sounds like a negative review, and it's really not. It's only a negative review because it's not an improvement over new RISK, or even worthy of being called a themed version of RISK. It's just new RISK - and while I love new RISK, and think it's brilliant, I can't see why I would buy Halo Wars over new RISK... unless Halo Wars is cheaper, and it is not.


All the same pros as new RISK
Pretty pieces that sort of look like Halo guys
Nice components, over all

Nothing new here, except for heroes, which are nearly worthless
Four or five players is a team game, whether you like it or not

If you don't have new RISK, and you like Halo, you can get RISK: Halo Wars at Troll & Toad:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Movie Review - Zombieland

I've exercised a considerable amount of caution in this review, and I don't think there are any spoilers that could diminish your enjoyment in the least. But if you're one of those, 'don't tell me anything!' spoiler-paranoid people, just skip this one and come back Wednesday night.

No, you have not come to the wrong site. Your RSS feed thingy is working just fine. I have not been replaced by Siskel & Ebert (one of whom is dead now, which works because I'm reviewing a zombie movie). It's just that I went and saw Zombieland this weekend, and it's so spectacular that I just had to gush like a severed limb. Here's how I figure it:

1. You come here at all, so you've gotta be at least part nerd.
2. A good number of you will be fans of horror films. Because, you know, nerds.
3. There are countless zombie games out there, from RPGs and CCGs and CMGs to BVDs and MP3s and DMVs (those last three, incidentally, are not actually types of games. They are, respectively, types of undergarments, types of music files and types of places where people work when God hates them.)

So there's a real good chance that Zombieland is your kind of movie, unless you're one of those soulless kinds of nerds who tell people incessantly about your Mensa membership and refuse to play any game that's not a complete abstract made out of painted pieces of wood.

(Quick joke [which I am in danger of running into the ground because I find it so amusing]: How can you tell if you're talking to a Mensa member? He'll tell you.)

Before I start, you should know that I love zombie movies. I've seen an awful lot of them - every Romero zombie movie, of course, but also the 28 Days/Weeks movies, Shawn of the Dead, and a bunch of others besides. They're usually not very good, because for some reason, zombie movies just don't get a lot of respect (it might be the disgusting, excessive gore). But I love 'em anyway, with the possible exception of Diary of the Dead, which I found to be preachy and dull. I love the zombie apocalypse scenario, where the nation is overrun with mad killers, and you have to subscribe to a few basic rules to survive (one of which is that you must be very, very lucky).

So Zombieland, for me, was a no-brainer (get it? no-brainer?). In fact, it was important enough that I went to the movies to see it - on opening weekend, no less. I despise theaters, and I hate opening weekend. I came within inches of beating the unholy bejeezus out of a cripple when I went to see Grindhouse, and ever since, I'm hesitant to return to the theater. It's like every stupid person alive wants to come out, just so they can answer their cell phones and talk during the quiet parts.

But I fear I was the obnoxious bastard in Zombieland, because the first time a woman crashed her car, shot through the windshield, and smashed her face to a bloody pulp on the pavement, I cried out, 'Outstanding!' And then I was laughing so hard through the entire movie, and yelling stuff like, 'Hell yes!' and 'Oh, damn!' and at one point, 'Oh my God! It's Bill Murray!'

In case you haven't been following Zombieland with the same fervor that I have, the idea is that, following a worldwide zombie apocalypse, a phobic nerd meets up with a borderline psychotic cowboy. These two cats make the most hilarious odd couple ever - the goofball nearly missed the entire zombie thing because he was playing World of Warcraft, and the good ol' boy is the best zombie killer alive (which he proves multiple times throughout the film). The dork isn't really that familiar to me, but the bad-ass hick is played perfectly by Woody Harrelson.

The two travelers meet up with a couple sisters, hard-nosed grifters who do a pretty darn good job of looking out for each other. As with nearly any story worth telling, there's a developing romance, and despite being constantly on the run from flesh-eating zombies, they find time to laugh, joke, squabble and otherwise actually seem like real people, as opposed to Romero movies, where everyone needs a case of Zanex, because the zombie apocalypse destroyed all the happy people and left only the extremely depressed.

There are three things happening in Zombieland that wouldn't seem to go together, but they work like a well-oiled machine. First there's the horrific gore. Whew, there's a lot of gross in this movie. You know, zombies eating people, but even more than the standard stringy-body-parts-in-the-teeth kind of nasty you see in most zombie flicks. But the thing is, it's mostly believable gore, especially if you've ever seen what actually happens to people when they get badly hurt.

The second element that makes Zombieland a success is the humor. And this isn't 'alleviate the tension' humor, or humor designed to lessen the impact of the violence. This humor is powered by the violence. In fact, it's often hilarious bloodshed, with the audience laughing uproariously at some of the most disturbingly graphic deaths ever recorded on film.

The third element, and the piece that takes Zombieland from 'funny zombie movie' to 'absolutely brilliant' is the character interaction. The dialog is touching, sad, powerful, or poignant - but almost always damned funny. It's not slapstick funny. It's not cheap gag funny. This isn't sitcom writing, or even Judd Apatow 'oh, gross, I can't believe that's in a movie' low humor. This is often funny because you can see how, if you were in their shoes, you would say the same thing - and it would be funny and sad at the same time.

I am not going to ruin the brilliance of Zombieland by giving examples or describing any of the more hilarious scenes. In fact, I'm not even going to spill any more of the plot - and there is definitely more. What I will tell you is that if you have ever enjoyed a zombie movie on any level, you will love Zombieland. If you've never seen a zombie movie, you might very well still enjoy Zombieland. It's not just funny, and it's not just a zombie movie. It's smart, deep, and believable, and manages to let you laugh out loud at some terrifically sad scenarios and not feel the least bit guilty.

In fact, the most remarkable thing about Zombieland is not the humor, or the fantastic action sequences, or the witty banter. The most remarkable thing is that it's so very human.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Triangle Game Review - Treehouse

It's kind of tough to figure out what kind of game Treehouse actually is. There are no cards, so it's not a card game. There's no board, or even a rough approximation of a board, so it's not a board game. You can't play it with more than four people, so it's not a party game. Nobody dies, so it's not a man's game. Hell, the copy I have is pink. It has fifteen little pink pyramids and one black die. So what kind of game is that (aside from a game for men who wear hot pants and spend too much time in the park after sunset)?

I guess I could settle on 'fun game.' It's odd, for sure, and a little simple, but that's about what you expect when you break out a Looney Labs game. It's also rather ingenious, and the more you play it, the better you'll be, even if you can't figure out what kind of game it is.

When you set up this wacky little game, each player gets a stack of three pyramids in three sizes, so they kind of look like a pink pine tree from an old-school Atari tank game. Then you put three more pieces all screwed up in the middle of the table, and you try to get your pine tree to look like the tree in the middle of the table.

You change up your pine tree stack by rolling a die. There are a bunch of different silly words on the die, and every word lets you do something different, either to your pile of pink tree parts or to the tree in the middle of the table that you're all trying to copy. So maybe you'll SWAP two parts of your tree, or DIG one part under another part, or AIM a part a different direction, or one of the other things the die lets you do. It's not complicated, but it will take a while to get good, because it seems like it should be a breeze, but you have to be watching everything at the same time.

For instance, if you're one TIP away from winning, and an opponent just needs a HOP, but all you can roll is a DIG, it might be worth doing the move on the triangle pile in the middle of the table. Because if you're creative at it, you might be able to rearrange the pieces to keep you just one SWAP away while leaving your opponent having to start from scratch.

So my take on Treehouse is that it's a clever game that's easy to learn but has a fair amount of room to learn. However, that's not all Treehouse is. Because not only is Treehouse a quirky little game of rearranging triangles, but it's almost infinitely expandable. Yes, a game that consists of 15 plastic pyramids has a bunch of expansions.

Treehouse isn't the only game you can play with Treehouse. There's a whole bunch of games. In fact, I can name more games you can play with Treehouse than I could name games you could play with a standard deck of cards (that may have something to do with the fact that I can't name very many card games, or that while I'm typing this I have the Looney Labs website open). You can play Icicle, Tic Tac Doh, and Rotationary with just one set. Add some Martian Coasters, and you can play that. Add a couple more sets and a ludicrously cheap book, and you can play Martian Chess, Binary Homeworlds and Black Ice. I can keep going, too - there are literally hundreds of games that have been created for Treehouse pieces.

One thing I really like about Treehouse is that in a market saturated with games whose themes are completely pointless (I'm looking at you, Doctor Knizia), Treehouse has the balls to be honest and just be an abstract game. It doesn't have to pretend that tipping over triangles is actually part of a story about old French kings trying to nail the chambermaid. There's no pretense of unicorns or sea monsters when a piece changes direction. I know people shrug away the worthless theme by saying the market demands it, but that's a load of crap. Treehouse doesn't pretend to be a game with a theme, because the crazy hippies at Looney Labs know that most people would rather not be fooled into buying a game they think is about stealing priceless statues, only to find out they got a boring math game.

I'm still not sure how to label Treehouse. But I don't care, because I like it, and I want to get four more sets and play all these wacky pyramid games. Plus they look like hard candy, and I'm a sucker for a candy theme.


Neat, attractive pieces
Clever game that plays fast
Enough depth that you may need a few games to be really good at it.

You'll need more than one set for most of the really cool Treehouse games

I swear this site isn't turning into a front for Looney Labs. I just like their games, and they keep sending 'em to me. If you think you might like them, you can get Pink Treehouse right here, and even help fight breast cancer: