Monday, October 31, 2011

Event Review - Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School

Since I was old enough to hold a crayon, I wanted to be an artist. As a kid, I went through drawing books like a teenager with a stack of Playboys. I learned how to draw superheroes from a book called How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. Starting college, I announced that I would draw comic books for a living.

There's just one problem - I'm really not very good.

Happily, you don't have to be good if you want to draw. There's no policeman who confiscates your sketchbook as a penalty for your lack of God-given talent. So I keep doing it, and when I heard about Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, I knew I had to at least give it a whirl.

Here's the theory behind Dr. Sketchy. There's a bar, right, and they do regular bar stuff, like serve drinks and smell like stale cigarette smoke and have dirty bathrooms. Then once a month, they bring in models. I don't mean like 'leggy supermodel' models, I mean like art models. But these are generally hot women models, and they pose in costumes that range from publicly indecent to g-string-and-pasties. And they pose, and you draw them. Then, after a couple hours, you leave, mentally exhausted and sexually frustrated.

Now, if you don't draw, this probably isn't entirely your cup of tea. I mean, I draw fairly poorly, but I do draw, so I thought it was a hoot, but if you're not prepared to spend a couple hours scribbling in your sketchbook, it might not be your bag. You might wind up just spending two hours looking at a nearly naked woman and drinking. You know, now that I think about it, this might still be your bag. Mostly naked chicks and booze? Where's the downside?

I went to Dr. Sketchy's Halloween Special last night, and they stepped it up even more than the usual. Instead of one model, there were three, and they dressed in costumes inspired by Rocky Horror. One chick came out in Tim Curry's costume, which I must say works a lot better on a dame. Another was wearing a cute little number with a hat and blue socks. The third was dressed like a dude, but with hot pants.

And these chicks were wild. Not like pole-dance wild, but just full of great ideas for ways to stand around while we drew their pictures. We started out with some two-minute warm-up poses, which was a little like trying to tackle a greased pig while you're wearing a straight jacket. The five-minute poses were somewhat better, but still left me cursing every time the buzzer went off and the model left.

The best stuff I did was in the ten-minute poses. I can do quite a bit of drawing in ten minutes, and while I probably could have worked for forty minutes on just one pose and really tightened it up, I was still able to work out some nice details and make a couple pieces I could brag about later.

The twenty-minute poses were particularly interesting, because they had two models. Of course, since I was struggling like hell to draw just one, having two of them just made it worse. I got one decent piece out of the twenty-minute poses, one that was passable, and one that would have got me thrown out of art school. Which I guess makes it lucky that Dr. Sketchy's is an Anti-Art School.

I learned a heck of a lot in those three hours. I learned how to quickly build a framework before I start trying to fill in details. I learned how to focus on the parts of the drawing that would improve it. I learned how to draw what I see, instead of what my mind is telling me should be there. But most of all, I learned that if I really focus on creating art for three hours, I start to draw like an amputee with a pencil taped to his foot.

Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School might not be the first pick for most people. It's wacky and off-beat, with loads of sexual tension that nobody acknowledges and a room full of artists who don't want anyone to tell them how to draw. It's a little disconcerting to be sitting in a crowded bar where not one person is saying anything, but at the same time, there's a tremendous energy to the room. You can almost see the creativity flowing out of people's heads (and considering the fact that this is a bar full of artists, there's a good chance someone was high enough to actually see the creativity flowing). I had an absolutely fantastic time, and I even won a prize for drawing one model with an alien chest-burster exploding from between her boobs. I'll be going back, I can tell you that.

Now, you might be reading this and thinking, 'Man, I wish they had one of those in my town!' And the thing is, they probably do. There are branches of Dr. Sketchy in nearly every major city in the US, a bunch in Canada, the UK, Europe, and even Australia. Sadly, there are none in Antarctica, so for my readers stuck down at Ice Station Zebra, you'll have to make do drawing each other. For just about everyone else, check out the website and find out how far you would have to drive to draw nearly-naked dames while you swill booze:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Board Game Review - Five-Fingered Discount

I'm running a low-grade fever and just generally feeling run-down, like the Energizer Bunny just left my house and took all the batteries with him. I know that making jokes is going to be harder than normal, and that would have me concerned, except that Five-Fingered Discount is going to do me a big favor and supply all the jokes for me. I am grateful.

Five-Fingered Discount is one of the new crop of games from Minion Games, a plucky little publisher making a good solid run at being a contender. They're not really all that small, either, and they're not shy. They made several solid games, then turned around and made several more. So I had high hopes for a game about a bunch of teenage asshats who trash their employer's convenience store on the day they all get pink slips. Whenever you've got a game where one possible action is to urinate in the coffee, you've got potential.

The goal of Five-Fingered Discount is to get up to as much teenage hijinks as possible before you get fired, because at the end of the day, everybody is unemployed anyway. I guess using standard teenager, short-term mentality, you might as well trash the place if you're not going to have a job. That's the same sort of mindset that leads youngsters and hooligans to throw toilet-paper all over the school on graduation day. It's embarrassingly stupid, but still ridiculously gratifying.

So you'll wander around the store, stealing stuff and insulting customers and generally making a nuisance of yourself, until the boss catches you having a fire-extinguisher fight in the stock room and sends you packing. Of course, since you're an idiot teenager with a horrible attitude and no loyalty to speak of, you'll also rat out your fellow employees so that the boss runs off to yell at them for taking all the money out of the cash register. That way you'll have time to break into the ATM machine.

Reading through the rules, it's pretty obvious that Five-Fingered Severance is a funny, light-hearted game with plenty of potential to be horrible to your friends. What is not obvious until you play is that it's also a cluttered mess. It's actually kind of a shame, because I love the campy drawings and the idea of making out with old ladies in a convenience store restroom, just because it's better than mopping up the mess in aisle three.

The game starts out OK, with a few actual jobs you can do to avoid getting fired sooner, a couple customers to mock, and maybe one or two ways to completely blow off your duties, like watching a movie in the boss's office or stashing Slim Jims in your drawers. But it very quickly escalates into a sloppy disaster, as tasks like sweeping and inventory start to crop up everywhere and customers invade the store like the Visigoth hordes. After just a few turns, there's so much to do that you couldn't possibly keep up with everything, the board is covered with cards, customers are everywhere, the boss is getting irate about the mess behind the register, and all the employees are trying to steal the computer or blow up the walk-in freezer.

Some games give you such limited options that it can be tough to find anything meaningful to do. Five-Fingered Severance gives you the exact opposite problem, because you can only do two things on your turn and there could be twenty different options on any given turn. You're faced with an almost unrestricted array of options, and not nearly enough time to do it.

I went into Five-Fingered Severance with nothing but high hopes. Show me a game that asks me to choose between throwing a Slurpee on a co-workers pants and deliberately microwaving a can of Pepsi, and I'm all over it. The rules are funny, the art is hilarious, and the overall theme of teenage amorality reminds me of when I used to work at Shakey's Pizza and we made Shrinky-Dinks out of the take-out salad lids by cooking them in the giant ovens. But with all the thought that went into the concept, not enough work was put into the execution. Five-Fingered Severance is fun to play for the laughs, but not a good enough game to be played more than once.


2-6 morally bankrupt players

Funny art
Funny stuff to do
Funny theme

Too many options create clutter and eliminate meaningful decisions

Five-Fingered Severance isn't a bad enough game that I'm going to recommend you avoid it like the plague. If you think it sounds like a hoot, you can pick it up from Noble Knight Games:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Board Game Review - Eclipse

It seems that these days, so many games are half-hour throwaways that try to simulate a serious game with light rules and quick play. Games like that can be fun, but too often, they remind me of eating a tofu burger (my wife is a vegetarian, so yes, I have eaten a tofu burger. I would rather eat my sock). They're like imitations of serious games, like getting a patty made out of soy beans when what you really want is a half pound of ground cow.

Eclipse, on the other hand, is a giant double-meat-double-cheese with bacon, lettuce, tomato and sauteed onions on a kaiser roll with a side of steak fries. And maybe a milkshake. When you finish this game, you'll know you just played a real game, a game that separates the men from the fans of farming games, a game with so much meat on it, your colon will whimper for mercy. It's not a game for people who can't commit to a three-hour game, and it's not for people who just want to fly around and blow stuff up. It's a man's game. Or a woman's game. Whatever, it's not for the kids.

Of course, games where you build civilizations tend to be a little on the heavy side. A game like Eclipse that lets you research technology, explore space, build starships, battle ancient aliens and discover hidden artifacts is not going to fit into half an hour, not if you want it to feel like you did anything interesting. You need to prepare for a game this heavy, and be ready to stay a while.

You can tell Eclipse is a beefy game as soon as you open the box. The rules, for starters, are damned sturdy and downright intimidating. There are dozens of sheets to punch, plus multiple bags of wooden pieces and plastic spaceships and a ludicrous number of dice. And everything has a matte varnish, and the player aids are the size of place mats, and the art is engaging and useful at the same time. Just the stuff in the box will blow your mind.

And when you start building your galactic empire through conquest, exploration and scientific progress, you'll start to figure out just how much weight you can handle. You'll need to plan for the future while you maneuver for the present. You can't just start sending out the troops and letting the chips fall where they may. Build a ship this turn that you won't be able to use until next turn. Research technology that won't even come into play until your civilization reaches the point where you can use it. Order a slice of apple pie even though you won't be eating it until you can finish your milkshake.

So many things make Eclipse not only a seriously heavy game, but also a game that I would consider nearly perfect. Actions are taken by going around the table and just doing what you want - but every time you do something, you'll have to pay for it. Do more stuff than you can afford, and you might just bankrupt your entire space-faring empire, and become little more than a footnote in the annals of space history. Sure, it would be great to build a few ships, research some fusion drives, and send them off to war, all in one turn, but if you do, you're probably setting yourself up for financial ruin, followed shortly thereafter by having to take a job cleaning toilets. And if everyone else has been eating those giant hamburgers, that's not going to be a pleasant task.

Space combat is a riot. It's very dependent on good die-rolling, but there are ways to mitigate the luck factor and balance the odds. Upgrade your computers, for instance, or buy better guns. Build some cannon-fodder ships, or give your ships really strong hulls so they can take a hit. Then soar into battle against the forces of evil (or good. Depends on your angle, I guess).

But while there is copious opportunity to do violence and rack up a body count, there is so much more to do in Eclipse besides get into fights. Exploration and colonization is key to your future, and studying advances in economic theory could be just as valuable as equipping a dreadnought with mass drivers. You can't think in one dimension if you want to succeed, or you'll wind up trying to carve your empire out of the backwaters of the universe, while the smart player is gobbling up planetary systems like curly fries.

Going into all the brilliant rules in Eclipse could take all day, and you would be bored as hell before I finished. But it's fair to say that this game was tested a heck of a lot, and if you really want to see everything it has to offer, you're going to have to play it half a dozen times - or more. You can try out new alien races just to kick the tires. You can focus on colonization over exploration, bloody warfare over peaceful expansion, or mix up your play style and be the alien aggressors you were born to be.

Eclipse is about as perfect as a game could be, though that doesn't mean that everyone will love it. Not everyone is tough enough to eat that half-pound of giant hamburger. You might be a tofu guy. Don't be sad. Some people just don't have the appetite to handle this much game. But if you've got the stamina to survive a game this refined, deep and diabolically clever, then you're in for a treat. A really big treat that will harden your arteries and clog your pores, but a treat nonetheless.


2-6 players

Heavy, both literally and figuratively
Incredibly deep, with lots of long-term decisions and short-term tactics
Beautiful, and full of fantastic components
Just a big, delicious, satisfying meal of a game

Don't bother if you're not ready to invest some time

Eclipse is one of those Essen releases that won't be stateside for a while. Keep an eye out, and if you find a good place to preorder it, get your order in early, unless you don't have the stomach for this much game.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Card Game Review - Timeline

Sometimes I wonder about game publishers. I know there's this constant race to publish more stuff in an ever-running race to keep up with the Joneses (and by 'Joneses' I mean 'Fantasy Flight'), but I am often distressed at the poor judgment shown in choosing titles and themes. I don't think many people would be interested in watching a riveting television show about people who arrange cardboard boxes for a living, but for some reason, publishers seem to think that would make a fascinating board game.

By way of example, here's an idea, and you decide for yourself whether it would make a super fun game:

Which came first, the lightbulb or the electric can opener?

If you thought, 'man, I would love to answer questions like that for, like, half an hour!', then you're in luck, because there's a game that does that. If you thought, 'who gives a rat's hairy ass?', then Timeline is almost certainly not going to appeal to you. Me, I don't care whether the cannon preceded the airplane. I just want to know if I can use the former to blow up the latter.

Maybe it's just me. I prefer games that would make cool movies. And a painfully academic discussion regarding the creation dates of various advances in humanity is not anywhere near as interesting as a bunch of robots blasting at each other with laser cannons. I'll take the robot game every time.

I can tell you that Timeline has considerable educational potential, as long as you just want people to learn if the wheel predated campfires. You'll take turns placing your cards in the line on the table, and if you can figure out if the astrolabe comes before the cuneiform, then not only will you probably win, but you probably don't need to play. Because if you know what an astrolabe is, and you know what a cuneiform is, you're probably too smart for Timeline, anyway. You're almost certainly too intelligent to be reading this knuckle-dragging website. You're probably just slumming, checking to see if I'll make a boob joke. (Hint - I probably will, sooner or later.)

Timeline confuses me. It's got tons of beautiful art. It comes in a metal box with an embossed lid. And yet the entire game is only a pile of small cards, and the only thing you do in the game is try to remember pointless tidbits of data you may have learned in seventh grade and have since forgotten, because you don't actually have any reason that you would need to know when someone made the first Dutch windmill.

I do have to admit that some of the stuff I learned surprised me. For instance, did you know that spectacles predate whiskey? That was actually pretty lucky, because if you're going to get totally sideways, it's super handy if someone has already invented a way for you to see the road you'll travel to stagger home. If you play Timeline, you're almost guaranteed to learn something. The only problem is that unless you're a junkie for dates, you probably won't care about anything you learn. And sadly, you probably won't have a very good time learning it, which makes it about as entertaining as eighth-grade US History, but without having to listen to the soporific droning of the girl's volleyball coach who got roped into teaching the class.


2-8 players

Great art
Beautiful metal box
Reasonably educational

Not really very fun
You'll probably forget everything you learn before you finish the game

There's every possibility that you might actually want to know all these dates. It might come in handy if you're ever abducted by aliens who will determine your fate based on your knowledge of your home world. You might also be a teacher who wants to try to trick kids into learning things. Either way, you can get Timeline from Noble Knight Games, real cheap:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Board Game Review - Commander-in-Chief

Publishing a game in a market glutted with games takes a certain amount of hubris. I mean, you have to hang on to the belief that what you're developing really is as good as your mom told you it was, and ignore the guy who asked you why in the world you thought this was a good idea. But there's a point at which you really ought to question the visions you had where Jesus came down and told you to self-publish.

Commander-in-Chief is a self-published game that takes itself far, far too seriously. The creator of this game must really think he's a gaming messiah, because you when you make a simple chess variant and decree that it is not only the third classic game ever made, but the final chess variant that will ever be created, you've gone from 'cocky' to 'cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.'

Commander-in-Chief isn't a bad game, really. It's a military-themed twist on chess using amphibious landers instead of pawns and helicopters in place of knights. For a real twist, you play it diagonally. And it comes with a box full of seriously chunky plastic vehicles that must have cost a mint to make, especially since I would wager the game's creator now has a garage full of games he can't sell. I'm sure if he holds onto them, they'll be worth a mint when everyone realizes that they've missed out on the last chess variant that anyone will ever create (that is, until a bored tenth-grader makes a chess twist using seeds he extracts from his marijuana).

There are some mildly interesting alterations to chess in Commander-in-Chief, like the fact that the middle of the chess board is water, and so your tanks can't go in there. Airplanes can go anywhere, but boats can't leave the sea. You'll play a dumbed-up version of chess where the board is turned on its corner and you have to make sure you don't lose all your submarines before you take out that last fighter plane. How plastic airplanes make a game the culminating pinnacle of chess variants is beyond my grasp, but I'm sure the creator has a handle on it.

The problem is not that Commander-in-Chief is a bad game. The problem is that if I want to play a game that's a lot like chess, I'll play chess. What I will not do is spin the board a little and turn all my guys into plastic tanks. Chess is a classic that I've played thousands of times. Commander-in-Chief is not a game I want to play twice, especially when I could, instead, play chess. I guess I'm old-school. The now-and-future king of chess games is too modern for my old-fashioned self.

But all is not lost! If you want to play regular chess, you can use the pieces in the box to play chess. You just have to remember whether the amphibian is a rook or a knight, and what the hell do you do with the submarine? I have an even better idea - I'll use chess pieces. And I won't pay forty bucks for them, unless they're the kinds of chess pieces that rich people leave out on glass coffee tables to let other people see that they know how to play chess.

I can't imagine what it must be like to invent a chess variant and decide that it's so good that nobody will ever make another game better than yours. I am at once awed at the brazen ballsack it takes to make such a claim, and dismayed at the complete departure from reality required to actually write that on the box. Commander-in-Chief is not a classic in any way that matters, and will be promptly forgotten by nearly everyone, except the creator's wife, who will be questioning his judgment in taking out a second mortgage just to fill the garage with boxes full of plastic war toys.


2 players (or 4, because there are team rules. Yes, really)

Reasonably attractive
Cool plastic army vehicles
Fun, if you don't know how to play chess

I'll pass, thanks, and just play chess

You're probably wondering, 'hey, where can I get a copy of a game that's almost just like playing chess?' Well, you're in luck. I know just the place.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kick-Ass Game Review - Summoner Wars Master Set

If you need an example of how to release a reboot, just take a gander at Plaid Hat Games (incidentally, 'taking a gander' was originally a phrase that meant 'urinating on a goose', and when done properly, tended to draw a crowd). (Also incidentally, I made that up.)

Plaid Hat Games makes Summoner Wars. In fact, the company was created to sell Summoner Wars, although they're branching out now with a new game coming out real soon and more in the pipeline. But Summoner Wars is still the flagship, and when Plaid Hat decided to break out a new introduction set, they did it with some serious style.

Some companies, when they want to remake an older-but-successful game, just reprint it, and maybe add some rules. Not the case with Summoner Wars. The new Summoner Wars Master Set can be used as-is to play the game, but it's also a must-have if you're a fan of the game. If you've never bought any Summoner Wars, the Master Set is a great place to jump in, and if you're already a fan, you're going to want it badly enough to donate sperm (or eggs. I'm not sexist. Well, OK, I kind of am sometimes, but if I was always sensitive, I couldn't call the site 'crassly opinionated' could I?).

The first thing you'll see when you dive eagerly into the Summoner Wars Master Set is that the board is simply fantastic. My biggest problem with the original game was that you had to play on this big paper mat that would never lay flat, and I had to remove a window in my house just so I could put the glass on top of it (that part, I did not make up. I really do put an old window on top of the paper mat when I play Summoner Wars. Or I did. Now I have this new kick-ass board, so the window is retired).

Once you get the board out of the box, though, you'll see the real reason you simply have to own the Master Set - six complete decks with six brand new factions. This isn't just a reboot. You're almost doubling the number of factions in the game, and in what I personally consider a nearly impossible feat, every new faction is not only balanced, but incredibly interesting and brand spankin' new.

Take, for instance, the Benders. Every character in this faction can shoot, which makes them uniquely dangerous. Unfortunately, they're not all particularly strong, and they are terribly fragile. But the reason you're going to play the Benders is because their psychic abilities will completely ruin any chance your opponent might have to make a decent plan. You'll steal his warriors and use them against him. You'll swipe his best actions right out of his hand. You'll move his guys and rearrange the board until his own guys are bumping into each other. And then it won't matter how fragile your Benders are, because nobody is ever going to get close enough to swing at them.

Of course, if your opponent is playing the Shadow Elves, he'll give your Benders a run for their money. These guys are all cheap as dirt, so they'll spawn all over the place and run amok. They're fast, too, and while most of them fall down pretty easy, they do have one powerful secret weapon - a four-headed dragon that is the most frightening champion I've seen so far.

There are new goblins and orcs, but they're a cool tweak. The Sand Goblins are actually a little on the pricey side, and while they're still conniving, cowardly little cretins, they're also bad-ass motor scooters. They have a fascinating array of interesting abilities, and present an entertaining and balanced faction that can play offense or defense in equal measures.

The Swamp Orcs, on the other hand, are a thoroughly fascinating faction with a fairly narrow scope. Their talents derive primarily from the use of vine walls, an addition to the game that is exclusive to this new faction. They can use their event cards and some of their abilities to bring in these vine walls almost anywhere, and then hide in them for cover, jump out of them to ambush foes, and practically cheat your opponent right out of his win. Also, they're a blast to play.

If you prefer a more defensive game, the Mountain Vargath are tough as nails and will do a great job of wearing down your opponent. They'll smash opponents back to their own side. They'll protect their side of the board with terrifying efficiency. And when they decide to break loose and bring the pain, the Vargath are a magnificent juggernaut of violence.

If you're keeping a count, you can probably see that I'm on the sixth faction. And I saved the best for last. The coolest new faction is the Deep Dwarves. And the reason they're the coolest is because they're probably the hardest to play well, but they're going to be wicked tough to beat if they're played well. Every card has an ability that relies on you having magic, which means that you're going to have to bank magic every turn if you're going to make them work. Happily, the summoner for the Deep Dwarves can automatically generate magic right out of your discard pile, as long as you don't mind going easy on the attacks for one turn. Basically, if you play these guys wrong, you might as well line them up and shoot them, but if you play them right, the Deep Dwarves are going to open whole shopping carts full of whoop-ass.

Basically, the new Summoner Wars Master Set is a no-brainer, gotta-buy-this game. If you haven't played before, this is the perfect place to jump in. If you have every card made so far, you're going to need the cards in the Master Set. If you play casually and just pick up a little here and there, the Master Set has so much variety and replay value that you can get months of enjoyment just out of the one box. If you like games, you should get Summoner Wars. It's that damned good.


2 players (4 if you want to play partners, but you'll need another board)

Six new, brilliant factions
Fan-freaking-tastic art
Balanced and interesting, the new stuff brings more to the table than you would think possible
The new board is really nice
You can fit everything you've bought so far into the box

No. There are no cons.

Want to know how hot this Master Set really is? Noble Knight is sold out of them. But if you watch their listing, they'll have it back, and they'll have it at a discount.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Board Game Review - Imperial 2030

World conquest is one of those themes that just about anyone can understand. You just gather a bunch of troops, send them out to war, and grab anything that isn't nailed down. Kill all the men, rape the horses and ride off on the women. Or, you know, whatever it is that you do.

But in real life, taking over the world is way trickier. If you piss off enough people, sooner or later they all band together to deliver bloody kidney blows until you cry 'uncle' and have to cut Berlin in half. These days, if you want to take over the world, you have to get permission.

This kind of global warfare is what you're going to see if you play Imperial 2030. It's not just a bloodbath dice-fest where everyone competes to take down everyone else. You're not representing a particular color or nation. You get to be a big player, a behind-the-scenes puppetmaster driving the governments of the world to war for your own personal profit. So is everyone else at the table, so at least it's a level playing field.

You'll start off the game by giving Russia so much money that they make you the shadow government, while your buddy buys up India and the other guy who never washes the mustard out of his beard stakes his claim in China. The person with the most investment in a nation gets to decide what that nation does, and can hire troops, levy taxes, call for investors or just run out and start grabbing up land.

But here's the awesome part - other people can give money to your nation. It's not easy to manipulate, and sometimes you get the chance to invest into Brazil when they've been reduced to a third-world nation bordering on bankruptcy, but sometimes you get the chance to buy a huge chunk of China right as they're running roughshod over the populations of three different continents. You win the game by having the most money in the best countries, so even if you're not controlling the winning country, you can steal the win right out from under the guy who thinks he just should have won just because he spilled the most blood.

This is actually where the game starts losing fans. When I described the game to my son, he said, 'any game where 'tax Russia' is an option - I'm out.' Imperial 2030 has lots of war, violence and general mayhem, but it's not a game about war. It's a game about smart investing and clever manipulation. The guy who buys a lot of everything and barely manages to make India a second-stringer could win the game just because he has a big chunk of the nations that actually end up dominating the planet.

Another element that could dissuade the warmonger is that you don't get to fight every turn. There's a big wheel that you travel around, and it makes sure you don't do the same thing every turn. If you build a factory one turn, that's all you do, and then next turn, you won't really have the option to do it again. Launch your warships and go to war, and next turn, you'll be taxing the nations you control instead of following up with a brutal blitzkrieg. This can leave the militant bloodletters in your group a little aggravated, though the serious thinkers are going to love it. Time your warfare to disrupt enemy plans when they can't strike back, or delay the investment phase until it's most advantageous to you. Since Imperial 2030 is all about manipulating markets, and really not about imperialism or world dominance, those players who want to pile corpses like recycled newspaper are going to get restless.

There's one final problem that might send your mayhem-prone merchants of war running for the door - a complete lack of dice. Battles take about two seconds, because when you roll up on your foes, you'll each lose the exact same number of troops. The winner is always going to be the guy who brought more. There are no cards, either. There is essentially no random factor in the entire game. You win or lose based entirely on how you play.

Now, I am a huge fan of spilling the blood of wooden soldiers, but I also love to play games that are massive, protracted battles of wits. Imperial 2030 takes two or three hours (or more), and when you're done, you'll need a nap. It's exhausting to play a game this involved. Every decision has to be carefully considered. You have to watch every other move that anyone makes, because you can't afford to have your plans disrupted by a single Indian cargo tanker steaming through the South Atlantic. The values of nations will rise and fall, treaties will be formed, and your long-term plans will be put to the test. This is not a game you should play if you're short on time or just want to get drunk and throw some dice (there are plenty of other games that are great for that. My favorite is called Get Drunk And Throw Some Dice. It's even better if you can call it Get Drunk And Throw Dollar Bills at Strippers, but my wife doesn't really like that one as much).

The thing is, every element of Imperial 2030 that one person would see as a shortcoming, I see as another reason to love the game. I love the fact that you're playing a world war game that's not about world war. I love the strategy that goes into timing your turns. I love making a smart short-term sacrifice for a powerful long-term benefit. Everything that would make a more visceral player angry and bored makes my brain crank up and get all excited. Imperial 2030 is heavy on the thinking, and can last all afternoon, but that makes it awesome for me. You, on the other hand - I can't make any promises.


2-6 players

Every move requires strategy and planning
Delayed actions make every turn count
Subtle manipulation and clever investing trumps bloody warfare
This is just a whole lot of game

Every move requires strategy and planning
Delayed actions make every turn count
Subtle manipulation and clever investing trumps bloody warfare
This is just a whole lot of game

Noble Knight Games is carrying Imperial 2030, and holy crap, their price on it is amazing. You can save a whopping 30% off retail. That's a steep discount, kids, and if you like your games with some meat on 'em, you should jump on this one before it's gone.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mind Game Review - Double Agent

Different people like different kinds of games. That's not exactly breaking news. No need to stay tuned for live updates at ten. But I have seen very few games that fostered split opinions like Double Agent.

Double Agent is not a board game, and although it is played with cards, it's not really a card game. It's more like a mind game, where your goal is to get inside your opponent's head and sucker him into a bad play. There are six secret agents on the board, and you'll hand over files to these agents until they have enough that they have to give them to someone. The trick is, you never know which side that agent is actually working for. Every one of those sneaky sons of bitches is working both sides, and until their loyalty is actually called into question, they could hand over your favorite documents to the other player.

Playing the game isn't hard, and requires only a modicum of explanation. You'll assign loyalty scores to agents, then give agents secret files. If you think a particular agent is going to sell you out, hand him the dry cleaning bill and tell him it's a troop deployment agenda. If you think that agent is on your side, tell him where you keep the nukes. But the only way to know how loyal a spy is to the other side is to guess based on where the other player puts down his best cards, and since you both have plenty of ways to confuse and obfuscate, that can be tricky. Add in the fact that you both have cards that can screw up the way the cards are working, by doing stuff like swapping loyalty scores or checking the documents in an agent's briefcase, and you've got some mind-screw mayhem.

So that's how you play the game, but it's not really how you play the game. You play this game by getting into your opponent's head and screwing around. You read his mind. You fake him out. You set traps to make him think he's winning, and then throw down a sudden reversal that leaves him reeling. It's tricky and subtle, and if you're not naturally tricky and subtle, it's freaking hard. Prepare for an ass-kicking.

And here's where the great divide happens. There are people who will play this game and say, 'why would anyone even create a game like this?' Not because they didn't understand it, but because they just plain really didn't like it. Some people don't want to play head games when they're playing board games, and frankly, I don't blame 'em.

On the other hand, people who really like to burrow into their opponents' skulls like that nasty-ass worm thing from Wrath of Khan are going to love Double Agent. The feints and bluffs and surprise maneuvers can get a little intense, and result in some actual anxiety. Some people love that anxiety. Some people just don't see the point.

Me, I'm somewhere in the middle. I've discovered that I have a much higher tolerance for nearly any kind of game than just about anyone I know. I really like Agricola, and I really like Risk. I like card games and dice games. I've said before that I'll play anything if it's fun, and fortunately for me, I find lots of games fun.

But while I see a lovely amount of twisted strategy and deliberate mind-screw in Double Agent, that kind of game is not always my bag. When I play a game, I like to be able to tell my opponent the moves I see, so that he has the same information I do. For instance, here's me playing Risk:

"If you don't reinforce Alaska, I'm going to come through Kamchatka like the wrath of a dying god. If you invade Europe, you'll stop Blue from gathering his continent bonus. If you wrap up Peru, you'll score the bonus for that, and then you just have to reinforce Brazil to keep out Red. Purple has two territories left, so you could totally wipe her out and take her cards."

To which many players will reply,

"What am I, retarded? Shut up and let me play."

I've never been the kind of player who hides information so he can win. I don't see the value in a win if you had to leave the other player in the dark to make it happen. But if you're playing Double Agent and you say, 'hey, I just gave that guy a 4, so it's likely that he's got a high loyalty to me,' you might as well just concede.

So like I said, Double Agent is going to seriously split the masses. I think it is a very smart game, and if you play it with the right person, you'll love it. Play it with the wrong person, and you may not even see that it's a very smart game. Saying that a game is not for everybody is so obvious that it's idiotic, but this is still a great example of what that is supposed to mean. Many people will hate Double Agent. Lots more will absolutely fall in love with it. And people who like to play almost anything will be happy as long as they're playing something fun.


2 players

Subtle and clever
Outstanding art
Short but still intellectually demanding

Might leave you wondering why you didn't just skip the game and put your finger in a blender

Noble Knight Games is carrying Double Agent. If you're into games that rely more on your ability to mess with your opponent's head than your intelligent distribution of armies, you might really dig it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Dumping My Stuff Review

I have too many games. This may sound like a good problem to have, but in my house, games are a little like that one episode of old-school Star Trek where those cute Tribble thingies fill up every corner of the Enterprise. I've got more games than I can store. If someone walked into my office without knowing me, they would think they just entered the home of some decrepit old lady who hasn't thrown out a newspaper since 1927.

Now, maybe this isn't a problem with which you can empathize. But if you're reading Drake's Flames, there's a very good chance you can understand this next problem: I want new games. I want to review games that I can't get from publishers. I want to play stuff my kids might like. I want to try all the hot new games that the cool kids are talking about, but that I can't play because they're published by some Japanese company who can't even read my emails.

But I recently discovered a solution to both problems, one I didn't even know was out there. It turns out, Noble Knight Games (the sponsors for this site) don't just sell like, everything. They also buy everything. You can send them a list of games you wish would disappear, and they'll tell you what they'll pay for them. Then you send the games and get store credit, which you can then use to buy more games. You can also get cash, which is great if you need food rather than games.

I have been meaning to discuss this option for a couple weeks, but before I just said, 'hey, Noble Knight will buy your games,' I wanted to try it for myself. So I picked out a half-dozen games that I wished were not in my house any more, and emailed away to see what they would give me for them.

I did have a concern when I sent in my list. Not every game I was selling was worth a pile of warm spit. I was a little worried that they would weed through the garbage, make me an offer on the ones they wanted, and leave me stuck with a copy of that ridiculous Pirates board game with the plastic map that would never lay flat. But no, they replied back with what I thought was a reasonably generous offer, and gave me a quote on every game I offered them. Even the really crappy ones.

Now, I like getting money for things I didn't buy, so I was generally inclined to accept whatever figure they offered. But I wanted to see how they measured up to just selling my crap on eBay, so I compared all the prices and was surprised to find out that they were actually fairly competitive. Sure, you might make a few more bucks on eBay, but only a few. After all, these are used games, and eBay prices on used stuff are crappy.

I've tried the eBay route before, and I can tell you this - it's a gigantic pain in the ass that is not remotely worth the effort. Just the part where you build the listings is a headache. Add in the parts where you collect money from total strangers, box up every game separately, print multiple shipping labels, and cart the whole shebang to the post office, and you'll wish you had just decided to throw them away. Especially when half the games I sold on eBay went for less than two bucks.

Compare that to Noble Knight. Once I said I liked the quote, they sent me FedEx shipping labels. I boxed up the games, slapped the labels on the box, and took them to Office Max, where they went on their way without me buying so much as a postage stamp. Yep, on top of sending all the games to one place and not having to bankrupt my checking account for online postage labels, I shipped the games away for free.

One week later, Noble Knight contacted me to let me know that they had unpacked the games, and that my account was credited. This was obviously easier than selling them individually, but it was also potentially more profitable. In fact, it was so painless, I'm about to sell another dozen games (which reminds me - send in your review suggestions now, because I'm going to buy a whole bunch of review copies).

The cool thing about having store credit at Noble Knight Games is that on top of having an incredible selection, they have an absolutely jaw-dropping amount of old stuff. Looking for an out-of-print copy of Neuroshima Hex? No problem. Want a couple books to round out your Legions of Steel collection? They've got 'em. Their selection impresses me on a very regular basis, which would explain why I've spent so much money in their store.

I should obviously point out that Noble Knight Games is the sponsor for Drake's Flames, and they do provide me with lots of review copies just for mentioning them now and then. But I can tell you this - I've done a lot of online game buying in my day, and I've never had better customer service or more honest dealings. If I didn't care for Noble Knight as a shop, I wouldn't promote them, even if they shipped me crates of games every week.

Of course, if they did ship me crates of games, that would just exacerbate the first problem. So it's probably just as well.

If you have games you don't play, and would like to get some new games, cruise over to Noble Knight Games and they'll hook you right up:

Friday, October 7, 2011

Pyramid Game Review - Ice Dice

It's been almost two years since I first reviewed Treehouse from Looney Labs (you can read about it here), so it was about time to score another set of brightly colored translucent triangles and play more wacky abstract games. Well, maybe it was past time. It's hard to say, because I can't figure out how to set the clock on my cell phone (I have a new kick-ass Android phone, that keeps track of my budget and plays games and reminds me to take out the garbage, but I still can't reliably make phone calls).

The new Treehouse game is called Ice Dice, and it's got so much going for it, Looney Labs should be charging a lot more. Seriously, when you get this much awesome crap for twenty bucks, you should check to see if your Delorean has accidentally been set to 1986.

The new Ice Dice set has two full pyramid sets, all in technicolor shiny plastic. That's actually ten pyramids, total, each composed of three nesting pyramids. That's less than a dollar per piece. Plus you get two wacky dice (which I suppose is where they got the name) and rules for two games, with summaries for lots more.

But it's more than that, too. With just the pieces you get in Ice Dice, you can play a half dozen different games. You can add in one or two more boxes of pyramids (they're cheap, too) and play a whole hell of a lot more. If you need rules for some new games, Looney Labs has a baker's dozen on their website - and those are all free. Seriously, this is a great bargain.

But the coolest thing about Ice Dice, my favorite part of the whole package, actually is the package. Ice Dice comes in a pyramid-shaped zipper bag that will store all the pyramids you'll ever need, and keeps them all in a handy, instantly identifiable bag that you can shove in a coat pocket and take anywhere you go. If you ever like to travel and have games that go with you, Ice Dice should be at the tippy-top of your pyramid-shaped list.

There are two games inside the bag - Ice Dice (duh) and Launchpad 23. The title game is a clever little push-your-luck game for two players, and you can add more players if you have more pyramids. If you're just itching to play with four players, Launchpad 23 is a cutthroat maneuvering game where you'll routinely frustrate and counter your friends, if you can decide who to pick on. Both are fun, easy, abstract games that will entertain for fifteen minutes while you wait for the waitress at Denny's to bring your Moons Over My Hammy at a Barstow truck stop.

Of course, there are really more than two games in the bag. There are at least a dozen - all you need is the rules. And like I said, those are freely available at the Looney Labs site. My new phone will download those rules anywhere I go, and let me read them in the front seat of the car (though after I finish, it will probably butt-dial my boss who thinks I'm out sick, so he can listen to me sing along to Van Halen on the radio).

There are lots of games out there. Thousands, really. And of those thousands, hundreds of them will travel really well. But for my money, the best investment the traveling gamer can make is a couple sets of pyramids and some wacky dice that can be chucked into the glove box and dragged out when we get to the giant ball of twine, so me and the kids will have something to do while my wife takes pictures for her scrapbook.

If she does takes pictures, she's probably using my new phone. If I could figure out how to see the pictures, I would show them to you.


2-4 players

Attractive, fun shapes
More games than you'll probably have time to play
Light and easy abstracts
Insanely portable
Really good value

Once you get started, you'll want more, so they're a little like heroin

Did I say Ice Dice was twenty bucks? I lied. If you got to Noble Knight Games, it's even cheaper than that.

And if you need rules to more of the pyramid games, here's a good-sized pile to get you started:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Card Game Review - Star Fluxx

I think we need to start a campaign to tell Looney Labs what settings to use for Fluxx. We've got zombies and pirates, Martians and potheads. We've got Monty Python and eco-friendly shrubbery. Looney Labs cranks out another Fluxx version about once a year, and so I think we need to offer some ideas. I think maybe Dino Fluxx, Balanced Diet Fluxx, and Porn Fluxx (my personal favorite idea) should be added to the lineup.

At least this year, we won't have to worry about what the new Fluxx is called. It's already called Star Fluxx, and riffs off so many science fiction tropes you may not even recognize all of them. Like you can win the Landing Party goal if you have the captain, the scientist, and an expendable crewman. In case you're wondering, yes, the expendable crewman is wearing a red shirt. No, the captain is not pictured with a hot alien chick. Or Khan.

One thing that's really cool about Star Fluxx is that most of the Keepers have special abilities. In other versions, the Keepers mostly just sit there and draw attention, which gives players a really good reason not to play them until the last minute. However, in Star Fluxx, the captain can recruit crew members from other players, the brain parasite can attach itself to the captain, and the laser sword can chop the captain in half and rid you of that pesky space monster. For the first time that I can remember, nearly any Keeper card is good for something, so you'll probably want to throw down as many as you can.

The surprises in Star Fluxx are also fun. You can counter other players, change goals before other people win, and otherwise screw with your friends. My favorite card is called It's A Trap. I don't even care what it does (though it is pretty fun). Mostly I just like to channel Admiral Ackbar when I play it, and yell 'It's a trap!' while sounding like someone cut off my lips.

Star Fluxx is not my favorite Fluxx so far. That would be Martian Fluxx, which does a great job of making you feel like you're playing a bunch of alien invaders harvesting Earthlings. But Star Fluxx pulls a close second, because on top of having a bunch of recognizable sci-fi gags that make me feel cool because I get the joke, it feels the most like you might have some impact on the end result, rather than just playing cards at random and hoping you don't lose before you get another turn.

Fluxx is still about the most random game you can play, although I think Star Fluxx does the best job so far of letting you feel like you have any ability to influence the outcome. I don't play Fluxx very often, simply because it is so random, but Star Fluxx might actually get played more often now that I know it's actually got some smart plays to be played. The new art is a hoot, too, so there's that.

At least for this year, we don't have to worry about what to call the latest Fluxx. But I think pretty soon, we will need to put our heads together and come up with the next Fluxx. I think it's important that we start on this idea very soon. For now, try Star Fluxx and see if you're inspired.


2 or more players

Great art
Lots of special powers let you feel like you can actually set up card combos
More potential decision-making than any previous version (which is not saying much)
Cute sci-fi references
Better than any other Fluxx except Martian Fluxx

Still wildly random and chaotic
Could end in two minutes; could take an hour and a half

If you want a cheap, portable, fun game that you can take anywhere and play with nearly anyone, Star Fluxx is a great choice. Want to save a few bucks on it? Try Noble Knight Games:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dice Game Review - King of Tokyo

Transcript from a private conversation that may or may not have occurred in my head the other day:

Me: I wish I could find a really cool game that I could break out quick, play in fifteen minutes, then put it away when everybody finally shows up.
Also Me: Yeah, but those tend to be so empty and crappy and boring. Half the time they're just abstracts, and I never feel like I did anything, and the other half are about medieval France.
First Me: No kidding. What we need is a quick game with something awesome, like giant robots or monsters.
Responding Me: Yeah, and they need a stupid amount of violence. I have a pretty short attention span, and need constant bloodshed to keep my interest.
Me Again: Sorry? I wasn't paying attention.
Second Me: Ass. I'm going to punch you in the teeth. That should wake you up a little.
Original Me: Sure, stupid, but they're your teeth, too.
Angry Me: Know what? Your breath stinks.
Snarky Me: Well you're the one who had to have onions on your burger!

I don't often have very productive conversations with myself, and this is one example of why I can never get anything done. Maybe if I could focus, I could come up with games as fun as King of Tokyo, and afford some professional psychiatric help.

King of Tokyo is the coolest filler game I've played in a while. It's got an actual story, more or less - giant monsters and evil robots competing to claim domination over Tokyo. That's more than most fast games can claim. Plus there's the hilariously awesome art, the enormous chunky dice, the nifty cardboard standups and the seriously entertaining cards. Before you even read the rules, King of Tokyo beats the pants off most filler games.

It's a pretty easy game, too. You roll dice that will tell you if you do damage to other monsters, gather energy, heal your wounds, or smash the piss out of Tokyo to get some victory points. Then you use your energy cubes to buy cool mutant abilities, like parasitic tentacles or an extra head (extra heads are very handy if you shoot lightning out of your mouth, as long as you're not trying to make out with your other head when you fire).

You'll keep track of your health and victory points on a cool little spinner card in front of you, and when you hit someone hard enough, you may be able to move into Tokyo. Staying in Tokyo has proven to be hazardous to your health, so you may not want to stay very long, but there is the upside that if you're in Tokyo, you get to smash stuff. Now, for you and I, stuff like money or power indicates that you're doing really well, but giant monsters measure success by how many buildings they can eat in a minute. So wrecking buildings and staying in Tokyo is how you win, unless you get killed doing it. You can't win the game if you're dead. Duh.

There's not an enormous amount of strategy or difficult decision-making in King of Tokyo, but that's fine with me, because you can spend twenty minutes pounding the crap out of each other and then take a break when the pizza guy shows up. You roll the dice, keep some and reroll others, and try to get the dice that get you what you want. If you really need to beat up your enemies, you want the damage, but if you're trying to mutate into a super-booger, you need the energy. Take a beating in downtown Tokyo, and you'll need to run off and roll those hearts.

Of course, the dice almost never cooperate, so what you do with your turn is not entirely up to you. That's actually just fine with me, because whatever you do, it's going to be fun. Eat a fuel tanker and get some energy. Throw tanks at your enemies. Cower and lick your wounds. It doesn't much matter what you're doing, because it's all fun.

I can see control freaks hating King of Tokyo. It's extremely random, and you don't have a whole lot of control over what you can do. If the dice won't show you what you need, you could wind up with a handful of nothin'. And if you don't really care for giant monsters destroying Tokyo, then you definitely aren't going to like this game (also, you may not have a soul).

I've complained in the past about games that are too random, but there are reasons that King of Tokyo is good random, and other games are bad random. In this game, the random stuff is a hoot. Maybe you don't get what you need, but you'll probably still get to punch King Kong in his oversized reproductive organ. So you didn't roll any hearts, and still can't heal, but you managed to get some energy cubes and trade them in for a commuter-train snack cake.

Another reason the luck doesn't bother me is because the game ends before it can start irritating you. On top of being madcap hilarity and violent hijinks, King of Tokyo's random factor doesn't wear out its welcome by taking all afternoon. This is not a serious game for serious people. It's a giant-lizards-destroy-Tokyo-and-eat-small-children game for people with a sense of humor, and it plays so fast, you'll be done before anyone gets tired of it.

I'll be keeping King of Tokyo for a good long time. It's fun, violent and hilarious, and it's perfect to break out while one guy is out on a beer run. If I could create my ideal filler game, I'm pretty sure this would be it. The voices in my head agree on this one.


2-6 players

Great art that really brings the game to life
Doesn't take itself at all seriously
Fast and furious and full of old-fashioned monster beatings
Splendid components make it even more fun

Extremely random
Not a lot of depth (which works great for this, actually)

I reviewed King of Tokyo specifically because a reader asked me to. But Iello still won't return my emails, so the only way I could get this game was through Noble Knight Games. If you want to read more reviews of requested games, you gotta tell Noble Knight. The best way to do that is shop at their online store (it doesn't hurt to mention my name). If you're going to be King of Tokyo, get it here: