Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Board Game Review - Cave Evil

As lord of the Abyss and Master of inappropriate Capitalization, I vow to bring death and madness to all who would deny the Pure awesomeness of Cave Evil, where death rules and evil also Rules. Those who would refuse to dive into the well of Pustulent disease and play Cave Evil have failed to appease the dark overlord of Darkest darkness and will be condemned to listen to Justin Bieber and bad hip hop while we revel in the pure unadulterated Evil of our twisted master.

Cave Evil will bring about the end of times, as long as those times that are ending are the times when we are doing boring stuff like doing homework and getting haircuts. Because we will don our Robes of Ultimate evil and become necromantic masters, commanding dark minions like shoddy abominations and Slimy Whore Bitches. I may have made up one of those. Guess which one, or be consumed by supreme BLACK evil.

We will search through the Cave Evil, accompanied by our bad-ASS minions of evil and dead Death and stuff. We will summon horrid cave worms and maggot swarms to crush all our foes under our skeletal Ankle bones, and some of our ultimate BadAss Minions will be good at digging, and they will uncover hidden caves, where we will find allies to add to our armies of seriously freaking Evil buddies who like to do evil stuff that is EVIL.

And maybe they will open up the caves and instead of finding other Evil guys, they will find Evil stuff that we can use to get more minions, like Evil metal and Evil fire and evil GORE. And then we will use all the evil stuff to bring on even more EVIL and stuff. Then we will bang our heads and listen to Gwar and not really understand that we're not actually supposed to be taking this ridiculous crap seriously.

When we meet other Evil Necromancers and their Evil Necromantic MINIONS, we will do battle using our Evil powers that are evil. We will call up on the power of the horned hellion and the DEMONIC gore princess, and we will pit our strength against their strength and our weapons against their weapons and our blood lust against their blood lust, and then we will roll some dice. Because all truly powerful bad guys use dice for fighting. Then some of us will die, but who cares, because we're already dead.

And then after a while, if any of us are still alive (or, I guess, not all the way dead) and have not been destroyed by big-time Bad Guy evilness, then the Ultimate Evil will emerge in the form of the Old Black Goat or the Darkest Evil BITCH. And then we will have to fight the Ultimate Evil, because otherwise the Ultimate Evil will totally take over the cave and also steal our lunch money and maybe beat us up after school, because the Ultimate Evil is really the varsity football team.

For a game this twisted and EVIL, there is only one acceptable color, and that color is black. Any other color is weak and not EVIL at all, and so everything in Cave Evil is black. There will be no blue or pink or purple or other colors like the mistress whores of DEATH wear (we call them cheerleaders). Even different player colors are black. But there will be a little red or gray or something, because otherwise we would never know which evil bunch of bad guys were ours and which belong to our friends who also like death metal and EVIL.

As anyone who likes games (and maybe Evil) should know, games where people get killed are the best kinds of games. The only thing better than games where people die is games where dead people die again because we kill them with our awesome EVIL powers. We will throw rotten eggs at the houses of people who play weak games with stuff like worker placement and resource management and other stuff that only Weak people do because they are not evil enough to play games like CAVE EVIL. And Cave Evil is wicked fun. Really - it's pretty Evil.


2-4 players

Crazy fun dungeon brawl with all kinds of bloodshed
You can play like a random idiot, but the smart players will do better
Monstrously dark fun
Completely unapologetic design makes absolutely no compromises
Freaking Fun As Hell

A little bit complicated, but you'll figure it out
Not for people who are either not into Evil, or who do not have a healthy sense of humor

If you like Evil, or if you like games that take a style and make it their own, or if you just like awesome competitive games where the goal is to kill everyone else at the table, then you will totally love Cave Evil. But you can only get it from the guys who publish it, because they are far too EVIL to work with a distributor.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Board Game Review - Grave Business

If you have an office job, you're familiar with the concept of working with zombies. Lots of us just wander mindlessly through the day, drudging from one menial task to the next before we photocopy our butts (that can't be just me).

But if you play Grave Business, your co-workers will be actual zombies. Not office drones in need of a caffeine fix, either - I mean walking, groaning, reanimated dead people. Which would be bad for morale, except that the only people who would be around to complain are also dead.

Each player is an enterprising necromancer looking for body parts and hidden treasure in an incredibly overpopulated graveyard. If you can find all the parts of your company's original CEO and put him back together, you won't even need the treasures and stuff, because that old dude will give you a beach house in Maui just for sewing his man parts back on.

So every turn, you'll send your zombies to work, digging up the graveyard. The contents of the graveyard change every turn, but will almost always include lots of pieces of dead people, which is convenient for a guy who can turn body parts into employees. Which is you.

But the other players are your competition, and they also want to dig up the original boss man, and build their own zombies, and collect their own priceless artifacts that they can pawn for quick cash. So you have to place your zombies, face-down so that nobody knows how efficient they are, and then after everyone has put out their brain-dead drones, you flip over the zombies and see who has put the best zombies to work on each particular grave.

A little explanation regarding the nature of the graveyard is in order here. So far, this just sounds like a great way to make a boring work day a little more lively, which is ironic since you're using dead people. But really, you're placing influence pieces on a grid, then calculating your combined influence for each space to see if you can claim the tile in question. If you were hoping for some brain-eating or a thematic narrative, go play Last Night on Earth. Grave Business is not that kind of game.

It is the kind of game that would appeal to people who like to place workers on spaces and calculate score totals. That doesn't really appeal to everyone, and to be honest, it doesn't always appeal to me. If Grave Business was a longer game, I would really hate it, but as an intellectual exercise with some hilarious art, it's actually pretty cool. It takes about half an hour to run through the whole thing, and then you're done. You probably wouldn't plan your whole evening around playing this game, but there's no reason not to break it out if you just need to enjoy half an hour with your family before your teenage son disappears to go watch TV in his room and your daughter returns to her own cave to spend the night texting her friends.

There are a few small problems with the game, but these should go away after you play it a couple times. For instance, you can send a zombie to go attack another zombie, but until you've got some plays under your belt, that particular action can seem counterproductive (and it is, if you're not careful about when you do it). But if you do it correctly, you can find out where your opponent is keeping his big hitter and even kick him off the board for this turn.

Another potential problem is that it is absolutely critical to build more zombies as fast as you can, even if they're not particularly effective. This is really only a problem for the first game, when people might not realize how important it is to have more drooling idiots working for them. At any rate, people who have played a couple times are going to have a huge advantage over the new people, which could make those new people really hate the game when it seems like they just took an undead clobbering.

If I gave numeric scores to games, I would give Grave Business a number of some sort. But I don't. So I will just say that it's not a particularly fascinating game, not overly deep, but it is enjoyable. It play pretty fast, and the art is done by one of my favorite cartoon illustrators, and really makes it more fun. You can play it with family (as long as they're OK with cartoon bloodshed), and exercise some brain muscles in the process.

And it's good to exercise brain muscles, because God knows your job as an office zombie isn't going to keep the ol' synapses firing at full speed.


2-4 players

Like push-ups for your brain
Great art that makes it more fun to play
Will appeal a lot to fans of European-style games

Little to no story
A little dry, for a game about zombies

If Grave Business sounds like your kind of game, you can save some money and pick it up at Noble Knight Games:

Friday, February 24, 2012

Board Game Review - 1812

Once, a long time ago, there was a war. On one side were the Americans, who were pissed off at the British and more than a little land-grabby. On the other side were the Canadians, who were still pretty much British, but they were also Americans because North America is a big place, and we just call people from the United States 'Americans' because it sounds kind of stupid to call ourselves 'United Statesians'. Plus there were Indians who were not from India at all, and therefore had possibly the least accurate nickname ever assigned to an ethnic group. That might have explained why they were so pissed, but then, the fact that the United Statesians kept taking their land might also have had them a little riled up.

Anyway, because nobody was present who was very creative, they could not come up with a name for their war. So they just called it the War of 1812, which was only accurate for the beginning of the war, which actually took place largely in 1813-14 and ended in 1815, thus making it a rather poorly named historical event. And then it went for a while, and a lot of people got killed, and then since both sides were getting their asses kicked, both declared that they had won and they quit and went back to pretty much the way things had been before the war started, except that the United States thought it might be a good idea to not invade Canada any more.

This was such an exciting event that someone made a game out of it. And to make sure that the game was not overly confused, they called it 1812, which clearly references the war that took place, for the most part, in years other than 1812. In this exciting game, both sides of the war will punch each other in the groin until the war ends, and then the side that took more stuff from the other side will declare that they won and then everybody will just give everything back and then we'll get William Shatner.

This sounds like it should be a war game, especially since it is a game about war. But when you think, 'war game,' you think of a game where you spend three days punching out tiny cardboard squares and organizing them in little trays before you devote the next six months to reading the complicated rules that are presented in type small enough to blind you. Instead, 1812 uses brightly colored wooden cubes, and the rules can be read on a smoke break, unless you don't smoke, in which case you can just take a normal break and not smoke at all.

1812 divides up the players into two groups - the Canadians and the Americans. The Americans (also known as USers) have two kinds of troops, and the Canadians have three because, like I said before, there were the increasingly mislabeled Indians. You can have one player be Americans and the other person be the Canadians, but the game will also let you play with up to five players, and it's still fun for everybody, and it's still a good game. Hell, it's a great game.

What it is not is a game where one side is going to completely overrun the other side and take the entire world for himself until the guy who turtled in Australia the whole time gets enough cards to turn them in for extra troops. Instead, it's a back-and-forth game where the Canadians will grab Detroit, then the Americans will grab Queenston, then the Canadians will take back Queenston and the Americans will take back Detroit. It will almost always come down to winning by one or two points, because 1812 does a remarkable job of recreating a war where both sides pretty much just kept swapping cities until everyone figured out that nobody was really enjoying themselves very much, because the main difference between New York and Quebec is that their bacon is a pizza topping.

There isn't a whole lot in 1812 that will make you say, 'Hey! I never saw that before!' You've got cards that you play to say how many armies you can move, and you've got crazy dice with wacky symbols that tell you if your guys got killed or just ran away before someone could catch them (apparently there was a great deal of running away in the War of 1812, probably because they were confused about the dates, seeing as they were fighting the War of 1812, but it was like 1814). These are elements that I've seen several times in games about killing people.

But what is original to 1812 is how very well the parts of the game work together to create a really fun game. It's got loads of careful planning, using the right cards, timing your big moves and otherwise doing awesome stuff. Turns go very quickly, so even in a five-player game, you're not going to get bored. Plus if the British Regulars are moving out of Montreal, they can take the Canadian Militia with them, and then both players will be rolling dice and attacking and stuff. In fact, exploiting the ability to move allied troops out of turn is critical if you want to be successful playing 1812.

There are not many games about war that my wife will actually want to play, but when she saw this one (and saw how pretty it was), she wanted to try it. It helps that she's an historian, but even an expert on wars could be bored by a crappy war game. Not 1812, though - she really loved the game, and told me she would like to play again. And this is a woman who would rather do the laundry than play most any other war game.

Perhaps my wife enjoyed 1812 as much as I did because of her background in history. Perhaps she liked it because of the light rules and fast play. Maybe she was just excited because she won by playing much better than I did. But whatever the case, the fact is, 1812 is a war game that a wargamer could play with a normal person and both people could have a lot of fun. The rules are fairly short, especially considering that half the book is devoted to the history of the slightly misnamed War of 1812.


2-5 players (but best with either 2 or 5)

Great historical war game that's not hard to play
Fast turns
Lots of strategy and tactics and stuff
Looks pretty damned good
Exciting and tense right to the end

Can feel a little awkward with 3 or 4 players

I think 1812 is a heck of a lot of fun. It's a fairly accurate depiction of an actual war, and yet it's not dry or hard to play or long or anything. You can pick it up at Noble Knight Games, where you can get it for a good chunk off retail:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

RPG Review - Don't Rest Your Head

When you think of role-playing games, probably the first thing that comes to mind is a world of dragons and people with pointy ears. You might also conjure up space adventures, or near-future science fiction with virtual universes, or post-nuke holocausts. You probably do not, on the other hand, think of a crazy world where bad guys have thumbtacks for heads and all the heroes are desperately sleep-deprived. But when the crazy bastards who made Don't Rest Your Head were putting together a game, that's right where their heads went.

The world of Don't Rest Your Head is our world, but twisted. Well, not so much twisted, as shadowed. There's an entire city hidden beneath the city where you live, a city you can only reach by losing so much sleep that your mind kind of breaks off on its own. For some, we call this 'wild hallucination,' but for those people who need a nap so badly that they start seeing cops with wind-up keys in their backs, they call it the Mad City.

This is the bizarre and intriguing setting in Don't Rest Your Head. For whatever reason, you've missed so much sleep that you're now invited into this festival of the very odd, and now you have to solve the mystery, or defeat the villain, or find your missing book report. There are lots of ways to fail - twisted monsters will steal your fondest memories or lay waste to your sanity until you think you're John Paul Jones (either the Revolutionary War hero, or the musician from the 60's). But you're more than usually equipped, because on top of being able to actually see the monsters under the bed, you've also got super powers. They're weird powers, but they'll probably be useful.

Lots of games dabble in making the character the important piece, but in Don't Rest Your Head, your entire game will center on you. It starts when you create your character and tell the game master exactly why you're so damned tired. You'll even tell him right where your adventure starts. You'll invent a quest for your wacky alter-ego, whip up a back story, and all of this will relate directly to how you play the game.

In fact, when we played Don't Rest Your Head, I couldn't even start coming up with an adventure until characters were created. Once they were, it took me two weeks to find some way to play out the seven apocalyptic dreams that had created the main hero (though the one character who was only an insomniac because she took too much Aderol was a much easier sell). And the adventures we played had nothing to do with generic settings or dungeon battles or rescuing the macguffin. These stories were one-hundred percent about the characters. Replace the characters, and you'll need a new story.

This is the most striking thing about Don't Rest Your Head, though the system is also fascinating (and I'll get to it in a minute). In nearly any other role-playing game I have ever played, you could swap out a hero and tell the same tale. You might have to swap a couple details - the aunt replaces the father, creating one hell of a confusing wardrobe situation, or the city is moved to Vegas. But in this game, if your player doesn't create an alcoholic private investigator with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and nightmares about the end of the world, you're going to have to go directly back to the drawing board.

Now, that sounds daunting, but it means this is one game that can be incredibly engrossing. Sure, it takes a lot more work, and a lot more investment in the game, but at the same time, you'll have everyone dying to know what happens, and not just because they're curious about what's behind Demon Door Number Two.

The way you get through these stories is also amazing. The system uses piles of regular ol' dice, but the number of dice you get to roll is based on how much you want to push yourself. The game master will announce his personal threat level, and then the heroes will need to respond. The only way to get more dice is to either push yourself to exhaustion, or tap into the madness that seems to be spreading. A very clever dice mechanic means that even if you win, you could get a little more tired, or a little more insane, or possibly just get a little more bloody. Happy endings are rare. Insanity is the order of the day.

Unfortunately, some of the setting details seemed almost comedic, especially for a game where fathers enter the Mad City to rescue their daughters from horrific monsters. The head cop has a watch for a face, and the avatar of Death runs a girl's reform school. The paper boys are relentless enemies - but they're also actually made out of paper. It seems like great lengths were taken to make villains out of dorky puns.

So I did what seemed natural - I threw out all of them. Lock, stock and barrel, I disposed of every monster and villain the game offered. I replaced the pin-headed puppies with black-skinned imps transformed from kidnapped children. I threw out the cartoonish policemen and replaced them with abominations formed of severed limbs. And I got rid of the silly tax assessor with a thumbtack head (the tacks man, get it), and added a serial killer in the service of the darkest threat the world has known since Satan got chucked out of the Holy Land.

And the game was AWESOME. Sure, I tweaked a little, but the stuff that really counts in this book - the character creation, the dice-rolling, and the backdrop of the hidden city - will let you tell a completely twisted story that will have everyone sleeping with the light on. Don't Rest Your Head has some pretty damned silly parts, but it has to be commended for providing a fantastically engrossing way to play out an insane adventure in a world of madness. More importantly, it was incredibly fun.

If you're a fan of manipulating a system to make super-powered barbarians who can crush goblins between their oiled thighs, Don't Rest Your Head is going to confuse and frustrate you. But if you want to try something completely different, something that makes Call of Cthulhu look like a game of Uno, a game that will challenge you and make you really think about why you're doing what you're doing, Don't Rest Your Head is a must-have.


Excellent mechanic that is completely inseparable from the setting
Ties the characters to the story to make very personal, customized games
Wild and imaginative setting

Some rather silly monsters
Will require some pretty serious imagination work

Don't Rest Your Head is not an easy game to play, but it sure is fun. And you can get it at a shocking discount, right here at Noble Knight Games:

Monday, February 20, 2012

Board Game Review - Venture Forth

My favorite kind of game is the dungeon crawl, where you traipse around an underground lair, kill things you find there, steal their stuff and maybe rescue prostitutes who may or may not be so grateful that they give you freebies (granted, very few games include the grateful hookers, but that sure would make a cool game, even if it meant you couldn't let your kids play it). Venture Forth is not that kind of game.

But it's OK, because my second favorite kind of game is the adventuring game, where you put together a band of heroes who traipse around the world, kill things they find there, steal stuff and maybe rescue grateful whores. And that is what Venture Forth is about (but without prostitutes). It's a little like Talisman, a little like Runebound, and little like a European game that comes with tiny wooden blocks. But for a cool twist, it's in Greece, and not failing-economy-and-ugly-fishermen Greece, but this-is-Sparta-battle-for-Olympus Greece.

Most of the adventure games you could play boil down largely to the dice - you roll dice to move, then you roll dice to fight, then you draw treasure cards or turn into frogs. But there are no dice in Venture Forth, because like I said, it's a little like one of those European games that are all about solving the game. Happily, the theme works even without all that dice-rolling. In fact, it might even work better.

One cool factor of the game is that you don't get points just for killing stuff. You get points when your heroes do the stuff that they set out to do. For instance, you might have a guy who really wants to kill monsters in the mountains, and so if you can slay the dragon in the mountains, you can use him to score some points. You might have a guy who dreams all day of setting up trade routes to the sea, and he'll score points when you go down to the shore. You might have a guy who desperately needs to rescue a grateful hooker, but this guy is screwed because, you know, no hookers.

Another brilliant element of Venture Forth is the way the monsters and potential buddies appear on the map. If you want to get some gold, or get a little heroic might for your adventuring heroes, you're going to have to put out monsters and adventurers that other players could encounter. You might try not to give away the best stuff, but sometimes you won't have a choice and you'll just have to give an opponent the amazon so that you can power up your hunter. This means there's a great reason to seed the board with snarling monsters and intrepid allies, because it's about the only way the game provides to get you the resources you need to be successful.

If you prefer your games to be light-brained and lucky, you're going to be very disappointed in Venture Forth. There's an element of luck, in that if you're not holding the right cards, you're probably going to lose some momentum. But the real luck factor comes from the other players. Can you count on the guy to your left noticing that you just set him up a road full of legendary exploits, so that he'll leave you alone and you can go hire the swordsman you desperately need to defeat the hydra? Or will your daughter just wander up and down the same freaking path, over and over, and spend the entire game stealing the only way you have to get out of the mountains and actually get a couple points before the game ends (if your daughter is my daughter, then yes, she will do that)?

At the same time, there's a definite puzzle-solving element to Venture Forth, one that should definitely appeal to fans of games with wood cubes, but may leave behind those gamers that prefer bloodshed and dice. You'll need to plan your escapades and place your foes to maximize your odds of heroic adventures, all while attempting to account for the other players who might be really thrilled to steal your awesome adventures before you can get there. It lacks some of the visceral bloodshed and random thrills of other adventure games, but at the same time, you'll definitely see the unfolding tales of Greek heroes stamping their mark on a world of legend.

But sadly, they will not find grateful prostitutes.


2-4 players

A fun adventure game that brings the theme to life
Lots of planning, careful plays, and outsmarting your friends
Great art on the cards
No dice (could be a con)

A little bit like solving an efficiency puzzle
Weak art on the board
No grateful prostitutes
No dice (could be a pro)

If you like saving money on games, you can get Venture Forth from Noble Knight Games. If you don't like saving money on games, then what is wrong with you?

Friday, February 17, 2012

RPG Review - Fantasy Craft

The wonderful thing about role-playing games is that there are so many different kinds. There are the games with almost no rules, where everything is about telling a story. There are some played with cards, and some played with poker chips. There are even some with a bunch of rules and no dice. Then there is the kind that involves one of you pretending to be a burglar and the other pretending to be the surprised housewife, but those are a little outside the scope of a game review site, unless that site frequently reviews water-based lubricant, and I do not.

My least favorite kind, based entirely on personal preference, is the kind where there are 400 pages of rules and no background. The most obvious example of this kind of game is Dungeons & Dragons, except for the very earliest version which was printed on notebook paper using a steno machine and stored in a sandwich bag. I loved the Forgotten Realms setting, but never could bring myself to learn all those rules. And when they came out with 3rd edition, there were so many rules that you needed software to help you create your characters (that's actually true - the book came with a CD that would make your half-orc monks and gnome clerics).

So it's not a big surprise that I don't much care for Fantasy Craft, because it is also 400 pages of rules with no background material. In fact, it's very similar to D&D 3E, to the point that you can actually use our old modules and monster manuals with Fantasy Craft. There's a little bit of conversion to do, but frankly, if you're committed enough to make a character for this game, you've probably got the free time to translate your kobolds.

The thing to consider with Fantasy Craft, however, is that unlike the biggest RPG ever made, the book should be considered more as a toolbox than a rule book. There are lots and lots and lots of rules (I could add more 'and lots' to try and convey how many rules there are, but I think three times is already two times too many). But those rules can be pretty easily discarded, modified or plugged in as needed.

For example, there are oodles of different races from which to choose, ranging from the standard (human, elf or dwarf) to the really wild (mostly-a-dragon, automaton, and walking tree). Some of those could be problematic in a cramped dungeon setting, of course - how would you get a giant walking shrubbery into a four-foot crawlspace? Those options are there, though, so that you can choose the kind of game you want to play. Mix-and-match your specialty and your character class to create just the kind of guy you want to play. The system is wildly flexible, and will let you create anything from an ogre assassin to a midget barbarian with a passion for model trains.

Unfortunately, this flexibility comes with a price, and that price is that it will take you a really long time to make a character, after which you will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you did something wrong. I made three different characters, and they were all about as much fun as a tooth extraction. They were cool characters, though. Corner me some time at a convention and I'll tell you all about them, in so much detail that you will make up an absolutely absurd excuse to get away from me, like telling me that your water just broke and you have to get to the hospital before your baby is born in the dealer's hall (this can be difficult to believe if you are male).

The rules options just keep coming. You can play with careful 5-foot movements and 1-inch grids covered with miniatures, or you can sit in your living room with TV trays and let it all happen in your mind. Happily, rules for attacks of opportunity are completely missing, which means fighting is a lot less confusing. It also means one guy can't stand there and hit 47 skeletons in one turn just because they ran past him without asking permission.

Combat also includes possibly the best thing about Fantasy Craft - no more hit points. You've got vitality, and you've got wounds. Wounds are pretty much set from the beginning of the game, but vitality can go up every level. Wounds represents the actual punishment your body can take, and vitality represents how good you are at dodging damage. So initial damage will have to get through your vitality first, and your vitality also heals between battles. This is good news, because it means you don't have to stop after three rooms of a dungeon and barricade the trolls' bathroom door so that everyone can get eight hours of sleep before completing your violent home invasions.

There are actually a bunch more examples of cool modular rules, if I were to keep going - but the downside to me is that they're there. I really prefer a leaner game, one where I can create my magical elf warrior in ten minutes and entire brawls can be played out in less time than it would take you to actually stab somebody. Fantasy Craft isn't built for this kind of gamer, which means it doesn't really appeal to me.

However, just because it's not my bag does not mean I can't see the quality. This is a meticulously well-built book, and it's got a considerable following. It's also well-supported, with lots of expansions and modules and fan-created add-ons. It really is a very robust set of tools meant to allow you to play exactly the kind of fantasy game you like, whether you prefer gritty games with gruesome weapons or high adventure with magical blunderbusses. If you take the time to weed through and pick the rules you want, and dump the ones you don't, you'll have a campaign and a game that is so personal, it will smell like your armpits.

Fantasy Craft is not a game for pansies who hate reading lots of rules (which includes, for instance, me), but it is a very well-designed game that will provide for an incredible amount of flexibility. It will make you work more than the drive-by titles I prefer, but if you want to play just exactly the kind of fantasy game you want to play, there are not a whole lot of games that do it better.


Super modular rules
Well-honed, well-designed and very flexible
Great art and lots of options
Compatible with all those D&D books you haven't given to your kids yet

400 pages of rules is an awful lot of rules
Rather involved with a fair amount of accounting

If you like all the new D&D versions, you would probably love Fantasy Craft, especially if you're looking to use it as a blunt weapon (because, you know, it's really big). You can pick it up at Noble Knight Games, and even save a bunch of money:
(For some seriously impressive savings, do a search for the first printing, which you can get from Noble Knight for fifteen bucks. Not bad for a 50-dollar book!)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Kid's Game Review - Dunger Derby

Racing pigs is a time-honored tradition among people who ride tractors to work and have shared sets of dentures. (Please, take no offense if you race pigs. Instead, just remember that for most of us, having children with first cousins is incredibly taboo, and you are a member of the privileged few.) But now, thanks to a silly little game, your children can also enjoy this storied and thrilling sport!

The game that recreates this exciting pastime is called Dunger Derby, and for the first time ever, your kids will be able to join in using tiny plastic choking hazards and a board that they can destroy the very first time they play. Sort of like Candyland, but less kid-friendly.

Dunger Derby is a very simple game, which is an important feature in a game designed for kids who still eat their boogers. There are four gates located around the board, and your pigs have to go through each one in order. The trick is that every turn, you check to see if your wild hog goes the direction you wanted him to go, because more than half of the time, he just runs like an idiot directly into another pig, a pit full of bright lights, or a stone wall.

The resulting chaos bounces between being utterly hilarious and painfully frustrating. However, if your child is at the age where Candyland is compelling and Life is a thrill-a-minute, he might really laugh at seeing Daddy's dirty pig bounce off a trampoline just to headplant into a stone wall. The chaos can be entertaining, if you approach it right.

Unfortunately, Dunger Derby has some pretty serious problems. It needs better pieces, for instance. In kid's games, even more than in games for grown-ups, the pieces are important. And a paper mat with tiny plastic pigs is not going to cut it for kids who fit the age bracket. Not only that, but the standard rules make your hogs wander more than half the time, which is amusing but causes untold frustration and chaos. The rules recommend allowing for a little more control if you're playing with children, but I really think anyone playing the game ought to use the little kid rules.

Dunger Derby is a funny game, especially if you're able to laugh at the misfortune of wild animals forced to race on a dirt track (and I am). But to be a successful game for the wee ones, it should have bigger pigs, a sturdier board and brighter colors. It's a cool idea, but there are some significant errors in execution. Done properly, it should have had the less frustrating rules, and some serious component upgrades. Still, if you're looking for a silly way to kill time while you're buzzed on cheap beer, or just have kids who can overlook production issues if it lets them stage pig fights, Dunger Derby could be a lot of fun.


2-6 players

Pig mayhem is funny
Great plastic pig figures (especially if you want to use them in a different game)
Easy to play, so your kids might get a kick out of it

Too chaotic, and could frustrate... well, anyone
Components problems make it questionable for children

If you're looking for a fun game about racing pigs, or just need some neat wild boar miniatures to turn into Heroscape customs, check out Dunger Derby at Noble Knight Games:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Racing Game Review - Nitro Dice

I am not a fan of professional car racing, as a sport, though I am more than willing to concede that it could be pretty cool. But I might be a lot more willing to sit through a few laps of NASCAR if a giant indicator on top of the vehicle told me how fast the car was going at a glance. Of course, in the case of NASCAR, I'm pretty sure they go the same speed, running in circles, for about three hours, and then someone crashes and takes out spectators with flying debris. So the numbers wouldn't be that interesting, because for three hours you're looking at 180, and then all of a sudden, a big 0. And maybe fire.

In Nitro Dice, though, your car shows your speed the whole time, so you can just take a quick gander at the table and tell exactly how fast everyone is going. And the reason this is so easy is that instead of cars, you drive ten-sided dice around the track as fast as you can. Which is a pretty crazy idea, because dice don't even have wheels on them.

Nitro Dice has a bunch of really cool ideas. For starters, all the cards you use are track sections that either go straight, turn right, or turn left. You don't just play with these cards, either. You build your track out of them, which means you can build just about any track you want. If you build a seriously humongous track, you might have to buy a second deck, but if you build a track that big, the game is going to take four days and everyone will hate you for asking them to play.

Every racing game has to have some way to simulate handling and speed and stuff, and in Nitro Dice, your cards are your racing prowess. Every time you enter a new piece of track, you have to discard a card that matches that piece of track or take damage to your car as you skid out of control. Want to juice it for a quick start? Discard a card. Change lanes? Discard a card. Slam on the brakes so you don't pile into the back of the guy in front of you? Discard a card.

This works pretty well, because at low speeds, you won't have as many chances to use your cards, and at high speeds, you better be really careful about the cards you dump. On the other hand, you could spend too long mulling over your options, deciding which cards to dump and which to keep, and people who do that will not only make the game go a lot slower (and thus not feel much like a race, unless you like to race snails), but you will want to punch them in the duodenum. So don't do that.

Sadly, the part that doesn't work very well is the namesake for the game. It's called Nitro Dice, because your dice go fast, but the best thing you could do for the game is get rid of the dice and use little cars. It's tremendously irritating to have dice for pawns. A normal six-sided die would be enough grief, but having to spin and spin a ten-sider to find your current speed before you forget where you started your turn is simply irritating.

I can kind of envision the design process that happened in the creator's head. He was sitting around, probably half-baked and eating a bowl of Froot Loops, when inspiration hit and he said out loud, 'Hey! I'll make a game where you use the dice as race cars!' His cat, who was the only living thing present, ignored him and began to chase imaginary mice around the room, because it had a serious contact high and was tripping balls. So the designer set about making a pretty darn good racing game, but was completely married to the idea of using the dice as cars, and wound up with a cool racing game that sucks because of the dice. He also wound up with severe munchies, and his cat eventually went into rehab.

However, I encourage you, if you like racing games, not to throw out the baby with the bath water. For God's sake, take your baby out of the water before you empty the tub. How absent-minded do you have to be throw out a baby? Stupid.

As I was saying, Nitro Dice is a clever little racing game. It just needs one tweak - you need to not use dice. At all. Make another little card that you put next to your damage card, and keep track of your speed on that card. Then get some Micro Machines race cars and play the game with those. Then the game would be called Nitro Cards, which would not be as catchy, but at least it would not be as massively irritating to play.

In fact, I enjoyed Nitro Dice enough that I intend to find some small car models and play it more. It's a fun game that lets you picture a high-stakes street race in your head while you scream through corners and knock other cars off the road. It can be brutal and smart, and there's plenty of room for tension. Don't be bothered by the fact that the dice completely ruin an otherwise exciting game. Just get little cars, and this will be a very fun game.


2-6 players

Great little racing game
Cards offer a neat way to abstract handling without being cumbersome
Plays pretty fast - a two-lap race will probably take about 45 minutes

The dice are a horrible idea, and should be replaced

I like Nitro Dice, and once I find some cool cars for it, I will be playing it a lot more. If you want to try this neat little game, you can find it at Noble Knight Games, and even save a few bucks:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Board Game Review - Clue: Harry Potter

Having a fire take out every game I own really sucked, mostly because it left me with a real shortage of review copies. Not only that, but when I go to play a game, I can't just pick up Bootleggers or Risk Legacy or Nightfall, and I haven't been totally dazzled with a game since the fire. Sure, there were a few I liked, but none of the new games I've accumulated since December can compare to Nostra City or Claustrophobia for sheer 'holy crap I want to play that right now' factor.

So Monday night I got a bug up my ass and decided to go to the thrift store, because by God I wanted to play something even if it sucked. And as I walked the aisles, stepping carefully around, over and sometimes on other people's small children, I came across something that amazed me - a copy of Clue: Harry Potter that was still in the shrink-wrap. It was only five bucks, which is about what I would be likely to pay for the game if I was buying it new. But it was in a thrift store and it was in the shrink wrap, which practically obligated me to buy it. And that explains why I'm using this perfectly good website to talk about a themed retread of a boring old game.

First off, Clue is near the top of the charts when it comes to games I really don't want to play. It may have been an interesting deduction game when I was a dumb kid, but these days, it just bores the socks off me. You wander around, completely slaved to the dice, and then if you ever do manage to get to a room somewhere, you get to play a lame 'show me your card' game to see if you can check off one more box. Hopefully someone at the table will be smart enough to figure out what's in the envelope before you get so distracted that you end up falling asleep at the table.

So why did I buy Harry Potter Clue? Well, it was flashy, it was in a thrift store, and it was still in the shrink wrap. That doesn't explain why I played it, though (and really provides a totally ridiculous reason for having bought it). I played it because it had thematic upgrades that seemed really cool at the time.

The most immediately obvious upgrade is the fact that the board changes, thanks to big spinners located under the board that you turn almost every time someone rolls the dice. Doors might open or close. A secret passage that took you to the potions lab might dump you out in the girl's showers next turn, which would be handy if you wanted to film a porn called Harry Potter and the Giant Rod.

And sometimes, when you turn the wheel, a dark sign might appear. This is not to be confused with trying to read road signs at night when the streetlights are blown. Those are normal signs, but just really dark. No, a dark sign is when a snake crawls through somebody's head, which I think we can all agree would be pretty bad regardless of whether or not the streetlights were on. And when you see the dark sign, something bad is going to happen. To find out what that bad thing is, you have to all clutch your wands (or pillows, if you're girls), and draw a card.

The dark sign cards make all kinds of things happen. Like the boys might find a troll in the crapper, or all the girls might accidentally eat puking pastilles. This is something evil Lord Voldemort was fond of doing to plague the living - make them mildly nauseous. But if you have the Weasley Twins as allies, you don't have to throw up. Everybody else, though, is going to lose house points for blowing chunks all over Professor Snape.

This is one part of Clue: Harry Potter that was pretty darned cool - player elimination. There are all these special spaces on the board where you can pick up help cards, like spells and potions and happy magical friends. And you will need them, because those dark sign cards will eventually send everyone to detention unless they're protected by Hagrid or Fawkes the Burning Chicken. When you lose all your house points, you're just plain out of the game. And since it's Clue, you still have to stick around and show your cards to people. You have to play, and you can't even win any more.

On their own, these dark sign events are kind of weak. They're just arbitrarily random misdeeds that will have you running away from man-eating vegetables and writing on your hand with magic pens (unlike my daughter, who writes on her hand with a real pen, until she looks like she spends every Saturday at the henna tattoo parlor). But combined with Clue, they make you hurry. And if there's one thing Clue needs, it's a shot of haul-ass.

Ultimately, Harry Potter Clue works for me because I like Harry Potter. It's a weak reason, too, because it's still Clue. But I like the changing board and the race against time provided by the dark sign cards. I get to play Neville Longbottom, who is definitely not my favorite Harry Potter character, but who is still cooler than Harry Potter because Harry Potter is a whiny bitch. The board is pretty, the theme is one I enjoy, and the gimmicks are surprisingly cool. So what if it's Clue. It's fun, and that's why I play games.


2-6 players

Harry Potter (and you don't have to be Harry Potter)
A few cool gimmicks that really work
It cost me five bucks at the thrift store

Still Clue

If you want to play Harry Potter Clue with your kids who love Harry Potter (assuming they still live in your house, because Harry Potter is so 2001), you should run over to Noble Knight Games and pick up a copy:

Monday, February 6, 2012

Board Game Re-Review - Startup Fever

A while back, I reviewed a prototype of a game called Startup Fever, which was, at the time, running a Kickstarter promotion to turn it from a wooden puppet box into a real game. The creator of the game told me that if I liked it, he would put Vietnamese prostitutes onto one of the scandal cards. I did like it, so I was excited this week when my real-game version showed up. The first thing I did was unwrap all the cards and look for one about Asian hookers.

Well, unfortunately, there were no easy women of any kind, but then, since Startup Fever is essentially a family game (if your family is full of mean people), I wasn't too surprised that nightwalkers didn't make the cut. What did make the cut was a pretty impressive package.

First, the art got completely overhauled. The original art was a little weak, but since it was only a prototype, that was fine. The new art has a very cool minimalist look, and is a lot easier to read because of how simple and succinct it is. Some people are not going to like it, though - while I liked how the board looks like it could have been part of a boardroom planning meeting, my wife was not a fan of the coffee stains in the corners.

The rules changes were very minor, but I found that they improved the game considerably. The game used to have lawyers, whose special abilities rendered far too many of the cards kind of worthless. They also clogged up your hiring pool, with the end result that once everybody had hired all the executives, there was no poaching because you didn't have room. Without the legal staff, the game gets a lot more brutal, and stealing away your competitor's Chief Information Officer becomes a seriously strategic move - and meaner than hell, to boot.

Some of the problems of the original game were not fixed. For instance, many cards are overpowered, while others are practically worthless. Some are really useful at the beginning of the game, but pointless when you're in the home stretch. At the beginning of the game, when you're getting one dollar of income, a card that provides four bucks can be a big deal. But in the last couple turns, when people are amassing personal fortunes, four dollars is mostly just stupid.

I still really like Startup Fever. We played it twice this weekend, just because we liked it. It was fun as a cool wooden prototype, and it's fun as a completed work. There are a few problems, but it's still good enough that I expect that my family will be asking to play it again.

But there are still no Vietnamese hookers.


2-6 players

Prettier than it was
A few small tweaks make this a better game

Still pretty European
Still no whores

I think the biggest problem with Startup Fever is that since it's a Game Salute game, you can't get a discount on it anywhere, and while I like it, I don't think it's worth sixty bucks. Still, I'm glad I have it, and if you want it, you can find it here:

Friday, February 3, 2012

Board Game Review - My Happy Farm

When I was a kid, I always thought the country between Eastern Europe and Russia was called The Ukraine. Like there was more than one, so they had to call it out with an article that would designate theirs as the original. 'Sure,' they would tell their friends, 'you could visit some other Ukraine, but you'll never find one as good as The Ukraine. It's The Best.'

Turns out, the country is just called Ukraine. There's no article. I guess that's what you get for learning geography from a 1968 copy of Risk. And I know this for sure now, because a couple weeks ago, some people who live there sent me a game called My Happy Farm (at least, that's what it says on BGG. The cover of the game uses what I assume are Cyrillic letters, so it kind of looks like the game is called Becena Pepma, which is obviously wrong (well, it's wrong to me, but maybe if you speak Ukrainian - which I'm pretty sure is just Russian - that means My Happy Farm)).

My Happy Farm is clearly a European game. The goal is to plant crops and feed farm animals. This, combined with the fact that it was created in Europe, make it a European game. You cannot kill your farm animals, not even for their delicious meat. You just fatten them up and show them off to the neighbors. You're obviously not breeding them for the money, because you can get richer than hell just selling turnips (coincidentally, this is also a great way to make money in Animal Crossing, a game in which I had to rename my character Rockefeller Von Moneybanks, the turnip magnate).

The purpose of making all this money is to buy seeds that you can plant. Then you grow those seeds and harvest the plants. Then you feed those plants to your animals, only you have very picky animals who would rather wait six years for a meal than eat wheat and carrots in the wrong proportions. Basically, you trade these veggies for a feeding card that you slap on your animal, who will get fatter and then be happy with you.

There's a lot of stuff in My Happy Farm that will be relatively old-hat for serious fans of games where you don't punch anyone. You have a limited number of options on your turn, and there's always more you wish you could do. There is absolutely no interaction of any kind beyond racing to get the best cards to feed your four-legged friends. You trade one resource (money) for another resource (seeds) which you turn into a different resource (vegetables) in order to procure victory points (in the form of overweight sheep).

A few things make this moderately more interesting than organizing the crisper drawers in the bottom of the refrigerator. The art, for example, is almost painfully cute. I mean like Hello Kitty meets the Smurfs cute. You'll want to feed your pig just because he looks so adorable when he's smiling (as opposed to real life, where pigs are pretty gross-looking and you feed them so that one day they will be bacon).

And you really will have to use your head if you decide to play My Happy Farm. You can't afford to waste your actions, so you'll need to plan several turns ahead and make every action count. A happy farm is an efficient farm, after all. Your storage barn can only hold six vegetables (because you suck at building barns), so you don't want to fill it up with clover when your cow really wants wheat.

Just make sure that by the end of the game, you've fed all your animals. Because if you don't, the hungry ones (the ones who have been starving for ten years like bovine versions of Mahatma Ghandi) will get angry and leave you, an option that I can safely assume would be greatly coveted by most factory farm animals in America. Apparently, in Ukraine, farm animals choose their people, and come and go any time they want. Where I'm from, farm animals are food, and as much as I would love to keep them and love them and pick up their endless piles of poop, they are made out of yummy meat. Killing them not only nets me some tasty short ribs, but it means I don't have to follow them around the yard with a plastic bag and a pooper scooper.

For me, My Happy Farm is the kind of game where I would rather stab a fork into the back of my hand than spend a whole day playing. However, my daughter absolutely loved it, and forbade me from giving it a bad review. So if you're a curmudgeonly old man who prefers games where people die, forget it, but if you're a silly teenage girl who likes to feed your cute animals because of how much you love them, then you might think this dry little game is the best thing ever. Of course, there's also the middle ground - the guy who just likes European-style games and doesn't mind that he doesn't actually have to interact with the other players. Those people might get a kick out of My Happy Farm.


2-4 players

Tightly scripted mechanics that work very efficiently
Crazy cute art

No interaction of any kind
Very, very dry

Do you know where you can buy games made in Ukraine? That's right, Ukraine. Here's the website for the game, all in Ukrainian (which, I suspect, is Russian):

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Board Game Review - Mob Ties

There are not very many games like Mob Ties. Yes, there are mobster games, like Nostra City. And yes, there are games with lots of diplomacy, like Battlestar Galactica (or, you know, Diplomacy). There are even games with a lot of dead bodies and player elimination, like almost every game that is awesome. But I don't think I've played very many games that only end when an atrocious number of players have been murdered or imprisoned, and I especially don't remember playing games that were such a constant game of 'Let's Make A Deal.'

Mob Ties is definitely a game about violence. It makes no attempt to pretend that it's a family game, except that on the side of the box, it says, 'A Family Game,' but that's not family like Leave It To Beaver, that's family like Sopranos. The cover of the box shows a guy with his fingers broken, and there's art in the game that shows a couple thugs shoving a man's hand into a meat grinder. It's not bashful about being a grown-up game. If it were any less kid-friendly, it would come with a loaded gun and a balloon full of heroin.

The game play is just as bloody as the art, too. You'll have multiple opportunities to kill your friends or send them to Riker's Island. The cards that control nearly everything you do are chock full of drive-by shootings, drug overdoses, and accidental-on-purpose dismemberments. In fact, in one game we played, more than half of our mobsters were murdered in the first turn.

It turns out, though, that it's not always a good idea to do as much killing as we did. For one thing, the guy who had goons left over ran away with the game, and we never had a prayer of stopping him. For another thing, the threat of impending doom is sometimes more powerful than the doom itself. Hold up a hand of seven or eight cards, and people will think twice about calling hits on your bag-man. But blow your last card on a failed assassination attempt, and you'll call down the wrath of God - which will especially hurt on account of you being bare-assed naked in the defense department.

The way to play Mob Ties is to dicker, deal and sneak. When someone decides to attack you, offer them some money to hit someone else. If you need a guy to sleep with the fishes, offer to make another person the new don if he'll help you take out your target. Split the take at a particularly juicy racket, or strike up a deal with a third player to swipe the whole thing. The whole game is about making deals and then killing people.

I suppose you could play Mob Ties without making deals, and just try to be all strategic. But there are two problems with that. For starters, this is not a game that lends itself to smart play, because it is entirely too chaotic. I mean, on one turn, you could be running the board, and the next, half your guys are in the local lockup and the other half are in the morgue. That can make long-term planning rather tricky.

No, the way to play Mob Ties is to dive in up to your neck and get your hands dirty. Threaten and intimidate. Extract protection money and pay other players to kill each other. Basically, this game looks like the entire premise arose from that famous line in The Godfather about making a deal he couldn't refuse. It's all deals, all the time. The rest is window dressing, and playing without the negotiation would be like having sex with your pants zipped - completely unsatisfying and thoroughly pointless, even if you do eventually finish.

There are things I really liked about Mob Ties, and things that sort of bugged me. I love the interaction, and I'm always a fan of games where people die. But the unbridled chaos means that if you've got one or two players who aren't really into the game, they can ruin it for everyone else. You have to be willing to strike alliances one turn and break them the next, go for the jugular or go on the lam. And even still, it's going to take you a few games to really get the hang of playing Mob Ties, and you have to have the patience to work through a couple irritatingly random games before it really starts to gain any traction.

Luckily, Mob Ties is a pretty fast game. It has a built-in timer in the form of the Feds, whose presence grows very quickly and can shut down most of the board before the end of the game. Between the Feds sending mobsters to death row and fellow mobsters sending your guys to a cold metal slab, you'll be able to run through a game in less than an hour. Which means you'll have time to knock out a few games to get the hang of it, and by the third or fourth game, everyone should be more than ready to start quoting Scorcese lines and talking like New York pizza chefs.

And if you really want to expand your horizons, there's an entire second rulebook full of nothing but advanced rules and variants. One of you mobsters might be a snitch, or you could have reinforcements show up. You might be able to shuttle your mobsters out of town as the heat rises, or you could have the option to trade cards instead of money. You can even take out contracts on a particular player, if you can afford it. There are all manner of interesting ways to make Mob Ties even more interesting.

A game as unique as Mob Ties is going to appeal to a limited number of people. If you have looking for a good mob game and you really like affecting a New Jersey accent, or if you love games that force you to deal with the other people at the table, you might really love Mob Ties. On the other hand, if you prefer games where playing a tile or placing a wood cube is a difficult decision, the game will make you crazy. Leave Mob Ties to those of us who like to see a little blood in the water. This is no Euro, kids. Also, it's not for kids.


3-6 players (but don't bother with less than four)

Buckets of bloody interaction
Negotiation is key
So mobster, you'll have to buy a ridiculous track suit and start calling your mistress a goomar

Almost psychotically chaotic
Strategy will not help you if you can't strike a good deal
It's about the story - don't play if you're looking for a clever abstract

So you're looking to make a good deal? How about save ten bucks on a fifty dollar game? Now that's a good deal. Check it out at Noble Knight Games: