Sunday, May 27, 2012

Preview - Mice & Mystics

I am one lucky son of a bitch, and you are not. Unless you recently won the lottery or nailed Jessica Alba or something, and then you might also be lucky. Or if the woman you love just agreed to marry you, and you said, 'I'm the luckiest man in the world!', which is not actually true because the same thing happens to guys all over the world, like, every day. Come to think of it, there are a lot of reasons someone might be a lucky bastard. Many of you might be lucky. Heck, you might not have had your firstborn child burn your house down, which would, I dare say, make you luckier than me.

But today, I am lucky because I got to play Mice & Mystics.

My friend Jerry Hawthorne is a nerd from way back. He used to develop stuff for HeroScape, and he's worked on several other games besides. He's also the guy who designed Mice & Mystics, a game that is about to take the entire dungeon-crawl game genre and flip it on its head. And last night, I invited myself over to Jerry's house to try out the first chapter of this fantastic game.

Mice & Mystics is a game about flying lizards. The name is a decoy.

No, wait, that's not right. It's about people who get turned into mice and then battle rats and cats and giant centipedes in a fantasy realm of magic and adventure. It's magical and whimsical and a ridiculously good time, and you'll all be working together to defeat the evil Sinestro (or whatever the evil lady's name is. I can't remember because it's one of those fantasy names that were created by finding a handful of vowels and consonants that sound creepy together and capitalizing the first letter). You'll fight the enemies of truth and goodness using swords and spells and special abilities powered by cheese.

Yes, you heard that right, you'll collect cheese. And the cheese will help you do stuff like hurl lightning from your rod (by which I mean a long wooden stick, not something painful) or heal your wounded companions or smash the piss out of your enemies with a hammer the size of a toothpick (because, you know, you're a mouse). The wizard gets even more cheese to power his spells. You might say he's the cheese wiz. I would not, because that would just be silly.

I'm not going to go into the rules or the components or the art, because for one thing, the rules have been posted online and I hate reading reviews from people whose creative impulse stops after they finish repeating things. For another thing, we were playing a prototype, and while it looked good, it was not the final version. The final version hasn't actually been made yet, and so it would have been rather tricky to play on products that were not yet real things.

Instead, I'll attempt to relay the experience. The game starts off with a story - and this is no paragraph summation, it's a fully developed tale with an evil witch and her dark minions and a team of heroes who set out to stop her. In just about every other game, the story is the introduction (assuming you get a story at all). But in Mice & Mystics, the story is the game, and the game is the story, and you're telling the story until you finish the adventure and put everything back in the box. And after that, you're talking about it, and can't wait to see what happens next time.

For instance, when our intrepid mice jumped into the sewers beneath the castle, they landed in a current that dragged them downstream. A squad of evil rats followed them and attacked while they were vulnerable. One brave soul climbed out, soaking but resolute, and held off the advancing enemy while the rest of his friends clambered out on the other side. With a desperate attack, that stalwart warrior finished off the last of his opponents before leaping back into the water and relying on his friends to drag him to safety. It was very swashbuckly. That mouse was quite the hero (he was played by me).

Later, while attempting to alert the cook (the last human ally the mice had in the castle), the heroes ran afoul of Brodie, the castle cat, who grabbed the powerful wizard Maginos in his mouth and went on a spree of violence. That same heroic warrior from the sewers smashed Brodie's foot, forcing him to release the mage and abandon the kitchen. From this point forward, that mighty hero was known as the Cat Tamer, and was a fearsome foe against all giant opponents who would bar his way.

Later still, in the mouse-sized tunnels beneath the castle, the heroes were ambushed by a giant centipede and a particularly poisonous spider. The mighty hero stood his ground, but was overcome by the onslaught of the insectoid villains, leaving the fight to his three terrified companions. After a vicious (and decidedly close) battle, the surviving heroes were victorious, and were able to restore the powerful Cat Tamer and continue their escape.

Basically, this was a thrilling story. It was like living inside a beautifully illustrated cartoon. I could picture the desperate stands, the ferocious brawls, and the hurried flight through caverns teeming with danger and death. I could hear the battle squeaks and the clashing blades, feel the cold stones beneath my mousy feet, and smell the wet fur (though that smell may have been Jerry's dogs).

One exceptionally valid concern that you might have with a game like Mice & Mystics is that it could have limited repeat play value. I am always amused when I hear people with this complaint, people who say, 'but after I play it a dozen times, I'm not going to want to play again!' This complaint is amusingly ridiculous because I can count on two hands the number of games I've played a dozen times, and if you ask me, when you can play any game a dozen times before it gets old, then you've definitely had your money's worth.

But let's say you are concerned, because let's pretend you're one of the seven people in North America who plays a game more than three times before it gets boxed up and forgotten. In that case, you're right, once you finish the eleven chapters that come with Mice & Mystics (which will probably take more like 15-20 plays, since you're not going to win every time), you're basically out of reasons to play.

And that's why I asked Jerry what else was coming. His answer was immensely reassuring. Plaid Hat Games has plans for lots and lots of expansion material, including both physical releases and online expansions that will allow you to get even more play out of your game without having to spend another dime. Jerry made me promise not to tell you what's coming, but I'll tell you right now, it's going to be awesome. You're going to love it.

If you're on the fence about the preorder, jump off already. Mice & Mystics is a game designed to fill you with a child-like sense of wonder and adventure, and there's more charm in the first paragraph of the first chapter of the tale than there is in most of your other games combined. You can play it with little kids, and you can play it with a room of jaded old men. It combines everything I love in a game with an enduring story that you'll be talking about for days. I haven't enjoyed a game this much since Risk Legacy, and that was my favorite game of the last decade. This is the game every other dungeon crawler wants to be when it grows up.

For a limited time, you can order Mice & Mystics from Plaid Hat Games at an amazing preorder deal, and even score a couple promo cards. I strongly encourage anyone with even a passing interest in this game to take them up on this deal.

Disclaimer 1: The creator of Mice & Mystics has been a friend of mine for many years. Almost a decade, actually.

Disclaimer 2: I've reviewed lots of games made by my friends, and have panned the bejeezus out of several of them. So if you're thinking of telling me I'm biased because I like the guy who made this game, you can kiss my bloated, hairy ass.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Board Game Review - Wiz War

A long time ago (well, it feels long to me), when my wife and I were kind of broke and lived in a crappy house in the country because the rent was low, we used to play a lot of games. It's a shockingly affordable form of entertainment, especially if you play the same game a bunch of times and don't feel a need to buy new games all the time. We played a ridiculous amount of D&D, which was funny because before she married me, she wouldn't have been caught dead holding a twenty-sided die, and then after we got married and I converted her to the gaming, she used to pester me to go down to this amazing game store in Orlando and buy used modules so we could play some more.

Anyway, this is not a review of D&D, which is probably good because my stance on that game has changed dramatically in 20 years. This is a review of a different game we played a lot. It came in a flat cardboard box with art that was campy and unprofessional, brown cardboard tiles, paper standups, and horribly cheap cards. We played that copy of Wiz War so often that every piece was frayed and gray at the corners, and there were a bunch of strange things in the box that had no business being there, like a button and a penny and a diaper pin. It was wildly chaotic and not particularly strategic, but we killed a lot of nights eating cheap food and hurling fireballs at each other while our children were neglected and forced to fend for themselves against the rats and cockroaches that made their homes in their cribs (just kidding, we were not that poor. The rats and roaches had their own cribs).

I haven't owned that old, battered copy of Wiz War for a long time. We lost it in one of the several moves we made over the course of the next few years, but I still had fond memories of stealing my wife's stuff and then turning into a werewolf so that I could rip off her limbs. Ah, nostalgia. So then Fantasy Flight comes along and reprints the game, and I admit to being hesitant to even try it.

See, nostalgic games are like movies you loved when you were a kid. Remember Clash of the Titans? It was stone-cold EPIC when I was a kid, exciting and magical and thrilling. I saw it last year on Netflix, and all I could do was laugh the whole time and make jokes. It's actually bad enough that it could have been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Games are like that, too - something you adored twenty years ago might be actual crap when you try it again.

But at the same time, I was really curious to see how it worked, to see if it could stand up to the memories. So I scored a copy and sat down to put it through its paces. Then, when it turns out that the game could not actually run at all, since it was an inanimate object and was completely incapable of movement, I went ahead and played it.

First things first - this is a pretty sexy game. Fantasy Flight has done a good job of staying true to the soul of the original, and still updated it to a seriously professional-quality production. The art is a little cartoony, but it's ridiculously good, and the boards are easy to read and very colorful. Where we had cardboard standups for our wizards, now we have sculpted plastic miniatures, and the counters are thick and sturdy and attractive.

The rules are a little lengthy, but unlike most of the games that this company produces, they seem to be quite comprehensive without becoming incredibly confusing. It might help that I read a Universal Head condensed version before I broke out the rules, but it didn't take me long at all to know how to play this one. It's a somewhat telling testament to how many games I've played in the last 20 years that I honestly couldn't remember the first thing about how Wiz War works, even though I played my old copy so many times that we had to tape the corners of the box, and a couple cards were marked because I spilled beer on them (I may have done that on purpose, to know when my wife was going to counter-spell me).

It's pretty simple, really. You have a hand of cards that let you pull off all kinds of nasty tricks, like teleporting or shooting lightning out of your nostrils or taping your opponent to a flagpole just before the first period bell rings. You move, play some cards, and try to either kill your opponents or steal their stuff. But every move you might make could be countered by a card, so there was always the chance that when you shoot electrified cow patties, they might explode in your face, leaving you both unconscious and socially unacceptable. The game is fairly fast, rather violent, and full of plays and counterplays and general unpredictability.

That part I remember. This is still Wiz War, a spell-chucking, bone-thumping festival of screwage that is long on action and short on what my good friend George likes to call strategery. And it's still as much fun as I remember. I was puking up magic walls and running with magical speed and setting unpleasant traps like the green slime they used to dump on the kids on Nickelodeon when I was twelve.

But I do have a bit of a complaint, and this is just pure curmudgeonly old-man speak, like when Dana Carvey would do his 'in my day, we would strap dead bodies to our feet and slide down the hill on bloody corpses!' bit. My overall impression of Wiz War is that they cleaned it up and made it more appealing to modern gamers - but in the process, they somehow managed to remove some of the game's soul. It looks like a million bucks, and it will take a long time before this game becomes as faded and worn as my old copy, but it just doesn't have the same child-like appeal.

Part of the change is that I don't see the same counterplays being as prevalent. It's too straightforward, and one of my favorite things about the old Wiz War was creating elaborate traps that would allow me to reflect my wife's lightning bolt, destroy her counter-spell, and then turn her into a newt before I stole her treasure and ran off laughing. However, I may have just been using the wrong cards - the old Wiz War had a huge stack of spells, and you just pulled them as you played, but the new one has you choose schools of spells with different general effects, and it may be that one of the types is a lot better at the tricky stuff. So it might just be that I played it wrong.

However, the part that I can see, the part that seems to have drained the pure raucous joy out of the game, is exactly the part that will make people buy it. The plastic miniatures are great. The new counters are far more useful and attractive. The boards are an enormous improvement. And I would trade it all for the campy characters, the artless cards, and the flimsy boards that I knew as a younger man. Because for all their lack of polish, those old bits of gaming memory were distilled hilarity.

The new stuff is beautiful, but it'll make you lazy. We used to shop for miniatures we could substitute for our cardboard standups, and we made new spells on some of the blank cards that were in the box. We carved little treasure chests out of lumps of wax, and some of those stray bits of detritus that were in the box were actually markers for explosions and walls and weapons (not the diaper pin, though - that was just there because my kids were babies).

I am glad to have another copy of this classic madcap game. It is still a fun game, and I can see playing it a lot in the years to come. I admit that it's stupid to complain about a game being too pretty, and it's not like the new version of Wiz War has ruined my memories of the old one. This is a very fun, very chaotic, very pretty game, and if I had owned this one fifteen years ago, I would be telling those stories today, instead of reminiscing about cheap cardboard and a broken box.


2-4 players

Fun and fast
A vast improvement in quality
Sure looks good

Wildly random and chaotic as hell
All that polish seems to have rubbed off some of the soul

I got my copy of Wiz War from Noble Knight Games, and if you want to save some money on it, you can too:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Board Game Review - Road Kill Rally

Every once in a great while, someone invents a game, and it seems like they made it just for me. Like, they handed out surveys, and based only on my personal response, designed a game tailor-made for me. Road Kill Rally is one of those games, and this is what that survey would have looked like:

Dear respondent,

We are making a racing game, and would like to know what you want to see. Please mark your choices with an X.

1. Do you want to see:
o Lots of complicated rules
o Rules that accurately reflect reality
X Rules that let you drive like a maniac and blow things to hell

2. What kinds of obstacles would you like on the track?
o No obstacles - keep it clean
o Minor, reasonable obstacles such as small debris and oil slicks
X Giant rocks, livestock and fat people

3. How do you prefer to interact with the other racers?
o Not at all - the race is a contest of wits, and the track is my opponent
o Subtle things like blocking and risky acceleration
X I want to shoot them with a tank cannon and ram them with explosive bumpers

If your survey would have looked like my survey, you are going to LOVE Road Kill Rally. It's easily the most offensive racing game I've ever played. You're racing the other players, but you don't have to win the race to win the game, because you can get lots of points during the race just by killing innocent bystanders. Bonus points are awarded for killing senior citizens and children. That's true. I did not make that up.

In Road Kill Rally, you and your friends are all engaged in a race, but it's a violent race with missiles and flamethrowers. You can fire at the other cars on the road, but extra points are awarded for killing people in the road. At one point, you drive through a boy scout camp, and at another, you speed past the retirement home and take out the old ladies with walkers. Drive past the barn, and you can rack up a few points by taking out the chicken as he tries to cross the road.

I know, I know, it sounds like I'm overselling it. But I swear, it really is that awesome. You can totally run down a fat guy, ram your opponent with dynamite strapped to your car, and then hose down a fourth-grader with a flamethrower. In fact, I recommend it.

Most racing games have some kind of mechanic to simulate how fast you're going and how hard it is to steer at 160 miles an hour, and Road Kill Rally is no exception. You get a hand of cards, and when your car gets beat up, you have to discard some of them. If you have to discard and don't have any cards, you wipe out. It's not permanent, or anything, or nobody would ever finish a race, but it does totally suck. And it happens a lot. Wiping out a lot is almost guaranteed to make sure you lose - though if you drive too carefully, someone else is going to beat you to all the best pedestrians.

Winning the race is worth a whole lot of points, but blowing up people you find on the road is also pretty lucrative, as is putting holes in your opponents. The track is full of all manner of crap that can wipe you out and cost you points, from wrecked cars and oil slicks to huge rocks and cows. Yep, cows. I did not make that up, either.

So you're sitting there, and you're reading this, and you're saying, 'why don't I own this?!' And I'm answering, 'I don't know! Go get it!' But before you just run out and start spending money, I should tell you about the art.

This is not a game lovingly rendered by Fantasy Flight (which is nice, or the rules would have been eighty pages long and you would have had three-thousand cardboard circles, and not known what to do with most of them). The art is not great. I would go so far as to say it is not good at all. It's crude and unappealing and frequently downright ugly. The grass on the map tiles is just flat green. The buildings have almost no detail. The plastic cars and plastic people are cool, but the illustrators for the rest of the game either sucked, or they just didn't bring their A-game.

But you know what? Who cares! You can fire a rocket launcher at an old lady while you're going 100 miles an hour! So what if the cards aren't sexy! You can peel rubber into a tight turn while you blast the car behind you with a machine gun! I can't quit using exclamation points! This game is that much fun!

I am willing to admit that the idea behind Road Kill Rally is offensive. It's not good to kill children with your car. It's bad. But that's why this is so damned fun - you can drive far faster than you ever should, commit heinous acts of mayhem and madcap bloodletting, and the only consequence is a slight erosion of your moral character. In my case, my moral character has already been worn down to a nub, so I'm pretty safe. It's cathartic and hilarious and aggressive, and while it rewards good dice-rolling over technical expertise, playing smart is still important. If you want to see careful resource management and limited actions, you'll hate Road Kill Rally, but if you want to race like a dervish and fight like a berserker, this is not a game you should miss.


3-6 players who like to destroy things

Smart moves, good planning and some old-fashioned luck
You can shoot a fat guy with an anti-tank gun
More fun than blowing up old GI Joes with firecrackers and BB guns

Morally reprehensible (not a con, really)
Ugly art
Make peace with your dice, because they'll be your best friend

Racing game? Violence? Livestock? Yeah, it's all here. Get Road Kill Rally, and you'll have fun. Get it from Noble Knight Games, and save some bucks:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Card Game Review - Zombies!

By now, I think we can all agree that the zombie game phenomenon is getting a little old. Every third game seems to be about either killing the undead, running from the undead, or becoming the undead so you can eat other people. It's an epidemic, and I'm pretty sure people are going to start getting tired of it very soon.

Apparently, Russia did not get the memo.

Russian Boardgames, a company whose name is only half-way accurate, has been responsible for some really cool card games. They made Potion-Making Practice, which I think is awesome, and a bunch of other stuff. And now they've translated another game into English, which is about zombies and thus, in the tradition of finding the most obvious name possible, they call it Zombies.

Zombies, like every other game I've seen from Russian Boardgames, is a card game. It's incredibly straightforward, to the point that explaining the rules will usually take about 45 seconds, unless you are smoking pot, in which case you will forget what you were saying and decide to watch cartoons and eat a huge bowl of cereal. On your turn, you either play a zombie on someone else, or play a weapon on yourself. If you can amass five different weapons, you win. If you wind up with five zombies, you lose and then just randomly attack people with whatever you've got handy.

The tricky part is that every different zombie card is cancelled by a particular weapon card. The rocket launcher kills the zombie bus, the baseball bat can swat away the headless zombie's, and the mouse will scare the zombie cheerleader (which, in this case, makes sense, because that mouse would build a nest in her ribcage and eat her decaying lungs until she could no longer yell, 'gimme a HURRRRR...'). So getting five zombies on an opponent is hard, because they can play weapons to cancel them, and getting five weapons is tricky because you keep losing them defending yourself against zombies.

This seems like not much of a game. Actually, my phrasing is a little off - this actually is not much of a game. You'll play the whole thing in like fifteen minutes, and most of that time will be spent talking trash and not really thinking about what you're doing. I know what you're thinking - this doesn't sound like much fun.

But it turns out, it's kind of a hoot. The game itself is not much of a game, to be honest, but the fun part is the game that's happening outside the game. It's the part where you're trying to convince the other guy to put a zombie on your opponent so that you can slap down your fifth weapon, or the part where you're taking petty bribes to play your zombies on other people. The game itself isn't much of a game, really, but all the silliness that's happening outside the card play makes it far more entertaining than it has any right to be.

I'm not going to pee on your leg and tell you it's raining. Actually, I'm not going to pee on you at all. If you want a hard-thinking game with some thematic support and an intelligent set of rules, Zombies is not that game. This is strictly a game you break out when everyone has had a couple beers and you're waiting for the guys at the other table to finish up their Puerto Rico snooze-fest so you can all set up a bad-ass game of The Resistance. It's the very definition of a filler game, but it comes with some goofiness that you won't see in the rules.

Of course, if you're playing with really thinky people who are going to try to find some strategy in the game, Zombies is going to be wildly mediocre. The best thing about it will be how short it is. Like many games, the quality you find in Zombies depends entirely on your audience. In that way, it is a lot like shooting cheap porn. A discerning audience will be disappointed; a room full of half-drunk jackasses will laugh more than is strictly necessary.

As a bit of an aside, I wish that the illustrator for Zombies was an American, because the art in this game is fantastic, and I would like to hire him to draw a webcomic about weasels with irritable bowel syndrome. I don't think there's a lot of game in this game, but the art makes it worth owning just for the pictures on the cards.

So, the Russians are either late jumping on the zombie bandwagon, or they haven't realized how soon it's going to be before that particular bubble bursts. But it hardly matters, because the only way this is a zombie game is because there are dead people on the cards. This is a game about getting buzzed on imported beer and yelling at people while you wait to set up a game of Risk that will last until one of you gets fed up and flips the table. It's not a serious game, and it doesn't mean to be serious. Enjoy it for what it is - fifteen minutes of talking crap followed by doing something completely different.


3-7 players

A quirky little game happens outside the game
Really fun art may actually make you laugh out loud

Not a whole hell of a lot of game here

I wish I could tell you where you could buy Zombies (the game, not the dead people), but the publisher is in Russia. Here's a link to the website, though:

Friday, May 18, 2012

Mental Game Review - Divinare

Divinare is a game about being psychic, where you try to figure out how many of each card will be played. It reminds me a lot of another game I play a lot, where I try to guess what my wife actually means when she is saying stuff to me. I suck at that game, because I am neither psychic nor particularly good at interpreting subtle clues that would be obvious to a woman and completely lost on a man.

In Divinare, you're all pretending to be seers who can know things without seeing them. But because you're not actually psychic (well, obviously, I'm not. You might be The Amazing Kreskin), the game has to actually provide you a little information. So you start out holding some cards, and then pass them around the table a lot so that everyone has some idea how many cards are out there. Then every time you play a card, you slap it on your face like Johnny Carson in a turban and decide how many of that color will be played by the end of the game.

This sounds like a game about counting cards, and while that particular skill will help you win, it's not really what the game is about. In reality, Divinare is about bluffing, messing with your opponents' heads, and making suckers out of the other psychics by throwing them all for a loop. Knowing how many blue cards will be played can help; keeping one blue card for your last play is even better, because then you can twist the count at the last minute. That leaves you guessing for green, red and yellow, but that's why you're supposed to also be good at counting cards.

Divinare has ludicrously easy rules, but it is crazy hard to play. For instance, I can't count cards. My head just won't hold the numbers properly. I am sure my son would tell me it's because of my advanced years, but I've never been any good at remembering how many of each card I've seen. This is why I always lose at 500, and why Divinare gives me a headache.

My wife, on the other hand - she can count cards. She can also count the number of times I walk past a dirty glass without taking it into the kitchen. So not only does she usually have a pretty good idea how many of each color card are in the game, but she also is particularly good at storing that glass-ignoring transgression and springing it on me later, when I go to take a nap on the sofa.

And yet I have beaten her at Divinare every time, because while we both thought the game was about counting cards, I realized early on that I would have to make up for my weakness in card counting and do tricky crap to twist the odds. And this is where I realized that I actually really like Divinare, even though I can't count past ten without taking my shoes off. Because, see, it's not a card-counting game, it's a bluffing game, and for some reason, I just love lying to people. Only you don't actually lie out loud in Divinare. You lie by passing the wrong cards, playing the wrong color, or making the wrong sucker bet. Then you hold on to some cards at the end so you can get all honest, but only after the other person, thinking you actually have some idea what you're doing, follows your lead and winds up in a Burmese tiger trap with a bamboo spear shoved up his kidney.

Divinare plays up to four, but it's a different game with two or three. It's a subtle game that requires a lot of planning and smart plays, but the right play with four is a bad call with three or two. With two people, it's actually a lot more intense, as you're not trying to fool a whole group, you're dedicating all your effort to fooling exactly one person. And if that person is my wife, that takes a lot more effort. She's very good at catching me lying, which is why I have to come clean and admit where I was every time I visit a strip club.

On top of being smart and subtle and incredibly tricky to play well, Divinare is absolutely gorgeous. The art on the cards looks like a modified tarot deck, and the box resembles a poster advertising some big event in 1905. There are different character cards, including the Indian mystic, the American confidence man, and the gypsy woman (do not let her shrink you. I am warning you). The art is simply beautiful, and Asmodee has outdone themselves on the visual appeal of this game.

So I am going to keep playing Divinare any time I can talk someone into playing with me, because it's exactly the kind of mentally taxing game that keeps you sharp. I am also going to keep trying to understand what my wife means when she says, 'what do you want for dinner?', but I'm pretty sure I'm going to lose that one every time I don't immediately order Chinese.


2-4 players

Smart and subtle
Very easy to learn, but incredibly difficult to play well
Visually stunning

Might fall flat if you prefer your games with a little high octane

I think Divinare is coming out at Origins, so you should be able to find it in a month or so. If you like games that really make your brain sweat, it's worth a play.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Board Game Review - Ascending Empires

Sometimes, when I am looking for inspiration to write a game review that will make people laugh, I go to Dave Barry's website and read some of his old columns. They make me chortle, possibly guffaw, and then I am usually prepared to write something that will be, if not outright funny, at least amusing.

Today, that did not work. I am reviewing a game called Ascending Empires, and I cannot for the life of me think of a gut-busting way to start, despite having just read about a truck driver cursing at a young boy over the outcome of a baseball game. Which means that right off the bat, this review is going to be weaker than cheap whiskey in a frontier saloon. I apologize. I will not take it personally if you decide to stop reading now and just go look up some Dave Barry columns, as he is actually funny and I am simply a game nerd with a fondness for juvenile humor.

Are you still here? Well, then, I suppose I should tell you what I think about Ascending Empires, even though you will probably not laugh during my entire unfunny review. And here it is - Ascending Empires is very fun. And while there are opportunities during the game to shoot a small round disc directly into your opponent's nose hole, these accidental snafus will not actually be funny, though they may inspire you to throw away the board and make your own out of your mother's dining room table. Go ahead. She won't get angry. She'll just tell you how disappointed she is (which, if she was being honest, means that she is angry).

Ascending Empires is one of those games about building technology in space and exploring alien planets and killing people. I like games about killing people, and that other stuff isn't too bad, either. But the thing that makes this game different from the other 172 games about killing stuff in space and exploring planets while your tech nerds make new iPads is that in this game, you move your spaceships by physically striking them with your finger.

This is what's known as a dexterity game. Once upon a time, any game in which you actually had to have some physical skill was called a dexterity game, and included such examples as darts, pinball, and taking blood samples. Now, however, if you see 'dexterity' written on a game, it usually means you will be pushing round discs with your finger. And in Ascending Empires, you will be pushing round discs with your finger.

But you will do so much more than simply push round discs. You will also explore alien planets and build colonies, research technologies and recruit troops. This part of the game does not require any more dexterity than you might need to put one plastic thing on top of another plastic thing, and so we could call it the 'complete lack of dexterity' part of the game. But it will probably be easier to just call it the 'mental' segment, and avoid having to write a bunch of stuff every time I want to describe it.

The decisions you make in the mental part of the game directly impact the dexterity part of the game. For example, if you get enough technology, you can replace your small spaceship discs with a slightly less small spaceship disc, and then people will be scared of you and intentionally fire their own wooden tiddlywinks at you in an attempt to destroy your newfound wooden disc (that, or they will shoot really hard and try to blind you). Another technology advancement lets you flick your spaceships more often during the turn, which is good if you suck at it as much as I do (since I have no dexterity to speak of).

In return, your skill at the dexterity portion of Ascending Empires will affect the mental portion. If you can get your ships where you want them, you can defend your planets, land troops, or lay siege to enemy planets. It's a good give-and-take that means you can't afford to ignore either segment of the game, and yet you will still be able to make strategic decisions and enjoy the wonder of hitting your spaceship so hard that it bounces off an obstacle and flies directly at your wife's face. Come to think of it, I would not do that, if I were you. It's not nearly as funny in practice as it seems on paper. Neither is sleeping on the couch.

The end result of all this counterplay of playing smart and being good at flicking things is a game that is surprisingly engaging. When I compare it to Space Pirates, another game about flicking things in space, Ascending Empires comes out far ahead. This is a smart, fun, interesting game that plays very quickly and makes you think the whole time. No one strategy is superior - you can spend a lot of time doing battle and fighting your opponents, but if you do, you will not have enough time to build cities and research HTML5.

But you know what's the really irritating thing? The board. It's big, which is good because you need room for flicking, but it's built out of big puzzle pieces. No matter how well you put it together, the seams will actively repel your wooden spaceship discs, and they will bounce off and wind up somewhere stupid. This is exceptionally frustrating, to the point that we wanted to put a big piece of glass over the board. Only we couldn't, because there are these little holes where you have to put the planets, which are also wooden discs, but you can't flick them because they're stuck into the holes.

This is actually a very serious complaint. I can overlook a lot of minor foibles, but when half the game is about accurately shooting wood discs, having the board pop up and screw you is enormously problematic. And heaven help you if your boards warp, because then they will never lay down properly. My best advice is to make a board yourself out of plywood or plexiglass. That, or drill holes in your table. Because the board that comes with this game is infuriating, and one of the strangest physical production decisions I've seen in a long time. It's like shooting pool on a table with chewing gum stuck all over it.

But don't let the incredibly irritating board wave you off. Ascending Empires is a bunch of fun, even if you have to house-rule something about reshooting if you bounce off a crack in the board. There's a wonderful balance between using your head and using your finger (a trait shared by another game I play a lot, called Driving on the Freeway), and there are lots of different strategies that can win you the game. I think that if I can convince my family to play a lot more, I will probably go ahead and make my own board, which will alleviate my only real complaint.

So we find ourselves at the end of the review, and I never did come up with anything worthy of so much as a quiet giggle. If Dave Barry were my spirit guide, he would be very upset. For one thing, it would mean he was dead, which could come as something as a surprise to him. For another, he would very disappointed. Which is just a nice way of saying he would be angry.


2-4 players

Great balance of mental acuity and manual dexterity
Lots of different strategic possibilities
A good amount of interaction, without forcing you into conflict

The board actively defies you to play the game

If my bland and uninteresting review has inspired you to purchase Ascending Empires, and if you can forgive me my failure to amuse, you should go get it from Noble Knight Games. You'll save a bunch on it, too:

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dice Game Review - Quarriors

Tonight's review is like the guy who just discovered AC/DC and wants to tell everyone about it, except that everyone else has been listening to AC/DC since the 70s and they already know that Bon Scott was a better lead singer than Brian Johnson, and yet Back in Black was still an indisputably awesome album, especially the B-side. Because, see, I just played Quarriors this weekend, and pretty much everyone else has already played it, but I'm all excited so I'm going to be all, 'man, can you believe Angus's solo at the beginning of Thunderstuck?' and you'll all say, 'you know, I don't really care for AC/DC, and would really rather we discussed something that came out in the last, say, 20 years.'

I'm going to spoil the surprise ending and tell you right now that I think Quarriors is pretty freaking cool. I've played six games of it since Saturday, and I can't wait to play it again. So now that we have that out of the way, I'll explain why I like it better than Dominion, and I'll explain why I'm comparing it to Dominion, and I'll tell you why Dominion lovers might hate it, and then you'll say, 'yeah, thanks Drake, but we already have the expansion, and the promos from BGG, and we're about to get Quarmageddon, so way to be current, asshole.'

Quarriors calls itself a dice-building game, which is kind of odd, because that's like saying Dominion is a card-building game, but since Quarriors has you putting the dice you buy into a bag, the only way to be really accurate would be to call it a sack-building game, and then it sounds like you're taking turns whacking each other in the scrotum to make your balls tougher, and that's just absurd. So instead, it's a dice-building game. There are a bunch of dice on the table, separated into piles of five similar dice, and they sit on a card that tells you what each side means and how much they cost and how much they help you win.

Every turn, you roll a handful of dice and try to buy dice that will help you win and try to get rid of the dice that suck. Some creature dice will help you score big points, some help you buy other dice, and some just run around killing things like it was free. Then you have spell dice that might help you do all those things, too. When someone scores enough points (this usually happens inside 30-45 minutes), the game is over and you put away all those dice. Or you do like we did, and play again.

This is very similar to how Dominion works, in that you buy cards that help you score and you buy cards that help you buy other cards and you buy cards to slow down other people. Come to think of it, this is generally how almost any deck-building game works, but we compare everything to Dominion because that was the big pioneer game. I could compare it to Arctic Scavengers (which is way more fun than Dominion), but very few people have played that, so I just go with the big one.

While I definitely see how Dominion fans could prefer their game, I think Quarriors is just more raw fun than Dominion. The biggest and most obvious difference, of course, is that you're buying dice. A card will do the same thing every time you draw it. A die, by comparison, has the capacity to do lots of different things. On the one hand, this means that you've got more options. On the other hand, it means that you can get screwed by a bad roll even if you pull good dice. And that means that luck-hating puzzle-solvers are going to absolutely hate Quarriors. It also means I like it better.

That random, chaotic element of dice-rolling madness combines with the ability to outright attack your opponents' monsters to create a game that can surprise you, while still allowing the more skilled player to have a very good chance of beating the inexperienced chump. It also means that you can get more mileage out of just the base set of dice, because even with the exact same distribution of available purchases, every game will be different, just because you won't roll the same thing every time.

Plus Quarriors just feels more fun. The dice look like candy. The art is campy. The game uses a silly number of words that start with the letter Q. And you're not building up a kingdom, you're summoning creatures to perform bloodletting on your behalf. If real men play games where people die (and they do), they can definitely get into Quarriors, because there's a sweet body count for this one (though lots of times, you're not just killing people, you're killing dragons and goblins and primordial ooze beasts).

I have heard people complain that Quarriors lacks the depth of Dominion, and those people might be right. When you're playing Dominion, the game usually goes to the guy who can pick out the right combination of cards in the right order and make them work to his advantage. In Quarriors, you don't have to pick out your strategy before you play. In fact, you can't, because your dice won't go along with your plans. You can definitely look and say, 'this hag plus this priest plus this knight will make a mean combo,' but your dice might look at them and say, 'sorry, tough guy, make it work with a goblin and a ghost.'

In fact, Quarriors is more fun than Dominion simply because it cannot be solved. There's no 'perfect' deck. There are good buys, and there are smart decisions, but you can't tell your dice which way to roll, and that means that you're always doing the best you can with what you have. There are plenty of tricky decisions - do you buy now and summon later, or get that big critter in play while you can? Do you pick up the cheap portal die, or just go straight for the spell that will keep your monsters alive long enough to score? You can form a strategy from the outset, and I would recommend it, but there's no analyzing the 4-1 split or figuring out the optimal way to make your turn take half an hour until you've got your entire deck in play.

In fact, that's another reason Quarriors is better. Turns go really fast. You pull out some dice, roll them, buy something or summon, and then you're done. If your monsters can kill something, they will, and hopefully nobody will kill your minions before you get another turn. It's quick and crazy and just plain fun. So what if you're not in a contest to determine who has the best analytical abilities. You're rolling dice and summoning monsters who will kill things for you. That is WAY more fun than dissecting a mental spreadsheet.

So for the three people out there who haven't already tried Quarriors, I give it a big thumbs-up. It's a hoot. For everyone else, wait for my next review, when I'll tell you all about how I just tried chess, and man, is that a tough one to master.


2-4 players

Looks great
I love rolling dice, and boy, do I get a chance to do that with Quarriors
Chaotic luck element, but the better player will still win most of the time

Lots of dice means it's tough to predict, making long-term strategy a bit of a crap-shoot

If you like deck-building, but want to see what it looks like when it's all Ameritrashy, run over to Noble Knight Games and pick up a copy of Quarriors:

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Toy Review - Kre-o Battleship

The same press kit that sent me Classic Battleship also gave me two incredibly cool Kre-o sets. For those unfamiliar (which would include me, until this press kit showed up), Kre-o is what Hasbro calls their Lego clones. The pieces all work with Legos, which means they should also work with MegaBlox, except that MegaBlox sucks hot summer ass. Sure, it's half as much, but that's because it's less than half as awesome. Except maybe the Halo MegaBlox sets. Those were fairly bitchin'.

At any rate, I was a wee bit concerned when I saw these sets. I absolutely love playing with Legos - have since I was eight - and I am really good at being disappointed in the quality of wannabe Lego sets. Printed pieces are cool; stickers blow. Cheap plastic is bad, but poor tolerances are awful. This is why MegaBlox is so crappy - they have all the bad stuff. They have crappy plastic, they want you to put stickers that cover up two pieces after you build your model, and in any set at least big enough to build an ambulance, you'll have a pile of bricks that won't fit together until you start shaving off pieces with an X-Acto blade.

So I opened the box, started sifting through all the plastic bags and flipping through the instructions, and find out that my cool-looking spaceship and special ops raft come with a huge nut-punch right out of the gate - stickers. Freaking stickers. Clear vinyl, sure, and they're printed with cool designs, but one corner had peeled up a little and so the step of the instructions where you add the little black doohickey to the little red widget and secure the entire thing to the flat grayish thingamabob - that step has a sticker stuck on it. Strike one, Hasbro. Strike freaking one.

Then I started putting together the little people. I was pleased to see that the human figures use ball joints at the hips and shoulders, meaning that you have a lot more flexibility, pose-wise. Sadly, the alien figures, while neat-looking, can't sit down. Seriously. Their legs won't bend all the way forward, and they don't have those little holes in the back, so they can't even recline. They look really cool, and have smoky-clear visors and drill hands and saw-blade attachments for their forearms, but I would be that those alien guys would gladly give up the vibro-hatchet hand for the option to sit their ass on a park bench and scratch their alien balls. Instead, they were going to have to stand up in their spaceship. Cool figures, but a bit of an oversight on the leg thing. You got a piece of that one, Hasbro, but it went foul. Strike two.

Undaunted, I called my daughter (who also loves playing with Legos) and we began construction. And I found, to my absolute delight, that these pieces are shockingly well made. I mean, Lego quality, or close to it. We didn't have one piece that didn't want to go together. We never ran into any place where pieces were too loose, either. I mean, they did this right. Sure, I had to put stickers on a few pieces, and I really hate that, but the quality of the individually crafted bits was far higher than I ever would have expected from anyone who wasn't Lego.

And the model we built is (forgive me for the intentional-yet-blatantly-irritating capitalization) BAD-ASS. It's this alien attack ship, about the size of an Apache helicopter if it were about 1/72 real size. It's got all these wings that can spin and bend and fold and angle, clear plastic fins, cannons, and flashy red bits. The best part? Guns that actually shoot. Lego would never, ever do that, because they only believe in violence if they can pretend nobody would die on the other end. Like, Serenity was too adult to be made into a Lego set (Indiana Jones, on the other hand, was fine, even though in that movie, Nazis got their faces melted off by God).

Not only is the model super-damned-bitchin', but it's very well engineered. If this was Lego, I'm not sure they would have done any better. You could swivel the moving parts, and they wouldn't fall off (which is in direct contrast to MegaBlox). The canopy could fold out and pivot open without wondering if it was going to fall apart in my hands. Everything moved smoothly without the threat of crumbling, which is much better than MegaBlox models. Those always make me feel like I'm holding a dried mud pie, and one false move will reduce the entire thing to component atoms and fried cheese sticks (not sure why I mentioned cheese sticks, except that I am getting pretty hungry). Yes, the Kre-o model was fantastic. I've built lamer Lego sets, and that's saying something, because to me, 'Lego' means 'quality' the way 'Nevada' means 'legal prostitution.' Home run, Hasbro. Well done. Run the bases, unless you're a major-league ball player, and then you'll probably just stand there and stare at the ball like a lazy asshole, even though you make more money in one game than I make all year.

There are a couple more of these Kre-o sets that I want to get now. I also have the Missouri, a battleship model with interior compartments and a lot more people, and there's a dead-sexy helicopter I want, and the diving suit set comes with underwater terrain. All this stuff should fit with Legos (though I don't actually have any to test that theory), so I'll probably pick up some of those UFO sets and make some crazy hybrid spaceships.

I think the biggest disappointment about Kre-o is how few models are available. You can get Transformers Kre-o sets, but I don't want those, and there are not a lot of Battleship sets, and then that's it. I want more of these. I'm not sure I wouldn't buy some My Little Pony Kre-o, if they were cool enough (that is a lie. I would not buy My Little Pony Kre-o. But I might buy Spongebob Kre-o). With all the crazy cool toys that Hasbro makes, you would think they could find a few more ideas to mine for inspiration. But for now, I'll take what I've got and be happy with it. And if something else cool comes out, I'll let you know. As long as Hasbro sends me one for free.


Surprisingly high standard of quality
Very cool models
Nifty mini people

I hate stickers in Lego sets (which means I also hate them in Kre-o)
An inability to sit down means that all aliens have to stand up to poop

I'm going to assume Hasbro has some Kre-o sets you can buy, if you're so inclined.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Board Game Review - Classic Battleship Movie Edition

I have almost no gaming nostalgia. I liked Candyland when I was a tyke, but I don't want to play it now. I enjoyed playing Blitzkrieg with my old man when I was in junior high, and would not like to reenact the experience today. I used to love jumping in mud puddles when I was a youngster… OK, bad example, I totally love jumping in mud puddles. Only now I can't do it, because I'll just ruin a pair of khakis and a nice oxford.

Battleship is an exception. Not because I liked it then and don't like it now; instead, Battleship is an exception because I have never liked it. I had Electronic Battleship when I was in fifth grade, and I thought it sucked ass (though in fifth grade, I probably would have just said it was poopy, because I was only ten). Beeping bells and bright lights were not enough to distract me from the fact that the game blows goats.

So when I got the updated Classic Battleship - the one that goes with the movie - I was disheartened. It was sent to me so that I would write about it, and I can't write about it if I don't play it, and that means I had to play it. But I dislike Battleship. I mean, I would rather mow the lawn or stain the fence than play Battleship. I really, really don't like that game.

I do have to admit, though, the pieces in the movie version are kind of cool. The game box doubles as a two-part board (so each player can use half of it) and there's a nifty sliding tray to hold the pieces. One player has the invading aliens, and the other has human ships (including some from Japan and other occasionally useful places). And in addition to white pegs and red pegs and really cool art, there's also a deck of cards in each storage tray.

This confused and intrigued me, because Battleship isn't supposed to have cards, and yet maybe they could redeem it and make it fun. Each player has cards, and on your turn, you can play two cards, draw one and play one, or draw two. This creates some actual strategy! Admittedly, not a whole lot, but there's more than was there before. The cards tell you how many times you can shoot, and some do nifty stuff like blow up a whole row or make your opponent reveal one place on the board that is a hit. There are special ability cards and game-breaker cards and one that makes any hit sink the wounded ship instantly.

And I have to say, after playing the game with the cards, they do actually add a lot to it. What used to be the world's most tediously random nightmare is now downright palatable. I'm not saying it's wildly entertaining, or anything, but there is just enough here to give you something you can call a game.

Unfortunately, the cards are really not enough to make me want to play Battleship again. For one thing, the com towers don't do anything until you collect four of them, and then your opponent is just screwed. If his shuffle was worse than your shuffle, you win and he loses. That sucks, and we house-ruled that after one game.

Plus the cards still don't offer any real depth. Sure, there's a modicum of hand management, and a trade-off of attacking now versus mowing through your deck quickly, but it's still not exactly rocket science. I do have to admit, however, that my daughter actually wanted to play twice. Not three times - I dodged that bullet - but at least she wasn't complaining about how her father abuses her by making her play crappy board games.

I guess Battleship has always seemed more like a toy than a game to me. It has all these cool plastic ships and cool colored pegs and a cool plastic board with holes in it, but when it comes down to it, it's actually just a boring, crappy, random game. Adding cards makes it better - I would go so far as to say a lot better - but that's not saying much. It's like saying stepping on Legos in the middle of the night is better than stepping on barbed wire. Even a dramatic improvement still leaves you hopping around on one foot and cursing like a dockworker.

My nostalgia factor for Battleship has not changed any. I still don't like it. However, I can admit that if you've got a kid who wants to play the original, the movie version might make it so that your game time with him is tolerable. Plus the cards speed up the game dramatically, and whenever you can manage to make unpleasant things end faster, that's a net gain. Unless it just means you have to play twice.


2 players

Faster than the original
A small but detectable amount of strategy

Still Battleship

The one thing to watch for, if you decide to pick up the movie version of Battleship, is that there are actually two version - classic and deluxe. This review was the classic one. They didn't send me the deluxe edition, and I'm not enough of a masochist to ask for it. You can probably get it from Hasbro or Toys-R-Us.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Board Game Review - Middle Earth Quest

Remember right after the Lord of the Rings movies came out, and every fourth board game that came out was all about the movies? And you would use worker placement or roll-and-move or cooperative puzzle games to reenact the adventures of Legolas and Pippin and Gimli and that kid from Goonies. After a while, the trend faded out and was replaced by an unexplainable deluge of zombie games, but I still remember how many times I played yet another Lord of the Rings game and thought, 'why can't I play someone else? Were these people the only ones who did anything?'

And the answer is no, these were not the only people who did anything. There were dwarves who battled darkness in Moria, men who stood against the onslaught of the Haradrim, and elves who knitted sweaters out of flower petals and sang songs about how great it was to be tall when 'elf' is actually a word for a really small person.

This is who you play in Middle Earth Quest. The game takes place before Gandalf kicks Frodo out of his house and makes him go get stabbed and tortured all the way to the worst freaking place in the world. You'll be an elf who wanders the land and slays orcs, or a Rohirrim who rides his horse into battle against minions of evil, or a tough-as-nails ranger pushing back the darkness with both hands and a big ugly knife. What you won't be, what you won't ever have to see, is another damned hobbit. Because in a game about snapping necks and cashing checks, the last thing we need is a stumpy quasi-homosexual dork who gets his ass kicked by a spider.

There is, however, another option besides playing these hard-on warriors of light. You can play Sauron, and then you get to do more stuff than the heroes. You can summon Gothmog and the Lord of Harad and ringwraiths. You can spread evil like throughout Middle Earth like spoiled peanut butter, you can corrupt heroes, overthrow nations and steal ice cream from small children. This part is the most work, and it's hard as hell. Those damned heroes are really serious about screwing with your plans, and every time you get some impressively nasty plot into play to bend the world to your will, that pesky dwarf will come along and shove his metal-toed boot up your evil plan's ass. But if you persevere and really play smart, you just might be able to bring down the darkness and put a premature end to happiness all over the world.

In terms of playing the game, Middle Earth Quest reminds me a lot of Runebound. The heroes will wander all over, completing quests and killing things and getting in and out of trouble. If Sauron is doing his job properly, they'll also get the snot kicked out of them on a regular basis, because time is short and they can't afford to lie around asking for magical poultices or elf nookie to make them feel better. They have to be out in the field, punching evil in the gonads, and that's a tough job, because evil punches back, but hard. They'll get training from Gandalf and Aragorn, horses from Theoden, and really bad advice from Saruman. They'll also get shot by poison arrows, stomped by cave trolls, and get corrupted by the minions of Sauron. In other words, they have much cooler adventures than Frodo.

Actually, Middle Earth Quest reminds me of another game from Fantasy Flight. It's a heck of a lot like Arkham Horror, but with an actual person playing Sauron. I love Arkham Horror, but I have to say, I think I prefer Middle Earth Quest. The addition of a human element makes the game less arbitrary. When the darkness creeps into your campsite and delivers howling, red-eyed demon wolves, you'll know that it wasn't just a twist of fate, it was your dear friend deliberately bringing you some pain. When you stymie some devious plot with a little old-fashioned righteous violence, the evil howling in rage will actually be a human howling in rage, and not just a deck of cards that couldn't possibly care less.

The addition of a human master of evil makes the game a lot more like a story. Now you're not just going from the asylum to the docks and trying to get a car. Now you're following a tale of epic war between good and evil, and it builds to a finish, and lots of stuff happens along the way. You'll battle the Mouth of Sauron in Dol Guldur, taking grievous wounds, and recover in Lothlorien before making your way to Fangorn to investigate the Huorns. You'll meet up with your fellow hero outside the tomb of the Witch King, and then battle orcs at Weathertop. And since you're not just retelling a story we've all known since we started being nerds, the story becomes your own.

All this awesome is not without cost, however. This son of a bitch takes a very long time to play, and there's enough downtime that you can feed the dogs or wash the dishes while you're waiting for your turn (I'm not making this up, that actually happened). There's a great story unfolding, but it's moving at a rate similar to plate tectonics. When Sauron is taking his turn, you won't even be paying attention (unless you're Sauron). There's a heck of a lot of boring in this epic tale.

And just to make sure we knew this game came out of Fantasy Flight, there's an absolute ton of crap in a box with no storage dividers. As is typical for this kind of game coming from this company, you have a buttload of stuff to punch, organize, and sort. Plus the rulebook is downright intimidating, and for at least your first few games, you're going to have to slow down to double-check things every ten minutes. You do get a great story out of it, but you have to be willing to put in the work to get there.

One potential complaint that I see is a matter of balance. You can play this game with anywhere from two to four people, which means between one and three heroes. With just one hero, that guy is going to be in deep warg poop. With three heroes, Sauron is going to be nearly impotent. It doesn't really scale to account for a varying number of players. But honestly, that doesn't bother me at all. Sure, it might not be fair, but life isn't fair. And in a semi-cooperative game like this, Sauron's role seems more like one of a dungeon master running a game of D&D. Your job isn't to win. Your job is to make sure everyone had fun. So while this is a potential complaint, it's not one that bothers me at all. If you desperately need to win, and can't have fun without a well-balanced game, you're not going to like this one. Keep walking.

Even worse than the overwhelming pile of pieces and rulebooks, and even worse than the downtime, is the ridiculous endgame. If the heroes get their story advanced far enough, and if they've achieved their overall mission, they win. If Sauron gets to the end and completes his nefarious misdeeds, he wins. But if both do it at the same time, the entire game is settled with a brawl. One card-playing extravaganza later, your entire story boiled down to a fistfight. That is one weak-ass ending - but you're not going to see it every time. Most of the time, one side will win and the other will just lose, and it will be close but still awesome.

But in the end, the complaints pile up less than the glowingly positive elements. Sure, you'll spend an afternoon on it, especially if it's your first time, but the story is worth it. It's fun to battle evil, and it's fun to provide the foil for a band of brave heroes. In the end, I had a really good time playing Middle Earth Quest, and I look forward to playing it again. I think it's a perfect way to while away a rainy afternoon, especially if you can play it with people who are more concerned with fun and story than they are with balancing issues and whip-crack fast game play.


2-4 players (one of whom will have to be the bad guy)

Tell an exciting story that you haven't seen a dozen times already
Some neat game play mechanics that get out of the way and let the heroes be heroic
Beautiful map, inspiring heroes, and frightening monsters
Basically, this is what I love about gaming

Slower than waiting at the DMV
Overwhelming rules and pieces
Potentially unbalanced
Stupid endgame

 Remember when I said I was getting a great discount from Noble Knight Games that would let me review some cool games? This is one of them. And if I'm going to keep getting that awesome discount, so that I can keep reviewing the games you want to see, I could use a little help. I'm not saying you should buy games you don't want. But if you do want Middle Earth Quest, do me a solid and get it from them. Mention my name, so they know this is working. I'll owe you one.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Not A Real Update - Cool Thing

I swear, Drake's Flames is not a Tumblr feed. But I ran across a photo blog I thought was fantastic, and wanted to share it real quick.

The site is all pictures of cool stuff in England. Interesting signs, fog-choked landmarks, and other cool photos are matched with descriptors that let you explore the UK without having to actually visit. It's been going for a couple years, so there are plenty of neat images. I would consider it worth enough time to at least give it a gander.

And since this is not a real update, I'll be back tomorrow night with a review of Middle Earth Quest.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Paranoid Game Review - The Resistance

I know a lot of people really like the Battlestar Galactica board game, and they should, because it is really fun. It's a cooperative game where you're trying to save the human race, unless you're one of those traitorous Cylons who look just like human beings and are trying to kill off the remaining meat puppets. Those pesky traitors make the whole game into a maddening and exhilarating exercise in paranoia, wild conjecture, and unbased accusation.

I mentioned Battlestar Galactica so I could tell you about The Resistance, because if you thought Battlestar Galactica made you paranoid, The Resistance will make you think you're working for Joseph Stalin at the end of World War II. If you took Battlestar Galactica, threw it in a juicer, poured the run-off through a coffee strainer, then boiled it down into a shot-glass-sized hit of espresso, you would have The Resistance.

The idea behind The Resistance is simple and familiar. You play a cadre of upstart insurgents attempting to topple a corrupt government - but that government has infiltrated your team and inserted spies in your ranks. It is the singular goal of these spies to ruin the plans of the rest of the team by sabotaging their missions and sowing disharmony among the loyal.

That's all the background you need for a super-concentrated blast of finger-pointing and lies. If the spies can make the resistance members fail three missions, they win. If the resistance can successfully complete three missions, they win. But it only takes one bad apple to ruin a mission, which means that any time you've got spies on the job, they can ruin the day.

You'll get your identity in secret, and only you will know whether you are loyal - unless you're a spy, and then you also know who the other spies are. You'll vote on teams to send on missions, and wild accusations will fly with no more support than a difficulty maintaining eye contact, or voice inflection, or bad breath (in all fairness, I had onions for lunch, which does not necessarily make me a liar). When the cards are flipped and you find out that one of the team was a spy, you'll all start yelling like the Republican National Convention hopped up on chocolate, coffee and crack cocaine.

The result of all this paranoia is fifteen minutes of pure, unadulterated fun. Addictive fun. The kind of fun that, as soon as you finish the game, half the people at the table will say, 'hot summer crap, that was fun! Let's do it again!' and the other half of the people will agree. We played three games in a row, just because we couldn't bring ourselves to stop. This is all the parts of Battlestar Galactica that you love, boiled down into a quarter-hour of over-the-top madness and deceit.

In fact, I find it fascinating that people (including myself) are so drawn to games that are all about lying. In a society that purports to embrace honesty and integrity, we do so love the chance to prove how good we are at deliberate deceit. Perhaps it's that games like The Resistance give us the opportunity to really indulge our darker sides, embrace lies and dishonor and deceit in a socially acceptable atmosphere where the best players are the ones with the slickest patter and the most convincingly dishonest demeanors.

I have heard several people who say that The Resistance makes them want to play Battlestar Galactica. Me, I'm the exact opposite. Hearing people talk about Battlestar Galactica makes me want to play The Resistance. This is a game that compiles every awesome part of Battlestar Galactica and purges every single thing you don't need. The missions are not defined beyond being a mission. There are no sliding measures of success, no eventual descent into madness, no backstory or plastic spaceship or cardboard counters. There's just you and a bunch of your friends, lying your ass off and doing everything you can to create distrust and enmity before your fifteen minutes come to an end and you all go off to be normal, functioning humans once again.

I'll close with this. If you have at least four other people who will play this game with you, get The Resistance. If I could issue orders like an army general, I would send you all out to pick up a copy tonight. When I play a game one night, and spend the next 24 hours talking about how much I want to play again, it gets my absolute highest recommendation with absolutely no hesitation whatsoever. If you like fun, you need to buy a copy of The Resistance. If you don't like fun, go read a blog about bird-watching or insect reproduction.


5-10 players

Concentrated blast of deceit and paranoia
The confusion and wobbly logic will make your head hurt, but in a good way
Sweet holy mother of pearl, this is a fun game

Theme removed to get to the good parts
Over in 15 minutes, when I want it to last for days

You owe it to yourself to own a copy of The Resistance. You can save some green and get flat $10 of shipping from Noble Knight Games. Tell 'em I sent you.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Other Stuff To Read

They say that no man is an island, and I tend to think that's good, especially when I've been to the beach and have a bunch of sand in my shorts. That really chafes, and if I were a whole island, I would probably never get rid of the sand in my private spots, and I would get a terrible rash. On the other hand, if the island were big enough, like Hawaii or something, I could get hot surfer girls to ride waves on the reefs off my coast.

Actually, that's just not feasible. If I were that large, my obesity would make it difficult to enjoy the surfer chicks, and I couldn't ever get dry because I would be permanently floating just out of the water. So screw it, I don't want to be an island, after all. Instead, I want to be a unicorn.

But until I grow a single horn out of the middle of my face and turn all magical and stuff, I'll have to make do by reading the stuff other people write (that was a horrible segue, by the way, but I'm trying out for a job as the MC at the Oscars, and that seems to be the main job requirement, along with making fun of Lady Gaga). There's a fair amount of cool readability out there in Internet Land, and so I thought I would relate just a few that I find worth the trip.

First off, there's this reviewer dude who goes by the name San Il Defanso. He's not exactly a household name, or anything, but it's only a matter of time. He's an excellent writer, and while his reviews may not be the funniest things you ever read (because he's not really trying to be funny), he is thought-provoking and insightful and best of all, does a very good job of relating the experience of the games he reviews. I read all his stuff, because it's remarkably good. Check him out:

Then we have my favorite Tweeter, Matthew Baldwin. This dude, unlike the last guy, is freaking hilarious. He's got an absolutely hysterical piece about negotiating the Ikea store, and he reviews all manner of things, from video games to board games to novels. And did I mention he's funny? Because he is. He's really funny. If you're at all into Twitter, you should totally follow him. I follow like four people, and he's the best one.

Next up is Pete Miller. Pete is his middle name, and his first initial is W, so I like to call him Whiskey Pete, although I've never met him in person and so he doesn't know I call him that. His blog is not all that interesting, but he writes some awesome tales that are total throwbacks to old-school pulp fiction. If you like Tannhauser (there are umlauts in there, but I can't be bothered with them), he's a huge fan, and has a bunch of additional material you can use to customize your game. Come to think of it, he's a huge fan even if you don't like Tannhauser, but if you do, that part of his site will be more interesting. He'll even tell you where to get the figures you need to bring his stuff to life in your own game. Really cool stuff. Give it a look-see:

Another fun guy to follow on Twitter is Nedroid. I don't actually think his cartoons are all that great, but he's very enthusiastic about them. And he's got a GREAT Twitter feed. Funny stuff all the time, and he apparently does nothing but draw comics and tweet. So there are lots of amusing anecdotes in 143-character packages, any time you check. Read his comics, if that's your bag, and follow him on Twitter if you like oddball comedy:

This is the end of my list, and a lot of people are going, 'hey! that's a short list!' and at least a couple are going, 'why am I not on that list?!' and someone might be going, 'where did you leave the mayonnaise, because I checked in the fridge and it's not there!' I don't know where the mayo is. I don't eat mayo. That was probably someone else.

If you're not on this list, don't feel bad. I read San Il Defanso's reviews because they're simply brilliant, but I don't actually read any other game reviews (even Matthew Baldwin's - but his Twitter feed cracks me up). This is on purpose, because when I review a game, I don't want to be influenced by knowing what other people have written. Plus, if I make the same joke as another reviewer, I want to be able to have some degree of plausible deniability.

If you're already full up with stuff to read, then good for you, don't bother. But if you want to expand your mental horizons, these are a few that I find worth the time.