Archive for the ‘ Games ’ Category

Android: Netrunner Genesis Cycle (Game Review)

The first three Genesis Cycle packs

The first three Genesis Cycle packs

It’s been a year since I reviewed Android: Netrunner, so it’s past time for me to check in again. There has been a lot of new material for it, so the only reason for my lateness is that I lost interest. I found the base set to be a tense, varied game on its own with a lot of promise for the future. I’m just not the right person for collectable card games, though, even using the curated LCG model. I couldn’t keep up with it, and wonder whether Fantasy Flight’s expansions really kept improving the game.

So, the base game game out late last year. The first small expansion (“data pack”) was also released by the end of 2012. 2013 saw eight additional small expansions and one large one, with no sign of slowing down next year! I bought the first three packs in “the Genesis Cycle“, so this is nominally a review of those. But it probably applies to the many cards I haven’t seen, and to my take on LCGs in general.

Netrunner: Genesis Cycle CardsFirst of all, I question the cost. The point of a Living Card Game is that you have a known cost up front, because you buy sets with all the cards instead of buying random booster sets. But that doesn’t make it cheap by any means. These data packs retail for $15 each, and they provide three copies each of twenty different cards. That’s almost $1 for every new card type, and you’re not likely to use all the cards anyway.

The triplicate cards are understandable, since a deck is allowed to contain up to three of each one. It was annoying that the base set didn’t have three copies of each one. On the other hand, each data set also includes a new faction card in triplicate, even though no game would ever use more than one! If you’re already wondering whether the expansion is worth the cost, it’s frustrating to get a couple cards that are impossible to ever use.

As far as the gameplay goes, they definitely add some new things. Corps now have Agendas that can be advanced beyond the minimum requirement for bonuses, and one Agenda changes the flow of the game by giving the player an extra action every turn. The new faction cards (“identities” of existing factions) feel balanced with new special powers that will change your considerations when building a deck. It’s not bad.

It’s not great, either, though. The three data packs I bought cost almost as much as the base game, and I certainly didn’t feel like they changed the game very much. The strongest new cards and combos are difficult to get, and I appreciate that Fantasy Flight does not seem to be ramping up the power to make expansions must haves. But the main change in the game’s feeling for me was a disappointing one: I’d appreciated how the base set made you work with a very limited selection of cards and factions with known weaknesses. Since Netrunner is fundamentally a bluffing game, this knowledge was part of the tension. Even with the limited data packs that I bought, the biggest holes have been filled (every Runner faction has icebreakers of each major type), and there are too many threats for you to feel like you’re able to guess at what your opponent might still have hidden.

I am used to expansions shaking up a game more, because I usually play board games. With those, it’s understood that an expansion will add new rules or make other significant changes. Since a collectable card game needs to stay consistent over the years, even if a player misses a couple sets, it doesn’t have the freedom to change the game as drastically. This added to the impression that I wasn’t getting a lot for the price of the new cards.

A lot of this is my own opinion, of course, and it’s coming from someone who has never stuck with a collectable game. I know that Netrunner is still a big hit in certain crowds. My perspective should be familiar to a lot of board gamers, though, and I do think that the flaws I see are legitimate. The expansions are detailed and maintain the game’s high quality (although I did think the flavor text was lacking, and the alleged theme running through each data pack felt weak). Overall, if you’re still playing this game a lot, buying these will be an easy decision. For me, though, I felt trapped between a good base game that wasn’t designed for long-term replayability on its own, and an expanded system that cost a lot of money without adding real changes.

Grade: C


Bora Bora (Game Review)

Bora Bora box

Bora Bora

Bora Bora is another complex game from Stefan Feld. If you’re familiar with Trajan and Castles of Burgundy, you have an idea what that means: A “point salad” game with more ways to score than any one person can handle. The different strategies are well balanced, and the winner will be the player who sees the best mix of opportunities based on the way the dice landed or cards came out. The central mechanic is some sort of creative action selection, and, of course, the theme has nothing to do with the gameplay.

Speaking as a huge fan of Feld, I think that this is his best game yet. It’s an especially tight version of his “too little time to do what you need” approach, with a lot more player interaction than most games that are this balanced and strategic. That interaction also helps the game to grow with your group as you get more experienced. In the early games, struggling to do your best is challenge enough. Once the basic strategies are under control, and players start looking around for opportunities to block each other, then the game grows new dimensions. And even the very first game is fairly accessible considering how much is going on. Everyone has their own “task tiles” and must complete one every round, so newbies have goals to direct them through the many choices they have to make.

Bora Bora play

The easiest way to describe this is “Trajan meets Macao with a new take on worker placement”. It’s like Trajan in that there are several actions to select, and they refer to areas of the board where you can score or gain resources in different ways. But the different areas here are more tightly interrelated than Trajan’s are. You’ll focus on one or two areas per game, but need to put some effort into all of them.

I’m reminded of Macao because that game has cards that keep piling up to be completed. Bora Bora’s task tiles are a more refined version of that, partly because they require you to accomplish things instead of just collecting resources. But also, you must “complete” one every round, possibly for zero points if you haven’t met the requirement. And the challenge scales well as you gain in strength throughout the game: Everyone starts with two standard tasks and one simple one. The simple one is like to be the only one possible to score in one round. You’ll start working towards the others right away, and choose new tasks that synergize with what you already have. By late in the game, that may finally start to get easy. But you’ll end the game with three tasks still in front of you, and you get one last chance to score all of them if possible! It’s a constant race to stay one step ahead of the game’s clock.

The new take on worker placement is very clever, and ages much better than Trajan’s central action. Your “workers” are dice that get rolled each round. Each action can be taken multiple times, but the die placed must have a lower value than any already on the action. High numbers can do more powerful actions, if you can get them out on time. Worker placement is typically about figuring out which actions need to be taken right away, and which are safe to leave until later. This is even more nerve-wracking, since playing an action isn’t always the same as blocking others. Also, you only have three dice per round in which to prepare for four end-of-round evaluations, including that task tile. There’s no way to to do it all.

The dice-based action selection and task tiles are both excellent mechanics, and the variety of things to do is among Feld’s best. I do think this has a little more randomness than his other complex games, since a couple sets of tiles are mixed up at the start of the game, and a few more (very important) sets are drawn before each round. But that still feels fair, and the game definitely rewards skill and planning. While I fully expect Feld to keep improving, Bora Bora currently stands as his masterpiece.

Grade: A


Tzolk’in (Game Review)

Tzolk'in box


Some board games are complicated because of the ways you can block your opponents. Others are complicated because simply figuring out your own moves takes careful planning. Daniele Tascini’s Tzolk’in is in the latter category.

It is a worker placement game with an eye-grabbing set of interlocking gears. On each turn, a player either places workers on cogs of the gear or removes them. The gears advance after each time around the table, moving workers up to new, and generally stronger, actions. The action is triggered when the workers are removed, not placed. That gear mechanism is very cool and distinctive, and is a rare case of a production gimmick that is also vital to the gameplay.

It’s also easy to make mistakes, and hard to play as efficiently as possible. You can place or remove multiple workers in one turn, so you’ll need to set up big turns to get the most out of your actions. But corn is needed to place workers, and the cost rises quickly as more are used. Placing workers directly on higher spots on the wheel also costs corn. It can be easy to get stuck because you ran out of resources, or because your workers didn’t all reach the proper actions at the right time.

A close-up of a few gears. The large center one is used to turn everything in unison. (And it looks cool.)

A close-up of a few gears. The large center one is used to turn everything in unison. (And it looks cool.)

The first time or two you play this game, it will take all your efforts just to take care of basic needs. Reserve extra corn for the feeding phases, figure out how to get other resources, and suddenly realize at the halfway point of the game that you hadn’t even done anything to earn points yet! After a few games, you’ll be able to make plans, and maybe follow through on them. My second game was against someone who had played over a dozen times, and he had an incredible engine going before I’d even figured out how to provide basic food for my workers.

Just because the personal choices are complex doesn’t mean there’s no player interaction. There are plenty of opportunities to predict others’ moves and get in their ways. Workers must always be played on the lowest available spot on a wheel, so placing one may either help or hurt your opponents, depending on how quickly they need to get to the top actions and whether they can afford the cost of the higher space. Players can also race to be the one who builds a point-scoring monument, or fight to move to the top of temple influence tracks. There are even actions that let you advance the wheel two spaces instead of one, which can really mess up someone else’s plans!

It’s a good thing that Tzolk’in has all that going on, because the ways to score points aren’t very interesting. There are a few distinct paths, such as those temple or monument points, or getting the expensive Crystal Skull resources and dropping them off on spaces of the religious track. (Yes this game comes with Crystal Skull tokens!) But there are only a few, they don’t have a lot of synergy with each other, and the only one that really changes from game to game is which monuments are available. Those are important, since they give you points for doing different actions, therefore putting the focus on different paths to victory in each game, but it’s very easy to choose a strategy that doesn’t use monuments at all.

Don’t let that dissuade you from trying Tzolk’in, though. It’s a great experience, both mind-blowing solitaire and intense competition at the same time. It’s definitely an advanced game. I’ve played slightly more complicated ones in the past year, but never one so punishing if you mistime your moves. But if you’re used to board games, this one takes worker placement to the next level. Like Targi, your workers’ actions aren’t decided directly by where you place them, but indirectly due to the timing of multiple decisions.

Grade: B+


Reviewing Games on Yucata – Previously Reviewed Ones

YucataAs promised, here are reviews of Yucata board games that I’d previously reviewed on this site. Since I’ve already discussed the games in depth, this article focuses mostly on how well Yucata implemented them for playing online. All three covered here are worker placement games whose mechanics naturally fit in a turn-based system, so there’s no point in dwelling on that in the reviews. My grade for the Yucata implementation accounts for how fun they are, though, so the game’s quality does matter. Just read the original reviews for more information about that.

Also, as I warned in last week’s article about Boîte à Jeux games, the ones here don’t reflect the quality of the site overall. For some reason, Boite’s games that I’d already reviewed tend to be the best that that site has to offer, while Yucata’s show the site at its worst. I still definitely recommend Yucata in general, though, and I’ll eventually review other games that demonstrate the full breadth of the site.

Continue reading

Reviewing Games on Boîte à Jeux – Previously Reviewed Ones

Boite a Jeux logoI’ve been playing a lot of board games recently on the web. I discussed these in general a couple months back, but I should start talking about the specific games as well. It actually seems a little tricky to review: How do I tell if my opinion is based on the game itself, or the way it plays on the site? So I’m going to start by looking at games that I had already played in person and reviewed before I played them online. Today, I’ll look at four on Boîte à Jeux, and next week I’ll talk about ones on Yucata.

My reviews for these games are focused mainly on why they work, or don’t, online. I’ve already covered the mechanics in earlier articles. My grades here do account for whether or not I enjoy the games in general, but also how they work in a turn-based system and how well they were implemented.

It turns out that the games I already knew are some of the best ones on Boîte, so the reviews here are very positive in three of the four cases. Strangely, the Yucata games I have reviewed already are some of the more disappointing ones there. Don’t think the extremes in these reviews represent the whole sites, though. As you’ll see when I get around to reviewing other ones in a month or two, both sites have their good and bad games.

Continue reading

Article 27: The UN Security Council Game (Game Review)

Article 27 box

Article 27

Good negotiation games are rare. They always end up dragging on while two people bargain, or being decided by one especially significant deal, or maybe it’s just too easy to calculate everything’s relative value so the game becomes more about the math than the deal-making. Given all that, Article 27: The United Nations Security Council Game by little-known designer Dan Baden is a rare accomplishment, and I’m surprised it hasn’t become more popular. It has some flaws, but it’s still an excellent approach to a negotiation game.

The first flaw may be that the theme just wasn’t attractive enough. It’s named after the part of the United Nations charter that describes how any member of the Security Council can veto a bill. It sounds dry, but it’s a good foundation for a game.

In short, on each round one player will be the “Secretary General”. Five tiles are drawn, each with a color and symbol on it, and everyone has five minutes to negotiate over how they will be voted on. The Secretary General chooses which of these “issues” will actually make it to the table, and then everyone casts a single vote on the group of chosen issues. Any one “veto” vote will kill it, but that costs the player reputation points. Alternately, you can abstain from the voting, because if a majority don’t vote yes, the bill quietly dies without costing you points. If the chosen issues do pass, then everyone gets points. Each round, players secretly draw tiles from a bag to tell them how many points they gain or lose for a specific color tile being passed, and everyone also has a long-term goal to pass as many issues as possible with a specific symbol. Also, the Secretary General gets bonus points as long as something passes, so there is motivation to put issues to vote only if enough players like them.

There is also a system of “bribes”. If you want the current bill to pass (or fail), you can give some of your points to another player if they agree to vote the way you want. The Secretary General can be bribed to include or exclude certain items. Everyone has a play area where bribes are placed, with a token marking what player supplied it, so that it can be returned at the end of the round if you failed to live up to your end of the bargain.

One player's mat with a bit of the central board beyond. There are two bribes in front of the player's shield.

One player’s mat with a bit of the central board beyond. There are two bribes in front of the player’s shield.

And remember, all of this happens in five minutes’ time! It’s a lot of fun, with people negotiating how to vote at the same time they are figuring out what to vote on. At any point in the countdown, someone’s veto threat might convince the Secretary General to add or remove an issue from the bill, and then suddenly other peoples’ opinions about it change as well. Bribes are rescinded, new ones offered, and the people who were in favor of it might suddenly be arguing against it. If you don’t have much chance to get points from the issues, you might still be able to get points if other people bribe you to support them. But be careful, because someone might be pretending not to like something just to collect extra bribes, or they might be quietly planning to sink the bill that everyone else is agreeing on.

It’s fun because, with both the bribes and items up for vote always changing, everyone will always have something they can do to try to earn more points. Also, you have a bunch of people with different secret goals negotiating about multiple things at once, and one change may set off a domino effect. At about five minutes per player (with everyone being Secretary General once), it’s quick as well as fun.

The biggest flaw is probably that the game works much better with some groups of people than others. I’ve played sessions that were chaotic and active the whole time, but also sessions where everyone just quickly came to agreements that everyone could live with, and then they quietly stopped the voting. The latter isn’t very fun with this game. Also, though it claims to work with three to six players, I think that six players is the only good option. With less than that, you have fewer rounds, you exclude a random assortment of the symbols that people are looking for, and you also simply have fewer players. Six people talking something out is a lot more chaotic (in a good way) than four people.

So, Article 27 is a good game that requires exactly six players with the right attitude. That’s unfortunately a lot more limiting than “good games” usually are. But I can say that if you do find that mix, it’s an excellent experience.

Grade: B


New Game Watch: Essen 2013

Though Origins is my annual gaming highlight, last weekend was Essen Spiel, the biggest event for the world in general. Given that, I thought I’d take a look at what new and upcoming games are the most interesting right now.

This is definitely not a thorough list. It’s just the games that I have my eye on after skimming through various news sites and blogs. And since most of those sites were mainly posting pictures and discussing the new convention hall, I turned to the two community ratings charts: BGG Geekbuzz and Fairplay. You can see the Fairplay results at Opinionated Gamers, but I’m not sure if you can find a history on the GeekBuzz page, or just see the latest convention’s results. So for posterity, here are the top ten in each:

GeekBuzz Fairplay
1. Amerigo Russian Railroads
2. Bruxelles 1893 Concordia
3. Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends Glass Road
4. Twin Tin Bots Bruxelles 1893
5. Romolo o Remo? Kashgar
6. Love Letter Rokoko
7. Serpent’s Tongue Spyrium
8. Hanabi Madeira
9. Steam Park Love Letter
10. Glass Road UGO!

It’s a little frustrating to try to make sense of this list from the other side of the world. It’s dominated by worker placement games, and I can find very little information about most of them online. (The rules are often available, but it can be difficult to get much from those alone, especially when you’re trying to catch up on so many.) I haven’t found much in the way of reviews or commentary to tell me how one new worker placement game differs from the next. But as I already mentioned, everyone is talking at length about the Essen convention hall set-up.

I’m sure that a year from now, I’ll have opinions about most of these games. But for now, all I can do is make a note of the most popular ones and try to guess at the best ones.

My initial guesses are below.

Continue reading

Bruges (Game Review)

Bruges box


Stefan Feld’s board games have been growing more complex lately, and Bruges is his attempt to design a simpler one in his distinctive style. In that regard, I think the game is a mixed success. It’s definitely not the brainburner that Trajan and Castles of Burgundy are, but I don’t know that a fan of light games would find this one any easier to learn. And though it’s still a fun game, it’s not nearly as good as his other recent efforts. I wonder if this “simplification” just doesn’t come naturally to him any more.

As with most recent Feld games, Bruges involves action selection every turn, with looming deadlines and threats of disaster. In this case, the action selection is with colored cards. You can choose any of the six actions, but for five of them, the color of the card you play determines how the action is used. For example, you can take worker tokens of the given color, or earn money equal to the number currently showing on that colored die. Each card also has a “person” with a unique power, and the sixth action is to recruit them. People are worth points and give you new abilities.

There are always several options available to you, and you’ll get the feeling (common in Feld’s games) that you simply can’t find time to do everything you’d like. You’ll need to earn money to recruit a person, and also first build a house (spending workers) for them. Afterwards, the ability they give you usually requires more workers. The actions you spend earning all those things requires you to play cards, which means discarding people. And you can’t focus all the time on getting more people: Disaster tiles come out randomly every round, and you need to get rid of them before three matching ones appear. You can spend money every round to advance on a “prestige” track for points, and also build canals to score further.

There are some clever mechanics. A dice roll at the start of each round determines disasters and prices for everyone, keeping the luck from playing too wild a role. I also like the fact that there are two draw decks, since the back of each card shows the color. This gives players some control over what they’ll draw into their hand.

However, the game has flaws as well. It feels like it’s been modeled after Feld’s other “point salad” games, with several balanced paths to victory. Only the people you recruit are very significant, though; Unless you have a lot of luck or the right abilities, canals and the prestige track are just going to waste your time. Also, drawing the right person at the right time can be worth a lot of points. Despite the other mechanics keeping luck in check, all those random people passing through your hands turn out to be a major uncontrollable factor. There is definitely skill in Bruges, but I’ve finished games in both first and last place and not felt like I did anything different to earn the credit in one or the blame in the other.

Bruges is a decent game, offering a lot of choice while keeping the strategy light. My familiarity with Feld’s style is both good and bad here: I appreciate the tweaks on his typical design decisions, but also feel like it promises a game with different balance and victory paths than it actually has. If you aren’t familiar with his games, just think of this as an opportunity for a fun sort of frustration, because you’ll always have lots of things to do and just a few actions to do them in. But despite that, the winner will be the one who drew the best cards. That should give you an idea of whether you’ll enjoy this.

Grade: B-


Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition (Game Review)

Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition box

Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition

I enjoy Are You A Werewolf?, but it’s definitely not a game I can play very often. It’s long, intense, requires a lot of players, and people are kicked out frequently. “Legend” Dan Hoffman’s Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition fills a great niche, then, mixing the social game experience with more board game elements. It plays faster, supports a wide range of players, and keeps everyone involved throughout. Effectively, you’re playing a game of “meta-Werewolf“, since cards on the table stand in for the villagers and werewolves who get killed off, while the players divide up into secret teams and try to help their side survive.

The table has two cards for each member of the village, one face up with their power, and another face down and mixed up randomly with the others. During the day, every player chooses one power to use, and then everyone votes to “lynch” one of the face-down cards. This requires “voting cubes”, and the various powers will restore your cubes, give you information, or let you impact the vote. Then at night, one column of face-down cards is chosen, and while everyone’s eyes are closed, the werewolf players get to look at them all and choose one as their victim. Every time a someone is killed, their cards (and therefore their powers) are removed from the game, but remember that players are not connected to specific cards. Even if a werewolf player reveals themself, they remain in the game to sow havoc.

Ultimate Werewolf Inquisition Play

Survivors (and their powers) shown on the left, but their locations are hidden among the face-down cards on the right.

The system is simple, and I’d like to call it elegant. However, it is pretty confusing at first. It’s difficult for new players to grasp everything, with special rules about tracking villagers’ states, handling single-card columns, and very inconsistent iconography for the special powers. The mechanics for choosing the werewolves’ victim every night are a little fiddly, and make it likely that someone will accidentally reveal information during their first couple games. The rule book actually doesn’t help much, with all the information present but easy to overlook. Everything will seem natural before long, but it’s a bumpy start.

Ultimate Werewolf Inquisition CardsAfter that, though, this game is brilliant. It maintains most of the tension of Werewolf, but with activities that give players a lot more choices. Instead of one person being the Seer, everyone gets occasional chances to gain information, and your actions at the table provide more chances to observe behavior and falsify claims. The dynamics of the two teams take on more depth, since the Wolves get a lot more information (viewing columns each night), but the Villagers can act openly. Sometimes it is worth it for a Wolf player to stop hiding their identity and make a surprising move. For the rest of the game they’ll be able to participate, but the Villagers won’t trust them during the important votes. (This is handled much better than in games like Shadows Over Camelot or Battlestar Galactica, which I think let the traitors stay too powerful after revealing themselves.) It balances the social and gaming aspects well.

Being a Werewolf game, victory does sometimes hinge on a single (un)lucky move or a 50/50 choice about who to trust at the end. But if you like that game, you’ll find this one to be slightly less arbitrary, and without the length and player elimination that can make those events so painful. This has all the laughter, tension, and confusion that I would expect. My only real complaint (once every player is familiar with the game) is that there aren’t enough role cards. There are only fifteen roles available (counting the Werewolves and generic Villagers), and a few are similar to each other. I can see how this is a difficult game to balance and add variety to, but even so, I wish I hadn’t seen all the roles within a few games.

That complaint aside, this is the best new social deduction game I’ve seen in years. Take the time to get over the initial learning curve and give it a chance.

Grade: B+


IFComp 2013

IFComp2013It’s October, and that means that IFComp is live once again! It’s been two years since I last tried to play through any of this, but I’m going attempt it again this year.

A quick refresher: This is the biggest event in the IF (Interactive Fiction) community every year. The high profile and low barrier to entry means that you’ll see everything from unplayable messes to works of genius. They are all designed to be playable in two hours at the most (sometimes much less), and if there are puzzles that may keep you from finishing it in time, the game will come with a walkthrough or hint system to help you along. “Interactive fiction” can refer to any non-linear story, but in practice generally means the aesthetic that was created by text adventures in the 1980s. Don’t think that these are limited to the arbitrary puzzles of Zork, though. The best of these free works have much more depth and narrative power than most people ever imagined when text adventures were popular.

I’m excited to see what the competition has to offer this year. For one thing, I enjoyed it a lot in 2011 even though I missed the best games. For another, the community seems to be evolving quickly. Over half of the thirty-five games in this year’s competition are web-based. (In 2011, only three were.) This means that they weren’t built around the traditional engines that grew out of text adventures, and from what I hear they do bring a very different approach to interactive fiction.

The competition runs until November 15. Realistically, I’ll be happy to get through about ten games, and I may need to cut back on my blogging to make time for it. Since I’ll be submitting scores to the competition, I’ve randomized the list of games to make sure there’s no bias in the subset that I choose. Expect me to take at least a couple weeks before I start posting reviews, since I like to take some time to get a feel for multiple games before I comment on one in a vacuum.

Hopefully some of you will try out the competition as well. Have fun!