Posts Tagged ‘ Rio Grande ’

Dominion: Guilds (Game Review)

Dominion: Guilds box

Dominion: Guilds

After an amazing five years, the time of Dominion has ended. Designer Donald X. Vaccarino insists that Guilds is the last planned expansion. Whether or not that really remains true, the game will definitely feel different now that there are no longer new cards being added every six months.

This is a solid expansion, though it doesn’t feel as momentous as I’d like the final one to be. The original plan was originally to save Dark Ages until the end, and I think that would have been a good idea. Not only was it great, but it felt game-changing and added the most new cards of any Dominion game. Guilds, on the other hand, is one of the half-size expansions, and because the game’s variety comes from all the combinations of cards, these ones with twelve new card types feel like they have a quarter of the new material that the twenty-six-card expansions do.

This one is definitely good for expert players, though, which is appropriate for the last expansion. The two themes are Coin tokens, which you can save to spend as money in a future round, and cards that let you “overpay” when you buy them in return for a benefit. Previously, you had to spend money on the turn you earned it, and one of the trickiest things for new players to learn was that the best card for your deck wasn’t always the most expensive one. Now, players are also faced with the opposite question: Is the best card for your deck one that you should give up your savings for? If you have several coins saved up and multiple buys, this isn’t an easy question.

Dominion: Guilds Cards

The theme doesn’t feel very strong, since there have been cards featuring different professions in every set. As always, though, there are fun new cards. Soothsayer is a good twist on the classic Witch: It gives the owner a Gold and the other players an extra card draw, which helps alleviate the impact of all the Cursing that goes on in Witch games. And the Advisor is like the old Envoy promo card, but adding the balance and strategy that that card lacked. However, the best thing about Guilds is that it changes a fundamental part of the game, but it still feels natural and easy to teach to new players. This adds variety and new strategies, but it doesn’t feel like the game is any harder to learn. Strangely, this makes the expansion feel both refreshing and less essential.

This may not be one of the most memorable Dominion expansions, but it definitely continues the game’s winning streak. In a hobby filled with constant changes, it’s amazing that Dominion managed to remain one of my favorite games through all that time. Of course, it did that partly with those expansions that constantly added novelty. Guilds is a satisfying close to this era.

Grade: B


Hawaii (Game Review)

Hawaii box


Hawaii is an immediately attractive game, though it has more complexity than you’d expect from its colorful appearance. That’s actually a good combination, because it seems to be successful at bringing in casual players. For many people, the main barrier to learning a game’s rules is first becoming interested in it. From what I’ve seen, new players will be able to handle it, assuming a more dedicated gamer is there to handle the fiddly set-up. Even better, once the new players have tried this a few times, they’ll have learned enough advanced concepts to prepare them for other, better games. You see, Hawaii doesn’t stay interesting for long.

This is a worker placement game, though it obscures that by having you pick up tokens from spaces when you use them, rather than putting a worker figure there to mark it. This change makes sense in-game, as the tokens you take show the price of the action. In each of five rounds, when new tokens are put out, the costs of the different actions are randomized. The game tries to offer a varied setup partly with these changing prices, and partly by shuffling up the action spaces themselves at the start of each game. (Before taking an action, you pay to “move” from your last action tile to the next one, so their physical location matters.)

This variety does matter, but it’s too random to feel strategic. Turn order is also changeable, and sometimes there will be some great deals available to the first player or two. Other times, you’ll regret that you wasted resources in the previous round to let yourself go first this time. Since there are only five rounds in the game, randomly getting a good setup can be a huge factor. (Even worse, the number of times each action can be taken is also randomized. Some spaces allow two or three action tokens, others allow one or two, and a couple will have either zero or one. If an action turns out to be unavailable for the last rounds, it can derail all your plans.)

Hawaii play

The actions that you do sound interesting, and also feel thematic. Trying to put together your community on a Hawaiian island, you gather buildings and special tokens to create one or more villages. All tokens either give you abilities in-game or increase the score for their village at the end. However, villages only score if they extend past a certain marker on your gameboard. (Among other things, there is an action that moves that marker to make your job easier.) There are two currencies to keep track of, “feet” for moving around and “shells” to pay for actions. Cleverly, your base income actually drops each round (as the king sponsoring you expects you to become independent), and even with the special buildings you can add, it’s difficult to keep that income up. However, the “tribute” you want to send after each round keeps increasing.

All the pieces provide a lot of ways to score, but there aren’t that many different strategic paths to take. You have two main options in the game:  Do you focus on one huge village or try to get many past the scoring threshold, and how much effort should you put into the “boat” actions that give you resources but generally don’t build your villages? Otherwise, just take the best deals available at the moment. That is enough, barely, to build a game around, but with only five rounds of play, it feels slight.

Aesthetically appealing and offering some clever twists on worker placement rules, Hawaii is worth trying out. It loses its appeal before too long, though. I respect its potential as a “gateway game”, but I’m not very interested in playing it otherwise.

Grade: C+


Dominion: Dark Ages (Game Review)

Dominion: Dark Ages box

Dominion: Dark Ages

After my lukewarm reception of the last couple Dominion expansions, I’m pleased to say that Dominion: Dark Ages makes the game feel truly exciting again. Its main themes (trashing and upgrading cards) are not new, but they provide plenty of territory to explore. There are a lot of clever abilities here, but even the cards that don’t seem original are consistently interesting, balanced, and have strong artwork. This are also a lot of combos, making this a great engine-building deck for experienced players.

Maybe the best part is the sheer quantity of gameplay that Dark Ages adds. The standalone Dominion sets have 500 cards, but half of those are used for the basic Treasure and Victory cards. The later “full-size” expansions had fewer cards to make room for mats and tokens. Dark Ages has no supporting bits like that, so it is the first to include a full 500 cards devoted to expanding the game. This means 35 Kingdom Cards, almost as many as a previous full-size and half-size expansion combined.

Rats and Graverobber cards

Two cards that do new things with the Trashing mechanism

Cards are a much more economical option for a game. Those 35 Kingdom Cards only account for about two-thirds of the cards included in the set, so the others can extend the gameplay in new ways. The lack of boards and counters doesn’t feel limiting at all. The Dark Ages theme is reinforced with Ruins cards (a deck-clogging type similar to Curses) and Shelters (new starting cards that give players more choices in the early moves). There are also several special types of cards which can only be gained by other specific cards. These feel like nothing that has come before.

A sub-theme seems to be a focus on cards with a cost between 3 and 6 coins, which form the “core” of most decks. It’s good to see certain abilities restricted to work only in this range, especially attack cards that otherwise would have had much more random effects on opponents’ decks. While for the most part, new Dominion cards stake out new territory without replacing old cards, this does seem to be a case where it specifically improves on some previous attack cards.

Hermit and Madman

A new type of upgrading: The Madman is a powerful one-shot card that can only be gained by trashing a Hermit.

It’s a little weird to consider the theme of the Dark Ages in this game, given that the trashing and upgrading abilities featured here actually help you make stronger decks. But no one would actually want to play a drawn-out game where everyone struggled through a representation of the collapse of civilization. The more important criticism is the one that has been present for the past few expansions: At this point, there are a lot of Dominion cards. With well over 200 types available and only 10 used in each game, you could play for a long time without missing any one set. Dark Ages is one of the best yet, but the game’s own success means that no expansion truly feels essential any more.

Yes, the biggest problem with this set is that Dominion is so consistently good that even excellent expansions stop being exciting. But it still ranks among the best, possibly second only to Dominion: Prosperity. It’s well worth buying.

Grade: A-


Friday (Game Review)

Friday box


As I said in my Origins re-cap, Friedemann Friese’s Friday is the first deck-building game since Dominion to truly work, and it does this by not trying to copy Dominion at all. Most notably, you don’t hold a hand of cards. After choosing a challenge to fight against, you draw a certain number and see what total strength they provide. Winning gives you that card in your hand – half of the card describes the challenge, while the other half has a fighting strength or special power to use later. If the drawn cards aren’t enough to win, you can either pay a health point to draw another, or you can give up, losing one health per point that you lost. But these losses are an important part of your strategy, because for each health lost in this way, you can trash one drawn card. With a theme based on Robinson Crusoe, you start the game very healthy, but weak. The goal is to get rid of the bad cards you start with and gain stronger ones, essentially turning into a tough survivalist who is just a few accidents away from death. Every time you go through your deck, a bad “aging” card gets shuffled in, adding another threat to stay on top of.

The middle of a game of Friday

The deck-building mechanic isn’t the only clever aspect, though. Friday is also a solitaire game. While some new games come with optional solitaire rules, this is the first modern one I’ve seen intended only for one player. As such, it’s a little difficult to judge. One friend I loaned it to pointed out that the various things you needed to keep track of felt too fiddly, and he’d rather use a computer if he’s playing solitaire. Personally, I thought the fiddliness was much easier to handle when I’m just counting points and special abilities in my head instead of justifying them to the table. Obviously, though, opinions about Friday will depend on factors different from multiplayer games.

I will say, though, that if you want a strategic solitaire game, this seems like the right approach. It’s inexpensive, can be packed in a purse or laptop bag, and plays in about thirty minutes. (If you lose, it may end more quickly.) On top of that, the four difficulty levels keep the game challenging but winnable for all players, as well as making sure that you experience the full arc of the gameplay in those early learning games.

The gameplay is streamlined but offers some worthwhile choices. Like a good deck-builder should, Friday works because its strategy involves more than just taking whatever you can. That 0-strength card that lets you draw two more for free is pretty good in the late game, but useless in the beginning when the cards it draws will probably also be 0s. Balancing the need for fighting strength with the cool powers that some cards have is a major tension, even more important than the balance between destroying bad cards and retaining health.

I don’t see this becoming a Dominion-style juggernaut. You play with the same cards every time, get the chance to put almost every card in your deck, and I haven’t found a better strategy than the one that I figured out early on. But there’s a good deal of replay potential within that strategy, and I can play Friday at times when other board games just aren’t an option. Friday is a good game regardless, but if I also give it credit for filling a new niche and doing deck-building right, then this is obviously a must-play.

Grade: A-

The 2011 Dominion Expansions(Game Review)

Both game boxes

Dominion: Cornucopia and Hinterlands

Cornucopia and Hinterlands, the sixth and seventh releases of Dominion, have finally found the series reaching a point of diminishing returns for me. They are still great additions to the base game, but I’m at the point where I had enough Dominion cards already that these were “nice to haves”, not vital purchases. The main reason I’m only now getting around to discussing these 2011 releases is that I mixed them in with so many other cards that it became difficult to pick them out for specific review. Of course, your mileage may vary. Some people reached this point a few expansions ago, and others are still discussing the next release with the same eagerness I was using back in the Prosperity days. It’s probably telling, though, that Rio Grande is finally slowing down their schedule to one expansion per year.

Even if it arrived too late to feel vital, Cornucopia still adds fascinating new twists to the game. It’s only a half-sized release, the same size as the unloved Alchemy expansion, but this one is as interesting as a full-sized one. It turns a central tenet of Dominion on its head: One of the first hard lessons for new players is that buying every cool card available will lead to an unpredictable, diluted deck. Good players build a strategy around only a few Kingdom cards, sometimes as few as one. About half the cards in Cornucopia, though, reward you for owning a variety of cards. Whether it’s points for the “differently named” cards in your deck, coins for the different ones you played, or bonus draws as a prize for having no duplicates in your hand, they take varied approaches towards encouraging a wide-ranging strategy. A couple other cards actually increase the number of “named cards” available in a single game: The Young Witch is an attack that can be blocked by an extra “Bane” card in the supply (which is any random 2- or 3-cost Kingdom card), and the Tournament comes with five distinct “Prize” cards for players to win.

Cards from Dominion: Cornucopia

This turns out to work very well. Though varied decks are almost always weakened, they aren’t completely crippled. A minor boost in return for the variety can be enough to make it worthwhile. This means that a strategic approach that had almost always been weak in the past is now sometimes good and sometimes bad. This is exactly what makes Dominion such a great game: The new expansions neither fade into obscurity nor completely overpower the old cards. Instead, they open up new strategic avenues that hadn’t been considered in the past, while leaving the old ones available. It’s only the timing that keeps me from proclaiming Cornucopia to be a vital expansion; As it is, it still makes the game a richer experience.

Hinterlands, on the other hand, didn’t have that effect on me. This expansion’s theme is cards that have an effect as soon as you Buy or Gain them. While not completely new, it’s still a relatively unexplored area of the game that deserves more attention. However, one-time effects rarely feel as game-changing as abilities that can be used repeatedly, such as Cornucopia’s. Further, expanding this area of the game adds to the complexity of the rules. Do you understand the timing difference between “Buying” and “Gaining” a card? How does an ability that triggers “when you would gain another card” interact with the on-Gain effect of the card you would have gained? Don’t worry, the rulebook does explain these (with the typical thoroughness that other game publishers should learn from), but this is definitely a signal that Dominion is moving in a more complex, “experts-only,” direction. I don’t mind that in theory, but I wish the release that did this would feel at least as significant as the ones that came before.

Dominion: Hinterlands cards

That said, both of these are solid expansions to my favorite game. I can play this nearly one hundred times per year, and I’m still frequently surprised by how different one set-up can be from the next. Cornucopia only offered a taste of the paradigm-shaking changes of the early expansions, and Hinterlands mixed right in without any surprise, but they maintain the current level of quality and are the reason this game will still feel varied to me a year from now. If I sound a little cynical, it’s because I’ve reached the point where I understand why some people have Dominion fatigue. I still say these games are worth buying, though, and I’m confident that I’ll be standing in line for the next one.

Dominion: Cornucopia: B+

Dominion: Hinterlands: B-


The Heavens of Olympus (Game Review)

“Zeus has decided that he wants to construct a universe.” I hope you don’t need theme, because that’s about as much as The Heavens of Olympus ever provides. Over the course of five days (marked by the phases of the moon, for some reason), players are charged with placing planets in the sky in order to form constellations. (Yes, these constellations are made of planets.) Points are rewarded based on the fact that Zeus craves variety. In other words, the game’s rules have nothing to do with either actual cosmology or Greek myth.

The game mechanics themselves aren’t bad, though. This, the first published game by designer Mike Compton, is a fairly abstract game about placing markers on a crowded board for points. Players select actions by playing cards simultaneously, and there are rewards for choosing different actions than anyone else. Conflicting rules offer points for forming constellations within the pie-shaped regions of the board, but also for majority control of the circular orbits that cross regions. It makes for a nice variety of choices, especially since players will also need to earn “power” (generally by playing to new regions) in order to create and place planets. The system is set up so that power will be hard to maintain by the end of the game, forcing players to struggle and do (minor) calculations to play effectively. Because they’ll also need to keep the strength of their “torch” high enough to light the planets during scoring, there are a decent number of factors to track. Combined with a simple but effective catch-up mechanism that makes the player in the lead pay higher costs, this is a decent design for a medium-light game.

In my plays, the game board was a little too busy and difficult to follow with five players, but it was decent with fewer. I’m not sure whether five is simply too many for this game, or whether better graphic design could have saved it.

Unfortunately, the idea that better design was needed comes up regularly while discussing this game. I suspect that, with dedicated professionals working on The Heavens of Olympus from start to finish, it could have been a decent, if unspectacular, game. Probably a B-, maybe a C+ if the five-player gameplay still didn’t pan out. But in its current form, almost every aspect of it is cheap and shoddily made:

  • As already discussed, the game’s theme seems to have been thrown together in five minutes. If nothing else, it would have been less insulting if the game had simply called the planets “stars” (since they light up and form constellations) and said that a cycle of the moon is one month rather than one day.
  • Along with making the five-player board easier to read, a little more consideration could have streamlined the rules that require two different first player markers to move around the table, and to help people remember each phase of the game (such as the “extra night” that occurs at the start, and the torch reduction that occurs at the start of each new day).
  • The colors of the planet markers don’t match the colors of the other player tokens at all. (And the cards that are used to select actions match neither.) Expect some mistakes.
  • The marker that displays the strength of a player’s “torch” is supposed to be placed one position higher than the actual value. The idea is that since the marker covers a number, the player’s strength is the highest value still visible. This is a confusing, non-standard rule; The same board has a scoring track, on which markers cover the player’s current score without confusion. If this was a real problem, then the publisher should have provided disks that show the number underneath.
  • The box is long and thin, similar to Monopoly dimensions, rather than the taller but more compact format that is commonly preferred today. The pieces were not designed for that box size, and the board slides around banging into the sides.
  • Similarly, the plastic insert within the box was obviously not made for this game. That’s become a common money-saving shortcut for Rio Grande, but it’s especially egregious in this case. The space for holding cards is too small to hold the ones that come with this game! Was the production so rushed that no one noticed this, or did they really care that little about the game’s quality?

Some of these flaws make the game a little more confusing and slower to play. Others are just aesthetic, but definitely impact the overall experience of the game. At conventions, I’ve sometimes talked to small publishers who were obviously a little embarrassed by the quality of the finished product they could deliver. Given their lower budgets and smaller audience, it is often possible to overlook a few flaws in order to find an undiscovered gem. But in this case, Rio Grande is one of the largest game publishers in America. That they would attach their name to such a amateur production is frankly an embarrassment for them, and a little insulting to me as a member of their intended audience. I wonder whether this is a one-time mistake, or a sign of shift in strategy for a company that should know better.

Grade: D