Posts Tagged ‘ Vlaada Chvatil ’

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.

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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.

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Dungeon Petz (Game Review)

Dungeon Petz box

Dungeon Petz

Vlaada Chvátil’s Dungeon Lords has become one of my favorite games. Admittedly, it’s a long game that puts lots of emphasis on two short battle rounds, so a brief mistake can be devastating. But it’s still very fun, with a hilarious theme, choices that have lots of ramifications, and an action-selection system that stays interesting even after it has become familiar. Now Chvátil has created a new game, Dungeon Petz, set in the same fantasy world. Where Dungeon Lords centered around evil beings building underground lairs, this is about the hard-working imps creating pet shops that raise various monsters.

The art, humorous rulebook (with very clear explanations), and playing time will all be familiar to a Dungeon Lords fan. Both games are also built around worker placement, with a twist that comes from players making simultaneous choices. But that’s where the similarities end. In Dungeon Petz, the choice is in how to group your imp workers at the start of the round. When they’re all sent out to market, the bigger groups will have more “buying power”, and thus get to go first. This lets you decide whether you want to take a few actions before everyone else, or many actions after the other players have taken the good spots, or some mix in between. The goal is to buy baby monsters, set up cages suited to their unique needs, and then earn points by showing or selling them.

A view of two pets and their needs (with one poop cube in play!)

A view of two pets and their needs (with one poop cube in play!)

Of course, there are a lot of different factors to track in the game. The most important is in meeting the needs for each animal. Each one has multiple dots of different colors, with an elegant wheel increasing the total number of dots as the animals “grow” from round to round. After actions are chosen, you must draw cards of matching colors, and assign them to your pets so that each one has the same number and types of “needs” as its figure shows. Those needs, which include eating, playing, pooping, and unstable magical energies, must be met by paying certain resources or having a cage designed for them. (The cards are random, but each color has a different focus, so you can make educated guesses ahead of time.) If needs can’t be met, that pet will be less appealing to customers. Also, there are cubes to mark the amount of poop each pet makes. As with Dungeon Lords, this is a funny game, despite its complex, balanced rules.

In fact, I would say that Dungeon Petz is arguably the better-designed game, as it features scoring opportunities on almost every round (exhibitions and potential customers). Points accumulate gradually, and a single bad round won’t determine everything as it can in Dungeon Lords. I still say that Dungeon Lords is the more fun one, though. It may be difficult to control, but it has the personality to make up for it. And the simultaneous selection in that game is pure genius. Outguessing your opponents can lead to them taking actions that don’t help because they didn’t get other actions they needed. In contrast, Dungeon Petz feels like a much more traditional worker placement game. The initial choices just determine how many actions each player will have, and in what order. After that, everyone takes turns choosing actions, so if you didn’t get everything you wanted, you can immediately readjust your strategy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the actions don’t feel that interesting. It’s the pet management on your personal board that feels fun, and that is only a portion of the game. Also, each round of Dungeon Petz involves several phases, which are difficult to remember even when looking at the reference card. This can make the game confusing, especially since planning ahead is vital.

It works best with three players. With four, everyone plays fewer rounds to keep the playtime down, which means that the endgame planning has started by the time the game really gets going. This makes a nice alternative to Dungeon Lords (which plays best with four people), but the three-player game does add extra rules to account for a “dummy” player blocking certain actions.

Dungeon Petz isn’t a great game, and it depends a lot on the goodwill generated by Dungeon Lords’ rich, amusing theme. But it still adds to that world, and it is fun if less distinctive. Very importantly, the two games feel related but are still different enough that one person can justify owning both.

Grade: B-


Board Game Capsule Reviews: Fillers

My board game reviews have rarely looked at any “fillers”. These are the simple ten-to-twenty minute games you might play as friends start to trickle in for game night, or when you’ve finished your longer game and are waiting for another group to finish theirs. Almost by definition, fillers are rarely as satisfying and replayable as the longer, more complex games. Even so, there is an art to making good ones. Here are reviews of four fillers I’ve gotten in the past couple years.

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Mage Knight (Game Review)

Mage Knight box

Mage Knight

I’ve explained before that I don’t generally like dungeon-crawler board games. Usually too in love with their cool setting to make the rules fun and fair, they are victims of the trade-offs between theme and mechanics. I had high hopes for Mage Knight, though. In games like Galaxy Trucker and Dungeon Lords, Vlaada Chvátil has shown that he can come up with innovative, fun ways to bring out a game’s theme. But while Mage Knight is well-designed in many ways, it just doesn’t work for me.

Each player is a morally ambiguous “Mage Knight” roaming the countryside: You kill the wandering monsters that threaten civilians, but you also sack towns and fortifications, and most scenarios require you to capture cities at the end. The board is a series of tiles which don’t offer a lot of variety from game to game, but do keep individual turns unpredictable as you explore the edges and reveal more tiles. These tiles, along with everything else in the game, are beautifully made: The oversized box is full of custom dice, hundreds of cards, a wide variety of different tokens for monsters and abilities, as well as a few painted figures.

Some of the beautiful, varied cards.

Some of the beautiful, varied cards.

Those cards are especially important. Instead of traditional stats and dice, your character’s abilities are determined mainly by a deck of cards. This mix of deck-building with role-playing is a concept that I’m starting to hear about frequently, but I doubt many games will do it as well. Mage Knight is one of the very few deck-builders with mechanics that fit the game, instead of just unsuccessfully cloning Dominion. In this case, each card has two possible abilities (with the stronger one generally powered by one of four Mana colors), and any card can be played to give a single point in one of the basic needs of a turn: Movement, Attack, Blocking, or Influence. This variety of options keeps your character’s abilities fairly balanced regardless of what you draw. Sure, you’ll sometimes find yourself with little movement on a turn, or lots of combat ability when you wanted to spend Influence peacefully in town, but it’s not nearly as arbitrary and random as other systems.

Not one deck-building element seems to be directly lifted from Dominion. Money and “Buys” are gone, and Mana powers cards when they are used. Players optionally keep or discard any unused cards at the end of their turn. And like some other games, wounds are represented by useless cards that can’t be discarded easily. The biggest innovation is in the pacing of the game: Each round ends once one player has gone through their deck, and then everyone shuffles for the next round. Decks generally grow slowly, as card Trashing is rare, and no cards (other than Wounds) are so bad that you would want to get rid of them just for the sake of deck efficiency.

With only six rounds in most games, and no guarantee that you’ll go through your full deck on a round, Mage Knight doesn’t offer a lot of time to build and modify your deck. However, you gain other improvements as well. With every level-up, your character either gains a skill (from a pool that grows throughout the game) or a slot to recruit an additional supporting unit. The units and skills offer almost as wide a variety of abilities as the cards do. Though it’s not pure deck-building, the combination of cards, skills, and units combine to make your character feel unique and powerful by the end.

Midway through a solo game. There are a LOT of components, and a multi-player game barely fits on a large table by the end.

Midway through a solo game. There are a LOT of components, and a multi-player game barely fits on a large table by the end.

So why did I say that this game disappointed me? Everything I’ve explained so far is true: This is beautifully produced and features creative, well-balanced game design. There are two huge problems, though.

The first is the complexity of the rules. Though the rulebooks are designed with Chvátil’s typically thorough, clear explanations and even provide an introductory scenario to teach it gradually, this game is complex. It took me hours just to prepare to teach that introductory scenario, which I don’t think has ever happened before. Every rule has a logical reason, but there still too many quibbling details to remember: Gaining Artifact cards works differently than other types, because you draw an extra and then give one back. When fighting multiple enemies, you must play cards to block them individually but can group them for attack card effects. Remember that any enemy you attack in a Keep gains the “Fortified” ability, and that after killing a rampaging monster you move up in the Reputation track! The introductory scenario doesn’t even include all the rules, including the many ways that player vs. player battles differ from normal combat.

A close-up of the same game a little later, once the city figures are out.

A close-up of the same game a little later, once the city figures are out.

Also, while the range of options offered by each card makes the game structure work, it also makes it long. Each turn is basically a puzzle, trying to figure out the optimal way to move to a new location and accomplish something there. Many cards can combine with others, and spending Mana on one might make you unable to afford another, so the possibilities are incredibly broad. Add to that the fact that your units and many skills can be used only once per round, so you have to decide what to spend this turn. And of course, you may have three or four possible targets close by, so if one doesn’t seem possible, you can consider another. It’s not uncommon to see someone spend five or ten minutes figuring out what to do on their turn, and the people I play with are normally very fast.

These two issues make a bad combination: We spent hours playing that teaching game, and if we wanted to keep playing it within the group, we’d need to do it again to bring other friends up to speed. Going through it once is somewhat interesting (if full of way too much downtime), but the fact that every new player needs hours of training is the real killer. I’ve only played it once with others, and since then have just played it solitaire. The solo game does a remarkable job of maintaining the experience (Chvátil’s design skills are impeccable), but because of that I can also say that the problems never quite go away: My games continue to take a very long time, and even though I’m not waiting on anyone else, the puzzle-after-puzzle feel makes the game seem slow and draining.

Mage Knight has a lot going for it. The production quality and rules are among the best of 2012, but none of my friends are interested in playing it. I can’t say I blame them; I’m very glad to have experienced this, but after a few solitaire sessions, I have no desire to try it again myself.

Grade: C