Latest and Greatest (and one flop)

Now that I’m working again and in better spirits, I’ve also been picking up a few new games. Mostly, they’ve been awesome. Here’s a review of all of them in brief.

The Duke – http://www.catalystgamelabs.com/casual-games/the-duke/

This was a real winner. One of my favorite Kickstarter projects so far, this game is like chess with a large number of pieces and a randomization element. In some ways it’s simpler than chess: each player starts with only three pieces, which have some of the simpler movement patterns of the game; pieces have their movement patterns printed on them; suicide moves are illegal, which is great for less strategic players and beginners. In other ways it’s more interesting than chess: pieces usually have two different movement patterns, between which they alternate any time they move. This is facilitated by the pieces being flat tiles, which also accounts for the movement patterns being printed on them – this means it’s not even necessary to memorize the pieces’ different moves before a game, which lowers the barrier of entry for new gamers. The game is quick, very tactical and abstract, which I quite like. The pieces are very readable in general and the components and rules are all well-designed. I have yet to play the more advanced rules for terrain or used the noon-standard pieces, but it’s a great purchase.

5 out of 5

The Duke

Red November

Another hit. This one is a co-op, of which I’ve only played a few before. (Forbidden Island, The Legend of Drizzt, Death Angel) It’s a medium-weight game, so it’s not for the party games-and-Monopoly set, but the basics are teachable within ten or fifteen minutes. The theme is cute: the players are gnomes on a submarine in crisis – naturally, right? The board has 10 spaces representing rooms on the sub, most of which serve specialized purposes such as housing stores of grog, housing the ship’s engines, oxygen pumps, reactor or missile control. Rooms are separated by hatches, and will frequently become inaccessible due to hatches jamming, flooding or fires. The entire goal of the game is to survive long enough for help to arrive. In addition to the aforementioned room accessibility issues, players contend with asphyxiation (exacerbated by fires and failing oxygen pumps), overheating due to reactor meltdown, being crushed by atmospheric pressure… Oh, and there’s a kraken. Turn order is not explicitly cyclical, instead the person who’s used up the least amount of time out of the full hour goes next, choosing to spend those minutes opening hatches, putting out fires, pumping out water and fixing the various systems on the ship. Attempts to fix things are more likely to succeed when more time is spent on them, so a player can gamble on a quick fix or take the slow and steady route for a sure fix. As time passes during a player’s turn, all manner of calamity is visited upon the ship via a deck of mostly-horrible events. Cool game, keeps you on your toes and is a very funny theme. I enjoy the strategy and the level of effort, it’s great for groups of non-gamers who are still willing to invest some time in a fun cooperative romp. Another win for Fantasy Flight!

4 out of 5

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Through the Ages

This one has got to be my favorite recent purchase. My second Vlaada Chvatil game, (Dungeon Lords was the first, though I’ve played Galaxy Trucker once and had fun with it) this feels like it’s going to have more replay value than most games I own. I’ve only played the Simple game so far, but am super psyched to play Advanced and Full. A worker placement game (like Dungeon Lords) the goal is to develop your civilization into the most cultured one around. This is accomplished by assigning workers to mine, farm, build and maintain various urban buildings such as libraries and labs, and in the more advanced games building up military presence and conducting warfare.

Each player has his own board on which he manages his various resources and technologies, and the shared board tracks Culture, Science and Military Strength scores, as well as providing a convenient quick reference for the “computed” deltas for Culture and Science production for every turn so you don’t have to compute it anew every time. All of these scores, resources, and populations are tracked with little wooden cubes and cylinders, which are more convenient than they may sound, if a little unwieldy.

Increasing population, upgrading to more efficient methods of production, developing new technologies, constructing wonders such as the pyramids or colossus, choosing leaders, changing governments and performing actions are all options a player can take to further his campaign for civil supremacy. Developing new technologies requires Science, a second score track that will fluctuate throughout the game as you purchase new techs and produce Science through existing buildings/wonders/actions. You’re limited in the number of actions you can take by your government, and various options cost varying numbers of civil or military actions. All the while you’ll need to maintain food and resource supplies, feeding your people and staving off consumption and corruption.

As the game progresses, history progresses through various Ages, marked by ever more impressive technologies. During each Age a player may only ever take one Leader card, and these cards are unique. They confer benefits such as increased production capabilities, more civil or military actions, cheaper technologies or similar.

It’s very hard to do this one justice in words. While reading the beginning of the rules (which are somewhat long and much dryer than those for Dungeon Lords, for instance) I worried I wasn’t going to enjoy it, but I have to say it’s one of the most elegant and interesting games I own. Chvatil is fast becoming my favorite boardgame designer.

The only downsides to this game are the price (as much as $80 new), and I do worry about losing the hundreds of tiny wooden cubes and even more so the cylinders. If I had my way the cylinders would get a redesign, perhaps as octagons or something else that wouldn’t roll so dammed easily! The complexity is also a bit much for non-gamers. But if you’ve read this far that’s probably a non-issue, isn’t it?

5 out of 5

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The Let-Down: Pixel Lincoln

Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t regret backing this Kickstarter at all. I don’t think I’ll be playing it much, but it’s very attractive, has well-made components and the theme is quite funny in its ridiculousness. There are a few mechanics which, in theory, evoke the feel of an 8-bit side-scroller a la Super Mario Bros: jumping over enemies is an option if you haven’t got the firepower to defeat them, numerous attacks add flavor (though disappointingly lacking in mechanical diversity) and levels have mini bosses and bosses like any self-respecting platformer. A “scrolling” mechanism completes the evocative crunch by scooting all players and dealing new level cards.

It’s fairly bland deck building fare, which may be why I’m not blown away by it. I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Thunder Stone, Puzzle Strike, and Quarriors, which all have more depth and variety, and just seem to play faster. To be fair, I also am not blown away by a number of other games in the genre, such as Ascension and Nightfall..

There are some bits which differentiate Lincoln: the scrolling and level cards build a constantly unique, though sequential, set of cards from which to build your deck. This sounds cool, but the lack of a regular card-drafting pool – combined with the frequent cost/resources mismatches and subsequent lack of forward momentum – makes this game feel very slow. Some cards go directly to a score pile, which means they don’t get added to your deck at all. Most of the way through a level in my solo demo tonight, my deck had only grown by 10 cards or so, and felt barely any more versatile than when I started the game. I really didn’t feel any motivation to complete the game – designers take note, players need to feel rewarded for time spent. Level us up, give us shiny things!

I can’t possibly hate on cards like Sausage Link Whip or Beardarang, but this thing just isn’t doing it for me. Props for including a solitaire mode, even if it felt like a bit of an afterthought. I’m sure the next game by these cats will be great.

2.5 out of 5

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