Sunday, 19 February 2017

I'm not Dunwich you yet

A little while ago I reviewed the Arkham Horror: LCG from Fantasy Flight Games and was immensely impressed by the design space of the game and the clever tricks the developers were already playing with.  As with my previous Arkham review I will not be spoiling the scenarios, though I may talk about some of the new player cards. Please try and play through the scenarios without spoiling them for yourselves, you will find them much more rewarding that way.

As with any LCG you are buying into a bit of a long term commitment and it hasn't taken long for the first two expansions to hit UK stores: The Dunwich Legacy and Curse of the Rougarou. Let's talk about the format these expansions will take first of all.

The Dunwich Legacy is the start of a cycle of expansions all with interconnecting stories. This big box expansion has two scenarios in it leading into the stories that the Mythos Packs, which will come about once a month or so, will bring. 6 Mythos packs brings us to the end of the cycle with a massive 8 scenario campaign. That's a lot of squibbly horrors to face!

The 'Curse of the Rougarou' is something quite different, and I am really glad to see them doing this kind of content for the game. This is a completely standalone scenario that you can choose to do at any point between chapters of a campaign. Yeah, that's right it's a side quest, and what a fun one it is! There is another of these side quests on the way already 'Carenvale of Horrors' and I am really looking forward to seeing what they do with this format as the game progresses.

Anyway back to the Dunwich Legacy. Not only does this expansion herald the start of a new campaign, it introduces a whole lot of new player cards and 5 new investigators with a new set of deckbuilding restrictions. One of the many excellent design decisions in Arkham is that each investigator comes with their own set of restrictions, leading to new and interesting decks coming around with every investigator released. My own personal favourite out of Dunwich has been Ashcan Pete, who comes with his own brave companion, Duke the Dog. You can see my take on an Ashcan deck, here:

Some of the new investigators are really interesting, Zoey being a damage focused guardian who is on a mission from God, Rex a clue hungry seeker with a drinking problem, Ashcan we have already covered, Jenny a rich girl with a missing sister and a soulful Jazz musician by the name of Jim who might just play a song that ends the world . This is the thing about the way Arkham is designed, each of the Investigators, or Gators as they are being called for some unfathomable reason by the wider community, has flaws and those things will affect how your story plays out. I love that. 

The new player cards introduce a proper taunt, an amazing survivor ally who can reassure you that everything is ok, a risky green card that might save you in a tight spot and a total troll of a card in the form of a mysterious liquid. That last one is worth talking about a little more as once again it shows how much fun the designers are having with this game.  It takes up a slot in your deck so it's a choice to put it in, but who knows when that solution might prove useful. the fact it can be put in any deck means it is not tied to one campaign either so may crop up in any scenario, are you going to take the risk of not having it in, maybe you are?

Dunwich is an amazingly strong first expansion and really gives me hope for the game. The designers are obviously having a blast and are being exceptionally good at releasing FAQ and answering questions, a trend I hope they keep up as the game progresses. I've played through the Dunwich Scenarios 3 times now and they have turned out a bit different each time. This game just keeps pulling me back in with it's elegant design, emergent story and interesting, but not overly complex, deck building. Long may it continue! 

Friday, 27 January 2017

Mine your own business - Ore-some Kickstarter Preview

Disclaimer: I have playtested Ore-some over it's early design period. I have not played the game for several months and this review is based on a pre-kickstarter prototype. I played with the designer Sarah.

I've often said that charm is one of the most underrated parts of games design, and one often ignored by many designers. As such it's always nice to come across a game that oozes that rarest of commodities such as Ore-Some from local games outfit One Free Elephant.

Ore-Some is a game of rushing around a mine, digging for various ores and trying to make as much money as you can, all whilst avoiding the machinations of the other dastardly prospectors who are down here with you. Equipped with only a cart, a hand of cards and a dice you will snake your way round a mine, avoiding cave-ins, explosions and hopefully picking yourself up a lovely doggy companion!
Love the characters. The art is excellent throughout.

Hi Lewis! Isn't the cart ace!
Once you have chosen the character you are going to play, and kudos to Sarah for including such a diverse range of characters, you grab a cart and a dice as well as a couple of contracts and some action cards. Starting out with just the corners of the mine you then set about laying out the board a tile at a time, with the added complication of getting to place a special tile for your opponent somewhere in the mine.
Ready to Go! I have placed Sarah's purple tile just near me.
Running round the rails is fairly straight forward. Roll a dice, move that many spaces, following the rails of course, stop and dig up some ore.  Cards can allow you to change direction, find some oil to move even faster, bring down some beams to block off your opponents paths etc. Once you get to the digging phase, you dive into a bag of cubes and pull out a couple, 4 if you are on the special tile of your own colour. More is better right? Well sort of.

Careful now!
The thing is that cart isn't hollowed out for no reason. When you dig the ore goes in your cart, meaning that as you accumulate more of it you have to be very careful moving it around the board. Any ore that falls out, has fallen out and remains where it lays for others to swoop in and grab. You can of course swoop round and pick up your own ore, but it's not always the most efficient thing to do. I really love this aspect of Ore-some, and it's been one of my favourite elements since it's early inception.

Once you have your ore in your cart, if one of the contract meeples is nearby, you can hand one in, trading the ore in your cart for a card in your hand that gives you sweet, sweet money. You can also trade in all your ore at the end of the game but the contracts are always better value.  The person with the most money at the end of the game is the winner.

At the end of your turn you refill your hand up to 5 cards and there is a nice bit of hand management to play with here. The action cards and the contract cards both contribute towards your hand size, so you need to decide whether to grab for contracts or take cards to help you get in the right position to optimise your digging.

Let's talk about the dog. One of the cards you can get is a dog who protects your cart from those who might steal it. This guy is a little addition to your cart you can slide over the side and it's so adorable. Of course someone else might steal him away with their Baconator, but that's the way the doggy goes.

I really like Ore-some and Sarah has done a great job in creating a snappy, charming and engaging family game that has just enough tactical bite to feel satisfying. The kickstarter will be launching in February and I'll post on my twitter account and facebook page when it is live.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Under the Sea - Captain Sonar Review

Under the sea, under the sea, Darling it's it's not, the Engines are exploding our Sonar isn't up and.... OH MY GOD THE ENEMY HAS LAUNCHED A TORPEDO!

Such is the way with the latest release from Matagot Editions the team game Captain Sonar which is basically Battleships turned up to 11. All the way up.

Captain Sonar is a deceptively simple box filled hiding a tense, hilarious and incredibly fun team experience. With just some thick cardboard screens, some dry wipe sheets depicting different stations and a bunch of dry erase pens you and up to 7 friends will man submarines and attempt to blow each other out of the water. Ready to sign up? Let's see what role you are best suited for:

Captain: In front of you is a map made up of 4 or more sectors and rows and columns, much like in Battleship. You will tell the rest of you team which direction you are heading in. You will mark you direction on the map. When you want you can launch torpedos, mines, sonar, drones and run silent. Simple right.

Captain and Radio operator Station
Radio Operator: You have a map just like the Captain, but you also have an acetate sheet to put over it. You are going to listen to the other Captain give directions to his sub and draw the path they are taking. Move that path around the map underneath and work out where the other team is. Easy peasy.

First Mate: As the Captain's right hand you will be getting the ship's systems ready for use. As the sub moves you can prepare whatever system you want, coordinate with the Captain to make sure it is the right one at the right time. Nice and relaxed.

Weapons, Detection and Run Silent. The scenario one is only used in certain maps.
Engineer: As Engineer you are going to be attending to the various systems on the ship and trying to make sure the systems the First Mate is preparing are ready when the Captain wants them and the Radio Operator let's you know you are in position. Yes you can pretend to be Scotty.

Engineering Station. Orange, yellow and grey circuits visible. 
The 4 stations from top to bottom: Radio Operator, Captain, First Mate and Engineer
The various systems that the First Mate activates and the Engineer tries to make ready are where the mechanics of the game really lie. Two weapons systems, mines and torpedos, two detection systems, sonar and drone and a 'get out of dodge' system called Silent Running.

The first two do damage much as you would expect though you can plant multiple mines then activate them later. The detection systems are really smart. Drone allows you to ask which Sector the other team is in and they must answer truthfully. The Sonar forces the other team to give you two bits of information: column, row or sector. However, one is true and the other is false. Yes you can use both systems to really narrow things down but making sure both are up and ready at the same time is pretty hard. The last system, Silent Running, allows you to move up to 4 spaces in a direction without announcing the move, essential for getting away at the last moment.

The Engineer meanwhile is crossing out a circle in the sector of their control panel that relates to the direction the Captain has just announced. Too much movement in one direction and the section gets wiped but the ship takes a damage. You also have circuits of systems meaning that if you can move in just the right way the ship will self heal without taking any damage.

So that sounds all pretty simple doesn't it. Positively relaxed. The first go through you even play it at a fairly relaxed pace, each captain taking it turn about to give an order, wait for their Engineer and First Mate to give the OK then passing to the other team. Easy.

However, the full game is played in real time. Now where you were taking your time to coordinate all the parts of the ship in a dignified and orderly manner the following is happening:

Captain: WEST
Engineer: Ok! No! Your other west. She Cannae take it Captain! 
First Mate: Ok! Sonar ready!
Captain: STOP! Activate Sonar!
Engineer: You just broke the Sonar!
Captain: Oh (expletive deleted)
Opposing Radio Operator: Did he say East?

And so on. Realtime is where the game really shines as both teams frantically try and track down the opposition on a variety of different maps. The first map you play on is full of Islands making tracking down the opposition a little easier. However the Bravo map is much more open and it is on this one where we had our most intense games. Moving as fast as we could, each team was working out where the others were, surfacing to repair damage as quick as they could, I won't spoil how that works, and lining up all the systems for the killing blow.

Captain Sonar finds a place in my collection and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking for an amazing team game.  It is a tense, funny and engaging experience with some beautifully subtle design elements making it really shine and I look forward to the recently announced expansion coming later this year!

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Edinburgh Playtest Group - January Meetup

A new year saw me sorting out some things in my local playtest group in order to let it grow over the following year. One of these was to pin down a regular day each month for the main meetup, the 3rd Sunday of every month, and so the 15th of Jan was our inaugural 2017 meetup. The other was to write up playtest reports more frequently, so here we go.

There were 5 of us there and the first game to hit the table was Keith's Robot Factory, a tile laying puzzle game.  I hadn't gotten along with very well in it's last iteration, but I'm happy to report that the game feels a lot stronger now. Previously I had felt I wasn't really in control enough of the board, but now I did, with a lot more options to manipulate things. The addition of  some neat mechanics to encourage people to stay together in the central part rather than branching out made for a much more interactive experience. Some suggestions were made to restrict the size of the board to further emphasise this element but all in all a really solid improvement on the game.

Trying to complete the paths in front of me

Next up was Steve's game Scandal, which now has nearly all of it's art done and is looking pretty neat. A quick playing game of the vagaries of fame, the game feels a lot smoother now that it had done in a previous iteration. The core mechanic evolves around set collection with the curve ball of scandal cards disrupting your plans. We talked a bit about the fiddliness of how scandal cards enter the deck but all in all it's a solid game.

Game end state. 

My illustrious career.

We had a brief break as I floundered putting together Minions before I realised I hadn't finished the new version! Make sure you take working prototypes along to meetups kids!

Moving swiftly on to Mark's Wreck and Ruin, I found myself once more in post apocalyptic wasteland. We played a few turns of a slightly tweaked version of this game and I think it's a really solid and chaotic, in a good way, design. We had previously chatted about making the factions more assymetric but the game feels pretty good at the moment, coming down to the point where it just needs the final bumps ironed out.

Trying for some tactical blocking. Didn't work!

My Upstart game, about investing in Tech Startups, hit the table after a long time, and I was keen to see how the changes I had made would work. Answer, not well. We played a few rounds before I called a halt to things and we had a good chat about what I wanted from the game and how that might be achieved in the context of a single deck game. Always good to bounce ideas off fellow designers and I am already working on a new version. Totally forgot to take photos of my own game, next time.

Aaron didn't get to test this time but he is top of the list for next time. This is another change I am making to the group after a call for more structure to the sessions. Every time a designer gets to test a game they go to the bottom of a list. New comers will get priority at the top of the list as I want to keep the group open and welcoming to those who might just turn up on the day. As designers playtest everyone gets pushed up the list again until they are towards the top of the list and get to playtest again. This should be relatively simple to maintain and will give everyone and idea ahead of time as to if they will get a chance to get a game to the table in this particular session.

A good start to the new year and I am working on growing the group over the following year alongside making a logo for the group and possibly hosting a large playtesting event sometime later in the year.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Sub Terra - Kickstarter Preview

It should have all been so simple: a quick trip into a cave system for the Corporation to do some research, nothing could possibly go wrong. Unfortunately you fell through to the sublevels and need to get out before your light fails. What was that noise? You might not be alone down here....

Such is the premise of the latest game Sub Terra from Inside The Box Board Games a tile laying, co-operative of racing against the clock. Inside the Box kickstarted Statecraft last year, and are taking this effort to kickstarter next week. Peter Blenkham, the boss of the operation, was nice enough to invite me to preview the game over Tabletopia.

Out of the 8 starting classes each player chooses 1, though the number chosen scales for different number of players, 2 each in the case of the game I played. Each character comes with a couple of abilities, one passive and one active, which will change the nature of the way you make your way around.  I chose a Scout, good at rushing ahead and avoiding the nastier tiles and an Engineer, who could make their own path and mitigate the damage from cave-ins. Peter took a medic, you can guess what he does, and the Bodyguard who can scare off the horrors that lurk in the caves.

It's worth mentioning that the representation amongst the characters is excellent in Sub-Terra, something I know that Peter has worked hard on. As board gaming grows and grows this is something that needs thought about more from designers. The excellent Shut up &Sit Down really have led the way in critiquing games from this perspective, something I hope to support in my own reviews.

On each characters turn, keeping in mind you might be controlling more than 1, you get a couple of action points to move around the cave system. You can get more by exerting yourself at the risk of taking some damage and at moments when the clock is ticking down there is a great calculation between taking the slow and steady path and pushing to the end. These action points can be spent to forge ahead quickly, explore slowly, administer to your wounds, put up rope lines and similar.

The tiles you move over are beautifully illustrated with an underground landscape that strikes the right tone between gritty and mysterious. As you rush to find the exit to the system you will come across many potential hazards: gas, slides, cliff edges, water, squeeze spaces and things that go bump in the night.

At the end of each round you reveal a card from the event deck, which changes construction dependent on the difficulty level that you choose, and that may trigger one of the tile types. Gas will leak, floods will appear, things will move in the dark and the entire sub-system will tremor. As these events occur your path to victory changes and/or becomes more treacherous giving a good feeling of having to think on your feet and adapt to the ever changing conditions of a treacherous underground realm.

Our game at the end, all our Explorers have made their way out of the system!

Our game lasted just about an hour, which is the playtime that the team are aiming for, and throughout I always felt I had significant decisions to make. You split up a lot to try and get through the system as fast as possible, but then come back together as routes are blocked off or you need to help fellow explorers who have fallen by the wayside. At one point by Engineer fell down a slide tile twice, unable to get back to the main path. My scout forged ahead, risking ending up in a difficult position to forge a path to the end of the slide. It was a risk but paid off, and it was a nice moment of joining forces to defeat a puzzle the game had set in front of me.

The Sub-Terra Kickstarter launches on Tuesday 10th of January and has a load of stretch goals planned already. The game is a tense, claustrophobic race against time that should provide a lot of replayability as you try out the different combinations of explorers and delve into the depths of this co-op.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Collecting my thoughts

Over the Christmas period my family were very generous with board games to the point where my shelves are now creaking. I've written before about my belief in curating your collection such that it is active i.e. the games actually get played rather than gathering dust, but I think it is a point worth revisiting along with the current status of my collection.

I added Takenoko, Colony, Cry Havoc, Captain Sonar and an expansion to Eldritch Horror over the Christmas period leading to this rather fine shelfie:

That is Doomtown in the Folders

Small Games in the Drawers, all my Eldritch is in two boxes for now! Netrunner on the bottom left.
You can gaze upon my current collection here at BGG:

Excluding expansions, games I have previously owned and items currently in my Trade/ Sale pile I own 54 unique games and honestly that is probably too many. With the new additions I definitely have some cross over i.e. Kemet and Cry Havoc are both strategy games of the man-on-maps variety and it will take some time to noodle out what will stay and what will go.

Games that are likely to go over the course of this year include the following:

Eminent Domain: A good game with a terrible name, but I think my group has gone off deckbuilders. Hasn't seen play for a while and I am not sure really what gap it fills any more. 

Settlers, which I have a lot of nostalgia for, but I think Takenoko fills that spot much better and with a lot more charm. Design and presentation have moved on so much since the early days of the current boardgame boom and I just think games like Takenoko and Lords of Vegas make for a better introduction to the hobby. 

Smallworld, I've had a lot of fun with Smallworld but it just doesn't see a lot of play and again has crossovers with Cry Havoc and Kemet. 

Spyfall: I do like Spyfall but Codenames seems to get to the table more when I have a lot of people to accommodate. I would hope that Captain Sonar may also fill that player number requirement as well.

Twilight Struggle: Barely played my copy as I don't really have an opponent for these deeper kind of two player experiences. I'll either have to track someone down or give it the boot. 

I am more determined than ever to make sure the games in my collection are played over the course of a year and to that end I will be tracking plays as much as possible, bound to forget a few. Anything not played by the end of the year is going to get traded/sold. 

Although I may be missing some game types I feel the collection is pretty complete for my group. My game cafe of choice has a good selection and people with much larger collections than me, so hopefully I can get some plays in of whatever the New Hotness turns out to be this year.

My real hope is that I get to know the games I own better, and in doing so focus down on what I really like about those particular designs and in doing so improve my own critique and creation.


Thursday, 22 December 2016

Iain's 'Alternatives to the usual' game list

It's that time of year when we sit around with our family and try not to murder each other over the outcome of a roll in Monopoly. Surely I can recommend you some better games to play then the usual fair? Without further ado:

So you want to play Lords of Vegas

Lords of Vegas was on my list last year and it remains a firm favourite with me, and I think a great gateway game. A tense, push your luck battle for Vegas before it was Vegas as you rush to claim the best plots to build your fabulous casinos. This game really feels like you are gambling all the time, and tempts you to take that risk with the glittering prizes on the other side of the dice roll.

So you want to play Mysterium

Still the most attractive looking game in my collection, I mean just look at this thing:

Mysterium is a beautiful game where you all play psychics meeting at an old scottish manor house to noodle out how the ghostly occupant was killed. One of you will play the aforementioned victim, handing out psychic clues in the form of tarot cards showing strange, ethereal images on them. The others will try and guess what the ghost could possibly be on about and there may be a real murder as the Ghost tears their hair out trying to make themselves heard. Oh yeah, the Ghost doesn't speak throughout the process.

So you want to play Codenames

A brilliantly subtle and clever game, I've covered Codenames before in this review and since then a Pictures version has come out which I still haven't got my hands on. I've heard the sequel takes the game to another level and I look forward to hearing about it from relatives who I have gifted it to.

So you want to play Trivial Pursuit....

I actually have very little experience with alternate Trivia games. I've heard good things about Wits and Wagers and the Timeline series looks interesting and has recently had a Star Wars one added.

So you want to play Dobble

Dobble was my game of Expo 2015 and that tiny box still delivers a lot of fun and laughs. Several games exist inside it's metal shield and they are all great. This is cheap as chips as well so do yourself a favour and pick it up

So you want to play Mafia de Cuba

Ok so these two games aren't really similar but you are looking to entertain a large number of people with a single activity then Mafia de Cuba is the game for you. Lush presentation in the extreme helps everyone get into this game of gangsters on the take and the best thing is you can choose how involved you get in a particular round by the role you choose. Outrageous accents mandatory.

There is nothing wrong with the classics if you enjoy them, but I urge you to try and sample some new games, maybe the ones above or ones from the excellent column in the Guardian or suggested by the always entertaining Shut up and Sit Down. The best games leave you with stories to tell and it is this aspect, more than any other, that keeps my collection fresh as I try to shape it for my group. Try one of the games above, I promise you won't be disappointed.

Merry Christmas