October 15, 2014

Game Review: Bang! The Walking Dead Survivor Showdown

After witnessing a near-immediate sell out of The Walking Dead Bang! Game at Gen Con 2014, I blundered into it at a Barnes & Noble shelf this week. Sold!

So how is it, you ask?  Read further, gentle reader.

The rules of Bang! The Walking Dead Survivor Showdown (hereafter referred to as BWDSS) are extremely similar to the original Bang! game. I’m going to assume most are familiar with those rules, but in nutshell: The original evokes a Western feel and players randomly draw secret positions with varying goals—except the Sheriff, who is known to all and starts with a big target on his or her back, but also starts out stronger and has allies. Each player also draws a specific cowboy, which gives them a unique ability. The players draw and discard cards to gain equipment, such as handguns or barrels to hide behind, or to trigger events. Players “shoot” at other players—sometimes before they even are certain if they are shooting a friend or foe—and their attacks may be countered with the right cards. Eventually (and sometimes it can take quite a while) players start going to that great stagecoach in the sky and the survivor(s) win. Latter expansions, especially High Noon, added additional characters and cards into the fray, and increase the fun.

In the case of Bang! Walking Dead Survivor Showdown, it’s all about theme.  If you’re a geek and you’ve lived on Earth for the last few years, you’re familiar with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. This licensed version of Bang! lays on a healthy dose of Walking Dead theme. It’s important to note that The Walking Dead referenced here is the comic, not the AMC television series. Fans of the TV series will recognize many characters and can certainly play along, but fan favorite Daryl is absent (his closest cousin from the comic, Dwight, may serve as a replacement). 

If, like me, you’re a fan of the comic however, you’re in for a treat. The previous The Walking Dead game (Z-Man) incorporated game art, but the comic has understandably progressed far beyond the game art and the game feels out-of-date. Newer heroes like Jesus and new villains, like Governor-next-up Negan, are absent. Happily, BWDSS is extremely up-to-date with the comic, a much as could be hoped for, and the comic fan will delight in references to the Hilltop or Saviors, or by playing Jesus or Dwight. If you were lucky enough to stop by the USAopoly booth at gen Con 2014, you may have netted the bonus weapon cards, featuring Michonne’s katana and Negan’s barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat Lucille!

Style & Theme: The theme here is great. All pieces in corporate art by comic artist Charlie Adlard. Unlike the original Bang! game, this BWDSS also includes illustrated play mats. Most of the art used seems to be repurposed from the comic itself, but the selection and cropping is done well. New art, such as that on the equipment cards, was either done by Adlard or someone skilled at mimicking his style.

Components: The components are good, similar in standard to the original Bang! game. The cards are a decent stock and should last.

Overall Play: Very similar to Bang! If you’ve played Bang!, you’ll be up and running in minutes.
Final Take: If you enjoy the original Bang! game (or similar games) and have nothing against zombies, you’ll enjoy this. If you’re a fan of the comic series, oh my will you enjoy this. Theme aplenty for Walking Dead aficionados.

Components: B+
Theme: A
Gameplay: B
Overall: B+

August 31, 2014

Game Review: Level 7 [Escape]: Did We Escape the Maze?

Last night we gave Level 7 [Escape] by Privateer Press a go. Reviews of the game on boardgamegeek.com seemed mediocre, but I liked the theme enough that I wanted to give the game a try. This year at Gen Con 2014, I broke down and purchased a copy.

As usual I won’t go into a rules summary here, but rather present my thoughts of game play, etc.

Style and Theme: Theme in Level 7 [Escape] was very good. The artwork is great, and very horror-oriented, as befits the theme. What great cover art! The aliens, guards, and rooms are all creepy.

Components: Overall, the components were good. The “board” tiles are made of a decent grade cardboard, and printed on both sides. The hybrid clone (alien) figures are physically larger, evoking their greater menace, which is a nice touch. The smaller chit and markers are well illustrated as well.

My only complaints are that 95% of the room tiles look extremely similar, all utilizing the same greyish-blue color palette, and a bit of color variation would have gone a long way toward making the game more visually interesting. Likewise, it wasn’t always easy to determine doors or vent openings at a glance and some distinct color there would have helped.

The character and enemy (clones, guards, and hybrids) figures are stand-up cardboard in plastic stands. Plastic figures would have been a cooler edition (especially because the character figures are easy to confuse with one another), but that’s a minor grumble.

Overall Play: I’ll say upfront that Level 7 [Escape] falls largely into the Dungeon board game “see what’s in the next random room and deal with it” style of play. As the characters explore the underground facility, the players place random tiles, some of which trigger various events or contain random equipment, etc. As I’ve grown older, I’ve distanced myself from these sort of games, because of the sheer randomness—as an old Dragon magazine review of the aforementioned Dungeon stated (paraphrasing), “… turn over a tile, maybe get a monster, maybe get a treasure, and maybe stop caring after a while.” The randomness doesn’t feel quite that bad, because the whole theme is about running around an unknown, underground labyrinth in search of an exit. Exploration and the threat of unknown danger around each corner fit the theme.

We enjoyed the game, but there were shortfalls. Opportunities to make the game better were missed. Although characters all start with two randomly drawn Skill cards, customizing them somewhat, the four starting characters are otherwise identical; some small variation would have been nice. (I suppose one could argue that the Skill card variance provides the same difference, but the Skill cards were very luck driven and often led to very one-sided “brainy” or “brawny” characters.)

We also ran into a lot of “We just drew that event!” type of card repetition—though I haven’t played enough to determine how many different events there are.

One area where more variance would have been appreciated was the clones (aliens) and guards—they’re all 3 strength and toughness 3; as far as I can tell, except for movement (clones can move through air shafts) aliens and guards are mechanically identical. There should be a discernible difference between them.

Last, but definitely not least, the rules are “fiddly” in places. The little rules, like gaining a threat when you attack a guard or increasing your fear when you enter an air shaft, all make sense, but remembering them is a chore for new players and some sort of summary card would have been appreciated. And as I expected, my players got confused with regard to the whole air shaft movement thing.

The rulebook, although very pictorial, can also be confusing. Finding the bit of info you’re searching for can be a chore, and there is no index. At one point, anther player (who happens to be an editor by trade) and I both searched in vain to discover exactly what condition triggers a trip to the infirmary. There was a nice sidebar about what happens when you go to the infirmary, but no sign of what sends you there! (We found our answer on a player-written rules summary at Boardgamegeek.) Likewise, determining a character’s starting fear level (3?) was something we had to guess at, because if it’s in the book we didn’t find it.

So what’s my final take? It’s a cool game. The theme is there in spades, and although very random and possibly confusing the first time through, the gameplay is decent. Things can be uneven—I escaped in Scenario One before I encountered a single enemy, which made that game rather anticlimactic for me. Some players may finish (escape) and have to wait o the sidelines for other players to finish. But I think we’d play again, if only to work through each scenario at least once. 

This is one of those games that could really benefit from a revised edition; replace the cardboard stand-ups with plastic figures, add more different colors to the tiles, add some new cards and missions, and (most importantly) revise the rulebook for clarity and we'd have a solid, thematic winner here.

Components: B+
Theme: A
Gameplay: C+
Overall: B– 

August 22, 2014

The obligatory post-Gen Con Post

Well, Gen Con 2014 is a wrap, and one 14-hour car ride later I’m back in civilization unscathed except for an improving case of Con Crud. (I vow no handshakes next time, I’ll never learn…)

Give this guy whatever game he wants.

The New 

Lots of cell phones. And tweeting.

And everywhere was talk of Kickstarter or crowd-funded projects, which also led to more than one incident of disappointment when a vendor had limited stock of a game and only distributed copies to backers (which is I guess as it should be).

Lots more people.

The Good

I participated in more events than usual, and the folks I gamed with were awesome. I would happily play with any of these groups again. Gamers are, despite the stories, pretty awesome people. How nice to walk into those large rooms and see so many people passionately playing games—no odd questions or looks, just mutual love of the act of playing.

Met with connections & old friends. The nice thing is that my "connections" and "friends" are largely getting to be the same thing. Some were old RPG designer comrades, met new folks, missing meeting new folks (sorry Len!), and—most importantly—rekindled that creative fire. The passion for the hobby this convention represents is the reason I write game material, period.

Indy has improved. After some 5 years away—Gen Con 2009 was my last visit—I noticed new skywalks and other downtown improvements. And the local restaurants, especially that gamer-staple the RAM, were as welcoming as ever. According to Forbes, Gen Con 2013 brought more than $47 million to the city, so the welcoming attitude is perhaps to be expected, but it’s still nice. And the locals are cool folk.

Lots of new, cool games! Alas, some of my "targeted" games—see my last post—were sold out. Dead of Winter was sold out, and when I inquired with the good folks at Plaid Hat Games, they told me they had sold all 450 copies! Likewise, the Walking Dead version of Bang! Was completely sold out by 10:30 Saturday morning! (Damn!) But many other tempting offerings were to be seen, some of which I purchased.

That's a whole lot 'o zombies games right there.
The costumes were as great as ever. I hesitate to post some of the great photos I took without the permission of those involved, but the Gen Con crowd is a clever bunch, as and always, they didn’t disappoint.
RAM Hot wings!

Beer and the RAM! Nuff said! 

The Bad

Lots more people. This isn’t really bad, as more people makes for Con longevity, but navigating the ICC hallways and dealer hall on Saturday afternoon became a tiring exercise after a while. And a half-hour wait to get into the Fantasy Flight booth was an unwelcome surprise (and I heard of waits for the Paizo booth of over an hour, which is insane). Again, a double-edged sword—I’d rather them feed folks into the retail space gradually so you can breathe while you shop, but it was something new for me.

The Ugly

There honestly was no ugly, monster costumes aside. It was a great con.

The Swag/Goods

My favorite, easiest free score—available to anyone—was a free Legendary card from Upper Deck. The card was a “Wound” card, and you got to pose, be photographed, and have your picture printed on a card. Most people got solo shots, sometimes holding their head or neck, and the Photoshop artist would add a blood smear in (a Wound card, remember?). Luckily for me, an eerily good Wolverine cosplayer was in line right in front of me. He did a shot with a friend, and, with his permission, the artist merged his image with mine to have me getting the old SNIKT!

Purchases included the following:

Random d20s
Coup game (Indie Boards and Cards)
Level 7 Escape game (Privateer Press)
Level 7 Invasion game (Privateer Press)

My First Carcassonne aka The Kids of Carcassonne (Z-Man Games)
Shadows of Brimstone: Swamp of Death (Flying Frog productions)

Ticket to Ride Europe (Days of Wonder)
The Strangecorebook (Monte Cook Games)
And, of course, Dungeons & Dragons (5e) Players Handbook (Wizards of the Coast)

A good haul, I’d say. Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne were presents for my young son.

Yet another great Gen Con. Big thanks to my driving buddy and great conversation partner, Ken. Can't wait for the next one!

August 09, 2014

Stuff I'm Looking Forward to Getting at Gen Con 2014

The time is almost here! After not attending for a number of years, I'm very much looking forward to Gen Con 2014!

Here are a few items I look forward to checking out (i.e., buying) while I'm there:

1. D&D (5th Edition) Players Handbook (Wizards of the Coast)

Rather a no-brainer I would think. Although my feelings on early view of the new D&D have been mixed, no self-respecting geek could pass this by. (And yeah, I know it's available for sales in stores as I write this, but it's really a Gen Con release and I'll treat it that way!)

2. Sheriff of Nottingham (Arcane Wonders)

Let's see: The art looks gorgeous, and the game involves bluffing and lying aplenty. So what's not to like? This first game in the Dice Tower essentials line has gotten a good amount of early buzz, and I'm very intrigued.

3. Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game (Plaid Hat Games)

While perhaps yet another zombie board game at first blush, this game has some intriguing possibilities. The "crossroads" mechanic provides an evolving character mechanic, and the game is cooperative, yet each player has a secret victory condition (some of which may not help the overall group one bit). The theme also, although undead are present, seems more post-apocalyptic and survival-oriented in nature.

I'm sure I'll have more additions to this list, but there are three early starters.

June 28, 2014

Game Review: Lord for a Day

I tried the board game Lords of Waterdeep for the first time recently.

In this board game, produced by Wizards of the Coast, players assume the role of a lord of Waterdeep—“Waterdeep” in this case being the key city in Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms setting, as most D&D players would know.

I’m not going to provide a full synopsis of game play here, merely my impressions of the game and how play went. (You can find more detailed info on the game here.)

Style and Theme: The theme here was good. The art and maplike board affect a good fantasy feel, and any fan of the Realms will betreated to many familiar characters and place names. Our group had at least one player completely unfamiliar with the Realms, and the theme didn’t put him off any.

It is important to note that, at heart, this is really a more “economic” or “resource allocation” style game, and gameplay here has a very Eurogame feel.
Cubes—your main resource—are color coded to represent fighters, clerics, wizards, and thieves (D&D’s four food groups) that you, a hidden lord of the city, can dispatch on quests. Although the cubes represent adventurers, they’re still basically just colored cubes similar to those in many other eurogames, so the theme there was a tad like for me. White cubes for wizards and black cubes for thieves seemed apropos, but orange for fighters? (Maybe red would have been better?) After while, I didn’t play thinking “I need two more wizards to complete that quest” but rather “I need two more purple cubes.”

A sample quest might require, say, two gold pieces, three purple cubes (or, ahem, wizards), and two black cubes (thieves) to complete. Completing a quest earns you victory points, key to wining the game, and sometimes earn you other fringe benefits as well. One relatively minor quest I completed early on granted me a bonus Intrigue card every time I received purple cubes, which was often, and I soon found myself rolling in Intrigue cards! The aforementioned Intrigue cards spice up play, granting bonuses or hampering other players, so even though this is primarily a eurogame in feel there is some “take that!” element present. The game is not combative in feel, however, like the various RISK offshoots and such, which makes it very approachable to mixed group play.

Components: The components were top notch. The art was nice, the components and board were well produced, and the box tray was carefully designed to hold all components and cards. The card wells even have those wedges beneath, so a tap of a finger pivots a deck upwards for easy grasping—well done, WotC!

Lords of Waterdeep

Overall play: Overall play was fun, and made me want to play again soon. We played with five players, the maximum number, and everyone seemed to enjoy the game and everyone agreed they would happily play again. We had a mix of players with different game preferences at the table, so this is not insignificant. Moreover, it was a close race to the finish. We had a clear leader when points were tallied, but different players led in victory points at different times and it had the feel of a balanced, close game. The game’s first (only?) expansion Lords of Waterdeep: Scoundrels of Skullport is also now being sold, and what I’ve read about it sounds extremely promising. So some longevity of play is there.

I’d recommend this game to anyone who likes lighter resource management games, such as Puerto Rico or Settlers of Catan, or lighter fantasy games. And any Forgotten Realms fan will appreciate the theme and names dropping therein, to be sure. Lords of Waterdeep solid thumbs up from me.

Those interesting in seeing the game in greater detail or getting an excellent overview of play should watch the video here, hosted by one of the game designers, Rodney Thompson.

Components: A
Theme: B+
Gameplay: B
Overall: B+

March 30, 2014

R.I.P. David Trampier

It is with profound sadness I read about the death of David Trampier aka "Tramp"—an individual that, with a few other key artists such as Dave Sutherland, Caldwell, Elmore, Easley, Fields, and Parkinson, really established the look of Dungeons and Dragons.
Certainly the duo of Trampier and Sutherland, or Dis & Dat, set down the 1st Edition style that so many have come to recognize.

Trampier’s work was always my personal favorite. His iconic work that adorns the cover of the original Player’s Handbook (below) is emblematic of D&D itself to me. Surely, his unique woodcut-like style, featuring heavy ink lines and bold characters, helped define a number of Monster Manual critters for generations of players and RPG adventure writers such as myself for years to come.

Whatever the tragic circumstances that led to his mysterious and abrupt departure from fantasy illustration (which I think is well-known and need not be repeated here), be it drugs, mental illness, or simply bad feelings toward the industry, the loss of this artist will now be felt two-fold. Greater still is the tragedy, given that he was rumored to be returning to art in recent years. Wherever you are, Mr. Trampier, you enriched and inspired this gamer with your work and I’m forever thankful.

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