January 07, 2018

Game Review: Clank!

This weekend I gave the board game Clank! a go for the first time. Clank! is a board game with a deck building element in which the players are adventurers exploring a dungeon inhabited by a fierce dragon—their goal: escape alive with the most treasure!

As usual, I’m not providing a rules summary here but simply my impressions (in this case, after a single three-player game).

Components: The components of Clank! are nice. The illustrations are good and the game board is two-sided, providing a more advanced side for when players are more familiar to the game. Some cards contain a variety of numbers that could possibly be confused by players in cases when a card has a cost number, skill point number, and victory point number on it, but the designers have color-coded the various values for more clarity.

Style and Theme: The theme of Clank! is well done. The illustrations and chits and board all together are both functional but also evoke a somewhat light-hearted dungeon romp. The game board appears a bit dry to the view—mostly occupied by pathways and shapes that represent rooms—but I think any additional illustration or embellishment there would probably come at the expense of functionality.

Overall Play: Lots of good stuff here.

The deck building mechanic is fun, and as a player what begins as a simply exercise playing a few cards grows as the game continues, adding more choices and card combinations. Likewise, there are many strategy options available to players—grab an easy artifact and rush to safety or risk delving deep? Purchase Market items to aid your play or forgo them? Concentrate on moving quickly or defeating monsters or building up gold? I love games that cater to different strategies and Clank ! manages to do this while still keeping the rules approachable enough that parents can play this with children.

At times the deck building mechanic took a bit of getting used to. My impulse when acquiring a new card was to think I could use it immediately, rather than folding it into my deck. Starting with a small “deck” of nine cards at the outset also means a bit of “deck juggling” to keep your hand, private discard pile, and private draw pile separate early on, though we did get used to this after a few rounds. We also ran into an issue where some cards tend to bunch up and the feeling that purchasing cards later in the game was likely purposeless because those cards would be unlikely to “work their way up” to the top for use before game-end. I think this last problem might be solved by having certain events, like dragon attacks, mandate that all players shuffle their private draw decks.

This game does suffer from what I find to be a common “Eurogame” issue—it’s hard to know who is ahead. In our game, all the players were fairly certain one player would win, only to be surprised to see that player come in last! Again, it’s a common problem among games in which you slowly accumulate victory points from different sources but I wish there were some easy way to track who was (generally) ahead.

Clank! adds a little bit of “screw your opponents” activity but not too much, which is good. The game never feels overly combative or mean-spirited and lends itself well to family play—indeed, it’s often your own decisions that come back to bite you in this game, and therein lies the fun.

This game also is a perfect example of the “push you luck” game type, balanced with lighter strategy options. Although card draws are random, the lack of dice kept things from getting too random— and playing Clank! I felt that if I won or lost it was primarily due to my own decisions. Some comparisons to the Adventurers games are warranted here, as both games involve a “get out alive with the most treasure” theme. Comparing the two, the Adventurers games have nicer bits, but I felt that Clank! makes up for the difference in more strategic gameplay.

Final Thoughts. Clank! looks good, has a fun theme, and manages to present a variety of lighter strategic options while remaining very approachable. This game will definitely hit my table again. In addition, the design of the game begs for additional cards and similar expansions (as of this writing there is one major undersea expansion to the original game and a second stand-alone Clank! game set in space, but sadly no smaller card pack expansions). Clank! is a keeper.

Components: B+
Theme: B+
Gameplay: B

Overall: B+

August 20, 2017

Game Review: Cry Havoc

Cry Havoc is a rare case of a game that I like in a great many ways, yet also didn’t really leave me satisfied as a gamer. I'll try to explain. My experience with the game is based so far on a two-player game and a three-player game. No rule summaries here as usual (I highly recommend boardgamegeek.com if you need that) just analysis and opinion. 

First the good, and there’s a lot of it: 

Components: The game components are gorgeous. The board and pieces are nicely illustrated, distinctive, and vibrant. Each position has unique miniatures with snap on colored bases that can easily be distinguished from one another—a great boon for a player that has suffered through various RISK and RISK-like games that had armies with colors a tad too similar. Opening the box, this was a game that I definitely wanted to play.

The rulebook is solid. Some things, especially combat, are easier taught live or via video (more on combat later). But the book covers all the bases and has an excellent section on setting up the game.

The design of the game shows a lot of care, and some game elements such as an on-board round marker make play easier. Card symbols are distinctive. The designer clearly has played many board games and incorporated some neat mechanics that game presentation makes easy to implement.

Style and Theme: The theme here is good, however I think card wording and other things could have brought it out more.

Overall Play: Each player controls a distinct race, and each race is different when it comes to abilities and game play. After playing one race, I was anxious to try out another and see how it played. Varied special “add-on” abilities for each race and randomized map chits add to the replay value. Considering how very different the races were, both of my games were pretty close affairs. (I’ve seen a number of complaints about the strength of the Trogs race, but as my two games had less that four players I never got to see that race controlled by a player.)

One area that left me less satisfied was combat—both the process and the act of taking over the board. The diceless combat system was unique and creative in design, but also felt, well, weird and left more than one player confused. I found myself yearning for a touch of randomness—an add-on dice roll or something that would add a bit of unexpectedness and luck to the proceedings—but players who prefer a more calculated, nonrandom affair will enjoy it. But again, it’s clear thought was put into design choices here too; the decision of “take prisoners or just kill the enemy solders” became a nice tactical choice—do I kill enemies for a quick victory point boost and allow the other player to get the troops back into their reserve, or do I forgo points but potentially deprive the opposing player of troop pieces they'll need? I like having to make these hard choices.

Combat across the board left me unhappy. The majority of the game was players waging fairly one-sided battles against the non-player Trog positions. Player vs player action really only reared it’s head very late in the game, and then the limited number of troop pieces—twelve I believe—left me feeling hamstrung. Mustering troops to attack positions held by other payers pretty much meant vacating a position I already held and leaving that spot open to easy attack, because I couldn’t generate new troops to protect it. This design choice may have been made to avoid RISK-style turtling, etc., but as a player it presented me with no good expansion choices late in the game, since risking a new combat to take a new region pretty much meant leaving another region I held extremely vulnerable. I ending up staying put. (I played the Pilgrims, which likely do better strategically by squatting down and simply generating crystals after a while in any case, given their opponents’ combat abilities. So maybe my choice wasn’t that bad.)

I also need to mention the Events mechanic, which just didn’t seem to work well or provide any excitement. As I understood the rules, the event markers (which are shuffled each game) are triggered if a player gets a specific number of victory points and lands their victory point marker exactly on a space marked with an event marker, otherwise the event marker moves down to “double up” with the next event marker. In my two games, the players typically leapfrogged the events. And when the events were finally triggered, they were boring. The game would have done better with stack of event cards (with more interesting events) and a rule that you simply trigger an event at the start of each turn, period.

Final Thoughts. This game has excellent production values and shows great care in it’s design. It offers unique positions with unique abilities for each player, and lots of discovery. I love games with different factions to play, and this game offers that in spades. The game makes the player make some hard decisions —capture troops or kill them? —give up a card for the icons or hold it to play in battle? 

Combat across the board is less fulfilling however, and what began as a really fun start eventually bogged down into a hesitant, measured, and less fun affair. A single card another player holds can ruin your day, and the simple decision of player to enable scoring one turn can push their final score into victory. I won the game via the Pilgrim’s crystal-hoarding ability, yet I really didn’t see anything wrong in the way my opponents played and never felt like I was winning when looking at board dominance—victory felt a bit too arbitrary and not earned.

I would play Cry Havoc again, if only to try our each race at least once, but in the end I found myself yearning for a somewhat more traditional take-over-the-board combat experience.

Components: A
Theme: C+
Gameplay: B–

Overall: B–

May 03, 2015

Game Review: Dead of Winter

I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead (comic first, TV show second, mind you) so my collection of zombie-themed boardgames has grown. Plaid Hat’s new game, Dead of Winter (DoW) caught my eye immediately. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the PH booth early Saturday morning at Gen Con to be informed their entire complement of DoWs for the weekend had already been sold out! Flash forward to April, when I spotted DoW in a local Barnes & Noble. Score!

Dead of Winter is a “semi-cooperative” game. The players must work together to survive a harsh winter in zombieland, scavenging for food and medicine, building barricades, and killing off zombies while trying to complete a overall mission goal (which changes each game). At the same time, each player has a secret goal. And you must complete both group and secret goals to win! There’s also a chance a traitor lurks within the group, a character whose goals conflict with the overall mission. A the start of each game, you don’t know whether a traitor exists, unless of course you are the traitor!

We played the game a spin last night with three players. I won’t rehash the rules—you can download them here—but rather I’ll provide my customary post-game thoughts. This review is based on a single game, so keep that in mind. (No doubt I’ll have a better idea of game play after a few more are under my belt, but I want to publish my initial thoughts while they’re fresh.)

Style and Theme: The theme here is solid. The artwork invokes some humor but also has the blood spots, etc., customary to zombie games. The crossroad cards provide flavor text and snippets of dialog. The color of the board and components is black, grey, and yellowish; which evokes a wintery feel without looking too bland. Some classifications were probably made for sake of game play, but seemed weird; a hammer is a tool but a lighter is a weapon?!?

Components: The components are also solid. The game board has a nice feel and the cards seem to be a decent stock weight (and size). Standees are provided instead of plastic figures, but honestly it didn’t hurt gameplay any and probably prevented a $60 purchase being inflated to $80+. A lot of cardboard bits are included, stopping just short of the amount found in your typical Fantasy Flight game (do those guys own a cardboard factory of what?). Also included in the box was a set of small plastic baggies meant for holding the pieces once punched, a unexpectedly classy touch. 

Overall Play: What appeared at first to be a fairly complex game was actually pretty easy to master once the game was up and running. Plaid Hat has introductory videos on their website, and I highly recommend them. There are a lot of things to remember, and it’s easy to forget a character’s special ability, etc., in the heat of game play, but summary sheets are provided (which I love) and when we slowed down and went through the lists, we quickly got the swing of things.

Some dangers seemed unbalanced, but it could simply be a factor in this particular game. The zombies also weren’t much of a threat—their numbers increased but it never got to be panic. Starvation and mounting garbage was a far more serious threat to our victory. Likewise, the zombies never became a problem at the outside locations, though that could have been a result of our more conservative searching (which, in turn, may well be the reason we lost). I would have liked it if the zombie fights were somehow more cinematic and not “automatically eliminate the zombie and check for bites.” I prefer my zombie games to feature the zombies as a main threat—exposure and starvation seemed to be a far greater threat for us in this game. At times, feeding the seeming endless stream of helpless waifs arriving at our colony doors and cleaning up after ourselves occupied much of our time; from a strictly thematic point of view, I'd rather lose a zombie game from a horde of undead breaking down the gates than by being buried in garbage. But a think the more aggressive game play that is needed to win the game probably steps up the undead threat level considerably.

Overall, game play was smooth and not fiddly, and the rules provided a good number of character play options without getting complex. Our during-play rules questions were few.

So what’s my final take? Dead of Winter is a keeper. The large amount of crossroads cards (a cool design idea) and varied group missions allows for a lot of replay value. The theme is solid, and the winter/exposure threat puts a slightly different spin on the usual “zombies on Main Street” genre. Most importantly, the secret victory conditions and traitor possibility allow those not enamored with cooperative games to strike out a bit. We’ll definitely be bringing this to the table again.

February 01, 2015

Appreciate Those Dungeon Masters!

Worth sharing, and not just because I usually DM. ;)

DMing (or GMing) can be a lot of work, whatever the system, so reach out to your friendly DM and thank her or him for the many hours of work and thought that goes into your campaign. They'll just be galvanized all the more the next time you meet.

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!
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