I am the Law – Thoughts on Core Space: Galactic Corps

The Galactic Corps is an expansion for Core Space that introduces security forces to the game. My expression right now is one of exasperation and struggle.

How do I write about this?

It’s only part of the reason why it’s been four long months since I’ve written anything, but it is a significant part.

I’m sure you don’t know this about me but my first position of employment post-secondary education – so my first job as an actual adult – was IT work for the local metropolitan police department. I was only a civilian employee but I felt like I was contributing to a very important public service. It felt good. It felt wholesome.

It felt even better when I was able to dodge a ticket by flashing my employee badge after making an illegal turn; a young white male discovering a new level of privilege.

There were times when it did not feel good. Standing on the sidewalk watching a motorcade drive by to honor a young fallen officer was one of those times.

Retrieving a damaged laptop from a police vehicle that had been in a shootout was another. I will never forget seeing the blood that had run from the leather seats and pooled on the concrete. It was surreal.

I was a part of that police organization for three years and it’s still a part of me 10 later.

This is why my gut reaction to Michael Brown’s murder was complicated and even defensive at the time. I worked near Ferguson Missouri and this was a very troubling moment. It was all anyone talked about.

That was the first time my identity was really challenged. I’ve changed in thousands of little ways and a few large since. Life of course hasn’t gotten easier for anyone and 2020 has been hellish.

So what do I write about Galactic Corps?

My connection with this release is one of confusion and self-reflection. The easy part is in assessing the quality as it’s another stunner from one of tabletop’s best miniatures game companies. The two new missions are some of my favorite, particularly one which sees your equipment confiscated and your crew making a daring escape while Purge flood from every crack in the station’s hull.

The new NPCs function on their own set of priorities, the local security wardens operating on a random die roll being my favorite. They will occasionally wander over and interrogate your character which offers a low level of harassment. Outright combat between your people and theirs doesn’t happen often, but it’s a constant threat you must maneuver around.

Primarily, an environment which never felt safe feels even less so.

Yet the heavier Galactic Corps troops can be quite a boon as well. They will combat the purge and the juiced armored Juggernaut figure is a treat to behold. He squared off against a towering Annihilator in one of my plays and it was pure spectacle.

This extension, much like Shootout at Zed’s, is top shelf because it provides well designed and streamlined content which you can include in nearly every mission written for the game. It’s another tool to spice up the situation and can easily be integrated by just tossing in a few event cards which may or may not be triggered.

I love Core Space and find this to be another near essential expansion, particularly if you’re a solo player. The dynamic tactical challenges compound and cascade in orchestrated ways which keeps things interesting for the long term.

The new terrain is also interesting, although the large teleporter platform is perhaps the least solid piece of Battlesystems terrain I’ve encountered. The outside apertures want to fall off occasionally and it’s a bit unwieldy to store. That’s not to say I’d toss it in the bin as it’s quite visually impressive, but it’s certainly not as sleek as Zed’s balcony and bar.

It’s surprising that the system doesn’t feel as though it’s overstretched. One of the largest issues with a constant stream of content is previously straightforward systems begin to bow under the stress of new rules and modules. Core Space remains streamlined, at least for the moment.

This is my primary concern with this excellent game’s future. I’m eager to see what they’ve accomplished with the Dangerous Days material just released, but I worry because I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen Kill Team and new Necromunda start off strong and I’ve seen them relegated to ‘has beens’ in my life. I don’t want that for this game.

Yes, this expansion is indeed a banger. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable. Fortunately it was developed long ago with a bit of distance between itself and the current issues we’re combating.

This is fortunate because it absolves a small U.K. company just trying to produce a science fiction game. It’s unfortunate because it does little to absolve my own issues pushing around little blue dudes who fire upon and cuff little multi-colored ones.

But, like Monolith’s Conan, I will still play it. I will push those ugly images and feelings to the back of my brain, suppressing them with electrifying scenes of drama and adventure because I’m able.

The best quality of this expansion is the final question left lingering once the gunfire has subsided: am I part of the problem?

Zed’s Dead, Baby – A Core Space Expansion Review

Unfortunately for Core SpacePax Pamir 2nd Edition was released in 2019. Otherwise this hybrid miniatures/board game would have ran away with the illustrious honors of my top release of the year – don’t scoff at that designation, it comes with a repurposed Pinewood Derby trophy as well as a Charlie Theel quote to slap on the box full of commas, em dashes, and florid prose.

This game is over the top and rad and totally my jam.

It’s been many months since Core Space first arrived, yet I’m just getting around to writing about Shootout at Zed’s. This is one of several boxed expansions that compliment the base game, extending its rich environment in organic fashion. I’ve been very impressed with each subsequent release in how the vision of this product line remains faithful and tightly woven. In many ways, the expansion material feels unlike the bloated mass of a Kickstarter miniatures game that’s unfurled its blubber and slobbered all over your table and game shelves.

Well done.

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Shootout at Zed’s is noteworthy because it’s the introduction of an additional NPC type. That is the punk-like ganger who was wearing a mask long before it was en vogue. As a lifelong devotee to Necromunda, I’m totally on board.

These units function like aggressive civilians, more apt to clog the streets and get in your way. They don’t activate randomly but instead choose a target – Purge, followed by Traders – and then take two activations to storm toward them and pop off a few rounds.

While they’re predictable on the surface, the inclusion of several event cards ratchet up the tension and provide for dynamic behavior. This is really the beauty of the system and reinforces the design philosophy. The rules are simple, almost overly so as you feel like the addition of a whole new character type should do something besides moving and attacking those nearby. The sophistication comes in through the chaotic environment comprised of those event cards as well as the collision with other sub-systems.pic4932032Core Space is a wizard at generating moments.  Like that time I was up against the wall, a Purge Annihilator on my tail as I was dragging MAC’s lifeless machine body across the decking and trying to escape. An Assassin and multiple Harvesters were flanking me and this tale was looking grim as hell.

Then the confetti happened.

An event card spawned a whole gang of gangers too close to the action for social distancing. It was a mess, like tossing a grenade into a box of Styrofoam peanuts. Playing through the fallout was pure joy.

The variety of narrative situations generated provides a wide range of experiences to be mined. That’s the nature of this system and each expansion leans into this facet. I want the environment to be unpredictable and dangerous. I want it to feel like I’m running a dangerous shaodw op to keep my crew eating noodles and my freighter eating fuel. This desire is absolutely supported by this expansion and the dynamic atmosphere is given new texture.

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How smoothly these additions integrate is a real wonder. You can slip the gang event cards into virtually any scenario to mix things up. You could arbitrarily throw a ganger or two into the starting setup. All of this is completely up to you and within the spirit of things.

This set also comes with three scenarios that can be played as one-offs or inserted effortlessly into an ongoing campaign. They highlight the titular Zed and his cronies, showing off the new terrain pieces of Z’s bar and the second story overlook. And boy are these nice terrain bits.

You probably won’t get as much mileage out of the second floor balcony structure (although it’s the most sexy of elements), but you will have every opportunity to add the circular bar or the curved privacy wall section to an existing scenario.

The three gang-focused scenarios are standouts in their own way. I particularly enjoyed the second which pits the players in a Warriors-like situation that has your crew fighting their way across the station to escape, meanwhile the board will repeatedly flood with gang-bangers looking for their pound of flesh. Of course the Purge are there, sticking their robotic digit in your eye and taunting you to come out and play.

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As I mentioned earlier, what really hits home with this release is in how seamless this system integrates new material. The only rough spot is that minor nitpick of utilizing named NPCs which are recycled. So you may end up spawning Chunk four times in one mission, which is admittedly weird. There’s a tradeoff here and instead of laying the foundation on generic enemy profiles, we’re given distinct personalities with background stories. Yes, you may have to do some mental handwaving to suspend your disbelief, but it’s overall a small thing to cope with.

Setup time is also minimally impacted. I could see it eventually ballooning once enough expansions come out and you’re forced to navigate a library of stored terrain and miniatures, but at the moment it feels pretty restrained. Each boxed expansion includes only a small amount of additional terrain and most of the miniatures can actually be used in every single session. The malleability of the event deck and forethought in the NPC integration means there’s overall little hassle. I will definitely be keeping a narrow eye on this facet as we look toward the future.

Finally, one of the greatest considerations of this expansion is in how it enhances solitaire play. Core Space is a design that simultaneously provide for excellent solo gaming as well as occasionally stumbles in that regard. The criticism is founded in the excellent tension of the semi-cooperative crew structure which is completely absent in lonely play. That dynamic isn’t necessary, but it’s the deepest and most meaningful interaction in the game. Additional NPC types work to mask that inadequacy and they do a rather standup job in enhancing the chaotic suspense we crave.

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Shootout at Zed’s will not revolutionize your Core Space experience; by design, that’s not intended. Rather, it’s another ingredient to be mixed into the slurry of techno noir salvage ops siphoned from the bones of Shadowrun, Cowboy Bebop, and Firefly.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Who You Gonna Call? Not the Reichbusters.

I’m sitting at a desk. I’m looking over my notes scribbled lawlessly during several incursions into a Nazi castle. I’m wrangling with many thoughts trying to formulate an angle. But there’s only one way to launch this V2 rocket.

Reichbusters is a misfire.

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This is a cooperative dungeon crawler where the dungeon is a Third Reich hideout and the orcs are Wehrmacht troopers alongside twisted mutations and bio-mechanized wizardry. In short, it’s Wolfenstein, which means it’s hip.

Reichbusters certainly nails appearances. There’s a ton of quality miniatures, tiles highlighting fantastic locations full of detail, and a cohesive graphic design that spits darkness in your face.

But that wonderful essence struggles to reach beyond the surface. I love the concept of sneaking around, worrying about creating too much noise and splitting the difference between avoiding or unloading on patrols. The problem is that the fantastic bits are either shallow or buried under so much cruft it’s like apple-bobbing into a 7-layer cake full of tacks and rusty nails.

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“Oy, I lost my eye in layer six! Oy, I’m playing Reichbusters!”

Let’s examine that concept of stealth. Noise in this game is a unifying concept as it forms the entire arc of play. You sneak about the castle attempting to wear out the tip-toes of your standard issue combat boots. Then the alarm goes off and the undulating CasaFan smells of poo.

To get there is just as messy as the end state. Noise dice are rolled when performing certain actions; by certain I mean almost everything. Sure, firing a Thompson submachine gun in close quarters is of similar volume to the pit at a Morbid Angel concert. But opening a door? How about grabbing a medical kit off the floor? Picking your nose?

True, the noise mechanism doesn’t just represent decibels but also the degree to which a nearby patrol may become alert from your actions. Sure, and I’d be amenable to that if the constant rolling wasn’t quite so obnoxious. The repetitive nature of these rolls is problematic because the process is convoluted.

You roll noise alongside your pool of attack dice. Then if you have at least one success you flip a noise card. The card will then typically have you re-roll a noise die or two, varying the already swingy results courtesy of exploding dice. Finally, after going from dice to card to dice again, you look back at the card and check a target number to see if enemies spawn.

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Before the alarm is raised these reinforcements are Space Hulk-like blips that push through doorways and defend choke points. Some of the time these will enter your line of sight immediately and you will have to flip a spawn card. These spawn cards list different letters depending on the strength of the patrol token as there are three varieties. You then take those letters and reference a card utilized by the specific scenario you are playing to determine which miniatures to plop down on the table.

There is certainly some joy to be found here. Sneaking around, biting your nails as you fidget with your weapon tokens trying to decide whether to unload with a machine gun or stick with your weaker knife – it’s entertaining and captures the basics of its storytelling goals despite the extra effort.

But this is not the entirety of the noise system. Running in thematic parallel but in mechanical perpendicularity, a separate process exists for tracking enemy alert levels and the base’s alarm status.

In the pre-alarm state enemies can be suspicious, alert, or entirely idle. This is progressed in steps as you move into a protagonist’s field of view. But this mechanism is entirely a visual representation. If you rat-a-tat-tat with your MG and cut up four troopers – even if the targets are in direct line of sight of a non-alerted enemy – you will escape unnoticed, at least as far as the alarm is concerned. Now the noise check will likely spawn more blips slowing your progress ahead but the actual alarm doesn’t move forward.

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Those blips have 99 problems but my dude ain’t one.

Noise also extends to other parts of the system in a similarly rough and unfocused manner. For instance, there are a wealth of neat items you can pick up seeded directly on the map during setup or occasionally dropped by enemies. These are slick tools like disguise kits, helmets, grenades, and even the alien Vril-tech, although oddly you can’t find even a single new firearm.

Nevertheless, the problem is that picking each of these up costs a precious action as well as triggering a noise roll. The action is really the larger cost but the noise further cements that you’re better leaving all of the goods behind and just focusing on the task at hand. This feels off as you end a mission with neat little packages strewn all about the map and just out of reach.

All of this is indicative of the game’s problem of presenting overwrought sub-systems that lack unification. It feels sloppy and in desperate need of an accomplished developer. The pace does speed up a tad once your jimmies are weathered and you’ve played a few games, yet it still doesn’t pass the sniff test.

But let’s get back to your turn because that all happened in the middle of it.

You can perform two basic actions such as moving or shooting, but in the design’s finest moment you can take advantage of your character’s asymmetric deck to play an unlimited amount of action cards out of your hand. Tossing out four or five in unison and burning down an entire wing of the castle is utterly awesome.

There will be instances where you hurl a grenade and kill ten guards who were entirely too stupid to spread out. Yes, the AI running the foes lacks any sense of nuance and lives in the cushioned space between predictable and obvious, but those moments of intense drama where you rattle off an uptempo surge of carnage are damn satisfying. This game’s cinematic qualities are without a doubt its greatest appeal.

Unfortunately those scenes only occur a couple of times per game and must be rationed. A bulk of the strategy is indeed deciding when to go Super Saiyan and blow apart Hitler’s finest.

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Reality quickly sets in as your turn finishes. Now it’s time for those pesky Huns to act. Early in the assault this isn’t a big deal. You move a few miniatures, roll some defense dice to resolve attacks and shuffle around alert levels.

Once the alarm has sounded this is as tedious as performing maintenance on a Panzer IV. You will be moving over 20 miniatures tile by tile and then grouping them into attacks after every single player activates. Calling it a slog would be kind.

Often there will be a conga-line of foes stretching far to the corners of the map as they attempt pursuit. You know very well those rearguards won’t likely make it to your position but you must move them anyway just in case.

All of this is difficult to swallow when games like Gears of War tackled more vibrant AI with less hassle many years prior.

It does feel so much better to grab two handfuls of enemies off the board instead of plopping down wound tokens, but the cost is severe as the game begins to sag when it should be reaching crescendo.

The bruises don’t stop there. This is a system full of keywords. In truth, this is a lesser issue because you will internalize many of the abilities upon repeated play the learning curve levels off. However it presents a formidable obstacle in the early going, you know that time when the squad of participants you assembled is ready to take a first impression and etch it into stone. This is not a fast paced game, which edges close to a cardinal sin for its genre, but it can become drudgery when you’re constantly dividing your attention between rulebook, cards, and board.

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Some will certainly dig this escapade. I found myself smiling at times and really engaged with the card play. There’s something very zen about lighting up a big hulking Nazi Frankenstein.

I also adore the sense of discovery. Without heaps of flavor text or the en vogue narrative booklet, Reichbusters spits out evocative scenes like an MG42.

Supporting this is a wide variety of enemies, an incredible amount for a core box. This does steepen the learning curve as each has individual abilities but it’s worth the pain.

There’s also a really solid system of generating random missions – called Raids – through a seeded card system. The results are evocative and interesting, even if the mission goal selection could use a few more options. I’m even tempted to state this scenario generation system is the best way to play, outdoing the six-mission campaign by a healthy margin.

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Zooming in, the best exploration element are the features. These square cards are set in specific rooms and boast illustrations on their backs which match the tile aesthetics. You reveal them when you gain line of sight and are hit with a surprise.

So when you head into the medical ward you flip that covered corpse card which may result in finding some unused supplies, or perhaps a more nasty discovery such as a cluster of zombies.

These cards come from a subset of shuffled options. You’re never quite sure of what lurks underneath and they’re fully expandable from future products. I find this idea so delightful I wish I could take it into a much smoother game.

Reichbusters isn’t smooth. It’s a messy tentacled monstrosity with a plethora of sub-parts twisted together like a knotted octopus. Interactions and rules are occasionally absent or don’t make sense, and even worse the pacing is occasionally laborious.

This design doesn’t appreciably fit into a space concerned with quality or lasting appeal. It’s a throwback to the past, in both culture and system, where it has taken from others and warped that spirit into a messy abomination.

Everything here should have been geared towards that stealth concept and simplified until it really nailed its thematic points. There’s a compelling notion of asymmetric states of play as the enemy awareness oscillates, but it’s not implemented in a noteworthy fashion. Those seeking such an effort would be better off tracking down the indie titles V-Commandos, Hour of Glory, or Seal Team Flix.

Veteran designer Jake Thornton simply missed the mark. It’s interesting that this one went in the completely opposite direction of his previous work, Dwarf King’s Hold, a game which lacked richness and vitality. That one was so streamlined and bare bones that I struggled to connect with any of it. Reichbusters is very much the opposite. This one doesn’t know when to stop or hold back, burying it’s most excellent elements under a wealth of stuff.

You can sense my anger bleeding through words and sentences and paragraphs. Mostly because there are some excellent concepts here wed to an anchor. The game doesn’t struggle with attaining fun – in fact it can be a downright hoot at its peak – it just requires a degree of effort to get there that the best in class do not.

 

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Pulling Away – A Rallyman GT Review

In racing there’s a combination of raw competition and unfettered velocity that aligns perfectly with the emotional components of gaming. What is racing but an extended victory point track which competitors plummet along in peril of collision? It’s the most visceral counting of points we can fathom.

Yet this formula rarely transcends average.

There’s a baseline level of success something like Thunder Alley, Formula De, and Daytona 500 reach. I’m fond of all of those games for different reasons, but none of them really carve out a cavity in my heart. The only racing design that’s managed to achieve a status of special is Flamme Rouge, which is a difficult game to discuss when comparing to these other motorsport titles.

But here I am, performing my best impression of Yoda, to tell you that “there is another.”

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Rallyman GT is a re-imagining of the classic Rallyman. While that previous design focused on rallycross time trials, the GT take is a closed circuit multiplayer affair. It’s pure speed, wheel to wheel, thundering around corners and looking for the smallest opening to explode past your competition.

The magic here is the dice system. It’s best to think of it as one step beyond Formula De, as it sacrifices an ounce of simplicity for a gallon of depth. This is still direct and intuitive enough to play with a family, but it offers an opportunity to harness strategy which overtakes the element of luck.

So let’s try to explain this without leaving you utterly confused. That’s a challenge when painting a picture with words, as the system is quirky and unique.

First of all there’s a die for each of the six gears your car can shift through. Each die shows the gear number on four faces and hazard symbols on the remaining two. To move a space along the track, you take one of these dice and roll them. The die you choose must be the gear you are currently in, or one gear higher or lower.

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So if you begin your turn in fourth gear you may progress one space using the ‘3’, ‘4’, or ‘5’ die. Then you can keep moving, using an additional die in each space. So you start in 4th, move one space by shifting down to 3rd, then move another space by dropping even lower to 2nd. You could go down to one and slide yet another space if you want to drive like a grandma.

The catch is that you can only use each die once. So you can’t use the ‘4’ die to move forward, then the ‘3’ die, then back to the ‘4’ since you already used it earlier this turn.

I feel ya, realistically this makes no sense. But it’s a restriction that bolts the simple “one space, one die” concept to a strategic engine that forces worthwhile contemplation.

Yet more nuance: you can downshift more than one die by including red brake dice. So if you start in 4th you can move forward one space by using the ‘2’ die and a red brake die. There is inherent risk here that escalates the harder you brake and the farther you move in a turn.

This manifests through the rolling of the dice. You can choose to be careful and move one space at a time, rolling each die as you propel forward and stopping just before you lose control. A spinout – and possible damage – is triggered if you roll three caution symbols during a single turn.

I can see that Ricky Bobby glint in your eye and the touch of crazy; you want to push it and take on more risk for a little more benefit, yeah?

Instead of rolling a single die at a time you can pre-plan your entire turn and roll a fistful of those six-sided suckers. As long as you don’t roll three or more total hazards you’re swell, shake and bake my friend. But if you do, then you suffer a loss of control and will miss a turn or two righting your vehicle. This is terrible and can actually cause a nearly instant loss in a very short race.

The benefit to this more risky maneuver – called a “Flat Out” – is that you earn focus tokens for taking this risk. These chits are spent later to lock in dice and auto succeed when rolling individually. This does form a weird curve to play where you perform more risky maneuvers early on and then make lengthier plays with reduced risk, by spending tokens, late in the race. Unfortunately this does present as a bit backwards and it’s one of the largest structural flaws in the game as it can tamper unceremoniously with the ideal arc.

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In practice, what you will do is plan your whole move at the beginning of your turn regardless of how you will roll. This internal cognitive exercise manifests externally as you lay the dice out on the track and think through your options. You need to carefully manage your gears as there are several points of consideration.

First, you can only take corners at a certain speed. This means you must decelerate as you hit turns, possibly hard. There are preferred pathways through the sharpest corners as well, giving you a push to get there first and possibly block following traffic.

The second aspect is that you cannot pass a car unless you are in at least the same gear. So if a car is up ahead on the track in 5th, you can’t even move alongside them horizontally unless you are in 5th or 6th yourself. This results in an even greater strategic component as you can effectively block cars in lower gear by pushing your metallic beast to its limits and taking larger risks.

In a recent four player race I saw the leader end in a safe spot near the end of the first lap. However, he made a crucial mistake of stopping his movement in 1st using each of the lower gear dice to move a bit further. In the next turn a player really squeezed every ounce of performance out of their machine and made it one space past him, ending their own turn in 4th. This means the previous leader doesn’t get to go as they were up next, unable to accelerate enough to reach 4th gear with only a single space between them.

This is rough and mean as hell. It’s like rubbing dirt, salt, broken glass, and urine in the dude’s wound (can you even rub urine?). It’s also entirely fallout from player interaction and is a situation engineered by the participants themselves. At a zoomed in level it can appear awkward having a ‘skip a turn’ mechanism in a racing game. You may ask questions like “So, what’s my driver doing if they’re not actually moving for this entire turn? The car’s not stationary, right?”

The right way to view this abstraction is from a macro level. Rallyman GT compresses a race that could be up to an entire day (see ‘Les Mans’), to a 60-90 minute feat of cardboard. It works well enough in play that these moments achieve a level of intensity and brinksmanship that far outweighs any momentary hiccups in dynamism. They’re also entirely preventable, so don’t drive like a drunk pangolin.

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A final quality of this dice system to manage is initiative. I hinted at this in my earlier example, but cars move each turn from highest to lowest gear. This is not a technical point but a real consideration you must make as you approach a pack of cars blocking your way. You will want to time your tempo correctly to move after a pack which is forming a barricade, otherwise you could lose a turn and be chompin’ on a brick.

Managing your turn-to-turn dice usage is full of considerations due this intricate yet easy to express system. It also offers the game’s biggest challenges. For one, a player could reasonably spend a good five minutes really puzzling out their turn. There is a legitimate opportunity here to arrest momentum, which can be disastrous to this genre of game. Don’t be that dunder, think ahead and be ready for the dice.

There’s also this really odd side effect that you can move farther in a turn by downshifting aggressively. Huh? Yeah, huh.

Say you begin your turn in 6th. If you stay at this top gear you can move forward by using the following dice combination: ‘6’, coast, coast. Coast dice allow you to maintain your current gear and there’s only two of them, so use them wisely.

You could alternatively move an extra space by downshifting to 5th to move forward a space, then moving in 6th followed by the two coast dice. Remember, one space is one die so this is a four space move as opposed to the previous three space move.

Weird. But it gets weirder.

The most optimal move for distance is to downshift even further. Drop from 6th to 2nd using the maximum three brake dice, then you can move forward using 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and the two coast dice. That’s seven total spaces. Now, this is ‘hella risky’ – that’s the official quantified degree of risk – but it’s incentivized if you need to make up ground.

Rallyman GT knows this makes no sense but the game really refrains from layering on complexity or extra rules, in this case to its detriment. It attempts to solve the problem by offering track layouts with many curves, forcing deceleration. This does curb the most egregious uses of the downshifting for distance, but it’s not something that is altogether snuffed out.

This disturbs me philosophically, but in actuality it’s something that synthesizes with the strategy well enough, and is seen infrequently enough, that the nagging issues of realism fade quite readily. Some have moved to house rule it by providing extra distance at top gear, but I’ve felt no such urge. In terms of side effects, this is akin to a headache or runny nose as opposed to bleeding from your rectum or losing all sexual desire.

The final issue I want to touch on is the lack of a catchup mechanism. This isn’t toddler bastards riding around in Little Tikes – this is playing for keeps. If you spinout or make a fatal mistake and fall behind, you’re going to have a rough go gaining ground. It will require risk and certainly some luck. If the leader never makes a mistake and doesn’t roll poorly, they will likely win. This is accurate from a simulation perspective, but it can be aggravating if you have a serious crash halfway through a race. No one wants to go through the motions for 45 minutes and Rallyman GT will occasionally force that upon you.

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So this sucker has some real warts. We can’t minimize these issues or sweep them into the closet.

Yet I still love this game. Absolutely I do.

This is because of that flawed yet dynamic movement system. By plotting moves with dice mapped to gears, the game nearly perfectly expresses its fiction through its mechanisms. I get a very clear picture of how my vehicle is taking that corner or burning around the Viper who’s maintained pole position for 9/10ths of the race. Rallyman GT is a strong orator, a storyteller who conveys the feeling of the race moment to moment with all the highs and lows of a dramatic play.

Pace can suffer, but moving through those dice a gear at a time really feels as though you are accelerating and whipping through a crisp wind with flared nostrils.

How a game feels and what the mechanics convey is the single most important aspect of the hobby. Rallyman has it where it counts as it feels like nothing that came before it and manages to get so many things right despite getting a few major things wrong.

The many ways in which you can manipulate your movement path provides for such a great long-term payout. There’s a real skill curvature here that is exceptional for the weight of the game. Better players will consistently win, despite the ingrained element of luck.

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I haven’t even spoke about the solo mode. This is a completely different style of competition as you’re tracking your ending gear each turn on a notepad – or with the free companion app. The higher the gear you end in the less time is used, which is key as this is a time trial which mimics the original Rallyman style of play.

As a robust game system, this succeeds as a solitaire experience. Unlike many games which challenge you to beat your best time, racing’s DNA is made up entirely of this concept. It doesn’t feel slapped on or an afterthought, rather it feels a distinct style of game that the system was designed around initially. What’s more surprising is that the competitive mode works so damn well.

Things are really ratcheted up when you extend this lonely style of play to the popular online leagues. There, you are presented with new tracks to puzzle over each month and submit your personal scores to be ranked alongside a large number of racers. It adds a rich quality to the time trial method and can be very rewarding.

I’ve engaged Rallyman GT in both solitaire and multiplayer modes. I find the thrills of competitive head to head jousting the most dynamic and fulfilling, but I’ve not shied away from running multiple circuits all by my lonesome.

This thing brings the heat at all player counts. It offers a central system that captures some of the most atmospheric elements of motorsport, and it does so with such little effort that it’s difficult to fathom. The fender may be dented and it’s missing some paint, but it’s compelling in a way few racing designs ever accomplish. Vroom, vroom, ramblers.

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A review copy was provided by the publisher.

If you enjoy what I’m doing at Player Elimination and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi.

Hip to be Square – A Catacombs Cubes Review

There is no denying we have a morbid fascination with war and destruction. We turn it into entertainment at every opportunity with films like 1917 and games like Tank Duel. Yet, just as much as we love blowing something up we love putting it together too. Titles like Civilization and Tiny Towns pull in the numbers like Cherokee street on ‘Tamale Thursdays’.

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Catacombs Cubes slots right into the lighter spectrum of this genre. At first blush it’s an odd departure for Elzra, publisher of the outstanding dexterity dungeon crawler that shares a similar namesake as this town builder. There’s an attempt at unifying the themes by centralizing a faux dexterity element of constructing edifices with 3D polyominoes. It’s more a cognitive spatial challenge than a physical one, however, as there’s no time pressure or requirement to build your construction in one go.

But at a high level you can really reduce this game to some very simple concepts. You take turns drafting from a randomized allotment of pieces in a race to build one of several blueprints from a public offer. The tension arises from someone sneaking in and nabbing that basilica before you can claim it. Since building a structure requires you turn in all of your pieces, extra shapes are wasted and a clear indicator of your failure as a Doozer.

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Building the pieces out of the Tetris shapes is certainly fun and has a minor toyetic quality. This ties in rather well to the overall light nature of the game as it’s punching slightly above family weight. There is a subtle feeling that the design is torn in two directions, wanting to offer greater strategic variety while also attempting to appeal to a wide range of participants. This is where the bulk of its struggles exist.

We see this where complication is introduced. Drafting pieces is done via seeded die roll. The last player in the round rolls the bundle of chunky wooden dice and then pairs them up by color. This offers groups of polyominoes you can draft, which have variable values depending on the structures in play and participants’ existing store of shapes. This last player can then strategically swap two dice to mix up the draft a bit, which can occasionally be significant but also occasionally feels superfluous.

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The touch of complication arises when we start to get into the alternate vectors of point scoring. Sometimes a die won’t show a shape, instead it depicts a little tower with a black square. This means you can take one of the smallest cubes from the supply and place it towards a shared public construction on the palace space. This is thematically a selfless act but it rewards you with forward movement along a track offering a few resources or victory points.

Another symbol on the dice is a blue hammer. This is neat as it allows you to chisel away at a piece in your warehouse to produce a smaller shape. Interesting.

None of this is too complex and it’s easy to initially grok. But let’s move on to when you complete a structure.

After finishing a building you flip it over, changing from the 3D isometric view to a colorful Denis Martynets illustration. It’s cute how the artwork mimics the shape of your completed building which is a clever touch. But let’s not get distracted.

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You then must place this square tile in the central grid, another layer to the puzzle. Colored triangles on the outside edges link up with other adjacent buildings and offer you rewards. There are five different options, including a trio of coins that offer interesting bonus actions.

But wait, there’s more.

These coins come in three colors. If you forego spending them for their special power you can instead compete for the majority in each of the three variations at game’s end. This can be a solid way to rack up some bonus points and provides an interesting alternate vector to simply completing buildings.

OR, maybe you just want to spend the coins to take extra actions on your turn such as drafting more pieces or building additional blueprints. They do that too.

Now all of this isn’t crazy. This game is just a touch above family weight as I mentioned earlier. The challenge is that all of this is conveyed through a decent amount of iconography. Again, it’s not too much but it’s close, and you will be referring to the back of the manual often in your early days.

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That conflicted core rears its head in a few other aspects. The most awkward is the division between a player’s construction yard and warehouse. The construction yard is where the vast majority of pieces go. This is where you will build from and spend willy nilly like you just received your first paycheck out of college.

However, through the use of gray coins you can move shapes from your construction yard to your warehouse. This offers a nice benefit of allowing you to save pieces in between builds. Instead of losing all of your extra polyominoes, any unused bits in your warehouse remain. Nice, except you probably should have just wasted the extra piece or two and saved the gray coin for end game scoring. Maybe.

There’s some additional functionality here with an optional more aggressive variant that allows players to occasionally take a piece from your construction yard, however this act is rare and probably not worth bracing for.

So we do have a decent amount of strategic options here which is appreciated. You can tell the game has a pretty malleable core engine and these nodules slapped atop do not feel too egregious. Where the identity stumbles for me is in its lack of totally committing. There’s this odd quality where the scoring value of structures is comprised entirely by the number of square segments it contains.

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This raw number feels unnecessarily uniform because it’s clear early on that some buildings are more difficult to fabricate. Ones that contain hanging sections or columns with no grounded foundation are hammered together with a more rare subset of polyominoes. I’d definitely give designer Aron West the benefit of the doubt that the math here holds up and everything is balanced, but it can feel a bit odd at times. It’s hard to shake this feeling that the scoring system craves more nuance.

Complication and depth of play arises from those extraneous bits – coins, palace building, dice seeding, and tile placement – instead of pushing the boundaries of its core mechanism. I would have loved to see it double down on its central concept in this regard.

And this wish is flirted with when delving into the first expansion, Monuments. This expansion is nearly mandatory as it offers a new style of structure to build. These tiles offer significant rewards at the cost of additional blocks. What this does is offer nuance to the efficiency puzzle of the game and further complicate the drafting of pieces. There’s also only a single monument available so there’s risk with the longer lead time of someone else sliding in and plucking the tile out from under you.

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Alright, so I’ve spent a lot of words needling this design and perhaps coming across as somewhat negative. While I think there’s a bit of conflict at the core of it all, I do need to follow through and convey the quality of fun here. Catacombs Cubes is definitely fun.

It’s breezy enough to quickly hammer out a game in an hour or less. It doesn’t waste your time and it allows diversity in strategic pursuits. I find the spatial element more engaging than Tiny Towns and there’s a decent amount of decision space here to explore.

This is one of those games where despite it’s overall simplicity, I’ve spent a fair share of time contemplating my choices and considering what I should have done differently.

There’s also this excellent quality where the physical piecing together of a building conveys a thematic touch that’s easy to dig. It goes a step beyond simply laying tiles and captures a solid amount of physical interaction, which pairs well with its otherwise Euro-style resource management.

Catacombs Cubes is a solid entry in the genre. It’s really a separate construct than its peers, playing in an entirely different manner. The pairing of cute with a formidable decision space is enticing and it’s hard not to appreciate fiddling with the wonderful bits.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Evolution Evolves – An Oceans Review

A game’s most important quality is how it feels during play. It’s the whole point of why I write about board games and what I hope you take away when reading. It’s also the reason why I simply didn’t dig Evolution from North Star Games.

That title explored an interesting space, tackling evolutionary theory in a very playable and surprisingly short time. However, it was more concerned with elevating strategic play and counter-play in service to a deeper mechanical system. The process of altering your creatures served a precise purpose of competition and left the moving parts as a shallow representation of the design’s thematic narrative.

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Oceans is a different animal. This title feels more dynamic and alive. It uses the framework of its predecessor to establish a unique approach, elevating its thematic underpinnings instead of burying them.

How it does this is by establishing an ecosystem. This is ostensibly a tableau builder, each player throwing down cards to create and evolve their own personal set of aquatic beings. But each creature subsists on and influences a delicate environment.Feeding here is entirely predatory. You can feast on the neutral fish tokens clumped together in ramshackle schools at the middle of the table, or you can grow some teeth and tear chunks out of each other’s population. Both vectors are incredibly interesting and allow you to shape the ecology of play.

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There’s a lot we could dissect here, so let’s take a peek at some of the nuance. Filter Feeders are the large beasts swallowing truckloads of those piled up fish in the middle. They don’t directly harm another player but their paired strategy certainly affects every participant. This is because they eat from the reef.

The reef is this tray of fish separated from the others. It doesn’t get filled on its own, rather, a player must spend an entire action – nearly all of their agency in the early going – to migrate fish from the ocean piles to this reef area. Where you choose to pull from though has large implications.

The largest reservoir triggers the end of the game when emptied. You can accelerate this out of control bus by repeatedly draining that not-quite-bottomless pit. Or you could shift a cluster of Boop Boops from a different area, one that when emptied triggers the electric Cambrian Explosion.

The Cambrian Explosion was basically this radical acceleration of evolution that occurred 541 million years ago. Think the most ridiculous and memorable party Tony has ever thrown and then kick it to 11.

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Exploding Cambrian

In Oceans the Cambrian Explosion is likewise, sick. Instead of one action per turn we now perform two. Instead of each species losing a single point of population, they now also lose two. This means everyone is playing twice as many cards and scoring twice as many points. Aging your creations is the path to victory, but it places a terrible risk of going extinct.

Keeping your species alive while trying to influence and react to the player controlled ecosystem is the very heart of this game. The challenge is that you’re only able to feed with one of your organisms. If they don’t feed off the reef as we discussed earlier, they’re directly chomping on another creation in play, effectively draining them of population which are victory points in waiting.

Your initial reaction is that this is quite mean, and that’s sort of true if you delve into the math of lost point potential and gaze into some of the environmental reverberations at work. But the feel of the game is not at all punitive despite a wealth of seemingly negative interaction. Because each species is in constant flux and population turns over at such a high rate, it never feels as though you have the boot to your neck. In fact, it’s impossible for a player to outright kill one of your species as they only die off if they’re unable to age at the end of your own turn. This allows some breathing room and a phase of feeding to exercise before the watery grave is dug.

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All of this works in concert to deliver that player created ecology that beckons input. You’re never in control and things can easily slip out of reach which births this ever present sensation of mystery and wonder. That spark is elevated superbly with the Deep deck.

In sharp contrast to the standard common trait cards, the Deep deck is a large stack of entirely unique options. No two cards are alike, establishing this bounty of traits that feel as otherworldly and special as their descriptions. When you add chitin plating to your octopod or evolve your puny leech into a Kraken – oh yes you can – there’s a palpable feeling of wonder. It nourishes its own hyper-reality and offers an atmosphere that captures some of the emotion of unusual fiction like The Abyss.

Of even greater surprise is that the shortcomings are all minor. The most immediate issue is that this plays best at three players, although four is not too far off that sweet spot. Two is too few as the ecosystem is not quite developed and that sense of unpredictability is not fully harnessed. Five or six, capable only with expansion content, features far too much downtime and the pace suffers terribly.

I did have early concerns that the strong reliance on establishing an engine of a feeder and then cleaners to trigger off your own meals was the common go-to strategy. This is sort of accurate, but the nuance of resource control, scenario cards which shift the rules each play, and the interaction of Deep traits provides for distinct end games that don’t prove repetitive.

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The most significant quibble with this design is likely to be rooted in its tableau building DNA. While Oceans is highly interactive and surprisingly subtle, more often than not there are too few tools to reign in someone who’s established a potent engine. The game is in fact a race to this state as you can’t typically remove species that have hit a terminal velocity. This does have the potential to sap some of the wind from your sails, but it’s usually triggered so late in the game that it never feels a cheap victory.

And this last issue is really my only significant criticism. The depth and nuance of play makes for such an entertaining playground that my pleasure rarely gets sidetracked. The atmosphere is exceptional and the theme is invariably strong; this is the main driver of the title’s success and what fuels my desire for exploration.

Oceans is sharp. It’s dynamic and highly interactive without succumbing to shallow ‘take-that’ play. It’s unpredictable and acutely compelling due to the fantastic Deep deck and scenario cards. It’s everything I wanted from Evolution and a few leagues more.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Lone Optimist – A Posthuman Saga Review

The post-apocalyptic genre is perhaps my favorite of genres. Among my top films are Fury Road and Children of Men, and among my top novels are The Road and Blood Meridian. My point is that Posthuman Saga is exactly the type of game I stand up for. It’s the type of thing that should directly appeal and have my heart in knots.

But Posthuman Saga doesn’t do this.

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This is the sequel to Mighty Boards’ 2015 release Posthuman, which is a game I know nothing about. This is a very interesting one on its own merits though. Unfortunately it’s one that operates in a category with lots of baggage and it doesn’t care about our preconceived notions or expectations; it does things its own way.

A critical element for my enjoyment of this genre is narrative. I want some kind of arc and a glut of drama. Posthuman Saga’s narrative is mostly provided in bits of scripted paragraphs read at the beginning of rounds. Characters are presented with branching choices and alternate story resolutions that provide a resource bonus or penalty which filters back to the main game.

The paragraph booklet feels disjointed from the primary system, tacked on and attempting to satisfy that requirement of story. This is completely opposite of a recent 2019 release that’s won me over called Dark Venture. That game is all about procedurally generated narrative and stitching together gonzo storylines. What we have here is less concerned with the bizarre and more with thought.

So if Posthuman Saga is not focused on unpredictable story what is it concerned with? Strategy. Yes, it’s a surprising twist – although perhaps less so if you’re familiar with designer Gordon Calleja – but this is a Euro-style adventure game that actually takes a foreign road for post-apocalyptic designs by wrapping the decision space around control.

And it’s entirely about that control. As you’re moving around a personal board attempting to accomplish objectives you’re given a large amount of authorial sway. You bid for and then draft tiles which are placed in your surroundings, injecting this weird yet satisfying sub-game. Players can’t mess with what you’re doing directly as all of the interaction is drafting or selection based, with a dose of racing to complete your goals and earn bonus victory points.

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There’s a lot going on here and it all hangs together within the scope of those design goals. Your character persists as a sort of engine, performing actions each round as you push out your map and gather resources. You can’t progress unless you have food to persist, so your action selection is a mix of slower maintenance and rushed sprinting towards the finish line.

You will gain in power and stats as play unfolds. There’s an RPG element to managing your particular avatar. There’s neat equipment to be found and a really stellar mutation system that provides the strongest narrative spark. There’s a definite momentum to your character’s evolution as a warped and gnarled sack of cells and I delight in observing it escalate.

Unfortunately there is a pretty excessive amount of fiddliness. You have tokens stacked upon tokens, pegs moving about your board, stacks of tiles, multiple bags to draw from, many different types of cards, and about another half-dozen things to position and tinker with. It’s as busy physically as it is mentally, for better or for worse.

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But let’s get back to that sense of control. It really oozes out of each aspect of play. Even combating enemies happens solely at your dispensation. By choosing the encounter action you will engage a randomly drawn adversary and move to a little zoomed in Final Fantasy style combat. This is where things get a touch spicy.

The conflict system is card based as you select one option from your deck and receive a second draw at random. Your combat deck contains a mix of results as cards dictates your success at both ranged and melee phases. Since ranged occurs before close combat there is a visual sense of what’s happening as you build up the scene in your mind. This synergizes surprisingly well with the puzzly aspect of spending resources for extra oomph from your weapons. Like the rest of Posthuman Saga, you have a great deal of control here limited mostly by your personal economy and what equipment you’ve scrounged. You can mitigate poor luck by pushing yourself or with strong preparation.

And the payout of previous decisions also occurs in this system as you can purchase new cards to upgrade your deck. This shift in deck composition allows you to push the odds in your favor and tackle the more difficult level two encounters late in the game. It’s wonderful to run into a giant mutated glutton and slap down your freshly acquired card to headshot the poor bastard.

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There’s a message tucked away in this design that I can’t help but appreciate. While the world may have gone to hell and society has degraded, as humans we are still empowered. We still have a say in our personal story and we will fight tooth and nail to enact our will. There’s a degree of hope baked into the DNA that’s alien to the type of stories this genre tells. That’s a refreshing take, particularly in our modern culture where cynicism is elevated.

So it’s no surprise that the feel of this game is extraordinarily unique due to this focus on strategy and control. This is a very thoughtful game with many facets and a number of vectors that integrate with skilled play. It’s a design that strays far from resolution centered on the whims of fate, refocusing everything on the player and their mastery of its depths.

I found this personally startling and incongruent with my own desires for this style of game. The good news is that there’s definitely an audience and it may be you. I’ve seen players dive headlong into the terrain tile auction and really glob on to the action card system. There are multiple aspects of the game you can focus on and victors in my plays have not pursued the exact same systems or processes.

I was also pleased with the inclusion of a solitaire mode. This functions similarly to regular play, however, it provides a more overt sense of tension due to a pretty aggressive timer. You can work to extend the length of play and avoid defeat, but this requires careful calculation and pushing yourself and your resources at the appropriate time. Since the main mode of play is solitary in some sense, I found the game didn’t lose much and gained a nice edge which proved entertaining.

This is a mechanically rich game for sure, and it’s given an even greater jolt with the Resistance expansion. Everything is sort of beefed up, including a new third level of enemies that are full of nasty surprises. I found the new followers and mutation die particularly exciting among all of the inclusions. The base game certainly contains enough content to satisfy, but those wanting the maximum amount of scope to explore will likely want to include these new elements right away.

Overall my relationship with Posthuman Saga is a weird one. While I adore Calleja’s previous design, Vengeance, this one didn’t quite give me what I wanted. However, what it did provide was a very deep and strategic landscape that differs from anything I’ve played before. There’s no denying it’s a more intellectual than dramatic affair. This mix will likely draw a dedicated fan-base and establish this design as a boundary shifting release. Those desiring a really varied mechanistic post-apocalyptic title may have finally found their love.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs Review

You have to be a little off to be a tanker. These men jammed themselves into a noisy steel warmachine and thundered across the countryside while other crazy men threw high velocity tungsten rounds at them. It was a confined hell that smelled of sweat and petrol. All they had was each other and their rolling coffin.

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Tank Duel understands. This GMT release from Mike Bertucelli mixes elements of sizable abstraction with very specific aspects of simulation. It carefully curates its list of mechanisms to evoke a tight and claustrophobic experience where each shot rumbles and each fire smolders. It’s an intense game is what I’m trying to say.

It clearly owes its lineage to Up Front. That classic wargame was a revelation in abstracting the battlefield by removing the board and leaning heavily on card play. The experience is about providing just enough detail to frame the scene in your mind and allowing you to run wild with narrative authorship. As dramatic and unpredictable situations unfold the tension builds and your own war stories emerge, ones you will share with other hobbyists years later.

In Tank Duel the bulk of play is funneled through your hand. Whether you’re controlling a Soviet T-34 or German Panzer IV, you’re drawing from a shared action deck that controls the editing and pacing of our story. You won’t be able to fire or push forward on the battlefield unless you draw the appropriate card, which results in a lack of control and an excellent framing of fog of war.

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I discussed the nature of card driven game-play in my article on Combat Commander. It’s a quirky thing that appeals to some and insults others. I find it uniquely satisfying in how it produces chaos and then requires you wrangle it to instill order. It forces tough decisions and has you assessing priorities as you often can’t perform your ideal maneuver. It keeps things exciting and fresh.

The cards themselves are a bit baroque though, coming off as complicated as the machines the game depicts. They include an action, sometimes two giving you a choice, a unique number used for firing, penetration information, and a slew of icons which for fire, explosion, smoke, and other effect triggers. If you tossed the card to a lay man he’d buckle at the knees and wash out of tank school.

Like many of this game’s mechanisms, it does all come together after a play or two. Mostly.

Even after several sessions you may forget the details of one of the many phases. If your tank is on fire and your crew is broken, which do you test first? Do you score scenario points – for instance from holding a hill – before or after this check? If your tank isn’t consumed by fire, how do you put it out?

You get the idea. This game can be a bit of a muddy field if you put it away for awhile and come back later. Sure, it’s not ASL and you will pick it up quick enough, but it’s still a concern as the detail is often heavy in very specific areas of the design due to those elements of simulation.

And this really leads me into my main concern with Tank Duel. It can be very choppy at times with players pausing to look up a rule or work their way through the procedural sub-systems. This stands in contrast to the rapid pace it often accomplishes as you quickly reveal initiative and play a single action. In fact, often the game will fly by with experienced players which is a bit of a double-edged 88mm barrel (yeah, I know that analogy makes no sense).

Here’s the thing: this one can occasionally feel as though it’s plodding when it should be scooting and scooting when it should be more restrained. These moments do not overtake the middle ground that forms the bulk of play, but they’re nagging at times and worth addressing with some ink.

At the opposite end of the persnickety rule structure is the lightning fast narrative. What can happen is that a tank suffers a critical hit and is lost due to brewing up or perhaps an explosion. Usually this is very good stuff as perhaps it was a wounded beast, maintaining operation by the slimmest of margins with a skeleton crew. When all that’s left of your commander and driver are bits of flesh and bone embedded into their leather seats, forcing other crew members like the assistant driver and loader to get their pants wet, that’s when things are hot and story is writing itself. But the author doesn’t quite know when to get out of the way.

Death in Tank Duel is tragic primarily from a perspective of victory points. It undermines any emotional investment by allowing players to respawn immediately. It’s oddly cavalier about casualty and is more concerned with providing a well-rounded and safe (read: modern) experience that keeps everyone involved.

I think this was the wrong call.

What it does is neuter any permanence of loss. Sure, the victory points burn a bit but the game is so swingy and can turn on a single lucky shot that it’s best not to sweat a death or two. By allowing tanks to respawn you get an immensely playable design that supports up to 8 players with ease. However, you lose the most dramatic touchstone moments the players deserve.

Tank Duel will never provide the intensity of a last remaining T-34, tracks blown and billowing smoke, to rally and go on a rampage as it takes down two flanking Panzers. It just doesn’t happen because the previously lost T-34 is already back on the battlefield and coming in hot. Status quo is furiously maintained at the expense of outlying situations.

This not only robs us of really special moments, it also devalues death as I said because we care less about losing battlefield position. Furthermore, it cements an element of repetition where you move forward, trade shots, and someone respawns only to repeat the entire thing. There is definitely a range of tactical maneuvering and tough decisions occurring in this script, but the overall story of each game is often mostly similar. It works to break this up by introducing new tanks and a surprisingly large number of scenarios requiring varied strategies to overcome. The results are a mixed bag in this regard as the dynamic is altered, but it’s still positioned within the boundaries of a somewhat predictable narrative structure.

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The second real issue dovetailing into this is the lack of personality with crew. These men represented by counters should have been given names and perhaps even faces. I’m not mourning the death of ‘driver’ but if he was ‘Unterfeldwebel Schmidt’ I’d at least be given a chance. I want to care about these little warriors I’m staring down on from above and I want my heart to beat and thrash as their fate is determined. That simply doesn’t happen because Tank Duel doesn’t offer support.

In tandem, these two aspects of the design work against its strongest functions of narrative. As this is absolutely a game concerned with narrative it’s a bit of a bruise.

At this point you’re probably considering writing this one off. Yes, I’m being highly critical and pointing out some major structural issues. But you should not bail out yet. This one can be salvaged.

There is so much good here. The whole firing mechanism where cards are flipped and every single participant is standing and holding their breath is magnificent. The anguish of a surprising penetration or unexpected explosion really feels terrifying or thrilling in the moment. The details are at times very rich and there are small narrative paragraphs that stand out, even if the larger novel does not.

I also think the accomplishment of portraying a very mobile fighting force within a heavily abstracted movement system is surprisingly solid. Flanking, going hull down, and zooming into cover all feel a natural extension of the rules. There’s some familiarity hurdles with the process of playing movement and terrain cards, but once you’ve leaped those obstacles it becomes second nature and flows very smooth. It also handles relative distance about as well as you can and is an overall more friendly system than Up Front.

The streamlined technique of handling armor facing also integrates perfectly. It proves a necessary component to taking out some of the larger and more iconic tanks, such as the Tiger and KV-1, and allows for some exceptional moments to emerge in the heat of combat.

All of this abstracted positioning challenges the players to build a scene in their mind. By forcing you to do a small amount of work in piecing together the battlefield and solidifying the abstraction, it buys back some of that narrative investment it loses in the combat fallout. I found myself occasionally pausing during key moments in the game and mentally authoring a detailed description of the current situation. The combination of abstraction and detail works as a fantastic trigger in that regard.

And this is really the design’s lasting impact and how it fits into the greater context of wargaming. It offers an interesting approach of radically streamlining large swathes of elements that are considered staples of this type of simulation. By doubling down on a few key ideas it claims a unique focus that results in a solid payout.

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Tank Duel also feels very complete. There are many different types of tanks, there are advanced rules for AT guns and infantry, there is even a whole suite of historical scenarios that offer delightful context to the battles.

Did I mention it has a bespoke solo mode? The ‘robota’ AI is solid and plays relatively logically while also pulling a surprise punch or two. It’s a comfortable half-way point between a mindless opponent and those huge branching decision trees in something like COIN. I prefer this multiplayer – precisely so that we can share in the drama and fuel reactions – but the solitaire mode is wholesome and entertaining. It does not feel tacked on or an afterthought in the least.

So this is not a perfect game. Like most, it requires you to give as much as you take. For those seeking an Up Front focused on AFVs this is an overall quality offering that hits most of the notes. Like the 2014 Brad Pitt tank film Fury, I don’t think this one has the right stuff to become a true classic, but that won’t stop us from enjoying it.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

If you enjoy what I’m doing at Player Elimination and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi.

Weaponizing Your Inside Voice – A War of Whispers Review

I always thought Wormtongue was misunderstood. During his appearances in the Lord of the Rings he gets shafted by Tolkien, often described as a serpent. He had performed Saruman’s bidding by working to weaken King Theoden of Rohan; his motivation being his love of Eowyn, the king’s niece.

Maybe he was a sycophant and manipulator, but he did it all for love, baby.

Now the Wormtongues, the Unferths, and the Little Fingers get their day. You get to crawl out from your rock and leap into a new shadow, this one cast by a throne not long for this world.

I’m talking about A War of Whispers.

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This is an area control game where you don’t own any pieces. The various armies scattered across the fictional setting don’t represent you and yours, rather they’re pawns to be manipulated and twisted in the name of your bidding. This is seedy coercion by way of worker placement.

You read that correctly: worker placement. It doesn’t really feel like one of those types of games though. This isn’t Agricola. You place your little agent pawns – dudes representing your various henchmen poisoning the noble’s ear – around the circular board to occupy council positions of each faction. These positions segregate absolute control of the nations by breaking their agency down into micro actions.

So if you want to move the lion people’s armies you need to occupy their Sheriff office. If you’d rather control where their troops are recruited then seize the Marshall position and so on.

There are some tricks here. Most of these agents will stick around. It’s not a typical worker placement game where the spots are cleared each round. Instead, each player pulls back only a single agent but places two. This leads to an ever tightening grip and greater contention in the latter portion of the four round game. And this one moves quick as hell so that sensation of strangling sneaks up on you rapidly in the 60 minute playtime.

Additionally, if any seat is empty after everyone has placed then the first occupied seat next in order gets to execute its actions. This elicits a push your luck element where maybe I position my worker an office or two down the line, hoping no one else takes the Sheriff space I really wanted. This is clever and creates some early tension as risky placement is encouraged.

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So be it.

So what’s the point of all of this? Yes, Wormtongue gets Eowyn but what do you get? Well, you get points silly. Because of course.

How your points are determined is the interesting bit. At the start of play you’re dealt random allegiances to each of the factions. Some houses you favor more directly, receiving a bounty of points for each stronghold they possess at game’s end. Others you’re ambivalent towards and one specifically you actually lose points for their success.

So with a random shuffle we already have underhanded motivations overlapping. This is all secret because I don’t know which nations you favor and which you conspire against. I have to deduce this from your actions on the board. Yes, it’s all starting to come together.

This is the central accomplishment of A War of Whispers: it succinctly captures layers of scheming and manipulation with absolutely no waste. It’s a 60 minute area control game that achieves some of the devious plotting and crooked angling of Imperial.

And it works. It works at four players and it works with three even better. It just bustles along with a group that’s not overly susceptible to analytical hesitance.

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Deluxe version shown. Admittedly, not extremely deluxe.

As I said, the element of worker placement doesn’t feel so. You’re not grabbing one cube to convert to another, you’re seizing positions of strength so that you can control where the blue or red people will attack. Since you’re never afforded total control it feels as though you’re acting within the scope of a background adviser, giving the nation a nudge in a certain direction as you try to untangle the puppet strings. This ability to convey such atmosphere and emotion to the participants is exemplary and what makes this design appealing.

And yet that sensation of skirting so close to greatness is ultimately fuel for disappointment. This game, while certainly worthy of attention, is not the smashing success it could have been. It’s not the thundering hooves of Rohirrim that it desperately wants to be. This is because it’s too streamlined. Every rough edge is sanded off and the semblances of personality peeking above the surface remain just flitters of what could have been.

The main mechanism of hidden alliances is the first culprit. There’s clearly a problem here that the game must reconcile – what if two of three players randomly receive the same point multiplier for their highest amount? Or even their lowest? Their completely randomly allocated alliance will have them working in tandem, certain participants scoring bushels of points by merely riding along in the backseat. Meanwhile you could be on the other side of it, your primary nation battered about like a poor pinata bleeding sweet innards.

So they ease off the gas and provide a life preserver. Now you can swap the position of two of your face-down faction tokens at the end of a round. The penalty here is that they’re flipped face-up so everyone can see.

And so what?

This does matter, sure, but it’s minimal. The bigger issue is that the main forces at the heart of the game now allow you to skirt any investment. So why work at all?

This philosophy of how it intersects the players performance with their motivations is far weaker than the more overt and audacious system found in Pax PamirWar of Whispers is unable to pull off the same effectiveness because it minimizes the repercussions and streamlines the process of flip-flopping.

Now, the designer has offered an interesting house rule – found online and not in the rulebook – of rewarding a bonus point for each token that remains unchanged. This is not only recommended but necessary in my view. There needs to be an incentive to work with the hand you’ve been dealt otherwise you run the risk of a loafer securing that which they did not earn.

The muted sensation continues in one of the game’s strongest moments. Each faction has a space which awards faction specific cards. These are played from your hand to trigger some pretty wild effects such as placing armies in each of that nation’s empty borders or perhaps executing a daring raid across the entire board. Even these are reigned in, however, as every single card for a specific faction is mostly identical. The strongest effect on each is unique, but the cost of these is so high that you will only see them executed once or twice per game. The drama here is shades of gray when it should be technicolor.

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I mentioned investment earlier. This game struggles with that concept. If you’ve noticed I’ve referred to the factions by both their color and animal signet in my writing. This is because they don’t have a name. They’re all but faceless, given what little personality they possess by some truly excellent illustrations, but it’s not enough.

Wormtongue’s betrayal is so harsh and bitter because it’s personal. Betrayal is an intimate act and A War of Whispers is about as intimate as kissing your Grandma. It sacrifices any sense of boldness in favor of complete playability and a miniscule time requirement.

This works, as a game, that is if you consider a game a set of mechanisms to be twisted and bopped. As an experience this title suffers because it doesn’t pull you in, content to move along at breakneck speed like a J.J. Abrams film. Sure, everyone’s quietly content but no one is standing on their seat and declaring A War of Whispers their true love.

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We’ve been given a very competent and fun design. This game works and is smooth. It accomplishes the unthinkable in presenting a worker placement game that doesn’t feel at all like worker placement. It has a few delightful moments scattered throughout but it’s ultimately just a very solid and slightly meek experience. I’d be happy at any moment to play this one again, but when I leave the table my face won’t be flush and my tongue won’t be primed with an unforgettable story.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Theel’s Feels – A 2019 Top 10

Yuck. I can appreciate a top 10 list from afar, curious to know Joel Eddy or Mark Bigney’s take on their top releases of the year, but I will always struggle to craft my own. Not because the actual choosing of games is difficult but because the penning of lists is an activity akin to thumb-wrestling a needle. So here’s my list. 10 games which blew my mind. Hopefully you can take something unique away from these words in terms of perspective.

Yes, my top 10 is descending because this is the way. Whatever you do, maintain the suspense and don’t scroll to the bottom.

 

10. Dark Venture

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“What the hell is this?” That was my response upon first discovering this game and then again upon playing it. I hope it’s yours seeing it on a top 10 list.
Why it Matters – Dark Venture offers us something new. It blends competitive adventure game with bizarre narrative beats via small story books. It feels a little like a “Choose Your Own Adventure”, a little like Talisman, and a little like Dungeon Degenerates. Everything is pressed together with this absolutely oddball glue. This is one of the most successful blends of author prescribed and emergent narrative. Each location has a little story section but the way the whole unfolds is uniquely yours; one which is entirely unpredictable and foreign. The procedural generation of enemies, items, and quests lends to upheaval and large surprise. There’s not really a game like this one.

Why It’s Not Higher On This List – Wow is this one random. Combat is brutal and you can be knocked out in short order. If this occurs you will likely miss multiple rounds in a game that ends after 12. Also, it’s not at all concerned with fairness as dice matter more than stats or strategy. Them’s the breaks in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of mutation. Also, the game is likely to grow stale from a narrative perspective after a dozen plays or so due to seeing the same locations and the mystery fading quite a bit. On the plus side, the entire narrative baked into the locations can become completely fresh if the creator issues another electronic guide or two (the title comes with two such booklets).

 

9. Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Volume One

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I wrote about this one at Ars Technica.

Why It Matters – A skirmish game is not new. A skirmish game based on Star Wars: Epic Duels is definitely not new. Yet Unmatched feels new.

This is because it successfully blends fighting game concepts seen in tabletop designs such as Yomi and Battlecon with the miniatures based format of Warhammer Underworlds and Wildlands. Players can quickly gain comfort with the pre-built asymmetric character decks giving way to noticeable depth early in your experience arc. The game continually gives back and feels rich for a 20 minute lark before the real gaming starts. It helps that the whole thing is beautiful as a sunrise and exudes a classical atmosphere. All of the work and focus put into this product results in a feel that is best described as timeless. This is a game we’ll be discussing 10 years from now.

Why It’s Not Higher – Occasionally this one feels predestined with your shuffle and hand playing you. I also can’t help but bag on the overstuffed feinting that undoes the most potent moments just a tad too often.

There is depth aplenty in this design but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Warhammer Underworld’s exploration via endless tinkering. It also doesn’t boast the spectacle or drama encapsulated in my current favorite skirmisher – Mythic Battles: Pantheon.

 

8. Cthulhu: Death May Die

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An Eric Lang and Rob Daviau collaboration that actually meets expectations? The end times are nigh.

Why It Matters – This is entirely about tempo. The pedal is held down with a brick and all you can do is swerve. With modular scenarios and ancient ones there’s this Street Masters vibe as content interacts in unique and interesting ways to craft on-the-fly scenarios.

I’ve already reached double digit plays with this one and it’s hard to put it down. It’s not quite a dungeon crawler, rather it’s more a tactical miniatures spin on something like Pandemic or Flash Point. You’re managing a buildup of monsters as the cultists bring the summoning of the Elder One ever near. And then everything is thrown into high gear as you give into sanity loss in order to beef up your skills.

That tight weave of mental destruction with growing power is a lever we’ve never seen, at least in this way. Yes, it was first introduced in Lang’s The Others, but that game did not utilize it to the fullest and married it to a slog of an experience that was entirely generic. This hits fast and hard and with full personality.

Why It’s Not Higher – This one is so fast at times that it can be borderline forgettable. The narrative is intense as it often comes down to a single last ditch attack, but the fact that this rolls out in much the same way each play causes the story beats to blend and fade. Absence the emotion of the feel-good insanity system, it would lose the compelling knot at the heart of the experience and become just another game.

 

7. Hellboy: The Board Game

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A game so interesting that it forced me to read the comic.

Why It Matters – James Hewitt and Sophie Williams strapped the dungeon crawl concept to the table and beat the hell out of it. The pulp that emerged is an extremely rich experience full of characters that are entirely asymmetrical, branching storylines that are full of surprises, and action that is intense and heroic. In many ways this feels like a tactical miniatures version of the Arkham Horror LCG as you progress through the story in similar fashion.

Likewise, there are many parallels between Hellboy and Death May Die, however they’re very different experiences when scrutinized. This is more deliberate and drawn out as the investigation culminates with unveiling the mystery and confronting the boss. Tempo undulates with moments of breakout crescendo and splashes of percussion. Then it slows, waiting as tension builds beneath the surface before it picks up again.

This is much more a proper dungeon crawler and it’s one of the best. It makes you feel powerful and unique and it offers you a very interesting story to tear apart.

Why It’s Not Higher – It’s probably not surprising to hear this one’s a slog to setup. You must build a unique event deck, find the appropriate enemies, gather the specific encounter cards, and then dig through dozens and dozens of miniatures to find the few you need. Part of this is the cost of content, but part of it is the very structure of the game. This adds up and it means I don’t play it as often as I should. It also scales somewhat poorly compared to its peers and functions best at 3-4 players.

 

6. Lifeform

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I backed Lifeform with a bundle of cash and a bundle of hope. This was one of my better decisions of 2018.

Why It Matters – The structure of this one is entirely unique. It’s not exactly a hidden movement game but it also kind of is. The Xenomorph is always nearby and you’re pressing, hoping to gather enough supplies to make it to the shuttle and off your dying ship. It’s more Alien than any official Alien game we’ve seen and it’s refreshing.

What’s really astounding about this game is the oppressive and tense atmosphere. You can’t actually harm the lifeform until the final encounter at the end of play – and you’re hoping you do well enough that this doesn’t even occur. Playing the crew is intense and some of the most deliciously stressful experiences I’ve ever had. Taking on the role of the alien is entirely different, you feel the pressure of the clock just as well as the crew members but you’re throwing your weight around and trying to outsmart your adversaries, executing clever bluffs and subtle misdirection. It’s visceral and it’s awesome.

Why It’s Not Higher – For better or for worse, the main bones of this story are scripted. There’s enough variation to result in unique outcomes, but the strategy encompassed within the design is very much the same game-to-game. The sheer terror of the lurking lifeform makes up for this, but it does stand in stark contrast to more open designs. This one also has a rulebook that’s unwieldy and as obnoxious as the amount of exceptions in the game. Fortunately those exceptions buy a rich enough experience to be worth the pain. I do, however, dread the day I come back to this one after letting it sit for a year and need to re-learn it.

 

5. Vast: The Mysterious Manor

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I wrote a pretty gung-ho piece on this one earlier in the year.

Why It Matters – This release is really a reflection on Leder Games’ accomplishments and their current position as an indie powerhouse. I wasn’t smitten with the first iteration of Vast, but that first release was absolutely necessary for the floodgates of asymmetry to open. Without Crystal Caverns we likely don’t get Root and we certainly don’t get Mysterious Manor.

This is one of the most successful designs in producing disparate parts that interlock in mechanically simple yet strategically complex ways. It also shows how far we’ve come in hybridizing Euro-style resource management with Ameritrash drama and conflict. This one’s an achievement, it’s just a fact.

Why It’s Not Higher – Simple is relative, and outside the scope of these types of designs this one can actually be difficult to internalize. It’s much easier to teach than Crystal Caverns and the graphic design has been wildly enhanced to convey information more naturally, but it’s still a heavier game that takes effort to commit. The rulebook is also not always agreeable in helping to smooth the experience and this can be discouraging in your early days.

 

4. Nemesis

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One story generator to rule them all.

Why It Matters – You have to view Nemesis as an overcomplicated framework to generate narrative. It provides the moving pieces and tools for players to latch onto, gives you a push in a general direction, and then starts blowing everything the hell up. How your story and decisions collide with another’s is the real brilliance of this thing. You will fight over punching in the ship’s coordinates, seal each other in rooms and hope your adversary dies of fire or claw, sometimes you will sabotage the engines before flying off in an escape pod. Each session is its own isolated 20th Century Fox slice of cinema, and its fantastic. The way it bounces between conflict and cooperation and rides these fragile relationships into a brilliant supernova is worth standing up for.

Why It’s Not Higher – It’s too long. At three hours it could benefit by shaving 30 or 60 minutes off. It’s also dull at less than four players, which means you will always run into that former problem with the longest format.

The ever present randomness also borders on unhealthy at times. When you draw two events that spread fire and the entire ship explodes you can’t help but laugh to avoid crying. A game that takes 15 minutes to setup should never end 20 minutes later.

 

3. Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon

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Story like you read about.

Why It Matters – This is the best scripted narrative game I’ve ever seen. It’s enthralling, offering seemingly dozens and dozens of story paths to explore while rewarding and punishing you for your decisions. There are legitimate consequences and stakes and it’s wonderful. Despite the fact that everything here has been penned by an outside author, it feels as though you legitimately shape the world and carve your own identity out of this flawless statue.

This game is everything I wanted 7th Continent to be. Each card is a location you can spend a day in. Each battle is a fierce puzzle to outwit. Each encounter is a dreadful horror waiting to be discovered.

Why It’s Not Higher – When I finished the campaign after 18 hours or so of play, I was a bit exhausted. The game fails to avoid the 7th Continent’s naked resource grind, requiring you to constantly work to light the Menhir statues littered across the island. It can become annoying, particularly when you’ve spent a great deal of time and effort to travel far in one cardinal direction only to discover you need to now backtrack all the way to the beginning.

The juicy story bits make the pain worthwhile, but I have to admit that I shamelessly skipped the grind at times and was happier for it. If a game encourages you to cheat and skip ahead, winging the cost in resources to maintain balance, it fails on some fundamental level. The fact that I’ve still positioned this game as my number three release for the year is testament to its powerful story.

It also only really excels as a solo endeavor. This is due to a lengthy encounter system and having to watch other players fight – physically or verbally – for upwards of five minutes while you twiddle your thumbs. Passing the book around and reading narrative aloud also struggles to excite. The unfortunate aspect of this being relegated to solitaire play is that you will have no one to high-five when the best moments land, no one to clobber when anguish and pain arise.

 

2. Core Space

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My heart is molded in plastic.

Why It Matters – Core Space is exceptional. It presents a compelling narrative sandbox that allows freedom of exploration and interaction. You can befriend other player’s crews or fight them for the current objective. The game-driven enemy exists in security and outlaw forces, as well as a huge mechanical alien menace. There are elements of Firefly, The Expanse, and Shadowrun. The tempo is fierce and there’s always one more job just around the corner.

As an experience this recalls my favorite game ever crafted, Earth Reborn. There’s a freedom of environment here that many games never successfully capture. This produces the most enticing of interactions as player’s motivations twist and intermingle in nefarious ways.

I haven’t even gotten to the board yet.

The playing surface is a neoprene mat about 2 feet square, with three dimensional cardstock walls and doorways forming a maze of a battleground. There are props like crates you actually open up to search for weapon tokens, signage you can plaster over the many walls to enhance personality and setting, even windows you can dive through. It’s engrossing and threatens to become my lifestyle game of choice.

Why It’s Not Higher – Man does this one take a long time to setup. We’re talking 20-30 minutes of linking together the 3D walls and positioning everything just right. Then you play this intense firecracker of a mission that lasts about 60 minutes, which is perfectly paced. If you want to now play again you need to reassemble a new map and it’s inconvenient in ways gaming shouldn’t be. Thus, like Earth Reborn, this is one I’m not playing nearly as much as I ought to.

It also can get a bit samey. This is a byproduct of the current mission design as opposed to the ruleset. The framework is there to create really unique and interesting setups, but it appears as though that torch is left mostly for the community to carry at this point.

 

1. Pax Pamir 2nd Edition

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It’s almost perfect. If you want more words on this one, check out my review.

Why It Matters – This is Phil Eklund’s beloved Pax system perfected. It’s just accessible enough to get everyone off and running, yet it’s swollen with depth and nuance. The experience feels simultaneously open and constricted as you’re constantly flipping between waging war and offering platitudes to your opponents. It has negotiation, conflict, and tension all bundled up in this absolutely fantastic design space.

The real success here is in offering a game that is political leaning in a really open and player-friendly format that also manages to play quickly. There’s little downtime and it never overstays its welcome.

Don’t have the daylight for Dune or Twilight Imperium? There’s Pax Pamir.

Don’t have the energy for a learning game of Pax Porfiriana? Pamir is here.

Like Root and John Company before it, Cole Wehrle has brought us a design that is grand and historic in a way that this medium can’t often capture. It teaches us about the past while having us looking toward the future and reflecting upon human nature.

This is an experience that digs into your brain and begins to carve out a home. It simply won’t let go and I love it for that.

 

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