The Not so Wild Hunt – A Merlin’s Beast Hunt Review

I’ve never really been a hunter. The Deer Hunter is one of my favorite films but I’ve never shot a living creature. I can see your face starting to wrinkle and this is all going South. Don’t worry, Merlin’s Beast Hunt doesn’t ask you to climb into a deer blind and rub foul urine on your clothes. This is not in fact a tabletop fantasy take on the video game Big Buck Hunter, but rather is a magic-infused competition of animal control. Yeah, when centaurs and unicorns run wild, they call you.
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This job is actually kind of fancy. You get to roll custom engraved dice and slot them into depressions in the board. Depending on the symbols you roll, you will even get to place these swanky semi-transparent cards on their side, standing them up as arcane barriers and fencing in that mythical game running wild. Those slick dice pinch two opposite corners of the card and hold the thing upright.

Clearly this is another weird one which we’ve come to expect in the Zev Schlasinger era of Wizkids. This is also a case study in how a unique mechanism doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling game.

Let’s discuss the structure a bit more before wading into the criticism. This is a relatively snappy game as you roll four dice and then quickly puzzle out your best placement. There’s a balance between completing fence sections immediately versus placing a die or two and planning for the future. It certainly sways a little more tactical than strategic, but both elements are present to a degree.

 

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The tension arises from players building off and stealing each other’s progress. You achieve points from the different fences you build based on a couple of parameters that add a modicum of heft to the decision space, but the largest payouts arise from completing a sealed pen and trapping a beast. This affords a bit of race-like pressure as participants ramp up the tempo and run to beat their opponent’s to the punch.

It’s all decent enough. There’s some thought and legitimate strategy anchored by this novel mechanism of standing cards on their sides. But decent is not enough. The central conceit of that innovative fence system is simply ho-hum. The issue is that the game doesn’t leverage the mechanic into a greater whole.

A friend of mine, Grace, commented that this is a similar problem to Mystic Vale. The core twist is interesting, but the game just doesn’t offer a compelling ride. A novel mechanism does not always make for a novel experience.

 

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This is the type of game that you quickly set up, quickly take turns, quickly complete, and then quickly put away. If I was regaling you with lively tales from our most recent game sessions, you wouldn’t be spilling your mead over the story of Merlin’s Beast Hunt. Hell, I may even forget that I played it.

The strategic maneuvering is minimal as the board is chaotic. Tactical decisions are restrained due to the dice result set as well as what fence cards you currently possess. Swinging into large point gains is smirk inducing, but it’s not wild or dramatic.

Progress and the game’s arc of play are also abbreviated. Over a few turns you make measured gains towards completing a pen and either have it swiped out from under you or complete the rickety thing of woven lightning and thorn. Then you start over and begin anew. The board is sectioned off as areas are finished and the tempo never really ignites. This lends a repetitive strategic feel as variance is limited and your decision points are mostly identical.

 

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The moments where it manages to crawl out of the shadow and actually attain interest lean into competitive interaction. It has this solid area control feel where you’re vying to lock down spaces. This affords a bit of maneuvering room for clever play. However, these burst of light are but intermittent flickers in a dank Dagobah cave.

It also sits in an awkward position of being too long for a filler but not long enough to be meaningful. At 45 minutes it’s not demanding, but it’s also not fulfilling. Unfortunately it’s a bit of a shrug.

I’m tempted to say it needed to go a step further and bolster the mechanism with a more meaty or substantial structure, however, I don’t actually think that’s the case. Merlin’s Beast Hunt feels the natural conclusion of those shifting fences, a stutter step rattrap of dance floor refugees devoid of rhythm.

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Much like Hako Onna, not every risky nu-Wizkids release is going to land. This doesn’t diminish their legacy or my desire to see a continual offering of oddball titles. But it does highlight the fact that even rock stars release an occasional Generation Swine.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Brooding Over Claustrophobia 1643

Clatter, clatter. That familiar tune of bones scrapping across wood and revealing the kiss of lady luck.

Four warriors. Three convicted felons sentenced to death in the bowels of hell. Not a metaphor but their reality.

The fourth is the Redeemer. He wields light and courage and is a beacon for the hellfire to snuff out. He will die too.

The dice are assembled and a groan is released. A “2” to the Brute, an instinct card to my hand. I will use this later to shift a result to my liking. A fist to the mouth of whistling fate.

With the Brute’s increased attack value I move the lowest result to the Redeemer in search of defense. This leaves my final two choices easy as I land upon two movement with one Blade For Hire and a more balanced line for the other.

Then we run more than we crawl.

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This feels like Descent mainlining Rooster Booster. Tiles are flipped from the stack and hell awaits. I run into a cavernous pit with teeth gnashing. I run into a den of canker sores split open and stretching across the walls and floor. I run into nightmares.Jeremy, the demon, who I call this not because he plays the role of the demon but because he’s a bastard of the highest caliber, tosses his own fated tombstones across the felled gum. He does not groan. The saddle-goose is smiling.

But that smile is not stone. A bewildered look of confusion replaces the mirth as he once again wrestles with the iconography of his demonic mat like a wolf dancing with an octoped. It’s our third play and this still occasionally happens.
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He works it out. Troglodytes nip at my heels and cower in the shadow of a hellhound, its breath a fiery dew upon their shriveled skulls.

A clicking of teeth. The Brute steps in front of the Redeemer and offers a pound of flesh. It has begun.

20 minutes has passed. Hell is alive with a cacophony of screams and grunts.

The tiles are spread across our reach and finely sculpted plastic is everywhere. I miss the color of old but occasionally marvel at the detail of these wonderful sacrificial statues.

I use an instinct card to shift a die result and trigger the Redeemer’s Aura of Courage. What’s left of my suicide squad is in ruin, broken bones hauling tattered flesh. The Brute lays silent in a dead end whose title is befitting. One of the Blades is unidentifiable as his skin has been stretched and fused upon the wall by a hammer-headed demon.

So two, on the brink.

The Redeemer calls upon his blessing. He smashes the hellhound in his path. The Blade, dragging a lifeless leg which scrapes upon the stone floor, fires his blunderbuss. The little albino dorbels shake and fall as their flesh catches the cloud of splinters.

There it is. A sliver of hope.

Time is now gone. It’s faded into the background as we’re caught in the throes.

This tension is familiar. All encompassing. This is Claustrophobia before and forever. My heart is thrashing about like a bottle of bees.

The demon has returned. Its huge bladed skull is thirsty and shining. I want to cave it in.

The bastard plays a card and the draining sack that can barely be called a Blade For Hire drives his hired blade into my Redeemer’s back. I feel it in my own kidney.

My dice poke a finger into the open wound. I dither about with my final instinct card, deciding to use it for the boosted attack instead of altering a die. My Redeemer knows it’s over but he wants black blood if he’s going to give his own.

My attack roll is something else. Jeremy’s mouth hangs open, unconsciously mimicking the maw at the cave’s exit.

Not tonight you hellion.

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Claustrophobia 1643 is a confusing gremlin. It’s that cherished friend who disappeared for years and now is back. And you still love them but it’s not quite the same, except when it is. Maybe you love them even more. Maybe you don’t.

The miniatures are better and worse. The box is sleek and sexy but it throws its weight around and threatens to take up all the space you will give it.

There are more tiles than you can handle and Gehenna is as dynamic and varied as ever. But you will stop often to look them up, flipping through the book because Monolith couldn’t be bothered to provide a proper player aid.

The demon board is absent of words, likely poking fun at Beelzebub’s literacy. Language independence killed the radio star.But it’s also iterated mechanically in a wonderful way which positively adjusts the decision space.

Thankfully the fantastic instinct cards tip the scales, justifying my hundred dollar purchase. That’s the peace I needed.

Turn and face the strange.

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The New Doublemint – A Silver & Gold Review

Phil Walker-Harding is an Australian gentleman known for recent games such as GizmosImhotep, and Bärenpark. Besides an Aussie at the helm, another thing these designs have in common is that I’ve never played them. Silver & Gold is also a PWH joint, but this one is special because it’s one I’ve actually played. And it’s one I want to tell you about.

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This little 20 minute filler is described as a flip ‘n write. That means it’s part of the budding roll ‘n write genre, a group of games that’s become increasingly popular as bite-sized casual games. This has the “flip” moniker because you’re revealing cards from a shuffled deck instead of rolling dice. Cute.

These games typically feature scribbling on paper, checking off boxes, and noodling away silently in your own little world. This is part of the appeal as they allow a touch of strategy, brief moments of excitement, and they’re very comfortable. They owe their lineage to that game you know called Yahtzee.

This group of games doesn’t excite me.

They tend to be isolationist featuring little to no interaction between those sitting at the table. They’re often very faint and throwaway, functionally single serving games to be used for a brief time and then parted with. There was a moment where every single person on Twitter was posting screenshots of Ganz Schön Clever and marveling at their own score. Posting a screenshot now would be like leaving your house brandishing a mullet, or perhaps working a Yo-Yo.

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Rarely does one of these leave a lasting impression.

Nope, I’m not here to tell you Silver & Gold is different. It’s still a bit of a throwaway 20 minute filler, sitting quietly on your shelf for those scattered moments where it’s chosen due to circumstance as opposed to desire. But people, let me tell you, this one has a spark.

You have these little treasure map cards with peculiar island shapes. Someone flips the top card of the deck revealing a shape stolen from Tetris. Then you must puzzle out the best way to fit that crooked thing into one of your two islands.

It’s simple. There’s almost no effort involved. But it feels warm.

You need to think just a little. You don’t want to isolate certain sections leaving spaces where these awkward shapes won’t fit. Filling cards completely up scores you the bulk of your points, but there are a couple of alternate paths including marking off tiny coins and palm trees that offer unique supplementary vectors.

There’s something uniquely appealing about manipulating Tetris pieces and filling in empty space. There’s a very direct loop at the heart which imparts a sense of clever. You feel good and you get points for it. Silver & Gold is Ricky, that one friend that everyone likes because they make you feel special.

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Ricky

An effort was put into capturing a particular treasure hunt setting. It doesn’t quite succeed at elevating the experience as you never feel as though you’re discovering buried treasure or charting territory. But none of that matters. It’s just Tetris as smooth as Jameson, y’all.

The best moments are when people express their pain. Every once in awhile Ricky turns into Doug and kicks you in a crevice. You’ve left the perfect space for that one particular shape to land, ready for the card to be drawn. Then it never comes.

You see, only seven of the eight cards are revealed each round. You’re never exactly sure the sequence or even existence of a particular piece. So groan away kids.

Another quirk is that this is best with four. It certainly works with less, but that subtle element of tension is non-existent at lower counts. This is because the race for marking off a set of coins or hate-drafting a particular map is much more prevalent with additional participants.

There are decisions to be had but luck will sometimes screw you. Maybe you’re given a perceived garbage hand of starting cards. Maybe the sequence of shapes comes up in a way that sets you back. Maybe Aaron finishes his map first and then drafts the exact card you wanted from the row, offering a wink but not an apology.

I feel as though this genre has already crested and is now on the far side of its popularity curve. These roll ‘n writes made a name not by standing out, but being content with standing in. They’re the pack of Doublemint you come across in the checkout line and think, “why not?”

Silver & Gold is there, offering yet another small twist which isn’t much at all, but it is enough.

Mostly I just want to play something with conflict and vocal sparring, maybe with a spaceship or giant spider thrown in. But sometimes I just want to hang with Ricky.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Of Simulation and Drudgery – A UBOOT: The Board Game Review

UBOOT is immensely ambitious. It’s a tabletop cooperative real-time simulation of German World War 2 submarine warfare. It’s equally electronic and analog driven, with much of play off-loaded to a sophisticated app and yet other elements framed around using realistic period technology such as protractors and targeting dials. All of this occurs within the context of an absolutely enormous three-dimensional cardboard submarine dominating the center of the table. This game, if nothing else, is something wondrous to behold.

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UBOOT feels like someone took the splendid Captain Sonar and totally re-hauled the game to be a three hour simulation. Players are divided into roles so that they can manage different aspects of the crew. The Captain issues orders to the lot, leading discussion and personally taking charge of loading and firing torpedoes. The First Officer operates the application, inputting commands while also maintaining responsibility for first aid and working the helm. The Navigator uses several slick tools to map out the submarine’s path on the Atlantic map, as well as to physically construct enemy convoy approaches, oh and they’re the ship’s cook too. Finally, the Chief Engineer is a manager of manpower, assigning different personnel to perform reports and maintenance.

Let’s stop for a moment. UBOOT is a complex beast, an experience that is equal parts conflict sim and resource management. Those maintenance tasks the engineer must constantly deal with are your first sign. From the initial bell as you leave the port, you will be busy changing seals and cleaning torpedo tubes. Busy-work is constant and the CE is the task-masker keeping everyone focused.

Your primary resources are your sailors and their level of energy. As they perform tasks they become fatigued. After three such actions they are full-up and will no longer respond to orders. This means a helmsman will refuse to dive or a crew member will refuse to load a torpedo if he’s performed three actions already in the game. It will sneak up on you quickly as just a few routine maneuvers will already have the bulk of the sub exhausted. It simply feels wrong.

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This is UBOOT’s primary challenge. It’s a game of hunting British merchant vessels and escorts, punctuated by enormous payouts when your salvo of torpedoes land on target, but the doldrums between are full of Euro-style resource management. This feels at odds with the simulation aspect of the game, despite the fact that it does provide for some gripping strategic decisions as you triage problems with limited manpower.

The issue is recognized to some degree by allowing you to overwork your crew at the cost of morale, and this system does work. It alleviates the pressure at a long-term cost, but it also feels like a bit of a patch as if the core of the game is flawed or misaligned. That creaking feeling of a patchwork hull permeates the design, alluding to a rushed product fraught with issues back in the engine room.

These issues are spread like thin cracks throughout the extent of the product. Aspects such as a lack of a save feature during a three hour mission, minefields that are way too dense for any semblance of reality, and a Chief Engineer role whose actions are far more mundane and dull than the rest of the players. These warts are of overall less severity than the fatigue rules at the heart of the design, but they’re absolutely present and will be of varying concern to individual participants.

And that’s the primary hurdle. If you can get on with the central activation system and the constant management of fatigue, you will find the best bits waiting to be teased to the surface and they will be worth the smaller pains.

Moments such as sinking a merchant vessel and finding yourself pursued by multiple escort frigates are unequaled. As you dive you realize they’re listening to your movements with hydrophone, the app measuring the table’s noise output with a flaring meter. So you start talking in whispers, coordinating your next move like a cluster of bodies in the back corner of a funeral parlor. Then they start dropping depth charges and you have horrible flashbacks to Das Boot.

Those moments are special.

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Similarly, after spending a good half hour tracking a convoy, plotting its course, and preparing your torpedoes for a huge assault, it’s wildly satisfying to actually sink your target. High fives are unleashed and cheers erupt, with the cacophony quickly being hushed by the captain as they usher you back to battle-stations.

This title is full of those little flashes. Getting assaulted by a flight of allied aircraft, running across a stray vulnerable target, and fixing a breached hull by assembling a little cluster of puzzle pieces – it’s all quite fantastic and immersive.

The real challenge of UBOOT is reconciling that you will spend two of the three hours managing fatigue with the remainder spent on those sweet bits of payout. This will certainly appeal to a core audience and this has the potential to be a favorite game. As the application continues to mature–adding a save feature is a must–the release will hopefully come into its own and continue to offer startling surprises and tense interludes.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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An Intersection of Thought – Mental Blocks in Review

I’m kind of befuddled. This one is pulling me every which way and I don’t know where I’ll land. In such cases I start writing and we find out together. So let’s start writing.

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Mental Blocks is a stellar concept. Similar to the forgotten La Boca, participants stare at a spatial puzzle of different colored blocks assembled in various configurations. This is fully cooperative however, and each player is given a card linked to the same challenge.

It’s a bit difficult to conceptualize. Imagine a tower built of rectangles, triangles and squares. A person on the North side may see a triangle sloping down towards the East in one particular section, while another person standing on the Western view will see the back of that triangular block as a square shape. Combine colors and multiple layers and each player’s perspective around the vertical structure is unique. Each particular view is also inherently necessary to nail the correct configuration and find the solution.

Now, add a 10 minute timer. And maybe a traitor.

Wham, bam, Mental Blocks.

I dig these cooperative puzzles because they ultimately boil down to a core set of principles – communication and understanding. The game is really an exercise on different worldviews and finding the intersection of individual context. It’s a metaphor for some of our fundamental issues of humanity as we struggle to find common ground. This is pretty powerful if you take a moment to think about it.

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And if that was all we were looking for then this would be sterling. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Mental Blocks has the longevity to prove more than a curiosity. After a pile of plays I’ve certainly enjoyed my time with it, but I’m also not eager to step back on the ol’ geometry train.

Let’s discuss the traitor and perhaps you will understand my particular viewpoint.

The traitor is a neat idea. When I first heard of this mode my ears perked up a bit and I gave Mental Blocks a harder look. I was jazzed.

Then I analyzed this functionality and concluded it was flawed. I assembled a group to prove my hypothesis and, well, I was validated. Here’s the deal: a traitor needs somewhere to hide. In The Resistance you are camouflaged by larger groups of voters with rebels attempting to ferret you out by overlapping result sets and voting patterns. It’s imprecise and requires a bit of a data combined with intuition. It works.

In Mental Blocks you’re left a sliver of shade by a dying shrub in the middle of the desert. And you’re naked with sand wedged between every crevice.

When the timer starts and the games begin, we start talking. If I’m not the traitor I can immediately ask “who has a colored card?”

There are four such cards in every single puzzle. They each offer a different perspective of the squared structure and are the baseline to find the solution. You’re not allowed to show your card but you can discuss virtually everything on it. So now either four people raise their hands, or maybe five if the traitor is feeling cheeky.

If it’s only four, great, now we can simply ignore everyone else playing. The perspective cards beyond the base four offer a gray isometric view of the structure, each slightly different. You don’t actually need that information to solve the puzzle and it’s merely an additional data point which could help. So ignore them all and the game kind of falls apart as an activity dedicated to enjoyment.

Now, the traitor could pretend to have one of the colored perspectives. Their card does show the colors of the structure but also from two separate isometric views so they can effectively see the entire solution. In fact, the traitor card is used as the key at game’s end to determine if the blocks have been assembled correctly.

If the traitor pretends to have a colored perspective then of course you simply narrow it down further: “So what does everyone see in the bottom right of their image?”

This puts the traitor in an immediate bind. They need to look at their oddly distorted image which is presented differently than everyone else’s and quickly come up with something to claim. Likely they will then be paired with a legitimate player and we have the traitor narrowed down to two people.

It’s simply not robust enough to stand up to scrutiny in a group experienced with these types of games. You may be lucky enough to partake in a traitorous session or two where this level of effort is not applied (hey, sue me for being analytical), but eventually someone will find these cracks and wedge them apart.

Now, the traitor mode is completely optional and could have been left out of the game with no issue.  It’s also not presented as the standard mode of play and it’s unfair to ding the design much for its failure. So we must keep that in mind.

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However, this variant does highlight a fundamental aspect of the design that i’m not particularly enamored with. Each puzzle is given the same foundational solution cards regardless of player count. You always include cards A-D, with additional players simply receiving unnecessary isometric views. Effectively everyone is slotted into a role with some being superfluous and others integral.

Those additional players can contribute, but it feels as though a beat was missed here. Finding an alternative method may have been a consideration although developing such a method while minimizing components and complexity may be futile within the confines of the design space.

Because roles are consistent the challenge of the game comes down to isolating each other into our prospective views as quick as possible and then combining and double-checking our work. It can feel frenetic as composure gets away from the group and shouting ensues. It’s like a board room meeting where you’re all chugging beer and dressed to the 0s with Kid Rock blaring on the PA. Finding your way amid this chaos provides the sweetest moments. It’s simply unfortunate that skilled communicators can so quickly mount the hurdles.

I have played this with three different groups and the two collections of experienced hobbyists absolutely crushed this game. We’ve never failed and have easily tackled the highest difficulty puzzles with multiple minutes to spare.

The design does offer hindrances such as allowing a player to only touch triangles or even blocking your speech. These are lovely and enhance the game in humorous ways, but they’re easily maneuvered around.game13

There’s also a series of global restrictions such as players being unable to move around the table. These ramp up the difficulty severely and make a game of it, although they also provide a pervasive sense of annoyance at times. For instance ones that swap the colors of blocks can be quite the mental hurdle and really enhance the cognitive load. Sadly, it often feels as though these are tacked on and detract from the game’s core themes, even undermining the joy by pushing moments of quiet mental analysis to eat up the clock. Many of these options don’t enhance the puzzle in a meaningful way, rather expanding the difficulty by providing gotcha moments and sucking the air from your lungs.

The best experiences of this quirky design come with a group not particularly adept. When everyone’s struggling to quickly communicate their little information slice it can get hairy in a fantastically tense way. These plays are the most invigorating as Mental Blocks’ vision feels fully realized and you’re no longer beating on the framework or wrestling to jump through clunky restriction hoops.

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Interestingly enough, some investigative reporting elucidated that many find this game difficult. Perhaps you will be so lucky. For us, this reminded me of Mask of Anubis in that we were enamored with the core concept but quickly found the magic wane due to accomplishment.

The central thematic element of empathy and recognition is strong enough to carry it on its own – at least initially. Despite not seeing a long-term relationship with this work, I’m ultimately thankful for our time together.

The core of Mental Blocks is clever and singular. I’ve compared it to La Boca but even that spatial design is nothing more than a a third cousin twice removed. Some of you may find the challenges one note and easily conquered but likely more will come to the conclusion that I’m a hack and spewing nonsense. You’re both likely right as it’s all a matter of perspective.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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From Cavern to Manor – A Vast: The Mysterious Manor Review

I remember Vast. It was 2016. My buddy Aaron comes up to me in Hall D at the Indianapolis convention center and starts speaking gibberish. His eyes are wild and he’s describing this game from some company called Leder. On the outside I was cautiously nodding but on the inside I was wondering, “What kind of a name was ‘Leder’?”

Then we played Vast: The Crystal Caverns. Well, we tried to. Aaron can get excited and he found two random con-goers to sit down and commit their souls to this really weird but exciting dungeon crawl. This was a mistake.

Fumbling through the rules was like cutting through Cambodian jungle with a spoon – one made of plastic not even metal. Some of the rules were in the booklet, others were parceled out among player boards. The goblin player in particularly struggled and ceasing play repeatedly to help them felt like we were partaking in board game stop motion.

It wasn’t all bad. I got to be a cave after all. It was my dungeon and this stupid thief, aloof dragon, and caffeinated goblins needed to extricate their meat-bags pronto.

We ended up playing several times over the course of that weekend. Each time we switched roles and it was like playing an entirely different game. Yes, I do mean in that wonderful asymmetric sense where your mechanisms are entirely different from the person next to you, but I also mean in that completely awful sense of having to re-learn a very complicated system over and over again.

It was simultaneously brilliant and dreadful. Stuck in my head was the notion that this was more a demo tape than a studio LP. I wrote about it at Geek & Sundry and we never played it again.

Then Cole Wehrle came along. He produced one of the best games of the decade in John Company. He helped Leder establish their identity with the massively successful Root. And then he slapped me all over again with 2019’s best Pax Pamir. This dude’s a hit machine like The Beatles or Stones.

So when I heard he was the lead developer on the next iteration of Vast, The Mysterious Manor, I was all in. Cole hasn’t let me down.

This isn’t to diminish Patrick Leder’s position as creator. Vast: The Crystal Caverns was the foundation for RootMysterious Manor, and Leder games as an entity. Patrick has done a monumental job here.

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It’s still Vast. Asymmetry is the primary identity as each player crawls into a dungeon as either a shapeshifting spider, sheepish warlock, impervious Paladin, a cohort of skeletons, or even the structure itself. Here the building is above ground and a manor which feeds into the slightly spooky theme.

Don’t let that fool you. This remains kind of a dungeon crawl and kind of a skirmish game, one that’s heavily influenced by the asymmetric designs of yesterday such as Dune and Cosmic Encounter. Everyone operates by their own set of rules which interact with the core mechanisms in twisted and interesting ways.

That core system is simple. The rules describe how to explore the manor, how spaces work, the deterministic combat, and how you generally interact with tokens. Each separate role is given a page of their own rules as well as a page of examples. It does appear confusing at first and some clarity comes when reading each of the faction’s player boards. Some more arrives when finding FAQs on Board Game Geek.

There’s this interesting feeling that you’re playing a dungeon crawl and alternating between the role of player and overlord. At times you’re pursuing your own agenda and furthering your goals, and at others you’re spending entire turns thwarting whoever is outpacing you. Sometimes you’ll negotiate and try to convince the skeletons to take a bite out of the spider’s abdomen. Sometimes they’ll actually listen. It’s odd but strangely engaging.

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This absolutely is easier to internalize than its predecessor. There appears to have been much work on streamlining exceptions, focusing interactions, and most importantly, presenting information in a more logical and coherent manner.

The player boards are excellent. You don’t have to spend a good ten minutes reading a hunk of cardboard and mentally puzzling over how exactly it all works. Each walks you through your turn in order, presenting new concepts in logical and straightforward ways.

The most significant achievement is in decentralizing the load. You’re given an extra reference sheet for your character offering advice as well as clarification. Many of the roles have their most intricate maneuvers offloaded onto cards that you gain and become aware of over time.

Let me explain.

So take the skeletons for instance. The Crystal Caverns would likely have listed each of the skeletons abilities as special rules on the player board, tossing a crackling skillet of Hamburger Helper into your mouth and eradicating your taste buds as well as your brain.

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The Mysterious Manor places the special attributes on cards and furthermore parcels them onto equipment that you gain slowly over the course of the game.

The Paladin works the same way. His variable powers are gained over time as you accumulate grit and explore the dungeon. The spider is perhaps the most complicated, able to shapeshift into three different forms each with their own rules. But even there you have separate boards and can choose to ignore your alternate forms until your beak is wet.

There’s a general tone of refinement that extends beyond the components and into the roles. The board state is more clear and easily read. The strategic interactions and tactical challenges manage to feel simultaneously tight like a Euro-style design as well as chaotic and open-ended like the best Ameritrash. This is afforded by trust in the player, allowing great creativity to combo abilities and interactions and take the design by the reigns, even if momentarily. That feeling is absolutely magnificent and it grabs a hold of your bones.

Manor is still not a simple thing to learn, despite being easier. It still is a demanding game that warrants many many plays. But it rewards your exploration with an endless tunnel and continual warmth. Some of the roles won’t suit you and some of the rules will perplex at first, but perseverance is doubly rewarded.

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So what is this work trying to say, if anything? It comes across as a criticism of newer designs that include variable player powers as window dressing. A small tweak here and a slight adjustment there. Including this concept of uniqueness appears mandatory in the current school of thought, and it’s all surface.

Vast is singular wholesale weird. It reflects our own sense of individualism. We operate outside the lines and so do our spiderlings, dammit. More often than not we want to kick back and be our own person. Sometimes we want to conquer the playground and display our eccentricity. Sometimes we want to be the playground and bite back with each inch of plastic and steel.

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Discussing this game is discussing asymmetry. It’s the design’s massive achievement. Each role is not simply given unique mechanisms and a place to breath, no. Each role is given unique mechanisms that strategically play off each other and present dastardly situations to revel in.

More importantly, each set of sub-systems envelopes the thematic tones of their owner. You feel a (small) army of skeletons scurrying about in jerky motion and bloodlust. You are a crooked house, haunted beyond measure, intent on performing dark ritual and throwing the invaders into darkness. Evoking such colorful trappings through gameplay, particularly that full of interaction, is a wild beast to tame. Leder and Wehrle and all of those others who stuck a thumb or eye into the cauldron have pulled it off.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Tonight I’m Gonna Party – A Combat Commander: Europe Review

Combat Commander is 13 years old. That’s absurd when you think about it.

I’m the dude showing up at three in the morning, slightly drunk with bottle in hand and ready to throw down like it’s 1999. Surprisingly, the party is still raging and being late is just as good as being on time.

That’s a very complicated way to say that this game is still relevant, and damn excellent.

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Chad Jensen’s classic feels as fresh in 2019 as it did in 2006. This is a company level simulation of infantry combat whose innovative take on the card-driven game (CDG) is evocative and shiny.

“But it doesn’t have tanks!” shouts a tall man in the back of the room.

I hear you Mr. Eickert and I don’t care.

What makes Combat Commander so compelling is its philosophy on combining simulation with moments of pure cinema. This feels like a proper wargame with an emphasis on fire groups, command, and leveraging terrain and troop quality. Yet it never lets those elements of verisimilitude dictate the tempo of play. Story is not sacrificed in the name of realism, rather, the two intermingle like lovers shut away on honeymoon.

This is Combat Commander: Steel, blood, and sex.

T-Swift is telling me to calm down and I ought to listen.

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But let’s get at it. The true magic of this design is in the fate decks. Each nation has their own mixture of cards which players draw and subsequently play to execute orders. You can’t move or fire unless you have one of those cards in your hand. Hence the classification as CDG.

This does many things. First, it provides a wonderful fog of war. I don’t know what’s in your dirty Rusky mitts. If I make a break out of the treeline will you toss out that OpFire card and mow my poor men down? Maybe you don’t have a fire card at all and I can safely seize the opportunity to push the right flank. This is excellent because it’s dramatic and in turn cinematic.

When you fire at an opponent you draw the top card of your fate deck and refer to a dice result on the bottom corner. The result of your action is really secondary to the mechanisms effectiveness, as its true accomplishment is in parceling out more helpings of that drama. Events will trigger, sniper fire will pierce bocage, and your Maschinengewehr 42 will jam. This is how those quirky little hero counters are brought into play, how traps are sprung, and how random outbursts of artillery and carnage are sown. It’s exciting and every turn of the cards brings you right up to that edge.

This is a simple mechanism really. Instead of dice you use cards – which are efficiently multi-use asymmetrical decks in this case – and baked in are random outcomes of narrative significance. The real treat is in how this combines with those simulative wargame elements, and particularly your strategic thought process, to produce such a sublime combination of chaos and control. It’s one of those moments where the experience of play is elevated beyond the sum of its parts and magic occurs.

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Now you in the back of the room, yes you, perhaps you don’t feel that magic. Maybe you just get frustrated that it’s been three turns in a row where you didn’t draw that desperately needed fire card. The fact that this simulates battlefield confusion and a breakdown in communication or morale is irrelevant when you’re angry. Well, then this one’s not for you and that’s fine.

A further criticism is that command and control is not modeled in any realistic fashion here. The design rewards you for composing fire groups with leaders, but it rarely steps beyond that convention to accurately portray morale. There’s not a sophisticated system of suppression and trauma is modeled simply. Those who are steeped in small unit tactics may find themselves wanting for their library of ASL modules.

This is theater, not lecture.

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For those who can get along with this cracking cardboard version of battlefield cinema, you will find a truly massive game. U.S., Soviet, and German forces are all represented with many units and counters. There’s a bevy of card-stock maps which do not need to be fished through and combined in order to get down to this war business.

The rule and playbook are unequivocally clear, certainly honed from multiple printings. And yes, there are dozens of expansions that add and twist your experience, although absolutely none are needed. Once you’ve finished with the included setups you will find the single best random scenario generator I’ve ever seen. It’s not hyperbole if it’s fact.

I do wish I could sit down and bang a play out in a more concise time. Nearly every scenario will take two or three hours and it’s a bit of a mental investment. I will say that in my abbreviated experience with this game I have never regretted setting aside the time.

This is a brilliant work that proves story-focused gaming is not some new trend or concept, but it was there all along. Few titles in this genre possess such vigor and youth, particularly for an elder long in the tooth.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Just Outside the Shadow of the Colossus – A Skulk Hollow Review

I’ve wanted a Shadow of the Colossus game for years. Skulk Hollow isn’t quite that, but it’s in the ballpark. One player is a rampaging Guardian, a spiritual demi-god titan that’s returned to smash and tear at the earth. The other is a swarm of Foxen, a king and their cadre of warriors intent on climbing atop the beast and hacking at it soft spots. Tie it all together and with wonderful graphic design and delightful meeples of various shapes and you have something to behold.

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This is a two player design from Pencil First Games that looks to hit fast and hard. It’s a 30 minute affair that holds asymmetry in high regard, offering multiple of those colossal guardians to explore. Each has their own side board for the minuscule foxes to scurry upon, poking at joints and orifices.

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Each guardian also features a unique deck. This is a card driven game where your actions are restricted to your draw. Each titan has their own abilities such as Grak’s stomp, Raptra’s flight, and Apoda’s sizzle. You can literally throw attackers off your back or melt them with your fiery gaze. This is powerful and evocative stuff that provides for a smirk-inducing narrative and enough flavor to anchor the half-hour event.

From the fox perspective you’re deploying new warriors to the board and dashing about. There’s a neat energy mechanism which allows you to effectively save actions for later, unleashing powerful turns with stronger agency. Energy is the sole resource to manage in the game beyond your hand, and it’s necessary to wield intelligently if you wish to win.

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Skulk Hollow, above all else, is charming. It’s a title that seeks accessibility in which you can easily sit down and thwomp your child (or perhaps get thwomped). This unfortunately leads to the most significant deficiency.

While in the thick of it, you do feel as though you are buzzing around a goliath, jabbing pointy objects into its eyes and biting at its heel. As a Guardian you have weight, causing spikes of massive damage and dictating the flow of battle. At times this feels wonderful, at others it feels somewhat diminished.

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The challenge is the CDG underbelly. There’s a nagging feeling off-and-on that actions are obvious. So much so that the game offers a mechanism to dig for cards, trying to unearth that alpha move that you clearly need. This card draw mechanism seems to undercut the game’s own hand management, emphasizing that you’re beholden to draw. There’s not a great deal of creativity in problem-solving. If a leash of foxes is on your hide, you really need to get that throw card and hurl one or two across the valley. If the king’s protected by a strong cohort of warriors, you really need to flush him out or shift gears and go for your Guardian’s alternate win condition.

You could also lose a little faith due to the emphasis on attrition. There’s a core loop of fishing out cards, smashing the enemy, and fighting their push back. This traditional model is usually broken up through dynamic maneuvering or clever resource management, but that simplistic tactical core fails to obfuscate the grinding nature occasionally. More often than not, the end of a session will consist of multiple rounds with combatants standing still and hacking at each other. Eventually someone falls in hopefully a dramatic fashion and the participants leave with a sense of satisfaction.

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Some of this weakness in tactical variability is made-up for with tension. The short play time and rapid cascade of damage means you can start feeling the pressure quickly. As a Guardian, you will lose access to your special powers if entire limbs are damaged, pushing you towards a limited set of options. This heightens the race aspect of play where you’re rushing to accomplish your goal before the enemy can bring you down. This pressure is great and lends itself to the strong atmosphere of play, even if your strategic options aren’t always varied or nuanced.

The soft spots of Skulk Hollow can be overlooked due to the game’s enticing variability and strong sense of tension. How well you assimilate these elements will dictate the lifespan, as some will fall off rather quickly and others will find prolonged pleasure in experiencing all the game has to offer. For me and mine, this is a unique experience that I can find meaningful action and thrills within the scope of play. Skulk Hollow may not offer enough depth and breadth to solidify a position in my top games of 2019, but it does achieve sufficient accomplishment to maintain a warm presence on my table.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Die Atombombe: The Reich’s Bid to Build the Bomb

Is it morally reprehensible to play a game which explores the Third Reich’s efforts to build the atomic bomb? Should slipping into the role of a Nazi scientist cause revulsion? Do I have any right to ask the others at my table to play such a thing?

These are some of the tough questions which addled my mind after discovering Die Atombombe. You can’t ignore these issues and talk about this game. Despite grappling with this for many hours, losing sleep and peace, I still don’t have an answer. Yet we did play it and I am writing about it.

I really like weird and quirky designs that offer something you can’t find on the sagging shelves of your local game store. Cave EvilDungeon Degenerates, and Shadows of Malice come to mind.

Die Atombombe is such a game. It’s also one that may make you hate yourself.

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This is a little game that’s not really so little. Against the Odds is a wargaming magazine and has released this oddball card game as part of its commemorative 50th issue. As you’d expect, the component quality isn’t going to match the latest Asmodee or Stonemaier title, but this format does have its advantages.

One of its greatest strengths is context. There are dozens of pages delving into the author’s research on the subject and how this came about. It explores the moral issues surrounding the game as well as the political and scientific failings of Adolf Hitler’s regime. This is a product of well-executed theme as it acutely portrays the in-fighting and limitations of the Uranverein. Make no mistake – Germany’s efforts to develop a weapon of mass destruction were messy, and Die Atombombe is messy.

I note this as a positive. The mechanisms themselves are clean and simple. It’s a tableau builder where you acquire resources and mines and scientists, stockpiling bonuses that you eventually tap to make a large die roll and hopefully progress along the atomic science advancement track. Each level requires specific symbols and a target number you must beat on your roll. This leads to an arc of play which consists of a mad grab for assets followed by swift progression.

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The wrench is that it’s very easy to throw up red tape and thwart your fellow scientists. You can invest influence to subtract dice from opponent’s pools and you can play events to weaken their institute’s support. Scientists can be drafted into war or even stolen with lucrative offers. It’s part Euro-style tableau builder and part swingy Ameritrash brawl. There’s certainly potential for animosity.

But there’s also opportunity for alliance. Players can support each other’s efforts by offering resources and boosting odds. This is often a tough sell and sabotage is much more common, but to progress into the upper echelon of atomic research you will likely need help.

Clouding the waters are hidden allegiances and obfuscated objectives. Ben may receive his highest point gain from developing a Uranium Engine as he’s secretly working for the German Post Office, his goals aligned with furthering science as opposed to supporting warfare. On the other side of the table is Marcus who is being backed by the SS and must reach the level of an atomic or dirty bomb to earn any victory points.

This is one of Die Atombombe’s most interesting elements, leaning into hidden goals while pushing players towards negotiation and discussion. It’s precisely how the game achieves its intent and skillfully imprints those thematic elements into its myriad cards.

All of this is supported with mounting tension. The game progresses rapidly with the Soviet march on Berlin being tracked each round. There’s a bit of a race as proceedings will immediately end when the Russians sack the capital or when a player develops an atomic weapon. You can instead reach for a dirty bomb when things are most desperate and the enemy is on the doorstep.

It’s easy to sort of get sucked into the historical elements and ignore what’s really going on. There is a strong sense of technological progression and a shifting political environment, but it’s easy to push that Swastika casting a shadow over everything out of your mind. Part of me finds that appalling and part of me wants to push that heavy feeling into the closet and shutter it away.

When recently asked about her grueling portrayal of mental instability and terror in the film Hereditary, Toni Collette responded: “It’s just a movie.”

Is Die Atombombe “just a game”? Do I want my five year old daughter to see us playing such a thing?

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This is not easy in any sense of the word. It’s difficult to ascertain the intent. There are moments where I feel this is all fine, particularly when exploring “The Good German”. This is the most dramatic element, a card which explains that your allegiance is not at all to the Reich but instead to some sense of altruism or purely science. If you are lucky enough to draw this card you can hang your hat on this moral “out”, but again, nothing is easy.

If the Soviets do make it to Berlin before an atomic weapon is built then the player holding the Good German wins outright. The catch is that if someone steals this card from your hand they can choose to persecute and turn you into the government. This is devastating as it wipes your tableau and guts your engine. As a dramatic mechanism this is fantastic and provides an ultimate lever to push your luck.

You can take this in two directions. The first is that this is a significant aspect of the game and further heightens the underlying tension. The second is that this is a token effort to alleviate the moral burden of the design. The truth is that it’s a little of both.

One aspect of the Good German that’s easy to overlook is the role of the persecutor. Of course that person can always just keep the card and close their mouth – you’re never allowed to discuss this information openly so the previous holder can’t just alert the table – but that’s supremely risky. The problem here is that the decision to be a loyal Nazi is not made from a standpoint of morality, theme, or setting. It’s made purely from a mechanical angle in assessing the probability of the war ending prior to atomic discovery.

This occurs because no one will engage the theme. It’s too much to ask. I don’t want to even broach virtuous play as a Nazi scientist because I can’t consider myself in that role. I believe a reasonable human being can’t reconcile this decision point with any ethical consideration.

It’s a completely different ask than playing the Germans in a wargame. In something like Combat Commander it’s a more personal intersection where you’re grappling with fundamental concepts of war and valor. Despite the fact that war is inherently political, a strategic or tactical wargame doesn’t require the participant engage in politics or moral culpability.

Die Atombombe is entirely political. You’re asked to partake in a race where the finish line is the death of righteousness. There’s an inherent weight you can choose to ignore but in doing so the underlying themes are wholly irrelevant. By so precisely capturing its theme, Die Atombombe keeps its distance. It exists in a space of contradiction. This is a conundrum you have to square if you want to find anything meaningful in play, and I reckon most won’t be able to do that.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher. If Die Atombombe looks like something you want to explore, you can pick it up directly from the publisher at Against the Odds.

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.

 

An Early Look at Shifting Realms: Darkness Revealed

Shifting Realms is underrated. Designed by Craig and Jeff Van Ness, this Soaring Rhino title is a somewhat light weight Euro-style design of gathering resources and turning those resources into buildings, albeit with a pretty significant twist; the board is comprised of three randomized realms each boasting unique rules, player driven story events, and their own suite of buildings and combos. This change-up takes a kind of mellow core and turns it into something unpredictable and exciting. It has a real exploratory feel to the proceedings and experiencing a new realm combination pushes you to adapt and reconsider.

Darkness Revealed is the upcoming expansion which seeks to crank things up a notch. Included are two new realms which push the complexity of the design just a tad, while offering more interaction and tools to thwart your opposition. The Demon realm is just mean.

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Let’s talk about being mean. This game already features a very punitive eye-for-an-eye combat system where players each lose pieces, but the Gehenna board pushes that a step further. Here players can construct Dark Towers which lure nearby pieces into their corrupting halls. You essentially capture opponents occupying the realm, forcing them to worship at your concrete edifice of pain. And you get victory points for it.

This feels awesome. Not just when you’re sucking in nearby dudes to gain the reward yourself, but sitting on the sidelines and watching Timmy lose another Scout to the black hole of demonic televangelism. You can construct a particularly nasty combo here which even allows you to pull in new members of the congregation from other player’s supply. Poor Jim, that soldier sitting peacefully next to your ballooning pile of resources who you probably shouldn’t have given a name, he’s now pulled through the void and squatting at the black altar.

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The realm creates instant animosity. The native effect of the temple means you really need to decide fast whether you’re going to compete for ground in Gehenna or abandon the board completely. It’s literally divisive and pushes players into separate strategic vectors. In this way, it offers one of the most unique experiences of the game.

Yet Knossus will not be outdone. This is the more complex and perhaps interesting of the new additions. Here you will slowly construct a maze in the land of the Minotaur by placing walls and sub-dividing the land. Action is pushed in a hurry by players drafting from the story deck at the start of play, further pushing the norms of the design space.

This initial bounty of cards means players will possess a solid amount of actions early in the game. You can get those walls going, amass precious resources, or even deploy all without spending your precious actions each turn.

Dovetailing nicely with the expanding sections of walls are the exploration tokens. Knossus begins with each grass space occupied by a little tile. You can spend two magic cubes from an adjacent space and claim the tile, gaining victory points and an additional resource mix. This works as a pretty clear incentive to move about the land and contend with the weird geometric boundaries. It also supports the quirky personality of the realm.

As you push around from space to space it can feel as though you’re getting somewhat isolated and trapped down winding corridors, which is excellent. You can’t be completely walled off, but you can be deterred and it will affect how you plan and execute your actions. That’s exactly what I want from such a labyrinthine mechanism.

The buildings here are secondary to those other features, but they’re still pretty compelling. The standout is the expensive structure which offers a massive 10 victory points, but I also have a soft spot for the junction which allows you to siphon material from adjacent resource spaces.

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Shifting Realms is not the type of game which will blow your mind, but it is a very smooth game that blends unique Euro mechanisms with legitimate thematic elements. It’s a better game with Darkness Revealed as the combinatorial nature of the board is more fully realized with increased complexity. These new areas don’t completely overshadow the base selection, but they support the experience in a unique way, further cementing the core concept.

If Shifting Realms did not excite you before, this expansion won’t likely change your opinion. However, if the game’s been sitting on the shelf and gathering a bit of dust, this may be the exact thing to snap it back to life and regain your focus.

 

A pre-production copy of the game was provided by the publisher. This is an unpaid review and no money changed hands. 

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