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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Flatlinin’ – An Android: Netrunner Terminal Directive Review

Netrunner is a church. Those who seek it must first contact another member and begin the divine rights. You then try to fit in with the congregation, mumbling odd phrases and proprietary language. Tithing comes in the form of little plastic blisters containing cardboard theological teachings. It can consume your life as you become engulfed with the cyberpunk catechism and find spiritual awakening. Those on the outside don’t understand. They can’t.
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“Better Together”

 

I assume you’re a member or you wouldn’t be here. I went through a long drought where I lost my faith; turned my back on Jackson Howard and the Beanstalk. I sold my ephemera and thought I’d never return. But now I’m back. The machine has me.

One bank job later and I’ve tossed a few hundred into the fire, emerging out the other side with a revised core set, enough cardboard uppers to choke a Muppet, and the exalted Terminal Directive. This is Android: Netrunner: Legacy. That concept alone is the liturgical equivalent of shooting adrenaline into your ding dong.

And that sounds marvelous on paper, right? Wrong. You inject adrenaline into the heart, dummy. This is simply painful and will cause you to question nearly everything about what you know.

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Injecting adrenaline into your danglies.

I bet you didn’t expect this to suck. I didn’t expect it to suck. But it mostly sucks.

A large number of people want to quietly pat this one on the back as you do with your drunk uncle weaponizing slurs. But he’s uncle Pappy, what are we supposed to do with him? There’s a spot behind the barn suitable for an impromptu firing squad. Burn this bastard down.

Yes, I’m being a bit facetious, but I have to bring the fun because Terminal Directive does not.

There were moments. I was getting back into Netrunner and all jazzed up. You’re limited to a couple of identities and the small pool of cards found in the core set. Limited deck building is allowed, and new cards slip out the wrapper via unlocks. You even get to place stickers onto this large postcard that represents your progress.

Surprisingly, very little of this is noteworthy.

Incrementally adding new cards is white hot and it fits the LCG model perfectly. Allowing us to get away from the constant grind of breaking down and assembling entirely new decks is perfect. There’s a sense of familiarity that arises which provides a shortcut to hyper competitive play. It allows a meta-game to breathe within the space of only two players committing to each other for an extended run.

This alleviates the natural burden of Fantasy Flight’s release schedule. The only problem is that unlocking new cards in Terminal Directive is like digging in a can of mixed nuts, only here all the bits no one wants have been replaced with even worse junk. Oh, you were hoping for a run-of-the-mill peanut? Have a raw kidney bean, fella. Maybe you were going to settle for an almond? Screw that, chomp into an acorn. Yes, there are cashews like the sweet Sneakdoor Prime, but you have to complete Andy Dufresne’s pipe crawl to find them.

Most of these unlocked cards function as catch up mechanisms. After all, if one side is lighting up the other like a neon Christmas tree then you need a way to rise out of the gutter. These attempts to enact global penalties and effects are indeed interesting at first. They quickly devolve into annoyance.

Of similar aggravation are the stickers. You usually are presented with two options, each pertaining to an aggressive or defensive ethos. When you make the choice you don’t know what the final effect will be. So you kind of halfheartedly grumble and commit. Then the game provides some kind of special ability you slap onto that New Angeles postcard such as “Draw 1 Card Every Time the Corp Scores an Agenda.”

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Neat. Except you only remember to do this once or twice a game. Your big sheet has several such stickers, including obsolete elements that you checked off several plays back and can no longer use. Often times you will ignore this sheet entirely as your attention is caught in the throes of something exciting, you know the actual game of Netrunner. All of this sideshow spectacle is a distraction that adds very little. It feels like a fan penned an expansion in all the wrong ways, bolting scrap and debris to a Rolls Royce.

It’s fuss. The sad thing is that it could have been worth the trouble.
Perhaps If the narrative was engaging or even meaningful. This is a Legacy game that really struggles to understand the importance of buy-in and reward. No, that card I don’t even want to add to my deck is not a reward for sticking by your side you cardboard floozy.
Ask someone who has played Terminal Directive what’s going on in the story. I bet they can tell you the setup and the final moments and that’s about it. Everything in between is nonsense and a blur. Inez Delgado? I don’t even know who that is anymore. A long lost bioroid out on the town? You can’t hear me but I’m making a loud fart sound with my mouth.

This criticism concerning the story is the crux of the failure so let’s take a quick look.

 

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Story now, jackholes!

 

You will trigger a new unlockable by winning with a specific card in play or hitting an objective – such as win three games. The new pack you access will offer a sticker choice, a new card with multiple copies, and a paragraph of flavor text. All of this isn’t bad in theory, but the narrative framework is as barren as a desolate moor. There’s little continuity and it’s like watching a 15 second commercial filmed in hyper shaky cam, somehow tied into another 15 second vibrating hustle you watched a week ago, maybe even longer. Then you realize the new card sucks. Then you question why you’re wasting all of this time instead of playing the actual game you came here to play.

The initial pitch portends a murder mystery, but the only missing element you’re left to hunt down is the actual story. It took us 11 sessions to complete the thing but packed enough meaningful prose and incremental content gains for six or so plays. In many respects this felt like Scorcese’s recent film The Irishman; bloated and excessive with scattered flirts of greatness. At least there you get to watch Deniro for the entirety of the ludicrous run-time.

This is quite the dabbler. It offers a drip of cards, stickers here and there, and brief notes of what’s supposed to be a thriller. It fails to avail something holistic or enveloping. It refuses to wholly commit yet continually asks that of the player.

Like Terry Malloy, This could have been something to behold. It could have featured a story book with branching scenarios. Your narrative decisions could have resulted in special setup rules and unique situations. It’s shameful to think such a creative game was shoved into a container devoid of any creativity.

As a release, this one is lost. It’s an over-sized box whose barren interior reflects the product’s position. It doesn’t further the Legacy model and it doesn’t harness that format to enhance its base systems. It’s a gimmick in a game that doesn’t need one. Most recommend you buy it simply for the handful of additional cards you can play with. In that respect, it’s an overpriced data pack whose sole purpose was a harbinger for Netrunner’s end of days.

 

 

 

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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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