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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So Say We All – A Menace Among Us Review

Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game came out in 2008, a lifetime in cardboard years, and we’re still looking for a quality successor that can play in a fraktion of the time. Dark Moon came close. The Menace Among Us lands just a bit closer.

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It’s difficult to shake comparisons when discussing this genre. The trick to nailing this concept is in abstracting the core of BSG while not pushing too far into simpler social deduction fare. The Menace Among Us functions as a pretty even divide between that mammoth of an IP design and the lighter Resistance. At times it skirts close to both titles, intermingling DNA like a sloppy Petri dish that’s had one too many, head-banging to Andrew W.K.

But it’s also kind of its own thing. The good guys here are trying to repair their ship by increasing the energy track, which must be done before the O2 runs out. Actions come at a cost, often eating up precious oxygen and foreshadowing the end of play. The bad guys of course want to torpedo the ship by venting those resources into the void.

One of the main areas of interest is the asymmetric deck-building that happens prior to play. There’s this large card library that forms the genesis of the experience. Each action card allows you to repair the ship or gain O2, maybe even sabotage the vessel if that’s your bag. Players receive a certain assortment of cards based on their hidden role and their character. This means even two good dudes will have a slightly different suite of options, although there’s quite a bit of overlap.

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This mechanism is the most radical and interesting quality of Menace. The number of characters and roles are in such a quantity that repeated plays feature substantial diversity. All of this comes at a cost though.

The bugbear with this mechanic is that it requires dealing out cards and building the individual character decks prior to play. Likewise, cleaning up this mess is a bit of a chore. It’s a level of sorting and organizing on par with Dominion. This cost is certainly one that can annoy and the time is felt, however in my experience it’s been worth that momentary pain.

Once we get to actually playing the game it’s certainly more smooth and engaging. Play order passes clockwise with each crew member performing an action. You can either toss a face-down card into the pot, or avoid the heat and draw more cards or perform a character specific action. The character abilities are flavorful and at times potent allowing you to break the rules in interesting ways. They will also often draw suspicion as their effectiveness can be clouded. Such is life on a floating steel coffin.

That pot that some of the players end up contributing to is the real turning point. This forms a kind of faux BSG crisis check. There’s no card which dictates what will help or hurt the ship, rather, each character tosses in an action which will be performed. So if you’re jonesing for some pain and need to accelerate your traitor game, you throw in an explosion which reduces the ship’s energy. Or, maybe you include a backstab and hurt the mission’s leader (first player).

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If we’re playing a six player game but only three participants elected to add to the face-down pile, well, accusations will start to fly. You of course can’t discuss specifics of what you added, but there’s quite a bit of subtlety and nuance at play depending on your specific deck build and timing. There’s also obvious risks playing a traitorous action if you’re the first player, as the rest of the group may elect to not play any cards at all and leave you hanging. There is a neutral card mechanism which includes a random card from a pre-determined build – think the destiny deck in Battlestar – but it still affords much less cover for a traitor than a round flush with action cards.

There’s also a pretty vibrant gray area to play within. Cards such as Repair will increase energy, which is of course needed to win the game, but they also cut away at the O2 pool. Playing a repair can be a positive maneuver or it could be a traitorous play depending entirely on the timing.

That’s the bulk of it. We go around, the first player changes, sabotage happens, and everyone points fingers. The personality of this does lean more towards optimally playing actions and managing your hand as opposed to reading others and blindly accusing them. In that way it certainly hews closer to Battlestar Galactica than Resistance.

There’s a hefty amount of texture in some of the ancillary elements, such as optional personal goals for the protagonists. These are baked into each role and will force you to behave in non-obvious ways to fulfill your personal objective. Clearly, these are inspired by the Dead of Winter mechanic of the same makeup, and they do a great deal to inspire doubt and shore up the deductive aspects of play.

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The Menace Among Us is an absolutely solid design, at least at the upper end of the spectrum. At lower player counts it’s a bit wobbly as players have less room to hide and there is overall less chaos. The most enjoyable experience is when you can push to six, seven, or even eight players. With more traitors and a larger pool of action cards, bedlam ensues.

This is also a game that reveals itself over multiple plays. There are strategic connections you may not make in your first rodeo or two, elements such as the importance of choosing a character that will obfuscate your role if you’re a black hat. Or the benefit of sabotaging when you’re the first player and then manipulating the meta by arguing that no one in their right mind would do that due to the risk.

The coercing of group behavior and assumptions is the most tantalizing part, leaning into the strong points of the social deduction genre while not completely straying into that more airy realm. This feels akin to a grounded board game – perhaps by illusion, really – and slightly more serious and meaningful as a result. Yet, those looking for spatial movement or a ship layout will be disappointed as abstraction is still high.

It also will occasionally feature player elimination. The length of play and timing of this occurrence means that no one must sit long, but it’s still a consideration for those sensitive to this design choice. I’ve found it has minimal impact in the majority of plays, but a wild group may brandish arms more quickly and backstab with abandon.

I think the inclusion of player elimination was thoughtful and provides a sharp edge which is positive. It increases investment and provides a nuclear option to vent the mayhem.

There’s also a lesser lever players can pull to quarantine participants. This is intended as a way to neuter impostors but it can be utilized as a weapon by the villains, drawing suspicion away from themselves and even costing precious oxygen. The consequences of being quarantined are softer than the BSG brig and you’re still able to participate throughout play. Again, it’s a smooth and measured inclusion that supports the intent.

I want to fully lay down judgment and claim this is a worthy take on Battlestar Galactica in a 45 minute time-frame, but it’s difficult to appeal to a sense of objectivity. For those who love that classic release this won’t quite hit the same highs or achieve the same level of richness. It lacks the deeper connection to a setting and absolutely nailing its influences themes.

But if you’re looking for a spin-off of the same bloodline, The Menace Among Us succeeds admirably. It gets right to the heart of betrayal and passion leveraging its strength with skill. A 45 minute affair being anything more than a nicotine patch for your BSG addiction would be a ridiculous expectation, and Menace is certainly fine being just that.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Terror Below – Tremors 4: The Board Game

I like to beat around the bush as much as Moses, but let’s not delay the pain: some games are simply not worthy. This is fine. I assure you, we’re all going to be okay.

Terror Below can hide underground all it wants, but its lumpy exterior and malodorous excretions are clear as the Nevada sky.

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Sure, Tremors the board game sounds nifty. I latched onto the bait as well. But this is pick-up and deliver done wrong. There’s a facade of spice – you’re given asymmetric abilities, kitted out with some explosives, and the W.O.R.M.s (an acronym baked in the same oven as T.I.M.E Stories) tunnel about the map and beg for carnage. But it’s all just that, a facade. You step into the fun-house and are greeted with Ben Stein reading Shakespeare in a most grievous attack on your energy reserves.

One of the main issues is down-time. You will sit around, possibly spraining your thumbs from over-twiddling, and finally will get a turn. Then you move a few spaces and pick up some garbage – er, rubble – and maybe grab an egg. Hey, the bits are cool and that plastic egg looks totally rad.

Some turns will be worse and there will be almost nothing available on the board. Regardless, your actions are not particularly satisfying and do not impart any sense of adventure. You don’t feel like Kevin Bacon running around in tight jeans and driving a pickup.

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The most promising element are those deadly W.O.R.M.s. There is a neat mechanism in that the tempo of attacks is player driven. When you discard to gain action points each round, you place your card underneath a terror slot at the bottom of the board. Each of the killer entities has a trigger which causes them to launch their assault as soon as a certain number of cards are played to their row.

This is engaging because it feels like you have a bit of control. Many action cards even move the worm target spaces around the board so you can angle them away from your area or push them towards an opponent. The problem is that other players will adjust their position as well and you’re never quite sure when they will ultimately trigger.

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Fighting is slightly exciting, although only if you’ve amassed a few weapon cards from delivering eggs to the police station or turning in rubble tokens. But even then it’s mostly just discard a card and deal a die roll of damage to the beast. If you kill a W.O.R.M. (sorry, contractually obligated to use the acronym) you get a point and maybe more if a bounty card is available in the offer that correlates.

The weapons themselves are mostly mundane. Since they’re typically one-shot devices, the game is devoid of any sense of technical progression. You don’t upgrade your vehicle or characters, you don’t kit out a weapons system or establish a nice suite of armaments, and the work you do put into preparing for conflict is spent in a hurry.

Because weapons are flimsy, combat is quick, and the consequences of death somewhat avoidable, there’s no real narrative meat to anything going on. You’re not going to sit back and regale upon a previous session where you shot up a W.O.R.M. before delivering the 4th purple egg to the motel and earned three victory points. There’s no interesting description to the action and your possible maneuvers are finite. There are a few entertaining emergent moments such as gunning down a massive terror with the potato gun, but they’re spread thin across multiple plays and blend into the overall malaise.

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One of the issues with the conflict loop is that creature attacks place more resources on the map. This is how eggs and rubble get strewn about for players to grab. Since the beasts attack after your turn triggering such an event can often seed material on the board just as you finish acting. Often, this means you’re granting opportunity for your opponents as opposed to yourself.

What this means is that players will typically avoid triggering a worm attack as long as possible, incentivized by the mechanisms to feed the doldrums of an empty board. As a result, conflict and spawning comes in waves with little pinatas bursting across the map and quickly gobbled up. Then more thumb twiddling.

Of further aggravation is the game’s level of randomness. It’s not overly offensive due to the hour long time commitment and silly nature of play, but it occasionally works to emphasize the softer parts of the design. Getting shut out of the interesting elements – which are not altogether plentiful – is frustrating not from a competitive level but on a more fundamental playful one.

“Oh you stole my egg because you lucked into a card? Neat-o…”

I can’t personally envision ever choosing this over the bevy of quality pick-up and deliver designs. Western Legends is more interactive and thrilling. Merchant of Venus is more refined and joyful. Xia is richer and harnesses chaos productively. Wasteland Express is a higher velocity and more satisfying.

Terror Below’s biggest sin is boredom. It’s a cumberworld. The only crowd I can see really getting juiced up are those who attend the annual Tremors convention, or maybe someone who really values lovely bits and oddly shaped boards.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Review of Sovereign’s Chain, the Next Fantasy Realms

A couple of years ago Wizkids released a little card game that was better than it had any right to be. Fantasy Realms was a stunner. It offered contemplative strategy, a gripping pace, and an expansive content base that saw play vary considerably session to session. This was all accomplished with 53 cards.

I was a little behind on Fantasy Realms. I’m a little ahead on Sovereign’s Chain.

This is another little card game from Wizkids and again, it’s blowing my hair back.

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The mechanisms here are not identical to its predecessor, but the format and its stature as an overlooked accomplishment bear immediate resemblance. Let’s try to change the latter.

Sovereign’s Chain is a tableau builder. Each player will play cards to a row in front of them, left to right as you do. Although they’re not tableaus because this is set in the far future where they’re called chains. There’s some sort of background story going on but I’ve played this game many times and its left no impression. Yeah, Fantasy Realms is smirking.

What’s important here is the big twist, which is that you can play cards to other player’s chains. It’s a simple concept, one that kind of befuddles me. Why haven’t we seen this before? It immediately solves one of the most substantive issues with this genre – a lack of meaningful player interaction.

So you can be skipping along building up quit a suite of points, and then I come in and toss a bomb on your house to watch your world burn.

Scoring is clean but interesting. Each card has one of two suits, either a starburst thing or a planet thing. Again, what they thematically represent is irrelevant.

At the end of the game your score will be the difference between them. That usually throws people. More simply – you will subtract the lower total from the greater and that will be your victory point total.

This leads to a straightforward strategy of loading up your chain with either all planets or all starbursts. Your starting hand will likely dictate this and you may feel robbed of choice.

Don’t worry, things will pick up.

The next layer are the card effects. Each card triggers some kind of ability that ranges from “oh, nice” to “what the hell?” Whoever plays the card, regardless of which chain you play to, executes the listed ability.

There’s a range of powers including changing the suit of any card in play, flipping cards face-down, and placing shield tokens on cards to protect them from being targeted. You will strategically remove high ranking values from other chains as well as toss huge point sinks into their carefully built network. There’s a push and pull of offensive versus defensive play that’s full of nuance. Since you only play a single card on your turn, taking the opportunity to diminish another’s prospects comes at the cost of progress. That proposition is still often worthwhile but you must maintain proper balance.

The face-down mechanism is the most interesting. At the end of play you will take turns flipping one such card face-up in your tableau. As you do so they will trigger their abilities, allowing a degree of chaos and uncertainty to rear up in the climax. It’s a properly exciting moment in a style of game that usually avoids drama.

Tempo is also a sublime quality due to its reliance on player agency. The end game is triggered when a 7th card is placed into a chain, placing a wide latitude on the pace of play. Most interesting is that I’ve seen players win with only a couple of cards in front of them, trouncing someone who had a full tableau of seven. The ability to neuter another’s prospects and muck with their scoring gets to the heart of this design and it’s cognitive grip.

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The major accomplishment here is in finding balance between a thoughtful design that offers a wide range of maneuvering and a core of simplicity. This game is economic in weight while bending in several directions. It feels extraordinarily satisfying to plop down a card and cause a cascade of scoring woes. You can’t argue with an engine that just makes you feel clever.

While the options at your disposal are large and subtle, there’s no discounting an awful run of luck. One of the most limiting factors of this design is the ability to top-deck consistently low value cards. You may still pull out a win with clever play, but the chap sitting across from you pulling a seven and eight of the same suit is going to be a leg up on your zero and three.

The short 25 minute playtime certainly minimizes the pain. This thing is brisk and more often than not, full of interesting decisions and tension. There will be moments when the bulk of your score is face-down, and your teetering on edge hoping no one deduces what suit you’re really going for. Deceptive plays and well-timed abilities can shift the playing surface and upsets occur often enough.

Causing further chaos is the splendid event system. A symbol found occasionally on cards cycles the current event, shifting gears sometimes dramatically. One such effect has you turn a card face-down after each play. Another extends play until a chain has eight cards. These are wild and weave into the loop of card-play wonderfully. They also manage to simultaneously be swingy without derailing specific strategies. They tend not to harm an individual more severely than another, instead providing a twist that alters the tactical approach of every participant.

I’m not sure if this is a stronger release than Fantasy Realms as they’re quite different. They both fit well enough on the shelf and don’t really tread on each other’s domain. At the moment Wizkids is the company producing quirky and incredibly interesting card games. Sovereign’s Chain is a hell of a ditty, and its size belies the fact that this one will find its way onto my list of 2019’s best.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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

Hako Oh No – A Hako Onna Review

This is a game where you get to play a dead girl stuffed into a box. You lurk in an abandoned mansion moving hiding place to hiding place and giggling as you go. Those other people at the table are stuck in your house, doing their damnedest to get the hell out before being devoured. To do so, they of course need to open these enclosures and scavenge for items, but if they find your terrifying toddler specter, well, then they’re now a broken body stuffed into the box as well.

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Won’t you come and save me?

You’re having one of two reactions. This is for my peeps nodding along who’d rather watch Blair Witch or It Follows than something that’s actually good.

Harsh, I know, but I’m mostly joking; those are quality horror films.

Those of you who let out an audible gasp? You can check right out. You don’t even need to scrounge up a set of keys and locate the trap door to escape like the poor fools in this game.

The rest of you that are still here – you can go ahead and check out as well, because this one’s a dud. Sure it’s a bit Ringu and has a stellar concept, but it feels more like a made for TV movie. You know that warning they used to toss up, the one that said “This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen and edited for content.” This game needed that message front and center. It feels cut up and stripped down in a concerted act of violation.

But damn, the concept.

Things start off sounding promising. The players who are the lock-ins alternate taking turns desperately searching for a way out. Before you perform an action you must place a little disc atop a small tower of discs. If the thing collapses, the Hako Onna player gets to interrupt and stumble about like a cackling doll drunk on blood and Absinthe.

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I’m the dog who gets beat.

This stacking mechanism is pretty clever conceptually. It’s a thematic representation of carefully tip-toeing about as you avoid creating noise. There’s even a little half-sphere on a couple of the suckers, causing you to strategically orient the disc in interesting ways for future play.

But already there are problems. This system is as challenging as it is gnarly. Many players will struggle to reach the vertical limit of even two or three placements, constantly causing a collapse and internalized frustration which is quickly externalized.

Fortunately this deterrent was realized and a set of alternate cards is included. In a more mundane process, you flip a random selection and assess the total noise value revealed. At 11 volume the trigger is fired and the possessed girl gets to do her thing.

Some players will immediately cotton on to the stacking mechanism and display great prowess. Even then, it’s not as wonderful as it promises.

The issue is that this delicate maneuver really hampers the pace of play. It will form a significant bulk of actual playing time as participants spend up to a minute orienting the disc and carefully sliding it into position. Everyone will wipe their brow and let out their breath for the tension has subsided.

Then you get rewarded with your turn. Which is a single action. So you move one space. Then we do it all again.

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He who tries, will be wasted

Maybe you don’t move a space. Maybe you instead look into one of the hiding places in your room. These boxes and cupboards consist of face-down tokens. You’re trying to find one of several paths of escape such as identifying the one weapon Hako Onna is weak against, deducing the combination to the safe so that you can nab the keys and hoof it, or most likely finding the slightly creepy doll and returning it to the deceased girl’s pile of bones in the basement.

That sounds neat, right? Multiple paths to victory, all narrative driven and containing their own subset of strategic requirements. Again, the meal looks much more appetizing than it tastes.

These vectors are wildly unequal in attainability. The doll path has proven much easier to accomplish than the others and is solely responsible for the player victories I’ve seen. It’s simply too many actions and far too risky to pursue the other goals. Bummer.

Let’s move on.

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Save me

This is a one-vs-many game. The adversary is a twisted undead girl who plays by her own rules. Her turns, while less frequent, are more robust. She will gain and play power cards that she amasses over the 60 minutes of play, allowing her to perform nefarious tricks and lay devious traps for the players. She will also move room to room by having the players close their eyes as she shuffles around tokens in the dark. Both of these actions sound enticing and certainly contain a possibility of eliciting tension. But you guessed it, both fail to really deliver once again.

The power cards are strange. They offer a capability of dramatic play and surges of strength, but you will likely earn so few, particularly early in the game. The intruders must find tokens that contain pages of your diary in order to unlock the use of these cards, so it means you are unlikely to draw anything worthwhile for a large portion of the relatively short playtime. If you do draw a card that you are unable to use you must put it back on the bottom of the deck likely never to see it again.

Even worse, drawing cards require you let out an audible scream – which I dig – and then point to the tile you’re currently in. This is bad, of course, and something you don’t want to do too often as it gives the players an idea of where you are. If Jennifer is searching the second floor while Timothy is scrounging around the basement, you’d likely much rather them not know which you are closest to, particularly near the final act when things get dicey and risks are higher.

That reverse hide-and-seek mechanism is similarly a bit pale. The notion of peeking at a tile with the possibility of your instant death sounds very tense and extreme, but it’s ultimately limp. The issue is that death is not a penalizing sentence but a liberation. Instead of sitting out and watching the resulting mayhem ensue, you replace your meeple with a counter so that you may hide among the clutter of these ancient hoarders just like the Hako Onna. Now it gets harder for those that remain since they have two little devilish fiends scurrying about between closets.

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Feed my eyes, can you sew them shut?

There are moments in Hako Onna where joy is lifted from the detritus. Players will occasionally feel a bit of a jolt and experience a touch of anxiety. The problem is that these moments are scattered and of lesser impact than a trip to the dentist or an outing with the in-laws.

This game’s audience is squarely one infatuated with the gimmick that does not mind a more methodical and laid-back tempo. If you need a bit of respite to relax between a few scattered scares, then this one may prove comfortable.

For the rest of us, play is continually hampered by that slow pace of placing disks and performing incremental progress that can barely be felt. It boasts the ambition of a Nyctophobia, but none of the follow-through. The game keeps scuttling along like a body limping across the floor and you keep sitting there, waiting for the pace to pick up. No vomit is flung nor heads twisted, it’s more of the same shuffling and tip-toeing until your feet are sore and your brain is sapped of life.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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

Dungeon Crawling Through Depravity – A Look at Cryptic Explorers

Sometimes I come across a game and I just want to shove it into a cannon and blast it into my body. Yeah, that’s somewhat disturbing, which precisely fits the scene as I’m riffing on Cryptic Explorers, a game that’s black, white, and terrifying.

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This is another one of those Kickstarter preview things. I don’t plan on making this a regular habit, but some games are damn good and deserving. Cryptic Explorers fits the bill.

That aesthetic is something you either eat up or toss out. I adore the Black Metal facade and this one sits comfortably on the shelf right alongside the now classic Cave Evil. There’s a stark and oppressive atmosphere at work and it fuels the nightmare your explorers will endure.

The setup is a one-vs-many dungeon crawler. You know, the same style originally presented in HeroQuest, perfected in FFG’s original Doom, and carried on through subsequent generations. Here one player takes on the role of a Goddess, a powerful shade of death inhabiting this slice of oblivion. You will wield an asymmetric cohort of demons and churn through your unique deck of abilities, all in the name of burning the protagonists into ash.

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The rest of your friends are the Cryptonauts. A mix of scientists, occultists, and muscle intent on entering the plane of the afterlife and lifting its secrets. You don spacesuits one degree separated from power armor, brandishing firearms and sorcery to fell the beasts of the pale.

This is where the game takes its first radical departure. Sure, that pale veneer is certainly something, but I’ve already seen that in Cave Evil and Escape the Dark Castle. The first truly innovative touch is in the Cryptonaut squads.

Each player does not control a single character. Instead, the forces of good are comprised of six total explorers spread across 2-3 squads, depending on player count. With two Cryptonaut players, you each control a squad of three ‘nauts. With three protagonists you each control squads of two.

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This matters. The squad structure is not a fluffy designation, it serves to fulfill synergistic play. There are 32 Cryptonaut characters and each contains a set of abilities and powers completely their own. This means your little squad can take many different forms. Some ‘nauts influence your build in direct ways, such as offering bonuses to stats if it’s comprised solely of scientists, or perhaps offering bonus move pushing you towards a swift strike team. The combinations feel endless. Most importantly, the game fulfills this promise of combo-building through its depth of strategy and tactical play.

But it’s never that simple. To fuel those various abilities you will need to progress by harvesting souls. This progress is roughly akin to leveling up in the multitude of RPG-adjacent designs, but it has some of its own flair and clever design.

You will pick up soul tokens scattered about the map, these little amorphous specters of unfulfilled and forgotten souls, and then you may plop them down on the over-sized character sheets to unlock one of your abilities. The strongest of powers requires you actually consume the token for a one time dramatic effect.

This system of growth is exceptional. It pushes you towards the far edges of darkness, battling through walls of fleshy creatures simply to harvest the dead and beef up your scientists-turned-invaders. There’s never quite enough to go around and you will not unlock every single ability, so you must pick and choose how you will progress your squads to tackle the challenges laid before you.

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This setup yields an interesting playstyle that’s very engaging. As you move about the cavern you will do so as a small unit of troops. The spawning rules (lifted nearly straight out of the OG Doom) force you to maintain defensive sight lines and a proper formation. It feels with every bone in your body that you’re a well-trained squad operating under tight procedure.

Meanwhile the Goddess sitting across from you is swelling with hate. She slowly amasses her own precious resource, power, which is used to summon creatures around corners and attack your position. There are large and small beasts, each with distinct abilities and personalities. The Goddess also has her own suite of tricks which spring unexpected traps and crippling debuffs.

The atmosphere is dense and the odds feel insurmountable, yet balance is tight and certainly fair. The multiple character format means player elimination isn’t a thing, and those moments of intense sacrifice and heroic deed are scattered about in digestible chunks. This is a dramatic game where you push forward and shove your mini-gun into the gullet of a hellacious deity that’s as thirsty as you read about.

The final piece we need to talk about is the Realm of Death. This is the board you will explore, a static hulk of cardboard with dizzying artwork. At times, it can be difficult to understand the myriad of textures and contours, but you will acclimate quickly enough and begin to understand the otherworldly geometry at work.

Realms of Death are significant not simply in their layout, but in how they provide the means for the Cryptonaut team to attain their Knowledge of Death cards. These are earned through map-based objectives woven into the environment. These consist of tasks such as unearthing all of the scattered sarcophagi littered across the board, or perhaps destroying the ancient alter which triggers an avalanche of pain courtesy of a massive monster spawn.

By utilizing narrative and tying the maps back into the overarching story, play feels like a closed loop that’s truly a pleasure to interact with. Drama is always at the fore of the design utilizing a single die based resolution system that is simple and keeps the process moving. Adding weight is an excellent stamina system which allows you to re-roll dice or gain extra actions during those crucial moments.

I was surprised at how intuitive and relatively straightforward this game was. The moments it chooses to branch out and extend complexity are carefully considered and focused on expanding the experience. This includes the delightful variety reminiscent of Street Masters where you form a singular experience out of multiple modular components (Cryptonauts, Realm of Death, Goddess).

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I’ve only managed two plays in my limited time with this game, but I’m absolutely enamored. The only rough spots I’ve encountered are primarily a function of this style of design. There is potential for play to turn into a bit of a grind as the antagonist blows up their well of power to summon a wall of enemies. This can lead to an attritional battle that could overstay its welcome. Combat is fast enough that this doesn’t pose a huge threat, and typically the Cryptonaut squads will be operating on separate sections of the map. This means that one team may find themselves in a meat grinder while the other presses forward with little hindrance.

The dynamic nature of that challenge structure is entirely calibrated by the Goddess player. They are free to strategically deploy their forces and hinder the progress of the explorers. This, in and of itself, is a fascinating experiment of sorts. After playing as the antagonist it will stick around like a phantom in your skull. You will question your decisions and rethink strategy. This is the type of reflective exercise I want to be burdened with.

The lack of a native timer could possibly be a stumble. I can appreciate the open nature of play, but if a group gets particularly bogged down things could drag out in terms of literal playtime. Both of my plays have been just over two hours, but it certainly could have drug on quite a bit longer. Players can rest and recover health and the enemy is gifted a continual trickle of power. As purely a thought experiment, play could last indefinitely. This will not happen of course, but those seeking a very controlled tempo will find that entirely in the hands of those sitting at the table.

And yet that controlled tempo is also one of the most liberating aspects of the design. By vesting the power with the Goddess player, it imparts a sense of control and dominion. It feels as though the others are invading your realm and this is your space to protect and wield like a rusty machete.

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A lack of miniatures may be a turn off for some. I’m a miniatures type of guy, but this black and white visual style is the single format where I actually prefer standees. The haunted faces of the Cryptonauts want to stand, simultaneously horrified and steeled, as a piece of unique artwork for all to ogle. A gray plastic miniature simply wouldn’t fit in this particular environment.

I of course can’t offer a definitive take on this design as it’s early days and I’ve played with an unfinished product. I can come out and exclaim that my experience has been gripping and tense in all the right ways. My players have fallen in love and everyone is clamoring for more Cryptic Explorers. 2020 watch out, because the competition is already fierce.

You can find Cryptic Explorers on Kickstarter here.

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

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.

Are you not entertained? A Proving Grounds Review

Kane Klenko is an interesting fellow. Known for his titles such as Fuse and Flip Ships, his brand comes across as “quirky”. Proving Grounds is right in that pocket. This is a real-time gladiatorial bout where one player embodies a betrayed princess and the others never show up. That’s right, this is a table for one and a design specifically tailored towards solitaire play. Color me intrigued.

The story is a big part of this work. It’s such an integral element that the game arrives with a novella inside the box. The heroic journey of Maia Strongheart going from eager princess, to betrayed sister, to ferocious warrior is presented in 30 or so pages of solidly sculpted prose. There’s been a prevailing sentiment of “I came here to play a game, not read a book”, but I am actually into this.

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The little story provides context and plants the seeds of investment that can tie your more closely to gameplay if so inclined. There is a definite stumble in spelling out the ending and describing Maia’s last stand, leaving the player to sort of pick up the narrative scraps by replaying a story that has already been written. It would have been much more effective to end the novella right before the combat ensued, allowing the soloist to write their own script and define the climax.

Even worse, our journey will not be nearly as tense, dramatic, or impactful as that which is written. The narrative described is one of high tempo with quick flashes of steel and a body count rolling over like a furious gas pump. The actual fight is a minority of the word count and it ends rather briskly. This is nothing like Proving Grounds the game.

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The game is much more methodical and tempered. You align a random assortment of enemy cards in a circular formation around the depiction of your warrior princess. The intended perception is that they are coming at you from every angle and you must work to keep them at bay and ultimately free their soul from body.

You do this by playing Yahtzee, with a timer.

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A large pool of six-sided dice is rolled and the timer starts. You have a minute to parse the results, sort the dice, and make any eligible re-rolls you choose. This is not a lot of time and that pressure element does create a sense of tension, mostly laying on the pressure as you struggle to quickly scan the dice and then scan the cards off to the side.

The challenge is that you can only re-roll dice showing the two or more of the same result. So if you roll a 1, a 3, and three 4s, you could re-roll the fours but not the other two. Singles become temporarily locked unless your re-roll of another number produces new doubles or triples or whatever.

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This is very simple but it produces interesting conundrums. The numbers on the dice map to those different adversaries circling your position. If you really want to push that rough looking spear-man back on your six, well then you need to roll a bunch of sixes. Dice spent this way will cause a little wooden marker to hop down a track, ultimately defeating them. The catch is that the parameters shift as you progress along each warrior’s meter. Maybe first you need to assign 2+ dice, then 3+, then 3+ but one of the dice must be yellow or green.

All of this is pretty interesting at first. It becomes a speed variant of Yahtzee where you’re tactically assessing risk and half-picking your target numbers. You don’t have complete control and you will occasionally get into a bind and need to re-roll that fantastic grouping of fives in order to avoid the three singles you have floating out there. The problem with singles is that those specific antagonists will see their tracks regress. If they happen to make it all the way to the bottom they will inflict wounds, bringing you ever closer to defeat.

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This will go on for about 20 minutes, a push and pull of driving some opponents an inch backward and allowing yet others to encroach an inch forward. The violence is slow and metered out in chunks with little actual bloodshed. It can feel as though the novella was written within the context of some other game from some other time.

Additionally, it wears a little thin after a half-dozen plays. The challenge and that nagging timer keep you initially primed, but the central puzzle is a repetitive engine sputtering along and waiting to give out.

Klenko realizes this of course and seeks to stem the bloodletting. The game includes several modules which change up the rules and present new tactical concerns. There are some really clever bits here such as the dragon die based on the wyrm found in the prescribed story. This sucker can be tossed with your regular pool, but you risk a chaos result which causes you to re-roll your entire set.

Of equal interest are chariots. These cards present active abilities which hamper and thwart your progress. You must decide when to appropriately deal with them in addition to the typical enemies. Most importantly they allow you to revisit those Ben Hur fantasies where you were galloping atop your bed as a child (there are advantages to gaming alone).

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Some of the modules are admittedly second class. One such extension includes a facing element where Maia’s direction comes into play. Conceptually intriguing, the implementation results in what I’d describe as faff rather than compelling.

None of these miniature expansions take the game far enough away from its central repetitive engine. They don’t redefine the experience and merely add another half-dozen plays or so of entertaining challenge before the paint begins to wear off once again.

Perhaps this is enough? If you cycle through the modules and work your way up the ladder, you will get a healthy amount of time out of this box. It’s not going to stick with you for the long haul and you will likely need intermittent extended breaks, but you could do worse.

The greatest difficulty with this one is that really this kind of thing has been done better. For a small box solo experience, you’d be much better off tracking down Space Hulk: Death Angel. This little card game similarly retains a high difficulty, but it also is designed to feed entirely into organic narrative. You will fist-pump one minute and face-palm the next as your line of space marines flirt with victory before being shredded by claw.

Proving Grounds has little narrative because its mechanisms are stark and the result set is always identical. Defeating one enemy is the same as defeating the next, which offers no creative spark or kindling for your cognitive journey.

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Furthermore, all of the rolling occurs off to the side of the board, distancing the systems of play from the few artistic expressions of its setting. When the process is literally divorced from the few immersive elements the narrative will largely exist outside of your experience. It’s an additional layer of abstraction with no benefit.

But what if you don’t care one whit for narrative? You’d be better off looking towards the excellent little gem Friday. That solitaire deck-builder is a juicy onion waiting to be peeled. It offers no tears nor acidic sting, rather it presents a compelling challenge with depth waiting to be teased.

And so I’m back there again. Like Fuse and Flip ShipsProving Grounds is a somewhat enjoyable experience but it’s ultimately forgettable. I’ve found each of Klenko’s previous designs to garner my interest and present compelling concepts, but they never close it out and deliver wholesale.

It’s hard not to repeatedly circle back to this: Proving Grounds is a decent game. The issue with that statement is whether decent is enough. My job is to emphatically remind you that it’s not.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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

Suitable? How about the oubliette?! – A Crusader Kings Board Game Review

If I was going to design a Crusader Kings board game, this would not be it. There’s a certain level of profusion I’d expect from a work derived from the massively complex PC simulation. The video game is full of rigor and depth, demanding many hours of input before you’re simply comfortable and many more before you’ve grasped a basic understanding of strategy. This cardboard version is not that. Not one bit.

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This isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s an oddity to be sure, as expectations don’t align with reality and this doesn’t quite service the fans the product is seeking. But as an abstracted table-top design intent on providing a good time – there is definitely measurable success here.

The cardboard Crusader Kings is a straightforward area control game. It requires a relatively laid-back 150 minute commitment. You control a prominent nation in medieval Europe and are crowned victor by gobbling up fertile countryside. There are no asymmetric abilities, complex CRTs, or even more than one type of combat unit. Simple, as I said.

There are really two interesting things going on here. The first has nothing to do with the Crusader Kings property. Rounds consist of programming a series of three action cards and then resolving them, player-by-player, one-by-one. These action cards let you tax your people, conspire to assassinate other nobles, and fabricate evidence to declare war (a neat two-step process faithful to its influence). You can march into other player’s areas or claim inventions such as plate mail or the longbow. When it’s your turn you flip your top card and perform the action. Then it’s on to your opponent until it gets back around to you.

There are quite a few options here, particularly with orders like Intrigue which allow multiple options – spying, assassinating, and gaining casus beli. While the overall gameplay is relatively simple, you will spend some time with your heads down weighing your options during the first couple of plays.

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The truly compelling aspect of this action system is not in the actions themselves but in their second use as an event deck. Immediately after executing your order the event at the center of the card fires. This means you must weigh each action programmed on two axes, often forcing difficult decisions such as feeling immense pressure to tax and fill your coffers to support the war effort, however, in doing so you will allow your neighbor to give birth and expand their royal family.

Other events harm you allowing another player to place unrest on your territories and shrink their economic spoils. Few will offer assistance to the current player, however these are often paired with weaker actions such as the lackluster Crusade.

Speaking of, let’s dig into Crusade a bit. This feels as though it should be one of the key components of the design (given the name on the box). Initially it looks as though its been handled with care as a separate track with lines the outside of the board. But it’s a bit of a farce.

Crusade is not a delicious decision in the game but rather a forced requirement. Each player must perform a Crusade action exactly once per age – a division of three rounds and nine actions – but the rewards are purely in gaining mechanical special abilities that often feel similar to one another and a bit underwhelming. The real failure here is that this does not function as a viable path to victory.

While I understand the design was necessarily abstracted to provide an accessible experience, it would have greatly benefited from offering a legitimate second way to gain victory points beyond simply controlling land back home. In its current state it functions as obligation which simply requires a bit of strategic thought on when you will give up your primary action to attend to this cost. It’s not entirely an afterthought, but it is a bit limp.

But back to those events – they’re a mixed bag. The tactical decision space via hand management is compelling and produces some of the best moments of the game, yet it’s not entirely fulfilling. The niggle here is that your events always affect the player to your left. This produces an odd relationship where you have your hands in the fate of that neighbor, dictating almost entirely whether their family can grow and prosper. This works for the most part, simply due to the incentive to play cards that will help your opponent, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I admire the concept more than the implementation I suppose.

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The second mechanism of interest is one of bag building. You have this neat little sack full of circular tokens with script such as cruel, humble, or godless. These are traits of your king and queen, their various quirks and eccentricities distilled to fickle cardboard. As you perform various actions in the game you will need to draw tokens from your bag with your traits both aiding and hindering your efforts.

This is Crusader Kings killer quality. While bag building in itself is nothing new, we’ve never quite seen it like this. What this offers is a more narrative focused system of resolution. You don’t simply fail to convince that neighboring region to wed their daughter to your son, you fail because your family is known to be deceitful or possessed. It’s colorful and enticing as a focus of play.

Your bag will shift as you’re given opportunities to cull the dregs of your lineage or add new entries as your children become adults and replace their parents upon the throne. The bag functions as this wonderful gene pool of your progeny, each generation leaving their indelible touch while also being unable to completely escape the sins of the past. Maybe Geoffrey is cruel, but his father Frederick absolutely was and it still taints the soil upon which your estate flounders.

This level of rich thematic storytelling reaches beyond setting and elevates the experience. It attains a degree of amplitude that’s fitting of its inspiration and those moments of triumph and agony are the closest we get to the PC game.

Better yet, between the finer stages are interludes of absolute hilarity. In a prior play I spent a large portion of the game listless as I failed check after check. The culprit? My newly wed Queen whose clubfoot trait thwarted my attempts to construct a castle and foiled an assassination attempt I was enacting. My belly ached from laughter.

Of course those vagaries of chance and the outright randomness of this system can stymie the good vibes. There are ways to mitigate bad luck such as paying coin to draw more tokens, but it can still be a downright capricious fellow. Again, this is not a game of grand planning and the execution of a life’s strategic work. It’s an at times silly game of area control with some nifty, and memorable moments peppered throughout.

It’s also a very pretty game. The board is gorgeous with its earthen tones and scattered miniatures. There are some accessibility issues as parsing information is more difficult than it should be. This is exclusively caused by the denoting of control with plastic knights. These aren’t units or army strength, they’re merely showing ownership. The smaller dudes with swords and maces are the ones that are actually waging war and costing you upkeep. While not a deal breaker, it often causes confusion with newcomers and creates a landscape which is somewhat difficult to parse.

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Crusader Kings is a board game that’s a bit of a surprise. It’s not at all what one is expecting upon opening that box, yet there’s also a pleasant discovery in that joy of the trait system. Like a dynasty’s cloth bag full of various boons and needles, this one is a mixed result that pulls in a couple of directions.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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