Does the World Really Need Us, Rangers? A Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid Review

Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid is all kinds of interesting. Beyond the immediate jolt of huge 50mm+ miniatures and yet another IP we’re supposed to love, there’s the big draw of Jonathan Ying. This dude brought us the more recent DOOM board game from FFG, a high velocity dungeon crawler that couldn’t find an audience. While I’m a child of the 80s and thus a fan of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, it’s really that last point that digs the hooks into my skin.

But yeah, this thing is big. Those minis are larger in scale than any other release I’ve seen. They’re solid sculpts and retain detail despite being a soft plastic that you can toss around without consequence. The illustrations and graphic design are also excellent and complement the chunky cardboard. Renegade Games has done a crackin job in presenting a unified vision to tickle your nostalgia receptors like a flood of color injected straight to the brain.

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Note – Megazord is a cardboard token in the base game, the miniature is found in an expansion

That physical acuity matches the experience. This is a very pleasing game with its lasers aimed just above family weight. It reliably comes in at a very lean 60 minute playtime and offers enough tactical decision-space to finagle investment from the indifferent.

One of the most radical elements of the original Power Rangers television show was how they re-used all of the action clips from the earlier Japanese version of the series. The American actors appeared only in scenes where they were helmet-less, producing this odd juxtaposition of two separate halves. The cobbled together nature of the show wasn’t jarring, but it occasionally was apparent and slightly awkward.

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Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid embodies this approach. It offers a lean experience that’s split between two modes of play, one far more interesting than the other.

The initial fraction is one we’re familiar with. It’s the Pandemic style whack-a-mole cooperative design where you bounce between locations and throw water upon fire. Strategic decisions must be made with limited action points as a misstep here and a lapse there will lead to the fire spreading to inferno.

The blaze here is a mass of faceless putty warriors clogging the streets of Angel Grove. The tight board features only four spaces and these areas congest quicker than the I-405 in Orange County. You flip five spawn cards each turn which yield various amounts of standard putty thugs and the more deadly super version. If each location maxes out its occupancy, then you immediately lose.

So you start triage from the get-go. The Pink Ranger heads to the high school to unleash hell, while the Red travels to the Industrial Complex to lead a counter-assault. You will need to coordinate as you can thread actions and there is no strict rotating turn order.

This works rather well, although the environment is somewhat bland and limited in scope. There is an effort to spice things up by offering advanced sides of the location boards, but those effects such as reducing hand size or boosting draw offer limited variance.

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Strategic considerations are tussled a bit when a monster mini-boss is spat from the spawn deck. These hefty combatants, such as a giant pig head with teeny legs and meaty arms coming out of its maw, provide greater challenge.

The battle system is where the special sauce resides. Rangers may initiate conflict which includes every figure in their area. There’s a nice teamwork element as players coordinate movement into a zone followed by one of them kicking off the attack and all joining in.

This is when the camera zooms, swapping between that footage filmed in LA with that in Tokyo.

Enemies are represented by asymmetrical combat decks. You deal out a matching card per enemy figure which represents an individual foe to attack, as well as the unique effect they will hit you with.

Rangers then go to work.

They alternate playing one of their own cards and typically roll dice to inflict hits. Damage is placed straight on antagonist cards where you hope to meet a threshold and flip it over. Then the foe’s take a turn and trigger the next card in their row. This presents a programmed series of attacks that occur between Ranger actions, allowing you to collude and construct a battle plan together.

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There’s quite a bit of discussion on who should take the opportunity to attack, if anyone can eliminate that next card before it triggers, and who has a special ability that hasn’t been used yet. If you can destroy a card you remove a figure from the area and the enemy turn will be skipped when it comes time to activate that particular card.

So there’s a surprising amount of nuance. Maybe you want to knock off that passive ability the hog-man threw down, but you’re about to get hit with a massive four damage attack. Which one do you go for?

Additional effects can throw a wrench in the works, such as cards guarding others that are positioned adjacent. Some enemy effects are fast allowing the baddies to take a turn before the Rangers. This variance offers a very nice degree of meaty assessment in a relatively straightforward system.

Much emphasis is also placed on deck management. It sort of inverts the concept found in Gears of War: The Board Game by utilizing your draw pile as your health. You’re able to pull more cards into your hand when a battle starts, but damage is dealt straight to your deck so you need to weigh this decision carefully. Resting and visiting the centralized command center allow you to refresh. Managing this loop of draw deck to hand to discard pile back to deck again provides an interesting conundrum.

All of this is pretty slick and compelling, for those engaged in combat. A minor problem with this system is that it leads to spectation. If Liz and Kyle are throwing down at the park, Jim and Lila are sitting off to the side, waiting patiently for their next turn to act. While fighting is streamlined, it can be a bit heady and lead to back and forth discussion. In a congested space five or more minutes for a bout is the norm, blunting the edge of play for those on the sidelines.

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The majority of Heroes of the Grid is combat. Since this is the heart of the experience it can feel often as if this is really a battling card game against an AI opponent where you utilize asymmetric player decks to combo and riff off each other.

By the way, that asymmetry is pretty gnarly. Each Ranger is distinct, such as the blue possessing a bevy of counter attacks and the pink offering massive damage. There’s a definite personality baked into the card selection that you will explore and relish.

Similarly, each monster has their own deck with a different profile. You only use two of these four included mini-bosses each play, and likely only a subset of the Rangers if you have less than five players. This results in a combinatorial quality that mimics the exemplary Street Masters.

This is where we round the corner and things get interesting.

The biggest challenge I have with Power Rangers is that it’s streamlined Street Masters. Conceptually this is fine, but the cost in depth and discovery is severe. At face value this is an overly reductive comparison, but they both compete in a such similar niche that obsolescence must be addressed.

This takes that modular design philosophy and cuts 30-60 minutes off the playtime. Both have you holding on for dear life, riding wave after wave of mindless goons before eventually taking down the boss to claim victory. However, the big catch here is that this is not nearly as rich of an experience as its predecessor.

Street Masters offers much deeper play as each character possesses wholly unique mechanisms, multiple ways to combine and tease out various effects, and simply a greater space to explore. After a single play of Heroes of the Grid you will feel as though you’ve experienced the majority of what your 10 card deck has to offer. Strategically you will be able to discover new tricks and find new combos, but these moments of sweetness will slowly be spaced out farther and farther.

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Street Masters on the other hand offers protagonists which will stand up to dozens of plays before exiting the stage. They each possess a wider range of tools which reveal nuanced and clever interactions, further propelled by the variety in opponents and maps.

Similarly, the base enemies and environments are limited in this release. Locations in particular are flat compared to Street Masters’s dynamic environments. That staid whack-a-mole system replaces a more meaty tactical situation at the cost of fluidity.

Unfortunately, the variety in the core box is also leaner in Power Rangers. The two basic enemy types and four standard locations are used in every play. This wouldn’t be an issue if the design didn’t hinge on its content exploration. Standard play can feel repetitive relatively quickly and you will need to jump into the large swathe of expansion material early in the life-cycle. This will put off some of the repetition and breathe new life into the game, but that new stuff is immediately on the clock.

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Repetition is primarily a result of a rigid narrative structure. By that, I mean this game has you doing the exact same thing, over and over again, play upon play. You hold out blowing up putties and hanging on for dear life until Rita hits the streets and the showdown begins. While the Sadler brothers’ design follows a similar structure, the varied nature of the stages and how this upsets enemy behavior shifts the tempo game to game. In one play, the enemies may be trying to smuggle black market weaponry off the battlefield, in another they’re raiding a casino and stealing fistfuls of poker chips. This injects life and presents a compelling story framework to interact with. Meanwhile, Rita’s always going to be cackling “I’m free! It’s time to conquer Earth!”

These limitations may simply be a cost of its brevity and tightly wound bones. Street Masters is a more complicated and difficult game, one you will struggle to play with a young one. This has wider appeal and may hit the table more frequently, however, the large amount of space and high cost it requires are at odds with the shallower role it occupies.

As we come to a close I find myself conflicted. Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid is stuck in this odd space. Jonathan Ying’s work does capture its source material rather well. It glosses over more complicated villain machinations, but it draws upon the heart of the series by fostering teamwork and cooperation. The combat system is excellent and the asymmetry is strong, but it struggles to get entirely over the hump due to humdrum repetition, a condition which proves costly when positioned next to competition.

Those who find the Power Ranger brand particularly appealing will be able to forgive the shortcomings and stretch this thing as far as it will go. Sprinkle in a few expansions – which are excellent in their own right – and the longevity will lengthen.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Pax Pamir Second Edition – The Great Game

One of the wonderful things about historical games is the process of learning that accompanies play. These games are fascinating tools to help increase cultural proficiency, better understand human nature, and re-shape our worldview. They challenge us in all the best of ways, both cognitively and emotionally; Pax Pamir perhaps doubly so.

This second edition of Cole Wehrle’s take on “The Great Game” is something special. It catches you immediately. That bold cover. The cloth map unfurled like an elegant Persian rug. Chunky blocks with depth and character that outshine the vast mounds of plastic currently dotting our tables and tomorrow our landfills. Colors abundant, saturating the table with rich splendor.

It’s breathtaking.

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“The Great Game” may be something you know little of. That will change once you’ve spent a few turns in this facsimile world. The intense and frothing diplomatic collision between Britain and Russia over a chunk of people and land known as Afghanistan – it’s as gripping a setting as the mechanisms that are paired. You can get lost in the cards simply reading about Eldred Pottinger, a spy who helped lift the Persian siege at Herat or Hajj Mirza Aghasi who introduced his Shah to mysticism.

Soon you realize that this conflict is not yours. As an Afghan tribe looking to thrive in the wake of the fallen Durrani Empire, these foreign coalitions are oppressive intruders that must be placated in order to secure survival. As blocks are placed vertically in the scattered territories the earth begins to fill up, soldiers looming over the countryside like trees blotting out the sun. Your home slowly turns into a battleground and you’re caught in the battle.

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Worry not, for some of those armies are native Afghan forces, standing erect and ready to wage war or remain motionless as duty calls. But those aren’t your people. They’re yet another tool to manipulate or be manipulated by. The rub is that all of these players are out for themselves. All you can do is nudge the whirring contraption in your direction and ride the situation like a hapless stooge atop a thrashing bull.

That control is acquired via cards. In the Pax Porfiriana tradition, two rows form a public market. Options slowly make their way left down the river and become cheaper over time. In the early going, your only two available actions will be to buy or play cards.

Everything is tight, from options to money, and everything you do feeds back into the game’s vicious loop. Coins spent to pick up a juicy Patriot are placed upon other options in the offer, eventually finding their way to opposing players, soon spent to fuel your demise and fight the great war at the heart of the Great Game.

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These cards you buy will be placed into your tableau. As you play them they offer instant benefits such as placing faction troops or your own tribes on the map. They also afford new options for you to perform on each of your turns, such as taxing the land or purchasing gifts to tie yourself more closely to perhaps those Russians or Brits. Your options slowly expand and swell parallel to the game’s arc. It feels as though your base of power and influence grow with the erupting state of the board, everything approaching a powder keg set to expire.

This is also where the game’s greatest challenge appears. With such a large assortment of options to sift through, and a relatively chaotic turn-to-turn environment of those selections disappearing, it can take quite a bit of focus and decisiveness to keep things moving. Analysis paralysis is no foreigner to Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, there are so many marvelous things embedded in this system that it’s difficult to really know where to start. Take those precious cards you acquire throughout play, they each tie to one of the six regions on the map. This is relevant because if another player controls the location of the card you wish to play, you must pay them a bribe. Of course, they can waive the fee at their own discretion, likely at the cost of leveraged promises down the line.

Some allow you to place your pieces on the board and participate in the area control portion of the design. However, if you ever lose all of your tribes in a territory you must discard from your tableau each card of the Political suit matching the area. Similarly, if your last Political card of a specific region is betrayed with a special action, then you must swipe away all of your followers in that paired location. This is brutal as the land undulates before you, coughing up your people and power like yesterday’s rotten lamb.

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Scoring is likewise nuanced. You have this smooth little wheel that clearly displays your current allegiance to either the Russian, British, or Afghan coalition. Like a badge you’re too proud to wear upon your chest, it sits on the table and wearily displays your current disposition. You can switch this rather easily throughout the course of play, but in doing so you give up any progress you’ve made with your previous coalition.

Throwing in with one of those nasty occupiers has a few benefits. You can utilize those deployed troops to wipe out other factions and even players. This is easily done if you’ve acquired battle actions in your tableau, and there’s precious few ways for a player to defend their tribes from violence. What’s even more beautiful is that another player may have been the one to deploy all of these soldiers, and then you swoop in and corral them like a cloud of bees to be wielded as blade or musket.

More important is the coalition’s role in scoring. Shuffled in regular intervals throughout the market deck are these Dominance chaps. When such a card is triggered play pauses and scoring is conducted. You must first assess whether a faction is “dominating”, which requires a particular side to have at least four more armies deployed than any other. For this to occur players must have obviously spent a great deal of effort to bloat the board with armed troops and perhaps minimize the deployment of opposing coalitions.

If this is the case then you assess each player’s influence within that particular faction. Interestingly enough, this completely ignores deployed pieces and instead looks to how you have built your tableau with patriots loyal to the cause, what prizes you have taken from betraying played cards, and the quantity of gifts you have purchased to soothe your benefactor.

If a faction does not have a substantial lead in standing armies, then instead we look at how many pieces each player has deployed and award points in this manner. This is in stark contrast to faction dominance, putting players in an alternate position of following two distinct competing vectors of achievement.

The Dominance system is remarkable. It’s a wide divergence from the Pax series as it rewards incremental point gains throughout play instead of simply handing the game over to a winner at a crucial moment. This may be slightly less dramatic, but it affords maneuvering room that fuels tactical discussion and short-term politics. For instance, counter-intuitively you may push to trigger scoring early even if another player will gain more points than you. As long as you personally move closer to first overall, there is incentive to harness the chaos and pull the trigger before the situation changes.

This mechanism allows for unexpected shifts as a player swaps allegiance, throwing the social environment into disarray. In my last session another player and I pushed the British coalition hard, leaping out to a dominant lead in presence. Before scoring occurred a third player deftly slipped into our Faustian pact and quickly pumped money into the coffers of our foreigners, ascending in short term to the head of our small tribe. It was jarring and I had to shift instantly to a new strategic option and refocus my efforts.

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This is a resilient design. It scales well, providing a gripping experience for 3-5 participants. At the higher end of the spectrum there will be more turnover in the market and it’s a little more chaotic as your agency is reduced. However, more hands in the pot also cause increased conflict as play leans into the coalition structure with alliances propping up and being battered down. At three it still works well with little adjustment and the commitment is closer to 90 minutes as opposed to 120. The texture of dynamic team play is less nuanced or rich, but you still experience the bulk of what Pax Pamir has to offer.

Despite playing a half dozen games of this, I’ve yet to tackle the included Wakhan AI system. This allows for solitaire play as well as propping up the otherwise fragile two player mode. Sans Wakhan the head to head match-up is extraordinarily brief and swingy; a single powerful move may cascade into an untenable board state and quick victory. Yet I’ve been so enraptured with this design as a multiplayer endeavor full of negotiation and rivalry that I may never make it to the Wakhan.

There’s a lot going on in Pax Pamir second edition. It has that signature Cole Wehrle sandbox design element that I’ve come to adore. You may not interact with a whole subset of mechanisms in a single play, unexpected events will occur, and you will twist and contort to try and slip through the gap and come out the other side.

Most compelling is the expression of theme. Your country starts a blank canvas, solely occupied by round wooden discs representing tokens of power for you to plumb. Expressly through player action those heavy military blocks appear. As everything develops, the alien forces may swarm or wither, and it’s entirely up to the actors at the table.

It’s difficult to ignore the continual question of who exactly is using whom. Scoring suggests a selfish circle of wrapping your fingers around your ally’s hand and helping to tighten their grip. It’s difficult to shake the perceived cost as you’ve sacrificed something integral in your pursuit. Slowly the realization creeps into your conscious that you’re caught in the fist as well and slowly squeezing yourself.

Look at the map after a successful dominance check. We’re told a period of peace now occurs as all of the armies are swept to the bin and we start anew. What else has happened as a result of this cleansing? What’s the cost of peace? Who else has been brushed into the gutter?

Those questions reside just below the surface, melding with a dozen others and challenging our cognitive flex. This is a game that is not easy, as its efficient rule-set births an opaque strategic landscape that demands attention and care. It’s one of those titles that will leave your mind restless and engaged long after the pieces have been put away and the brutality has subsided.

Pax Pamir second edition sits comfortable at the table, confidently trading wisdom and insight with John Company and Root while everyone else is listening in silence. If nothing else, this title has cemented the past three as the years of Cole Wehrle.

 

A review copy was provided by Wehrlegig Games.

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The Mean Streets of Brook City

Street Masters blew me away. Not because my expectations were low, but because the debut release from Blacklist Games was that damn good. So Brook City has it rough as the primary measuring stick is a hall of famer. It’s not completely fair but it’s entirely unavoidable. So let’s measure.

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First, let’s get into what Brook City is. This is a spiritual successor to its predecessor, utilizing the Sadler brothers’ unique Modular Deck System (MDS). This mechanism combines sets of asymmetric decks as a randomized spread of components to form a unique scenario. It’s one of the defining aspects of this game and forms the content discovery portion of play.

This means that before each session of play you will decide several variables. First is the criminal. The base game comes with three options, each a character full of personality with their own behavior and goals. Micky, for instance, is looking to perform shows at various music venues as a cover up for nefarious activity. Gus Ferguson on the other hand (a clear homage to foodie Guy Fieri), is hawking drugs on the mean streets of BC and bouncing around on various stops.

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“This is the drink we never had before.”

After the criminal comes the case. This is the central focus of play providing the bones of a plot for the rest of the narrative to hang upon. These produce clues for players to interact with as you peel back layers of the mystery, ultimately solving the thing or failing spectacularly. The three cases are relatively distinct and each offer their own set of challenges.

The final ingredient is the 5-0. This game offers a wide range of officers, each utilizing a specific skill set found in their asymmetric deck. This is also where the most obvious pop culture references come in with allusions to Will Smith, Mel Gibson, Marishka Hargitay, and others. There’s a lot of smirking spread across the swathe of cards and abilities.

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“Don’t be smart, Johnny.”

Just like Street Masters, this system of combining randomized limbs to form your own Frankenstein’s Monster is extremely compelling. The game avoids a long-winded scenario book and provides more room for players to forge their own story among these loose parts. It’s great stuff as the disparate elements combine relatively flawlessly to provide strong variety.

This is also where the game struggles a bit to keep up with Blacklist’s debut. Street Masters had a strong focus on character, with players working to build combos and really find their legs as they pushed through their deck. This arc of play was very enthralling as you explode in power late game and unleash hell.

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Brook City is more of a slow burn. Part of this is necessitated by the genre, 90s buddy cop flicks, and part of it is design philosophy. Just like the board they live upon, the criminal and case content feels more sprawling and stretched. The complexity of the mechanisms lives at the upper end of its predecessor and the game has a completely different pace.

Similarly, it’s much less about vomiting combos and more about traversing long distances and putting out fires. This is a cooperative design that’s more whack-a-mole, in the vein of Pandemic, and less balls to the wall face breaking. Thus, it’s less dynamic and instead more measured and strategic. The fallout is a flow that’s a little more repetitive.

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“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home.”

This changing of gears does come with some benefits. There’s a large emphasis on vehicles which is totally rad. I’m talking cop cruisers, convertibles, motorcycles, sports cars, and even boats, each with a slick accompanying miniature to wheel around in. Yeah, you can even fly down the center river canal blaring Zeppelin and kicking thug ass.

The implementation of vehicles is the most interesting mechanism of this sequel. They give you a native boost of movement, but you can also “ditch” them to gain a powerful one-time benefit. This encourages a cavalier attitude towards your assets as you fly about the streets and hop out of one vehicle, only to requisition another one shortly thereafter. It ties in wonderfully to the loop of play and it’s also a downright hoot. When I think about my time with Brook City, this is the primary attribute that puts a smile on my face and defines the cinematic element.

“Everyday it’s Christmas with these cops.”

Like Street MastersBrook City is full of abstraction. While cases possess some narrative cues, they leave much to your imagination. You’re also required to reconcile the different combined parts into a digestible whole, which is slightly harder to accomplish than the more straightforward story of Street Masters. The more elaborate cases and lengthier play time place a more substantial burden on the participants to develop their own mental image of what happened.

I will say that this game straddles the line of story told “by you” versus “to you” remarkably well. This is not an experience where you will be reading long passages of flavor text, rather the surprising events provide support for you to latch on to. This allowance for interpretation is appealing and one of the strongest elements of the MDS system.

Another factor in its favor is player scaling. The difficulty stays relatively steady whether you’re playing with a single investigator or four. It functions as an entertaining solo game as well as a lengthier affair with a small group of friends. I do prefer it at smaller player counts in order to keep the time commitment more reasonable, but it still plays quite well with a full complement if everyone is experienced with the system.

While it may be unfair to hinge evaluation on a comparison, it’s certainly useful. I do not think Brook City is at the same level as Street Masters, and that’s perfectly fine. That’s not to say this is poor execution or a weak title. Brook City is a solid follow-up that seeks to tell its own story. In many ways, it’s remarkable how stylistically varied this release is from its peer. They each have their own place and accomplish their own goals.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Of Tongue and Spear – A Pericles: The Peloponnesian Wars Review

Pericles feels big. Partially it owes this quality to its stark simulation of the Peleponnesian War, a brutal conflict that reshaped the ancient Greek world and lead to Sparta’s prominence. Per standard GMT disposition, this one completely embodies the political and historical strife emblazoned upon its cardboard exactitude. Surprising it is not to find a doe-eyed individual making their first trip to the public library in half a decade as consequence to plumb the oeuvre of Thucydides.

Pericles feels yet bigger due to the masterful execution of Mark Herman, legendary designer of conflict simulations. The scope of play feels as sweeping as its influence, capturing the multiple facets and subtleties of a very dynamic period in ancient history. The game shifts on a drachma between two distinct vectors, one mirroring the political turmoil of the affiliated leagues and another taking the seed planted in bureaucratic bloodletting to flower a spear yet thrust into the heart of those bastards at Attica.

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Like the war it embodies, this is a game that teeters between butchery and reconciliation. It can be maddening as entirely as it can be captivating. At its best, it’s often skirting the line between each like a trireme cutting across the crest of a wave.

The most compelling feature of this work is the unique format. Pericles makes no apologies for its exact requirement of four players. It tells you to simply acquire more friends or gut the excess. Furthermore, the quad will be split into two teams, one taking on the alliance of Athens and the Delian League butting sword and helmet against the brazen legions of Sparta split by forces two of Eurypondit and Agaid.

Worth mentioning is that support for a head to head bout and even a solitaire experience exist, but neither feel as though they are Pericles as it’s meant to be.

The asymmetry here is distinct, with Athens sporting a navy that is dominant and Sparta wielding forces impenetrable in earthen combat. They each are fortified in opposing geography with battle-lines drawn uncomfortably close to each other’s holdings.

At once it’s easy to identify this as an evolution of Herman’s previous work, Churchill. It encapsulates the political brokering and gutter posturing of its fore-bearer while twisting the formula and radically changing the field. It adapts that initial spark of concept to the times and produces something entirely different. In short: it’s remarkable.

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The political phase is fraught with internal animosity. Teammates alternate playing cards and managing their hands in order to prod and pull issues along a single axis. It’s a tug of war as one tries to tease diplomatic or military orders to their side of the amphitheater. There’s mutual interest not to leave these issues neutral, as the more cleanly decided topics between you and your teammate the more total orders your shared forces will execute.

That twisted conundrum of weighing team versus self is realized through the capricious victory point system. You need your particular side to overcome the other, but in the process you as an individual will need to achieve more honor than your partner. While most semi-cooperative designs tend to wobble, Pericles stands firm by executing sharply upon its concepts with measured incentives.

As you shift nervously in your seat, hoping to draw a few military orders so that you can triumphantly march towards the golden cities of yore, your opponents sit across conducting their own duplicitous affairs. This parallel struggle of inward resolution that is beaten and shaped before being turned outward upon your enemy is absolutely delightful. It stands in stark contrast to the more complicated and fussy campaigning in the Mediterranean that follows. This duel of wits is the very best Pericles has to offer.

Once each side’s isolated congress has resolved, order tokens are awarded. Players receives orders bestowed by the issues they’ve won. Participants then take turns placing these counters face-down upon the sprawling map and stacking them upon like locations. This mimics the unique mechanism found in StarCraft: The Board Game and later re-implemented in Forbidden Stars. It’s a brilliant last in/first out system that demands forward thought and rewards misdirection. It’s one of the many games-within-a-game this title hawks.

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The political theater feeds smoothly into the war phase. It’s astounding how two distinct halves can feel so interconnected and coherent. Each order you place is an extension of those previous debates, an execution of your will as a lithe beast thrust upon your adversary. As you conquer city-state and amass honor your spectral machinations will take shape and satisfaction will be gleaned. It’s dizzying to behold.

There is a cost. By bridging two halves that are heavy as isolated entities, a whole that is ponderous emerges. This is an experience that is burdensome as a set of rules. It will take time to internalize and ever longer to master. Accessibility is immediately a concern and piercing the walls of this work will take quite the effort.

To alleviate some of the hardship, this title does offer a solid spread of scenarios, each targeted at specific game lengths while maintaining ties to historical situations. There’s a push for shorter bite-sized games to serve as an introduction, as well as lengthier 5+ hour marathons beckoning meal breaks and occasional pauses for stretching. The pocket of perfect length for complexity is right around three hours, with those shrinking or stretching the skin across the head of the drum resulting in rhythmic pitch that isn’t quite smooth. It’s unfortunate then that most players will have so little use for the bulk of scenario content.

Through a multitude of weighty rules, peak frustration arrives with movement. You cannot simply take a stack of troops and push them along a connection to an adjacent region. No, instead you must evaluate different colored arrows and their multitude of meanings. Some require you have naval accompaniment, others demand a stronghold or ownership of territory. It’s confusing, yet its purposely integrated as a function to model the geographic challenges of period logistics. At times it feels as though it’s not worth the trouble and this is the single element that causes the most frustration.

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Combat is similarly complex with disruption and attrition calculated by chart. It appears obtuse, a trait that reverberates throughout and reflects the subject matter and concepts the game espouses. All of this nuance calls back to the earlier political phase and emphasizes those tightly wound jabs of oratory. For all its complexity and demands, Pericles certainly pays out in brilliance over the course of its epic.

The principal facet of this brilliance is in expression. One of Thucydides primary themes in transcribing the Peloponnesian Wars is the fleeting nature of political power and wartime success. This is similarly articulated by Mark Herman in the fragile duality of the political and war phases of Pericles. A nudge here, a shift there, and the entire peninsula is pushed to the brink. In but a moment, everything has collapsed and your breath is gone. Carefully orchestrated plans have crashed upon the shores of the Peloponnese and tomorrow has arrived before yesterday has begun.

This is a game I admire. However, it’s one I will not often play due to its rigor, length, and requirement of four. When it does hit the table it’s a singular experience that challenges and embraces. The result is a stupendous achievement that’s difficult to approach, but approach we must.

 

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.

Serious Business – A Shaky Manor Review

Blue Orange knows what’s up. This publisher has been producing children and family games for years – they even supply Chick-Fil-A with miniature versions of Spot It! and other clever sundry for their kids meals. I’d put them right up there with HABA when it comes to this category, which is about as high praise as you can get.

Shaky Manor is one of those games which fits so smoothly into Blue Orange’s stable that it’s hard to imagine designer duo Asger Granerud and Daniel Pedersen pitching it elsewhere. It’s a colorful box crammed tightly with four smaller quadrilaterals, each representing a series of connected rooms in the spookiest PG haunted house you’ve seen.

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This house is terrorized by squishy spiders that fill the bulk of a doorway and massive eyeballs the size of a baby grand piano. There’s other stuff, such as treasure cubes and an investigator meeple that my five year old refers to as “the gingerbread man”.

So you throw these pieces randomly about your little rectangular house. A cube falls into the living room, the gingerbread man into the study, and that detached oculus into the lavatory. It’s chaos, raw and dire and ripped from the back of a Goosebumps cover. My daughter is squeeling.

Then you shake the thing. Yes, you pick the house up and shuffle it about, tipping it along its axis and shaking violently at times. These poor creatures of the night settled along the wrong fault line.

Your goal is to scoot certain pieces into a randomly determined room dictated by a drawn card. It’s as hilarious as it is simple. You will sit there in your chair, tipping every which way, and the very moment the ginger is in the room with the treasure – the eyeball sneaks in.

This is not acceptable.

So you shift the manor a few degrees. Now a treasure cube has escaped out one of the small doorways and slid down to the foyer. Oof. Maybe you persevere and keep at the game of tilt-a-whirl for another couple of minutes. Maybe you throw the puny house across your basement like a disgruntled god bored with their toy.

And that’s all there really is. Two very similar modes of play and a mixture of pieces that feature delightfully asymmetric performance.

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While not explicitly spelled out, the game scales wonderfully for different skillsets and age ranges. When playing with my daughter I reduced the number of “bad” pieces to level the playing field. She kicked my rear. Our joy was mutual.

With a group of middle aged gamers there is still fun to be had. It’s a momentary diversion most likely, but it’s still good for one of those times when you have few minutes and you can reach into the back recess of your shelf and proclaim “you guys have to see this.”

You probably won’t play it again with that group, at least not for a long while, but it’s still served a momentary purpose and brought its share of thrills.

This is the weakness of Shaky Manor in that it’s a bit of a one trick pony. The challenge is an interesting one, but its depth is limited and its appeal is short lived.

But the real strength is its ability to succeed across the boundaries of time and space and age gaps. It can provide a level playing field so I can meet my little one half way. We’re both then actively participating instead of one of us (typically me) simply acting the passenger.

The action of playing games cannot be stripped down to merely pushing some pieces around and executing a series of decisions. It’s an experience that supersedes its rudimentary components and produces a moment, something shared between the participants as a result of what they’ve put in and how it’s come out.

In this regard, Shaky Manor can be a noteworthy game. I’ve enjoyed some special moments with my daughter, jostling rooms and flinging pieces through a tormented abode. Laughter and excitement tumble effortlessly from our physical competition and she’s ready to play again before it has even ended.

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Shaky Manor has succeeded where other dexterity games have faltered. When playing with a particularly young child, they can struggle at times with precision. In such awkward ordeals they can’t quite engage the core loop of a design. This leads to frustration.

But they came into this world shaking.

This game succeeds at various age ranges because it offers such an abundance of piece variety. Thought and care was clearly focused and it pays off for the end user.

This one may not still be in my collection a year from now. Children games by their very nature are transient, capturing attention for a single moment in a developing human’s interest. What matters is right now, and right now my little girl wants to thrash about as an eyeball and snake scuttle between rooms of a condemned cardboard facsimile.

Visions of THAC0 – A Legends Untold: Weeping Caves Review

I didn’t know it would happen. Legends Untold was just another game with a generic name and generic premise. I wrote a press release about its Kickstarter campaign at Geek & Sundry and sort of mailed it in. News pieces are the worst.

The designer/publisher Kevin Young ended up sending me a copy of the game. Well, actually he sent me two copies since there are two standalone “novice sets” that each offer a similar experience with unique content. He probably wishes this article was being published at that big league site and not a dew-beater penny press. Sorry, Kevin.

But really, I didn’t know.

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I didn’t know that Legends Untold would be such a unique and inspiring design. You could abut that statement with a qualifier of “for its small footprint” if you wish, but I don’t care. The bottom line is that this thing is stimulating.

It’s one of those “RPG in a box” games. That saying makes no sense by the way since role-playing games came in boxes before they didn’t. Regardless, this is a game that wants to recapture another’s experience. This allows it to tap into nostalgia and fuzzy emotions which cover up some of the warts and fissures.

Yes, this is a dungeon crawl and it feels like a blend of old and new schools. One thing which must be understood is that this is entirely about exploration. There is combat, equipment, leveling, et al. But that’s all secondary to flipping out a new room card and sticking your head into the doorway.

Exploration is one of my favorite aspects of tabletop thematic games. Revealing new people, places, and things is the very essence of mystery and suspense. It’s a hard thing to get right, especially in a dungeon crawler, and few designs adequately capture the immersion of a well-run D&D spelunking. Legends Untold is damn close.

It gets there due to commitment. This is a rather complex rule-set for the box size. There are layers of regulations and exceptions that feel as though they’re pushing everything a bit too far at times. Details exist for light sources, room and pathway illumination, sneaking, abstracted ranged and melee combat, surprise rolls, multi-use talent cards, three different types of encounter cards, barrier and obstacle cards, scenario special rules, and more. Whew. Sorry, let me collect my breath.

Messy is the term that comes to mind. It’s not an overly aggravating set of parameters on the whole, but you will need to refer to the rulebook and multiple player aids often enough during your first few plays. You will begin to question whether it’s really worth having all of these different types of cards and sub-systems.

The funny thing is that this nuance and level of complexity offers a rich experience you can’t find elsewhere. A comparable design is the Sadler brother’s Warhammer Quest Adventure Card Game (which later became Heroes of Terrinoth). That’s a more modern and streamlined affair following prevailing game design principles. It’s also a tedious and repetitive outing focused entirely on combat. Immersion is never achieved. The environment should be a living and breathing entity with personality – Legends Untold uniquely gets this.

Let’s have a go.

You’ve discovered a bleak underground lake spanning the length of the cavern. An event card has been pulled detailing flooding, a calamity common in the weeping cave set, and travel is slow eating up precious time. You forego resting this turn to lick your wounds and instead press forward and keep the momentum. Two exits exist, one is dark and one is bright.

“I’m a little banged up” remarks Ben. “I think we should head through the shadowy tunnel and keep our heads down in case we run into more goblins.”

Aaron speaks up, “The last time we avoided the light it resulted in a bombed scouting roll. Our carelessness lead to triggering a pit and dart trap. No way.”

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Ben shakes his head and scowls, “Look, if we skip through the illuminated exit we will never make our surprise roll. Let’s just sneak through the dark entrance, you can take the rear-guard position and Jim can take point in case we hit a trap.”

“Wait, what?” blurts Jim.

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If you extricated the discussions from the game a passerby would think you’re red boxing it up. Repeatedly you will debate these very specific challenges such as who goes first across the rope bridge or whether you should attempt to bribe or pummel the glowing sprite that’s intercepted your jaunt. All of this is due to a carefully presented level of detail.

The challenges you stumble across are myriad. They are full of personality and present an evolving set of circumstances that are unique to your encounter. While you may see that rickety rope bridge on a subsequent play, it offers a different feel in totality when it’s braced with a goblin shaman defending a massive idol as opposed to presenting a cross-roads unnaturally quiet and brimming with traps. Each disparate piece comes together, randomly, to build atmosphere.

There is combat, although it’s not terribly interesting. Every test in this game is a nifty dice roll of 3D6 with a bonus provided by a character stat. It approaches clever when you start considering exhausting your multi-use ability cards, but these aren’t quite enough. Violence usually revolves around several rounds of rolling dice and looking at a simple weapon chart. It’s not dull but it’s a momentary break in the wonderful bits of the game that mostly serves to reinforce the sense of danger.

I do love the damage system in that it’s attritional without feeling too much the grind. You instead flip your ability cards face-down which naturally weakens you over time. Enemies are much simpler and handled by small hit point pools of course.

Amid the details and sub-systems there’s quite a bit to like. I love that everything is grounded in the mundane. Characters are ordinary folk – blacksmiths, students, and fallen nobility – and they must make do with very ordinary weapons and abilities. This humble baseline helps boost the more weird and supernatural elements occasionally encountered. It also provides a masochistic pleasure of running a level one character with a sublime naivete. Again, nostalgia is strong.

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The seemingly generic setting is even endearing, and not exactly generic. Your people have been driven from their lands by an encroaching army of Elves and now number only a few thousand. You are refugees, fleeing into the night and attempting to gain access to a fabled city of wonder and bounty. The only way in is through the sewers below or caves above (hence the two distinct core sets).

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. There is a political statement here that’s unavoidable. With the team behind the game located in the United Kingdom, it likely wasn’t intended, but it’s still sitting there and boldly staring you in the face. After all, an artist can’t decide or even control how their work will be interpreted, all they can do is create.

Those stinging issues of asylum form a significant focus during campaign play. The pressing nature of the game’s internal clock is there for a reason. As you wander through the weeping caves collecting scalps and treasure, your people are dying. You actually track population over the campaign with a nifty, and brutal, abstracted system. It’s the perfect weight and detail to complement the structure of scenarios. Every digit you lose is a needle to your flesh and a swig of guilt.

Cultural tethers here are myriad. The complex political issues provide a sense of relevance and modern. The whispers of Gary Gygax allow us to cling to worn covers and yellow pages and our younger selves. The board and card game mechanisms split the difference, waffling between obtuse and sleek with each roll of the die and flip of the card.

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I am still intrigued after a half-dozen plays of the Weeping Caves set. This is entirely enabled due to the strong variety of content smashed into a tiny box. I do find myself craving a wider range of enemies particularly, but that’s mostly testament to the slightly bland nature of combat. The rest of it is all golden.

There’s plenty of loot, tons of non-combat encounters, a healthy amount of obstacles, and even a good spread of rooms. Over a typical 60-90 minute session you will only work through a randomized third of the content pool. Additionally, the timing and combination of encounters can alter the feel. Small touches such as rooms possessing traits that interact differently with events offers surprising synergies and twists throughout play. Discovering these unique nooks and crannies is every bit part of the exploration.

Legends Untold is a very enjoyable system that understands how to leverage its own strengths. It loses itself at times under the weight of its laws and mellow combat, but it rebounds strongly from those lows and offers a rewarding experience to those who can cope with the inequalities.

Just One, Slayer of Codenames

There’s this moment where you’re sitting there, waiting to play. The room is full of silence and everyone is staring at a grid of cards. This is it, party gaming in the future. Codenames is a clever bastard.

While it may be clever and popular just like Brandon Hughes in 7th grade, just like Brandon Codenames is a bore. Every single play is full of an awkward feeling out period where the clue givers retreat into the grey folds of their brain and the fun ceases to exist. It’s a game of waiting, punctuated by moments of intense cleverness that don’t quite justify the expense.

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The best metaphor to succinctly describe CGE’s mammoth word game is humorously internal. The experience is comparable to attempting pronunciation of designer Vlaada Chvátil’s name. You will bumble about at first, tentative and unwilling to commit. Eventually you will get it and confidently toss it into everyday use.

“Oh you like Kingdomino? You should try Space Alert, it’s designed by Vlaada Chvátil.”

Damn you’re suave.

Then some time will go by and you won’t remember how to pronounce it. Just as you will need to re-learn Chvatil’s name, you will need to re-assess the board and slip into that sound of silence. The depressing cycle starts anew and we’re all worse for it.

Don’t play Codenames, play Just One.

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This not-quite-new release from Repos resides in this very sweet spot. It’s a casual and light thing you can pull out with Grandma Marge who was born before automobiles were in everyday use, or you can table it with Dave who regularly plays Vital Lacerda games and thinks you are mentally inferior. Everyone wins because the game is rad.

It’s dead simple. One player takes a card from the deck and places it on a little plastic stand in front of them. The trick is that they can’t read the card but everyone else can. They select a random word from the five on display by shouting out a number. If it’s a funny word or perhaps related to a shared story, everyone laughs.

Those who can read the selected word write down yet another word (yeah, word games have lots of words). The idea is to offer a clue so the blind person can guess the hidden option they’ve selected.

So if the focus was J.R.R. Tolkien, you might write “Hobbit” or “Middle Earth”, or whatever you fancy.

Here’s the rub: once everyone has written a word they then compare their results privately. If any duplicates exist, all of the duplicates are tossed out. Only then does the guesser get to see all of the clues.

The game is not simply the group trying to clue in a single player, but rather it’s a bit of a tangled maze where you have to get into the heads of everyone involved. Instead of the majority sitting quietly and waiting for the fireworks to start, they’re engaged in linguistic analysis and given legitimate agency.

So let’s go back to good old J.R.R.

A better clue than “Frodo” would actually be “Author”. Alone, this is meaningless and wouldn’t help at all. But you’re not alone; you’re offering a hint alongside a row of hints. It’s easy to get near the chosen word, but the cleverest of plays is the clue that connects the final dot.

And just like that, the game has you.

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It’s simple, yes, which means you can play with old horse ‘n buggy Marge. But there’s ample room here to navigate and it can make you feel extraordinarily clever.

There is some fragility in that output greatly depends on the input. A group with a weak vocabulary will struggle. For some, this game may be downright hilarious as they infuse naughty terms and push the envelope. Others may find it rote and lacking personality. Just One can’t help if you play with a bunch of dullards.

That malleability though is equally beneficial as it is hindering. It allows you to take the game in various directions and morph to fit various styles of comedy. This allowance fuels the creativity and challenges you to succeed by your own measure of success.

Speaking of, this is one of the only games I’ve found that truly doesn’t care about points. I’ve played more than my share of Pictionary and trivia games without keeping score. They always feel crippled to some degree when competition vanishes. But Just One is cooperative, and more precisely, focused on the single round rather than an extended cumulative measure of achievement. So don’t keep score.

In my experience this release is universally appealing. All it takes is one or two sharp knives for the thing to come alive. The one true flub is the lack of words in a word game. This is an easy one to rattle off round after round and play after play and too early you will hit repeats which blunts the caper. A thicker deck would have been appreciated.

Still, this is a cheap title and one which will likely pop off some new SKUs like a wet Gremlin. Its acclaim is legion and here I am giving it another push.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Yo-Ho-Ho and a Treasure Island Board Game Review

“Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

Treasure Island–the game–is inspired. As a story, it’s one we’ve fallen in love with. Long John Silver has buried the stolen treasure and his crew are putting the screws to him. Greed and duplicity form the central themes and they’re woven into cardboard deftly.

This is a one-versus-many game that pits the many against each other. It’s a tangled web of deduction as a single player parcels out information, narrowing the search perimeter for the buried gold. The rest scheme away, gleaning bits and pieces as each pirate stumbles down the prism towards glory.

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The success of Treasure Island is two-fold. The first is in the role of Long John Silver. This person is playing an entirely different game than the rest of the scalawags. They’re delicately weighing a hand of cards, figuring out which will hurt the least. These cards produce clues in many creative and interesting ways. This forced drip of information is painful to Mr. Silver as your only shot at winning the game is by delaying. So you attempt to plant a false scent or push the group in the wrong direction as often as possible.

These clues are the lifeblood of the experience. They will have you drawing large concentric rings on the map, letting the players know the treasure lies in the void between their boundaries. Other times you will draw two circles with an intersection, narrowing the expedition quite rapidly. Still others will offer just words, words such as “Both Jeremy and Ben moved closer to the treasure last round.” As the search parties creep ever closer, your heart thumps away like Neal Peart throttling his double bass kit.

Yet, you often get to laugh. The twist is that you’re afforded an occasional option of providing false information. As you play each card you pair it with a token denoting the veracity of the claim. So, “Both Jeremy and Ben” may really just be “Jeremy moved closer to the treasure last round.” The players may secretly examine the token and suss out the truth, but they are limited in actions and this means foregoing an opportunity to search.

There’s a deep psychological layer to the game as you try to get in the opposition’s head. Clever play may make a substantial difference and the payoff in either delaying the players or finding that little X on the big map is beyond gratifying.

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Equally satisfying is the playful nature of this design. Those circles I mentioned? They’re drawn with these huge wooden calipers. Pirates get to place this gnarly compass around their miniature, asking what direction the gold lies. When you search you place a ring around your scoundrel. Most of these involve actually marking up the board, which is literally a big colorful treasure map, and this evokes a sense of wonder and discovery. It feels as though you’re hunting lost Spanish doubloons and tracing routes on a tattered artifact.

You’re also marking up miniature versions of the map behind your screen. Note taking is not heavy, but it can certainly help. Players can deduce information not only from John Silver, but also from actions their fellow pirates take. Information gained can be private, so there’s always a sneaking suspicion that if you could overlap your information with the scurvy-afflicted nob to your right, you could prevail.

And this is where Treasure Island nails Treasure Island. By offering a series of puzzle pieces to each of its protagonists, it teases with the notion of full cooperation. If only you could get everyone to parlay, then Long John would never have a chance. Yet, this is a tale of betrayal and consequence. We are mean sons of bitches and we will not grip hands and collaborate. Screw you and your parrot, I want that damn gold and I will have it.

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I adore this game despite a couple of problems. The map is gorgeous and this is one of the most dapper games I’ve seen, however, the experience demands you mark up this mural with a mound of colored dry-erase pens. This is fine, except for the fact that green is nearly invisible across the patches of jungle. You can flip the board and go to the sepia tone image of the island, but this is sore on the eyes and has its own marker issues.

Likewise, all of those gnarly tools are imprecise. The calipers will occasionally slip and the circle will look like my five year old free-handed the thing. It’s good enough, mostly, and they’re still extremely pleasant to fiddle with.

The roles are equally enjoyable to play and the Long John Silver fella doesn’t need to hold back. In fact, this game boasts the opposite problem of most one-vs-many designs in that it seems almost impossible for the one to win. Perhaps my crew is too clever for its own good, but every play has seen a pirate nail the buried treasure just in time. If the process wasn’t such a joy this would be a ding worth noting.

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All of these concerns are fodder for the buzzards. They’re sediment at best; ready to be stomped on with a rotting boot as you make your way across the beach and towards the bounty. That moment when 40 minutes of interrogation and doodling culminate to you spotting the needle in a stack of needles, it’s sheer elation.

This game is thrilling and captivating in the best of ways. It’s the type of design I could play over and over again in short succession as it embodies a distinct characterization of fun that is singular. Robert Louis Stevenson would be proud, as Treasure Island is one of the best board games of 2018.

“Drink and the devil had done for the rest yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

 

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Responsibility and Empathy in Times of War

This is going to be one of those articles where I start somewhere and end somewhere else with the path b’tween full of twists and slopes. I want to jaw about responsibility. It’s something that’s been gnawing on me for awhile. It’s something that often occupies my thoughts long into the black sky A.M. It sits comfortably uncomfortable alongside my emotional winding down of a night with intense conflict and strategic maneuvering.

Responsibility is something we should own. When you sit down to play a game with others you’re entering, and in fact creating, a delicate ecosystem. It’s a unique environment composed of unique individuals. In addition to myriad personalities, shared histories, and both explicit and implicit rules structure, there are specifics of the moment, a fallout from that exact time and place. Below the laughter, below the plastic bits and wooden table, there’s a tempest that belies the calm and calculated nature at the surface. It’s something we cannot hope to control but it is something we can attempt to ride.

What the hell are you talking about?

What I’m saying is that it is our responsibility to ensure a good time is had by all. This requires a bit of empathy and a bit of sacrifice. This concept isn’t radical. While this hobby is what it is and I’ve seen appalling behavior, the majority of individuals I associate with subscribe to this philosophy. Aaron hates Tigris & Euphrates so I don’t push for it. Jeremy has a disdain for cooperative games so I leave those in the ground. Ben’s been itching to play Factory Fun so I take a break from shoving publisher supplied review copies down his throat for an evening.

By the way, games lie people. Factories suck and the most eventful days include someone losing an appendage or getting their flimsy bits stuck between two cogs. That ain’t fun.

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But anyway, those sacrifices are small. What picks at the scab of my heart is a conflict of responsibility with rules incentivized behavior. What I’m talking about is in-game action that causes another pain.

Story time.

So I have a buddy, let’s call him Hal because that’s his name. He’s a very external fellow. Wonder what he’s thinking? Take off the Beats™ and this dude will let you know. Mostly, Hal is a bit negative. I can’t often tell how he feels about a new game because his vocal chords live in the same pitch as Bolt Thrower’s bassist.

Nevertheless, I will curb my in-game behavior based on reading the group and Hal is definitely part of the group. When I was teaching him Eclipse, one of the best games ever designed according to a bunch of rad people (I’m rad), we came to a moment where I could crush him. It was his first game and he was playing competently, but I had forcefully grasped the center of the galaxy and was exerting my influence like a malevolent space dictator. He was beaten back and I wanted to deliver a final blow, virtually removing him from the game with a couple of rounds remaining. I felt like it was the right move strategically as I’ve been burned more than once exercising mercy.

I couldn’t do it. 

It would have soured the entire experience and left him dejected. This messed me up. I let him live.

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I didn’t want to fail Hal. As an architect of this ecosystem I had a divine responsibility to ensure its health. But don’t I have a responsibility to the integrity of the game and its collected systems? Do I have a responsibility to the other players sitting nearby, expecting an honest effort within the spirit of the cardboard we’re battling over?

That line is fuzzier than a ball of three-second-rule peanut butter.

Another story: it was our first play of Scythe, a group of FNGs eager to get on with the growing and destroying. I was playing a faction that was heavily incentivized to plod across the map and pickup the encounter tokens. I nabbed those on the borders first, keeping myself within striking distance of a few other spaces in neutral territory. One player decided to move towards one such space so I reacted by claiming it first. This effectively wasted his action. He proceeded to lose it and was teeming with anger.

His protestations centered around me continually thwarting just him, effectively picking on him over the others. I was baffled. Was I really doing this?

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He was visibly upset, frustrated, and even angry. It shook me and really threw me off. I internally vowed to avoid this person for the second half of the game. But it kept bothering me. I had to try and fix this.

So I spoke up. I apologized and said that what he expressed was not true, I was not deliberately targeting him. His anger would not subside immediately and he then moved on to explaining that I could not tell him his feelings were wrong because they were his and his alone.

I shut down. I believe I still won the game but there was no sense of joy or warm sensation at the pit of my stomach. It was awful and it still bothers me to this day, years later. This is not why I game and I don’t want that type of emotional baggage.

As I sat there nauseated, I made a decision. That behavior, what I had inflicted upon him, forced a choice of weighing the importance of people versus that of the game. It wasn’t a choice at all. We have a responsibility of compassion, regardless of activity.

But it’s never easy.

If a player is routinely visibly upset playing high conflict games, then what do I do? If that’s what everyone else wants to play, do we exclude them? Do we handle them with kid gloves? What if this affects the integrity of balance and threatens to collapse the experience?

I have many more questions than answers here. Certainly players must own their own adverse behavior, which includes how we respond to external pressure. We must control our emotions and act appropriately. Trying to adjudicate right or wrong in this instance though is foolish. We all have a responsibility to ourselves and the other souls sitting across from us. It’s only a game.

It’s only a game.

 

 

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The Devil’s Lite Brite – A Hellapagos Review

Do you ever want to punch someone in the mouth? I do, all the damn time. Hellapagos from Gigamic Games lets you punch someone in the mouth.

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Of course, not really.

Hellapagos’ version of the haymaker is giving Jim the finger and putting a bullet in his body so everyone else can eat. Don’t cry for Jim.

This thing is mean. It’s sort of Survivor the board game where everything’s abstracted to a very discrete set of actions. The routine of play is overshadowed by high stakes voting that results in offing one or more participants at the table.

Yes, as play goes on you will fill the mass grave. And it will feel good. There are only so many resources to go around and less mouths to feed means it’s more likely for you to build a raft and make it off this cursed rock. So shut up and die already.

The klaxons are likely going off and you’re wondering who would play this? Well, I haven’t yet mentioned that it’s only 10 minutes. 10 minutes of laughter, backstabbing, and constant discussion. It feels like you came out of a shrink’s office by the end of it, although this will cost substantially less and is probably more therapeutic since you get to kill your buds. It’s a half-dozen birds and one stone type of thing.

So let’s break it down.

Each round your group will consume one unit of food and water per player. This is the driving force that dictates action and sways conversation.

On your turn you can perform one action. You can gather between 1-3 fish by drawing a random ball from a bag, a bag that’s all fancy and burlap by the way. You can amass water, the amount determined by the weather card from the round. Of more long-term importance is the ability to gather wood. This is used to build rafts, allowing people to eventually escape and win the game, but there’s an element of push your luck as you draw from that burlap sack any number of spheres, just don’t draw the black one or you’re bitten by a snake and poisoned.

The final action is one of selfish disregard for the group. It’s also the most exciting.

You may draw a card from this large deck full of all kinds of nonsense. Some of it is literally junk, others like the club allow you to hold more sway in the voting. You can find food, water, and the highly sought after bullets and gun.

You can’t do it all. Supplies will run out faster than you can gather them over time. It’s about hanging on, sneaking in a selfish play here or there, and white-knuckling your way aboard a raft when the hurricane comes.

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Hellapagos does many things right. Of particular prominence is a mastery of incentives. It gives you a burly shove towards base instincts of survival, forcing you to commit to your new Lord of the Flies life-style or eat dirt, decaying on a forgotten island for the rest of your cellular life.

The trick here is that the burden of tough decisions are placed on the group as a whole. It distills to its very essence ethics and preservation. This all occurs in a very immersive group dynamic that in many ways mimics societal behavior. It’s believable and authentic, yet it’s all wrapped in cartoons and 10 minutes of screwage that belies the serious nature of what’s occurring. In this way it feels a bit more experimental and loose, as if anything can happen.

The power structure of the narrative supports this philosophy. Many of the shipwreck cards you draw are outright more impactful than other actions. But they’re an aggressive move that sends a message, one you attempt to throw some sand atop of and bury so no one notices.

Back to those incentives.

The cleverest mechanism in this game is found in the resource vote. When that Werewolf-esque posture is assumed, fingers pointed to the skies like revolvers waiting to be loosed, everyone’s on edge. In the blink of an eye someone is  buzzard fodder. There is an alternative: You can hoard water and food cards in your hand to avert disaster. By allowing you to shield yourself momentarily from sacrifice, Hellapagos emphasizes the needs of the individual over that of the group.

It’s simple math. If you draw a water bottle card you can play it and add a single resource to the pool. Great, that saves a soul, but if you’re playing the odds it’s likely some other gnarly smelling hostile at the table is the one that’s departing so you may as well hoard it.

Even better, if you’re voted to perish you can pull a hard “nope” by brandishing a firearm and lighting up another sucker. That mangy derelict will satisfy the vote and you get to steal all of their cards. Life’s swell when you’re holding the 45 caliber stick.

The constant social manipulating adds further tumult. You can play cards to help others, possibly gaining their trust. You can form temporary pacts, requesting bullets from others and promising to bust a cap in Terry for being a ninny and not helping the group. Often this will back-fire and the person you give ammo to will ultimately betray you. As power shifts and friendship fades, everyone’s left clutching for debris and trying to stay afloat.

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Hellapagos is fantastic. It’s incredibly short but incredibly vibrant. It allows you to lower your shield and reveal your inner bastard while no one’s the wiser. It’s only 10 minutes after all.

The greatest weakness of the design is that it can crumble or fly based on player buy-in and attitude. It’s incredibly flimsy and a bore when played with the wrong group, devolving to a bog-standard coop where everyone ends up dying because there’s simply not enough resources to go around. Don’t play with fuddies and you’ll avoid this catastrophe.

Of lesser impact is the floppy nature of game length. Occasionally it can stretch to 20 minutes or so (particularly if there’s much debate), and being murdered early can certainly prove a bit weary. Observing play is quite fun though as you get to detach yourself from the spider’s web and watch the fly get devoured.

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Despite the short time period some may also take umbrage with the swift reversals. I don’t believe a game can be too dramatic but I’m sure some of you may disagree. You can be sailing along smooth for the majority of play and make it to the end, only for your ally to turn on you and leave you behind.

The number of winners will vary and often it will be no one. Occasionally this will be caused by extremely poor luck. In one recent play we had three early rounds of zero water due to bright, sunny weather. As expected, it led to much bloodshed and crooked shenanigans. Such is the life of a prick.

Hellapagos works surprisingly well at most player counts. It’s certainly a stronger, more chaotic experience with a larger group, but a small cluster of four or five will give a taste of the mechanisms and end in suitable misery. No matter the inputs it reliably achieves dynamic story-telling with outrageous outcomes.

Hellapagos is special as it hits broader notes common in these types of social games while keeping it real and abbreviated. The dynamics at play remind me most of Cosmic Encounter, offering a bit of the wild-eyed cutthroat sip with only a miser’s rule-set. The bite-sized snarl may not hit the highest of highs, but it certainly is worth pulling out in a larger group. The only danger is that this little attraction becomes the main event.

If you take a step back and really take a wide view of what’s occurring, it’s pretty outrageous. Without concession or conviction, a fiend is shoving pegs into a paper-thin surface, creating a slapdash kaleidoscope of barbarism. It’s really something to behold.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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