The Curious Case of Curio: The Lost Temple

I love a quality escape room tabletop experience. Unlock, Exit, Escape Room: The Game – bring ’em all on. The main conceit of all of these designs is that you can’t replay them. You finish a scenario, possibly shredding the components, and you toss it out in the garbage like a dream you’ve forgotten before the bacon’s done. Curio says not anymore. This sucker is replayable and requires no destruction.

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That concept is pretty gnarly, why wouldn’t I want an escape room game that was replayable?

Well, some concerns come to mind.

I first wondered how this design would incorporate a sense of story. It would necessarily need to randomize elements to allow for repeated play, so how’s it going to tie things neatly together with narrative beats? The answer is of course that it doesn’t.

Curio has this interesting introduction concerning the discovery of an ancient Mesopotamian temple, but it merely serves as art direction for components and is never interwoven with the mechanisms. Ultimately I can live with that subtitle serving as mere lip service if the game can deliver quality puzzles that are tense and engaging.

And sometimes it does.

Curio utilizes speed and multi-tasking as it splits players between giving clues and solving puzzles. Isolation is the main implementation as each participant takes their unique puzzle module and must perform their tasks behind a small shield. The problem is that the design sort of loses itself in order to adhere to the goal of replayability.

You see, Curio mostly feels as though you’re following directions. No matter the module, you must perform some very simple tasks such as rotating a wheel a few notches or locating icons in a grid. Then you follow more and more instructions as you uncover a secret word, a letter at a time.

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The challenge here is in performing these actions precisely and with care. The gun barrel being driven into your temple is the artificial timed scoring element, reminiscent of that found in the Exit series.

Tension is more concretely manifested in the single most wonderful element of the game – the sand timer. This little smug dunder is sitting in the middle of the table quickly simmering. Before the git runs out you need to have one player place a palm on the cardboard mat it’s sitting upon which allows yet another player to flip the thing.

Appropriately enough there’s a sense of unevenness in this implementation. Humorously, it doesn’t allow you to talk when your hand is on the button waiting for someone to 180 the hourglass. Yet if your hand is hovering above the spot or even at your side, you can coordinate and draw your ally’s attention all you want.

Even with that hack you will sometimes fail. These are some of my favorite moments in the experience as your disregard for the countdown results in total destruction. It’s a legitimate consequence that gives weight to the design, and something it desperately needs.

Let’s get back to the puzzles. You split your in-game time between reading clues from a randomized card to another player, and performing likewise when another reads your puzzle’s card to you. This is fine as a way to divide operations in the game and to force interaction – which is otherwise non-existant – but it manufactures an odd pacing where sometimes a player is sitting there with nothing to do. The lack of downtime and constant sleuthing is one of the hallmarks of the genre and Curio occasionally washes that completely out.

The act of solving a puzzle can be interesting. This is mostly ignited by the variable modules which you can swap between across multiple plays. Each has a bit of a learning curve and its own quirkiness to explore and process.

Unfortunately absent is the action of actually deducing the nature of the puzzle. Instead, each of these has instructions and the spotlight is upon following those scripted directions. This is, of course, a necessary shift in play as the puzzles need to be replayable. In this format the process cannot be obfuscated because it’s not randomized between sessions.

What is randomized are the input variables, for instance how far you shift the wheel or at which coordinate you look at this time. This transition from exciting discovery to careful activity diminishes those light bulb moments often seen in this style of design.

It tries desperately to find some personality or semblance of distinction. You can see this in the shapes module which has two of the participants cooperating to solve while a third reads their card barking orders. Again, this is especially entertaining in a four player game where that fourth wheel is on the outside looking in.

Even a module shared by two players isn’t nearly exciting enough as you both perform similar tasks and then combine your result sets in a specific order. It’s the slightest of twists, like a drop of lemon in a gallon of water.

And that leaves our relationship at a bit of an impasse. Curio, without a smidgen of doubt, does what it was born to do. The problem is that this goal creates boundaries that limit the game’s potential. It’s an amusing experiment but ultimately it’s a replayable escape room that once you get out you likely won’t go back; in accomplishing its task, it’s lost sight of the point.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Atari’s Missile Command – An Analog Review

“That it’s, I’m melting your people’s faces off.”

I reach for the little facsimile of Fat Boy, nestled in a cluster of seemingly harmless wooden shapes. Then I grab a green cube from the pile. Aaron always plays with green.

Except this isn’t just a cube – it’s really a missile.

“See this little Spongebob-shaped square? It’s going to snuff out your rodeo clown dictatorship and no one’s going to miss you.”

I hold the missile up in Aaron’s face to reinforce my insanity. He sees the ashen cube and the nuke sitting upon it, its name death.

He knows the totality of his mistake in crossing me.

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Missile Command is one of these neoteric tabletop games based on an archaic electronic one. It’s part of the IDW Atari series, riding shotgun alongside Centipede.

Missile Command also demonstrates that an analog interpretation of a digital past-time is best not tackled as a simulation. That’s to say – this isn’t really the Missile Command of yesterday. It’s an engaging 30 minute negotiation where you get to blow the hell out of each other’s nations all in the name of the holy ghost of nostalgia.

You can see tethers reaching out towards the major influence of Cosmic Encounter. There’s betrayal, special abilities, and a general sense of the unhinged. At its best everything is wily and chaotic and the drama is interspersed with a dollop of laughter. During those moments of world-wide destruction the sun seems brighter and beer seems colder.

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One of the joys of the Missile Command tabletop experience is that much of the game is simultaneous. This keeps the pace lively and allows for everyone to be dialed-in and focused. There’s a great back and forth of harassment and trash talking during the negotiation round. Players exchange currency for missiles, nukes, and defensive interceptors all in the open. It bears significance because missiles are color-coded to specific players and can only be fired their way.

This is absolutely wonderful.

It allows for strong-arming and brinksmanship. It provides teeth to follow through on threats. When you commit the entirety of your economy to ordnance directed at that one player who’s been needling you the entire time – it feels grand. Sometimes you just have to torch a blockhead to make a point.

Then we all huddle behind our screens and READY ZE MISS-ILES!

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We place those purchased bomb diggities on different vectors corresponding to other player’s precious cities. You’re judge, jury, and executioner and that little cardboard hovel is going up in smoke.

These silent moments can be tense and weighty as you simultaneously plot carnage while bracing for abuse.

Then we lift our screens and press that big ‘ol red button. This is where things gets messy, nearly unbearably so.

And these are the moments where the 38 year old cabinet begins to show a little wear and rot.

Without order chaos ensues. The resolution of everyone’s missile strikes is simultaneous and the game offers no direction for how to smoothly resolve this. People start calling out their shots and others scramble to flip their city cards – denoting absolute destruction.

You’ll search for a solution, perhaps having a single player resolve all of their attacks first or having everyone call out their strikes along the first vector. It never feels as smooth as the rest of the game and metaphorically mocks the lack of clarity riding behind violence.

But you will eventually get past that and then you’ll move on to the next round and do it all again. The game screeches along at a very solid pace of dissent and barroom brawl mixed with that messy shockwave of explosions. The war comes to a close in a brisk 30 minutes with half of the world destroyed and a group of grim bastards sitting around the table all smiles.

pic3904711A table full of rocket men.

This is a game that desperately wants the group to negotiate, toss insults, and push each other in interesting directions. There’s not a lot of direct incentives woven into the mechanisms, and much of it is left up to the group to best sort it out. This works for the most part due to the clever color-coded missiles, but it also breeds an experience that hinges on the participants.

One group can sit down and buy right in, hurling death and destruction into the alleyways of their peers. Another can approach the game with a calm demeanor and quietly go about their business, likely in search of Missile Command’s magic. It’s fragile in that regard and less reliable than its primary tabletop influence.

Furthermore, beyond the social positioning the game can feel a bit capricious in its randomness. When the game concludes and a winner is declared, you won’t have a clear picture of what they strategically executed to achieve victory. Fire and pray seems to be the order of the day.

Yet that never derails the energetic joy of trashing each other on a global scale as hurled insults are paired with glorious explosions.

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Missile Command is not a political game, but there is perhaps an unintended subtext of satire that’s worth digging into. There’s a general sense of marginalization concerning the people and victims in how they’re abstracted away. Humorously, in some respects you celebrate death as losing a city may harm your score, but it offers a new special ability with a sleek catchup mechanism. This takes the sting out of being targeted but it also takes the sting out of mass destruction.

The whole exercise of literally spending your country’s GDP on implements of war is amusing from that angle of caricature. While you may invest heavily on interceptors to shoot down incoming missiles, the game heavily rewards offense dovetailing with that morbid parody.

It’s hard to say whether this is all a happy accident or a sly wink. I can say with certainty that Missile Command is a solid amount of free-wheeling fun which comes close to scratching that Cosmic Encounter itch in a shorter and more reliable timeframe. It may never butt up against the quality of that classic design, but this isn’t so much an indictment as an appeal to realistic expectations.

Missile Command is a game that’s not quite smooth and is perhaps more unpredictable than some would stomach. Its joy supports and relies on an energetic group, one capable of bouncing between sweaty high-fives and insulting each other’s female parental units. That may not be your group, but it’s certainly mine.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 – A Review From the Mason-Dixon Line

There’s something about Mark Herman that consistently draws me to his designs. He’s a master at linking a fascinating historical narrative to a compelling framework of mechanisms. While an outsider could describe wargames as dry and uniform, Mark’s work tends to push outside the genre’s boundaries and establish unique story-driven personalities. Games like Churchill, Pericles, and Fire in the Lake maintain the feel of military dudes looking over military maps, but they challenge ingrained concepts and push the genus into previously unthinkable directions.

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Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 is sort of a different animal. The concept of presenting a 20-30 minute area control game for two players is rock solid, particularly one that attempts to capture a historical series of events through politics and arenas that are in opposition to violence. It’s interesting, simple, and relatively effective.

There is a minor identity predicament as we’ve seen this trick before in the 2016 release 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Many of the concepts are shared and Herman even makes a veiled nod toward the game in the designer notes, avoiding calling the title out explicitly by name. They both highlight bleak political struggles bordering on war, presented as an abbreviated card-driven game (CDG) in the vein of We the People or Twilight Struggle.

That’s not to say Fort Sumter doesn’t forge its own path. You’ll immediately notice that it jettisons the DEFCON meters for a crisis track that forms the supply for players to draw from. If you want to push the political and economic battlegrounds on the map you need these cubes that represent constituents and support. Pushing hard down your party line for political backing naturally entrenches the opposition and hardens those on the sidelines. This is all wonderfully represented by that crisis track which punishes you for escalating too swiftly.

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That decision point couples well with jockeying for area majority in the battlegrounds. Spaces are separated into different crisis dimensions, each representing a sphere of contention leading up to the war such as armaments or public opinion. Each such dimension is split into three spaces on the board raring to be fought over and dominated.

That segregating of political vectors into different types forms the bulk of scoring and manipulation in the design. It’s the stage for which you’ll debate and eventually trade shot and blood. You must control all three spaces of a specific dimension in order to score a victory point, making for a bit of nuance in how you aggressively pursue locations.

Co-mingling with this strategic deployment are secret objective cards. Each player chooses between two each round which dictate a specific area of high priority. This mechanism can alter your tactical decision matrix as you look to squeeze every last point from the pulpy charred remains adorning the table.

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Fort Sumter lives and dies on its tense maneuvering. There’s a tug-of-war atmosphere as several of the interlocking mechanisms pit players on directly opposite sides of the rope. Flowing from this atmosphere is the tight feel of the game state. Each action you’re manipulating a small number of political clout cubes, tossing them out into an area and staking your claim. Large dramatic swings due to some wild events do occur, but they’re relatively infrequent as play is more measured and constricted.

Contrasting with that pinched flow is the multitude of opportunities for scoring. There are several crisis dimensions and the lack of dramatic maneuvers makes it difficult to put up much of a defense. This leads to players typically carving out their own areas and mainly pushing offensively towards their goals. It can be extraordinarily difficult to overcome a player who has already established a support base in a zone, so that conundrum often pushes you towards an open area, of which there are often several.

Compounding this focus on offense are those randomized objectives. Regularly you will luck into a card that you already have well-secured and virtually locked up. This can sap some of the tactical variety as a mechanism intended to provide a contrasting vector of pursuit fades into the shadow of the larger more steady goals.

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The game ultimately comes down to a couple moments of decisive maneuvering. This typically occurs via a strong event play or the final crisis – a closing act that has you sacking away cards towards a climactic standoff. You can invariably trace your performance to those few key moments and realize where it all went sideways.

That reduction in quantity of dynamic plays is the driving force behind this game’s penchant for narrow point deltas. Nearly every session will come down to just one or two victory points, hinging on those significant maneuvers as well as the key decision of whether to broach the final crisis zone when retrieving cubes.

This blunting of the design’s charm is a byproduct mainly of the time compression. In order to flatten the playtime some of the more interesting and lively bits of the established genre had to be lopped off.

And with that I’m a little at odds. Mark Herman seemingly accomplished his design goals with this release, but it’s short of a triumphant home run. It’s certainly an interesting game that begs repeated play, but it’s also not quite there in terms of attaining an element of overt fascination or excellence.

What’s particularly interesting is that the philosophical conundrum present in the subject matter runs parallel to the mechanical challenges. The outcome of the game results in a thematic interpretation of either the North or South galvanizing themselves for war, ever ready for the oncoming catastrophe. While I defer to Mark Herman’s historical knowledge (I am but an ant and he the man towering above), it comes across a little soft and inconsequential. The included historical materials and essay go a long way to cultivating interest, but it feels as though a great deal of effort is put forth to convince the reader that this struggle and its outcome are significant. It ultimately lands as slight hyperbole in its attempts to pursuade, although thankfully that doesn’t undercut the interesting elements at play when engaging the game.

The word on the street is that this release is the inaugural title for an ongoing series. I’d wager a few Lincolns that Herman’s line of 30 minute CDGs will not ultimately become known for this initial release. It feels more like an opening salvo which will lead to a prolific work.

And I’m ultimately satisfied with that conclusion.

Fort Sumter may not be the metaphorical shot heard round the world, but it still proves a solid abridged experience. With proper expectations and the right mindset, this one will mostly deliver on its promise and fill its compact timeframe with just enough interesting decisions to keep you focused.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Be Amused by Dȗhr: The Lesser Houses

It’s become tradition to lead off a review of a Jim Felli design by mentioning how weird it is. The man’s become a P.T. Barnum of sorts, feeding his collection of misshapen performers their next cardboard meal and we can’t eat it up quick enough. It may then come as a surprise that this is Devious Weasel’s least odd oddity. It’s a reworking of the bizarre 40 minute social experience Bemused, but it’s more accessible and publicly discerning – at least on the surface.

Jim’s jettisoned the exotic subject matter of muses and virtuosos in favor of a more mundane Emilia Clark sans dragons. You can’t argue with the notion that the social maneuvering and backstabbing of fantastic HBO-style medieval politics fits the bill, perhaps even better than that previous quirky setting. Still, it’s hard to kick old habits and swap out colorful language like “insane” for “disfavored”.

Oh, crooked muse, how you play with my heart.

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This design takes what Bemused started and ups the ante. It’s grown slightly more complex in strategic options, but it’s managed to simplify and streamline the structure in a few key areas to facilitate smoother play.

Let’s hit the concept first as it’s likely you have no idea what this is. In all truth, that likely won’t change after your first play as things don’t really come into focus until you’ve become comfortable bedfellows with the design.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of play you’re a noble house in fine standing, your family members are looked upon with esteem, and not even the local high schoolers are gossiping about your misdeeds. That will change.

Turns consist of players tossing out suspicion cards on each other. You have a hand of these cardboard nuggets representing lies and dissent and you’re tasked with libel as well as spotlighting those true horrors. Cards list a specific house and may only be played on that player to drag them down.

As you place suspicion on each family their standing (victory points) falls. The idea is to harass and harm each other so that by game’s end you are hurt the least, venerated and ascending to the higher class. It’s dog eat dog to buy some playing time with the joneses, and you’re not going to let some dark haired bastard who knows nothing get in the way.

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This is a pretty simple game of attrition, at least until you actually start playing. Duhr is odd mostly in how it jettison’s normative board game concepts.

For instance, you can take a second action after the first if you’d like, but this has the implication of permanently reducing your hand size. You can trigger your asymmetrical house power but you must play your own faction’s suspicion card as an action, discarding it to the supply. Event cards pop up but they’re held in player’s hands and triggered when they’d like for maximum effect. Scandals are the third type of card and they inflict twice as much damage, but these are not drawn randomly and must be played with a special move called a Masterstroke. Oh, but you also start with a scandal and can play that one for free, as your action.

Scoring is one of the most difficult concepts to grapple with as it’s multi-faceted and nuanced. Players can exist in one of three states beginning favored and likely later dropping to disfavored or even villified. The latter two conditions are triggered when a house has the fifth card played upon them. You are disfavored in this instance unless you have three or more scandals in play, which instead means you’ve now morphed into Jafar or Scar.

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Oh ye terrible villain.

Your state can fluctuate as character abilities can move cards off of houses or flip them down to nullify their affect. This is pretty wild and breeds the game’s dynamic feel as your goals can shift on a dime. Each state will find themselves pushing for different tactical decisions, particularly if you’re playing the villain. In this instance, your score is turned on its head as you earn additional points for each player thus vilified. The sprint to the bottom becomes a nuclear arms race and tension is ratcheted up, that is until the a-hole sitting across from you removes one of your scandals and you’re brought back into the daylight.

Whomp whomp.

Many of these concepts were explored in Bemused but have been extended here. For instance, there was this sense that the previous iteration wanted you to negotiate and forge deals, but it had little teeth in that regard. Here you can explicitly trade cards and there is much larger incentive to perform your special abilities on each other as you can swap between states more liberally. It opens the game up in fantastic ways and really digs into the philosophy and goals of the design with renewed vigor.

Both titles also feature this interesting agenda system where you have a hidden goal mapped to a likewise hidden house. They’re an appreciated obfuscated scoring element and they do wonders to offer direction during play. Duhr throws everything into a grinder and shakes it up by boosting the number of agendas significantly. Included are a new suite of more complex goals requiring you manipulate the states of multiple houses. These can be extremely difficult to achieve but they reward double the bounty.

That feeling of attempting to wrestle with control of the game state to achieve your objectives is the hallmark of Duhr. The game feels like a constant struggle of conflict to batter the environment into submission, and it manages to do so while not feeling overly incremental or inconsequential within its individual maneuvers.

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The new event cards are tasty.

The loosening up of throats and more constant chatter gives way to dynamic and fleeting alliances. Social arrangements rise like mountains out of thin air and tumble just as quickly. Everything feels very deliberate while simultaneously rushed and the pace is incredibly compelling.

Be aware though that the complexity of the ruleset and awkwardness of internalizing the game’s concepts will get in the way at the outset. Jim designs games with the full intention of rewarding repeated play and continually revealing layers as your relationship with the design grows. This game is about fostering experiences but it demands you put in the effort and give it time. King’s Landing wasn’t burned in a day and Duhr is no better.

Deciding to iterate Bemused and release a second edition of sorts is odd, just as we’ve come to expect from Devious Weasel. I’ve arrived at the conclusion this was the right move as Duhr is the superior design with a more sophisticated strategy field and a much stronger rulebook. The simple truth of the matter is that in an industry of mostly mundane swill, we need these games just as much as they need us.

 

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.

Find Hungry Samurai – A Starship Samurai Review

Starship Samurai is one of those games that take your breath away. Giant samurai space mechs engaging in a ballet of carnage? Sign me up yesterday.

And it’s absolutely beautiful.

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The miniatures are top-notch in the board game realm, the illustrations are gorgeous, and the entire thing has this aura of precision about it that only an established publisher can nail. It’s a marvel to ogle.

But wait, you say, there is one major exception. And that is true, wise reader. The one large whiff here is in failing to provide colored rings to snap onto the bases of the samurai minis. Identifying ownership when they’re deployed to the map is aggravating and will stall the high velocity this one wants to rev at. The annoyance can be overcome but it’s a seemingly large blemish on an otherwise impeccable package.

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This Isaac Vega design stomps into a crowded field. It’s quite the time for powerful hybrid Euro/thematic area control games. Starship Samurai will need to slice apart the competition and claw ferociously to carve out an inch of ground.

One advantage it has is that it’s incredibly fast. At three players it’s a smooth 35 minute showdown. With four it’s a smidge longer. At two you’re better off playing something else.

This rapid pace struggle for planets and honor – the cleverly obfuscated victory point – has a definite sense of style. Each turn you place one of your four order tokens on your player board to perform an action, its strength amplified by the value chosen. So if you select your most potent four value token, you can move up to four units to any planet on the table. Use the one instead and it’s a lowly single unit.

Moving from one location to another is handled in a very open Blood Rage manner. There’s no adjacency or space terrain or anything to slow the proceedings. You can also take X number of currency. The samurai bucks can be spent to temporarily boost fighters in play or pay the cost of action cards, which are another resource you can acquire with an order.

It’s all quickly digested. Players easily grasp the actions and the strategic considerations of how strongly you wish to perform each of the orders.

While everything is very smooth and happy-go-lucky, the turning point occurs with the battle system. You see, the philosophy behind Starship Samurai is most aptly described as Mr. Eric Lang. The most incompetent CSI team could lift a half dozen Blood Rage and Rising Sun fingerprints scattered about. This should be a boon as Lang’s recent output is my absolute jam.

But there’s a problem.

Starship Samurai never fully commits. One of the hallmarks of Lang’s work is in placing a cornucopia (or Viking horn) of combos and synergies waiting to be teased out. Each play feels like an exercise in discovering the most broken combination of abilities and the experience hinges on drama.

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This Plaid Hat release wants to get there. It includes a deck of action cards that you use during the order phase and during battles to inject some tension and suspense. There are a few seriously nasty surprises and ‘take-that’ style blows. This is when the space samurai are at their best, but those moments of drama and awe are simply scattered about and not centralized.

Battles, for instance, are extremely soft. Each planet has a limited number of spaces (similar to Blood Rage). At the end of each round a battle occurs (Rising Sun) where strength is compared in area majority style. Your huge samurai units provide their own punch with asymmetrical abilities and a large innate strength, alongside your more mundane fighters and carrier. Battle cards will add a few points and that’s about it. The winner captures the planet and gains honor, and then returns their pieces to their supply. The losers stay in the space and a new planet card is dealt out for the following round. No one dies and it’s all incredibly cushioned (not Blood Rage/Rising Sun).

From a mechanical perspective it works and it minimizes the penalty to losing the conflict, but it’s terribly uninteresting. These epic samurai mechs don’t split apart frigates or smash interceptors with their fists, they take their ball – a planet in this case – and literally go home.

This results in a serious lack of tension. Devoid of tension, investment begins to seep out the airlock. When an area control game of samurai mechs and starfleets begins to push you away, it’s a problem.

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Regardless of the lack of carnage, the game does make an effort to flesh out its setting. One of the primary scoring vectors is a side board of minor clan allegiances. Each of the minor houses is represented by a token and will move up and down player tracks representing your conjoined standing. The further up the ladder they are, the more points they award at the end of the round.

This is an enticing system because it emphasizes that we’re battling over an explored system to attain the throne of emperor. It reincorporates those minor setting elements into an ingrained system that’s a very solid tug-of-war dynamic. It also gives you something to fiddle with and pursue beyond collecting planets.

Now, you can readily argue that this premise is undercut significantly by the lack of identity found within the minor clans. Each token is pretty much identical and you don’t care one drifting mote which you push to that five point mark. This is a missed opportunity, but it’s also somewhat understandable given the effort to streamline the proceedings.

The wonderful setting is most strongly addressed with asymmetry not through factions, but through the samurai mecha. Each offer a special ability and two are drafted by each player at the beginning of play. This affords a unique feel upon each session as you have new toys to tinker with or experiment.

Their abilities are relatively satisfying as well with options such as the dude with a huge laser bow sniping ships across the map, or the diplomatic electro-ronin who shifts a lesser clan allegiance token each time he moves. You can even destroy units when moving to a planet or just settle for the badass with a huge native strength value.

By centering your uniquely derived powers on these mechs, the game sets the tone and nails this particular aspect of its presentation. It was a very clever decision and one that helps push this game away from its peers.

Those qualities that provide separation from its brethren are almost enough. The reality of the situation is that this design never quite hits those highest of notes. It never measures up to those Euro/Ameritrash hybrids that have established the genre. Despite this, it’s a solid offering and its brevity and unique setting will help it land on the table. The stronger Euro-leanings may appeal to those vexed by the more Ameritrash elements of Lang’s designs, although the wobbly action cards may prove prejudicial.

Starship Samurai never quite finds its moment of excellence, and those suiting up and taking to the void need to be fine with a star that’s a little less bright.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Making Up: X-Wing Heroes of the Aturi Cluster

X-Wing. Even a mention of that weird ship and my heart twists in knots.

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X-Wing. It’s more than a ship. It’s one of the best releases of Fantasy Flight Games’ 23 years of existence.

But, like the embers of Alderaan floating through the void, its fire has been dwindling. A game that lit up our minds and allowed us to recreate the trench run is now not much of a game at all.

The systems employed find strength in their sense of urgency and speed. This is a game that at its utmost feels like you’re clinging to the edge of a rotting T65 pilot’s seat and white-knuckling a control stick. That feeling is gone. Now we’re flying ships we’ve never heard of and stuffing them to the brim with enough upgrade cards and modifications to fill a Star Destroyer docking bay. It’s over the top and not in a desirable way.

So I don’t play it. I haven’t in over a year; that was until a couple of months ago. That’s when Heroes of the Aturi Cluster happened. Praise the ghost of Wedge Antilles.

Heroes of the Aturi Cluster is a world-shaker. This is a sophisticated expansion from superfan-turned-designer Josh Derksen. It allows one to six players to fly a Rebel squadron during the Original Trilogy timeline. It has RPG elements where you gain Cover-Fullexperience and acquire new skills and upgrades. It has a branching narrative structure with multiple campaign paths and many unique missions. It also has a simple yet robust artificial intelligence system to run the Empire. It even keeps your beer cold and puts the toilet seat down.

It does it all.

This thing is a triumph because it offers exactly what I wanted from X-Wing: it refocuses the game on the narrative experience of piloting a ship in the films that owned my youth. It’s a simulation/RPG/miniatures game hybrid that’s pure magic. No longer are we spending a half hour building force lists, flipping through cards trying to find the three upgrades that fix our unbalanced ships.

No one’s telling me I shouldn’t take Luke Skywalker because he’s not competitive. It’s Luke fucking Skywalker. This is a game called X-Wing.

Instead I’m flying a T-65 with Aresa ‘Hiccup’ Quee behind the console. This is me. I’m a human Lieutenant who was living in poverty on Coruscant before joining the Rebellion. I have an itchy trigger finger and never return to hanger with torps in the tube. Some day I’ll fly an A-Wing and pretend to be Tycho Celchu.

One of the best aspects of Heroes is the expansion of upgrade slots, particularly Elite Pilot Talents. You open up new slots as you grow in pilot skill and can start stacking your character in unbelievable ways. Abilities that you never would have taken in a competitive match are suddenly amazing and useful in unforeseen ways.

Now this is X-Wing.

You fly missions. These are similar to those scenarios included with each expansion product but they’re actually good. Instead of shoving them into the depths of my ridiculous 12 piece plano storage solution, we’re actually looking forward to the next slice of story. There’s permanence and drama and experimental ships like TIE Phantoms that are legitimately scary.

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Each mission has you flying through unique conditions looking to accomplish narrative goals. You’ll rescue escape pods scattered in nebula, disarm mine-fields blocking hyperspace routes, and even feebly protect a Rebel Transport from assaulting shuttles.

When was the last time you actually saw a Rebel Transport hit the table?

I mentioned the AI is fantastic. It’s so solid because it’s simple and easy to execute, yet only minimally gets in the way. You roll on a chart specific to the ship type and take into account its target’s bearing and distance. The result gives you a maneuver and you execute it.

The most interesting aspects of the enemy sub-systems are in how they convey the deadliness of the more unique Imperial units. The potency of ships like the Phantom and Interceptor is gained by allowing these killjoys to break the rules. They sometimes perform more than one action or pull off surprising combinations that shock you. They require you oppose them with respect and skill. Those demands breed satisfaction.

Enemy squadrons also occasionally contain elite pilots. These receive bonus skills drawn from a deck. This means you won’t quite know what to expect or how to prepare. Burn those eyeballs down as fast as they appear.

One of the delicate points in this design is in how it scales. The more players you add the more enemy ships must hit the table as well. This can get burdensome at the extremes as you have more cards, charts, and plastic to manage each round. Setup time also inflates and some of the charm can be lost in the frenzy and overhead.

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Escorting a YT-1300 rescue freighter through ion clouds.

There’s also an awkward contrast in how Heroes feels all-encompassing yet ignores much of the X-Wing line. While this is certainly understandable as many of the ships simply aren’t desired – get your ARC-170s out of here – it’s also a bit disappointing not seeing native support for Z-95s or Rogue One ships. Bare as a Wookie’s posterior is the clear need for a scum campaign or a mission set featuring outlaws as opposition as well. In its current state it feels as though it hasn’t quite reached its potential.

A hint of unevenness also seems to be wafting through the air. Overall the material feels well playtested and confident, however, it’s easy to recognize that less offensively capable ships like A-Wings and Y-Wings can struggle to keep up in the experience game. A system that collected XP into a group pool would be much more desirable and work to smooth out some of the shortcomings. I appreciate the intention of rewarding slightly selfish play and kill-stealing, but it can lead to issues that compound as time goes on.

Mostly though these complaints are inconsequential. The focus is on accomplishing your mission and living to fight another day. The way in which the permanence of a campaign causes you to reevaluate tactical decisions and value preservation over sheer aggression – it’s frankly astounding. X-Wing changes radically with these shifted priorities and it becomes something different, it becomes something better.

I thought I was out. I nearly listed my collection for sale and that would have been a huge mistake.

Now I’m more excited than ever. The fire is back.

 

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The Mad Genius of Wiz-War

Gather round children, for today we talk about something special. Today we talk about Wiz-War.

This is literature emblazoned upon cardboard, the classic tale of hermits caught in a labyrinth and forced to battle to the death because that’s what the magicks are for. Wandering a maze like rats wielding switchblades and fireballs – there’s nothing quite like it. You’re one of these rats and you’re out for blood, and treasure, and more blood. This is one of the rare titles that actually deserves a family of exclamation points.

This is WIZ-WAR.

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Let’s get to the rules of war. We each get a plastic wizard in a pose doing wizardly things, like running or standing still. You also get your own special large square board that makes up a portion of the battlefield. It’s riddled with walls and nooks and crannies for a fool with a pointy hat to get lost in. You take the board and you toss it in the air so that it spins like a top. Once everyone’s done this and the orientations are randomized, we connect them. Now we have our battlefield; steel your nerves and fluff your beard.

Each of these little plastic wizzes are symmetrical. You don’t get any unique powers or variable abilities. I hear you protesting, but this was designed in 1983 by a sorcerer named Tom Jolly and he doesn’t care if you feel special. His last name is Jolly for god’s sake; trust in the genius.

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Then we get cards because all good games have cards. This is the secret of Wiz-War in that it’s really a card game. 90% of play is encapsulated in your hand as you come across hundreds of different spells and plenty of text to read. By the end of the session you’ll feel as though you’ve read a novel of cantrips and are all the smarter. You won’t be but that doesn’t matter.

These spells are nuts. This is why Wiz-War is special. You can do things like create a new wall on the map. You can eat walls. You can turn into a werewolf. You can throw down a hex that randomly teleports those brave enough to move through it. You can rotate sections of the board. You can flood the entire map with water. You can summon a snake that moves through walls. You can summon Grendel and no one can summon Beowulf.

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You can cast as many of these spells that you have in your hand as you want, with one major exception: you can only perform one attack on your turn. War has limits.

The attacks are all over the place. You can burn down a neckbeard with fire. You can extend your hand down a hallway and slap them across the mouth. Sometimes you can blow up a wall and have the shards of stone cut into their geriatric flesh. There’s even a lightning bolt that bounces back and forth off walls dealing significant damage every time it hits you.

Someone gets trounced with a massive spell nearly eliminating them early in the game (YES, player elimination because the Jolly man doesn’t care about your feelings). Mauled person complains. I tell them this is Wiz-WAR not Wiz-Peace. Aaron laughs. We play and we play again. Lovely.

What makes this design such a compelling experience lies in its fostering of creativity. With a toolbelt of hundreds of crazy and over-the-top spells, you will come across new combinations and abilities every single time you play. The first time you see someone throw a lightning bolt around the corner and keep it bouncing for ages is special. The first time someone walls themselves in a dead end then casts some evil trickery to swap places with another player trapping them in the coffin – holy shit. This is glorious Ameritrash as it was meant to be.

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There are a couple of gotchas with this one. You’re likely to be playing with Fantasy Flight Games not-quite-excellent 8th edition from 2012. It’s a thing of beauty and does the game justice from a perspective of componentry. The rules, however, need a bit of a magic boot to the junk.

As FFG is wont to do, they’ve tinkered with the rules. Usually this means they mess things up just a tad. All is not lost for this can be fixed. They graciously included the important variants in the back of the rules to massage this into the gem it used to be. Important touch-ups like making creation spells permanent and outside of your hand are 100% necessary to milk this goat for all its worth.

The problem with the new rules is that they lead to play that’s about racing around the board and hauling treasure like a magic version of Two Guys and Truck. This is a game about war, the oldest of human vices. So blow each other up and get on with it.

That blowing each other up can get a little long too. Most of the time you’ll be done with your war in a half or quarter hour. Sometimes it stretches to an hour and you may have to sit twiddling your thumbs. It’s your own fault you charged through a rose bush to fight a minotaur and then were smashed with a huge a mallet. Sometimes though the randomly aligned corridors lead to two players rushing you out of the gate and stealing your shinies. This is a highly random and swingy game and those with a heart murmur may be better off playing Spades.

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Not Wiz-War.

That unhinged chaos is where it hits the highest notes. Every game is sort of a grab bag of random mystery and sometimes the building will explode and you’ll feel like you’re riding a shark atop the wave of fire. Others will feel like you’re drinking a cup of spoiled milk and hair shavings. It’s always silly and there’s always a few amazing moments where everyone can stop and point, burning an image in their brain and a story on their tongue.

Wiz-War is one of the best of games. It’s unparalleled as a gladiatorial butting of wizened noggins. There’s little fluff or complication as you simply move and play cards. There’s no cruft, just war. War with wizards. War that you don’t want to miss.

 

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The Reveille

I’m sitting at a table in our living room. My mother, my brother, and I are huddled around a curiously small coffee table, its diminutive stature emphasized by the sprawling map of our world. It sits awkwardly positioned with one edge just barely hanging off in suspended gravity, horsemen and artillery ready to plummet into the abyss at world’s end.

Much later – or was it earlier? – I’m huddled uncomfortably at the foot of my parent’s bed. My dad is losing a battle with the remote, trying to rewind a pirated VHS tape so we can watch the white skeletons invade Hoth. I want him to hurry up as I sit impatiently. My army has been assembled upon the field for days. Mines are haphazardly deployed around my flag and the rest of my cohort evenly dispersed amongst the ranks. It takes him nearly 30 minutes to place his battalion as a soldier takes his spot in the mud only to be plucked again from his perch a minute later. War doesn’t wait and neither should I.

I’m making a push into Asia. Having locked down Eastern Europe it’s time to make my move. I blast through one of my brother’s territories like German armor rolling upon Polish streets. I take my index finger and flick one of his little soldiers, the hapless veteran tumbling through the air like cannonball from muzzle. The memorialized partisan skips off the edge of the world and nosedives into the hellmouth below. I smile.

Gizmo walks along the top of the old wooden headboard, lightly purring with an ominous threat to leap from her perch and scatter our carefully positioned troops. She doesn’t belong. My dad wouldn’t find her in a parking lot until several years later. I shrug and focus on the game. My father’s brow is stuck, furrowed. I push forward with a reconnaissance maneuver testing his left flank. Suddenly his wall of plastic souls is scattered about, many troops dead and forgotten. I’m pushing deep into his backfield with my Marshall. I’ve cut a path through bombs and flesh and his flag is bare. The Ewoks are singing in celebration and I will soon join them. No. That’s not a flag but his Spy. My Marshall is dead. I fight every urge to smash the board in disgust. I grimace.

I’ve made it to the coast. My mother’s last line of defense sits, waiting to be conquered. Dammit – I’m too young to know that word but I say it anyway. The dice have turned and those under my command are cut down, piece by piece. All is not lost for I cleverly kept a handful of warriors in reserve. My mom doesn’t care. She reveals a mess of cards and amasses an army that would put a smile upon Sauron’s face. I die and I die again. The new world order crumbles and Sisyphean is smashed by his boulder. I never stop smiling.

 

 

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Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire – A ‘Tiefe Taschen’ Review

Imagine me sitting here, looking you dead in the eyes, and then doing that weird Italian chef kiss thing. That could stand-in for this review. Finito.

But reviews, at least the good ones, have words (take that popular video reviewers). This one will have very many words. Tiefe Taschen deserves them all.

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A game is an artistically crafted experience. The designer builds systems to provide incentives and guide the players along a journey. The mechanisms function as boundaries and facilitators, oftentimes supplemented by interaction and social maneuvering.

This German card game sets up a nuanced experience with dead simple mechanisms. It places one player in the hot seat of President and gives them a wad of cash distributed unevenly across cards. This big wig then assigns the bills to any number of players at the table. Money is not just a measure of victory points in the real world but also in this fictional cardboard one.

The boss can split the purse with a little going here and there as each player receives a small handout. Most likely they’ll reward a couple of loyalists and keep the spread isolated to select individuals expecting quid pro quo.

This is when people get angry.

Once the money has been assigned and the President is satisfied, we all choose an action card from our symmetrical hands. All the while Jim is still berating Tom for giving him the big goose egg. It’s all lovely in a gladiatorial sort of way.

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Cards are then revealed and the currency as divided is kept, or perhaps not. Action cards allow for the money grubbers to vote yay or nay on the equity division, in addition to skimming some dough off the top of the deck and blackmailing other individuals.

The reveal of the cards themselves is as dramatic as a Daniel Day Lewis performance. The Pres starts first, flipping their action faceup and resolving it, then the next player clockwise and so on. There’s a great deal of tension as you wait for mouthed promises to be executed. Often people lie and life gets messy.

The deal is rejected if the table receives more “no” votes than positive ones. The challenge is that by playing your card that affirms or rejects the split you are giving up the opportunity to work the crooked end of the spectrum.

In order to blackmail someone you need to give them a little thug meeple in the action phase and then pick the blackmail card. If properly executed, you steal one of the player’s bills. The juiciest bit is that they can counter the aggression with an appropriate action and instead turn the tables, stealing from your pool of currency.

Balls to the wall.

Skimming is another way to squeeze extra sauce. If you play this action then you draw from the top of the money deck and tuck it away neatly in your hidden cash reserves. The hitch is that this only works if you’re the first player to execute the action. Thus, it’s primarily enacted by the President, however, you occasionally see rounds where a later player will pull off an unsuspecting skim as the table “oohs” and “aahs”.

The absolute splendor of this design arrives in how all of these mechanisms intertwine. You have players leaning into the systems to both cajole and bludgeon each other with threats. Half the table will toss around their thug meeples but only a small portion will actually play the blackmail card.

It’s all about incentives and double-think, those splendid moments where you burn hellfire into your foe’s bloodshot eyes and mentally will them off the cliff. Don’t want the President to skim? Everyone can toss their thug on the poor gubanatorial bastard and cause them to rethink their strategy. Don’t like the spread of money? Organize a coup like the good old days. Perhaps even bribe a player with some of your personal cash to row against the flow.

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There’s a limited assortment of levers to push but they offer a wide range of creativity. The social dynamic bolsters depth and allows a thrilling sense of freedom. The design offers several jagged tools to back up your vocal chicanery and it’s up to the players to deftly wield them.

Due to this social framework the game occurs entirely above the table. It’s not heads-down play or noodling with layered mechanisms. It’s dramatic mutinies and silver tongued poetry. It’s topsy-turvy and completely unpredictable.

Despite that player-borne chaos there is a subtle well of strategy beneath the surface. The mathematics in the background rely on the observation of delta and working the odds to push yourself just ahead of the rest. You must needle your way into the proceedings and attempt to gain a measure of control in order to achieve victory.

Interestingly enough it’s not about being the loudest at the table. You simply need to be the cleverest.

Let’s take a look at a recent bloodbath. I split the table in two, spreading high amounts of cash to one group and ignoring the rest. As a selfless Presidento, I gave myself just a little bit of dough to keep the cabinet running and the banks solvent. Those players receiving more than me approved the deal and the rest bickered, not able to unify and strike down my accord. Meanwhile I skimmed as Presidents do and inflated my take with a bit of stealth.

Then I bounced to the second group on the next round, offering some sweet skrilla to those players who received zilch previously. I repeated my own tactics, taking very little but relying on the skim milk to come close to even-Steven with the others.

By alternating between the two groups I made sure to outpace the collective and keep myself well ahead of the masses. It worked of course and I made off into the night like Rich Uncle Pennybags.

This approach can easily be negated if the table sees past the shenanigans and performs the simple calculations. To the design’s credit, there’s a great deal going on and lots of verbal sparring and distraction.

It’s a bit like a family reunion of cutthroats and swindlers.

If the collective manages to band together and vote down a particular split, things get mighty interesting. The former President is ousted and must sit idly by watching while the remaining participants attempt to do it all again. A new President is established and the take is parcelled between fewer individuals.

What’s fascinating is that this can happen again and again. The group can continualy whittle down until perhaps only two participants remain. The power dynamic and incentives shift in intersting directions with each reduction to fewer mouths.

This also happens to be the only moment in the game where downtime occurs. It’s exagerrated at larger player counts as an ousted group of Presidents could remain outside the circle of play for several minutes. That price is absolutely worth paying because it provides for such an interesting structure in the decision process.

That particular element also adds to the tension of maintaining favor when running the show. The design really hinges on this duality of uneven power while trying to maintain a body of constintuents. Strategic play as the President is cut from an entirely different cloth than your maneuvering as part of the body politic. Transitioning between these two positions erratically over the course of the game adds a level of unpredictability and engagement that is enthralling.

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One of the primary qualities of this design is its mastery of its subject matter. This doesn’t occur from a simulative perspective, but instead from a behavioral one. With little buy-in players are jumping at each other’s throats and executing backroom deals. Just as you turn your head, sweet little Jimmy from down the street is emptying your retirement fund and shoving the knife into your eye. Seemingly compassionate human beings are debased to their lowest forms due to a clever structure that demands deceit. The horror is glorious.

Tiefe Taschen gets played. It hit my table dozens of times over the past year. As a 30 minute card-based version of the classic Junta, it fires on all cylinders.

While this is currently only available as a difficult to find import, there is a North American release coming courtesy of publisher Arcane Wonders. It looks to be sporting a different artistic coat (anthropomorphic animals – seriously?), and there are hints that some of the mechanisms could be softened for more widespread appeal. The jury is still out on the execution of this new version, but it’s something to keep an eye on as 2018 plays out.

Tiefe Taschen in its current state is one of my favorite designs. This is not because of its cynical commentary on the human condition, but because it’s the best small box negotiation game ever to be printed on cardboard.

Grab a wad and make it rain.

 

All pictures courtesy of designer Fabian Zimmermann.

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Dinosaur Witches and Sand Worms – A Grimslingers Review

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Grimslingers is outlandish. It’s Clint Eastwood wandering the wasteland of Fallout directed by Guillermo del Toro. This concoction of grit and cybernetics doesn’t just live within your mind’s eye, it’s plastered over every beautiful card courtesy of artist/designer Stephen Gibson. A triple threat, he designed, illustrated, and published this work all on his own before Greenbrier picked it up and expanded its reach. This tabletop version of Hugh Jackman is the real deal.

This is a game as odd as its setting. It’s partially a head to head dueling card game, and partially a story-focused overland adventure combating witches and heathens. Both modes of play receive equal focus and the game never forces you into a specific approach.

Competitive, cooperative, solo, multiplayer- it’s all good, partner.

The competitive duel mode has two to six players throwing down in the streets and spilling blood. As Grimslingers, you wield arcane spells and harness the elements alongside revolvers and shotguns. There’s a solid fidelity in the myriad items on display as you can wield oddball electronica blended with rusty old west tech. This bizarre sundry is extended to your floating robotic anima, always at your side to supplement your spellcraft as well as offer inane one-liners.

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Alongside items scavenged from the field, your hand will primarily consist of a symmetric set of elemental spells. You select from these options each round, placing a card facedown on the table. A simultaneous reveal then occurs mimicing a high stakes draw. Elements will counter elements as everything unwinds in this relatively straightforward rock/paper/scissors mechanism.

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There’s a nice flow to play as participants manage their character’s health and energy. You can sacrifice HP to pump up your EP which is used to reclaim cards from your discard pile and power rare signature spells. This movement of lifeforce to mystic energy and then to spells manages to capture the witchcraft theme in a subtle yet effective way. It’s one of the primary differentiators between this system and others of its type.

And yet that’s not enough.

The main challenge with the duel format is that it’s not terribly interesting. It’s certainly solid and offers an enjoyable experience, but it does little to push the boundaries of the genre or challenge its peers. It never manages to elevate itself above its competitors such as Codex or Android: Netrunner, both of which offer a much more expansive and deeper system of play.

Grimslingers, as a head to head game, is something you pull off the shelf for some quick entertainment and not a title you’re going to fall into and get lost in.

So what about the story mode? This is what drew me to Grimslingers after all, as I was hoping for a narrative adventure with some light yet strategically interesting card play in a hoot of a setting.

That’s exactly what I got.

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While the system here is fairly light, it’s ultimately effective. You move a little meeple around a small map of the region. The paths of travel force you into random encounters and small skirmishes. When breaking away to fight you engage in a simplified duel against an AI deck that bites and shoots back. You’ll rip apart peculiar Jackalopes as well as ferocious Chupacabras. You’ll stare longingly into the terrifying art as the setting comes to life. It’s all very mesmerizing.

Let’s pause for a moment.

There’s a lot of momentum behind this newfangled approach where games aren’t just games but they’re stories too, interactive ones at that. We have a huge comeback in book-driven designs such as the resurging Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Legacy of Dragonholt. The Arkham Horror Living Card Game adopted this story focus wholeheartedly, taking investigators along for a multi-product ride full of twists and turns.

There are two primary ways that a table top game conveys narrative. The first is through scripted sequences of flavor text and setting. It’s the central vehicle of those aforementioned recent wonders. The second is the tried and true method of allowing players to organically create a story from kicking around in a sandbox. This is seen in the modern classic Merchants and Marauders where there is no prescribed narrative arc, there’s merely systems to put you up against the wall and present interesting conflict. This conflict leads to a natural series of events that present a cohesive narrative, although it’s one you forged from disparate parts and tamed, as opposed to dictated to you by a copywriter.

Grimslingers attempts to reconcile both of these methods. There’s a story booklet with scripted events that are triggered by player action. When you fulfill certain conditions you read a few paragraphs and push the narrative forward. The writing itself is also top-notch for this industry as it comes across as witty and capable. This is a substantial achivement that breeds investment and maintains a necessary level of charm.

These well-penned scripts are developed with purpose and build toward a reasonably satisfying climax. The resolution itself is one of the stronger elements of this cooperative mode as it takes the difficult path of leaving questions hanging in the air. It doesn’t spoonfeed the players or take them by the nose thematically, leaving you to ponder the nature of several characters and events that take place.

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A selection of desert critters to chomp your noggin.

Within that light series of linked events you are free to wander the Valley of Death. You move along nodes on a map and will run into random encounters as well as dastardly foes to tangle with. The game checks off several RPG boxes by offering character progression and card turnover, which is reconciled well within the game’s system.

The challenges with combining these two methods of experiencing narrative is that this is a small product with limited content. It will only take about six hours to work your way through the Valley of Death campaign and replayability is light. Truth be told, the difficulty can be very swingy at low player counts – particularly solo – so you may find your cowpoke giving up the ghost in a showdown and needing to start the whole thing fresh.

The rough spots stem from a lack of maturity. The product itself is still trying to find its legs and establish a system for longevity. The story mode doesn’t feel slapped together at the last minute, but it also doesn’t feel fully realized. In that regard, Grimslingers comes across a bit like a proof of concept, albeit one that provides several dramatic swings and a hell of a frontier to wander through.

The pieces are all there. There’s a blissful setting that’s wholly unique. There’s a solid core system of dueling that can support a greater narrative tension. There’s even exceptional presentation from a visual and literary perspective. It simply needs to be all tied together and woven into something greater.

The big question is where is this going? The Northern Territory has the answer. This recent expansion offers a follow-up campaign that continues where Valley of Death left off. I’ll be making that trek through hellish land in the coming weeks and promise to get word back by telegraph on my experience. Hopefully the Chupacabras aren’t chewing on the line.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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