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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An Ode to the Pavement- A Street Masters: Rise of the Kingdom Review

I don’t understand fighting games. Yes, like every other child in the 90s I played my fair share of Street Fighter and Double Dragon, but I’ve never explored these at a high level. When one of my buds literally built a controller – a huge brick of a thing – I was stupefied. Fighting games to me have always been 30 seconds of mashing buttons and screaming at the top of my lungs (which is how I imagine coitus in the far future).

But Street Masters is a board game. One with miniatures and cards. Cards that offer clever tricks and the all-important combos. It’s about co-operatively squaring off against a boss and thrashing minions as if we’re in one of the most joyously tactile games of Streets of Rage ever experienced.

Board games I do understand and this is a crackerjack of a design.

This is the debut release from Blacklist Games but you’d never know it. Street Masters is a top-notch production that’s sound from cardboard to system. Even the rulebook was solid as a roundhouse and took my hand comfortably through the ensuing tabletop blood sport. Finally, the amount of content they’ve stuffed into this box is a bit overwhelming.

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Combinatorial is the word of the day. There’s an obvious philosophy here to offer a slick fighting game experience that’s constructed from three distinct moving parts. The way these pieces intersect and manufacture a unique narrative playground is the conduit for our adventure.

The first component is your fighter. Whether you select the adept combo-machine Brandon or the nimble support specialist Natalaya, you’re hitting the ground with a unique selection of abilities. Each of the six protagonists possesses an asymmetrical deck of action cards that supports a playstyle all their own. There’s much to explore and a stunning amount of mechanical variety on offer. Strengths and weaknesses abound and specific groupings will yield varied results depending on the strategies pursued.

These asymmetrical fighter decks are the lifeblood of the design. They provide the arcade feel, nuanced strategy, and key decisions integral to play. What’s particularly fascinating is how each feels like a well-tailored CCG build. There are cards that feed into each other and combos to be discovered in every nook and cranny. They are each capable and worthy of a deep exploratory dive.

The only challenge here is blending the smooth card-play with a slightly obtuse action system. On your turn you receive a free movement, a card step, and an action. Your action will come from a card, and newcomers will sometimes conflate things and have a difficult time keeping the fragments of their turn in order. This is overcome with experience somewhat quickly.

The next element is the enemy. Each faction has their own pecking order of minions and insano boss. They’re run by a deck of cards which spawns new foes as well as placing abilities into play that modify their capabilities.

The Brotherhood, for instance, are led by a cold-blooded killer named Dmitri. You place the miniature on the board and immediately notice the huge RPG slung across his back (that’s rocket-propelled grenade, not a Gary Gygax publication). But looking over his card causes confusion at first glance as he only offers a melee attack against adjacent foes. It all comes together when the card is later turned revealing his heavy arms and your mouth contorts in anticipation of the pain.

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Another boss, Juan, wields a unique flintlock with supplementary rules.

This approach of revealing complexity and randomizing the current environment of special abilities is woven into the level. The map forms the last component of the three options and has a large bearing on play. Each board possesses a deck of events as well as a reference card with setup modification and special rules. Sometimes enemy thugs will be attempting to haul contraband off the playing field. Other duels will have neutral challengers pop up and confront the big bad. It’s all a little crazy and unpredictable in the best of ways.

These three sub-systems – characters/enemies/maps – are layered in a way that presents a fresh scenario engineered from a randomized set of modules. Gabriel and Ying Hua trading blood with The Cartel feels very different when the showdown happens on the “Gone Ballistic” map as opposed to “Sudden Death”. Similarly, keep the map and swap out the baddies and you have an entirely new experience.

And there goes the wind.

There’s an emotionally satisfying conclusion to assembling these disparate pieces. The game hits you with a thematic combo of hooks and you can almost see the points materializing above your dizzy head.

It helps that play is sharp as a Hadouken.

Each fighter’s deck is wonderfully crafted to build a specific experience. It will take multiple sessions to unleash their full capabilities and tease out each trick. This offers a fantastic feedback loop as you grow in capability with your understanding, feeling that immense power in those cards at the edge of your fingertips.

The dice system is a dapper fellow in its own right. You roll to randomize the outcome but no result is poor. If you don’t inflict damage then you’ll acquire defense tokens which are used to repel the opposition’s blows. Even that nuanced system is focused on empowering the player as tokens used for blocking are flipped to charge up your special move.

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This philosophical approach of designing the heroes as capable combatants is refreshing. You don’t have prolonged bouts of emasculation as your fists land in open air and your confidence is crushed. Every single turn of momentum is forward as the game maintains velocity. It’s fascinating.

Did I mention there’s exploding dice? Boom shakalaka.

The final blow comes in the form of story mode. This is a light campaign option that links sessions with a narrative deck. You can choose between two options in the base game that form a background context to your individual fights.

Additionally, there are tailored story decks for each fighter. These provide narrative arcs for each protagonist to wrestle with over multiple scenarios. You will grow in strength as you add cards to your deck and deal with the tumbling outcomes of momentary decisions. It’s handled with a strong editorial touch as the main portion of the game does not come across as a mere appetizer, yet this additional content does not feel an afterthought or underdeveloped.

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Yeah, I’m swooning and I have to reign it in. This game does have its challenges and odd twists. There is a lot of text to parse, not just in your hand but out on the table. Someone will need to step up to run the map and enemy deck, which can be daunting. When a boss’ capabilities and activations are spread amongst several cards it can be a bit of a twist. You’ll find yourself occasionally having to re-read an effect or ability to keep the process straight. It’s never horrendous or bloated, but it can be annoying or inconvenient.

This confluence of randomized plug-ins can also result in a chaotic tempo. Some plays will have the strongest enemy effects remain in the deck and others will have a swarm of foes at your throat due to a series of unfortunate circumstances. If everything turns your way you can spend a few minutes setting everything up and then finish off the boss in a brief affair. Thankfully the design is one that embraces challenge and more often than not you’re beaten down than handed the victory.

This unpredictability of the narrative is ultimately one of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects of Street Masters.

The game can also approach a nagging length at four players. While it never pushes beyond 90 minutes, you really want this crackdown to last 45-70. It does work quite well solo with no rule hitches or structural changes, the only caveat is that adding another player or two really opens up the ability to combo and support each other. The field becomes more dynamic and the strategy space widens.

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This is one svelte little badass. This design favorably compares to last year’s TMNT: Shadows of the Past. They’re both arcade beat ’em ups offering cooperation and variability. Street Masters is the smoother of the two, offering a more streamlined process and a little less fuss.

Ultimately this release comes across as though Brady and Adam Sadler designed a game for themselves. It doesn’t feel rushed or as if features were cut or added to tweak appeal. It appears crafted from the ground up as something acutely targeted at their own tastes and intended for extended play.

It’s not difficult to connect the dots and trace this game’s lineage from the dungeon crawlers of yore. The Sadlers clearly arrived at this point after years of work with FFG and hacking it in the Ameritrash arena. Perhaps a greater leap would be to flag this as their utmost accomplishment; a culmination of a decade of design. Legacy musings aside, Street Masters is here to shove a fist in our jaw and make its presence known.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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High Society – A Sobering Filler

The first time I played High Society I didn’t get it. I wasn’t in the right place and it left my mind as soon as it left the table. Whether my worldview has simply expanded or the tumor of cynicism has grown, this time it was different. This time the not-so-subtle message hit me square in the gut and I couldn’t shake it.

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This simple 20 minute auction design was first released in 1995. Osprey games has given it the Criterion Collection treatment, beautifying the illustrations and modernizing the production. There’s an obvious effort of widening the title’s representation which is appreciated and commendable.

Mechanically, this one’s a pie. It’s easy to slip into the social duel of a round-table bid. It bears more than a few similarities to the classic No Thanks! and For Sale. There’s that typical alternating one upmanship as the offers escalate and bills flow from your fingertips.

The concept is that we’re all living it up, trying to hack it in the realm of the socially elite. We’re those smiling grand bastards making up the one percent and dropping wads of cash as fast as we earn it.

The winner of each auction acquires some new fancy duds or even a ridiculous banquet of food far too rich for my cockroach blood. Where Knizia upsets the cart is in mixing in two special types of cards – a few worth negative points and a few that multiple your score by two.

The bidding for those cards that represent scandals and faux paus work in reverse – the first player to drop out takes the rotten cake and the others discard their cash.

This is a pretty subtle system that relies heavily on interaction and bumping up against your opponents in order to manipulate the game state and come out ahead. There’s much cleverness in limiting your money to specific increments as well as offering the two very discordant auction types. There’s also this fantastic sense of drama just below the surface as the game can end at virtually any time. This is triggered by the appearance of four special cards which injects an enticing sense of push your luck.

All of this is given weight by the cruel wrench of formally eliminating the player at game’s end who spent the most money. While this design incentivizes you to spend like a heathen and hoard the garish uniforms of the rich, you have to be just scrupulous enough to avoid completely destroying your fortune. It’s not about outrunning the bear, but simply being faster than the slowest poke.

If you manage to avoid elimination, then you compare your total points against those of the other elitists, with a single player claiming victory as the highest of snobs.

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All this rules nonsense doesn’t matter.

What really matters is the theme at the heart of High Society. This is a piece of game design that’s morose in its perspective. It’s unabashedly critical of consumerism and by proxy, Western culture.

To “win” at this game one needs to adopt the conflicted worldview that actual wealth is not tied to financial responsibility, but to shedding money in favor of appearing affluent. But be careful and don’t spend too much or you’ll end up on the street and eating out of a dumpster. These two ideals clash ruthlessly and on the surface don’t make philosophical sense within the terms the game lays out. This is with purpose.

You need to be the best at living a certain lifestyle and maintaining proper optics. It’s all about keeping up with the Joneses and the rot at the center of our society. The game’s not even subtle in its warped position and the rules it forces us to operate under. On one hand it’s intensely clever, and on the other it’s inherently horrific.

Deconstructing that win condition of having the best “stuff” and how this dovetails with the auction is at the heart of truly understanding this game.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Let’s imagine for an instant we all refuse to play the game. We take these rules as dictated by the wealthy and we tell them to shove it up their collective ruffled tush. In a moment of solidarity we form our own little revolution.

In this case we’d all repeatedly pass, refusing to bid even a precious dollar. The game carries on, even if erratically, some of us gain points and some of us lose points from being saddled with free cards. All of us, however, maintain our currency and become good little savers.

When the game ends we all lose. We’re eliminated for possessing the least money, in this instance a multi-way tie, and High Society snuffs us out like the bugs we are.

Yet, in this case I would argue we all actually attain a sense of integrity the game wishes to forcibly strip away from us. By positioning gameplay through this prism of moral corruption, the cultural significance of the design emerges. It seeks criticism and enlightenment through satire to great effect. In many ways, this sense of mockery is merely an extension of what Knizia touched upon in his earlier work, Modern Art. Both seek to offer a sobering viewpoint on value and its societal definition.

Each of these sibling designs convey their criticism through interaction. The denigration of our culture occurs as a result of participants enforcing a crooked ideal of wealth upon each other.

The final twist of that sharp blade is the realization that we’re doing this to ourselves.

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There’s a fantastic multi-faceted view triangulated around this game’s system. This intersection attempts to define value, and each of the three viewpoints bump together awkwardly.

The first perspective is of High Society’s internal game mechanisms – spend your cash loosely and dining fine, but also make sure to squirrel away just a wee bit. It evaluates your performance based on your ability to acquire, while also holding back ever so slightly.

The second angle is that of the players seeking monetary valuations on those different acoutrements. We determine what a dapper coat or suave pair of shoes cost as we’re the market forces behind the internal dynamics. We also determine that cut-off line of how much spending is simply too much. This is where the struggle and conflict in the design arises.

The final view is the one from our intestines. It’s reconciling real-world ethics with our sense of morality. What valuations are we placing on our character’s actions and behavior within this system? What does that say about us and our culture? It’s heavy stuff if you peel away from the table and really contemplate it.

Where these three meet is where that magic happens.

There’s an intense criticism rampant in our culture of those who fall into squalor, particularly those who lost it all among the socially elite. Compare this to our continual fervor towards spending and consumerism. We don’t value status or wealth based on how much money someone has in their bank account, rather, we judge them by their bling and hardware. Their financial health behind the scenes is inconsequential as long as they can maintain that cracked facade.

As a society, we’re ill.

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With this updated edition Osprey fulfilled their end of the bargain. By leaving the inner workings alone and simply giving the proceedings a facelift, it’s as if they’ve recognized the more things change the more they stay the same. While the lights may be brighter and the buildings taller, the stark philosophical reality at the core is just as appropriate today as it was 20 years ago.

High Society’s primary achievement is in conveying thematic weight that outstrips its size. This is a thoughtful design shaped with a sense of purpose, and in many respects it’s one of the best examples of a game being more than a game.

I raise my top hat to you Reiner Knizia.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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I Am Not Groot – A Rising 5 Review

A person walking briskly past could easily mistake Rising 5 for a Guardians of the Galaxy product. This is with purpose, of course, as they want you to think it’s those fellas and that rabbit. In this wannabe Summer blockbuster players cooperate to re-seal the Rune Gate and vanquish the brutal monsters that have emerged. If you can accomplish all of this before the Darkness Level reaches the Red Moon, the planet of Asteros will be saved and the Rising 5 will become legend.

What a glorious setup.

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Rising 5 is fluffy. This cup of pudding is a half hour co-operative design that sits comfortably in that realm of the hobby that Pandemic trailblazed. It’s a breezy experience mechanically that offers alluring visuals and a central puzzle that needs a-solvin’.

That conundrum is the heart of the game. We must deduce which four of the eight rune tokens are required to lock the buzzing gate, but we must also determine their correct position.

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The companion application is your savior as it will offer feedback based on placement. We’ve seen this common puzzle before – in Mansions of Madness and outside media – where you receive positive indicators on how many of the symbols you’ve placed belong in the solution, as well as how many are in the correct place. It’s simple deduction that basically eats up in-game time and helps to impart a sense of clever when it all comes together.

But that ain’t happening.

One of the primary conceits of Rising 5 is that it doesn’t shed a tear for your goody two shoes ass. It will grind you into the Asteros soil and leave you for vulture-feed (or whatever their alien equivalent is). This game is flat-out hard and you will fail, again and again.

And this is a good thing fellow masochists. A co-operative design that doesn’t tickle your groin with a steel-toe is one that’s not worth playing. Challenge is the primary component to these types of puzzle-y whack-a-mole designs and this one gets it right. It falls amongst good company in this regard, harkening to humdingers such as Space Hulk: Death Angel and Ghost Stories.

The central code breaking is also a more engaging challenge than the type of strategy assessment found in Pandemic. It offers more tangible progression due to continual feedback with a pat on the tummy. It’s less about deciphering the state of the board and more about pushing towards that next step.

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The card-based action system supports the internal economy well. You’re in a full out sprint racing for that solution before Darkness wins out. There’s no slow buildup or crescendo, it shoots you out of the cannon before you’ve even settled into the barrell.

Managing that action economy is the vehicle for player agency in this design. There’s a conflicting sense of identity within this system, however, as players have no specific representation within the game state. Instead, everyone shares the Rising 5 crew, performing actions with whoever they’d like pending available cards (actions) in their mitts.

This lack of ownership can soften investment in the narrative as players assume a more authorship-centered role. This does breed some decent communication at times, but it can be disconcerting for someone wanting stronger presence on the board.

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While communication and strong play are absolutely required, this game suffers due to its inherently light nature. It feels perhaps overdeveloped and stripped of a layer or two, resulting in thin gameplay that does not support the decision space for more than a couple of players. Even at three and four participants there’s simply not enough to do or collaborate on to keep your interest, which is frankly disappointing. Sometimes you want to bring all your mates to see the film and now you’re stuck having to choose your favorite.

That sense of overengineering really hampers this work. There’s simply not much variety in tactical pursuit or challenges encountered. The game is repetitive almost immediately and its few dramatic moments are caused by simple dice rolls that become monotonous in a hurry. The die resolution also feels like it has a substantial impact on the outcome of the game, as you don’t really have enough breathing room to waste opportunities. A flub here and a whiff there and the walls begin to fall apart.

For the most part you’re shuffling a character or two between a small number of spaces and attacking an enemy card by rolling a die. You need to beat a certain threshold, and that’s about it. Other times you’ll be swapping out those rune tokens and then patiently waiting for enough enemies to perish so you can check your result. It’s all very workmanlike and devoid of any magic.

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Monsters! Sadly, the only differentiator is that target number in the middle.

The real problem is that all of the effort put into personality is hollow. This is a game that desperately needs something, anything really, to hang your hat on. The lack of simulative elements or narrative drama is simply unbecoming, and the entire experience fades from memory before the box has returned to the shelf. There’s no twist or noticeable achievement. It’s just another game, one to claim space and gather dust like a boss.

Dammit Kickstarter.

There’s a sense that some of this may be alleviated with content that was locked away as Kickstarter exclusive by the original overseas publisher. Grey Fox Games has now published this in North America, sans those deluxe sides. Unfortunately it’s hard to say whether those additional modules would rectify my misgivings as this is purely speculative.

At this point it’s too late anywho.

There is a possibly redeeming quality in that Rising 5 holds up as a gateway game. It has a straightforward system, not too many options tripping you up, and a bit of chrome to lick your eyeballs. The problem is that there are plenty of classics fulfilling this role already such as King of TokyoTicket to Ride, and Carcassonne. This is no classic.

In its current state Rising 5 will hold up for a play or two at a low participant count. Beyond that it’s merely eating up time that’s best spent on something more exciting. It’s trying desperately to be Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s not nearly as humorous, clever, or engaging. Instead, it’s some cosplayers in a YouTube video and your mouse is hovering over the next button.

 

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641 Days Later – A Reflection on Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition

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Whoa.

This is what escaped our collective mouth when Fantasy Flight Games released the second edition of Mansions of Madness during Gen Con of 2016. This is a company that typically rolls a parade of articles out on its digital home months in advance of a release. Yet this reimagined big box title lurched from the basement without a peep. It was quiet and then it wasn’t.

This is an age where we buy the idea of games years in advance, a time where people are in a hurry to open the box of my latest purchase for me and broadcast it on YouTube. But a game being released by perhaps the largest player in our industry with only a week’s notice? That’s absurd. That’s drama.

I’ve already written thousands of words on this new edition. I shared my enthusiasm for the game here. And here. Oh, and here too. Right now I’m working my way through the latest expansion, The Sanctum of Twilight, and feeling all somber and poetic. This means gin and reflection.

I still remember the original Corey Konieczka design fondly. It was a messy hybrid of dungeon crawler and mysterious story game that could leave you in wonder or constipation, depending on how your particular Lovecraft vignette developed. It had a look about it – that typical FFG spread of token buffet atop wonderfully illustrated room tiles. It was easy to look past the soft and fugly (that’s short for fucking ugly) miniatures because it was a different time. This was 2011 and we were young and naive.

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Image courtesy of BGG user dinaddan

The first edition was captivating particularly for its ambition. It promised an experience that felt RPG-adjacent, as if you were working your way through a prettier but more stringent Chaosium module penned by their B-team.

And that was frankly good enough.

The prominent flaw, that the whole game could go belly up by the Keeper misplacing a single card, well it was something we lived with. It was our quaint board game version of “in our day we walked through five feet of snow to get to school!” We didn’t have an app to hold our hands and braid our hair, and it was perfectly fine. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t do better.

Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain

The fragility was the first element addressed in this new edition. By shifting the story-engine from human opposition and a collection of sorted cardboard to angry bytes of wonderful mystery – there is a true sense of innovation and progress. This is in no way a small thing. Automation isn’t just hitting our automobiles and checkout counters, it’s hitting our precious cardboard adventures too. And in this particular instance it’s magnificent.

There’s no more arguing about who gets to play Ashcan Pete and who’s stuck playing fishmen and cultists. The iPad loses that altercation every time.

You can also pull the box off the shelf and start playing almost immediately. You don’t need to setup the halls of the creepy mansion ahead of time. You don’t need to organize and pre-seed stacks of little cards meant for the hands of a toddler. All you need are a couple of characters and a single room, and away you go.

What’s even better is that the application facilitates enhanced atmosphere, not just with that creepy public-domain gothic soundtrack, but by fostering an actual sense of exploration. By obfuscating the layout of our horrific journey the design instills legitimate mystery. You never know what’s around the corner and that’s scary in a palpable way.

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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” – H.P. Lovecraft

The randomized appearance of enemies and triggered events further supports this design philosophy. Scenarios utilize unique timers hidden from our view and each little box of text that pops up has us bracing with a wince. By internalizing the mechanical processes it keeps us guessing. We can’t quite work out how it operates and it puts us in an uncomfortable state of not knowing the heuristic rules at play. At times it even feels unfair.

That loss of control and placing such a large portion of the game in a sleek black box, that’s jarring. It’s unsettling in the best of ways as a horror game needs to be.

This is such a fundamental shift in the experience that it helps to elevate the game beyond its flaws. It repositions this as an adventure game of delving into the unknown and it diminishes any sense of the mundane.

Or at least, this is how it all should work.

And it mostly does. This experience, however, is overburdened with substantial flaws and may be approaching a terminal point.

Eminent Domain

There is a systemic problem with the FFG release structure that may be unavoidable. The issue is that the most significant cost of an expansion is the content found outside the box. Software developers are expensive and the way we foot the bill is by paying for yet more miniatures and tiles we don’t need or want.

It’s all about oversaturation. I already have 35 investigators, 40 monsters, and 200 different hallways and ballrooms.

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While each investigator offers a unique backstory and special ability, there are already a dozen others with similarly specialized stats that occupy the same niche. After the excitement of a new toy fades, you realize that the main fallout is five more minutes of digging through a bag of unpainted miniatures to find that specific one with a cigar and cane.

The tiles are worse. Organize them however you’d like, but the high-stakes adventure will stutter along as you pause at each moment of progress to paw through those huge stacks of 2D rooms. There is an effort to alleviate this by coding each release to a symbol – but you still must find the appropriate grouping based on size and that icon. Then you need to check both sides of each tile and of course, the one you’re looking for is always at the very bottom.

C’est la vie H.P.

The endless heaps of monstrous enemies offer a similar dilemma. I love a plastic representation of an indescribable horror as much as the next gumshoe, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s often easier to simply place the cardboard token out on the board. If I’m already conceding play spacethumbnail_20180502_194400 to automation, then I want as much as the tedium to be smoothed out as possible.

Even more unforgivable is the sense of homogeneity.

There’s a unique problem here in that the behavior and mechanical representation of each enemy is handled almost entirely out of sight. This means that all beasts feel nearly identical. If you asked me to describe the difference between a Nightgaunt and a Shoggoth in terms of impact, I’d struggle.

“One flies and the other hits harder”, I’d mumble.

While I have to believe there are some complexities to the data and algorithms running the opposition, it never really feels that way. This lack of mechanical enforcement paradoxically undercuts the mystery element that’s so crucial to the experience. It abstracts the monsters in all the wrong ways while formalizing the least important qualities – namely, the soft plastic appearance.

Don’t tear your hair out just yet.

There are a couple of redeeming qualities to the expansion collection. Besides the scenarios – which have remained varied and fantastic – the most spectacular asset is in the integration of new Arkham world content. As you extend your Mansions of Madness pile of physical stuff, the app will digitally buffer out your electronic collection as well. This means new monsters and items will appear in old scenarios. It also means that you will see new events and details of story that did not previously exist.

The Sanctum of Twilight is the best example of this narrative expansion. The arrival of the Order of the Silver Twilight is not simply felt in the two new scenarios on offer. You will see those snaking tendrils leave their indelible touch on multiple facets of the game. Without spoiling the kitten, a proper example would be a new insanity card which places a member of the Twilight Lodge in your mist. These small touches of setting fill out the world and provide meaningful definition.

There’s a real sense that we’re on a tour of Arkham and eventually we’ll have a fully realized vision of the city with multiple factions and significant citizens at play. I don’t have a strong hope that these will be pulled together into a central story or vision, but we will nevertheless be able to enjoy an engrossing story that’s capable of touching on many facets of the greater FFG property.

And now, time for a brief intermission.

Alright, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The Loneliest Number

One of the strongest benefits of shifting play from an arrogant Keeper to a mindless machine is the enabling of solo play. Hitting the mansion alone means you get to field multiple investigators – I recommend three – and you’re able to play at your desired pace. The experience tends to be shorter while also facilitating lengthy scenarios since you can leave the game setup when you head off to play Barbies with your daughter. One minute you’re in a dilapidated prison with a Starspawn barreling down upon you, and the next you’re setting up a tiny picnic outside a not-so-tiny pink RV.

As a solo RPG-esque experience, it foots the bill. You get a slice of interesting story, some satisfying combat, and a solid experience of pushing around toys while stoking the fire of your mind.

But…

Yeah, there’s always a but. This is another one of those elements where the game supports as well as it harms.

While functionally this is a perfect solitary endeavor, it suffers from that lack of complete automation. This is a game of many rote, repetitive tasks. You will place many rooms and many more tokens. You’ll dig around through the box and you’ll finger components until your papercuts have papercuts. As a multiplayer experience this works splendidly because you have extended moments of discussion which offer a break between the thankless tasks. When you’re sitting in a dark basement all by your lonesome, well the decisions tend to come faster and easier and those pauses between the shuffling of cardboard become more brief and less pronounced.

If I think back with a clear head it’s painfully obvious: the bulk of my last two-hour play session was spent finding pieces and clicking through menus. Sure, I made important decisions and sure the story was emotionally gripping at times, but there’s this nihilistic angle of the whole thing that is simply deflating.

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It is a testament to the story-telling prowess of the electronica that this repetition is often overlooked. I do get caught up in the moment when I’m trying to sabotage a float to stall the parade, or when I’m frantically dancing about the wooden parlor dousing a fire I carelessly ignited with my Azure Flame ward.

That struggle between compelling fictional drama and routine labor is one that each person must reconcile. I can personally hack it in this regard, but it can be fatiguing and it keeps me away from binging the game in repeated doses over a short period of time. This is more of a ‘pull off the shelf once every few months’ type of game as opposed to running standby on my table.

A Brave Newer World

It seems inevitable that whenever I discuss this series I reach the ending by circling back to the beginning. While I’ve already milked countless hours of enjoyment from the glands of this beast (what an odd metaphor), I’m continually keeping an eye toward the horizon and the potential evolution of this experience.

I truly feel like there is a large degree of untapped potential. We’ve seen some of that utilized in the fantastic fan-made Valkyri toolkit, but it’s still sort of half-buried and waiting to be gleaned. The real promise lies in extended campaigns mimicking the structure of a classic RPG module.

Imagine an official expansion that parallels the venerated Masks of Nyarlathotep adventure; or what about Beyond the Mountains of Madness? I look to the Arkham Horror living card game and I’m envious. Mansions of Madness is primarily a story game yet it’s not managed to elevate that medium.

This is where the game needs to go. At its current pace it will physically outgrow its design space. It needs to be moving forward with direction, not erratically with its weight behind new cardboard and plastic. Give us narrative depth to explore and legitimate themes to ponder. It’s out there Mansions of Madness, you just need to grab it.

For those who stuck with me on this long journey, may the Yellow King bless your soul.

 

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Mainlining Combos – A Fantasy Realms Review

Staying on the edge of the freshest of fresh is where it’s at. It’s where cash falls like rain and attractive people fall all over you. It’s where reviewers need to build their constantly shifting home if they want to be anybody.

This isn’t working for me. Player Elimination is in the red and the only person angling for my attention is my dog.

So let’s go back in time, way back to late 2017. In board game years, that’s roughly equivalent to when the NES was released.

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Fantasy Realms is something we need to talk about. I remember when it had a bit of buzz, a few reviewers mentioning it and trying to shine the big lights on this small box. I didn’t need a fantasy version of Star Realms. Hell, I don’t even need Star Realms.

Good thing, because this has no association despite the title. This is just 53 cards, 53 cards designed by a fellow named Bruce Glassco and pushed to market by a company called Wizkids.

And it’s something spectacular.

Part of the beauty of this game is that there’s almost nothing there. It’s like eating cotton candy, but you can do it endlessly and you’ll never gain a pound. Over the spread of 15 minutes you’ll draw a card from the top of the deck or the public discard pile, and then you’ll discard another from your hand. That’s it, really.

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The entire game. Really.

This is a hand-building game where cards possess made-up fantasy suits like lord, wizard, and weather. They also possess a raw point value. When points are involved you want the highest of course.

The razzle-dazzle arrives with the ability text on each card. Patterns emerge and combos materialize like gravy flowing into your gullet. Certain groups of cards require you possess a trio of specific titles, or maybe a hand of entirely one suit. One such joker even wants your entire collection to be odd in value.

Some have penalties. For instance, flood cards tend to cancel out those of the flame variety. Sometimes you lose points, such as the light cavalry that doesn’t want to be tied to land in your hand, which represents your kingdom of course. You can nullify penalties with other cards and sometimes tweak the combinations to pull off remarkable positions. It’s all wobbly and dynamic in the best of ways.

It’s also cute how often the conventions of a particular ability/suit/title combination rely on narrative consistency. Fire gets put out by water unless you also have a mountain for that inferno to rage on. Noah would be proud as you keep your chin above the surf.

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There is a particular catch with this one. As a three or four player experience it’s merely a shrug of the shoulders – still enjoyable, but not altogether fantastic. The game plays out directly, but you have less control over the tempo and less time to build your final run. Someone may grab that card you really need from the discard, or they may be clutching a specific item within their greasy palm that your strategy is hinged on.

There’s simply a large degree of interference coupled with limited time to switch gears and shift your strategy. This places undue emphasis on your initial draw of cards and getting a bit lucky. It still plays out quickly and you get a couple of feel good moments, but we’re not unlocking that potential and we’re not hitting the high notes.

So grab a partner and hit the table.

At two players you start with nothing. Each turn you top-deck two cards and then discard one. Or, you can still grab something from the fanned out discard pile instead. By building from nothing you get a sense of agency and space in choosing your strategic path. You also have the time to more properly develop your hand as you have a larger say when the discard pile fills up and the end game trigger occurs.

This is an experience that rides on fleeting control and pushing your luck to ride high-risk combos into the ground. It’s assessing a not overly complex scoring matrix at the blink of an eye and messily reconciling that with your gut. If you would have just waited it out one more turn Aaron would have discarded that ‘Rainstorm’ and you would have scored an extra 100 points.

It’s OK, we all make questionable life choices.

Let’s talk about those 100 points. This game’s scoring is absurd in the best of ways. A low score would be around 110 or 120. Typically someone will win in the mid-hundred space. Sometimes you break into the 200s and you want to slap your momma it feels so good. That huge gulf of values highlights the range of combinations and abilities you’re able to squeeze from that set of seven cardboard rectangles.

But the math!?

Yeah, when you’re dealing with out of control combos and cards triggering off cards, you’re going to have to use your noggin. If going the Gary Gygax route and writing it all down on paper, you can feel like you’re spending more time evaluating your performance than actually performing. So don’t do this. Head to one of the free websites that offer scoring modules; simple and easy and that complaint evaporates like my confidence in front of another human.

One of the real marvels of this release’s internal mathematics are the sheer magnitude of vectors. The longevity of a title like this sits squarely upon its ability to offer exploration within its scoring patterns. Fantasy Realms manages this through an intricate connection of abilities and pathways waiting to be plumbed. Game upon game you’ll find new ways to make something work. There’s much to be explored and it lacks any sense of confinement or restriction.

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Alongside Jump Drive, this is one of the best thoughtful fillers I’ve played. It gets to the feel-good nature of combo building without making you trudge through a two hour headache of dry mechanisms.

And there you have it. Before you started reading this article you thought Fantasy Realms had something to do with Star Realms and by now you’ve probably already rattled off five plays.

Until next week lords and ladies.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Gretchinz.

7th ContinentLords of HellasWarcults – these are all big damn games, some with a volume of hype that’d please the ears of Nigel Tufnel.

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So…Gretchinz?

Yeah, maybe this small box racing game doesn’t quite fit. But I need to expel some thoughts so I’m going to write about it this week. Hopefully you’re going to read about it.

First of all, let’s make this clear: Gretchinz! is not a terrible game. Despite that, this is going to be harsh and maybe hurt a little. The truth is that it’s simply mediocre. It’s one of those titles that helps reinforce our perspective on truly special designs. Thank Gork (or Mork) for perspective.

I’d urge you to buckle up, but you can’t actually die in the world of Gretchinz! so who cares.

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I don’t know much about Devir games but I do know Roberto Fraga and Yohan Lemonnier. This duo brought us the exceptional Captain Sonar, a title that boasted legitimate innovation and emotional highs. I love me some Captain Sonar like I love me a Butterfinger or a Clint Eastwood western. I think you get the idea.

Gretchinz is no Fistful of Dollars. It’s more of a Francis in the Navy. Yeah, look that one up.

This game fails to make any meaningful impression because it’s soft and never commits. It’s stripped so bare that it’s offensively inoffensive. You roll some action dice in real-time, a player yells “WAAAGH!”, and then you take some turns shuffling these 3D carts down the field. Every time it approaches a moment of clever it shies away and doesn’t engage.

Real-time games are great when the novelty is utilized effectively. Here, it all feels relatively pointless as a player can simply end the proceedings a half second into the action. Think about that for a moment – if your first roll is good enough, you can immediately stop everyone from attempting to manipulate their results. This guts the tension because it removes any solid sense of footing from the decision process and deflates agency. Instead of nervously waiting for the sweaty-palmed tumbling of dice to end, we’re often waiting for it start.

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Then we take turns moving. You can only move forward at a diagonal, I suppose because your little brainless gits are drunk. Perhaps I’m projecting here ’cause if they ain’t hitting the bottle you definitely should be.

Oh this game wants to be zany; you can feel it. Attacking applies this Hanabi-inspired system where you choose cards from your hand to function as the result. The catch is of course that you can’t look at the face of the cards you’re holding. So maybe you have a jam and a malfunction alongside three hits. You pluck two from your assortment and both must be successes to nail that green little bastard in the lead. If even a single card is a dud, then you instead take the damage and play moves on.

A couple of design elements interact with this mechanism to try and offer a degree of control. One of the action die results forces another player to tell you how many hits you possess. Additionally, one of the terrain cards you move over allows you to draw a couple of cards and view their faces before stashing them in your grip.

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The problem is that the design duo continually fail to leverage assets. The shooting is very inconsequential as you deal a single token of damage to an opponent. Until they’ve accumulated three it means zilch. Once they’ve hit that number they lose a turn and have to watch everyone else attempt to have fun. This is extraordinarily unfulfilling for both the shooter and the mark.

This design also fails to leverage that excellent 40k setting. Gorkamorka meets Mario Kart is an absurdly promising concept. This game flattens both to their base molecules and plucks the most bland particles of each. It has a 40k veneer but it doesn’t play like anything we’re accustomed to in that regard. We expect crazy abilities and wild Ameritrash chaos. It’s unfathomable to craft a greenskin racing game that’s bland and lacks any sense of narrative juice. This should be a game of vrooms and booms but it never gets there.

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There are moments where Gretchinz! will force a smile. When your dice align and another player is stuck programming a lackluster set of actions. Or when that empty noodle across the table draws a hand of malfuctions. However, this game was not designed in a void. It’s sitting there on my shelf – momentarily – competing with a legion of quality designs. Phoning it in doesn’t cut it. Not if you’re Roberto Fraga and not if you’re Jim the homeless guy turned board game designer.

It attempts to be a light social affair where perhaps the players are expected to dig into the setting and elevate the experience. Yet this never occurs because there’s very little to backup that trash talk or negotiation.

“You better get the hell out of my way or I’m going to shove my cannon up your green sphincter.” – Some poor dude stuck playing this game.

“Fine, I take one damage.” – Some other dude who doesn’t care.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel better. I simply feel empty, like a box called Gretchinz! A box whose only distinction is being the worst release tied to the Games Workshop intellectual property.

waaagh.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Experiencing Narrative

Quit rolling your eyes.

I know a number of you have no interest in the story or setting presented in a tabletop game, and I know a number of you live for those particular qualities. If you’ve been reading my stuff for the past few years or even weeks, you likely know where I fall. It’s no secret that nothin twists my nethers like an unfolding dramatic narrative.

So we’re doing something a little different this week at Player Elimination. I’m almost ready to write about a not-so-little box called The City of Kings, but not quite. Instead I wanted to scratch on something that’s rarely examined – hopefully you’ll indulge me.

Gordon Calleja, designer of Posthuman and Vengeance, recently penned a fantastic article deconstructing narrative. This is good stuff and I’d recommend the read. I’m going to talk about something a little different. I’m going to talk about how I experience story and theme in gaming. Maybe you experience these things differently, which would be fascinating, but we don’t really know because this is a subject whose naked existence hasn’t been broached. I wish I knew why as it’s one of the most important elements of how I interact with the hobby.

For us to proceed we need to be on the same page. Gordon perfectly describes narrative as having “two elements to it: story, or the sequence of events that ‘actually’ happened – and discourse, the structure and means of presenting the story.” Let’s start with narrative.

When I’m playing a game with a strong sense of setting and one that presents a narrative to chew on, I often become blissfully engaged in the proceedings. The mechanical inclinations of the game can range widely, from Battlestar Galactica to something like Twilight Struggle. The experience and emotions encountered will vary and take different forms depending on the game and its particular structure. But there are common ties threaded deep within my brain, common ties which I’m going to attempt to break down.

The primary way I engage those non-physical atoms is through isolated narrative imagery. While the overall story is indeed of significance, my fundamental interaction is in particles of the whole. Many times throughout a game I won’t be putting the entire picture together, but I’ll be mentally framing those die rolls and card flips through the lens of a scene. I’m an untapped director at heart and every turn of every round I’m toiling away with the spirit of Akira Kurosawa and eye of Sam Peckinpah.

This mental cinematography is important because it provides a visceral context to abstract actions. Remove that story attachment and the way in which I experience the game is divorced from the emotional portion of my brain. Instead of focusing inward on feeling I’m focused outward on raw numbers and cold components. The inner-workings are subtle but the expression is extremely important in building gameplay as an experience as opposed to a joyless task.

What’s interesting as well is that it’s not always about specific imagery floating around behind my eyes. Sometimes the mere association of setting elements – whether that’s science fiction, fantasy, or a historical backdrop – can impart emotion in an abstract way. This utilization of genre ties is wrapped up in nostalgia and a thousand different pieces of media, forging subtle and unconscious connections via colorful cardboard and molded plastic. I see a game that nails the atmosphere of a derelict ship on its dying breath and Ridley Scott’s in the shadows poking my heart. Throw down some beautifully painted Spitfires and Me 109s and I’m in that cockpit with Tom Hardy flying to Dunkirk.

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The final narrative product, its consistency, and the strength of its arc are elements that I do not concern myself with in the midst of play. Is this normal? I have no idea. We all speak about these nebulous feel-good qualities and their significance to the table top experience, but we don’t really express just how we experience them. So I have no idea if our adventures run in parallel.

Perhaps surprisingly, that macro level story and its finality are indeed important to me. Their role is in defining my wide-angled view of play once the final die has been tossed and unit has been killed. It’s once we’ve totaled up the victory points and are sitting around in awe and raw excitement that I reflect and place significance on the narrative arc of play. That doesn’t mean this facet is less significant within the overall experience, but it does mean it’s framed in a more analytical light as my mind is racing and the sun has long departed.

Theme is an altogether different beast. By theme, I’m talking about what the design says about a particular subject. This term is often applied to a game’s setting which I believe is detrimental to progressing the maturity of our hobby. It serves a stronger purpose in discourse when we use it to cut to the work’s conclusions and statements about a particular subject.

When a game like The Grizzled conveys a resolute declaration on friendship and brotherhood as a buoy to rise above the terror of war – I get chills. Games can approach a level of art and grace that we often don’t give them credit for. This moves my soul and gets me going in ways you can’t imagine.

Theme is something that I experience as a bridge between specific narrative events (escaping narrowly from an oncoming tank) and the overall story arc of play (escaping the war with our lives still intact). It’s a greater context underpinning those events and functions as the author of the work giving me a huge grin or a vicious punch to the gut, depending on the thematic particulars.

Often, meaningful thematic expression will provide me with a greater sense of attachment. It will offer a new vector to appreciate the game when detached from play. Typically this results in a fervor or excitement to table the design again and experience those momentary narrative slices within a new context of thematic resonance.

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My heart flutters

Isolated narrative events provide momentary joy and can have me digging my nose deeper into a design. The story arc of the entire session provides reflection and context for the resolution. Thematic statements provide a deeper way to engage the design as an emotional and cognitive work of art.

And this is where games ultimately intersect with culture in meaningful ways. There’s a degree of importance and weight to this angle as it has the potential to offer a more fulfilling experience. It leads to discussion and perhaps a greater understanding of the human condition.

So theme over mechanics?

No. Hell no.

One incorrigible argument that often enters this discussion is the binary choice between theme (they mean setting) or mechanisms. This is simply bullshit. I’m involved in the hobby to experience wild settings, unpredictable narratives, and emotionally involved themes, but these need to function as the blood and tissue wrapped around a skeleton of stellar mechanical process. This is primarily why those popular hybrid designs – Blood Rage, Cyclades, Kemet – have achieved fame as they can hack it on both sides of the aisle. This isn’t a bonus or nice surprise, it’s a bare necessity. Fight the good fight and don’t let this nonsensical division stand.

Where does this leave us?

Good question. Do you experience narrative, setting, or theme in a different way? How does it impact your gaming? Why is no one talking about the specifics?

Don’t worry, next week I’ll be back discussing an actual game. And it’s narrative emotional impact of course.

 

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Cave Evil: No Cults

Cave Evil is one of my favorite designs. It’s this completely off-kilter, esoteric head to head skirmish in an underground labyrinth. It’s a bit like Wiz-War if Tom Jolly was a metal-head and had a few screws loose. This is a game where you command a Necromancer, crafting your legion of misshapen ghastly horrors out of gore and shadow. With an outstretched finger, you command them to carry unstable bombs and sentient blades to their assured doom. The map itself is carved away as you dig into the unholy earth and nightmares from the minds of the most depraved are unleashed. It’s surreal and low-fi as it bleeds atmosphere with its shriveled black heart. I adore it.

Cave Evil: Warcults is the sequel. The team behind the release – known as the Emperors of Eternal Evil – held nothing back. This is not Speed 2: Cruise Control or The Matrix Reloaded. Nah, this is more akin to Aliens or The Empire Strikes Back, at least in terms of vision.

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Players control warlords (not necromancers) and head to battle with a preassembled team of all-star death dealers. It feels a little more like a skirmish game, the entrants lined up and ready to charge into the dizzy fray. It’s certainly visceral.

This is why it’s incredibly deflating to realize Warcults is not for me. I’ve had this boxed set for a year, slamming in my pre-order as soon as that mother went live. There’s a reason I’ve never rambled about this captivating beast until this point – for the longest time, I didn’t know how to approach it.

Then I realized, that was my angle.

Warcults is nothing if not intimidating. Its rulebook is bloated with basic and advanced sections, multiple ways to build warbands, a lengthy and engrossing campaign mode, and options upon options of rules to customize your experience. This thing reads more like a sacred text for a diabolical cult as opposed to something as silly and frivolous as a game. Gone is the comparatively simplistic experience of necromancer-on-necromancer bloodshed. Put down the dark beer and furrow your brow because this one requires dedication and hardship.

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As a piece of art, this is one of the most demanding games I’ve had the pleasure to experience. It’s the Advanced Squad Leader of the indie metal board game scene (if that wasn’t a thing before, it is now). It has no qualms stomping the skulls of those faint of heart. I never thought I’d be bested by a Nate Hayden release, a designer who has my complete admiration, and yet it happened.

This game is just too much. Diving into the basic rules is fine, but the complete sandbox nature of layering on the additional sub-systems is rough. There’s not clean delineations on how to ease yourself in and you’ll need to come to a consensus on which set of strictures we’re playing with today. The true potential of the Warcults experience appears to be in running a warband for the long term, accruing experience and pushing your warlords down paths of skill advancement. There’s a very sophisticated system for long term play and it’s leaping off the page and demanding your attention. The sheer possibilities and imagination are fascinating.

Too bad it’s not to be, at least for this pagan.

One of the weaker aspects of this reimagining of Cave Evil is the lack of strong variety. Instead of crafting your minions and brutes through gathered resources, you begin play with an assembled army ready to ride hellfire into the abyss at your whim. As a concept, this is hot shit. It sounds great. We get to skip past the slow buildup and crash our legion of broken bones and bent horns against each other like waves of chaos colliding upon the surface of the dark waters.

It does, in fact, play out that way to some degree. There’s a rush towards the opponent and a massive swell of carnage. Creatures are felled and screams of victory reverberate through the underground.

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The issue is that the sheer joy of that first bloodshed diminishes when you return to the field. The setup is the culprit, as the game offers two options. The best is clearly drafting creatures to assemble your cohort. This will give you a wide range of abilities and the satisfaction in recruiting an army out of the distended limbs of frightful hallucination. The problem is that this is a long process requiring commitment. It undercuts the rapidity of the skirmish and stalls momentum out of the gate.

This works incredibly well when setting up a warband for repeated play. However, when you just want to throw down with a Lava Lancer and a Boarier, things get hairy. Of course, this trio of established designers foresaw this issue. The solution is that you can grab one of the prebuilt warbands utilizing icons on the cards. So you can just rifle through the deck and grab all of them with a matching symbol and away you go.

But damn if that’s not satisfying.

After a play or two, you realize you’re not seeing the full gamut of possibility. The same horde of usual suspects are returning to the fray and the lack of creativity stings like a bitch. That crucial element of Cave Evil, the sheer unpredictability of what you’ll encounter, is just not quite there in Warcults. It feels as if we’re playing a deranged version of Warhammer 40k where we can’t afford to buy any more units so our little club is stuck with the same people fielding the same armies again and again. It’s like Groundhog Day to some extent, except Bill Murray has been replaced with a Gorebortion – yeah, that’s an actual thing.

For all my gloom and criticism, it’s hard to drop the axe on this sequel. Warcults doesn’t owe me a damn thing. The fact that my beloved Cave Evil has turned into a lifestyle game, one I don’t have the time to fully experience, is not something I can hold against it. The promise here is in delivering such a massive, all-encompassing experience that dwarfs its predecessor. In this respect, this design is nothing short of a resounding success.

If you can commit to the heathen life, then the heathen life will commit to you. Those moments of outright insanity persist. You’ll barter with neutral Hellionoids to secure their services on the battlefield. You’ll excavate previously untouched passages and harvest blood. You’ll battle on a cliff edge, your Outcaster mind-controlling the opponent’s Undying Giant off the precipice and into the chasm. It’s fantastic.

Even if I can’t cut it.

 

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.

Hellas Yes – Lords of Hellas in Review

There’s a table out there right now, where little Spartans and Thracians are battling under the shadow of colossal monuments to colossal gods. Achilles is lopping off the head of a three-headed dog stuffed full of cybernetic wires and pistons and also blood. The constructed embodiment of Athena, still and glowing, stares out across the Aegean. Calm the waters are no more.

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Lords of Hellas. Lords of Hellas.

It’s as fun to say as it is to look at. This is one of those $100 Kickstarter games that one side says is only about the minis and the other side says is about something more. I say it’s about something special.

We’ve seen this story before – Greek gods interfering with the lives of those cosmically wee. Yes, here we have robotics, lasers, and a Hellenic version of Skynet, but it’s virtually identical to those who have come before it. This is Cyclades, Runewars, Blood Rage, and a thousand other sons all influencing each other in timeless repetition.

So then, why Lords of Hellas?

This is a Euro/thematic hybrid that is all about flexibility and control. It’s a race of sorts with contestants marching armies, erecting statues, and slaying beasts as they advance down the track. It hits that 90 minute sweet spot that so many of these modern ‘Dudes on a Map’ games comfortably slot into while feeling meaty and satisfying.

Setting this one down next to Rising Sun to compare their warts and dimples is inevitable. With two releases riding the ballyhoo hand-in-hand, they simply must be talked about in relation to one another. Rising Sun also happens to be my projected selection for 2018 game of the year. That may not mean much as the calendar turns to April, but it does mean something.

Eric Lang’s 2018 killer release is all about letting go. It’s an opaque design that has players making seemingly small decisions that ripple outward from a starting point of elegance to an end point of clusterfuck. It’s one that sticks in your craw for a week and has you questioning your life choices in the aftermath. It’s fascinating.

But Lords of Hellas is no chump. This is a game that’s more direct with a higher velocity. The pressure is more succinct and overt due to a stronger clarity. As mentioned previously, it’s a ‘Dudes on a Map’ race game where you hit the pedal and point the nose towards the bullseye.

Within the context of its war-torn isle, Lords of Hellas works so remarkably well due to overtly highlighting player agency. You’re given multiple distinct paths to victory and each is equally compelling and seemingly achievable. It’s about the pursuit of those vectors while trying to dance with your enemies and not stumble.

The two designs contrast heavily and feel extraordinarily different. Rising Sun is all about adapting and flowing with the current. It’s about making the best choices you can while remaining flexible and uncertain of the future. Hellas allows players to set the pace and tone of play themselves. It’s important to understand that flexibility is valued here as well, but you’re in the driver seat and are required to establish tempo.

There’s a forward momentum to this game that players directly throttle. Each turn you move your asymmetric hero and some of your troops, and then perform a special action. The latter consist of erecting holy temples, marching larger groups of warriors, and combating hellacious beasts forged from a special brand of hell and dystopian future. When you choose a special action you block it off and may not repeat the ability until someone elects to build one of the oversized 3D monuments. This causes everyone to reset their boards and transforms a narrowing decision set into a field day once again.

20180105_124026Athena, in progress

That oscillation between tight constriction and chaotic power is tantalizing. It perfectly frames the game’s balance between the sleek Euro personality traits and the drunken free-wheeling Ameritrash features.

What’s especially gripping is the fact that a participant could repeatedly hammer the build monument action and complete the structure in a mere four turns. This will trigger the end game and give the players three more rounds to battle for control of the massive structure’s space. Then that’s it.

Or, you can have a drawn out war of land accrual and temple building as the countryside develops and scars before your very eyes.

This wide-open feel and multitude of nobs to twist is exciting because it allows you to grapple with an element of your destiny and feel as though you’re in control. If Rising Sun is repeatedly getting hit in the face by a Tsunami and then trying to pick up the pieces, Lords of Hellas is digging your heels into the ribs of a bull and directing it into the crowd.

Can we talk about those miniatures for a moment?

When you physically construct something in the real-world that you’re building in the imaginary one it just feels so damn fulfilling. It’s theme reflected to the tactile senses and it’s wonderful. Erecting a huge cybernetic statue with a multi-part miniature is fascinating. It has table presence and it makes your eyes catcall.

“It’s only about the minis.”

My inner-child is punching yours in the face.

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One of the strongest elements of this release is the utilization of asymmetric heroes. They function distinctly from the armies of hoplites in a manner that I can’t help but compare to the classic Runewars. In both games you send your avatars to the far reaches of the map to embark on quests and pursue personal achievement. This is a facet of play that disappointed many in that older FFG release, and for fair reason. In Lords of Hellas those complaints have been addressed and cleaned up quite a bit.

No longer does hero movement and combat feel tacked-on or unnecessary. In addition to a couple of the options directly affecting infantry movement and battle, every player can pursue the large mythological creatures that stomp about the board sowing chaos. Slaying three such monsters qualifies you for victory and each offers incremental rewards such as additional priests or artifacts to aid your cause. The integration and balance within the scope of play is damn near perfect.

Another parallel to Runewars is card-driven battles. Against other player’s infantry you alternate playing cards from your hand that add to total strength. The rub here is that the loser must remove only a single soldier from the area before vacating the region. The bulk of casualties are self-inflicted as a cost to playing those battle cards. Again, this reflects that sense of control imparted to the participants throughout the design.

Combating the monstrous behemoths utilizes the same components but in a different way. Here you refer to a symbol on the top half of the card and inflict wounds on specific slots. These persist even after the hunt has ended, which can be tricky if you wish to avoid someone swooping in and stealing your kill.

These battle cards inject just the right amount of drama while keeping the flow of combat steady. This is a game that lacks significant bouts of downtime and it continually works to keep everyone engaged.

It’s easy to spout excessively about the joys of this design, but there are undoubtedly a few aspects which are potentially off-putting. The main perpetrator is that this game can end unexpectedly fast. You can be amassing armies upon the borders of your enemy and all of the sudden you realize another poor sod abandoned his original plan and decided to rush out a monument.

Much of the strategy can be attempting to slow down opponents who are pursuing objectives which you can counter – such as taking land from an aggressor or trying to move monsters away from thirsty heroes – but there are times when this is simply unattainable. The game doesn’t feel random, but it can feel frustrating when you miss the inception of significant events and only realize the repercussions upon the outcome.

This is a similar issue to that found in Cyclades and Inis. Ultimately it’s one you learn to deal with or at least accept.

One could also tag this game with trying to do too much. While it’s overall comfortably situated on the lighter end of the medium weight category, it has subsystems for quests, two distinct types of combat, separate rules for heroes, and even mid-game drafting of special abilities at irregular intervals. It’s not nearly as clean as something like Cyclades, but it also purports to successfully tackle more simulative elements than its peer. This is a trade-off in abstraction that all games commit to and Lords of Hellas stands its ground.

Beyond that it’s all taste. You may prefer Cthulhu Wars due to the larger degree of asymmetry or Rising Sun due to the emphasis on negotiation, but the individual nuts and bolts of Lords of Hellas are not far off from flawless. That’s a significant amount of praise and there’s no doubt in my aging mind that it’s justified.

I mean, look at those minis.

 

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