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Interview: Nigel Buckle, Designer of Omega Centauri and Imperium

Neil Bunker
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Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in April 2021. —WEM

Nigel Buckle, designer of Omega Centauri, joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss his career in game design and his 2021 dual-box release: Imperium.

Board Game Designer: Nigel Buckle

DM: Hi, Nigel, many thanks for joining us today. You've been a game designer for a number of years. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a designer and about the early years of your career?

NB: I've been playing games for as long as I can remember — and back then there was far less choice, so if a game didn't suit my tastes, I'd come up with "house rules" to change it. Actually designing games grew from that. Of course having an idea for a game is the easy bit; turning it into a playable game others want to play is more challenging, and then actually getting it published is a whole different story.

Board Game: Omega Centauri


DM: Your most well-known game is Omega Centauri, a sci-fi take on civilization building. Can you tell us about that design?

NB: Omega Centauri is my second published design. I've always enjoyed space 4X computer games, but the board game versions were all rather long and often ended at the point you researched all the cool stuff, so I decided to design a space empire game that plays in a shorter time and has a far flatter technology tree so that you can get to use the tech you research. To get the playtime down, a major part of Omega Centauri is deterministic combat; you can work out what the result of a conflict will be before fighting.

Board Game: Imperium: Classics


DM: Your latest games — the twin set of Imperium: Classics and Imperium: Legends — also have a civilization-building theme, this time centered around the civilizations of ancient history and myth. What is it about civilization building as a theme that inspires you?

NB: I have an interest in ancient history — and when I played Dominion back in 2008 I thought the mechanic of actually building a deck as you played was amazing. I was not so gripped by the theme or the rest of the game, though. I decided to try designing my own deck builder and to give it a civilization theme, so making each deck very asymmetric. Of course that is far easier to say than actually do — it's taken over a decade!

DM: Civilization-based games tend to focus upon the civilizations that bordered the Mediterranean Sea (Rome, Carthage, Egypt, for example). Imperium casts its net wider than this to include the civilizations of the Americas and Asia. How did you decide upon which civilizations to include? Were there any that you wanted to include but couldn't?

NB: My original design had four civilizations (Rome vs. Carthage and Greeks vs. Persia), and you played them in pairs as a two-player game. As I developed the game, it turned into a multiplayer game and I added more. To add a civilization, I researched its history, then thought about what mechanics would represent this civilization and at the same time give a new strategic puzzle for the players to solve.

I wanted each civilization to be unique, and moving beyond the Mediterranean Sea is certainly one way to do that. Furthermore there is a timeline in Imperium; the earlier a civilization comes in history, the more likely it will become an empire first in the game, so Egypt is the earliest civilization and thus has the fewest nation cards and most development cards. The Vikings, on the other hand, are the latest and never actually become an empire at all in the game.

The civilizations we've included all fit into the timeline — rise of Egypt around 3000 BCE through to the failed Viking invasion of Britain, 1066 CE — apart from the mythical civilizations, of course. I'm sure we could design more if publisher Osprey Games wanted us to.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: How closely do the play styles of the civilizations in Imperium reflect historical characteristics of the societies depicted?

NB: Obviously there are limitations. Each deck is around 23 cards, which restricts what aspects you can feature. However, we have tried to give each civilization a unique deck and link it to the history of that civilization. For example, with the Olmecs you'll find giant stone heads, step pyramids, stone masks, and cacao all coming together in a deck unlike any other. The Scythians are nomadic, and we've tried to represent that lifestyle in their deck. I think playing these two civilizations will feel very different — and for that reason we recommend players look through their deck before playing as a strategy that works for one civilization may well not work for another.

Board Game: Imperium: Legends

DM: You also include Atlantean and Arthurian legend in the game. What was the reason for extending the scope outside of a purely historical theme?

NB: Atlantis came about because we wanted to offer the players the challenge of a civilization that starts as an empire. This means, in our timeline, this civilization had to come before Egypt! That was a challenge, so we settled on a legendary early empire instead, which certainly offered more creative freedom. After some initial playtesting, it was clear some sort of personal trash pile — the "history" pile, even though Atlantis is not exactly historical — was needed and a twist beyond "start as an empire" was also needed to make them interesting. This was solved by replacing their history with a sunken pile and having the mechanic that Atlantis sinks its regions with some of the cards in its deck.

The development team at Osprey decided to divide the civilizations into two boxes rather than release a large game or remove half of the designed decks. There was some discussion over what split made the most sense, and eventually they settled on Classics and Legends. The problem was, at that point, the only "legend" we had was Atlantis, with a hint of legend with the Minoans and their Labyrinth.

So we set about designing two more mythical civilizations: the Arthurians and the Utopians. Being free of history meant we could push the design further than we had done with Atlantis. For example, the Arthurian deck introduces knights and questing and not wanting to continually cycle your deck. The end of the nation deck for the Arthurians means you are fighting Gwaith Camlan (The Battle of Camlann) and that's far from ideal. When playing the Arthurian deck, you want to complete your quests and find the Graal before that final battle starts.

We pushed this idea of not wanting to cycle your deck even further with the Utopians. When you play this civilization, every time you empty your draw pile you have to add an unrest to your hand — and unrest is bad, a junk card that scores -2 victory points. The Utopians have only a starting deck, so no private market of cards at all. Instead you have two double-sided journey cards representing your journey to the mythical city of Shangri-La. The Utopians are totally different in play style and goals from all the other civilizations in Imperium.

Board Game: Imperium: Classics

DM: Mechanically, Imperium is a deck-building game with both hand management and tableau-building elements. From a design perspective, how did this combination of mechanics evolve into the game we see today? Natural evolution or deliberate early design choice?

NB: My original design of a deck builder included a draft rather than tableau building — but as soon as I tried this out with players beyond my usual playgroup, it was clear the game was too difficult to learn. You had to know what you were doing to draft sensibly so that aspect was dropped and tableau building added.

Tableau destruction (either by opponents or yourself for the powerful fame cards) was added after I'd pitched the game to some publishers and the feedback was that the tableau needed to be more dynamic.

DM: There are sixteen civilizations across Imperium: Legends and Classics, each of which can be played multiplayer and solo. Can you describe the process of developing so many playable factions and modes?

NB: A secret to game design is using spreadsheets for tracking the results of playtests — which cards get played, which cards are ignored, what are the scores — but also for tracking the various decks and what the latest card text is.

I started with four civilizations and they became the baseline; any new civilization was played against the original four initially and adjusted as necessary.

The solo game included in the boxes came later. I had a solo mode for testing as I do not like inflicting prototypes on my playtesters when I know things are not working; I much prefer to think they work and my testers prove me wrong. My solo mode was fairly rudimentary. It worked for testing, but I certainly didn't give the same experience as you get playing against a human opponent.

When Dávid Turczi joined me as co-designer, looking at the solo game was one of his first priorities. David has an approach to solo game design: The game needs to work as a multiplayer game first, then you identify what aspects of your opponents actions matter to you and try to replicate that feeling in a simple-to-manage solo BOT.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

DM: With the design challenges of a multi-factional, card-based game in mind, how did you find the design, developing, and publication process for Imperium as whole?

NB: It has been a very long road. My original concept is rather different to what has been published by Osprey. In the beginning I had no thought about publishing the game; I was designing a deck builder as a challenge to myself and to play with my regular gaming group. It's only after showing the game to others and the positive feedback I received led me to try to get it published.

That proved rather challenging as my initial pitches were unsuccessful, although I did get some helpful feedback. Eventually NSKN (now Board&Dice) signed the game in 2014. They had a full schedule, so it was not due to be published for a few years, which gave me time to make more changes and add more civilizations. They also brought Dávid Turczi on board.

They intended to Kickstart the game in 2018, but unfortunately the project did not get a good start and the campaign was cancelled. They gave the rights back to me and generously included the art they had commissioned for it and also agreed that Dávid could continue to work on the game with me in his own time.

We showed the game to Osprey, and they loved it and the art, so agreed to publish the game and keep the art and, in fact, added a whole lot more.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Evolution of a civilization from prototype to finished design (image: Nigel Buckle)

DM: The civilizations in Imperium are available across two separately available boxes: Classic and Legends. Can you describe the differences between the two boxes and what players should keep in mind if they can purchase only one?

NB: Both boxes are the same game; they share the same rulebook. The differences are the mix of civilizations in each box and the common market cards. The two can be combined at a basic level by just taking civilizations from both and playing them. You can also mix and match the common cards from either box, too, for more variety.

All the civilizations are very different, so picking a box that includes the civilizations that appeal to you is a good start. The civilizations also vary in complexity, and we have included a difficulty rating for each civilization in the rules and the higher difficulty civilizations are definitely harder to play.

The Legends box has more of the complicated civilizations, so players seeking a more challenging game may want to start there. On the other hand, if you are less experienced with deck-building games or want an easier version to teach new players, then Classics is probably a better starting point.

DM: You've clearly had some success in designing an historical game. Do you have any advice for new designers looking to embark on an historically-themed game design?

NB: Research your history first, and have a vision about how you want to represent that history in your game and what role you are expecting the players to take. Then think about mechanics that will best reflect that vision. Otherwise you run the risk of people commenting your theme feels pasted on.

DM: One final question: Can you tell us about any other projects you have in the pipeline?

NB: I have thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration process with Dávid. I am proud of the game we've produced between us, and I think it is better for our joint involvement. We work so well together that we're repeating the process, but nothing is at a point where I can say very much. I'm sure news about the next Turczi/Buckle game will be forthcoming when the publisher is ready to make an announcement. (Editor's note: That collaboration would be Voidfall, which publisher Mindclash Games announced in early May 2021. —WEM)
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Thu May 13, 2021 2:00 pm
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Games for Groups: Become a Ghost Writer, Catch a Wolf, and Act Like a Mean Girl

W. Eric Martin
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Maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but with COVID-19 vaccinations being more plentiful as the weeks pass, I thought I'd highlight a few new games for larger groups of players in case you're ready to gather with others once again.

• We'll start with the team game Ghost Writer from Mary Flanagan, Max Seidman, and Resonym, a design for 4-8 players that features Password-style gameplay with each team trying to guess the same secret word. Ghost Writer was Kickstarted in early April 2021 ahead of a Q4 2021 release date. Here's how it works:
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Renowned mediums are competing to figure out a secret object and prove they can connect with the "World Beyond". The first team to figure out the secret object wins!

Board Game: Ghost Writer

To set up Ghost Writer, divide players so that the Sun team and the Moon team each have one Spirit and up to three Mediums. The mediums on a team share a hand of seven question cards, and the spirits begin the game by choosing one of the five objects on a card as the secret object. On a turn, the mediums pass two question cards to their spirit, with sample questions like "What color is it most commonly?", "What fictional character has it or uses it?", and "If it were a musical instrument, what would it be?"

The spirit discards one question card face up, then returns the question card it's going to answer to their mediums, then slowly writes the answer one letter at a time for all to see. As soon as the mediums think they know what this clue word is, they yell "Silencio", and the spirit stops writing. The other team of mediums might see only the letter "Y", but if you know the question is "What color is it?", then you know the clue must be "yellow". To end your turn, draw two new question cards.

On a turn, instead of handing over question cards, you can attempt to guess the answer — and to do so you write like the spirits, one letter at a time. If you write an incorrect letter, the spirits will stop you, marking out your error, with your partial guess giving the other team more information. If you guess the entire word correctly, you win!
Board Game: Last Message
Last Message, a Q3 2021 release from designers Juhwa Lee and Giung Kim and publisher IELLO, features something of the opposite spirit of the previous title, with one player trying to deliver a secret message to almost everyone else, while another player tries to thwart this communication.

Here's an overview of this 3-8 player game, which is explained even more succinctly on the back of the box:
Quote:
A crime was just committed! The victim is unable to speak — but they can draw, and in doing so they will ideally help the inspectors guess who in the vast crowd is the criminal! This shifty character will do anything and everything to cover their tracks, though, so will you be able to stop them before the last message?

Board Game: Last Message

In Last Message, the victim of the crime gives clues over four rounds to help the detectives determine the identity of the criminal. To give clues in a round, the victim has 30 seconds in which to draw and write in a 3x3 grid — but before handing over these clues, the criminal can erase part of these drawings.

If the criminal is not identified by the end of the fourth round, they win the game; otherwise, the detectives and the victim win.
Board Game: Uly & Polly
• Another title that features the same spirit of one vs. all as the previous game — although round by round rather than throughout the entire game — is Uly & Polly from designer Roberto Fraga and publisher Blue Orange Games. Unlike Dr. Eureka and other titles this designer/publisher team has released in recent years, this is not a real-time game.

Here's how this tiny 2-5 player game that debuted in early April 2021 works:
Quote:
Uly & Polly is a semi-cooperative game in which each round one player competes against all others. This one player is Uly, the mischievous little wolf who likes to hide in the flock of sheep. Everyone else works together as Polly the sheepdog to find the little wolf's hiding place.

To set up for the round, lay out the sixteen sheep tiles. While all other players close their eyes, Uly then swaps the wolf token for one of the sheep. The Polly players then place the sheepdog token on a tile and reveal it. If they already found Uly, they win the round, but if not the Uly player chooses two tiles adjacent either orthogonally or diagonally (whether Uly is on one of those tiles or not) and swaps them. Polly then moves to any adjacent tile and reveals it.

Board Game: Uly & Polly

If Uly is still in hiding after eight tiles have been revealed, the Uly player wins the round and receives reward tokens; otherwise the Polly players receive rewards. After each player has been Uly once, whoever has the most rewards wins!
• For non-stop meanness instead of single-round meanness, I'll direct you to Mean Girls: The Party Game, due out on June 1, 2021 from designer James Vaughn and publisher Big Potato and designed to let you unleash your inner Regina:
Quote:
Get ready for a party game that's fresher than peppermint foot cream and filled with more secrets than Gretchen Weiner's hair.

Gather your friends, tear a page of the Burn Book, and pass it around as you take turns answering scandalous questions about each other. Oh, and the best part? It's all totally anonymous.

Board Game: Mean Girls: The Party Game

Well, most of the time it is anyway. At the end of the round, each player gets to pick an answer that they'd like to reveal. If you wrote it, you have to come clean in front of everyone — so maybe don't write anything that's too mean.
• We'll close with another June 1, 2021 release from Big Potato, this one being co-designed by Vaughn and Phil Walker-Harding with both games being playable by 4-8 people. Here's an overview of Snakesss, the cover of which can also be used as a torture device:
Quote:
The group has a multiple-choice question and only two minutes to work it out. The snakes amongst you already know the right answer — and they'll stop at nothing to keep you away from it.

In Snakesss, you deal out the cards and try to answer a multiple-choice question with the rest of the players. The more people who get it right, the more points you cash in — unless, of course, you get one of the snake cards. All the snakes already know the answer, so their job is a bit simpler. To score points, they have to sabotage the discussion and mislead the other players.
Board Game: Snakesss
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Wed May 12, 2021 1:00 pm
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Transform Your Deck of Cards to Fight Decepticons, and Solve Mysteries with Friends

W. Eric Martin
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• In October 2020, U.S. publisher Renegade Game Studios announced an expanded partnership with licensor Hasbro to create role-playing and deck-building games based on the G.I. Joe, Transformers, and My Little Pony brands, and the first of those titles has now been announced.

The straightforwardly named Transformers Deck-Building Game is designed by Dan Blanchett and Matt Hyra, co-designers of the similarly named Power Rangers: Deck-Building Game that's due out from Renegade in May 2021. I asked whether these two titles could be combined, and a Renegade rep said that they could not, which Blanchett has confirmed in a comment on this post.

As for what this game is, here's what we know right now:
Quote:
Transform and roll out!

The Autobots are brave robot warriors hailing from the planet Cybertron. Their mission? To stop the Decepticons from enacting their evil schemes on Earth.

Board Game: Transformers Deck-Building Game

In Transformers Deck-Building Game, you take on the role of one of the mighty Autobots. Travel and explore the Matrix and transform between your different modes as you gain allies, find relics, and acquire technology to do battle with the Decepticons. But be warned! As your deck grows, more powerful Decepticons will rise up to challenge you.

Transformers Deck-Building Game can be played competitively or as a co-operative experience. This core set will begin your collection with everything needed to play, but the battle is far from over as playable Decepticons are on the way to expand your game.
• Two other titles recently announced by Renegade are Crime & Capers: Lady Leona's Last Wishes and Crimes & Capers: High School Hijinks. These two co-operative games, both designed by Juliana Moreno Patel and Ariel Rubin, are a blending of the classic murder mystery game genre with modern escape room games, and they're made to be "event" games similar to those designs, with the 4-6 players dressing up for the experience if they desire, although that's not required — unless the host of your event makes it a requirement!

Here's the short description of each title, both of which are due out in Q3 2021:
Quote:
It's 1919 at the Langford Estate. Lady Leona has died and absolutely no one is sad about it. She was forever threatening to write people out of her will. Now that she is finally gone, her closest family and favored servants have gathered for the reading of her will — but Leona always loved two things: puzzles and making life difficult.

Board Game: Crimes & Capers: Lady Leona's Last Wishes

Crimes & Capers: Lady Leona's Last Wishes is a co-operative game in which you and a group of friends take on the roles of polished high society folks and hard-working servants who need to collaborate to solve the mystery and find Leona's treasure. No special skills or prior knowledge are required. Read the notes, figure out puzzles, and unlock the answers to find out where Leona hid her fortune!
Quote:
Welcome to 1998, when Romi's been framed! As the senior leaders of Blair High School, you have gathered the passed notes from today to see whether you can figure out who framed Romi. If you don't figure it out, she will be expelled!

Board Game: Crimes & Capers: High School Hijinks

Crimes & Capers: High School Hijinks is a co-operative game in which you and a group of friends take on the roles of 1990s high-school students and work together to solve the mystery. No special skills or prior knowledge are required. Read notes and solve puzzles to unlock Romi's locker, then figure out who framed her!
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Tue May 11, 2021 8:00 pm
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Gain Prestige for Your Champagne in Dom Pierre, and Unite Ireland Through Might, Cunning, and Matrimony

W. Eric Martin
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Yinzi designers Rôla and Costa are the creative minds behind the debut title from new publisher Pile Up Games, with the 2-4 player game Dom Pierre set to debut in Q4 2021 in a limited edition of 1,000 copies.

Here's an overview of the game, which features a gamified take on the production of champagne to give folks a change of pace from all the wine-production games already on the market:
Quote:
At the end of the 17th century, a French Benedictine monk in charge of the cellar at Hautvillers Abbey made an important contribution to differentiate wines from that region. As a result, it became possible to produce wines of superior quality, particularly in white wines made from black grape varieties. While Dom Pierre Pérignon initially felt the sparkling of the wine was a negative feature, the consequent increase in both quality and quantity created the path that lead to the appreciation and recognition of champagne.

Board Game: Dom Pierre

Throughout the 18th century, several "champagne houses" — or Champagne Maisons — were founded, and a new business dynamic grew in the region. These houses replaced small farm and monastery production in leading the evolutionary process of champagne, and by planting more vineyards or buying grapes from other producers or both, they mastered the specialization. To promote their product, the houses hired sales agents to take samples of their champagne wines to the Royal Courts of Europe, a crucial factor in generating the glamorous fashion of drinking champagne.

Despite production growth, improved quality, and increasing popularity, trade did not reach spectacular rates during the 19th century — which is why the game Dom Pierre is much more about winning prestige than earning money. In the game, you are responsible for one of the oldest Champagne Maisons, producing and selling wine all over Europe, not to mention the other side of the Atlantic. The local economy will be boosted, employment increased, and your brand will become universally recognized.

To make all this happen will require a chain of actions that starts in your vineyard. You will need to look for continuous improvement, constantly react to your opponents, and optimize your choices to build the most prestigious Champagne Maison. In game terms, on a turn you move up a disc on the winery game board and perform an action, with the actions become more powerful as the game progresses. You will plant in the vineyards, harvest crops, buy grapes from neighbors, make wines in your cellar (some more valuable than others), allocate salespeople on four market routes and workers in the vineyard and cellar, and acquire the necessary accessories to improve production.
• UK publisher Osprey Games has announced a new title from Peer Sylvester, designer of the previous Osprey releases The Lost Expedition, The King Is Dead, Village Green, and Let Them Eat Cake.

The new title is Brian Boru: High King of Ireland, a 3-5 player game due out in October 2021 that has a trick-taking element combined with game board elements that bring the design to a 60-90 minute playing time. Here's what Osprey has revealed about the game to date:
Quote:
In Brian Boru: High King of Ireland, you strive to unite Ireland under your domain, securing control through might, cunning, and matrimony. Join forces to fend off Viking invaders, build monasteries to extend your influence, and gather support in towns and villages throughout the land. To become High King of all Ireland, you need to navigate a web of shifting alliances, outmaneuver your enemies, and grab history by the reins.

Board Game: Brian Boru: High King of Ireland

The success of the historical Brian Boru rested on three pillars: his victories against the Vikings, the favor he managed to garner with the Church, and the alliances he forged through political marriages. This became the foundation of the game, with each pillar becoming a suit in the trick-taking that forms the core of the mechanisms. Win a trick and you gain influence in a town, which, in turn, gains you majorities in the regions; if you lose the trick, however (deliberately or otherwise), you instead take an action corresponding to the suit of the card.
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Tue May 11, 2021 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: Furnace, or Burning the Midgame Oil

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Furnace
Ivan Lashin's Furnace is a straightforward game: Acquire cards that allow you to gain coal, iron, and oil, then process them from one material into another or (ideally) from the raw material into money. Build up an extracting and processing engine over four rounds, then see who has the most money.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Lots of iron with no way to use it...

The information on the cards is straightforward, with you "reading" them from top to bottom, left to right. In the image above, acquire an upgrade token, optionally sell oil for 4 money, optionally spend an upgrade token and coal to upgrade (i.e., flip over) a card in play, optionally sell two coal for 2 money up to two times, acquire two iron, etc.

How do you gain these cards? The first half of each round is an auction in which players take turns placing one of their four bidding tokens — conveniently numbered 1-4 — on one of the available cards, with you being able to bid on a card at most once and with players being unable to place the same number on a card as someone else.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Shadows obscure the black 2 and 4 tokens on cards 3 and 7

If you place the highest number on a card, you acquire it and can use it once during each of the subsequent production phases; if you bid on a card but didn't acquire it, you use the compensation effect at the top of the card as many times as you bid, so (reading from the top line, left to right) the red player receives one iron, the yellow player two coal, the black player two coal, and finally the red player can convert iron to oil twice while the yellow player can do that up to three times. Cards are placed in order for the auction, so the red player can use the iron acquired on card #2 for the processing on card #7.

The auction in Furnace is brilliantly minimalistic, with each bid mattering and with you having advantages no matter your position in turn order. You can lock in a card as yours by placing your 4 on it — but then the next player knows they can place their 3 on it to get the compensation three times, and late in the game compensation (usually) trumps acquisition since you'll produce with that card only once. That said, if you don't place the 4, someone else might grab the card, which could be the only oil-processing card available that round, so maybe you have to give to get...

You're checking out each person's engine and resources on hand to guess what they want and how they're going to bid and how you can take advantage of that — assuming they do what you'd do if you were them. Sometimes the cards on display force you in a particular direction; if only one processing power for money turns up, then you need to pump out the raw materials to prepare for the next round, ideally shifting up the raw material scale to oil, which returns the most money per unit.

Notice in the image above that the bottom line on each card is grayed out. When cards are placed in auction, you have the compensation effect listed at the top and the basic effect immediately below the image. The greyed-out line shows what you'll get if you upgrade the card, and the image at top shows upgraded cards.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The end state of a two-player game

Your goal in Furnace is money, so don't think you win by acquiring cards, which is evident in the image above as my opponent added only five cards to his production chain compared to my eleven and his score was one-third larger than mine. (With two players, you use a die to simulate the bids of a dummy third player — a system that works far better than I thought it would. I have an extra 2 bidding token thanks to my unique capitalist power, whereas my opponent can spend coal to produce twice with one of his cards.)

Furnace is all about efficiency, with you not wanting to leave any resources behind where they will count for nothing more than a tie-breaker — and in the second half of each round, you can re-arrange your cards as you wish to co-ordinate the inputs and maximize the outputs. As such, this production phase is the mirror image of the auction phase: no interaction, just head's down calculation to see which arrangement of cards produces the best results. Note in the image above how we've arranged the raw materials above each card to figure out exactly what goes where. You might even forget that others are at the same table...

For more on the capitalist powers, the two-player variant, the dichotomy between the two halves of a round, and the variant that somewhat lessens that dichotomy, check out my video overview of Furnace, which has been released in Russia by original publisher Hobby World and which has been licensed by multiple publishers around the world, with a U.S. release from Arcane Wonders coming in Q2/Q3 2021.

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Mon May 10, 2021 4:53 pm
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300: Earth & Water — Tense, Fun, Card-Driven Wargame Goodness for All

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In April 2021, I posted an overview and my initial impressions of The Shores of Tripoli, a 1-2 player entry-level, card-driven wargame on the First Barbary War from designer Kevin Bertram and publisher Fort Circle Games. I recently had the pleasure of checking out 300: Earth & Water, yet another fun, light-weight, quick-playing card-driven wargame for two players. This time, instead of pirate naval battles in the early 19th century, we jump further back in time to 449 BCE for a taste of the Greco-Persian Wars.

From gallery of candidrum

Board Game Publisher: Nuts! Publishing
In 2018, a Japanese edition of 300: Greco-Persian Wars was released from designer Yasushi Nakaguro under his self-published brand Bonsai Games. In 2021, Nuts! Publishing, who kindly provided me a review copy, is releasing French and English editions opf the design with the updated title 300: Earth & Water, which is currently available for retail pre-order, targeted for release in May 2021. In addition, German and Italian editions are coming from publishers Schwerkraft-Verlag and Ergo Ludo Editions, respectively.

In 300: Earth & Water, two players duke it out in a strategic, area-control battle in the Greco-Persian Wars, which lasted fifty years from the Ionian Revolt in 499 BCE to the Peace of Callias around 449 BCE. One player represents the Greeks (red) gathered around the Athenians, and the other controls the Persians, fighting for the hegemony of the eastern Mediterranean. Regardless of which side you play, your goal is to control more cities than your opponents.

Set-up for 300: Earth & Water is quick and simple. You place a few wooden cubes (armies) and discs (fleets) on the game board for both the Persian (blue) and Greek (red) armies, shuffle the deck of 16 event cards, and place black markers on the campaign and score tracks and then you're ready to go.

From gallery of candidrum
Game set-up

The game board is a map showing Greece and a portion of Asia Minor at the time of the Greco-Persian Wars. On the map, you'll find cities connected by roads, with some cities having ports represented by a circle with wavy lines. Each city has amphorae icons to represent the number of armies you can feed if you control the city. The Greeks and the Persians each have two major cities: Athenai and Sparta for the Greeks, and Ephesos and Abydos for the Persians.

During the fifty years of the Greco-Persian Wars, Persia launched three campaigns against Greece, but in 300: Earth & Water, the Persians can launch up to five campaigns during a game. The game ends if a player achieves an automatic victory or when five campaigns have been completed.

Each campaign is split into four phases:

---(1) Preparation: Acquire cards, and deploy armies and fleets.
---(2) Operation: Play cards to trigger events, move, and battle each other.
---(3) Supply: Supply armies and discard down to your card carryover limit.
---(4) Scoring: Count the number of cities you control to determine which player scores for the campaign.

Once the scoring phase is complete, the campaign ends and the next one begins unless you've finished the fifth (final) campaign.

From gallery of candidrum
"Sudden Death of the Great King" card
During the Preparation phase, each player gets the opportunity to spend talents, the game's currency, to acquire cards, and deploy armies and fleets from their reserve onto the game board. The Persian player can spend up to 12 talents each campaign, or 10 talents if they have a card from the previous campaign in hand, whereas the Greek player has only 6 talents to spend each campaign, but can hold on to up to four cards from the previous campaign.

Starting with the Persian player, first you choose how many cards you want to purchase, then draw your cards from the deck, and read the effects to see whether the campaign is terminated by the sudden death of the Persian King via the Persian event card "Sudden Death of the Great King". When this happens, the Persian player shuffles all the cards in their hand with the discard pile to form a new draw pile, then launches a new campaign.

Assuming the Persian King doesn't unexpectedly die, the Persian player will continue their Preparation phase by purchasing and placing armies and fleets out on the map in areas they control. Cards and armies cost 1 talent each, but fleets cost 2 talents for the Persians The Persian player can also alternatively spend 6 talents to build the pontoon bridge across the Hellespont to connect the road between Abydos and Pella for improving their land movement options.

From gallery of candidrum
The "Sudden Death of the Great King" card can be triggered by the Persian player only two times per game, using a cube on the game board to track this. First, Darius dies suddenly of illness, then Xerxes is assassinated. This event triggering adds an interesting element to the game as it can push the game along by reducing the number of campaigns you play. Sometimes it'll be exactly what you want if you're in the lead, but when you're not, it can be undesirable. Regardless, I found it to be very interesting as it added a bit of welcome suspense to the Preparation phase.

After the Persian player finishes preparing, the Greek player follows in a similar fashion, first deciding how many cards they want to purchase, drawing cards, then purchasing and placing armies and fleets. Not only does the Greek player have fewer talents to spend each Preparation phase, but they also start the game with only 6 armies and 3 fleets in their reserve compared to the Persians having 20 armies and 5 fleets in their reserve. This can appear a tad daunting for the Greek player, but the Greeks have a better starting position on the map and are better at combat to balance things out.

There are no limits to the number of armies players can place each Preparation phase, but both players can acquire only a max of six cards and two fleets per campaign. After the Greek player prepares, it's time to jump into the Operation phase.

The Operation phase is where most of the action unfolds in 300: Earth & Water. Players alternate taking turns to move their armies and fleets, attack opponent armies and fleets, and capture enemy cities. Starting with the Persian player, you can either play a card to trigger the event, discard a card for movement, or you can pass. If you're out of cards, you have to pass. The Operation phase ends once both players pass successively.

Each card has an event for the Greek player on the top, and an event for the Persian player on the bottom. When you play a card for an event, you simply follow the instructions on the card for your particular faction. Then you discard the card face up on the discard pile. Here are a few examples of the event cards:

From gallery of candidrum

From gallery of candidrum

From gallery of candidrum

While there are only 16 cards in the deck, it is a shared deck and each game can play out very differently depending on which combination of cards each player has on a given campaign/round. When you're budgeting in the Preparation phase, you have to decide how many cards to buy versus spending talents to build up your forces on the board. As great as it is to have a lot of cards from which to choose, is it worth the sacrifice of having fewer units on the board, leaving yourself vulnerable to attacks and poorly positioned for capturing cities? Alternatively, there are advantages and disadvantages to placing a ton of armies on the board, and buying fewer cards considering you can't take any actions when you run out of cards. This is all to say that there can be a surprisingly, impressive amount of variation of gameplay with this slim 16-card deck since the number of cards you draw and play each round will not always be the same.

If you don't want to or can't play an event on one of your cards, you can discard a card for land or naval movement. For land movement, choose a city occupied by your armies and move one or more of those armies along a road to a different city. You can move as far as you'd like, but your armies must stop when they enter a city that does not contain any armies (from either side) or when they enter a city occupied by an enemy army. If the city is occupied by an enemy army, you immediately engage in a land battle.

From gallery of candidrum
The Persian forces coming to fight in the port of Athenai...
Land battles are played over multiple rounds until there is a winner. First players roll dice, one per army up to a max of three dice no matter the number of armies. The winner of the round is the player who rolled the highest single die. A roll of 4 or higher counts as a 4 for the Persian player since the Persians' combat skills are inferior to the heavily-armed Greeks. However if the battle is in one of the Persian major cities (Ephesus or Abydos), any die roll of 5 or more is a 5 since the Persians fought better in Asia than elsewhere.

Once you determine the winner of the round, the loser removes one army, returning it to their reserve where it can be deployed again during the next campaign. If the players tie, meaning their highest dice are the same, both players remove an army. At this point, if there are remaining armies from both sides, players have the option to retreat, starting with the attacker. If not, you start another round of battle until only one side's armies are present in the city.

You can also discard a card to move fleets from one port to another, which can initiate naval combat in a similar way to land movement initiating land combat. When moving fleets, if your armies are in a port city, each fleet there can carry one army up to a maximum of three armies. If enemy fleets are in the destination port, naval combat ensues. Once naval combat is resolved (the same way as land combat), if the attacker wins and is transporting armies, the armies are placed in the corresponding city. If any enemy armies occupy the city, you immediately resolve land combat.

Players alternate turns, playing cards as events, discarding cards to move and attack with armies and fleets, and passing. Once both players have passed consecutively, the Supply phase begins starting with the Persians. who discard any remaining cards, optionally holding onto one card to start the next campaign. If they do, they'll be limited to 10 talents to spend in the next campaign Preparation phase instead of the usual 12.

Next you check for military attrition for the Persian armies by comparing the amount of amphorae (food) in the cities under Persian control (not including the major cities) to the number of Persian armies on the map. If the amount of armies exceeds the amount of amphorae, excess armies are removed. Each city on the map has 1-3 amphorae (food) icons.

As the final step in the Supply phase, you check your lines of communication. Your armies must have a line of communication with one of your major cities. If a city containing your armies doesn't have a line of communication, those armies are removed unless its port has at least one of your fleets since it's considered to have maritime supply. After the Persians supply, the Greeks do the same, except they can hold up to four cards in hand to start the next campaign. After the Greeks supply, players proceed to the Scoring phase.

In the Scoring phase, both players count the points from cities they control to determine their score the current campaign. Each controlled city gives you 1 point, or 2 points if it's a major city. Take the difference of both players' scores and advance the scoring marker that many spaces in favor of the side that scored the most points. If either side has lost control of both their major cities — meaning your opponent controls them — the game immediately ends. Otherwise, advance the campaign marker to start the next campaign.

In the example below, the Greek player controls three cities, plus two major cities for a total of 7 points. The Persian player controls four cities, plus two major cities for a total of 8 points. Since the difference is 1 point in favor of the Persians, the score marker advances 1 space toward the Persian side.

From gallery of candidrum

The game ends at the end of the fifth campaign — and the player with the scoring advantage wins — or if either player achieves an automatic victory by having control of both of their opponent's major cities during a scoring phase.

300: Earth & Water surprised me quite a bit. It sounded cool when I read the high-level description of it, and considering I love CDGs, I suspected it would be right up my alley — but I wasn't expecting to have so many fun and tense "Ohhhhhh!" moments, and outbursts of laughter from enjoying it so much.

It's light enough that you can teach it to just about anyone, gamers and non-gamers alike. Plus, it's fast and easy to set up and quick to play, with games lasting only about 30-45 minutes. It's one that's really great to play back-to-back games switching sides to mix it up. Don't let the lightness fool you though, there's plenty of strategic options packed in this relatively small box.

From gallery of candidrum
Pontoon bridge connecting Abydos to Pella
Off the bat, you have interesting, tough decisions to make when it comes to the Preparation phase. You have to commit to the number of cards you want to buy before you actually get to draw them and see what they do. Then you have to decide which units to place on the board and where to place them, all while trying not to show your opponent exactly what your intentions are — and if you're the Persian player, you have to decide if and when it's best to blow half your talent budget to build the pontoon bridge, which will lead to better land movement options and lines of communication to your major cities...but think of all the armies, fleets, and cards you could get if you hold off on building the bridge.

With roads and ports, armies and fleets, there are tons of different ways you can approach trying to outwit your opponent and control cities when the Operation phase kicks off. Then you have you think about the different ways you can move your units around the board, plus having the Supply phase before Scoring gives you some options for trying to cut off your opponent's lines of communication so they have to remove armies before the Scoring phase.

When I first cracked open the rulebook, I thought, wow, that's a lot of words for a light game that plays in 30-40 minutes, but when I finished reading it, I found it to be thorough and clear overall. I appreciate that they included explanations of each event card in the game so you can learn the historical context behind the mechanisms, which gives it a more thematic feel when you play. Also, the back of the rulebook has additional info on the Greco-Persian wars, a book recommendation for learning more about these wars, plus cooking and music recommendations as well. I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've seen cooking and music recommendations in a board game rulebook, but I thought it was awesome since I love thematic music when playing games, and connecting thematic food is an added bonus.

The variety of events on the cards is great, too, and works well for keeping things interesting with only 16 cards. The leader events are juicy, but you have to sacrifice army cubes to play them, so there are interesting trade-offs to consider. Not to mention the fact that you'll usually want to play all the cards for the events, but if you do, you won't get as far positioning your units on the board, so it's often hard to choose between which cards to discard for movement versus which to use for the events.

I liked the effects of the Twilight Struggle scoring system, pushing the marker in the campaign winner's direction based on the difference in the area control/city scoring. It feels more tense each round having the scoring marker move only one way versus a scoring system in which both players gain points for their controlled cities every round.

From gallery of candidrum

Lastly, I enjoyed how 300: Earth & Water can be suspenseful at times. In one of my games, my friend Richard was ahead by 1 point as the Persians. During the Preparation phase of the fourth campaign, he opted to purchase and draw his maximum six cards to increase the odds of having the sudden death of a Persian King event trigger. He ended up drawing that event, so his entire hand was shuffled with the discard and draw piles to form a new draw pile. He kicked off the fifth campaign pulling the same stunt, drawing 6 cards. He got lucky and drew the "Sudden Death of the Great King" card again which immediately ended the campaign, and in that case, immediately ended the game with him winning! I won't go so easy on him next time.

If you're looking for a fun, entry-level, card-driven wargame or are interested in the Greco-Persian Wars, I recommend checking out 300: Earth & Water, especially now that it's more widely available. I'm certainly looking forward to playing it more!
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Sat May 8, 2021 6:24 pm
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Assemble the Right Collection of Gold and Paintings in Art Decko

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Art Decko
At SPIEL '18, BGG recorded a preview video with designer Ta-Te Wu of his forthcoming game Promenade.

Wu attempted to Kickstart the game in May 2019 (KS link) through his Sunrise Tornado Game Studio brand, but didn't reach the target, so he then relaunched the game (KS link) as a limited edition item that would essentially be made solely for backers instead of the market at large. Promenade received good ratings for those who were able to play it, but the game was unavailable to most who were interested in it.

Now in a story reminiscent of the early 2000s, a larger publisher has picked up this limited edition item for wider release, with Rio Grande Games planning to publish the retitled game Art Decko in Q4 2021. While the original game featured only impressionistic paintings from Wu himself, the re-release features artwork in five styles, each created by a different artist:

Lauren Brown — Art Nouveau
Alex Eckman-Lawn — Surrealism
Kwanchai Moriya — Impressionism
Alison Parks — Renaissance
Heather Vaughan — Pop Art

Brigette Indelicato handled the graphic design for this new edition. As for the gameplay, the rules remain the same as in the original release of Promenade. Here's how it works:
Quote:
Art Decko is a light strategy game for 2 to 4 painting collectors in which you try to create a valuable deck of gold and painting cards over the course of play. These cards — gold and paintings — both count as currencies in the game, and you can use them to purchase more paintings, acquire more gold, and pay for exhibition space in a museum. Your long-term goal is to manipulate the market value of certain styles of artwork, while also earning points by placing paintings in the museum.

Board Game: Art Decko
Cover of the Rio Grande edition

The game includes paintings from five styles of art, and you start with five random painting cards in your deck. Each art style starts with a value of 1 gold for a painting. You also have five starting gold cards in your deck, with the cards being worth 1 or 2 gold, with some cards having a special ability on them.

To start the game, shuffle your deck, then take five cards in hand. Fill the four galleries with 2-3 random paintings each, then place two random 3-gold cards (each with a special power) in the bank, along with the deck of 5-gold cards. Paintings in galleries cost 1-8 gold, while gold cards cost 5 or 8 gold. On a turn, take two actions from these three choices, repeating an action, if desired:

Haggle: Discard a card from your hand to draw two cards from your deck.
Acquire: Pay the acquisition cost of a painting or gold card by discarding cards from your hand, then place that card in your discard pile. Increase the "market rating" of the painting's art style or gold by the value listed in the gallery/bank. As the market rating of an art style increases, each painting in that style is worth more gold, effectively increasing its buying power; that art style is also worth more points at game's end.
Exhibit: Pay the exhibition cost for a gallery, then place a painting into that gallery that matches one of that gallery's invitation markers. (A gallery might want, for example, 2 Impressionistic paintings, 1 Renaissance painting, and 1 painting of any type.) Mark that painting with one of your ownership tokens, then place the related invitation marker on the highest available victory point (VP) space, scoring those points for yourself immediately. That painting is now removed from your deck.

If you use the special ability on a gold card instead of its listed numerical value, remove that card from the game.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
More art from the cover of the rulebook

At the end of your turn, discard any number of cards from your hand, then refill your hand to five cards. If a gallery has no paintings in it, refill all of the galleries with 2-3 paintings, then replace each empty gallery's cost token with the next highest one available. When at least twelve paintings are in the museum, the painting deck is empty, or an art style or gold reaches a market rating of 70, finish the round, then proceed to final scoring.

The value of gold depends on its market rating, with its value ratio ranging from 6:1 to 1:1. Each painting in your deck is worth 1-7 VPs depending on the market rating of its art style. Each exhibition space in the museum also has a random bonus that was revealed at the start of play, and you can earn additional points through these bonuses. In the end, the player with most VPs wins.
And in case you're curious, here is Wu's original explanation of the game from SPIEL '18:

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Thu May 6, 2021 6:27 pm
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Buckle, Turczi, and Mindclash Invite You to Prevent Voidfall in 2022

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game Publisher: Mindclash Games
Hungarian publisher Mindclash Games aims large with its releases, both in the worlds that it creates and the games themselves, and it will continue that tradition with the 2022 release Voidfall from designers Nigel Buckle and Dávid Turczi.

Here's an overview of the setting and gameplay, with Voidfall taking 1-3 hours to play, with Ian O'Toole providing the art and graphic design, and with the game hitting Kickstarter in 2021:
Quote:
For centuries, the Novarchs, descendants of the royal House of Novarchon, have ruled with an iron fist over the feudalistic galactic empire of humankind, the Domineum. During this time, they brought stunning technological innovation and scientific advancements to their domain. This accelerated progression helped the Domineum reach — and eventually inhabit — even the farthest segments of the known galaxy, where new Houses emerged to govern the outer sectors of the empire. As the House of Novarchon grew in power, so grew the religious cult that surrounded them, proclaiming grim prophecies about an ancient cosmic being from another dimension: the Voidborn.

Many thought it to be only a myth, but in truth, it was the Voidborn's dark influence that granted the Novarchs the sheer knowledge to achieve rapid expansion for the empire. While the cult of the Novarchs envisaged eternal life through the otherworldly entity, the Voidborn's only intention was satiating its eternal hunger. And so, when the Domineum had achieved a vastness fitting the Voidborn's craving, interdimensional rifts opened at the heart of the Domineum to unleash cosmic corruption. As the House of Novarchon and its followers welcomed the Voidborn and sought their false salvation, the entity infected and spread and seized control over the inner worlds. Now, it is time for the remaining Great Houses to purge the galactic corruption, prevent the Voidborn from fully manifesting in our dimension, and to ultimately overcome the chaos as the new rulers of the Domineum.

Board Game: Voidfall

Voidfall is a space 4X game that brings the genre to Euro enthusiasts' tables. It combines the tension, player interaction, and deep empire customization of the 4X genre with the resource management, tight decisions, and minimum-luck gameplay of an economic Euro. Win by pushing back the Voidborn in the ''solo/coop mode'', or by overcoming your rivals' influence in restoring the Domineum in the ''competitive mode'' — both using the same rule set and game system. Variability is ensured not only by multiple playable houses with their own strengths and weaknesses, but also by many different map set-ups for all game modes.

As the leader of a defiant Great House, you play through three cycles (rounds), each with a game-altering galactic event, a new scoring condition, and a set number of focus cards that can be played. Focus card decisions and sequencing is the centerpiece of the gameplay. By selecting two of their three impactful actions as you play them, you develop and improve techs; advance on your three house-specific civilization tracks; manage your sectors' infrastructure, population, and production; and conquer new sectors with up to five different types of space fleets. Space battles are fought either against the Voidborn's infected forces (which are present as neutral opponents even in the competitive mode) or against other players. Instead of relying on the luck of a die roll, battles in Voidfall are fully deterministic and reward careful preparation and outsmarting your opponents.
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Wed May 5, 2021 4:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Mission ISS

Michael Luu
Germany
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At the beginning of 2017, Campagames in Hamburg, Germany — a publisher that specializes in the development of space-themed products — contacted me to ask whether I would like to work on a game for the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, or DLR).

The German astronaut Alexander Gerst would be part of the International Space Station (ISS) expedition called "Horizons" that would run from June to December 2018. To coincide with this expedition, the DLR planned to release a game that would not only remind people of this special event, but also provide the public a better understanding of the work between the control station and the astronauts on the ISS. Campagames was assigned for the development and implementation of this project.

Without hesitation, I immediately expressed my interest. The subject of space travel and the project background aroused my enthusiasm. In addition, I wanted to collect new experiences by developing a game under the terms of a contract work. After all, I would have certain requirements to fulfill with this design: The game should reflect the tasks of the control center, as well as the guidance and the support of the astronauts. Timelines and time management should also play a role in the game.

Board Game: Mission ISS

Campagames allowed me a lot of freedom during the creation process. Sabine and Joachim of Campagames and I worked as team, meeting regularly in a bistro in Hamburg. In the beginning, we exchanged our first ideas, put them on paper, then discarded them all afterwards.

It became clear that the game should refer to the history of the ISS, which would be the most suitable theme to capture in a game. Based on that, the construction and completion of the ISS — ideally done in a playful and entertaining way — turned out to be the focal objective of the game. Since the construction of the ISS was possible only through the close co-operation of many nations, it was obvious for us to design a co-operative game. The players should complete the construction of the ISS, maintain it, and deal with the hostile environment of space as one team rather than playing against each other.

Board Game: Mission ISS

Based on these approaches, I tinkered with the first prototypes, playtested them, and evaluated the gaming experience. However, the game ideas did not meet our high expectations. This was mainly because of the still missing "engine" of the game. The game needed a mechanism that would define the sequence and moves, drive the game forward, and (at the same time) generate fun.

After several discarded approaches, I decided to consult my "box of ideas" in my hobby basement, where I designed and collected many different game mechanisms. One of those was that the active player always has to combine their own card with that of other players during their turn. This idea of card combination has become the main mechanism of the game Mission ISS. The "engine" was found!

Board Game: Mission ISS

Afterwards, the project proceeded much faster. Campagames provided graphics and scientific texts for all aspects of space travel and of the ISS, and I integrated them into the game. The prototype slowly shaped up to the final version.

It was always important for us to develop a game that was based on reality, one in which the players could learn a lot about the ISS and experience the interaction between the control center and the astronauts. At a later stage of the project, we recognized the necessity of bringing the game to a more complex level to enable (as much as possible) a realistic gaming experience. Based on the complexity, the game is recommended for players age 12 and up.

Board Game: Mission ISS

After a number of prototype versions, we started to test with outside players. Later, we were confronted with an apparently unsolvable task of how to realize a game component that we were very fond of: the production of the base elements each equipped with three dials on which the astronauts stand today. These dials represent the "ability" of the astronauts, so the higher the setting, the better the ability of the astronauts to complete the tasks on the ISS. Campagames consulted different manufacturers for the production. However, the challenge about the production costs was not yet solved.

Board Game: Mission ISS

At a later time of the project, a fortunate coincidence happened. Campagames got in contact with Georg Wild, a well-known editor in the board game industry, and hired him as the rule writer.

At that time, Georg Wild had just switched to publisher Schmidt Spiele as product manager. He was very convinced by the concept of the ISS game, so he presented it to the Berlin publisher himself. As a result, Campagames licensed the game idea to Schmidt Spiele, which then took care of the final production and at the same time solved the "base element problem" thanks to its many years of experience in the production of game components.

Board Game: Mission ISS

Board Game: Mission ISS

Just as sixteen countries were involved in the construction of the ISS, the development of the game Mission ISS is also a product of good co-operation between many participants and, ultimately, two publishers. The engagement and expertise have resulted in a wonderful game that invites players to explore the world of space travel.

Unfortunately the game didn't make it to the ISS with Alexander Gerst due to the time required for design and production, but a trip by Matthias Maurer, another German astronaut, is planned for the second half of 2021.

I would like to thank Campagames, Schmidt Spiele, and all other participants for the great teamwork during the entire project and, above all, for the publishers' confidence in my abilities as a "rookie" game designer. This has been an exciting experience for me. I appreciate it very much and will always fondly remember it.

Michael Luu

Board Game: Mission ISS
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Tue May 4, 2021 1:00 pm
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Game Preview: Witchstone, or Experience the Magical Transformation of Two Designers into a Third

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Witchstone
At the end of March 2021, I posted a round-up of new games from designer Reiner Knizia that included Witchstone, a title from German publisher HUCH! with co-design by Martino Chiacchiera, making this one of only two Knizia co-designs that I know.

I've now played the game three times on a review copy from U.S. licensee R&R Games, and I've updated the basic description of the game, which I'll repeat here:
Quote:
Each player in the game has a personal cauldron that bears seven crystals and six pre-printed magic icons, and they share a larger game board that features a crystal ball that shows the entire landscape. Each player has a set of fifteen domino tiles, with each half of the domino being a hexagon; each domino depicts two different magic icons from the six used in the game.

On a turn, you place one of the five face-up dominos in your reserve onto your cauldron, then you take the action associated with each icon depicted on that domino; if the icon is adjacent to other dominos showing the same icon (or the matching pre-printed icon), then you can take that action as many times as the number of icons in that cluster. You must complete the first type of action completely before taking the second action. With these actions, you can:

• Use energy to connect your starting tower to other locations on the game board, scoring 1, 3 or 6 points depending on the length of the connection.
• Place witches next to your starting tower on the game board or move them across your energy network to other locations. As you do this, you gain points and possibly additional actions to use the same turn.
• Move your token around a pentagram to collect points and to acquire bonus hex tiles; you can use these tiles immediately for actions or place them in your cauldron to make future tile placement more valuable.

Board Game: Witchstone
Pack those tiles tight

• Move the crystals in your cauldron, whether to make room for future tile placement or to gain bonus actions by ejecting the crystal completely.
• Advance on a magic wand to gain points and take additional actions, with the actions being doubled should you currently be the most advanced player on the wand.
• Claim scroll cards that boost future actions or earn you bonus points at game's end depending on how well you've completed the prophecy depicted.

After each player has completed eleven turns — which could equal 40-60 actions depending on how well you've used your cauldron — the game ends and players tally their points from prophecies and other collected scoring markers to see who has the highest score.
If you saw my earlier post, you might have noticed that I left off the start of the description that gives a thematic setting because in practice the thematic setting is pure window dressing. The game "world" is purely one of placing tiles on a personal game board so that you can then take actions on a larger shared board, with the images of witches, wands, pentagrams, and so forth being no more than decorative.

I'm fine with such absences, though, because Witchstone delivers what I am looking for in games: challenging choices that bring you into conflict with other players. The conflict, in this case, involves competition for energy paths, for bonus actions, for point tiles, for other bonus actions, for prophecy scrolls, and for still more bonus actions.

Board Game: Witchstone

Witchstone feels very much like a Stefan Feld design, specifically 2020's Bonfire (which I covered in October 2020) because that game also has you placing tiles in a personal space — ideally generating multiple actions with each placement — so that you can then do stuff on a larger shared board and compete for tiles, cards, bonuses, and so on.

Given the publication dates of these titles, clearly Witchstone and Bonfire were designed independently, but the similarities are surprising. What differs about the games is that in Bonfire you collect target tiles and you must go through a lot of steps to score those tiles — assembling a path, opening gates, moving the guardians, and actually doing what's required on the targets — typically in a game-ending push of actions whereas in Witchstone you pick up points here, there, and everywhere, with the scrolls scoring automatically at the end of play and with the game being more about trying to multiply actions like rabbits in a magic act.

Board Game: Witchstone
Setting up my final four tile placements — unless I draw something better

My games of Witchstone have been with three and four players, and as is often the case with such designs, players generally did far better in their second and third games compared to their first. You have a sense for how the cauldron tiles might better fit together to generate more actions and which actions you want to take before which other actions and whether an opponent can do the thing that you want to do before you can so that you can build a back-up plan. In the first game, you do stuff to see what happens; from the second game on, you do stuff because you know what will happen.

More thoughts on the game in this overview video:

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Mon May 3, 2021 4:11 pm
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