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Starship Samurai is an upcoming two-to-four player area control game from Plaid Hat Games designed by Isaac Vega, the designer of Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn and co-designer of Dead of Winter. It was heavily promoted at Origins, but was not available for purchase. I was fortunate to get a chance to demo it with designer Isaac Vega on my first night at the convention.
Starship Samurai is being published by Plaid Hat, so it almost goes without saying that the production is absolutely gorgeous. The artwork, done by digital art studio Gunship Revolution, is top notch, and the miniatures are exceptional -- I look forward to seeing how creative types in the hobby will paint them. In addition to the eight samurai-mech miniatures, the starship miniatures, the action, unit, and location cards, there are four location tiles, an alliance board, player boards, and some tokens to represent influence, wealth, and action selection. The copy of the game I played also had acrylic clan tokens, which will be a pre-order bonus from Plaid Hat. The game is available for pre-order for $59.95 on Plaid Hat's site.
The game is a competitive struggle between players to have their units -- Samurai-mechs and fighter/carrier ships -- control four distinct locations, with each location having seven available spaces. If a player controls a location at the beginning of their turn, they get the bonus listed on the location card, which can give them influence, wealth, action cards, and/or honor (victory points).
Players each get four actions per round, but there is an interesting twist in that the four order markers each player uses to select actions are numbered ‘1’ to ‘4’. Whichever marker the player chooses, they get to do that selected action that many times. So, for example, when the ‘4’ token is played on the draw action cards action, four cards are drawn by that player. This effectively gives players ten actions per round, and makes the higher order markers very, very valuable. It also creates interesting decisions in when exactly to play them -- should a player use the ‘4’ to rush out ships early to try to gain control of one or more locations, or hold the ‘4’ to manipulate the alliance board right before the end of the round, giving them better bonuses?
At the end of the placement phase of each round, there is a final battle for control of each location, where the strength of the samurai-mechs, the ships, their bonuses, and cards played on them are all added, and the winner gets that bonus and takes the card. They must, however, then vacate the location, while those that lost the combat remain, and a new location card is drawn.
This gameplay continues over a set number of rounds. In the four-player game I played, it was four rounds, meaning each player had one round as the first player. At the end of each round, the alliance board is scored, with players getting honor for having more influence over each of the eight clans. At the end of the game, the highest honor is the winner.
Playing at the full four-player count, including the teach, the game took about 90 minutes, and it never bogged down or felt like it was too long for the decisions we were making. The turns moved fast, and the fighting over control of the regions was action-packed and exciting. The diceless combat was a nice touch, with the action cards giving just enough obscurity that nobody was ever sure if they would win a region, even if they had a commanding lead at the end of the placement phase.
While nothing in the design felt revolutionary, the mechanisms and theme were blended and streamlined into a very attractive package that is going to make fans of thematic area control tug-of-wars very happy. Players that do not like highly interactive games with lots of direct conflict, on the other hand, can safely avoid this game. Myself, being in the former camp, greatly enjoyed this game, and thought it packed a lot of punch per gaming minute.
One minor nitpick I did have was that I had trouble differentiating the unpainted samurai-mech miniatures -- as we played with four players, there were often eight of them out on the board at a time. This is easily solvable, however, either by painting them or by using colored status disks like these from Warsenal.
Empyreal: Spells and Steam, designed by Trey Chambers and published by Level 99 Games, is the thematic sequel to Chamber’s earlier design, Argent: The Consortium. Both games take place in Level 99’s fantastical World of Indines, and both are heavier Euro games. But the designs divert significantly from there. Where Argent features worker placement and a secret victory criteria, Empyreal uses route building and an interesting twist on a rondel as its main mechanisms.
To be clear, I have not played this game on a table, but did have the chance to preview it on Tabletop Simulator. I have seen some of the finished art and design, as well as digital renders of the train sculpts, so let me touch on that briefly.
The art is exactly what you would expect if you are familiar with Level 99, which is to say beautiful, thematic, and inclusive. The main artwork is done by Laura La Vito, and the character artwork is done by Eunice Abigael Tiu, the artist for Argent: The Consortium, which maintains a nice continuity between the games. Adding to that are some “Easter egg” appearances by characters from that game in the artwork here.
As for the components, there is going to be a lot of stuff in this box. The game plays up to five using the standard rules, and will have a team-based mode that plays six. In the box, there are six “company folio” player mats with captain placards, 240 trains, 7 map tiles, 10 wasteland tiles, 20 award tiles, 36 specialist tiles, 54 demand tiles, 55 engine tiles, 55 mana crystals, 150 goods tokens and more. Each of the player boards, captains, specialists, and engine tiles are unique, which should make each game play quite differently. The sculpts for each color of train are also unique, which is pretty cool, although irrelevant to gameplay. While some of the tiles in the game could have been cards, the game has no cards in it.
There is a lot going on in Empyreal -- it has route building and resource gathering on the main terrain board, along with an interesting action selection mechanism, engine upgrading, and specialist hiring on the player board. But despite everything going on, the game is intuitive, and its micro-actions keep it moving along at a good pace. Also, unlike some heavier Euro games that squeeze players through significant limitations, in Empyreal you always have a productive action that will aid in your advancement toward your short- and long-term goals. This positive feedback loop is rewarding, especially for players new to the game that are unsure of optimal decisions.
The board starts off with plenty of room to maneuver, but tightens quickly, becoming a knife-fight for the ever-dwindling resources and bonus tokens by the game’s end. This slowly accelerating tension gives the game a great forward momentum, and helps to keep players engaged throughout.
The aspect of the game that impressed me most is the action selection track on the player mat, or, in the game’s terms, the “conductor path” on the “company folio.” The conductor starts on the left most space and can move one space for free each turn, or can traverse more than one space, paying increasing mana costs for each additional space traveled. Each of the first five spaces allow track to be laid on different types of terrain. At the end of those five spaces is one more space, the delivery space. This is where players take goods of one type from anywhere connected by their train network and place them on their player boards, earning them victory points. They will also earn bonus point tiles if they delivered two or more of a good. Players then get an upgrade -- either extra mana, a specialist, or two additional engines to add to their player board -- before resetting their conductor back to the beginning of their path.
My biggest concern after playing Empyreal isn’t actually about the game, which is rock solid, it’s about properly managed expectations. Empyreal is a satisfying Euro experience that I have no doubt will captivate medium and heavier gamers for many repeated plays. However, Empyreal is not Ticket to Ride with a fresh coat of wizard-themed paint, and will be either a frustration or disappointment, if not both, for any lighter or family gamer that get the game after seeing the cool artwork and the plastic trains on the box.
However, for the intended audience, Empyreal really knocks it out of the park. The balance of properly managing your mana and optimally moving your conductor along their path, linking the terrain you need and delivering it ahead of your opponents, while simultaneously gaining powerful bonuses that improve your engine and accelerate the game, is the hook of Empyreal. It is a very strong and satisfying hook, especially combined with the unique player powers of the captains, the varied setups of the company folios, and the unique specialist and engine tiles that are available for you to build into your efficiency engine each game.
Empyreal: Spells and Steam really shows off Level 99’s strength of publishing games that blend exciting, modern gameplay featuring great depth and variability with their special quirky, hyper-thematic style. I can’t wait to see this game be made a physical reality and get to play it on the tabletop myself.
Full disclosure: Empyreal designer Trey Chambers is a member of Punchboard Media as a co-host of the podcast Eternally Board.
Captive is one of a set of five Graphic Novel Adventures game books that are being imported to the U.S. by Van Ryder Games from French publisher publisher Makaka Editions. Each of the five books tells a stand-alone story with different themes and art styles, and unique ways for the reader to interact with the books. In Your Town, for example, the reader becomes the mayor of a small wild west town. In the cartoonish Sherlock Holmes: Four Investigations, the reader will be tasked to solve mysteries as either Sherlock or his companion, Dr. John Watson.
These books create a solo game experience that is similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books from yesteryear. However, they are graphic novel-based instead of being text-based, and allow for more interaction as the reader has some input into the character’s creation and will be able to interact with items in the story in a deeper way. I recently had the opportunity to play a preview copy of Captive, a dark story where the reader takes on the role of a man trying to rescue his daughter from kidnappers, and wanted to share my experience.
The copy of Captive I received was a very high quality softcover book, but note that the production copies will be hardcover books. As this is a reprint of an existing European series, the artwork is complete, and it is top-notch, and quickly pulled me into the narrative of the story. The art in Captive is easily on par with graphic novels being put out today by the top comic publishers.
The book is the sole component, making this an exceptionally portable option for solo gaming while travelling, or other times when space is tight. The only thing you need to add is a pencil and paper -- and while any paper will do, Van Ryder will be uploading fancy character sheets for each of the books.
I won’t go into too much detail, as I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, but I’ll give a basic overview of how playing Captive worked, so you have an idea of what to expect.
Before the start of the story, there is one page of instructions that will direct you to fill out your character’s stats. Each stat -- strength, dexterity, and willpower -- starts at a base five, and you can add five additional points among the three attributes as you see fit. At different points in the story, you will be directed to different pages depending on your decisions. A fictional example: You try to budge the door. If your strength is 8 or higher, go to 188, otherwise go to 37. You are also told to start with 20 health, 0 time spent, and with three inventory spots to hold items you may find along the way. That’s it.
At this point, the graphic novel’s story starts in earnest, with a few introductory pages that set the scene before you have any decisions to make, and then it is left literally in your hands. The numbers corresponding to the panels you should proceed to are drawn right into the graphic novel, but are still clear and easy to follow. There are also hidden numbers in some panels, however, which are not nearly as obvious, but happen at points in the story where you’re already scanning the page in an effort to find clues about your kidnapped daughter. At some points, I found there to be a lot of options regarding directions to move in, and accidentally backtracked to the same room, so I recommend keeping a finger on the last page you were reading while seeking out new panels.
Captive is unlike anything I've experienced before, and felt like a combination of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, an escape room in a box, and a roleplaying game. The artwork is spectacular, and pulled me headfirst into the story, giving credence to the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I have not been so immersed into the narrative story of a game since playing BioShock on my PlayStation 3 almost a decade ago, and I’ve certainly never been so immersed in a solitaire tabletop game.
The game is quite challenging, and there is definitely replayability in finding a way to succeed, as well as in discovering all the intricacies of the story, but even if you only play each book once to its successful completion, you’ll have more than gotten much more than your money’s worth.
If you are looking for a solo experience that transcends the limitations of the genre and tells an interactive story that gives you a good amount of agency, you simply can’t go wrong with the Graphic Novel Adventures series. If this particular story seems too dark -- and make no mistake, it is dark -- there are four others, featuring bounty hunters, werewolves, cowboys, and Sherlock Holmes himself, that each play with slightly different rules and focuses, and have different art styles and overall tones. I’d highly recommend checking them out.
Full disclosure: I received a preview copy of Captive from Joshua Acosta of the WDYPTW podcast, who received it from the publisher.
Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar is the latest game getting the Restoration Games reimplementation treatment. The original Fireball Island, designed by Chuck Kennedy and Bruce Lund, was released in 1986. This updated version, which is currently on Kickstarter, has been further redesigned and developed by the Restoration team -- Rob Daviau, JR Honeycutt, and Justin Jacobson. Of course, with the Kickstarter campaign having over 11,000 backers and sitting at over $1.4M in pledges, you've probably already heard about it by now.
Due to the prototype of the game costing over $3,000, there is only one copy available to play, which JR Honeycutt has taken on tour. I was fortunate enough to be able to play it when JR stopped at The Uncommons in Manhattan earlier this week. Here are my initial thoughts from playing it, with some initial commentary about the the prototype copy itself.
While the mold of the island -- which was made by Game Trayz -- is finished, the prototype copy is a glossier plastic than the finished copy will be, and the prototype has hand-painted art with less detail than the finished copy will have. That said, the prototype still looks quite impressive, and is larger than it looks from the pictures I’ve seen on social media and on the Kickstarter page. The molds of the characters and the palm trees are also finalized, although they were 3D printed for the prototype, so the detail and quality were not of finished quality. The Vul-Kar piece, which functions as the launching point for the marbles, worked flawlessly. It was easy to turn, and the marbles came out of all three ramps as intended. In short, while this prototype is nice, the finished game should be even nicer and more impressive. The demo game I played in featured The Last Adventurer expansion, which allowed us to play with five players, gave all the players a unique player power, added a plastic boulder, and added cards that allowed for boulder attacks from the island’s many caves.
Unlike the original game, in which players rolled-and-moved around the island, players use a hand of two action cards in the redesigned version. Each card will allow a player to move a certain number of spaces -- I saw cards ranging from 4 spaces to 12 spaces -- and then set off an effect. Some cards with lower movement amounts allowed players to take extra treasure, others with higher movement values restricted players from taking treasure, other action cards allowed free movement over bridges, Vul-Kar and/or the palm trees to be rotated, or marbles to be dropped through Vul-Kar. There are also souvenir cards that players can play on their turns, which allow for bonus movement and other perks -- including, in the expansion, rolling a boulder at other adventurers. Another difference with the updated game is the board’s open range of movement, where players are free to explore the island in any manner they choose, instead of the channeled path of the original version.
The goal of the game is simple -- score the most points and escape the island. Points are scored by taking snapshots, collecting treasures, and being the first off the island. While most treasure values are determined by the size of the set collected -- 1 point for one treasure, 3 points for two, 6 points for three, etc. -- having the Heart of Vul-Kar at the end of the game is worth 7 points by itself. Of course, if any player traverses past you while you are holding it, they steal it from you. An additional impediment are the ember marbles, which players will be able to flick or roll at other players when card text dictates. If a player gets knocked over, either from Vul-Kar, an ember marble, or a boulder, they must give up treasure to the player that caused them to fall over. However, they will then get a souvenir card they can play in the future, softening the blow of losing treasure. While there is a minor dexterity element to the game with the marble flicking, it is by no means the central mechanism, and the game is enjoyable even for players that are not particularly dexterous.
I admit, I was simultaneously excited about the hype surrounding this game, and wary the gameplay itself wouldn’t live up to the high expectations the hype built. After playing one game, my reservations are gone. We played a five-player learning game using expansion content in just under an hour, and had very few rules questions after the initial five minute teach -- most of which should be addressed with clearer board iconography in the finished product.
The game lent itself to many stand up moments, where one player would be flicking a marble at a nearby adventurer in an attempt to steal their valuable treasure. However, once a player's adventurer was knocked down, they couldn’t be attacked again until after their next turn, so there was no hurt feelings about anyone feeling they were picked on excessively by the other players.
I have no doubt my kids will enjoy this game -- likely without the expansion content, at least at first -- as Fireball Island has a high toy factor and colorful, cartoonish look to it. But I was equally impressed with how well the game drew in five adults, all of which were employing different strategies against each other and the dangers of the island.
If, after looking at the Kickstarter campaign and seeing how Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar plays, it doesn’t look interesting to you, it probably won’t be. This is not a game for those that exclusively play brain-burning Euros or war games. And that is okay. However, if after looking at the Kickstarter, you were curious about the game and wondering if the gameplay lived up to phenomenal marketing and promotion of the campaign, you’ll probably love this game. I know I did.
It may sound odd, but after my second trip up to Granite Game Summit, it really felt like my “home” convention -- despite being three states and over four hours away. Despite the presence of multiple closer conventions, including PAX Unplugged. Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed PAX Unplugged, but it was too big to have the intimate, cozy feeling of being home among friends, which is where Granite Game Summit really shines.
I left New York on 9am Friday morning and made it to Nashua, New Hampshire around 1pm. I had no sooner walked into the Courtyard Nashua and grabbed my badge when I was invited to lunch with designers Chip Beauvais, Gil Hova, and Curt Covert. Not having eaten since before I’d left, I was not hard to convince, and hence, my first play of the convention was a game of Chip’s Smoke and Mirrors at a Ruby Tuesday’s booth.
When we got back to the convention hall, I saw Jason Lees. I had previously chatted with him on Twitter about him teaching me Brew Crafters, and he obliged and we were joined by Lou Oliveira for a game. Quick aside -- I think few things are more useful ahead of a con than making some tentative plans with fellow con-goers over social media. Be it meeting up with people you’ve never met in person, or having someone show you a game they love, it’s such an easy way to reduce anxiety when arriving at a convention, especially if you showed up solo. As for Brew Crafters, I won the learning game with a “brew the expensive Espresso Stouts for 7VP each” strategy, while ignoring the more complicated brewery additions and collaboration options. I really enjoyed the worker placement aspect -- especially having two different kinds of workers -- and the beer brewing theme.
After that game ended, I walked around a bit and spied a copy of Coaster Park in the Play-To-Win section. I’d been really excited about this when it was announced last Gen Con, but I’d since heard a lot of negative buzz about the actual game play. So I figured it was perfect opportunity to see for myself how the game actually played and if the Internet mob was justified in rating it a 4.1 on BoardGameGeek.
So I sat across from Ryan LaFlamme, who agreed to play with me, and we started a game, did a few auctions, and then it was time to test our coasters. Nothing worked. We abandoned the game at this point, but continued our attempt at constructing a coaster -- any coaster at all, mind you -- that would work. And by work, I don’t mean “would make it to the end of a lengthy track,” I simply mean “would not immediately fly off the tracks of the first hill it reached.” We failed. We changed out ramps, hills, marbles, varied how hard we pushed the marble, rotated the track’s orientation on the table, and nothing worked. We gave up after a half hour. While I was immensely disappointed in the game, I was glad to have a chance to try it without myself or anyone I know having to buy it.
While Ryan and I had been floundering around, Ruth Boyack and Chris Mitchell had wandered over. After Coaster Park was returned to the box, I asked if they’d like to play one of my “shelf of shame” games with me. I didn’t bring too many games with me, just a few favorites and a few others I’d been trying to get the table for way too long -- also known as ny shelf of shame, which consisted of Grand Austria Hotel, Coldwater Crown, and Belfort. Ruth said she knew how to play Grand Austria Hotel, and volunteered to teach it. Brief aside -- Ruth is my favorite person to play games with. She’s an amazing teacher, and not just when she knows the game -- she once seamlessly taught me Near and Far from the rule book. She’s also a pleasure to play games and hang out with. Everyone should have a con buddy like Ruth. Getting back to our play of Grand Austria Hotel, it definitely lived up to the hype that caused me to trade for it last year. I love dice placement Euros, and this was a very well designed one with a lot of levers and moving parts.
After wrapping up, Chris spied Pickle Letter on the Play-To-Win shelf, and we played a game as a quick palette cleanser. While it looks, from the components, like a pickle-themed Bananagrams, it’s actually even simpler, as it’s just a real-time letter-matching game.
Ruth and Chris -- who flew in from North Carolina and were traveling light -- asked what else I had in my bag, and I mentioned I had a review copy of Clank: The Mummy’s Curse, so we broke that out next. We played the Sphinx side of the board, and enjoyed delving into the cursed site, racing each other while dealing with the roaming mummy. I really like how Renegade is putting out new double-sided boards for this game, so the specific routes to reach the treasures don’t get stale. I came one blue cube away from dying a space from the exit, but got lucky and managed to escape for an additional 20 victory points and the victory.
It was well past dinner time at this point, so we went searching for food at the hotel bar. While we were able to find food -- I got a grilled cheese where they didn’t melt the cheese and slathered it with mayonnaise, which was, to understate it, not the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten -- we also stumbled into Trivia Night, which was just starting. Ruth, Chris and I formed a team, named it ‘Here Be Dragons,’ and proceeded to crush every topic, winning the competition. Questions included plenty of nerd culture details, such as “Who is the fifth Weasley child?” and “Who arrived first at Jabba’s Palace for Han’s rescue mission?” While I’d love to gloat more about our victory, I am fairly certain Ruth and Chris won in spite of me. I blame the copious amounts of mayo in my grilled cheese. Seriously, who does that?
On our way back to the main gaming hall, Chris and I stopped in the kids section, which featured games like Rhino Hero, Klask, and Bonk, so he could show me Cube Quest. He explained it to me and then promptly destroyed me at it. Flicking games have never been my forte. But it was worth checking out, as something I think my kids might enjoy playing, either with me or with each other.
We then sat down for one more longer game before calling it a night, and I pulled out a game I feel is an underrated gem -- Artifacts Inc. from Red Raven Games. We played with four players, as Ryan joined Ruth, Chris and I, and while it did drag a bit with that many players and that late at night, it was still a fun and close game, won in the end by Ruth.
On my way out of the hall, I ran into Button Shy Games founder Jason Tagmire, and picked up a copy of Herotec, a fun wallet game I enjoyed demoing at PAX Unplugged but missed backing on Kickstarter. Then Dan Newman popped by and showed me Feat on the Ground, his follow up to Ahead in the Clouds, both of which were published by Button Shy. While I’m glad I gave it a try, I definitely prefer Ahead in the Clouds, and think Feat on the Ground could have used a bit more time being developed.
And after that -- a day of nine different games with numerous different people -- I took the elevator one floor up to my room and crashed. There’s nothing quite like being in the same hotel where a convention is taking place. Despite not setting an alarm, I woke early due to my desire to play all the games. I popped back downstairs to the cafe for a cold brew and an egg sandwich, and headed back into the gaming hall.
I ran into Curt Covert, who had mentioned he had some upcoming Smirk & Dagger games he wanted to show me, and ate while he showed me what he’ll be publishing this year. First up, and already available, was Paramedics: Clear!, a real-time competitive game of saving lives as a paramedic using some card play mechanisms. Then he showed me a very different real-time game, Nut So Fast, which is coming soon from his Smirk & Laughter line, and played like a next-level Jungle Speed. He switched gears and showed me a storytelling game -- which wasn’t real-time -- called Before There Were Stars, where players use cards to weave their own creation myths over the course of four chapters. Not only do I think this will be appealing to anyone that enjoys storytelling games, I think this will be an excellent teaching tool for English, History, and Anthropology classrooms. Curt then went back to real-time games, demoing Roll For Your Life, Candyman, a real-time dice-rolling thematic offshoot of Run For Your Life, Candyman that played in about five frantic minutes and reminded me how little dice like to cooperate with me. After crushing my spirit with that one -- you’re supposed to let the other person win when you demo, Curt -- he showed me a very beautiful, zen koi pond game where players are competing fish moving about the pond scoring points by eating dragonflies. Five games for the year is an ambitious goal, but Curt didn’t seem the least bit daunted by it. I always love to see the passion of the creators in this hobby.
Of course, Curt wasn’t only interested in showing off his games, he wanted to play some games as well, and, joined by Chris Mitchell, we found a copy of Junk Art in the library to play. After a few rounds, Chris had to run to start his all-day Runesaga game, and Curt and I borrowed a copy of Stuffed Fables from another convention-goer to try out.
When I had originally heard about Stuffed Fables, I thought it might be a game I could use to introduce my kids to more involved games. But after the amount of set up and rule book flipping we had to do to play the introduction scenario, I don’t think it would be a good fit for that. As a campaign game with a fresh, unique theme and gorgeous artwork and components, however, Stuffed Fables is definitely a success, but that just isn’t what I am looking for -- unless it is streamlined and simple enough for an eight and five year old.
When I was at PAX Unplugged, I met a long time Twitter friend, Brandon Rojas, but we weren’t able to get in a game together, so I wanted to make a point to play something with him while I was at G2S. He had mentioned online wanting to try Coldwater Crown, which was in my bag as part of my “get off my shelf of shame” list, so I found him at the back of the hall finishing up a game of Clans of Caledonia. This timing was perfect, as I was able to set up Coldwater Crown and skim the rules while they wrapped up and broke down Caledonia.
I was nervous when Brandon and two of his friends joined me around the game board, as I didn’t know the rules well, and hadn’t had time to watch a gameplay video. This would be a cold learn/teach right out of the rule book. Thankfully, designer Brian Suhre and publisher Bellwether Games did a phenomenal job with the game and the rules, and our play went smoothly, with barely a second glance at the rule book needed after my how-to-play explanation. The game had a great flow, and enough randomness and obscured information to keep anyone from overthinking or falling into analysis paralysis. I’m a big fan of worker placement, especially with shared workers that get placed and displaced, which is also found in Raiders of the North Sea, but here was even more interesting as they switched back and forth from level one actions and level two actions.
Checking the time, I realized I needed to hustle to make it to the Paint and Take event, where an expert miniatures painter was teaching anyone willing to learn how the proper techniques for painting and washing miniatures. It was included with the convention ticket, and I even got to take home the results of my efforts. While nobody will mistake me for a professional, my mini didn’t come out bad, and the experience built my confidence that I could paint my own miniatures -- and with the The Legend of Korra game on its way, I may give that a serious shot.
I then wandered over to the Designer Alley, where Jason Tagmire was teaching roll-and-write Semi-Final Fantasy, and was joined by Dan Newman, who broke out Isle of Trains. We played this twice, the first time getting a major rule incorrect, ending the game way too early. The second time, with Jason joining us, we played it correctly, and all really enjoyed the mix of multi-use card play, engine building, and contract fulfillment. Right as our game was wrapping, the Runesaga trilogy game that Ruth and Chris were involved in ended, with Ruth crowned the victor.
Jason, Dan, Ruth, Chris, and I decided to grab dinner, heading a few miles down the road to Willie Jewell's Old School BBQ. We, by pure happenstance, ran into Emerson Matsuuchi, Gil Hova, and the cast of the recently retired podcast Flip the Table finishing up their dinner, and joined them. The BBQ was outstanding, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone going to G2S in the future. I know I’ll be making it a tradition to eat there.
After dinner, we grabbed a table and played some more games, mostly lighter fair. We learned flip-and-write game Welcome To…, which Ruth had procured from Marguerite Cottrell, who had made the trek to the convention all the way from the west coast. I taught Ruth Longhorn, an underrated two-player game from Bruno Cathala. We tested out Dan Newman’s prototype of Watch, a heavier worker placement along the lines of Kanban. Then we finished up the night playing a five-player game of Star Cartel. I have to hand it to Osprey Games, they are quietly putting out some very good content, and their productions are stellar.
Long after midnight, I dragged myself back to my room, propelled in part by my own yawning, and laid down, only to realize I was about to lose one hour of sleep to daylight saving time. This did nothing to help me crash, as I knew I needed to leave early on Sunday to head back home.
I woke early from my fitful sleep, showered, and packed. Andrew Smith of Board Game Quest joined me for breakfast, and we finally got to play a game together, since he had a review copy of Fire in the Library on hand. I was beating him all game with some really lucky bag drawing, but he managed to come back and win by one point in the last round. We walked into the main gaming hall after breakfast and I said my goodbyes, managed one quick last game -- Star Realms with Mike Nachshen, which I lost by a lot more than one point -- and headed out, another successful Granite Game Summit in the books. All in all, I’d struggle for a reason not to give this convention a try for anyone nearby, and not even that seems to be a limiting factor, considering how many have flown in from further away and enjoyed this intimate regional con and its group of most excellent attendees.
Vinyl, designed by Eric Alvarado and published by Talon Strikes Studios, is live on Kickstarter, and since I’ve had a chance recently to play the final version of the game, I thought I’d share my initial thoughts on the game and who may enjoy it.
Vinyl is a large game. The board is Ticket to Ride sized, and the game warrants this size choice. With twenty square record card spaces on the board, the various action selection spaces around them, places to display collection reward tokens, and room to display a row and deck of mini cards, the space is well utilized. Add in 72 square record cards, 72 magazine cards, 24 loyalty cards, as well as meeples, scoring markers, player boards, and tokens, and the game is full to the brim with bits.
The artwork and design style of Vinyl do a lot to evoke the record store setting where the game takes place. Add in the various thematic actions -- the record bin, the magazine rack, the sale bin, and the front counter -- and the unique name and artwork on each record card, and you can see the commitment to the “rich and warm tones of Vinyl,” as the Kickstarter advertises it.
But of course none of this matters at all without knowing how the game works, which leads us to...
At its heart, Vinyl is a set collection game. Two to five players will be perusing the same record store, competing to grab the most prestigious collection of albums from its bins. They will accomplish this by acquiring musical knowledge -- represented by the magazine cards, which give players icons for genre, time period, as well as for mint and limited edition records -- and using those cards in the record bin and sale bin to acquire albums. Players can maintain different types of collections, and have up to two collections going at the same time. Their choices on what to collect can be determined by the loyalty cards they have, which give players bonus points for fulfilling certain goals, and by what is available on the board, especially in the sale bin.
Players each have one meeple, representing their record collector, and when they move to an action space, they will get that action. If another player comes to that space after they have moved there, they will be bumped off it, and get a free secondary action, which can net extra magazine rack cards or extra actions. The game flows smoothly, as each player only takes one action each turn, and actions tend to be quick. However, there is some upkeep, as when the sales person card come up, records will be cleared from the sales bin, and everything will shift down. There is also a customer meeple used in the two and three player games that will buy up records if players don’t snatch them up first, adding some tension that would otherwise be lost by having less competition from players.
Vinyl has a classic family board game feel to it.The Ticket to Ride comparisons seem almost inevitable, from Vinyl’s big rectangular board that features a victory point tracker around its edge, to its set collecting core that uses mini cards, down to its similar play count, play time, and weight. With its accessible theme and intuitive core mechanisms that can bring non-hobby gamers to the table, it’s a not an unreasonable benchmark. But I believe there is actually a bit more going on in Vinyl than Ticket to Ride.
Figuring out exactly how to best optimize points is the real decision space of the game -- Do I get cheaper, easier to grab collections, or hold off for harder to acquire, more valuable collections? Do I keep a collection pure, or mix it to make the collection more flexible? Do I retire a collection for the bonus collection rewards, or risk building it larger and losing out on those bonus points? Do I start a second collection, or keep working on this one valuable collection? Who am I competing with in this genre? In this decade? For mint albums?
The variable set-up of the albums, combined with the unique, randomly dealt loyalty cards will keep the game fresh and replayable for a long time. While I did not play it, there is also an advanced mode that rewards collecting albums from different record studios, as well as a Top Shelf expansion, to add even more for the experienced tabletop gamer to enjoy.
Overall, Vinyl is definitely worth a look for those looking for an excellent next-step into board gaming after traditional gateway games. It mixes smooth mechanisms with its unique theme, like the grooviest of late-night radio DJs spinning rich and warm tones that simply don’t go out of style.
Full disclosure: I played a preview copy of Vinyl with designer Eric Alvarado, and have played previous iterations of Vinyl as a playtester. Talon Strikes publishers Jason Washburn and Jason Hancock are members of Punchboard Media as co-hosts of the Docking Bay 94 podcast.
Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to play a number of “epic” space opera board games -- the kind that consume an entire table in plastic bits and take well over three hours to play. While I’ve never had a chance to play any of these games a second time, I thought it might be worth exploring, comparing, and contrasting what my initial thoughts of each were.
These five games are Eclipse, published in 2011 by Asmodee, Firefly: The Game, published in 2013 by Gale Force Nine, Forbidden Stars, published in 2015 by Fantasy Flight, Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, published in 2017 by Fantasy Flight, and Xia: Legends of a Drift System, published in 2014 by Far Off Games.
Eclipse - The crunchy Euro of your intergalactic dreams
I played this at Granite Game Summit with six players, and it took over six hours to finish. It was definitely epic, not only because of the time commitment, but due to the slow build up of fleets to the crescendo of late game combat. However, of all the games on this list, this one still had the most “Euro” feel to it despite the combat. While there is dice chucking, as well as randomness in the exploration of new space tiles, the game’s main engine lies in its player board, where lots of resource cubes need to be carefully managed. One thing I wish I knew going in was that upgrading ships without upgrading their shields was not a viable strategy, as my armada of “glass cannons” was easily dispatched when I finally made my big attack.
Firefly - Picking up and delivering on (low conflict) theme
This is one of the shorter games on this list, as my play of the first mission was about 3 hours. It’s also admittedly the least epic game here -- and one of two games on this list where players each control one ship, instead of an armada. At its heart, it’s really a pick up and deliver game, where players can choose safer legal cargo, or higher risk contraband cargo. That said, it integrates the Firefly theme beautifully, from it’s components, to its art and design, to its integration of nearly every character in the ‘Verse. While objectively not the most exciting or rewarding game to play, especially considering the time commitment, for avid Brown Coats such as myself, a lot of its faults are easy to gloss over for the chance to pilot our own Firefly class vessels for a few hours.
Forbidden Stars - 40K ways to exterminate your enemies
I got to play this at PAX Unplugged at four players, with two veterans and one other rookie, and it took around four hours to play. While the Warhammer 40K theme is wasted on me, as I’ve never played, this is still one of the best epic space experiences I’ve had. The game has a lot of neat little twists, from the moving warp storms which change where players can move each turn, to the blend of card and dice combat, to -- most importantly -- the action order mechanism where each square unveils in the opposite order in which it was assigned. It was clever and engaging, and I felt I had a good handle on it from the beginning. While the four different factions were unique, they felt balanced, as everyone seemed to have their chances over the course of the game I played.
Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition - My war sun is bigger than yours
I would have called Forbidden Stars my favorite of this group, had I written this before playing TI4. This, like Eclipse, is another game I got to play at six players, and took over six hours to play. I loved every minute of it, and can’t speak highly enough of it. It fired on all cylinders, and I very rarely felt there was any downtime. The agenda phase, which was basically its own minigame, was such an interesting break from each turn’s action phase, and the things we voted on really mattered, making the political game impossible to ignore. And in the action phase, I never felt limited in what I could do, due to the bonuses of the strategy cards. I cannot wait to get a chance to play it again, if only so I can confirm this is one of my favorite games of all time, and my first experience wasn’t a mirage of some sort (especially since I won the game I played). I will note that, as with Forbidden Stars, there is no exploration in TI4, so that may be a disappointment to 4x purists.
Xia: Legends of a Drift System - The galaxy is your ship’s oyster
The other game on this list where you only control one ship is Xia. Like in Firefly, you can win the game through picking up and delivering goods, but this game is much more of a sandbox game, that will also allow victory through mining, smuggling, and fighting. I got to play it at Origins, and it took about 3 hours, although we only played to 5 points, and you can play to much higher if you choose. This is most likely the most random game on this list, with dice rolls controlling both movement and combat, and random tile flips during exploration. One thing I loved, in addition to the open world nature of the game, was the way you outfitted your ship with polyomino pieces that determined your speed, strength and shields. One thing I am told is fun, that I did not get to experience in the game I played, is the fear of drawing the Xia Star, as it was out on the first turn of our game, and hence easy to avoid.
While each of these games is unique, and has its own merits and charms, they all share the “epic experience” factor in common. Regardless of the game chosen, that is a feeling I hope everyone gets to enjoy at some point while at the gaming table.
Let me start, as is tradition, with some caveats:
• I haven't played even a fraction of the games that were released in 2017, especially anything that released at Essen or after.
• I don’t put expansions on these lists.
• My preferences don't make a game objectively good or bad, these are just my opinions based on my personal tastes.
However, unlike previous years, I’m not going to list my favorites alphabetically, as I found this year my choices were easier than in previous years to list by personal preference. So in descending order, here are my ten favorites of the year, followed by a few honorable mentions.
10. Go Nuts for Donuts
A really pleasant surprise that I am very glad I backed during Daily Magic Games’ Kickstarter. I figured my kids would like the simple gameplay and cute art, but I never imagined I would enjoy it as much as I do. Also important to note -- while this game looks like Sushi Go with donuts, the simultaneous action selection mechanism works very differently than drafting.
I’ve always been a fan of two-player games, and I love when one plays entirely different, as opposed to feeling more like a chess or Magic the Gathering variant. While there are other two-player deduction games, none feel like this asymmetrical chase. See my full review here.
This is a late addition to this list, as I received it as a Christmas present. However, since I played it ten times over the holidays, I feel very certain in my conviction of this colorful abstract with its impressive, high-quality components.
7. Ladder 29
This is another Kickstarter game that really surprised me. It has the feel of a number of classic card shedding/climbing games, but the Hot Spot cards add a unique twist that really modernizes and brightens its game play, without over-complicating it.
I do love bears -- but pasted-on theme aside, I really enjoy manipulating polyominoes in the most efficient manner possible. While I don’t love Barenpark as much as Patchwork, it scales well to four players, and does it much smoother than Cottage Garden. See my full review here.
5. Century: Spice Road
Smooth, intuitive, and so themeless it was released twice with diametrically dissimilar motifs -- spice trading and fantasy golems. It serves as a wonderful gateway to European-style board games, and as a first step into the Century trilogy which will grow in complexity with future installments. See my full review here.
4. Whistle Stop
Bezier Games’ strategy titles -- Suburbia, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Colony -- are a near perfect match to my gaming proclivities, and Whistle Stop is no exception. I love everything about it, from the decision space the train movement creates, to its resource and stock management, and its quirky, unique art style, with one exception being the game’s set-up time.
3. NMBR 9
Remember when I said “I really enjoy manipulating polyominoes in the most efficient manner possible” when discussing Barenpark? Well here we are, at it again, with an even more abstract, quicker-playing polyomino game that incorporates a three-dimensional stacking element. Pure puzzly fun. See my full review here.
2. Circle the Wagons
My favorite microgame, and a phenomenal two-player game that plays way bigger than its eighteen-card deck. See my full review here.
My biggest Kickstarter surprise of the year is my favorite game of the year. While I expected to like this, I did not expect myself and everyone in my family to fall in love with it, to the point we’ve played it almost 40 times, and show no signs of slowing down. It’s simply a gorgeous Sudoku-esque puzzle with tons of colorful dice. See my full review here.
In my Origins blog, I wrote “I have to give Barenpark the caveat of best published game, and say that Ex Libris was hands down the best game I played at Origins... I have absolutely no doubt that Ex Libris will be a gangbuster hit for Renegade and Adam McIver.” I couldn’t add it to my favorites for the year only because I only played it once, and it was in prototype form at that point. I’m sure I’ll rectify that in the future.
Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition
Another game that didn’t make my list because I only played it once -- albeit that one game took over six hours. This colossal space epic, which I got to experience with five other players over the course of a full day, definitely makes my list of favorite gaming experiences without any caveats, that is certain.
Near and Far
I wasn’t able to find a group to experience the campaign with, but nevertheless did really enjoy the one play of this game I was able to manage. I can only imagine my opinion of the game improving if I was able to play through a campaign, as intended. See my initial thoughts from that play here.
My next blog post will highlight my favorite games of 2017, but I always find it's useful to look back and reflect on the previous year after another year has passed. Basically, this is my annual mea culpa for missing some great titles and overvaluing the staying power of others. So let's see which of my 2016 favorites held up, and which 2016 games I have played since then that deserve some praise.
My favorites of 2016 named in my previous blog were Colony, Dream Home, Islebound, Kanagawa, The Networks, and Tavarua, with honorable mentions for Ice Cool, Order of the Gilded Compass, Millennium Blades, One Deck Dungeon, and VENOM Assault. Looking at this list now, it's admittedly a bit on the weaker side for a "Best Of" list, with the exceptions being Islebound, The Networks, and Millennium Blades.
While most of the games on my list are good, they don't stand out as great in a crowded field, which partially explains why I haven't even played Colony, Kanagawa, Order of the Gilded Compass, or One Deck Dungeon again since writing my 2016 favorites list. Worse still, after playing VENOM Assault a few more times, my opinion of it has declined drastically due to some scaling and balance issues.
But, of course, there were plenty of very good 2016 titles I played for the first time in 2017. These include Arkham Horror: The Card Game, Clank: A Deck-Building Adventure, Imhotep, Kingdomino, New Bedford, Odin's Ravens, Star Wars: Destiny, Terraforming Mars, Ulm, and Yokohama. This is partially because I rarely have a chance to play Essen releases the same year they come out, and partially because with so many games releasing, I can’t play everything I’d like, as soon as I’d like, even if I have access to it.
While the 2016 games I’ve played this past year certainly strengthens my opinion of 2016’s overall crop of games, I stand by my previous statement that “the 2016 games I've played don't match up to this banner year of 2015, despite many standouts.” That said, the further we get from 2015, the more I see it as one of those special years that will be remarked about for many years to come.
Thu Jan 18, 2018 11:23 pm
I was really excited for my kids first board game convention, and knew Kid’s Day would be the perfect opportunity for it, considering its proximity to home and it being planned with kids in mind. But I also knew I wouldn’t be doing the things I normally like to do at a convention, as I knew my kids wouldn’t find chatting with boring adults interesting (no matter what games they designed or companies they ran), and demoing or playing anything heavier or longer was out, as I had to make sure my attention and focus was on them and not on a game -- temporarily misplacing my kids would have, rightfully, been the end of this hobby for me.
So I was going to let them pick and choose whatever interested them, and in doing so, I really got to see the convention through new eyes, and saw a bunch of things that I am not even sure how I missed earlier.
But first, since I was with my wife and kids, who did not have exhibitor badges, we had to wait in the queue to get in. This is where it becomes clear that PAX knows what they are doing and can handle large crowds. In large hall near the main hall, they set up a series of roped areas, parallel to one another. They filled each roped area into rough lines. At 10:00 am, they allowed one line at a time to begin walking into the main hall -- much different than the Gen Con opening door rush. It was fairly orderly, and even standing at one of the last lines, it took less than ten minutes to get in.
My eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son, both very proud to have their very own shiny Kid’s Day badges, had eyes as big as saucers upon entering the hall. Not knowing where to start, I steered them toward the APE Games booth, as I remember Jason Lees telling me they had a game called Major General that was good for all ages. Of course, when we got there, my kids weren’t interested in that game at all, because Duck! Duck! Go! was set up on the table -- with actual rubber ducks as player pieces. We demoed the game, and my daughter instantly said she wanted to buy it. I told both my kids that I would buy them each one game that day, but not until the end of the day after they played everything and picked their favorites.
After the demo, I steered the kids away from the exhibitor hall for a moment to meet up with my friends Marti and Sarah from Open Seat Gaming. I had promised them I’d teach them NMBR 9 and sat down with them and Devon, who we’d met up with earlier, to play a quick game. Sarah picked the game up right away and crushed all of us.
My wife -- a veterinarian and animal lover -- came back to the table with a game she had just bought on impulse, called You Gotta Be Kitten Me! It played up to ten players, so we opened it right up and jumped in a game. It was a bidding/push-your-luck game where you had to guess how many of a certain symbol or color there was on all the cards in every player’s hand. Bidding would go up until someone would say “You Gotta Be Kitten Me!” and the players would then count that item. If the player’s bid was correct the person calling them out would lose a card, if the bid was over, that player would lose a card. The last player with cards remaining won. The game wasn’t very good, but the company made up for it.
Not long afterward, walking around the exhibit hall, we saw a demo for Schrödinger's Cats. We stopped because my wife loves cute animal-themed games, and listened to the pitch -- and were really surprised to hear it was about a bidding-push-your-luck game that played almost identical to You Gotta Be Kitten Me! What are the odds that we would find two nearly identical cat-themed card games back to back? And what happened to doing market research before publishing? For the record, BoardGameGeek says Schrödinger's Cats came first, being first released in 2015.
Devon suggested finding Chip Beauvais so the kids could play Chroma Cubes, the “roll and color” game he designed. So we did. Of course, a game revolving around rolling colorful dice and coloring in pictures with crayons was a big hit with the kids -- as well as the adults at the table -- and I can’t wait until this one hits Kickstarter next year, as it’s a no-brainer for my household.
At this point, it was nearing lunchtime, and we headed toward the food court. We passed the Alpha Build room (a.k.a. The Unpub room) on the way, and Ben corralled us into a playtest of Shapes: The Game. The game involved drawing cards and stacking the oddly shaped pieces referenced on those cards onto a triangular base. Unlike, Junk Art, there was only one ruleset, and all the players played to the same base. This made the game more interactive, but otherwise it felt similar. It was fun, but I am not sure there is a market for another block stacking game. Even so, we all had fun playing it, and I wish the designer the best of luck with it.
My son and I had tickets for a learn to play Pokemon: The Card Game, so we were a bit pressed for time, and made the mistake of eating at the extremely overpriced food court. The pricing and food quality were similar to professional sports stadiums, but it did allow us to get back to the hall in time for the Pokemon Master Trainer to teach my son and a half dozen other kids how to be Pokemon trainers. The game was better than I expected, and the event came with a deck of Pokemon cards. Of course, I need to buy another deck so we can play together, but Christmas is around the corner, and I have a Pikachu deck on its way for us.
While the kids were still having fun trying all these games and walking around, they were also getting a bit tired. To be honest, after three days, so was I. So we agreed to walk around the exhibit hall for one more hour, get the kids each a game, and then head home.
My daughter pulled me over to the Beasts of Balance demo, which she had tried while I was learning the Pokemon game with my son. The game was a stacking game that was heavily integrated with an app. The cool toy factor on this one was off the charts, as it sensed which animals and other pieces you stacked on the base, and modified the game goals and points accordingly. I was spared the kids asking me to drop $80 on it only because it was already sold out.
Another demo we tried out that had a high toy factor was Maze Racers, which gives each player a white board and a set of rectangular pieces made of foam and magnets, and allows them to create a maze. When each player has created one -- which can be timed -- they switch and see who can solve the other’s maze the quickest. We all loved this one, and my son asked to bring it home. As they only had two copies left, and we were leaving shortly, we bought it on the spot.
Our final demo of the day was at the Calliope booth, where my kids wanted to try Scott Almes’ Dicey Peaks. This was a dice-based push-your-luck that reminded me of Zombie Dice with a few added elements, including a hex-based mountain to climb. The kids and I enjoyed it well enough, but I enjoyed my Friday demos of Capital City and Ancestree more.
My daughter, not swayed by any of the other demos she played, still wanted Duck! Duck! Go! as her convention purchase, so we swung by and picked it up on our way out of the convention hall. From there we headed back to the hotel and our car, out of Philadelphia and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, for our drive back home in Sunday evening traffic.
Overall, PAX Unplugged seemed well attended, but not overcrowded, and had a good, but subdued, publisher presence, as almost none of the pubs were pushing hot new games. The convention seemed tentative and lacking a firm identity; a golem without a soul. I look forward to seeing it evolve in future years, as publishers, designers, and convention goers -- both from the PAX crowd, and from the non-PAX board gaming community -- return with more concrete ideas and expectations from it, and infuse it with the life they want in return from it.
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