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Lost in the Shuffle review: Iron Curtain

Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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This is one of an occasional series of reviews of games that I feel have been undeservedly overlooked in the flood of new releases. They will be games released in the last couple of years that are still widely available, not obscure out-of-print ‘gems’ that you’d have to track down second-hand.

Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen have had three attempts at condensing the drama of Twilight Struggle into a shorter, leaner package (13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis and 13 Minutes: The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 being the others). In my opinion Iron Curtain is easily the best of the trilogy, despite being owned less than its cousins (according to BGG stats).

Board Game: Iron Curtain


To boil the multi-hour Twilight Struggle down to a 30-minute game you need to single out particular aspects to focus on. The two Cuban missile crisis games fittingly emphasise the tension of the Defcon track and avoiding nuclear war, but Iron Curtain instead focuses on the spatial battle to spread and block political influence. Since I’m a huge fan of spatial games, it’s no wonder this one is the more appealing to me.

While all three games retain the events/ops cards that drive Twilight Struggle’s agonising decisions, Iron Curtain brilliantly makes each card also represent a country, which gradually form a world map as the game proceeds. As in the original, countries are grouped into regions which score during the game as well as at the end. But rather than ‘scoring cards’ being inserted into the deck, a region simply scores as soon as all its constituent countries have been played to the map, according to the influence cubes that have been placed upon them.

Board Game: Iron Curtain


The abstracted geography of the ‘board’ can be configured in a very different way each game. The only restriction when you lay a new card is that it must be adjacent to any other cards in the same region, while the first card of a region can be placed anywhere. This combines with the rule that you can only ever place influence (cubes) on cards adjacent to your existing influence to make the geography extremely important.

What’s more, Iron Curtain keeps the ‘control’ rule from Twilight Struggle – it costs double to play influence into a card where your opponent already leads by two cubes. That means it’s possible to ‘tuck away’ Africa, for example, behind a South American card you already control. It’s a little stretch to make sense of this thematically, but for gameplay it’s ingenious.

Board Game: Iron Curtain


As well as the geography they represent, you’ll be weighing your hand according to the familiar Twilight Struggle factors of how much influence it allows you to place, whether you’d rather use one of your own powerful events, and how you’re going to mitigate the damage of your opponent’s events triggering when you play one of their cards.

The deck comprises a mere 18 cards but the events can be real game-changers. In particular they often offer you the chance to ‘infiltrate’ cubes into cards that you wouldn’t be able to reach through the normal adjacency. There are also a few gotcha cards affecting specific countries, but with the smaller deck, trying to remember them isn’t as big a frustration in learning the game as it can be in Twilight Struggle.

The final twist is that not all regions will score during the game. In the first half of the game each player is dealt 5 cards to be played in turn until they only have one left. That card is put aside face-down to be used as part of the final scoring, if the game makes it that far, before the game continues with the players taking four more cards each and playing the second half in the same manner.

Board Game: Iron Curtain


The ‘aftermath’ cards score you points directly according to the number of influence they are worth (or points for your opponent if you bury one of their events) but they also mean that their associated region won’t be completed during the game, so they can be used to reduce the impact of a region you feel you’re unlikely to capture. Like Twilight Struggle, points scored during the game as regions score move the players back and forth on a see-saw score track, with an immediate victory if you reach your end. But often the game goes all the way to final scoring of the aftermath cards followed by each region scoring again in a dramatic finish.

There’s a fair amount of luck to the distribution of cards, with a couple of USSR four-cube events sometimes proving pivotal, but more than enough room for cunning tactics too. If you enjoy the map play and area majority of Twilight Struggle, then like me, this could well be the shortened version for you. I love the variation between games, with the map sometimes evolving into a compact grid, and other games a spindly spider.

Iron Curtain is available for under £20 in the UK and a steal of $12 in the US. The box is too damn big for 20 cards and a bag of cubes but I’m sure you can sort yourself out with a travel solution!
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Mon Sep 21, 2020 4:09 pm
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Lost in the Shuffle review: Spies & Lies

Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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This is one of an occasional series of reviews of games that I feel have been undeservedly overlooked in the flood of new releases. They will be games released in the last couple of years that are still widely available, not obscure out-of-print ‘gems’ that you’d have to track down second-hand.

Imagine the designer of The Resistance made a brilliant two-player deduction/bluffing game... and nobody noticed. Well, you don’t have to imagine: that’s exactly what Spies & Lies: A Stratego Story is and I’m here to tell you why.

Bluffing games walk a fine line between uninformed guesswork and boring predictability. They need to give the players just enough information about each other’s positions and motivations that they can make educated guesses but not become obvious. Spies & Lies does that in a number of clever ways.

Board Game: Spies & Lies: A Stratego Story


The basic setup will be familiar: a two-player tug of war in which we’re each trying to push the Double Agent piece into our opponent’s castle. This takes place over three rounds (if it doesn’t end sooner) and on each round each player will choose four of their ten Soldier cards to secretly deploy. Each player has the same set of ten soldiers, numbered 1-10 and each with a unique power. Over the course of the round you will take turns to guess which card your opponent has deployed next, negating its power (and scoring some points) if you are correct; allowing them to use the power (and score some points) if you’re not.

Did I say guess? Here’s where the information starts to come in. Most concretely, each player will have one of their 10 cards randomly picked to sit out of the round face-up. Don’t guess that one!

Board Game: Spies & Lies: A Stratego Story


The core of the game is the deployment of the four secret cards. You lay them all out face-down at the start of the round and they must be in ascending numerical order. (So maybe don’t put your 7 as the first card...) Next an ‘intel card’ is flipped from a small deck which tells you which soldiers you must give up information about. The intel card will be labelled 1-4, 4-7 or 7-10 and each soldier in that range must be marked with an intel token. Because there are only two of each type of intel card and one is set out face-up at the start, you have a good idea what the odds are.

So far, this information is pretty concrete. It deals in certainties and probabilities rather than psychology. But now may I introduce you to Soldier No. 4, the Sergeant. This wily fellow can break the rule about being deployed in ascending order, and you don’t even have to tell the truth about him in the intel phase. So now things start getting a bit murkier. Perhaps you can get away with the 7 as your first card after all!

Board Game: Spies & Lies: A Stratego Story


The other special powers twist the game and interact in interesting ways too, and are also where the game most obviously takes inspiration from its namesake. The Spy (1) disables the Marshal (10). The Bomb (7) takes out whatever is played next. Some powers move the Double Agent directly, while most just move you up on your personal score track, which moves the Double Agent whenever it hits 10 and then resets to zero.

So depending on the current game state, some powers will be more or less useful, and thus more or less likely to be played and more or less likely to be guessed. Should I guess General (9) because I really don’t want its power (move the Double Agent two spaces) activating right now? Or is that exactly what you want me to think, and instead you’ve slipped in the Captain (6) who can revive the face-up card that was set aside at the start of the round? What’s more, you can’t ‘keep the change’ on the scoring track, so you don’t want to score a bunch of points when you’re already on 8.

Board Game: Spies & Lies: A Stratego Story


And then there’s the meta-game! Last time we played you shocked me with a General (9) as your second card but surely, surely you wouldn’t be so bold as to try that again...

If the game has a disadvantage, it’s that there’s a fair bit of fiddle to internalise with the special powers and their interactions (and the player aids and cards only being labelled with number rather than name was a poor decision). You’ll want to play back to back to get over that hump and into the mind games that really make the game sing.

One final delightful twist is the ‘deception token’, of which you each start with one. This is explicitly for messing with your opponent’s mind; you throw it down just before they’re about to make a guess, and if they’re wrong you get a valuable 4 bonus points. You'd only be cocky enough to throw one of those down when you'd made a really unexpected pick, right? Right?

Unfortunately, Spies & Lies doesn’t seem to be available directly in the US, which perhaps explains why it has gone under the radar on BGG, but you can get it shipped from Amazon UK for under $30 total and it’s available for £15 or 15 euros in the UK and mainland Europe. Apart from the aforementioned issue with the player aids the production is great: chunky plastic score trackers and colourful cards and board all inside a small square box (similar to the Lookout 2p line).
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Mon Sep 14, 2020 4:51 pm
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Lost in the Shuffle review: Letterpress

Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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This is the first in an occasional series of reviews of games that I feel have been undeservedly overlooked in the flood of new releases. They will be games released in the last couple of years that are still widely available, not obscure out-of-print ‘gems’ that you’d have to track down second-hand.

Letterpress is Osprey Games’ recent re-print (with only minor rules changes) of Robin David’s Movable Type. It’s a simple spelling game using drafting as its main mechanism and it should strongly appeal to fans of Scrabble, Bananagrams or Boggle. In my opinion, it’s more fun (if perhaps less original) than the more-trumpeted recent spelling games Paperback and Letter Jam.
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For me, a big draw of letter games is making use of your vocabulary and spelling long words! I do love Scrabble but it can be disappointing when it’s dominated by things like QI and ZO rather than 7-letter bingos, and a rack consisting of all vowels or consonants doesn’t leave much room for satisfying play either.

Letterpress addresses these issues in several smart ways. Most importantly, you get to choose your letters, not draw them randomly. The first four rounds of the game progress in the same way. Each player is dealt five letter cards (like Scrabble they have point values rewarding more difficult letters) from which they draft one and pass four on, repeating until they’ve drafted a hand of five. Before the draft, three letters (of which one is guaranteed to be a vowel, avoiding the GJXFGBN problem) are placed face-up for everyone to use, which informs your choices in the draft as you may be aiming for a specific word.

Next, everyone simultaneously works out the best word they can make (goodbye downtime!). There is an additional factor for the players to mull while constructing their words: each round three different challenge cards are revealed that offer rewards for completing a specific task, such as scoring exactly 16 points or using all of the shared letters. In another smart twist I haven’t seen before, you’re allowed to use each card as a ‘double’ of its letter – a D can be used as DD and so on. This doesn’t score you any more points but makes for more freedom in the drafting.

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Players now reveal their words, compare scores and claim challenges. If it were simply a case of repeating this four times, totting up the scores and calculating the winner at the end, it would be a perfectly decent game. But Letterpress spoils us by adding a longer-term arc and a dramatic finale. The reward for having the highest-scoring word in the first four rounds is not victory points, it’s a better choice of letters (drafted from all players’ completed words at the end of a round) for the crucial fifth round. Completed challenges also award special combinations of letters (such as the ever-useful ‘ING’) that can be used in that final round.

When the fifth round comes, there’s no standard draft, you just have the letters you claimed during the previous rounds plus three final common letters to make the best word you can. Your points from earlier rounds don’t carry over at all – it’s winner takes all! That means a dramatic comeback is possible from a player who’s picked smartly from the ‘leftovers’ each round, but a player who has dominated the first four rounds should still have the best chance of winning with the greater quantity and quality of letters in their final pile.

What’s really delightful about the ‘eliminator round’ is that you can plan for it from the word go, drafting letters in earlier rounds to make sure that they’re available for the big word you’re hoping to make at the end, and aiming to claim helpful challenge cards. You won’t win this game with an OX and an AX on a triple-word score – you’ll need something like the MOUSTACHIOED that I was one letter away from the other day! (had to settle for STOMACHED).

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A word on player count, with a generous 1-6 offered on the box. As is common in drafting games, the fewer players, the more strategic. I really like this as a 2p or 3p game where you know that the draft will go round the table, but that’s not to say it won’t be enjoyable with the increased competition for challenges at 4+. The solo mode is also surprisingly entertaining. The draft is replaced by just picking from a random selection of 5, then 4, then 3, then 2, then 1 card and you don’t use the challenges, but there’s an ingenious mechanism to simulate the competition for letters for the final round.

However many you play with, thanks to the simultaneous play it shouldn’t take more than half an hour. It packs a great punch in that time and should leave you smiling from a chunky final word even if you don’t win.

Letterpress is available from most UK retailers for around £15 shipped and considerably cheaper than that if you’re OK with buying from Amazon. It can be had for under $20 in the USA. As we've come to expect from Osprey, the physical production is excellent from the tightly-fitting small box to the player aids and clear rules.
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Wed Sep 9, 2020 4:00 pm
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A tale of two Azuls: what makes a great drafting game?

Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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What makes a drafting game work for me? That’s the question I pondered after my first play of Azul: Summer Pavilion this weekend. I’ve played Azul 30+ times and it’s my favourite ‘draft stuff from the middle to use in your personal area’ game. But I loathed Summer Pavilion, and was unimpressed by Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra too (though I’ve forgotten the details of that one so won’t mention it further).

At first glance, this extreme bipolar reaction seems odd. Both games have (almost) exactly the same drafting mechanism and what you do on your player mat is also very similar. Over a series of rounds, you collect varying-sized sets of like-coloured tiles in order to place one of them on a marked space on the board, scoring points immediately for adjacent tiles and at the end of the game for specific completed patterns. And the two games get very similar average ratings both on BGG as a whole but also (and more surprisingly to me) from my trusted panel of geekbuddies.

A model of drafting

So what’s the big difference? Here’s where I needed a toy model of what happens in these open drafting games:

From gallery of qwertymartin


Each player has an individual area where they assemble the tiles they collect from a central, shared drafting area. The simplest relationship in the game is between what you have in your individual area and what’s available in the centre (shown by the black arrow on the left). Based on your short-term and long-term goals, you make an assessment of which things in the middle you want most, which can wait for later and which you need to avoid. If this black arrow were all that existed, the game would be essentially multiplayer solitaire with the other players functioning as a randomised input: you’d just take the highest-priority item that’s still available each time it’s your turn.

The two red arrows are where interaction between players comes into the picture. The first prerequisite for meaningful interaction is that by looking at the other players’ individual areas (top right of the diagram) you can easily figure out what their drafting priorities might be. I labelled this arrow ‘readability’ for how easy it is to discern other players’ intentions by glancing at their board. As the action on the individual player mats becomes more complex, not only do you need to spend more brain power figuring out your own board but it also becomes more difficult to read the other players’ boards. Taking complexity to an extreme, readability goes to zero and the game is back to a parallel solo puzzle.

But even if you can easily read the other players’ boards and assess their intentions, there may still be little you can do to act on that information in the drafting choices you make. The most common form of the diagonal red ‘interaction’ arrow is simple denial. If I know something is your top priority but it’s only my second, I might take it first hoping I’ll still get my other pick later. The problem with this weak form of interaction is that in a game with more than two players, spurning your top choice to deny another player theirs may just hurt you both at the expense of the un-involved players.

The triumph of Azul

Finally, we can analyse what (for me) the original Azul does so well in each of these three processes.
Board Game: Azul

In terms of prioritisation, Azul offers very clear short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. There’s what you need right now (because otherwise it might not be available), what you need before the end of this round (completed rows in your pattern lines), and what you need before the end of the game (completed features in your wall).

These priorities are also made highly readable on other players’ boards. Even if you don’t think about what another player’s long-term (endgame) goals are, you can still very easily see what they’re collecting in their pattern lines and what they still need to draft this round to complete them. There’s a significant benefit to completing a row this round rather than leaving it to next. By failing to complete a row, not only do you lose out on an opportunity to place a tile in your wall but you also reduce your flexibility in the next round. This gives each round a strong dramatic arc. The wall area also makes each players’ long-term goals easily readable as they are simple geometric relationships of tiles (rows, columns, sets of colours). This drives the longer arc of the whole game, as even by the mid-game you can see which goals a player is chasing and factor that in to your decision-making.

The other piece of brilliance in Azul is the way it enhances the interaction arrow beyond mere denial. That’s because when you take a set of tiles from the middle, not only do you remove those tiles from circulation but you also change the selection of tiles still available to the other players, as untaken tiles from a factory are piled into the middle. This means that sometimes you can take the thing that’s best for you (considering your individual board) while also denying another player what they need for theirs. For example, causing two pairs of red tiles to be combined and force your opponent to take four if they want any, dropping some onto the floor for negative points. This type of move is what gives the turn-to-turn satisfaction of advancing your goals while making someone else curse you.

The tragedy of Summer Pavilion

So if Summer Pavilion uses the same drafting mechanism and similar individual board action (the player boards are more complex than Azul but less than Sintra), how does it manage to feel so different (and for me inferior)?

Board Game: Azul: Summer Pavilion


The crucial change is the elimination of the pattern lines. Instead, when you draft a set of tiles you just pile them up at the side of your board, only deciding how to spend them on your individual board at the end of the round. That simple change has a massive impact. First, it makes your personal prioritisation less interesting: without upfront commitment the stakes for choosing the wrong tiles are dramatically lowered, as you’ll probably be able to use what you’ve ended up with somehow. There’s no equivalent of getting clogged up with incomplete rows.

Secondly, it reduces the readability of the other players’ boards. There are so many different ways you can spend your tiles that it’s very difficult to infer what another player needs to do. And there’s much less emphasis on the medium-term within-this-round goals as for most placements it doesn’t matter whether you finish them now, only whether you get them done before the end of the game.

It’s not just the removal of the pattern lines but also several other changes in Summer Pavilion that emphasise this trend. Each round now has a different colour designated as ‘wild’; that colour can be spent in the stead of any other, which increases the options and reduces the readability. Similarly completing certain features gives you access to ‘bonus’ tiles from another display, so it’s harder to completely deny a colour to another player. And finally you’re allowed to store up to four tiles from one round to the next, so even if you mess up your drafting and can’t use the tiles yet, they’ll still be useful later -- contrast the punishing floor-tile negative scoring for unusable tiles in the original.

Putting this together, you can see how the differences make the game far less interactive than Azul, even though it uses the same drafting mechanism. Most of the time you can’t set up moves that help you and hinder others, because they’ll almost certainly be able to use the tiles they get ‘stuck with’ anyway. The long-term end-game goals are still quite readable on the other players’ boards -- particularly completing coloured stars of six tiles -- but it’s hard to strongly affect them until the very last round of the game. Even then there’s sufficient flexibility that most players should be able to find a way around blocking attempts. As a result, it often seems best to just take the biggest batch of tiles you can get.

A personal reaction

Interestingly the ‘advanced’ variants for Azul (the joker tiles and the reverse player boards), neither of which I’ve used, seem to take it more in the direction of Summer Pavilion. I even found a comment saying: “The shift to using the opposite side of the board creates such openness that it's nearly impossible to predict what other players want”, which that user seemed to see as a desirable feature but certainly isn't for me. It's also worth noting that Azul loses some of the tense, interactive feel with 4 players, which is why I prefer it with 2 or 3.

There are other comparisons I could mention: the fixed length of Summer Pavilion rather than the original’s player-driven one; the separation of the collection and placement phases stretching the game out to at least 50% longer; the way the end-game scoring encourages players to diversify into different colours from each other, further reducing the interaction, but I think I’ve made my point.

I should stress that this reaction to the two games is personal. If, like me, what you valued about Azul was the tension and interaction of the drafting, the satisfaction of pulling off a double-edge move, and the looming threat of a bunch of negative points, then I’d suggest you stay far away from this iteration. If you found yourself enjoying puzzling your wall together but bemoaning the ‘meanness’ and preferring the 4p game, Summer Pavilion could be right up your street.
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Mon Feb 10, 2020 3:00 pm
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Babylonia review

Martin G
United Kingdom
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and I have posted a monster (6500 word!) review of Knizia's new tile-laying game Babylonia:

Where is Babylonia? A pair of Kniziaphiles discuss how Reiner's new tile-laying game fits into his ludography

I won't crosspost here but please check it out!
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Fri Jan 31, 2020 10:21 am
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Join The Crew -- for trick-taking pros and newbies alike!

Martin G
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The joy of trick taking games is that each deal gives you a fresh puzzle to figure out. How am I going to get where I want to go with this hand? As you play more trick-takers (and there are many!), you learn the meta-strategies for forecasting how a hand might play out and deducing what your opponents are holding. Voiding a suit so you can ditch unwanted cards; running a long suit until everyone else is out of it; and not being caught out when your opponents turn those tricks on you!

Board Game: The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine

The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine does two remarkable things. Most obviously it turns the individual, competitive puzzle of evaluating your hand into a collective, co-operative one, aided by a wonderful restricted communication system. But more than that its mission structure works a bit like a tutorial in the strategies outlined above, making this a game that can appeal not just to trick-taking aficionados but also as a perfect introduction to the genre for anyone.

The best way to illustrate this is to take a look at the very first mission, which introduces the core concepts of the game. As in every mission, the 40 cards (1-9 in each of four suits, 1-4 in a trump suit) are distributed evenly and the player holding the highest trump becomes the ‘commander’. As commander they’re first to draft a ‘task’ and first to lead. Tasks are drawn from another deck of 1-9 in the 4 suits (no trumps in this deck) and by taking one a player commits themself to winning the trick containing that card. The trick play itself is ‘standard’ – you must follow suit if you can, you can play anything if you can’t and the highest card in the led suit wins, unless a trump was played.

Mission 1 has just one task, so the commander is obliged to take it. Sometimes the deal will be kind: if the task is ‘9 yellow’ and the commander holds the same card in hand, she simply leads it and the other players refrain from trumping. Mission complete!

But what if the task is ‘9 yellow’ and the commander doesn’t hold that card? There are two possibilities to still succeed: the commander can get rid of any yellows they hold and then trump the trick in which the 9 is eventually played; or the commander can lead a suit that the holder of the 9 is out of, allowing them to toss the 9 yellow in as a discard. The risk of failure is that the player holding the 9 is forced to play it before they are ready – say the commander leads yellow but the 9-holder has no more yellows and is forced to win the trick with it.

Board Game: The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine

Crucially, The Crew gives the players a limited line of communication to avoid these mishaps. Once per mission attempt, immediately before any trick, each player has the opportunity to put one card from their hand face-up on the table and indicate with a token whether it is their only card of that suit, their highest of that suit, or their lowest. So in the situation just mentioned, a player might swiftly lay the 9 down and indicate it is as their only yellow, or if they happened to have the 8 and the 9, could give even more information by indicating the 8 as their lowest yellow.

Hopefully this discussion shows that, as in all good trick-takers, a large amount of variability and replayability comes from the random deal of the cards. What if the commander’s task was ‘1 pink’? Should be easy enough if they don’t hold it but do have a high pink; tougher if they do!

But rather than providing just one mode of play, The Crew gradually ramps up the challenge through a ‘logbook’ of 50 missions that introduce new concepts and expand existing ones. In Mission 2, two players have a task. In Mission 3, the order the two tasks must be completed in is specified. In Mission 6, communication is limited to placing a highest/lowest/only card face-up but not getting to specify which of those conditions it meets. In Mission 12, after the first trick, everyone has to draw a random card from the player on their right.

Delightfully, in our last session, this mission left me holding all 4 trumps and the card I’d picked as my task. So we had just 6 tricks instead of 10 to make sure that we completed all 4 tasks, because I would then be stuck winning every other trick! This is the type of interesting puzzle The Crew will throw up again and again, allowing players to hone their trick-play and communication. I’m only up to level 14 so far and can’t wait to see what else is in store!

There are a few aspects that could be viewed negatively. It seems that The Crew will be most rewarding played all the way through with the same group, but that will take multiple sessions even without a lot of failed mission attempts. It seems unfair not to return to some of the early levels with new players to get them up to speed. Furthermore it seems optimised for 4 players. With 3, I’ve heard that the larger number of tricks per hand can make it feel a bit too easy, and with 5 the opposite problem occurs (though there is a tweak to the difficultly for higher levels with 5p). With 2, a dummy hand has to be introduced to retain some mystery: I’ve not tried it but these modes are often cumbersome.

You might also have noticed that I’ve made no reference to the ‘theme’ of a crew of astronauts attempting to discover ‘Planet 9’ – it’s of the pasted-on variety, though there is a short thematic paragraph in the log book to introduce each mission. And finally, the card quality in the current edition is poor for a deck that will require a lot of shuffling – it may be worth waiting for the English edition which promises linen cards as well as an official translation of the rules and mission text (I'm already planning to buy it again!)

Those caveats noted, I find The Crew delightful. Trick-takers and limited communication co-ops are two genres I love and this combines them brilliantly, while hopefully being an enticing way to hook new players on trick-taking too. It’s early, but I’d be surprised if it isn’t at least a nominee for the 2020 Spiel des Jahres and I'd be delighted to see it win.

[photo credits to KOSMOS and BGG user Einsiedler]
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Thu Nov 28, 2019 12:06 pm
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Air, Land & Sea: a pleasing D-Day discovery

Martin G
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Bristol
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I'd briefly looked at Air, Land & Sea when it was added to the geeklist Games like Battle Line (area control card games, mostly without a board), so I was pleased to see my friend Joe had picked up a copy. I had a lot of fun with 'meaty microgames' like Circle the Wagons and Iron Curtain and this sounded like it might pack a similar punch in just 18 cards.

So what's it all about? It's like Battle Line in that you're simultaneously contesting multiple areas by playing cards to them, and you win a round by controlling a majority. But here it's only three areas (you guessed it - Air, Land and Sea) and they're not fought over with poker hands but just total value of cards played. You also only get the six cards you're dealt to play in each round - no extra draws.

Board Game: Air, Land & Sea


The cards come in suits matching the three theatres, each with values of 1-6, and you can only play a card to your side of its matching domain. So where are the decisions? Isn't the outcome pre-determined by the cards you are dealt? Well, not quite...

Board Game: Air, Land & Sea


The first complication is that you can play a card 'out of suit' by turning it face down. Instead of its normal face value, you always only get a value of 2 for those cards, but it does give you some flexibility.

More importantly, each card has a special power, some of which are immediate and some permanent. For example Blockade lets you return a previously-played card to your hand and then take another turn; Air Drop lets you play your card next turn to any theatre; and Cover Fire makes any card under it worth 4 instead of its face value (great if you've got a few face-down cards!).

Board Game: Air, Land & Sea


The neatest thing in the design is the way the face-down cards interact with the powers. There are several powers which can 'flip' other cards, either your opponent's or your own. This potentially lets you deactivate irritating permanent powers or neuter high-valued cards on your opponent's side. But it also lets you flip your own face-down cards over, at which point their special power activates, potentially setting off chain reactions.

It's not a total free-for-all though. When you play a card to a theater that already has a card, it 'covers' it. That leaves the value and any persistent power of the covered card intact, but prevents it being flipped. So you can act to protect your key assets.

The face-down cards and the fact that six cards are left out of each round completely leads to a nice cat-and-mouse feel, which will only be enhanced once the players are more familiar with the available powers.

But of course you might just get dealt a terrible hand -- since you need to win 2 out of 3 theaters, you don't want your strength spread evenly over all three, and having a bunch of low cards will hurt too. The design provides for a nice work-around for that too. Winning a battle played to completion is worth 6 points - half what you need for victory. But if you feel sure you're going to lose, you can withdraw early, with a sliding scale of points conceded depending on how many cards you had left in hand at the time.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this. It's another great entry in the impressive recent field of 20-minute, 18-card microgames and I look forward to giving it a few more goes soon.
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Thu Jun 6, 2019 3:29 pm
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Sol: first days of a favourite?

Martin G
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Bristol
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This isn't a review but a very positive first-play impression of Sol: Last Days of a Star - a remarkably assured and restrained design for a first-time-designer Kickstarter-funded game. What's so good about it?

A bold theme

Sol is set around a dying star. The post-scarcity civilisation which has relied on it is desperately trying to harvest enough energy from the sun to escape in their Arks before it goes supernova. That's already an original and intriguing concept, but the way it is executed is even more impressive. There's no unnecessary bloat - just an almost-abstract dance of pieces through space that nevertheless evokes the setting beautifully.

The clearest example of this is in the way each player's mothership orbits the sun, moving one space each turn whether you like it or not. The mothership is also where you must launch all your probes ('sundivers') from, from where they descend into the sun, constructing and exploiting static stations. So you need to plan ahead, constructing stations ready to exploit on your next lap of the sun, when you can drop another posse of sundivers.

Spatial play

I love boardgames to have a shared spatial arena in which the players interact (rather than the individual boards that have become so common). As alluded to above, Sol does that brilliantly. The board is a circle made up of five layers, from the core of the sun out to outer orbit. The motherships gracefully orbit the edge while sundivers must be released and deployed to the lower layers.

Importantly, to access the inner layers of the sun, you'll have to construct 'gates', which drive the evolving geometry of the board. And why do you want to dive into the sun? Because the three types of station (which supply energy, convert energy into new sundivers, or into 'momentum' (VP)) are more powerful the closer to the sun they are deployed. Soon clusters of stations form around the access provided by a sequence of gates.

Shared structures

Another huge element in the feel of the game is that you can use other players' gates and stations, by paying or sharing the benefit with them. So the players don't just form their own clusters of gates and stations for private exploitation; they co-depend on each other, especially as your mothership often won't be above the stuff you built! I love this mutualistic element in a game - the combination of spatial development and mutual exploitation reminds me of the Kramer/Kiesling Mask games.

A simple menu

Meanwhile, Sol borrows from another of my favourite designers, Knizia, in the turn and action choice structure. The players simply alternate turns round and round until the game ends (no complex phases) and on each turn have the same three-way choice: launch and move sundivers; convert sundivers into a new gate or station; or activate existing stations with sundivers to harvest their benefits. Of course that leads into a cascade of further decisions -- the move action gives you 3-8 action points to spend on movements; conversion is only possible by getting your sundivers into the appropriate pattern for the structure you wish to construct; and activation can only be of one *type* of station per turn, again driving you to make use of the other players' infrastructure.

The choice of action is informed by the game's economy, which has just three basic currencies: momentum (straight up VP); energy (which you need to build sundivers and gain momentum); and sundivers (which you need to build and activate structures. In another clever twist, to activate the big benefits of a centrally-placed structure, you have to be able to do all of it in one go: it's no good activating a 'convert 5 energy to 5 momentum' tower if you only have four. Furthermore, if you activate an opponent's structure and they don't have the necessary resources to take their bonus, you can take it instead! Timing is crucial...

Restrained variability

Honestly, if that was everything there was, this would still be a great game. But it also has an ingenious system to introduce game-to-game variability without overwhelming the basic structure. At the beginning of the game, about 5 special powers (depending on player count) are selected from a deck of 30, and each associated with a particular colour matching a suit in the 'instability deck' of cards. The cards themselves are just colours - they get their meaning through the powers selected.

Building or activating structures lower in the sun triggers more draws from the event deck, as you accelerate the instability. But even if you draw eight cards on your turn, you only get to choose and keep one of them, and it replaces any card you'd previously kept. That keeps the power of the special events in check, and avoids combo-driven uber-turns.

What about the special powers themselves? They're divided into simpler, more complex, and more evil so you can either choose randomly or customise for a beginner, expert or more fighty experience. They do enough to make the game different each time without overwhelming the core.

A race to the finish

What's more, the instability deck is the game clock. Once all 13 of the red suit ('solar flares') has been drawn, the game immediately comes to a close, whoever has the most momentum escaping the supernova. As the red cards pile up, activity grows more frantic, and you can even hurl sundivers directly into the core of the sun, eliminating them from the game, in order to eke out a few more momentum points from the resulting shockwave.

Summary

What was I most impressed about in my first play of Sol? For one, that when we were asked what other games it's like, none of us had an immediate and obvious answer. And for another, that it knows just what it wants to do and does it with restraint. This doesn't feel churned out, it feels crafted and I'm really looking forward to seeing what more plays unveil.
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Fri May 17, 2019 10:31 am
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What I love (and you might hate) about Senators

Martin G
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Bristol
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Senators is a cut-throat auction and extortion game from Rikki Tahta (of Coup fame) and his dad Haig that first appeared in a self-published limited edition at Essen 2017. It’s recently been reissued in glossier English (Indie Boards & Cards) and French (Ferti) editions but seems to be flying under the radar. I played it seven times in April, spanning all player counts, and hugely enjoyed it. Here are some of the reasons why I loved it, but which also explain why it won’t be a game for everyone.

Putting the economy in the players’ hands

At first glance this may look like a same-old-same-old affair of collecting resources (values 1-9 of six different types), trading in sets (three cards matching number or type, bonus for straight flushes) and using the proceeds to buy victory points (the titular senators). But while that description is accurate at a surface level, it conceals the player-driven economy that’s at the core of the game.

Crucially there is no fixed price for acquiring resources – they are all bought and sold between players via the game’s two main actions: auction and extortion. If you take the auction action, you turn up four cards from draw piles: three resources and an office (to which we will return). Then each other player has one opportunity to bid on as many of those cards as they like, beating any previous bid. Finally the active player may choose for each card to either sell it to the high-bidder, taking the money, or buy it from the high-bidder at the same price. Any cards acquired go (for now) face-up in front of the purchaser.

This type of auction (but for one lot at a time) is also seen in Neue Heimat/The Estates, and as in that game it asks the other players to put the auctioneer in a tricky spot, and to get what they each want out of the auction, be it cards or cash.

The extortion action, however, puts the power firmly in the hands of the active player. Remember those face-up cards you thought you bought at a nice price? They’re not safe yet! In an extortion, the active player gets to make each other player a fixed offer for one of their public cards (similar to the bribes in Ponzi Scheme). They must either sell it at that price or cough up the money to hang on to the card. At least there is some respite in that resource cards that have been involved in an extortion turn private and so can’t be extorted again.

These two actions power the game, sloshing money around between players and making it dangerous to run low on cash-in-hand as you are liable to have your cards picked over by vultures. Even worse, if you end up with a debt you can’t pay, you have to sell senators (which are what win you the game) at a punitive price (5) to make up the difference.

The third and final action is where your collection of cards and money comes to fruition, trading in sets for cash, buying as many senators as you like for 10 each and using any of the powers of the aforementioned Office cards: some let you buy for 7 instead of 10; some are ‘wild’ resources; some let you trade in non-matching sets; and some let you straight up steal a senator from a player who’s ahead of you. It’s a less powerful action than the other two but sometimes a necessary one, to cash in cards before they’re extorted or to improve your liquidity. Oh and because this game is mean, the Office cards can be extorted too, but they never turn private.

I heard you like auctions, so I put auctions in your auctions

If that was the only way to get senators, the game would still be pretty interesting, but several more are provided through an event deck of 22 cards, one of which is drawn at the beginning of each player’s turn. Amongst these lie three more interesting auction types (somewhere out there, Reiner Knizia is smiling).

1 A Dutch auction, starting at 15 for the active player, then moving round the table dropping one at a time until someone buys the senator.
2 A blind bid with everyone paying and only the high bidder getting a senator.
3 A blind bid with everyone paying but with a threshold of 10/15/20: if the bids collectively meet the threshold, the high-bidder gets a senator but if they don’t, the low-bidder loses a senator.

Putting all this together, a big part of the game is about getting your senators at the right exchange rate, which could be as low as 1 or as high as 15!

Playing the odds

Oh, about that event deck? It hates you. As well as the events mentioned above, there’s one that makes everyone pay 5 to the bank, which always seems to come at the worst moment. You’re immune to it if you hold a Governor (the ‘wild’ resource Office cards) but guess what? There’s another event that makes everyone discard their governors.

And most importantly of all, the event deck provides the game timer. There are five ‘War’ cards (which also trigger the blind bids for senators) and when the fourth is drawn, the game immediately ends, with most senators winning and any money or resources you haven’t traded in turning to ashes in your mouth. There’s no seeding of the event deck (unless you house-rule it) so the end can come brutally swiftly, with an end-of-days push-your-luck feel once three wars are out but you want to leave it to the last moment to cash in.

All of this can make the event deck feel terribly swingy and unfair – some may even see it as a throwback to a more primitive age of game design. But a) it generates lots of dramatic and groan-inducing moments (which are what I play games for) and b) there are only a few different types of events with multiple copies of each so it’s more about playing the odds than a crapshoot (Knizia did this idea really well in the under-rated Municipium incidentally).

Nasty, brutish and short

Senators won’t hold your hand and it will let you fail hard. Run out of cash early and you can slip into a death spiral. It’s even possible to be forced to sell all five of your starting Senators and be eliminated entirely, though we haven’t seen it yet.

There’s some element of bash-the-leader with the Office cards that let you steal senators, but there are also six ‘rich get richer’ events which give you 2 money for each player you’re beating on the senator track. That may seem odd at first glance, but it’s a good way to tempt the players to cash in earlier than they otherwise might, rather than saving up for a big final push.

In many ways it feels like an old-school design, eschewing ‘balance’ in favour of swingy event cards, rich-get-richer mechanisms and even (God forbid!) the possibility of player elimination. But before you run screaming, bear in mind that this is a delightfully brisk affair – the short event deck guaranteeing no more than 3-5 turns per player. 5p runs the longest because each auction and extortion action involves more players but we’ve zipped through a 3p in under half an hour (or significantly less the time we shuffled up four Wars in the first five cards!)

The master would approve

I’ve pointed out a few similarities to Knizia games as I’ve gone along and there are more. It’s a game that asks each player to choose just one action from a short menu (three in this case) – one of my favourite game structures. It’s highly interactive, with each action involving all the other players (even the cash-in action allows other players to pay you to take the action for themselves on your turn). It uses its theme more as a mnemonic than to support a narrative. And it gets a lot of depth out of some very simple rules.

From me, to say Knizia would approve is about as high a compliment as you get! If you feel the same, do check this one out.
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Wed May 1, 2019 4:53 pm
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Time of Crisis review

Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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I'll tidy this up a bit and add some pics before I submit it to GeekMod, but thought I'd put it up here for comment now.

------------------------------

I’ve just received the Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284 AD expansion and before I dive into that, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the base game after 16 face-to-face plays and the same again online.

You won’t be surprised to read that I adore the game, but I think I also have a good understanding of why other people might not. I’ve tried to write this review in a way that works for both audiences, explaining why the things I love about ToC might be the very same ones that you hate.

Bash, bash, bash the leader

The most divisive thing about ToC is its style of interaction. The central focus of the game is manoeuvring to become Emperor, a position that offers significant benefits both in raw victory points and in the capacity to build your engine by buying stronger cards. This positive feedback loop (‘rich get richer’) makes it imperative that non-Emperor players put other concerns aside to work together against a strong Emperor before they become unbeatable. Bashing the leader runs through the game’s very core, emphasised by the ‘king of the hill’ status of Emperor.

Many complaints I’ve seen about the game come from players unwilling to participate in this fundamental aspect of the game. If you let the first player into Rome sit there for several turns growing stronger, the game will fizzle away into a foregone conclusion. The game does give the players the tools to undermine a strong Emperor if they work together, but if you know you do not enjoy direct attacks or the diplomacy involved in co-ordinating them then you should probably stop reading now.

And it’s not just about bashing the current Emperor, but also watching out carefully for who is best placed to take advantage of the power vacuum and pre-emptively weakening them too. Depending on your group, this has the potential to generate a lot of table talk and informal negotiation.

A game of tactics

Related to the above, Time of Crisis is without doubt a game that favours tactical opportunism over strategic engine-building. It is not a game for players who prefer to build and optimise a personal fiefdom. As in my all-time favourite, Tigris & Euphrates, it’s a mistake to think of any province as ‘mine’; they are just transient ingredients in a wider pursuit of power.

You need to control provinces to score points and to buy cards which let you score more points later. But rather than investing in the provinces you already control (by increasing their support level and constructing Improvements), it’s often easier to prise a weak province away from another player. With a table of players who prefer to ‘turtle’ and build up their initial provinces, the game will become static and tend to encourage the runaway leader situation discussed above. But with players who are happy to cede control of provinces that are no longer useful and seize opportunities as they present themselves, the board develops roiling waves of shifting control.

In another echo of T&E, there are two ways of taking control: one by military strength; the other by political intrigue. Combined with an action point system and special card powers, this allows creative strings of moves to be executed, achieving more than you might initially have thought possible. But this also means that each turn feels like a fresh tactical puzzle to be figured out, rather than the execution of the next step in a long-held masterplan. The board can and should change dramatically between your turns, which is something not all players enjoy.

Roll those dice

The favouring of tactical over strategic thinking is further emphasised by the way the game handles randomness. Unusually, there is no randomness in the way you choose the cards to make up your hand each turn (see the deck-building section below). But both the political and military attack routes depend on chucking handfuls of dice, and over the course of the game you will experience both implausible victories and debilitating defeats on ‘sure things’.

And randomness doesn’t just affect the outcomes of battles. The ‘crisis’ referred to in the game’s title isn’t just one of internal instability but also external threats from barbarian tribes. Each turn thus begins with a ‘crisis roll’ to determine which of the five tribes surrounding the board will grow in strength and whether the time has come for them to invade. Alternatively, a roll of 7 will bring an event card into play with potentially far-reaching impacts. This crisis mechanism contributes greatly to the game’s theme of instability and decline but also has the potential to screw your plans up even more than the other players are doing.

Like the hero of Kipling’s If, you must be of a disposition to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”. If the very thought of the winner of a three-hour game coming down to the last roll of the dice disgusts you, then this isn’t a game for you. But that’s not to say by any means that skill is unimportant. There are plenty of ways to mitigate your luck, such as card powers that allow re-rolls or suppress unwanted barbarians. Although the game may sometimes feel unfair, the player who is best able to play the odds is likely to be the one that triumphs in the end.

Telling a story

The setting of the game is Rome in the 3rd Century AD but as already mentioned, its theme is tactically responding to change in an unstable and chaotic situation. All the game’s core mechanisms contribute towards that theme, but there are also some additional ‘bells and whistles’ which are more about evoking the specifics of the setting. That balance could lead to dissatisfaction for a couple of different groups of players.

While the overall structure of the game is reasonably easy to grasp, there are a number of exceptions and edge cases. It took us several plays before we confidently completed a game without messing something up or referring to the rulebook. With that in mind, it’s not really a game that I can recommend to lovers of elegance and streamlining. Like me, you need to be tolerant of an extra rules burden when it’s in service of bringing a setting to life.

On the other hand, ToC is by no means a grognard’s battlefield simulation. It’s abstracted to a high level, for example with battle resolved by a simple single die-roll for each unit in a stack. While the game does an engrossing job of creating an atmosphere befitting the times it doesn’t attempt to map closely to historic events, nor do the players represent specific historical figures.

Not a deck-builder

ToC is often described as a deck-builder, but for me it doesn’t contain the ingredients that fans of deck-builders look for (and vice versa – I’m rarely a deck-building fan myself). That is to say, deck-builders seem to often emphasise synergistic combinations between card powers and building (or thinning) your deck in such a way as to increase the chance of these combos randomly coming together in your hand. Time of Crisis does neither.

The cards come in three colours -- red for military, blue for politics, yellow for populace -- and their main role is to contribute action points (1-4) to be spent on a menu of actions corresponding to these three spheres. For example, you’ll need red points to start battles, blue points to replace a province’s governor with your own and yellow to build improvements. Your starting deck has no special actions, while the cards you buy during the game come with nine different ones. But there aren’t strong combos between these actions – you tend to buy them for their own merits and for their action points.

Most importantly, you don’t randomly select your five-card hand but instead pick it freely from your available stack, cycling round only when your discards are full. That makes it feel more like one of Mac Gerdts’ rondel systems (or even more so Concordia) – a way of stopping you taking the powerful actions you want to turn after turn.

Also making it feel less of a deck-builder is the fact that your purchasing power depends on your position on the board rather than the cards you’ve played that turn, and that deck-thinning is quite weak. Finally it’s not really a game in which you try to craft a tailored deck to execute a pre-defined strategy: while you can emphasise one colour, you’re going to need cards from all three to compete and your final deck will look largely similar from one game to the next.

AP = AP

I mentioned the creative turns that can be conjured from the card-based action point system the game uses. But action points are often a recipe for the other AP – analysis paralysis – and ToC isn’t immune to that. Your initial deck contains only 1-action-point cards and with a hand size of five you won’t be choosing more than a couple of items from the extensive action menu. But as you augment your deck with 2-, 3- and 4-AP cards, your options balloon and with the additional factor of the rapidly changing board state, I’ve seen player turns in the endgame last 15 or 20 minutes.

In some games, that would set my teeth on edge, but here it doesn’t bother me. Why? Because each player’s turn intimately involves the other players, whether by directly attacking them or creating new opportunities for them to exploit when their turn comes round. I find revelling in my opponents’ bad luck or cheering them on as we work together against a temporary common enemy keeps me fully involved.

The only place where the AP can spill over into annoyance is the way the game handles deck management. A clever way of emphasising the chaotic situation and lack of control is that players are forced to pick their hand for the next turn at the end of their current one, forcing them to plan for a range of possible changes in situation by the time the cards are used. But this means that the game can’t really continue until the choosing is complete, as the next player’s crisis roll might very well suggest a different course of action. We’ve sometimes subverted this by sending a player into another room to pick their hand!

Conclusion

I hope that rather than be blinded by my love for the game, I’ve set out a fair picture of how it feels to play. It’s a great fit for my preferences: highly interactive, with other players’ turns mattering a great deal to your own position; tactical, opportunistic and creative; filled with moments of dramatic randomness; and generating great stories. Hopefully you can now assess for yourself whether it fits with your own preferences and those of your group.
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Tue Mar 26, 2019 7:16 pm
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