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Play Again? KublaCon Part 1: Scalawag! and Romans Go Home!

Brian Pilnick
United States
San Jose
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So KublaCon is over and I'm recovering. I played many games and have several I want to talk about so this is part 1 of...a couple. I'll just cover two games today and hopefully have the next post up tomorrow to cover two or three more. For anyone just joining in, I'm working off my scale I defined at the top of this linked post.

Scalawag! (1 Play)
Troubadour Games was at KublaCon promoting their first boardgame, Scalawag. The game pits the players as competing ship captains trying to knock each other out, either by sinking them or killing all their crew. I talked to the designer, Steve Nix, for a little bit while waiting for the previous game to end and he described the game as having elements from both Coup and BANG!. From Coup, the game has crew members who each give you a unique (or discounted) action but bluffing what crew you have is a key part of the game. From Bang, you'll be firing on your neighbors with further players costing more to reach and also having a move that makes your further away for others to reach. To be honest, I was a bit worried at this point that the game was going to be derivative but luckily, I was quickly proven wrong. There are some very interesting interplays between the two systems I just listed and more than enough differences and additions that, although you can definitely see the similarities, they feel and play very differently.

When attacking other players for example, you can either fire your cannons to do damage to their hull or you can pull up and board them to kill one of their crew cards. Killing crew definitely puts a hamper on their available actions but it's very expensive...if their hull is undamaged. See whenever a ship is damaged, the cost to board it decreases. This creates a neat pivot when at a certain point it becomes cheaper to start boarding than firing. This also has the side-effect of letting players keep their full complement of three crew for more of the game. And unlike Coup, where spending your tokens to kill someone often puts you in a weak position, you're rewarded for it in Scalawag. And, as is the pattern here, it was done in a clever fashion. If you sink the ship, the crew are still floating around and you can save one of them, effectively replenishing your injured crew. If instead you kill off the crew, you can ransack the ship in order to get materials to repair some damage on yours.

Scalawag also fixed what was my single biggest complaint about Coup: blocking actions (such as the Contessa blocking the Assassin). My problem with them is that they're very hard to convincingly bluff, especially if playing with less experienced players. At least in my experience, if you don't come back with the block without hesitation, you're gonna be called on the bluff everytime. Some may say this is a part of the game they enjoy but it just didn't work for me. It also broke up the flow of being able to challenge the initial play. Steve also made a good point that a new player working up the nerve to bluff is immediately deflated if that action is suddenly blocked. What Steve did with Scalawag then was to remove all blocking plays. Through the other design choices and elements in the game, I didn't miss them at all.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed the game. It's definitely longer than a single round of Coup (but no one ever just played one round) and because it's one big experience instead of several small ones, it feels pretty rewarding. It's been a while since I've played Bang but I'd say it was on the order of that playtime. The game also includes rules for hidden teams and more players and I'm looking forward to trying them.

I'd be very remiss if I didn't mention at this point that Scalawag is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to get the first printing done. They're asking only $20 for a copy which I think is a deal. You can find the project here.

Play Again? YES! thumbsupthumbsup
I'm really crossing my fingers for this to get printed so I can introduce it to everyone.

Romans Go Home! (4 plays)
We go from a game currently on Kickstarter to one that just finished. And they both have exclamation marks in the title...hmmm. Anyway, this is one that I came across on Kickstarter but wasn't a huge fan of the art and just didn't know enough about the game or designer to back it. The designer, Eric B. Vogel, happens to be local though and besides showing off the game at KublaCon, he also donated a copy to the Kubla boardgame library so I made sure to try the game out.

The theme is pretty light on this game but basically, all the players are competing to capture a bunch of forts, presumably to kick out the Romans. In each of the three rounds, six forts are dealt out in a line. Each fort is worth anywhere from -3 to 8 VPs but several have some special 'ability' to them as well. The lowest non-negative fort is pushed all the way to the left and the highest fort is pushed to the right. Other than that, there's no sorting of the forts. Then each player takes their identical decks of nine cards, made up of soldiers of varying values from 1 strength to 9 strength, again with unique abilities on them. Each player randomly removes two cards then decides how they're going to play six of the seven remaining. These are placed face-down in a row and will be revealed one-by-one. Everyone flips their left-most unrevealed card simultaneously and whoever has the highest total takes the left-most fort and discards all their face-up cards. If there's a tie, no one gets the fort and you move on to your next card. This repeats until you've gone through the six cards.

This sounds boringly straight-forward but there are a couple things that takes this simple concept and makes it into a real game. First, notice I said only the winner of the fort clears their face-up cards. Everyone else however is slowly building up value. Besides being a balancing factor, it's huge for the strategy of the game which comes into play when you consider the abilities on each card. For example, the 9 strength card, of which there is two (there's no 8), gets discarded if multiple players play them at the same time. This really makes you question if people are going to play it on that 8 point fort and you'll end up screwing each other. The 6 strength card doesn't allow you to capture a card on the turn it is flipped. This is great to play when a negative card is coming up or to build up a high value to get that fort you really want or to play a 1 which, if you win on the turn it is played, lets you take any fort instead of just the left-most one. Last example, the 2 card lets you reorder your remaining face-down cards. This is especially helpful when someone ties for a fort since it throws everyone's timing off and now you might have your 9 card flipping on a negative card!

As you can tell, the game really shines on the interplay between abilities and the second-guessing of what your opponents will be doing. Plus, you get all of this in a game the size of a deck of cards and takes maybe 15 minutes to play. After checking this game out of the library on Friday my girlfriend and I really enjoyed our second play. (Our first game was a bit odd because we both played nearly identical cards making for many draws which was made even more screwy when I misread the rules on draws.) We actually then got to play a round with Eric, when he stopped by when he saw his game being played, which was neat. We even played the game again later in the weekend as it became a go-to filler, along with Love Letter, and then decided to pick up a copy. You won't find yourself playing this game for hours but for a great little filler, this is one I definitely recommend.

Play Again? YES! thumbsupthumbsup
A surprising amount of content makes this a very satisfying filler.
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