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Christian Heckmann
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...or how I can not with a pure conscience write an "Everything that sucks!" about...



The Lord Of The Ice Garden


I know what you, all of my loyal fans (yes, both of you), are expecting from me. Ever since tearing into The Battle of Five Armies a bit over two years ago, this has been my (admittedly rather occasional) schtick. Front-loading negativity in order to examine deeper, whether a game can overcome and perhaps even make up for its shortcomings and be fun to play, despite everything that sucks about it. And I stand by my core-sentiment: There isn't a perfect game out there. But over time, I've come to the conclusion that this format doesn't really work for all games all the time (as some might have noticed when I used the "Everything that sucks!"-banner in a rather ironic way in order to gush about a game for half an hour or so). When does it work and when doesn't it? Well, seemingly me liking a game more or less isn't that strong an indicator, since I've given the EtS-treatment to games higher on my personal top list before (shameless self-plug, but why don't you drop by my current top ten geeklist so you can give me flak in the comments afterwards for still holding Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game in relatively high esteem). Perhaps the EtS-treatment is more appropriate for games that overcome (or fail to overcome) their shortcomings with such ease, in contrast to games that thrive on their strong points. Then again, maybe not, maybe I'm just lazy or a bit burned out on negativity. Whatever the case may be, today things are gonna go a bit differently.

So what is it about?



Well, The Lord of the Ice Garden, obviously, since that's the game you wanted to be better informed about by clicking on this review, isn't that right? First of all, let me congratulate you to this decission, since this is without a doubt the tenth best board game of all time and everybody should own and play it.

But if that's not really what you wanted to elicit from me via this question, let me break habit once more and go into a bit more detail on what the game is about than usual. Not much more, but a bit more...

So one to four players embody scientists from Earth who conducted a mission at the archaic planet of Midgaard. But something went wrong, most of your colleagues were killed, you mercifully just went crazy and decided that with your newfound powers, you might subjugate the indigenous people and rule over Midgaard as a God or something like that. Your former employees aren't too happy about this, so they sent their best agent, a guy called Vuko, to brutallize you and your colleagues back into line. So much for theme.

Gameplay-wise, The Lord of the Ice Garden is all about spreading your influence over the different areas of Midgaard, controlling territories and exterminating enemies, all the while trying to stay under the radar, lest Vuko catches a whiff of your nefarious actions, which would cause him to pay a visit to the region your grasp is strongest over and - to use the scinetifically correct term - wreck everything for your sorry self. Mechanically speaking, each game turn starts with an initiative phase, where in player order everyone decides how far within certain boundaries they want to advance on the initiative track (usually deciding between having more actions and getting to act earlier). Afterwards, players begin to place their action cubes on six different action tracks, choosing which of those actions to use during that round to further their plans. Once all of the players run out of action cubes, the actions are performed in a certain order (from top to bottom in the basic game, variably and decided by the players when playing advanced). You can do stuff like spreading (putting cubes on the map) or moving your influence, getting and managing ressources or "Making" with your supernatural powers (which means putting miniatures on the map in order to control territories or wreck your opponents' best laid plans... for a price, that is). Once all actions have been performed, there is a combat round, where each player can decide to pay gold in order to let his units attack (combat is completely deterministic, if you can pay, they'll assuredly pay). A turn is rounded off by a Vuko-phase (Vuko moves on his own, following a pretty intuitive algorithm, and causes a bit of chaos in the area he goes to) and a dominance phase that awards new ressources and possibly victory points to the players if the current turn is a scoring turn. There are four possible game end triggers: One player managed to score 50 or more points at the end of the round, a player marker has reached the last space of the initiative track, the dead snow marker has reached a certain space on its track (18 for two players, 24 for three, 30 for four) or one player manages to fulfill their faction's personal goal at the end of a turn. So far, so Chaos in the Old World amirite?

Of course you are.


Gee, thanks, much appreciated.

You're welcome



So why not play that game instead? It got glowing reviews, it's based on a beloved license that due to less of a language barrier, more people outside of Poland can enjoy, it has dice and cards and more miniatures than The Lord of the Ice Garden and there's an expansion that lets you play with five and yada yada yada. All of this is true, but a) it is out of print and pretty pricey to get a hold of nowadays and b) The Lord of the Ice Garden might be the better game. I know it is for me and just have a look over here, The Lord of the Ice Garden on rank ten and Chaos in the Old World nowhere to be found, not even in the honorable mentions, if that's not definitive proof, I don't know what is (okay, okay, I promise, this was the last time).

Don't get me wrong, Chaos in the Old World is not a bad game, I do own it myself, but it hasn't hit the table in a long time, ever since The Lord of the Ice Garden and Cthulhu Wars have been pulling double duty, outdoing poor old Chaos in the Old World in everything it can do with such ease. But why is that so? Objectively spoken, Chaos in the Old World has more things going for it than The Lord of the Ice Garden with its card-decks and unpredictable events and crazy exploding dice and desecration and ruination and a map printed on human skin... erm... just me? Oh well.

Perhaps it's one of those "more is less"-kind of situations. I like greater amalgamations of bloodthirsty miniature-monsters and overpowered spell-cards and die rolling as much as the next guy, but The Lord of the Ice Garden does one thing effortlessly that Chaos in the Old World was struggling with during and especially in between all of my plays: Making me think. Hey, I just realized, where my negativity went. So let's stop taking it out on poor Chaos in the Old World for a second and let's talk about what makes The Lord of the Ice Garden good in general, insted of "better than some tangentially related game".

I'm still kind of befuddled why I feel that way myself, I'm a dice and cards and carnage and beer and pretzels and everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-guy myself, I once spent about an hour creating a geeklist to celebrate the oddities of most modern battle resolution systems in boardgaming and nobody gave the damned thing a single meager thumb (hey, don't look at me like that, I just said I was done with this geeklist... oh, wait...). And sure, things die in The Lord of the Ice Garden, in fact, centering your whole strategy around destroying everything that looks at your Wyverns funny is a pretty solid strategy if you try to go for a VP-victory. But it most certainly isn't one of those "Here's a hoard of ungodly monstrosities, over there's the enemy, let's point 'em that way and see what happens"-kind of games. Being successful in The Lord of the Ice Garden takes a lot of meticulous planning.

Because it's not like you can hope for a lucky die roll or an overpowered card that you kept back in order to surprise your enemy once they think they have you where they want you. In The Lord of the Ice Garden, there is no such thing as luck. In fact, there is no randomness at all, except for the distribution of scoring tiles and magical reserves (and Vuko-abilities in the advanced game) at the beginning of the game, but that's a very minor variation from game to game. Everything else is driven by your and (especially) your opponents' choices. And while the first turn or so might feel a bit scripted ten or twelve games down the line (it is important, because it'll funnel you into a strategic direction for the game almost deffinitely), you can never be too sure, since - pardon my french - shit will get real much faster than you think it will.

So no multiplayer solitaire to be found here?



No sir, if you were hoping to humbly trade your sheep for wood all evening long, this is the wrong game for you, I'm afraid. To get back to Chaos in the Old World for a moment, the action-programming can be likened quite a bit to that game's "Pay power to perform your actions"-mechanism. In Chaos in the Old World, you wanted to go early since card-spaces are precious and if someone occupies all of the good ones before you do, you're out of luck. On the other hand, being able to conserve enough power to go a few times in a row once your opponents are out of the round usually is a good way to get a leg up on your enemies. The same thing can be said about the programming and execution of actions in The Lord of the Ice Garden. You want to go early, since actions are programmed from left to right, but executed the other way round, so whoever declared an action first gets to do it last, being able to react to all of their opponents' moves during the same action turn. Also action spaces are sparse (at least for the "more interesting and confrontational" actions) and getting to take the "I'm so sorry Mister Vuko, sir, please don't hurt me any more, I'll be a good boy now" or the "Making"-action twice (or not at all because someone else stuck a second action cube on that action) can be the difference between victory and defeat. But at the same time, you don't want to commit to a certain action too early, since - as said - everything is open information for everyone to see, so if you spot a particularly nasty opening that might completely obliterate your arch-enemies progress, you can be sure that they see it as well. And if you start to make overtures too early, they can react accordingly.

That is unless you were bluffing all along. And here comes the beauty of the programming-mechanism into play. Once you put an action cube onto one of those action tracks, you announce that you're intending to take that action once it's your turn. But you don't tell anyone exactly how you're intending to perform it. A good player usually creates two or three possible moves that would all be devestating for one or more other players, so that everyone needs to be on their toes once you drop one of your cubes. So that each of them uses their actions to upgrade their forces, or perhaps just get them out of the way before you can roll in guns blazing. So all of your opponents waste their hard-earned ressources to prepare for that one move you announced, whose target they will surely be. And then, once it's your turn and you look at all of their efforts, you go "Ah well, just messing with you, I never wanted to take that action" and you remove your cube without taking the action and everyone else looks silly because they blew it all to prepare for an attack that never came.

Speaking of which, many games mention in their rulebooks that whenever you declare a certain action, you may also decide to renounce its effect for no further cost, which always strikes me as a huge waste of time and effort. In most games, actions are valuable, so why would you declare an action, but then decide to forgo whatever it does? In The Lord of the Ice Garden, passing up on a declared action happens quite often and can also be an integral part of your strategy. Perhaps the circumstances have changed and you don't want to waste ressources on something that isn't really viable anymore. Or - more often - you use the first opportunity to put a cube on the first space of the "Making"-action, signal to everyone that you're intending to summon your ultimate warrior unit and go medieval on them, so that they also take the "Making"-action before you, ruining their reputation in the process, only for you to be all like "Ah well, never mind, have fun with Vuko" once it's your turn and remove the action cube without taking the action. It's glorious each and every time.

So... you like the game a lot because you don't have to play it?


Well, if you want to put it like that. But of course, that's not all of it.

Then tell me, what else is there to like about The Lord of the Ice Garden?



Well, a lot. First of all, how slick and streamlined it is, once you get past the awkward rulebook and the huge information-dump you have to grant all of the new players upfront. The game isn't really hard to teach but since it is quite deep and choices are meaningful from the get-go, you need to bring everyone on the same page before starting the first round. There aren't that many possible actions and their ramifications are always pretty clear. And they are interconnected in such a way that almost everything does make sense once you see the big picture. But yeah, this teaching phase of above-average length is necessary if you have new players at the table. But once you got this over with, the game plays incredibly smooth. As said, there aren't many actions and the ones there are are pretty self-explanatory (except the "Making"-action in its entirety, but more on that later), so once the formalities are out of the way, everyone starts to grasp how to play the game pretty quickly. The aforementioned bluffing and double-guessing might take a bit longer, but I found that people latch on to that reasonably fast, too. Because when you get down to it, the game really isn't that complex. Here's four different ways how the game can end, here's how you win once one of those things happen, here's how you achieve that, bam, done.

Speaking of which, the three general paths to victory contained in those four game-end-states seem pretty balanced. The dead snow endgame might feel oppressive at first (quick aside how that works: Every time someone uses the "Making"-action, the dead snow marker advances and their reputation drops; once the marker reaches the final space of the track, the player with the highest reputation wins the game, independent of all other victory conditions, but causing the marker to reach the last space further penalizes your reputation and you must not end the game this way if it wouldn't cause you to win), but once you get the hang of it, winning via your personal goal or via victory points is pretty feasible. And especially the VP-route can be tackled differently. Do you want to overwhelm Midgaard with your influence cubes and snag a few points everywhere at once? Or do you summon your whole fighting force and destroy everything that moves for fun and profit? Or do you upgrade your units to be incredibly influential and hard to kill, as well as mobile, so that they can swoop into valuable provinces and grab what points they can get a hold of? I haven't tried it yet (although I think I will in my next game), but I think it might be absolutely possible to go all El Grande on this game and try to dominate everything without ever summoning a single miniature, just dropping influence cubes everywhere. Think about it, you'll never leave the "Vuko can't hurt you here"-safezone, you'll never need to use actions to apologize to him and if the other players get too cocky, ruining their reputation via monster-summoning, you might sneak out a victory by being a goody-two-shoes who just happens to push the dead snow marker the last few steps to the end. I'll report back if this actually works.

But the main reason I enjoy The Lord of the Ice Garden so much is one I can't really point my finger toward. It just... clicks, if that makes any sense. As said, the interlocking actions are all really intuitive and create a robust framework to drive the action. Ressources are usually pretty scarce, but if you act thoughtful, they usually tend to exactly suffice for your plans. Sure, if you miscalculate or make a mistake, you'll sit there during the attack phase and lament that you accidentally took a population marker instead of a gold and now you can't attack, but if you sit there at the end of a turn, coffers empty, actions exhauted to their maximum, domination over your desired territories, Vuko at your opponents' doorsteps and you yourself one step closer to victory... There's hardly anything that comes close to it, boardgamically speaking.

So The Lord of the Ice Garden is not only smooth, fun and incredibly satisfying to play, it's also a game that engages your mind constantly during the game, as well as between game sessions. It's hard for me not to drift of at the most inappropriate times, strategizing about my next glorious victory on the battlefields of Midgaard. Oh, also, did I mention how pretty the game is?

You didn't.


Okay. It's pretty. Very pretty.

How pretty?


Possibly one of the prettiest games I know. Great artwork (also two different color-schemes on both sides of the board, one with more subdued colors, if you're into that kind of thing), great iconography, great component quality, and look at those miniatures.



Cool, right? It's a game that really pops, one that people stop by just to look at it while it's being played.

Okay, great, so it's a perfect game then?



Weeeeeell, I wouldn't necessarily say it like that. Don't get me wrong, it's great, awesome, fun, pretty, anything else from the boardgame-marketing-101-jargon, but... I don't want to say that it has problems. Most of my criticisms are really minor niggles.

First of all, as said, the game can take a while to teach and might induce AP in some players. The box boasts a playing time from 90 to 150 minutes, which seems accurate, but especially games with the full complement of four players tend more towards the upper end of the time designation. Top that with a twenty to thirty minute teaching time and you have quite the commitment at your hands when you break it out. It's worth it, sure, this isn't one of those games that feels like it would be better if it were half an hour shorter or so, but you should be aware of that.

Next up are a few things that blemish the otherwise slick and streamlined nature of the game. There's the rulebook... Which isn't bad. It's a bit disorganized, critical rules are sometimes not exactly where you'd expect them to be. Looking things up midgame can take a little longer than I'd like it to, but the rulebook sadly is necessary for that, since someone had the great idea to print all of the possible unit-abilities on the player aids. Well... at least the symbols indicating those abilities, as well as their names. What they didn't include was what those abilities did, so you have to look it up in the rulebook each and every time. Also the fact that unit abilities only work if said unit dominates an area is a nuance that slips most new players' minds. The "Making"-action is a bit convoluted with three sub-actions that can be taken in random order but usually make most sense in one specific sequence. Also, as easy as the Vuko-movement-algorithm is (Vuko moves to the area where the player with the lowest reputation has ammassed the most influence, ties broken by numbers printed on the scoring tiles of each area), some people seem to have a few problems grasping it. It can also be gamed a bit. I haven't counted how many times Vuko and my most horrific monstrosity must have crossed paths at a territory's border, tipping their hats at each other and going their merry way. Seriously, protecting a monster by moving it into the space where Vuko currently resides because (apart from very special circumstances) he moves every turn, no matter what happens around him. I'm also not completely sold on the Vuko ability tiles that are used in the advanced game. They introduce very minor additional rules that don't seem to matter that much. That one where Vuko amasses neutral influence cubes and carries them with him is pretty cool, the one where Vuko moves the dead snow marker each turn kind of sucks. I have played each and every game with those, but I guess I'll try without them the next time I get the game to the table.

Also, if you are looking for a really asymmetrical experience, The Lord of the Ice Garden is not necessarily what you're looking for. As said, it might be feasible to play the game without ever summoning one of your minions, which in turn would mean that you're not going for your personal victory condition, since you need your minions for those. And everyone could do so, if they wanted to, which would make the game completely symmetrical. But even if you don't do this, the different factions' asymmetry is pretty limited. Which helps the game-balance, but yeah, some units have a few different pre-printed abilities, but for the most part, they are hardly game-changing. And the personal victory conditions are all variations on the theme of "Dominate an area with a specific unit present". Ulrike Freihoff has a lot of opportunities early on but needs to build six of her towers over the course of the game, so once she has a few out there, space is getting scarce for her. Pier van Dyken needs to go for those magical reserves. Those are only four, but he has to get all of them. Olaf Fjolsfinn, the titular Lord of the Ice Garden, has to capture his opponents' influence cubes, so he wants to dominate areas with other players. And Passionaria Callo has a rather complicated two-step-goal, where she has to place markers with one unit and then lock the area down with another one. But as said, basically all of those are achieved by dominating a certain area with a certain unit present. Vast: The Crystal Caverns this is not...

But here's the biggest one and I'm pretty sure, it might drive quite a few of you away from the game. Kingmaking. It's mostly a problem when players aren't evenly matched, because the more you play the game, the more you learn how to avoid being put in the situation, where you have to decide who's gonna win, either by taking a certain action or deciding not to take it. Let me illustrate this by using the example of the last game I have played just last night.
Most of the game was a pretty tight match between three players. Me as Callo, going for victory points via a mixture of spread out influence and pure fighting force, Freihoff going for her personal goal, managing to errect five of her six towers late in the game, and Fjolsfinn, who tried a bit of everything but was mostly pretty high up on the reputation track as the dead snow marker approached the end of its track. Freihoff had lost one of her tower-construction-units in the round before and I had pulled of a pretty neat move making sure that I could reach and kill her second unit anywhere on the board by the end of that turn. I was also pretty far ahead on VPs and it was a scoring round, so if the round would be finished, I would win for sure. Fjolsfinn couldn't move the dead snow marker on his own, since he would lose too much reputation by this. So Freihoff - now in a position where she couldn't win via her personal goal anymore - had to decide whether to push the dead snow marker far enough so that Fjolsfinn could move it the last bit without sacrificing too much reputation to be unable to win, or refusing to do so, inevitably handing the victory to me at the end of the turn. Freihoff chose the former, saying that since it was my game and I had been playing it more often, it'd be more fair to hand the game to a newer player.
To be honest, this didn't bother me too much. It was an incredibly tense game up to that point, so no matter which one of us would be given the victory, they would have earned it. But this is a situation that came up in a not insignificant percentage of games of The Lord of the Ice Garden that I have played. The thing is, switching strategies mid-game is very hard to almost impossible. If you started out going for your victory condition, you most likely won't get that many VPs, so everyone who did so beforehand will have a handy head-start. Even worse, since summoning units advances the dead snow marker and costs you reputation, there comes a certain point in the game when you simply can't summon new units, meaning that you're pretty much screwed if you lose all of your units necessary to secure your victory at that point. Granted, since it's all out there for everyone to see, you'll most likely have onely yourself to blame for that, but especially for new players, it's easy to make mistakes during the game that come back to haunt you later.
See, the programming-aspect in this game is twofold. One pretty overt, the other more subtle. Yes, you program your actions for a single turn and have to live with your choices. But all of them also inform your overall gameplan. Losing an irreplacable unit during one of the game's final turns usually has its roots in an error of judgement or simple screw-up you made three turns earlier, not realizing how crucial this could become back then. It's hard to rectify a mistake in The Lord of the Ice Garden. But then again, perhaps I'm misjudging the situation a bit. Perhaps it was me who had made that mistake in said game that cost me the victory. Perhaps letting it come this far, that I had to rely on another player to stop Fjolsfinn, a player I was actively hindering that very moment, had been my own error. Who knows? Looking at it that way, one could almost spin this as a positive. But I know that it'll irk some people quite a bit, so... Yeah, that might be what sucks about The Lord of the Ice Garden.

Well, those were quite a few negatives. You've worked with less in the past. So tell me again, why didn't you think that this game would warrant an "Everything that sucks!"-review?


Ah well, I don't know, I don't care, perhaps I've grown up a bit and learned to look at things more positively. Perhaps I'm just a bit tired of forcing myself to work by a formula if I want to present my thoughts in a different way. If that bothers you, sue me.

Perhaps I will, just you wait.


I will. I'll hold my breath and count the seconds. Then again, perhaps I shouldn't, since I'm pretty sure that there's hardly a surplus of lawyers, waiting to take the cases of disembodied... err... hypothetical colloquists that I have just made up for comical effect.

Well great. I hope you have fun trampling on my hypothetical, dismebodied feelings. Some friend you are.


Oh... Sorry, I didn't mean to... I never wanted to... Please...

Hahaha, joke's on you, I don't have feelings. In fact, I don't even exist. So will you just get this over with, since we're at the bottom of page 7 and it's getting late and we need to watch another episode of Westworld tonight?



Yeah, okay, you're right, this might have gone on a bit too long. Okay, here's the deal, nice and snappy: The Lord of the Ice Garden is an awesome game. Fun, beautiful, tense from start to finish, perhaps a bit taxing but oh so worth it each and every time. It's a game that wants to be discovered and explored, that might seem daunting from time to time and some of its parts can be a bit fragile (especially the endgame), but when you get down to it, it offers a highly strategic, fiercely interactive game experience that is in my opinion unparalleled in what it sets out to do. If you like games in that ilk, you owe it to yourself to seek out The Lord of the Ice Garden and play it, just so that you can experience it for yourself. Have fun.

Oh, and although this has been a bit different fare than usual (and I don't know if in the near future, more reviews in this style can be found authored by me), if you liked what you read, check out and subscribe to my „Everything that sucks“-geeklist to be notified about new reviews.
Also, don't forget to visit my current top ten geeklist. Haha, gotcha!
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Juha Leppälä
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Nice review although like you yourself said a bit too long.

This game has mocked me from the shelf for so long now but that damn manual is just the worst thing ever. I have the second edition so I can only imagine how bad the first edition was.

Hopefully I'll get it to the table eventually.
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Scott DeMers
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jideee wrote:
Nice review although like you yourself said a bit too long.

This game has mocked me from the shelf for so long now but that damn manual is just the worst thing ever. I have the second edition so I can only imagine how bad the first edition was.

Hopefully I'll get it to the table eventually.


Do it, Juha!!!

This is a top 10 game for me. Stunning and amazing and with few flaws. Fly to Denver, Colorado. I will teach it to you.
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Michael Johnson
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Have you had a chance to play the game at 2? Any thoughts?
 
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Christian Heckmann
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SuperMike3288 wrote:
Have you had a chance to play the game at 2? Any thoughts?

Not yet, no. But I imagine it'd work pretty well. There'd be no kingmaking-problem, obviously, but perhaps it'd be even harder to recover from a mistake. I'll have to try it some time.
 
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