Between working on my Gift Guide, doing podcasts, going to MACE, and general other stuff, I’m up over a month behind on my game night reports. So rather than continue to let this weight build up on top of me, I’m gonna just blow most of it out all in one, big catch-up article right here. Rather than stick to my normally prescribed format, though, I’m gonna just list the games and talk a little bit about them, mostly dropping the actual session report stuff altogether (which I probably couldn’t remember much anyway at this point). So, on with the show!
Yeah, despite it’s apparently mythic-level rarity, a copy of Robinson Crusoe miraculously showed up at Hypermind during its brief period of availability a couple of months ago, and I snatched it right up. Then came the reading and deciphering and rereading the rules. And finally, a few chances to play. So far, I’ve played the introductory “Castaways” scenario three times with a mix of new and slightly veteran players. We haven’t won yet, which is why I haven’t proceeded any further with another scenario. I had a couple of small rules errors in the first play, but I feel like I have a really good handle on them at this point.
And as of right now, my impression is that this is a really incredible game! It’s already one of my top 2 or 3 cooperative games, which is saying a lot since I really like coops. It’s almost unfair to even compare it to a lot of the other coop games, though, because it seems to have a wholly different approach than so many other leaders in the genre.
Because when you play Robinson Crusoe, it’s all about the experience of play. The theme is king. Whether you gather the wood and set a huge bonfire to attract a ship to save you, or end up freezing to death and/or dying of despair, you pretty much get the whole range of possible “stranded on a deserted island” possibilities.
And while the theme is good and cool and well done, what makes Robinson Crusoe freaking awesome are the mechanics that so totally back up that theme. I love how, for most actions anyway, you have the choice of either using two workers to guarantee success or risking it with just one worker, which makes you roll the dice to determine success, see if you get injured, and/or have an “adventure”. And with all of the variety in scenarios, events, adventures, and all kinds of other stuff, it seems to be a game that will continue to give you surprises for dozens and dozens of plays.
Ratings: Norton 8, Stacy 8, Chip 7, Keith 8
Kings of Israel
Just before I reviewed it, I made sure to get in another play of Kings of Israel. It’s really solid, but I’ll let my podcast review stand for my full opinion (so go listen!).
Ratings: Norton 7, Chip 6, Keith 6
Firefly: The Game
I’ve been a pretty huge fan of Firefly since it first aired, and while I’m still pretty skeptical about most games with big(ish)-name IP licenses, I still pulled the trigger on Firefly based on its reputation and because I got in a play at the Escapist Expo. I had a lot of fun with it in that first game, and had basically the same experience in the one play I’ve had since.
I don’t know if the theme is scaring people or if it’s just the relatively long play time, but I’m having issues with getting it to the table. So this second game was just with 2 players, Chip and me. I took Monty, and tried to build up a decent smuggling empire, since he’s so good at that. But as the game came to an end, I ran into some trouble with Reavers, when they showed up in an attempt to Misbehave and ate all my crew. It was actually quite similar to when Reavers showed up and ate all my colonists in the first game I played.
But the cool thing is that, despite my horrible luck with Reavers in both games so far, I really like Firefly: The Game. The mechanics are solid, if maybe a touch on the lucky side, but the main draw (especially for fans) is definitely how strong the theme comes across. The tagline from both the show and game come through loud and clear, “find a crew, find a job, keep flying.” So you find yourself robbing trains, using fancy duds to pass trough a high-falutin’ party, smuggling medicine to struggling colonists, and doing all sorts of other cool things all over the ‘Verse. It’s lot of fun.
I just wish more people would play it with me.
Ratings: Norton 7.5, Chip 7.5
I like chemistry, so it’s pretty natural that Compounded would appeal to me thematically. And what’s even better is that the game itself is both good and has actual ties to real chemistry. Basically, the game has a 4×4 array of compound cards laid out on the table that each picture a real chemical compound with all of the elements needed to build it. So players work to draw and trade for the elements they need to complete these compounds to score points and improve their ability to complete more compounds in the future. Plus, in addition to the trading I just mentioned, there are actually a few other ways for players to interact as well.
Compounded isn’t really complicated or anything, but it is thinky. And if it has any “flaw” for me so far, it tends to drag just a little bit and run a little long for what it is. But that’s relatively minor, and overall I’d recommend it very highly.
Ratings: Norton 7.5, Chip 7.5, Keith 7, Kenny 7.5, Brad 8, Sean 7, Shawn 7.5
I’ve owned Battle Line on my iPod/iPad for a long time now and would occasionally play a game or two. But this was the first actual, real-person, with physical cards time I’ve played. And overall, I enjoyed it a lot.
The basic idea is that you’re playing cards, one at a time, to your side of 9 different battles. Up to 3 cards can be on your side of any battle, and their strength is based on their equivalent poker hand. The goal is to win either any 5 of the 9 battles, or 3 contiguous battles. There’s also an option with the Battle Line version of the game to include some Tactics cards that do special things, but we were just playing the basic/core game.
I was able to pull of the win 5-3 against Chip, but it was close and tense most of the way. While there’s certainly some advantage in drawing better cards, I really like that the main skill to use in the game is being able to keep your options open, bluff your opponent as to the other cards in your hand, and identify priorities in where you play your best cards. It’s incredibly simple, but still has a good amount of depth to it, so I’d love to get in more plays when the opportunity presents itself.
Ratings: Norton 6, Chip ?
All I had heard about this game is that it was so bad, they had to give it away to backers of Amerigo just to get rid of it. But the thing is, for a very light dice game, I found it pretty charming. You roll just one die per turn, but have some real choices about where to place it on one of the three boards. Most of the score comes from having the highest total on a board, but there are also some other little set-collection elements that make placement on a board you don’t win still valuable.
And for a 20-minute investment or so, it was well worth it. I just don’t get why a game like Las Vegas (which I like, by the way) would get a SdJ nomination, while this game is denigrated and reviled. I mean, come on! It’s got cute aardvarks that dress up like Spiderman and other stuff.
Ratings: Norton 5, Chip 6, Stacy 6
Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension
On the other hand, Gravwell is a game that I had heard crazy good things about. Like, some people were saying it was their “Game of the Show” coming out of GenCon and all. So at MACE, I got the chance to play it a couple of times and see it for myself.
And generally, Gravwell is really good. The premise is that you are all ships trying to escape from a singularity and be the first to reach the Jump Gate. You take turns drafting cards, two at a time (one of which is face-up) until they’re all taken. Then on each turn, everyone chooses a card and reveals them simultaneously, which are then resolved in alphabetical order based on the “title” of the cards.
Cards either pull you towards the nearest other ship (which can either be other players or the two “hulks” that are seeded on the track), repel against it, or pull all other ships closer to you. But while you know what your card does, you don’t exactly know what other cards will be played, so the relative position of you to everyone else might change before your card is resolved (sometimes causing you to be propelled violently backwards).
It’s quick and clever, and I had fun playing. But it’s not exactly deep or rewarding enough for me to think it’s the “best” of anything. Because in the end, it’s exceedingly chaotic and has a strong element that literally pulls both the leaders and the laggers towards the middle of the pack, so it sort of doesn’t necessarily reward good play early on, and is ultimately more about making that one big move at the end of the game that gets you across the finish line. So again, it’s not a “great” game or anything, but it’s still good enough and will be cheap enough that I’ll gladly pick it up when it finally is available.
Ratings: Norton 6
Okay, so the premise is that you throw cards onto a table, and the symbols that are still visible when your turn comes around can either score your points, let you throw more cards, or give you other special powers. After everyone’s cards are thrown, the person with the most points wins.
As something “completely different”, it’s pretty neat. But as a real game that you try to do well at, it’s pretty weak. But it’s also pretty short (10-15 minutes), so I’m still glad I own it. Some people I’ve played it with would disagree, though…
Ratings: Norton 5.5, Chris 3, Josh 7, Shawn 6
Mice and Mystics
I’ll certainly be talking a lot more about Mice and Mystics in the future, but for now, I’ll mostly say that it’s at the top of my hot list right now. My group is on the 3rd scenario (which we just lost), and every time we play, we have a great time.
From a thematic perspective, the artwork, minis, and story is so well done. It’s simplicity makes it great for families, but it’s immersive and interesting enough that hardcore gamers can still have a lot of fun with it. And while I’ve enjoyed more complicated, tactical dungeon-crawl games before, I think that M&M still provides what I really want out of the genre in far less time and with far less rules questions to pull you out of the action.
And to wrap up, I’d say that it’s also definitely a contender for my Game of the Year, which is really saying something.
Ratings: Norton 8, Chris 7, Josh 7, Darren 7, Chip 8
Freedom: The Underground Railroad
I talked quite a bit about Freedom: The Underground Railroad on my podcast about MACE, so I’ll just hit the highlights here. Because basically, I thought it was amazing. It definitely falls into this new breed of deeper cooperative games (along with Robinson Crusoe), and on top of that, it also brings in a really strong historical element as well.
Now, I’ve only played it once, but from what I’ve seen so far, the gameplay is really solid and tense. There are a lot of priorities to balance, and in order to win, you have to do well both in moving slaves up to freedom in Canada and in investing in support for the abolition of slavery. It’s very challenging (even on the “easy” setting, which we lost to at MACE), and appears to have a pretty steep learning curve.
But what hit me right between the eyes during our game was the theme. As you’re trying to move slaves north, sometimes they may be caught by hunters and put back into the slave trade. And if you haven’t made room in the plantations for more slaves when the slave trade happens, then slaves can be permanently “lost”. Of course, if too many slaves are lost, it can lose you the game, which no one wants. But the thing is, you can’t really win the game without losing some slaves. So about halfway through the game, we realized that sometimes, we might have to purposefully sacrifice some slaves in order to save others… and that’s what landed on my like a load of bricks.
Now, it’s either pretty brave or pretty stupid to take on a sensitive topic like slavery here in the USA. And just because of that, Freedom has had some criticism that it might be “trivializing” such an important subject. But this game (or really, its designer, of course) did such a good job with this theme that I walked away with at least a little glimmer of understanding about what running the Underground Railroad might have been like. I certainly have a greater respect and appreciation for all those that risked their lives and their families’ lives to help save enslaved people they didn’t even know. And having something like that happen from even the best games is a rare thing indeed.
And on top of that, I’d say it was the “Game of the Con” for me at MACE.
Ratings: Norton 8.5
Let me start here by saying that, if I’m counting right, we have (or soon will have) 5 or 6 copies of the ridiculously huge Ogre Designer’s Edition in my game group. And especially considering that two of these guys (Keith and Ken) have made it a mission to play through all of the Ogre and GEV scenarios over the next year, I’ll probably be talking a lot about Ogre in the coming months.
Ogre has been around forever, but for whatever reason, I really didn’t have much experience with it at all before a few months ago. And then at MACE, Ken and I played two games of the basic Ogre scenario (Mk III vs. CP), which I enjoyed quite a bit.
While the game certainly is a product of its time (which is 1977, by the way) in a lot of ways, it also has a real timeless quality about it. The asymmetry of the sides is very cool and relatively uncommon, and the variety of options available especially to the “defender”/Command Post side allows for a lot of replayability. It’s not the most amazing game in the world, but it is a simple system that is very approachable and (with all the GEV stuff) which still has a lot of room for advancing to more complex systems and decisions. And since this designer’s edition will most likely be a one-time only thing, I’ve actually taken the plunge to get one of those 5 or 6 copies for myself, partly as a collector and partly in the vain hope that my girls might like to one day play a light wargame of massive semi-sentient, futuristic dreadnaughts.
We’ll see about that, though…
Ratings: Norton 7, Keith 9, Ken 9
The Witches: A Discworld Game
I don’t know much at all about the whole Terry Pratchett universe, but my friend Chris is a big fan of it. Therefore, he’s recently picked up the new The Witches game by Martin Wallace. And rather than heading home at his normal time on one recent game night, he took pity on me and offered to teach it to me so I wouldn’t just have to sit and watch Kenny and Keith play Ogre/GEV for an hour.
We actually played the cooperative version of the game, and won. And despite some of the mixed to bad things I’d heard about it, I thought it was a very respectable game. It’s certainly aimed at families, though. So if you’re going in expecting typical Martin Wallace or something all gamery, you’d probably be disappointed. But I went in with no expectations at all, and came out thinking that it might be a good game to get for my girls when they’re a little older… and that I might need to read more of the Terry Pratchett books in the meantime.
Ratings: Norton 6, Chris 7
The Three Little Pigs
Over Thanksgiving, I pulled this out with my girls (ages 5 and 3) and my brother to give it a try. It had limited success. Three is definitely too young (I had a hard time keeping Corinne from moving around/grabbing house tiles from the stacks), but Samantha did okay. The problem for me is that I rarely have the chance to play games with just Samantha, so I don’t know if it’ll work for us right now. And overall, I’m not sure about the game itself. I’ll withhold judgment right now, and just say that the game looks amazing.
I also pulled out this little word game over Thanksgiving with my brother Tony and our wives. I’m really good at it, so I won both times. The thing is, though, I don’t know if there’s any way to really get “better” at it. The basic idea is that the round cards have words written on them, but the letters for the words are spaced out evenly all around the circle with no indication of which is the first or last letter. So you have to parse the letters quickly and be the first person to identify the word.
And like I said, my brain apparently does that really well. So it’s fun for me. But I could see that people who don’t do it as well could get a little frustrated with the game and have little way to improve this ability, since it seems to be much more reaction than skill. But it’s also as long or short as you want it to be, so it can’t really wear out its welcome.
Ratings: Norton 6
Back when it came out, I played quite a bit of Eminent Domain. And while I sort of chafe at even including it in the genre, I definitely consider it one of the best deckbuilding games out there. So when a game was just starting up as I walked into game night, I jumped right in.
I decided really early on to ditch my starting Produce/Trade cards and invest heavily in Research. I used Colonize to get more planets, and by the end had picked up two 5-Research Techs and one 7-Research tech. I did pretty well, but Chip managed to out-pace me by (IIRC) vomiting forth lots of planets that he was able to colonize, as well as doing a little researching on the side.
I still love Eminent Domain, and really hope that its eminent expansion will revitalize it in my group.
Ratings: Norton 7.5, Chip 6.5, Tommy 8, James ?
Lords of War
And finally, Chip and I played a couple of games of Lords of War, with me taking the Orc faction and him having the Dwarves. This is card-based combat game where you play cards from your hand down to a grid of card-sized spaces. All the cards have little attack arrows that point in different directions and have a strength indicated in them. If all of the attack arrows total up to a greater strength than the defense of the target, then it is eliminated. And while that sounds stupidly easy, there is still enough involved in the game as far as tactical placement of the cards, the effect of ranged-attack units, and the ability to pick up and re-place cards that the game has a lot more depth to it than you might first suppose.
As far as our games go, I seemed to have control in both. In the first play, I held on to the control and won by eliminating 20 of Chip’s cards (to the 15 or 16 he had eliminated of mine). But in the second game, I thought I was steamrolling to the same sort of end, but over-committed my leader units, allowing him to kill 4 of them, which is the other victory condition. So I thought it was nice to see how there is some balance between one player drawing their heavy-hitters early and “winning” board control, versus another player being able to snipe out those same heavy hitters with smaller units.
I also like that the factions (or at least, the two we played) definitely seemed to have some uniqueness or character of their own. Much like Neuroshima Hex (a similar game that I absolutely love), I think that learning the different armies will be a big part of doing well in the game over the long haul.
Ratings: Norton 6, Chip 5.5
Well, I guess that’s it. I’ve got one or two more game nights to write about for 2013, and then I’ll try to be caught up going into the new year. I hope everyone had a great Christmas, and wish you all a happy New Year full of gaming ahead!!!