Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Dungeon Command - A New Addiction?

I came home from work yesterday to find a large Amazon parcel waiting for me. It could only mean one thing: my preordered copies of Dungeon Command: Sting of Lolth and Dungeon Command: Heart of Cormyr had finally arrived.

These are the "faction packs" for the new skirmish level miniatures game from Wizards of the Coast. Each pack contains 12 miniatures and all the cards and boards needed for one person to play the game; so of course, I had ordered both packs (how else am I going to play the game against my wife?). Each pack also contains some cards so you can use the miniatures in the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure System games (like Wrath of Ashardalon); but as I don't own any of those games, I couldn't give a monkey's.

Tearing into the packaging, I was presented with two rather beautifully illustrated boxes. I had already read somewhere else (probably over on www.BoardGameGeek.com) that the boxes are like the kind you see doughnuts being sold in, and that's pretty accurate. They are flimsy, with a hinged, folding top. When closed, they are sturdy enough for what they contain, but you certainly wouldn't want to stack anything on top of them.

I am assuming Wizards of the Coast expect you to chuck out the boxes and store your miniatures in some other way; but I'll be damned if I'm doing that. The only boxes for games I have ever chucked out were the boxes for my Navia Dratp starters, and I really regret it.

Despite the rather disappointing quality of the boxes, I have to say the graphic design is incredible. The artwork is dramatic and it really makes you want to open those boxes and play. I feel the same way about the box for Wizards of the Coast's Lords of Waterdeep: The game sits on the shelf just begging to be played. I suppose this is a personal thing, and quite difficult to explain; so here are some pictures to show you what I mean:

Dungeon Command: Sting of Lolth
Dungeon Command: Sting of Lolth - spidery.

Dungeon Command: Heart of Cormyr
Dungeon Command: Heart of Cormyr - dragony.

Unfortunately, once the boxes were opened, I have to admit to being underwhelmed by the contents; it seems that for every thing that has been done right, there is a negative to counterbalance it.

I really liked the rulebook: It is printed on thick, matte paper so you don't get annoying glare from overhead lights during play. It also seems well laid out, detailed enough without being tiresome, and has lots of illustrations and diagrams.

There are two types of cards: Those that show the creatures in your faction (used to show special abilities, statistics, and for tracking wounds), and those that show orders you can give to your creatures. They are all beautifully illustrated (if you can call pictures of fat, giant spiders beautiful), and the layout of the creature cards is great. When designing cards that are used in association with a playing piece it is important to make it so that you can easily tell which cards represent which models. You can do this by using a picture of the model, or you can use an illustration which shows the character in the same stance as the model. If you don't do either of these things, then there will be in-game confusion. Wizards of the Coast have got around this problem with a rather wonderful solution: The top part of the card shows a lovely piece of artwork, usually depicting the creature in action, and then in the bottom right of the card there is a small photograph of the model. This means you can have dynamic artwork while avoiding any possible in-game confusion. Top marks.

Unfortunately, the cards are a little on the thin side. They are not the worst cards in the world, but I have definitely seen much better.

The sheet of punch tokens are perfectly serviceable, but it looks like they have included enough treasure chests, wound markers, identifier tokens and morale/leadership trackers for two war bands. It's almost like, when the punch sheet was designed, the intention was that this would be a self-contained game with all the pieces needed for two players to fight; but somewhere along the line someone went, "Hey, you guys, we can make these tools buy this game twice if we take out one of the armies." I'm probably wrong; I'm probably being unfair to the designers; but hey, this is my blog!

Each box contains two large and two small boards which you build together with another set of boards from a second "faction pack" to create the arena. The boards are double-sided, and they look great; but there are two issues. First of all, the little symbols that indicate difficult or hazardous terrain are quite faint and can be difficult to see. However, the bigger issue is the way the jigsaw edges fit together.

Dungeon Command game board
The game board - gappy.

The boards are by no means a snug fit. Why? Is this some kind of production error, or were Wizards of the Coast worried we would mash the boards up trying to fit together the jigsaw pieces? I don't know about you guys, but I've been building jigsaw puzzles since I was about six months old; is it too much to ask for a snug fit? (as the actress said the bishop).

Okay, okay. I'll get the main event: The pre-painted miniatures. I am a painter, but I am also a father and husband with two jobs, a blog, and a shelf of games I would like to play every now and again. So, while I can paint - and do paint - I am always happy to buy something with pre-painted pieces. I know they will not be up to the standard I could do myself; but even half-decent is good enough for me. Unfortunately, Dungeon Command sports the absolute worst pre-paints I have ever seen. The paint that has been used is very watery, and has run into creases where it shouldn't; and paint has been slapped on so hurriedly that I have some pieces with cloaks the same colour as their armour. My Cormyr War Wizard looks like Mike Myers from Halloween.

Dungeon Command pre-painted miniatures
Bad pre-paints - note gold paint on the cloak, and NO FACE!

As a comparison, I own Claustrophobia, Mage Knight: Board Game, a shedload of Lord of the Rings: Tradeable Miniatures Game, Transformers Armada, and I have experience with Heroscape, Heroclix and the Alien vs Predator Horrorclix pieces. All of the aforementioned games have pre-paints which are a hundred times better than what you get in the Dungeon Command game.

This is not the end of the world: Bad paint is better than no paint, and from a distance the miniatures look fine. Up close, they might make you a bit sad.

However, not all the paint jobs are terrible: I have a very nicely done dragon in the Cormyr set, and a decent Umber Hulk in the Lolth set. Here's a picture of the dragon.

Dungeon Command - Copper Dragon
Copper Dragon from Heart of Cormyr.

Now I'm off to play a few games. Expect a review at some point (covering basic game rules) and then probably a review of each "faction pack" (if I can be bothered).

Sunday, 29 July 2012

World of Warcraft (and Less Interesting Stuff Too)

It's been an exciting week.

The reason I think it's been an exciting week really does make it apparent how much of a geek I am.

You see, most people would say it's been an exciting week because of the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games. But I'm saying it because I managed to score the last three characters packs I needed for Fantasy Flight Games' World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game. As I stated in my review, which was posted back in May, this rather enjoyable game originally only shipped with four characters: a gnome hunter, a human mage of some description, an undead ice mage, and an orc warrior. A choice of just four characters in a game that can accommodate up to four players is almost unforgivable: Someone is going to get stuck with that bloody gnome.

Luckily, the boys and girls at Fantasy Flight Games quickly realised the error of their ways; by which I mean, they soon released character packs containing single characters that were probably ready when the game was launched but which were held back so they could be sold later at a premium.

Eight character packs were released in total, before FFG lost the rights to World of Warcraft and the game was discontinued. The characters were released in "waves" of four, and due to diminishing returns, the second "wave" was produced in smaller quantities meaning they are harder to find on the secondary market.

I was easily able to pick up the four characters from the first "wave," and a very good friend bought me one of the characters from the second "wave." And now, thanks to ebay, I have managed to pick up the other (rarest) characters. It cost me £15 for the three, almost double what it cost me to buy the entire first "wave," but it means I now have everything that was ever made for this game.

So yes, it's been an exciting week.

World of Warcraft: Elf, gnome, and troll
Shailara, Brebo, and Wennu.

I haven't had a chance to try out the new characters yet, but they all look pretty interesting:

First up is a night elf warrior called Shailara Witherblade. She works in a similar way to the orc warrior from the base set, but where the orc has a regular battle stance and a berserker stance that makes him give up armour in exchange for a more powerful attack, Shailara has a regular battle stance and a defensive stance that gives her extra armour in exchange for a weaker attack. Basically, she is the opposite of the orc.

Interestingly, one of the things that defined the orc warrior was a range of "shout" special powers. Shailara only has a single "shout" card in her deck of special actions, so she should feel different enough to the orc to make her inclusion in the game worthwhile.

Brebo Bigshot is the second gnome character in the game. He is a fire mage, so is the polar opposite of the ice mage from the base set. He looks pretty interesting; but with lots of special abilities that involve setting fire to stuff, he doesn't look particularly subtle. I'm not sure there is going to be much in the way of strategy with this guy.

Probably the most interesting character is Wennu Bloodsinger, a troll priestess who has the ability to adopt a shadowform that allows her to recover wounds. What makes this ability interesting is that she gets to heal one damage when she plays a card with the keyword "shadow." As there are several "shadow" combat cards, she is one of the few characters who can go into a combat injured, and come out healed. This means she doesn't need to play as cautiously as some characters, and can plough on regardless of the damage she is soaking up.

But I know what you're thinking. You didn't come to my blog to hear about cool expansions to fun, modern games. You want to hear about random crap I've picked up in charity shops. Well you are in for a treat, because I have found something completely random and entirely crap.

A recent trip to good old Poundland turned up these:

Chaotic Trading Card Game - OverWorld starter
Chaotic - OverWorld starter deck.

Chaotic Trading Card Game - UnderWorld starter deck
Chaotic - UnderWorld starter deck.

These are the two starter sets (OverWorld and UnderWorld) for the out of production trading card game, Chaotic. You would think, after picking up Gormiti: The Trading Card Game, I would have learned my lesson about buying card games in Poundland, but no. I guess I'm just not that smart. Besides, each set was only £1.

Both boxes claim you can play online, but of course, Poundland don't stock anything that isn't crap or discontinued (usually both), so it came as no surprise to find out the game was cancelled in 2007 and the website has been closed down. Still, it might be a good game, right?


I haven't had a chance to play yet, but I'll be honest; it doesn't look promising. The rules are a mess, and there doesn't seem to be anything new or innovative going on here; but at least the cards are decent quality, and there is some good artwork. Check out this guy:

Chaotic Trading Card Game - UnderWorld character card
Nice picture... Shame about the name.

What annoys me the most is that each fixed starter deck was bundled with four randomly allocated rare foil cards; but I managed to get an identical set of four foil cards in each of my starters, which brings into question the random distribution method that was used.

Actually, that's not true. What annoys me the most is that magic in this game is called "mugic," because the magic is generated through music (get it?). That's the kind of thing that makes me want to set fire to the cards.

Fear not; there will be a review as soon as I find the strength to play the damned game.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Lord of the Rings: The Duel

As I continue to move across the old reviews from www.BoardGameGeek.com I will occasionally find a review for a game that I no longer own. Such is the case with this review of Lord of the Rings: The Duel, which I originally wrote back in August 2008.

There is one big problem with this review: I don't own the game any more so I can't take any pretty photographs of all the cool bits. So, without further ado, I introduce you to a wall of text... Please don't hate me.


Lord of the Rings: The Duel (hereafter referred to as LOTR:TD, which is a bit like TL;DR)
Published by Kosmos
Designed by Peter Neugebauer
For 2 players, aged 10 to adult

I bought LOTR:TD for several reasons, not least because it is a Lord of the Rings game with beautiful illustrations by the uber-talented John Howe. The fact it was a two-player Kosmos game was a bonus as I have found many of the games in that range to be well worth checking out (I also own Dracula, Lost Cities, Dragonheart, and Odin's Ravens, and I used to have a copy of Blue Moon).

So, was I happy with my purchase? Let's find out...

LOTR:TD comes in a pretty little box which is just a little deeper than usual for a Kosmos game. The reason? Well, they had to make room for the bridge, didn't they? Oh yes, the bridge - possibly the most irrelevant piece of chrome I have ever seen. Indeed, LOTR:TD has about as much chrome as it is possible to get onto a small game designed for quick plays between just two people. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

What you actually get for your money is a very simple card game. There is a deck of 54 beautifully illustrated cards (thanks John!) and these basically represent the tactics of Gandalf and the Balrog, who will be battling over the aforementioned bridge, just like in the book. Actually, not really at all like in the book, but I'll get to that in a minute...

The deck is split, with 27 cards for Gandalf, and 27 for the Balrog. Cards are not interchangeable, so Gandalf will never use the Balrog cards, and vice versa. That seems pretty logical.

You also get two playing pieces (wooden, abstract interpretations of Gandalf and the Balrog), two wooden cubes for tracking scores, a groovy little board with the fellowship and some goblins drawn on it, and a 3D bridge which is used to represent who has the upper hand in the fight (the character who is higher up the bridge is currently winning, and if a character reaches the top then he instantly wins).

That sounds like quite a lot of stuff for a little game, doesn't it?

So how much of it do you really need? Honestly; just the cards. That's not to say everything else doesn't have a function. The bridge looks pretty and allows you to quickly see who is winning, and the board allows you to track wounds easily. Personally, I like all that chrome. It adds character which is sorely lacking from the very abstract card play. You don't really need it, but it doesn't hurt to have it, and the bridge never fails to attract attention when it is set up. It's like Blue Moon: You don't need the little plastic dragons, but they're half the fun!

Cadwallon: City of Thieves
A picture for a completely different game.

Okay, okay, enough already about the bitz. What about the game? How does it recreate the exciting moment when Gandalf faces his greatest fear and is dragged into the abyss? (Sorry, that was a spoiler... damn.)

Well, it doesn't. Each card played is supposed to represent an attacking or defensive move from one of the characters. There are symbols on the left and right of each card. If you play the first card, your opponent has to try to block the symbols on the right side of your card by playing a card with matching symbols on the left of his card. Of course, his card also has symbols on the right, and your next card should have symbols on the left to block those, and so on. It's quite difficult to explain, but plays VERY easily. The rules will take about three minutes to learn, and then you will be well away.

Oh yes... some of the cards also have special powers that allow you to move cards around, ignore cards, and do other stuff that adds a bit of variety to the gameplay.

The game involves slightly more thought than you might think. You have just 27 cards to use throughout the fight, and the fight is divided into rounds (a maximum of four). In each round, you draw nine cards, but you can't use them all, you have to save three. This happens in each round until the last, when you will be left with the nine cards from the previous three rounds. If you have managed your cards well, you should have a killer hand left; if you have frittered away your powerful cards in early rounds, you may find yourself in a world of hurt. Bad management of cards can see a clear victory turn into a crushing defeat, as it is possible to lose so badly in the last round, that all previous rounds become irrelevant. However, after each round, the victor gets to move up the bridge by a number of steps determined by how much of a beating he dished out, so if you try to save up all your heavy-hitting cards for the last round, there is a chance that your opponent will reach the top of the bridge, claiming an early victory, in which case all the cards you saved will be wasted. It can actually be quite a balancing act.

Now, question time...

Is the game fun?
Yes. In a "one game and then we'll play Fury of Dracula" kind of way.

Does the game accurately recreate the battle between Gandalf and the Balrog?
Not on your life. In the book (and film) the battle was brief and vicious. Here it goes on and on and on. There isn't even a Gandalf card that allows you to smash down the bridge. Tsk.

Will you enjoy the game?
The elegant, simple mechanics of the game allow you to get playing right away and you can easily get through multiple games in an hour on your very first try. If you like card games, then I think there is something here for you to enjoy. But if you are thinking of buying it just for theme, then don't bother. The artwork is lovely, and adds character; but you will never get the sense that you are really involved in a tense battle, no matter how many cardboard bridges you fight over.

Put it this way: I bought the game for the theme, but there was enough here for me to love anyway, and I rate the game very highly for what it is (a light, quick game to play before moving onto something with a bit more weight).

Unfortunately, my wife didn't like the game at all, and as most of my two-player games only get played against her, this game has now been culled from my collection. I was pretty sad to see it go.

And finally, would this review have been better with pictures?
Shut up.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Smuggle aka Contraband

Smuggle aka Contraband

Smuggle (or Contraband)
Published by MB Games
Designed by goblins in the vault of secrecy
For 3-6 players, aged 7-70 years old (!)

As a collector of old and out of production board games, I spend a lot of time in charity shops. Normally, I spend a lot of time in charity shops being a bit disappointed, having rummaged through the games shelf to find nothing more than another bloody copy of Carol Vorderman's Sudoku (does anybody do Sudoku puzzles any more?) and, even worse, The Sex and the City Trivia Game. I mean, really? Trivia games weren't bad enough already?

Sometimes, I will find something truly awesome, like when I picked up a mint, sealed copy of Fantasy Flight Games living card game, A Game of Thrones, for £5; but generally speaking, I will leave a charity shop with nothing, or a bit of tat that I think might be interesting but generally isn't (seriously, take a look at my collection and you'll see what I mean).

I picked up Smuggle, which is MB Games' rebranding of the classic bluffing game Contraband, even though I don't really like bluffing games. Why did I do this? Because I hadn't found anything else interesting all day, and it was priced up at £1.75. If it was a clunker, I could sleep easy knowing I had done my bit for charity; if it turned out to be good... that's okay too.

Smuggle aka Contraband - the box
Smuggle - for young and old (between the ages of 7 and 70 apparently).

Contraband was originally published by Pepys back in the mid 1900s. Smuggle is what happened when MB Games got their mitts on it in 1981. It is a pure bluffing game, in which one player is a customs officer, trying to determine whether other players are lying about the items in their luggage. Sounds exciting, right?


Okay, the theme is not exactly gripping, and as I've already said, I'm not a big fan of bluffing games (although the two-player Dracula game from Kosmos is decent); so before I even opened the box, I wasn't feeling particularly happy about my purchase. But when I had enough people together to do the game justice, I got it to the table and gave it a whirl.

I am still not particularly happy about my purchase.

The quality of the game components are about what you would expect from a game made in the 1980s. The box art is the typical MB style, with little panels of images showing an overly enthusiastic family pointing at the cards and cheering. My group were not as enthusiastic when we played. I don't recall a single cheer (except for the one when I put the game away).

One unusual thing about the box design is the prominently displayed age restriction of 7-70 years. What happens once someone hits 70? Do they lose the ability to bluff? Or didn't they expect people to live any longer in the 1980s?

Inside the box there is a game board (which is nothing more than a place to put the stack of item cards, and a place for the discard pile), a deck of 56 cards depicting different types of items, and a wedge of (ugh) paper money. I know it was the 80s, but paper money sucks, no matter what decade a game is from.

Smuggle aka Contraband - the board
The game board - isn't it beautiful?

Paper money... I really hate paper money!

The components are fine, except for the rather ugly artwork on the cards; and I was lucky with the copy I found, because everything appeared to be in mint, unplayed condition. Of course, finding an old game in mint condition is usually a danger sign: why hasn't anybody played it?

Here's why... The game is boring. I know it's a classic, and it's been around in different forms for years; but that doesn't change the fact, it's boring.

One person gets to be the customs officer and divides up the money for everyone, and then the person on his left draws four cards. The cards show either a luggage symbol, or an item of contraband such as cigars or jewellery (or even the crown jewels). Each piece of contraband has two values: the value you pay if you decide to declare it to customs, and the value you are fined if you lie and try to sneak through customs without paying.

So, the player looks at his four cards, and declares what he has to the customs officer. If the customs officer believes him, the player pays the required amount and then hands all the cards to the player on his left. That player discards one card, draws a replacement; and then makes a declaration. This goes on until the customs officer doesn't believe someone, at which point the person with the cards reveals what they have. If that person was telling the truth, he gets a bonus payment from the customs officer; but if he was lying, he must pay all the fines for every item of contraband he has. After fines are paid, the next player draws a fresh hand of four cards.

There are a few other rules (a player can accuse someone of lying before accepting the cards being handed to him, and there is a diplomatic bag that allows you to get away with carrying contraband), but that's basically the game. The winner will be the person with the most money at the end (or the person whose brain is still safely ensconced in his noggin).

Smuggle aka Contraband - the rules
The rules - concise, and lavishly illustrated.

The biggest issue I have with Smuggle, is the amount of time it takes to play. It should be a light filler game, playable in half an hour; but it takes forever. A round ends when all the cards in the deck have been used, and there are 56 cards in the deck. Considering that no more than four cards are drawn in any given turn (and in many turns it will only be one card), you can see how it will take a long time to get through the deck, even when playing quickly. Worse still, everybody is supposed to have a go at being the customs officer. That means, if you are playing with six players, then you have to go through the 56-card deck six times.


I wonder if this is why there is an age limit of 70 on the box: there is a genuine concern that anyone over that age may not survive to see the end of the game.

I expect there will be many people who love this game, and will be quick to say that once you are into it you can play the whole thing very quickly; but even if I could get the game down to half an hour, that's still half an hour of doing something repetitive: Draw cards, lie or tell the truth, pay some money, pass cards, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, draw cards, lie or tell the truth, pay some money, pass cards, load gun, pull trigger.

And the theme... good grief. If, when playing, I felt in some way like I really was trying to smuggle something through customs - if there really was excitement and tension - then it might be okay. But this isn't really a thematic game, and there's no real tension. If you get caught, it's no big deal; you just pay a bit more money.

Smuggle aka Contraband - the card deck
The cards all depict things that are more interesting than this game.

The repetitive nature of the game, the dull theme, and a playing time that runs longer than it should, all add up to make this a game that I cannot see myself playing again. Unfortunately, I have promised myself that I will only keep games in my collection that I will play; so this one has to go.

I am sure there are people out there who won't find this game such a bore, but it fell flat with my group; and it just confirmed for me that I really don't enjoy bluffing games. Time playing this game is time I could be using to play something that involves slaying dragons.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Another Birthday...

It's been a while since I posted any news about how my collection was expanding. There were two reasons for this:

1. I haven't had a lot of time.
2. The recent additions to my collection were gifts for my thirty-th..... twenty-first birthday, and I didn't want to admit I was getting older.

But you can only put off the inevitable for so long, and at least I can console myself with the fact that I may have more grey hairs than I used to, but I also have more board games.

Although my main interest is in out of production games, I also have an interest in current titles. All of the gifts I received this year were modern titles, and that suits me fine, as it is about a year since I last added anything modern to my collection.

First up, a gift from my brothers: Lords of Waterdeep, a worker-placement Euro game all dolled up in a Dungeons and Dragons theme.

Dungeons and Dragons: Lords of Waterdeep
Lords of Waterdeep - has almost nothing to do with dungeons or dragons.

I don't have many Euro games in my collection. I enjoy them, but I tend to find I prefer games with a good theme. So, of course, plastering Dungeons and Dragons all over a worker-placement game is definitely going to get my interest.

I have now played this game twice, and I would say it is one of the most fun games in my collection. It is quick to set up, plays smoothly, and it took no more than five minutes to explain the rules to my group and get our first game underway. On your turn, you are placing a single worker ("agent") on the board in order to get a benefit that may allow you to solve a mission, so turns move quickly, and there is little in the way of analysis paralysis. The game also adds a "screw you" mechanic with intrigue cards, that can be played to mess with your opponents' plans, and this really helps the game to shine when stacked up against "purer" Euro games, that can sometimes feel a little bit like multi-player solitaire.

However, it should be noted that the Dungeons and Dragons theme, while well-implemented, is relatively thinly applied. For example, you solve quests by sending off fighters, mages, clerics, and thieves. These different types of adventurers are represented by wooden cubes in different colours. Once you are deeply engrossed in the game, you tend to stop thinking along the lines of "how many fighters will I need?", and instead you start thinking "how many orange cubes will I need?"

A special mention must also be made of the games production values: They are through the roof. All the components are beautiful, and the game looks amazing when set up. The box insert is also a marvel, with specially designed wells for all the different pieces. Even the recesses where the card decks go are designed so that if you press one end of the cards, the entire deck flips up, allowing you to remove all the cards with ease.

Dungeons and Dragons: Lords of Waterdeep - box insert
A picture doesn't do the box insert justice.

The only thing I am not keen on is the design of the box. It has a split running around the edge that reveals a nicely illustrated gold bar. It looks nice enough, but it means the lid of the box does not fit all the way over the bottom half of the box, and as a result the box is less secure and is more prone to warping. It's a tricky thing to explain, so here's a picshure:

Dungeons and Dragons: Lords of Waterdeep - the box
The lid of the box sits on top of the bottom half, rather than covering it completely.

The second game I was gifted came from my beautiful wife: Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin. The name is slightly misleading, as it makes it sound like a more complicated version of Thunderstone, but really it is just a second edition.

Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin
Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin

This is a deck-building game. I've never owned a deck-building game before (never even tried one), and I thought it might be interesting to give one a go. In this sort of game, you start with a basic deck of cards (everyone has the same), and over the course of the game you "buy" more cards to add to your hand, and occasionally "destroy" cards you no longer want, thereby honing your deck until it is totally efficient and full of useful things. On your turn, you draw a hand of cards, do what you can with those cards, and then discard the lot. If you "buy" a card, it goes straight to your discard pile, so you don't get to use it until the next time you reshuffle your deck. It's actually quite an unusual concept the first time you play, especially for people who are used to playing card games where holding on to cards for later turns is part of the strategy. However, after two games, I pretty much know what I'm doing, and I'm really enjoying it.

Of course, the reason I picked Thunderstone Advance rather than a deck-building game such as Dominion is because of the theme. In Thunderstone you are building a party of heroes to send into a dungeon to fight monsters. I never seem to have enough games with that theme.

The second game from my wife is the one I was most excited about: Mage Knight.

Mage Knight Board Game
Mage Knight - Complicated and beautiful (like me).

This could well be the best game ever made, and I say that even though I have only played the game solo (something I rarely do, because I believe playing board games is a social activity that should be done with other people). It is also probably the most complicated game I own. It combines elements of deck-building (you expand your basic deck of cards through the course of a game by earning new ones), and world exploration (in the style of Runebound or Talisman). How far you move, how strongly you can attack, and almost everything else in the game is based on the cards you can play in your turn, and combat is entirely deterministic. With very little randomness, you can plan out each of your moves, and the game feels like an intricate puzzle, with your aim being not only to solve it, but to solve it in the most efficient way possible.

The fact the game feels so much like a puzzle is probably why it plays so well solo. I actually get the feeling that solo is really the best way to play it, as there could be a tendency for turns to go long if a player has analysis paralysis, meaning downtime for everyone else at the table.

The game does have lots of fiddly rules, and there is a 20-page introductory walkthrough booklet that you are supposed to read before you even get to the (20-page) rules book; but if you can handle the steep learning curve, this is a highly-recommended title.

The component quality isn't as great as in some other games (the cards are so thin they really do need to be sleeved, and I normally hate sleeving cards), but everything looks great when it is set up. I particularly like the pre-painted mage knight characters, who even have see-through bases so you can see details of any tokens or map spaces they are standing on.

Mage Knight Board Game characters
The mage knights. Don't they look like a fun bunch to hang out with?

I know I am going to get many hours of entertainment out of Mage Knight, and I am excited to hear there is already an expansion in the works.

Rounding out the collection of games I received for my birthday was a copy of the co-operative game Forbidden Island and two of the print-on-demand expansions for Fantasy Flight Games' Space Hulk: Death Angel co-op card game, all given to me by a very good friend. It is interesting to note that everything he gave me was for co-op play: Guess he must be getting fed up with the number of times I trounce him.

So that's it: Another birthday over. Time to pop out the dentures and take a nap, I think...

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Battleship Express

Recently, work commitments have meant I have not been able to keep my blog as up to date as I would like, so while I try to find the time to do some new reviews I thought I would quickly recycle this old one that first appeared on www.BoardGameGeek.com back in February 2011.

Battleship Express

Battleship Express
Published by Hasbro
Designed by Reiner Knizia
For 2-4 players, aged 7 to adult

So, I'm walking through my local supermarket toy aisle and I see Battleship Express sitting on the shelf. I've heard of the game before, but never really paid it any attention, but there it is... sitting there... and it's only £4. Any game that sits in the same price bracket as a drink at the bar is going to get my interest, but when that game also has a little note on the back cover saying "designed by Reiner Knizia" then how can I refuse? Add to that, the game can play from two to four players in 20 minutes or less, and I'm sold.

Having made the purchase, sneaking it into the shopping trolley between the bread and milk in hope of hiding it from the wife, what are my initial impressions? Basically, I think Knizia may have phoned this one in...

The game is nicely presented in a plastic case which also doubles as the pod for rolling the dice in. Inside this case you will find a deck of 20 ship cards; these are thick, good quality cards die-cut in an unusual shape with one convex side and one concave side. This shape is completely unnecessary, but makes the cards look like the epaulets on a captain's jacket, so it's a neat touch. The shape also makes it easy to remember which card is at the front of your line of battleships and which card is at the back of the line.

Battleship Express - the cards
The cards are shaped like little epaulets - cute!

The rest of the game comprises eight special attack dice. These are simple black plastic with stickers affixed to each face. Five sides of the dice show a picture of one of the types of vessel in the game as a silhouette while the sixth side shows an explosion symbol.

Battleship Express dice
Typical Hasbro dice - chunky, with stickers affixed.

Instructions for a basic game and an advanced game are printed on a small leaflet. Clean and easy to read. Why there are basic rules is beyond me, because the advanced rules are still incredibly simple and I can imagine even very young children grasping them without any real difficulty.

Battleship Express rules
The rules are clear enough - you can skip the basic ones.

Overall, I was happy with the presentation and feel I got a good deal for my £4.

To play, each player takes five cards: one submarine, one battleship, one patrol boat, one destroyer, and one aircraft carrier. These cards are colour coded and show a pretty uninspiring image of the vessel, the number of hits required to sink it, the number of dice to roll when attacking with it, and any special rules. Special rules are only used in the advanced game, so the backs of the cards show a simplified version of the same vessel, without special instructions, and with some modified stats.

Each player lays out the cards in a row, in any order desired, and then the game can start.

You need to choose a start player, and I would suggest dicing off for it in the first game and then moving around the table, as the first player tends to have a big advantage over players that follow, particularly in two player games.

On a turn, you can pick any of your vessels to make an attack. You select the card for the ship and move it to the FRONT of your line of ships. Then you pick a target: any opponent vessel that is either FIRST or SECOND place in their line of ships. So, as you can see, when you pick a ship to attack with, it is in turn moved to a position in your line of vessels where it can be attacked by an opponent on their turn.

You then roll to attack. Look on your card to see how many dice to roll, and then read the special instructions to see how many TIMES you roll, and then get rolling...

When you roll, any dice showing the silhouette that matches your TARGET is a hit. I thought this would be a bit tricky to see quickly at first, but the silhouettes perfectly match the outline of the ship drawings on the cards, and the background for the silhouettes are colour coded to match the ship cards, so it's really easy to work out hits. Also, any explosion symbol is also a hit.

Any dice that are hits are set aside; any dice that are not hits can be rerolled. You get the number of rerolls specified on your ship card.

If you are playing the advanced game, each ship gets a special power:

The aircraft carrier rolls six dice once before selecting a target, and then rolls again. Also, it does not move to the front of the line when attacking, which is a good thing because the aircraft carrier is one of the easiest ships to sink.

Battleship Express ship card
Comparing the basic and advanced version of the Aircraft Carrier.

The destroyer gets six attack dice and two rolls, and explosions count as two hits.

The patrol boat gets five dice and three rolls, but no special powers.

The battleship gets eight attack dice and can roll four times, but explosions do not count as a hit.

Finally, the submarine only rolls three dice and gets no rerolls, but any explosion symbols count as an instant kill. Furthermore, the submarine can attack ANY enemy target, regardless of where they are in the line.

That's all there is to it. In a two-player game, play until one player has no ships left; in a three-player game, play until one player has sunk four ships; in a four-player game, play until one player has sunk three ships.

The game is incredibly quick to learn, set up, and play; as you would expect from an "express" game. It is also incredibly light. Even lighter than I was expecting. Considering it is a Knizia design, I was expecting something that would create a few interesting choices, or which would have an interesting scoring system, but really this is very simple. However, the theme is surprisingly strong, and the special ability of each ship really seems to match up with how you would expect that ship to work - the aircraft carrier can attack from the back by launching its planes, the submarine can attack any enemy ship from underwater, the battleship is inaccurate but can soak up lots of hits, and so on...

I actually quite enjoy the game. As a 20-minute filler it is perfect, and I can see me cracking this out when my parents are visiting for tea. Unfortunately, after even a few plays I think the available strategies are quite obvious and you never really feel like you are torn between making interesting choices. You are always going to try to sink the patrol ships and aircraft carriers first in games with more players, as these ships are the easiest to sink (only three hits required) and you only need to sink three or four ships to win. In a two player game, you are always going to try to take out the hard hitters: the destroyer and the submarine. Only the destroyer and submarine have a good chance of destroying a battleship, so if you can destroy them both then you have a good chance of winning. This is why the first player tends to have an advantage. If the starting player can sink a ship on the first turn, an opponent is always going to be on the back foot.

For £4, I would recommend it as a light filler; just don't expect Knizia at his best. In fact, don't really expect to feel like you are playing a Knizia game at all.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Fox & Geese

As I recently posted a review of one of my favourite two-player abstract games (Hive), I thought it would be a good idea to dust off this old review, which first appeared on www.BoardGameGeek.com back in September 2008. Note that this game is not out of production, and is readily available online and in good game stores.

Fox and Geese

Fox and Geese
Published by The Green Board Game Co
Designed hundreds of years ago by big, hairy vikings
For 2 players, aged 8 to adult

Full disclosure: I love Fox & Geese. I love it, but unfortunately, I just don't seem to be able to find anybody else who does. But why not?

This is an old game (apparently vikings used to like playing it in between a good bit of pillaging), but Chess is an old game, and I'm never short of someone for a game of Chess. So, perhaps it is because it is a two-player game in which each player has a different set of pieces and different objectives... Hmm, no, that's not that unusual either. I guess that means it must be because it is REALLY REALLY REALLY, and I mean REALLY, hard to win as the stupid bird-brained geese who, despite the presence of a fox, REFUSE TO FLY AWAY!

But I'll back up a little and start at the beginning... For this review I will be discussing my brand spangly new edition of Fox and Geese, as brought to you by English company The Green Board Game Co. I got this copy as a gift one Christmas from my brother, who honestly couldn't believe I had heard of the game. Can it be my own family doesn't realise I'm a geek?

So I excitedly cracked into the rather large box the game came in, wondering what on earth could be inside to warrant such a luxurious size. As it turns out, absolutely nothing. The box is the size it is so that the board could be created with just one fold, rather than being sliced and folded into quarters. This is actually quite annoying, because TWO THIRDS of the box is COMPLETELY EMPTY and does nothing except take up space on my shelf! The wooden fox piece and the 18 wooden geese (which are quite cute and actually look like animals rather than generic wooden pieces) sit in a little central compartment in the box. The only other contents are the instructions (which come in five flavours: Dutch, German, English, French, and Spanish).

Fox & Geese - the box
The box for Fox & Geese is about three times the size it needs to be.

Apart from the annoying amount of empty box, I can't complain too much about the components. The pieces are well crafted (although perhaps a little unstable when standing on the board) and the instructions are very clear and straightforward, including all the rules and several game variants to make it harder or easier for each player.

Fox & Geese - the rules
The rules are clearly written, but make the game look a little drab.

Enough about the bits, especially as I am sure there are plenty of different versions of this game about, and each one will be of different quality. Time to talk about the game.

For those of you who don't know, here's a brief rundown: The game is played on a cross-shaped board. On some spaces it is possible to move in eight different directions, in other spaces, it is only possible to move four (i.e. you cannot move diagonally from some spaces). This little detail is of great significance, because the geese really don't stand a chance unless they make use of it. The geese start bunched together at one end of the board, the fox starts where-ever he wants. Play then proceeds in turns, with the fox moving every time ONE goose moves.

Fox & Geese - the board
Details of the board, showing the movement paths.

The aim of the game depends on which side you are playing. The fox is trying to eat enough geese to make sure he can't be caught. He does this by leaping over any adjacent goose into an empty space on the other side of the goose (obviously he cannot do this if there are two geese in a row, so it is important to make sure geese are not left stranded). However, the fox is a nasty sod, and he captures like a draughtsman - if he leaps over a goose into an empty space, and there is another viable target, he can immediately leap again. He can keep on in this manner until he can't catch any more geese.

The geese win the game if they can force the fox into a position from which he has no viable escape route (i.e. no clear spaces, and no geese that can be jumped over). This sounds quite easy, after all, there are 18 geese and only one fox, but when you are moving only one goose at a time it can be a real pain to make a decisive enough attack to snare the fox successfully.

I think this is probably why a lot of people don't like this game as much as me. The geese tend to lose most of the time (I have bagged a few wins, but not many!). Of course, the game is normally over in less than 10 minutes, so you can reverse roles and have another go, but generally speaking, the player with the geese sits down with a sense of "Oh well, I wonder how quickly I lose this time." It tends to put people off playing.

If you play twice, and the fox wins both times, then you end up having to determine who was the overall winner by who lost the least amount of geese (who was the best loser, so to speak).

For some people, this review may have reminded them of a different game: Thud (which I will review another day). In that game, trolls and dwarfs are battling for supremacy of a battlefield. Dwarfs have to team up to take down trolls, but trolls can just smash dwarfs to bits single-handedly. I love Thud too, but it suffers from the same problem: You really have to play twice, and the overall winner is determined to be the player who put up the best fight as the dwarfs.

So overall, I think this game is a great little brain-burner. It plays fast and dirty (you could easily get six games into your lunch break) and there isn't that much room for analysis paralysis (come on, you are moving one piece one space, just jump over the flipping goose already!!!) It is far more accessible than chess, and from opening the box, you can know all the rules and be playing your first game within five minutes. I also like the fact that each player has a different set of challenges to overcome. I like playing as the geese (especially if I pull off a rare win). I like to know that even though the game is incredibly simple, I am going to be really challenged. If I win, it is a massive sense of accomplishment. However, I do fully understand why some people do not like the prospect of playing the geese.

Oh, and as an added little bonus, The Green Board Game Co use recycled materials and wood from managed forests, so I don't feel quite so bad about that gigantic box.

On the downside, you may get fed up seeing the fox win every game. Also, some people may not approve of a game in which a fox is trying to chow-down on geese; but this game was invented in a time when hairy folk were burning down each others houses and sticking pointy stuff where it was never meant to go. The theme could have been worse!

Fox & Geese - the pieces
A cat among the pigeons?

There's not really anything else I can add. If you are prepared to accept each player has a different role in the game, then there is plenty to enjoy here, although I very much doubt it is the sort of game that will be many people's first choice. Hey - give it a try, and if you like it, let me know that I'm not alone in the world!!

Happy hunting.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


Hive board game

Published by Gen Four Two
Designed by John Yianni
For 2 players, aged 9 to adult

I wrote a review of Hive a long time ago, and posted it on www.boardgamegeek.com. A good few years have passed since then, and I thought it was time to revisit the game to give an updated opinion and also to pass on words of wisdom learned the hard way.

Before I get started, I should say that this game doesn't exactly fit into my collection of out of production games, as it is still readily available; however, I am bending the rules slightly and putting it in The Vault because I own the first edition which has a very different production quality to the version you can pick up now.

I picked up Hive at a time when I was looking for short, simple, two-player games to play with my wife. Hive certainly fits the bill. The game comprises only 22 playing pieces which will also form the board during play. However, it is amazing what a strategic experience those 22 playing pieces can generate. Furthermore, the design means the game is easy to transport and there is absolutely no set-up time. You simply open the box, grab the 11 playing pieces in your colour (blue or silver) and start playing.

The pieces in the first edition are chunky pieces of wood with stickers applied. They are completely functional, but look rather shoddy compare to the beautiful Bakelite pieces that you get in the current version. I often think I would like to upgrade my edition, but then I remember I don't really get to play this game any more. But more on that later...

Hive - playing pieces
The blue playing pieces.

The rules for the game are simple, and the rule book is in full colour and wonderfully illustrated throughout, meaning you shouldn't have any trouble learning how to play.

Hive - the rules
Illustration showing how the Grasshoppers move.

The basic premise is that you have 11 pieces representing different types of bugs and you need to move your bugs to surround your opponent's Queen Bee. When the game starts there are no bugs in play, so on your first turn you just pick a bug to play. Your opponent then does the same. From then on, on each turn, you can move one of your bugs (unless your Queen Bee is not yet in play), or bring a new bug into play. On the turn a piece is brought into play, it must be positioned touching one of your pieces already in play but not touching an opponent's piece.

You have to place your Queen Bee by your fourth turn, and you cannot move any pieces until you have done so. Movement is worked out based on the edges of the hexagonal playing pieces. So if you were in the space directly above a playing piece, and moved three spaces around that playing piece, you would now be directly beneath it instead. Once you move a piece, it must never move so that the pieces in play break up into separate groups. In other words, all pieces in play will form a single group (the "hive") at all times.

There are a few other minor rules, but that basically covers the main elements. It all sounds very confusing, but really it isn't. Within a minute of playing your first game, you will have the swing of it, and it all makes perfect sense.

What makes the game really interesting is the selection of bugs players have available to use. Each side has the following:

One Queen Bee - Can only move one space, and needs to be protected.
Three Grass Hoppers - Jumps to the next unoccupied space moving in a straight line over joined pieces.
Three Soldier Ants - Can move to any empty space around the edge of the hive.
Two Spiders - Always move exactly three spaces.
Two Beetles - Move only one space, but with a special caveat.

It is the Beetle pieces that have resulted in the situation where I never get to play this game any more. Basically, when Beetles move, they are allowed to move on top of any other piece (friend or foe). While the Beetle is on top, that piece cannot move and is considered "not there." That seems like an innocent enough ability, until you remember that when bringing pieces into play, you are not allowed to play them adjacent to an opponent's piece. I developed a strategy of sitting a Beetle on top of my wife's Queen Bee, and because the Queen Bee was then considered "not there" I could bring new bugs into play each turn directly adjacent to the Bee, who couldn't move to safety. My final turn would be to climb the Beetle off the Queen Bee, by which time the Queen Bee would be completely enclosed and I would win.

This was a bloody good strategy, and for some reason, my wife never managed to prevent me from doing it. My wife is a pretty smart cookie (also a pretty, smart cookie), and she normally does really well at strategy games; but for some reason, she could never see the Beetle-Queen move coming, and every time I did it, she became increasingly annoyed.

I was enjoying winning, and because it was a good tactic I kept doing it. Of course, I should have tried different tactics; I should have seen my wife's growing annoyance. But no. I was stupid, and enjoying a winning streak.

And then one day my wife refused to play Hive.

She has never played it since. And now I am sad.

Hive - the box
The ant gets the front cover slot - because the ant is bad ass.

Since those days I have become a lot less concerned with winning, and I now just play games for fun. I'm just not that competitive any more; but I have learned my lesson too late.

I have a gaming group, but when I am with them I can't roll out two-player games. Two-player games are mainly only played against my wife. So, Hive is one of my favourite two-player strategy games of all time, and I never get to play it.

There's the lesson for the day...

Don't piss off my wife.

Happy gaming.