Thursday 31 May 2012

Review - Eragon

Eragon: The Official Motion Picture Board Game
Published by Mega Brands
Designed by Jim Bousman
For 2-4 players, aged 8 to adult

Having already reviewed Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game, Indiana Jones Akator Temple Race Game, and Operation: Aliens, I thought I would continue the theme by reviewing another game based on a movie: Eragon.

To be more exact, this is a game based on a movie based on a book. I love a good franchise. Unfortunately, Eragon is not a good franchise. The film is a tragic waste of human endeavour, managing to suck all the fun out of an adventure story involving knights, monsters, and dragons. I didn't even think that was possible.

It's not entirely the film's fault. The CGI is ropey, the acting is bad, the action sequences are boring, and some of the casting is way off (Rachel Weisz is not the person who springs to mind when I am asked to think up a good actor to voice a dragon); but the biggest problem is it's based on a book that simply isn't very good. The theme is a rehash of Star Wars, the plotting and characterisation is severely lacking, and it's all just a bit dull. I actually have a lot of respect for the author, Christopher Paolini. Not because he is good; but because he has managed to be so incredibly successful without actually being any good. However, he hasn't had everything his own way, and he has taken a lot of abuse for his writing "style" over the years (just like he is right now).

I am sure he sits in his mansion, surrounded by his piles of money, and cries himself to sleep.

But we aren't here to talk about the merits of the book or the film. We are here to talk about the merits of the shameless board game cash-in that came out off the back of the movie. With such great source material to work with, I am sure you can imagine how this is going to go...

At first glance, the production quality seems really rather good; but it very quickly becomes apparent that things haven't been thought through very well. The box is good enough: It's nice and glossy,  with a cover featuring all the actors from the movie looking suitably surly (but no picture of the dragon, which is clearly because this game was made using promotional artwork from before the movie's special effects had been completed); but once you remove the box lid, you start to realise what sort of game this is.

Eragon board
The board for Eragon. The squiggly writing isn't much easier to read close up.

The game board is big, and features  a series of paths overlaid on a map of Alagayseewhatsit (the fantastically not Middle Earth world in which the story unfolds). It seems very nice until you look closely, and you notice:
  • All the text is written in spidery italics and is almost impossible to read without pressing your nose against the board.
  • The bit of the board used for the game could actually fit on a board one-third the size, meaning that the rest of it is just for show.
  • It's covered in stupid words from the book, which have ridiculous umlauts and apostrophes scattered over them like fairy dust.
The other interesting thing about the board is that there are little punch out sections in the four corners, so that when the board is laid on a table, there are little "wells." The aim of the game is to collect cute little plastic crystals, and the "wells" on the board are where you place the crystals. The need for the "wells" becomes apparent as soon as you place one of the crystals on a flat surface. The crystals look impressive enough, but they are rounded, and they roll. Fast. You can't just pile them up beside the game board, not unless you want to spend most of the evening rummaging under the sofa for them.

Eragon dragon crystals
You wouldn't believe how difficult it was to take this picture.

The problem is, the "wells" are only big enough to hold about six crystals. Not nearly enough. I would say that's a massive design fault. But it isn't. The massive design fault was including crystals that were so difficult to control that it became necessary to cut "wells" in the bloody board in the first place. Seriously... Why not just cubes? Or cardboard chits? They probably would have been cheaper, and the publisher wouldn't have needed to pay for diecut game boards.

The game also ships with a deck of cards. Despite having a gloss finish, they still manage to be cheaper and flimsier than most of the other cards I have seen (including the ones in Hasbro games). Furthermore, the printing is terrible. All the character images are grainy; it's actually difficult to figure out who some of the people on the cards are supposed to be.

Eragon cards
The word "action" on a card is the closest thing to action you will find in this game.

However, the components are not a complete bust. The game includes three good quality dice (six-sided, 10-sided, and 20-sided), and four really nice player pieces designed to look like the hilt of a sword. Each playing piece has a translucent plastic "gem" in the pommel with a matching colour base. They are sturdy, and look great. Makes you wish they had used them in a better game.

Eragon playing pieces
The playing pieces. There must be a better use for them!

Ah yes... the game. The game isn't much of anything really. It's a simple roll-and-move game where you interact with the spaces you land on, occasionally get to draw a card, and need to roll the exact number to land on the final space of the path. (Really? Why do people still design games that require you to roll an exact number to win?)

As already mentioned, the aim of the game is to collect the horrible, rolling crystals. On your turn you roll the dice, and move that number of spaces (unless you land on a "stop" space, in which case you... er... stop). Occasionally you may have a choice of two directions to chose from, but all roads lead to Rome, so it doesn't matter which way you go.

If you land on a "challenge" space you get to challenge an opponent to a contest of magic or strength. It doesn't matter which you pick, it just determines if you roll the red dice (strength), or the green dice (magic). Both players will roll the same dice, so there is no real advantage to picking one ability over the other.

Before rolling the dice, you both wager some crystals, then the person who rolls the highest gets to keep the crystals. Re-roll ties.

I'm not kidding.

Sometimes you will land on a "draw a card" space. Guess what happens then?

There are three types of card:

Battle cards: Drawing one of these means you are involved in a bit of a scrap. You will either lose or gain dragon crystals (with no chance to do anything about it), and you may also get moved a few spaces forwards or backwards.

Action cards: Do pretty much the same as battle cards, except sometimes they ask the players to do mental things like "pass this card over your forehead three times." Oh yeah... and they say "action" on them.

Protection cards: You keep hold of these cards, and use them to block challenges. Some block strength challenges and some block magic challenges. The existence of these cards seems to be the only reason there are two types of challenge at all; and as you will never know if an opponent has a protection card against your selected challenge, it all seems rather random and pointless.

And that, my friends, is the game.

Roll the dice. Move. Do what it says on the space you land on (unless you got lucky and landed on a blank space). Apart from the blank spaces, "challenge" spaces, and "draw a card" spaces, you may have the good fortune to land on the thrilling "take another turn" space, or the earth-shattering "raid" space that allows you to roll a dice(!) and take crystals equal to the number rolled from one of your opponents (assuming you found anyone willing to play the game with you in the first place).

The game ends when someone reaches the end space on the board. That player collects five bonus crystals. Then everyone counts up their crystals (while trying to stop them rolling off the table), and the person with the most crystals wins. Although they don't, because everybody who has taken part in this sorry waste of time loses something (precious moments of life, a piece of their soul, their minds, whatever).

I think one of my favourite things about the game is the small section entitled "strategy hints" in the rules. The hints include gems like: "When playing with more than two players, it might be important to keep one player from getting too many Dragon Crystals in his or her possession." Surely, that is also the case in the a two-player game?!

Anyway, enough of this nonsense. This game has drained more of my life than it has any right to: First, because I played it; and now because I've written this review. This game is one of those typical movie tie-ins, quickly thrown together without due care and attention. It was designed to sell while the movie was popular (which it never was) before being relegated to the bin.

Having reviewed this game, I am now getting rid of it. It doesn't deserve a space in The Vault. It barely deserves a space at the local land fill.

Sunday 27 May 2012

Review - Indiana Jones Akator Temple Race Game

Having recently purchased a war game based on the movie Platoon, I thought I would post a review of another game in my collection based on a well-known movie. This is a review for Indiana Jones Akator Temple Race Game, which is based on a single moment in the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The review first appeared on BoardGameGeek back in February 2011, but now you lucky people get to read it with pictures.

Indiana Jones Akator Temple Race Game
Published by Hasbro
Designed by Will Creech and Dan Sanfilippo (it took two of them?)

For 2-4 players, aged 7 to adult

I'll be honest, Indiana Jones Akator Temple Race Game wouldn't be in my collection at all if it wasn't for two reasons:

1/ I am a big kid;
2/ It was on offer in my local supermarket for just £5.

As far as I am concerned, if I spend £5 on a game and play it only a couple of times, I've pretty much got my money back. It always surprises me when people complain about replayability (and lack thereof) in any game. If I buy a game for £40 and only play it ten times before getting bored of it, then that works out at £4 a play, and each of those plays has probably kept me entertained for a couple of hours or so. By comparison, taking my wife out for the evening can easily set me back £100. In that light, it is understandable that I am quite forgiving of games that might only have a limited lifespan; and why I am prepared to drop £5 on a game that I suspect will be a load of old rubbish.

I certainly expected Akator Temple Race Game to be on the poor side. For a start, it is based on a movie (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Games based on movies and television shows are generally not the deep, strategic wonders that hardened gamers are looking for. Also, this game features a large plastic 3D tower that makes it clear this game is being sold as a "toy" for a younger audience.

All that being said, I was actually surprised with it. Not because it was strategic (it isn't), but because it was actually pretty good fun, and suitable for adults as well as children.

First of all, a quick run-down of the components:

I have to mention that this game ships in a windowed display box. It has a cello front-piece so you can see that wonderful 3D tower and the little Indiana Jones characters running around it. This is great for drawing attention to the game on the shelf, but not great for storing the game once you have it at home (especially as the tower requires some additional assembly which means it doesn't then fit back in the box anyway).

My box is currently in the attic (which is why there are no pictures of it in this review), while the game sits on a shelf in my gaming cupboard with the cards, dice and playing pieces in a ziplock bag. I would much rather be able to store the game back in the box, but you can't have everything... It's not a deal-breaker, but some people will not appreciate this at all.

The game plays up to four people, who each get to move a little plastic Indiana Jones (Indiana Clones! Man, I need better material). This, again, is something that is going to bug people. Why make a game based on a movie, try to make it thematic by recreating one of the (sillier) exciting scenes, and then have every player be Indiana Jones? It would have been easy to make each player pawn a different character, but of course, these games are designed to be thrown together quickly, sold quickly, and then dumped from shelves as soon as the movie is no longer popular; so it shouldn't come as a surprise that costs were cut in only using one mould for the playing pieces.

Indiana Jones clones
Indiana Clones.

The game includes two custom dice (made with stickers affixed to the sides) and a small deck of flimsy cards. Anyone who has bought a Hasbro game in the last few years will know the kind of quality to expect. It's not great.

Indiana Jones Akator Temple Race Game dice
It's a shame Hasbro's custom dice are just plain dice with stickers.

Indiana Jones Akator Temple Race Game cards
Doom! Well... That can't be good.

But then there's that tower... This is a piece of genius that raises this game to a level of greatness it should never really hope to attain. It is a recreation of the temple stairway in the movie (that big cylindrical thing that collapses with all the heroes on it). It has a sturdy base with a cardboard insert, and plastic steps spiralling around the central column.

What makes the tower so cool is that is has a spinning top which rotates an internal mechanism; then, when you press the spinning top down, certain stairways temporarily drop 45 degrees, throwing off any pawns standing on them. As the top rotates, you never know which steps will collapse next. This is the main focus of the game, and where all the fun is derived. It reminds me very much of the old Ghost House game, where you dropped the skull into the coffin and it randomly dropped into one of four different slots, activating different traps around the house. (Yes, I do own Ghost House; yes, I will review it at some point.)

Indiana Jones Akator Temple Race Game in play
Red and Yellow are both safe on hooks... for now.

So, on a player's turn, he or she rolls the dice, moves the number of spaces, and then draws a card. The card might be helpful, it might not. Normally, the card will state to rotate the top of the tower a number of spaces, and then press it. If any pawns fall, they are returned to the top of the tower. If the card you draw is a crystal skull, you keep it and roll a different dice on future turns (this one sometimes freezes you in place as the skull attempts to control you). If a player gets to the bottom of the tower with a skull, then that player wins the game.

That's it, it's that simple.

Well almost.

There are two minor tweaks which add a fraction more entertainment. Each player pawn has a little slot in the base and is carrying a whip. On certain spaces on the tower, there is a little clip that will fit into the slot of the pawn's base, and will stop the pawn from falling if that step should drop. Similarly, there are little holes in certain sections of the tower where you can insert the pawns' whips. If you do this, then your pawn will be left hanging if the step drops away. This provides two ways to avoid falling off the tower, and gives you a certain amount of control over your fate without relying entirely on luck.

Indiana Jones Akator Temple Race Game pieces
The Indiana Jones can-can line.

This game is obviously pure filler, and is obviously designed for families with younger gamers; but it really is a lot of fun. The mechanical elements work really well, and it makes the game feel like a toy as much as it is a game. The rotating section of the tower moves well, and steps always drop smoothly without sticking or failing to operate. If a pawn has a clip attached to the base slot it won't fall, and if the whips are properly inserted into the tower holes, then pawns really do hang from the tower as the ground falls away beneath them (at which point everyone starts to hum the Indiana Jones theme tune). It all works together very well.

Best of all, I played this game with my wife and my elderly parents over Christmas and they had a blast. Four adults played this game over drinks on Christmas evening (about four or five games in a row), and had fun! So, yes, it is silly; yes, it is a "kid's game;" but it has a place in my collection, and I intend to keep it.

Of course, at best it is only a 6 out of 10 sort of game, because it doesn't allow you any kind of real strategy other than trying to stay on the safe spaces of the tower, but sometimes a 6 out of 10 game is okay. A few laughs, a few drinks, dice rolling, a bit of smack talk... sometimes gaming really can be that simple.

But after those four or five games on Christmas day, I put this game away and we played Lost Cities: The Board Game instead. After all, humming the Indiana Jones theme tune is only fun for so long...

Saturday 26 May 2012

Review - World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
Designed by Corey Konieczka (I can't pronounce his name, but he's a damned good designer)
For 2-4 players, aged 12 to adult

World of Warcraft (the massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) is a bit of a cultural phenomenon, so I should probably be a bit embarrassed to admit that I've never played it. I played some of the early stuff, when it was just called Warcraft and it was all about building cities; but I've never ventured into the online world. Maybe I'm frightened it might suck me in, and I'd lose my family and my house and not even notice.

Whatever the reason, I've never played the roleplaying game (putting me in a minority of one); but that didn't prevent me being interested in the various Warcraft board games that were released by Fantasy Flight Games under licence from Blizzard. Their first effort didn't tempt me to part with my money, but when they released World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game, which attempted to take the questing and adventuring of the roleplaying game and convert it into a slightly more complicated version of Talisman (a game I had loved in my youth), I was sold. Luckily, I didn't have to open my wallet; my beautiful wife bought the game for me for my birthday. God bless her.

Fantasy Flight Games have now lost their licence with Blizzard, and this game is out of production. That means, even though it isn't particularly old, it qualifies for inclusion in The Vault.

Okay, that's enough preamble. Let's find out what the game is all about...

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game box
World of Warcraft's box art, depicting exactly zero characters from the game

First of all, it has to be said that this really is a wonderfully produced game. The first thing of note is the beautifully illustrated, large board. Well, I thought it was beautiful; but there are more than a few people who think its design is quite ugly. The problem is that, rather than looking like a traditional map of the world (of Warcraft), the board is actually rather abstract. Major locations are represented in circles, and linked with paths of different colours. It looks very "board-gamey," and is perhaps not quite as thematic as some people would like.

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game board detail
Close up of the World of Warcraft board.

Aside from the board, the game also ships with a number of different tokens for tracking health, character quests, monster locations, and other events. These tokens are very thick and durable, and they are well illustrated. Anyone who has played a Fantasy Flight Game will know what to expect with these.

The bulk of the game mechanics are driven by the draw of cards, and these cards constitute most of the other game components. There are decks of large cards for each character in the game, representing skills that can be utilised at certain points to gain advantages; and there are four decks of smaller cards which represent challenges (with the reward for defeating that challenge on the reverse). There are also mission cards, and some trophies.

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game yellow cards
I like tigers... Not this tiger... Other tigers.

I'll talk about the cards in more depth in a moment. Before then, I want to talk about one of the major faults with the game. The number of characters.

It is very normal for an adventure game to give players a selection of characters to pick from, but World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game only ships with four characters. That means, if you have four people playing, someone doesn't really get to pick a character - that person just gets lumped with the character nobody else wanted.

All of the characters are interesting, with their own deck of unique skill cards to play during the game, and all four have very nice plastic miniatures to indicate their positions on the game board; but there really is no excuse for not giving a few more to pick from.

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game base game miniatures
The four characters from the base game.

Fantasy Flight Games very quickly released character expansions, each consisting of one new character with all the cards and tokens needed, plus a few extra encounter cards. I bought five of the eight they released, and that really does make all the difference. Some of these new characters are much more interesting than those in the base game, and they add loads of replayability. I wouldn't mind getting the other three characters too, but of course, they're out of production now; and as they were never sold in large quantities they aren't easy to find.

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game expansion miniatures
Five of the characters from the character pack expansions.

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game Tauren miniature
You call that a knife?

The game itself is really rather simple. Each player is given two missions to accomplish, and completing a mission will earn a certain number of valor points. Missions vary from killing a certain type of monster, travelling to a certain location, or fighting another character. Each time a mission is completed, it is also replaced with a harder "elite" mission. The game continues until someone gets eight valor points.

Of course, between you and completing your missions, there is a world (of Warcraft) of vicious monsters to fight. Usually, stopping at a location will result in you drawing one of the challenge cards that matches the colour of the location you are on. Most challenge cards have a monster printed on one side and a reward printed on the reverse. If you kill the monster, you flip the card and take the reward. Simple.

There are a few other rules: You might go to a city, or encounter a discovery token placed by another player, or you might draw a card that has an event on it; but generally speaking, your turn will involve moving a number of spaces (determined by dice roll), and then having a fight. Even if you draw an event card, after resolving the event you keep on drawing challenge cards until you find a monster; so you really have to expect that on most of your turns, you are going to end up in a scrap.

Luckily, fighting is very quick. You roll a dice and add your attack value (you can also play skill cards to boost your value or reroll dice). Your opponent does the same. If an attack roll beats the target's defence value, wounds equal to the attacker's current damage stat are inflicted (and monsters on challenge cards only have a single wound, so even a weak hit will kill them). Ranged attacks are calculated before melee attacks, otherwise attacks happen at the same time; so that means you might get hurt even if you kill your enemy.

The game really does only have a very basic set of rules, which may seem surprising considering the rule book weighs in at 32 pages. However, the rule book is very thorough and heavily illustrated and that accounts for a lot of the space.

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game rules
Does equipping an item really take a full page of explanation?

Fantasy Flight Games often get a lot of stick for badly written rules, but I think in this case they did a really good job. The simplicity of the rules may have been a big factor in that, but I still think it is worthy of note.

In the process of completing missions, it will be necessary for characters to go up levels. All characters start off grey, and can only access grey paths on the game board. Levelling up (usually done at certain locations by defeating challenges) will change the character's colour to the next in sequence (green, then yellow, and finally red), and this will unlock areas of the matching colour on the board. Higher level characters will also get better stats, such as more hit points.

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game character card
One of the characters from the base set.

The levelling system is really quite interesting. Most of the "elite" missions will involve venturing into the red areas of the board, and that means the characters need to level up first. This makes the game very much a race. You are not casually strolling around the wilderness killing time (and monsters) until you are eventually strong enough to fight a big boss. In this game you must push and push as quickly as possible to go up the levels so you can complete those missions. If you aren't going at full speed every turn, then you will probably lose.

Misunderstanding the nature of the game is one of the reasons I wasn't too keen on it at first. I spent a lot of time having low level encounters in the hope of winning some fabulous weapons, only to discover there are no fabulous weapons. The game dragged on, nobody's stats got any better (because nobody was levelling up), and everybody had a ton of low-value weapons and armour that didn't seem worth having. However, purchasing a few of the expansion characters and then playing a few games in which everybody raced to level up as fast as possible really changed my opinion, and this is now one of my favourite fantasy adventure games.

What really brings the game to life is how differently it plays depending on the character you pick (which highlights what a mistake it was only including four characters in the box). The game itself is very simple - almost too simple - but by giving each character a unique deck of skill cards, every game presents different challenges and tactics.

Each skill card has a power value. The movement dice is printed with power symbols, so when you roll to move you are also determining your power level for the turn. Interestingly, the sides of the dice with lower movement values have higher power values, so you will usually end up with a result you can do something with. The skills themselves give you combat boosts, movement boosts, or other special abilities to help you complete your missions. They really do add a lot of variety to a game that might otherwise feel very dull and repetitive.

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game action cards
Skill cards. Nicely illustrated, and clearly set out.

It is worth noting that, as this is a race game, there are plenty of ways for the players to interact. Many of the skills are useful against another character, and many of the missions will involve killing an opponent or taking his stuff (or even allowing an opponent to beat you up!). This is not a game that can be accused of being "multiplayer solitaire," which is an insult that can be thrown at other adventure games such as Runebound.

Overall, I find World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game to be thoroughly enjoyable, but it did take a few turns for everything to "click." I had the rules down and memorised after a few turns, but it took a little longer to realise what kind of game it was, and how it should be played. I can guarantee that if people sit down to play this game at a leisurely pace, everyone will get bored. Just remember, this is a game where the players dictate the pace. It only takes one person to start levelling up, and everyone else at the table will start to rush as well; and before you know it, the game has come to life. I try to level up from grey to green on my very first turn whenever I can. That really upsets my opponents and sets a blistering pace that results in a huge amount of fun. This is clearly the way the game was intended to be played, and it really benefits from that tension.

The one last thing I do have to mention is regarding the theme: Having never played World of Warcraft online, a lot of the theme is wasted on me. There are many places where the designer has assumed you know the computer game. For example, every mission is based on something from the computer game, and the name of each mission is sure to mean something to people who play online. But there is no flavour text on the mission cards to explain to those of us who don't play online what those missions mean. As a result, the game can sometimes feel a bit mechanical, as I am simply chasing objectives without knowing the thematic reason behind doing so. It's not a deal-breaker by any means, but it is a shame that the theme wasn't implemented in a way that would make it accessible to everyone.

Even if a lot of the in-jokes and game references are wasted on me, I still hold World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game in high esteem. After all, what's not to love about playing a backstabbing troll who roams the countryside in search of fame and monster heads to mount on his wall?

And no, before you ask, playing the game hasn't made me want to try the online version. Not one bit.

Friday 25 May 2012

Platoon Arrives

Anybody who has visited my blog for long enough to start reading this post will know that one of my favourite pastimes is collecting (and playing) board games. What might be less obvious is that I also love the movies.

Unfortunately, very rarely has a board game designer taken a movie I love and turn it into a game which is even passable in terms of quality. Most games based on a movie tend to be super-quick cash-ins with low component quality, and poorly written rules. The best you can normally hope for is a run-of-the-mill family game, probably involving basic roll-and-move mechanics.

However, when I saw a copy of Platoon for sale on ebay, I placed a bid, hoping that if any company can turn an excellent movie into an excellent game, it would be Avalon Hill.

Platoon board game

I'll be honest, I'm not much of a wargamer, and before seeing this for sale I never even knew that a board game based on Platoon existed; but a collector and his money are soon parted, and my love of the movie meant I was not prepared to let this one get away. I eventually won the auction for around £4 plus the postage, which wasn't bad.

When it arrived, I was a little disappointed to see the box was in a pretty bad way, as this was not obvious in the ebay photographs, and was not mentioned in the listing; however, the internal components were in very good, clean condition. Most importantly, the game was 100% complete.

Platoon board game box

As one would expect from an Avalon Hill game based on a war film, Platoon is a chit-based war game for two players. Furthermore, it deals with small-scale combat, with one chit being equal to just a single soldier (as opposed to representing an entire regiment). Each American soldier is even named on the chit, but the NVA soldiers are all nameless.

The game creates a "fog of war" situation by having all the chits held in little plastic stands with the faces hidden from the enemy player. Each side also has a number of "fake soldier" chits which can't attack but are used to confuse your opponent.

Platoon board game Elias piece

The game comes with only a single map (made up of two pieces, which are nicely mounted), and this map is used to play out one of four scenarios recreating moments from the movie. The scenarios dictate how many troops are on each side, and the liklihood of troops activating. It all seems pretty standard, but nicely done and nicely presented; and the rules fit on a single double-sided sheet, so its quite an accessible game

Platoon board game board details

I have to say, I'm quite pleased with my purchase; but obviously I won't know for sure until I've got it to the table.

Monday 21 May 2012

Review - Flying Hats

Flying Hats
Published by Spear's Games
Designed by someone who decided there weren't enough games about throwing hats around.
For 2-4 players "of all ages."

I have a very good friend who has told me that, as interesting as my blog is, it won't be worthy of his consideration until I have reviewed Flying Hats, which he (rather unusually) seems to think is one of the greatest games ever made. I have no idea why a game about flipping little plastic hats into a cardboard target should be worthy of such high praise, but who am I to ignore the request of a friend? So, here it is... Flying Hats.

Flying Hats box
No need for instructions - the box art tells you how to play!

This game actually dates back to some time in the late 1800s. It has been published by many different companies, and under many different names. The edition I have (picked up in a charity shop by my lovely wife, who indulges my hobby rather more than she probably should) was published by Spear's Games, probably in the 1960s or 1970s.

The version I have comes in a shallow, square box, the bottom half of which, in conjunction with a cardboard insert, forms the playing surface. You see, there are holes in the cardboard insert, and printed inside the box so that they line up with those holes are coloured targets marked with different scores.

Flying Hats box insert
Inside the box for Flying Hats - it's like a piece of modern art.

The only other components are four sets of plastic hats (four to a set), in four different colours with matching plastic flippers. The instructions are printed inside the box lid. Remember when games used to do that? I'd love to see Fantasy Flight Games trying to print the instructions to one of their games in a box lid!

Flying Hats rules
Rules include advice on adjusting your position and the strength of your stroke.

The basic premise of Flying Hats is simplicity itself. You have four hats and one flipper. You use the flipper to flip the hats onto the the cardboard insert housed inside the box. A good shot will see your hat falling point down into one of the holes in the insert, thereby scoring the number of points printed inside the box beneath that hole (the picture on the box cover gives a good indication of how this works in practise); a bad shot will see your hat bouncing off the insert, missing the box completely, or taking out the eye of your opponent.

If one of your hats falls inside another player's hat, then you "capture" that hat and you score the points instead of your opponent.

If one of your hats falls into a black space, then you deduct 25 points from your score at the end of the round.

To make things a little more interesting, players do not take it in turns to shoot. Instead, everybody fires at the same time, and the person who fires all four hats first (regardless of where they land) gets a bonus 20 points. So, what you end up with, is a bunch of people frantically firing hats as quickly as possible, without any time being taken to aim. It's frantic chaos, and lasts for about 30 seconds per round. In that time, you might see one or two hats hitting a target; mainly, you will see targets hitting the wall, the floor, and the dog.

After everybody has fired all four of their hats, you add up the scores (deducting 25 points for each hat on a black circle)  and the highest total wins.

Flying Hats game components
Flippers and hats.

There is an alternative set of rules that allows more players, by allowing each person to play in turn, and this adds the element of trying to hit the coloured targets with the matching coloured hats; but frankly, that's not very much fun.

Flying Hats is a dexterity game that involves no strategy, no planning, and not a lot of skill. Rounds last no more than a minute, making it a perfect filler game. It's also good for parties, or gatherings involving "non-gamers." With the right group, you can have a lot of fun; but even then, this is a game to play for ten minutes at most. If you play for any longer, there really is a risk that someone will lose an eye.

My copy, which is in immaculate condition, will be remaining in The Vault, and it will certainly see some use.

There, I've reviewed the game. I hope my friend will be very happy.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Cadwallon Gangs - A Strategy Guide

This is an article that I first published on back in February 2011. It is a strategy guide for using the gangs that are included in the game Cadwallon: City of Thieves.

All characters (including militiamen and special characters) in Cadwallon: City of Thieves have three basic stats, and the 16 thieves that make up the gangs also each get a special skill (interesting fact - some skills are active all the time, some require you to burn a card from your hand, and some require you to use an action point, more on all this later).

The basic stats are: COMBAT (how many dice to throw in a fight), MOVE (how many spaces to move on an activation), and MIND (the number you have to roll equal to or less than to pick the lock on a treasure chest).

Each thief is COMBAT 2, MOVEMENT 4, MIND 4.
Each special character is COMBAT 3, MOVEMENT 4, MIND 4.
Each militia is COMBAT 2, MOVEMENT 1-5 (determined by a die), MIND NA.

So, there is some variance in the stats. It may not seem much, but that extra combat dice for the special characters makes a MASSIVE difference.

Anyway, the real difference between characters is the special skills they have. Each character gets one skill, and the skill of your four thieves dictate how you are going to play the game. Even though every character has the same base stats, there are clearly characters in each team that should fight and others that should pick locks and others that should move quickly to secure certain treasure chests. In practise, this plays really nicely - each character has basically the same chance to win a fight or pick a lock, so they are all basically good at being a thief, and yet each one has an ability that makes them a bit of a specialist in a certain area.

Some of the skills available to certain characters are the same as skills that can be found on arcana cards (skill cards that are drawn each turn and can be used by any character), so sometimes other thieves will get to use a special skill belonging to a different character. However, some character skills are unique.

Let's look at the gangs:

(NOTE: Each gang has a name and a bit of fluff in the rulebook explaining their general motives and ideologies. This is nice, because it indicates which teams are "evil" and which are Robin Hood types. Also, each individual gang member gets a brief biography.)

(ANOTHER NOTE: Although I am discussing each gang, I am not going into huge levels of detail regarding strategy. I'll leave that up to you to figure out. I just wan to illustrate how the team's feel different to play with based on their available skills.)


Cadwallon: City of Thieves blue team

Sanaris - If he attacks another character and wins, draw 1 arcana card (free action).
Valdur - Receive 2 extra ducats for each treasure he carries out of the district (free action).
Faras - Move through a wall when moving (1 action point).
Drokan - Add +1 to his highest combat roll (free action).

Blue team are a slightly odd bunch, they have two guys that focus on combat, and two that can or should avoid it.

Drokan has a solid power that works in any fight, so he is perfect for mugging other characters. In this game, a combat is resolved by rolling the number of dice indicated by the COMBAT value, and selecting the highest roll as the attack value. Each character involved can play ONE arcana card before rolling to improve the chances of winning. Attacker normally wins ties. The winner steals one treasure from the loser (or two ducats if the loser has no treasure). Bearing this in mind, it is obvious to see that Drokan's power is incredibly useful. If he plays a combat-based arcana card before rolling, he has a very good chance of winning any fight, so he can gather valuable treasures from opponents and will rarely be attacked.

Sanaris doesn't get any combat bonus, but he can draw extra arcana cards through fighting. It is a good idea to use him to farm arcana cards for the benefit of his team mates, in particular...

Valdur. Valdur gets no "in-game" bonus. His bonus applies when the game is over. You can carry up to three treasures, and he scores extra money for each treasure he carries. This will make him a magnet for enemies who will want to prevent him from scoring those bonus points. He should be avoiding combat at all costs, and gathering treasure from treasure chests. If you use Sanaris to farm arcana cards, then you can use those to keep Valdur out of trouble - the more combat bonuses, or skills to avoid combat, that Valdur has at his disposal, the more likely it is he will score big points for you. Keeping Drokan close by as a body guard is also useful.

Faras has a powerful movement ability that allows him to sneak past guards into areas of the board that might otherwise be out of reach. Use him to scoop the best treasures and then dodge into positions that are out of reach (the board is not very big, and sometimes getting a wall between you and the enemy is the only way to hide) - but remember, his skill costs one action point, and you only get seven in a turn, so use his power only when necessary.


Cadwallon: City of Thieves yellow team

My boys (and girls). This is the team I always use because I think they have the best skill set.

Kaldern - May move through a space occupied by another character (1 action point).
Elise - If rolling a 1 or 2 when picking a lock, collect 2 extra ducats (free action).
Sarys - Steal one random arcana card from an adjacent character before or after moving (1 action point).
Tortok - Re-roll one combat die when fighting (free action).

This team is much more about stealth and lock-picking, with the exception of Tortok the orc; however, the team has more skills that require actions to activate, so they are more situational and not for use every turn.

Tortok has an incredibly powerful combat skill, and when combined with an arcana card, he can win most fights. He doesn't have to decide to re-roll his die until he has seen the result, so it is a no-risk skill. Bashing other guys over the head and taking their treasure is a good call. Also, he has the added bonus of being one of the guys you can use to assassinate special characters. Special characters roll three dice, so they are hard to kill; but if you can take them down they can score you massive bonus points in certain scenarios. Tortok is the only character who can meet them on a level playing field (he basically gets to roll three dice for combat). If he also has an arcana card, he has a half-decent chance of scooping a fat bounty. True, there is an arcana card that allows any character to use Tortok's skill, but you only get to play ONE arcana card in a combat, so Tortok still comes out on top by being able to use his own skill PLUS another arcana card as well.

While Tortok makes a scene, the rest of the gang play it stealthy. Kaldern's ability is unbelievably useful. For one action point he can move through another character. It costs an action point, so you don't want to do it unless you have to, but it can get you out of situations where you are pinned in a corner, or just out of reach of a valuable treasure.

When a thief finds a treasure chest, he (or she) has two choices: use one action point to pick the lock (roll a D6, if result is equal or less to MIND value then the lock is opened), or use two action points to bash open the lock (no dice roll required). In many cases, it is better to play it safe and bash the lock; however, the yellow team really need to conserve their action points (for the characters that have action point-based skills such as Kaldern). Just as well they have Elise on their team. She gets bonus treasure if she rolls 1 or 2 when picking a lock. Okay, there is always the risk she will fail the dice roll, or she will roll a 3 or 4 and just get the basic treasure, but it always pays to let her lock pick rather than bash. Two extra ducats can win the game in some cases, especially as ducats are usually "safe" (unlike treasure, which can be taken away, ducats can only be lost if you have no treasure when you lose a fight or if losing a fight against the militiamen). It is one of the weaker skills, definitely; but it does encourage you to take more risks with treasure chests - it can be worth the gamble. Plus, there is a limit to the treasure you can carry, but no limit to the amount of money.

Sarys is a little voodoo girl who can steal arcana cards for one action point. This is a skill that isn't always worth using. The benefit is, the fear of losing good arcana cards will often prevent enemy characters from getting too close to her, so even though she has no real combat power, she can actually secure areas of the board if playing against faint-hearted opponents. If she starts next to an enemy, it is usually worth taking a card from them and then moving away. Harvesting arcana cards is useful, as it prevents your opponent from using them against you; it also increases your chance of getting the arcana cards that give you bonus ducats for picking the locks of treasure chests, which is how this gang will acquire most of its treasure. Use her with caution though - it is probably best not to end your turn next to an enemy to steal an arcana card if she is carrying treasure (unless you are confident you have the cards to keep her out of trouble).


Cadwallon: City of Thieves green team

Leona - May swap places with an adjacent character before or after moving (1 action point).
Harid - Discard 1 arcana card to draw a new one (free action).
Iris - Discard 1 arcana card to re-roll her combat dice (1 arcana card).
Davitto - If he attacks another character and wins, steal 1 additional treasure.

These guys burn resources like no-one's business. Leona has a great skill that can really hurt the other team. Swapping with another character to put them in a bad situation is great fun. You can actually swap them into a corner so the only way they can get out is to fight you, and if you have been using Harid's skill to acquire a good set of arcana cards, you could have the edge. Swapping places can also put an opponent just out of reach of a treasure, just out of reach of the edge of the board (resulting in them being stuck on the board when the game ends and losing points), or it can plonk them close enough to Davitto so he can mug them. Of course, swapping also gains Leona an extra movement space (so she basically moves 5 spaces instead of 4), and that little burst of speed can be the difference between getting off the board and being stuck when the last turn ends. Her ability costs an action point, but it has lots of uses.

As already mentioned, Harid can be used to filter out cards that aren't useful to you and improve your chances of getting good combat cards. You will need those because...

Davitto will want to be getting into fights whenever he can early in the game (and then running away a lot later on). If Davitto wins a fight he takes two treasures, but he doesn't get any combat bonus, so has to rely on good arcana cards. It will be Harid that gets him those cards. Davitto will very quickly acquire his maximum number of treasures, and then he will become a target. Luckily, you can help to defend him with possibly the most powerful combatant in the game...

Iris. For discarding one arcana card, she can reroll all of her combat dice, making her an absolute cow to beat in a fight. It Harid can't find you decent arcana cards, then at least you can use the poor cards to power Iris.

As you can see, this team is quite confrontational, with two characters that will be looking for fights and one that will be trying to reposition enemies into dangerous positions. Harid can be used to gather treasures from chests and sift through the arcana cards until you find the good stuff.


Cadwallon: City of Thieves red team

The red team comprises the real evil villains.

Jehlan - Enemies cannot play arcana cards when fighting him (FREE!!)
Dorak - When attacking another character, he he wins steal 2 additional ducats (free action).
Anays - May move directly from any pentangle space to any other pentangle during movement (1 action point).
Torham - If rolling a 1 or 2 when picking a lock, gain an arcana card (free action).

An interesting split of skills. Jehlan is brutal for taking down most of the other characters as they are denied the use of arcana cards, and his ability costs nothing. He is a brutal, murdering, nasty piece of work. However, against special characters and zombies (who don't get to use arcana cards anyway), and characters like Tortok, he is suddenly less impressive and becomes no better in a fight than most of the other characters. One of the most powerful combat powers, but only of use in specific situations, so pick your fights wisely.

Dorak gets extra money for mugging people, but doesn't have any skills to help do this, so relies on arcana cards to get an edge. He needs to hunt out someone with no special combat powers, and then bully them ruthlessly, hoping that Torham has used his ability to acquire a good range of arcana cards. Unlike Davitto, who gets extra treasure, there is no end to Dorak's malice. You can only carry a limited amount of treasure, but you can carry unlimited money, so Dorak can keep on racking up the money by smacking people around, and even if he loses a fight and loses a treasure he has acquired, the money he has made will be safe.

Finally, Anays can teleport for one action point. This is quite limited, as there are only four pentangles on the board; but as the board is not huge, and the pentangles are well spaced, it still means that Anays is the best character for covering wide distances. Great if she is stuck on the wrong side of the board with only one turn left to make it to an exit. Fill her up with treasure and then use teleports to keep her out of harm's way.

What I hope I have helped to show in this stupidly long article is that each gang member has a different way of being played. Some gangs are made up of people who work well together; other gangs are made up of loners who just happen to be in a pack.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves miniatures

Despite having all the same stats, there is definitely a different feel to each gang, and a different way to get the most out of each gang member.

Review - Cadwallon: City of Thieves

After the recent announcement that Fantasy Flight Games is putting out an expansion for Cadwallon (a game that many people believed was dead in the water), I thought it was a good opportunity to reproduce the review for the base game that I first published on back in February 2011.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
Designed by Pascal Bernard and Laurent Pouchain
For 2-4 players, aged 8 to adult

When I first heard of Cadwallon I had no knowledge of the background world of the theme (and I still don't), but I was intrigued by what I think is possibly the best artwork I have ever seen for a game. Closer examination revealed beautiful miniatures (man, I am a sucker for the toys), and an interesting concept. Furthermore, the game looked light enough to play quickly, with streamlined rules that still allowed for plenty of strategy. I just had to have it. It went on the Christmas wish list (the only "big" game on the list), and it was presented to me on Christmas morning by my beautiful wife. I was a very happy man.

After playing the game, am I still happy? You betcha.

The basic concept of the game is that there are rival gangs of thieves all operating in a small (incredibly small!) district of a town. The gangs break into houses, steal treasure, and try to get out without being arrested by the militia. It's a great theme, and while it is not 100% accurately represented in the game, there is definitely enough of the flavour there.

The game is presented to a really high standard. The rulebook, is simple and clear, with nice illustrations and more of that beautiful artwork throughout. One quick looked through it and you will pretty much be able to play without any further need to refer to it, which is really good because it means you can focus on the strategy of the game without worrying about little rules and exceptions that might trip you up.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves rules
The rule book for Cadwallon is as pretty as everything else.

The miniatures are fantastic, with lots of detail.I needed to treat mine with hot water (from kettle to cold water) to straighten out some swords, and there is a small amount of flash that would need to be trimmed away if painting. Of course, you can now buy pre-painted models for the game if you want. It's tempting, but there are so many games I want, I doubt I will actually open my wallet for them.

There are 20 models in total: four teams of four thieves, two special characters that are used in certain missions, and two militia soldiers. There are no bad sculpts. Normally, there will be one or two models that I don't like, but in this case I think they are all superb. Furthermore, to make it easy to identify the models, the game ships with sets of plastic bases in different colours (blue, green, yellow and red for the gangs, grey for the militia, purple for the special characters). These bases clip over the bottom of the figures so you can easily identify them during play. You may find that the bases don't stay on, but I would NOT recommend gluing them. If you glue them, you will never be able to mix and match characters from different teams for custom missions. I used a very small blob of white tac on the bottom of each figure, and have had no problem with bases coming off as of yet.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves orc
The miniatures are just as eye-popping as the artwork.

The game also includes standard-sized character reference cards for each gang member, special character, and militia soldiers. These cards show a nice picture of the character (which matches the sculpt of the model for easy recognition), and the stats and special skills for that character. The cards are colour-coded to match the colour of the model bases, so there really is no confusion during play.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves character cards
The cards for the blue team. What a happy-looking bunch.

Now, you will notice that the stats for each gang member are exactly the same, but this isn't as uninteresting as you might think. Yes, the only difference between characters is that they each have a unique special skill; however, I do not feel this ruins the game in any way. Having every character with the same base statistics for movement, combat, and intelligence simplifies the game so players don't need to keep looking up reference charts and comparing statistics. Simplifying this aspect of the game does not simplify the strategies available to players; and because each gang member gets a unique skill, they all act slightly differently and have something they are good at without the need for lots of small statistical differences.

The game also contains a deck of small-sized arcana (skill cards) and mission cards, six dice, and bunch of thick, high quality tokens. Money is represented by plastic coins in bronze, silver, and gold. The coins are really nice, but I think this was a bad move and the only fault I can make regarding component quality: The plastic coins are embossed, which looks nice, but makes them impossible to stack. I like to stack my victory points (which is what they represent), and this isn't possible. The coins slip and slide all over the table, and it's a bit messy. Furthermore, the coins are not stamped with their value (1, 5, and 10).

The board is not modular: it represents a single district in the town comprising streets and houses, and it is the same in every single game. Where each gang member starts at the beginning of a game may change, but the board is static. The board is also surprisingly small. It is almost impossible not to bump into the militia or enemy gangs (and in four player games all hell can break loose), but this is definitely a good thing. The game would be very stale if gangs could operate at opposite ends of the board and never meet. And if you are not really into person v person type games, fear not - there are as many character skills and arcana cards relating to avoiding combat as there are for improving combat ability. Combat isn't even deadly, it just results in the loser running away (in a direction determined by the winner).

Cadwallon: City of Thieves board
The Cadwallon game board. Thematic and detailed, but easy to use.

The non-fatal combat, and the cards for dodging opponents by sneaking past them or slipping through secret tunnels, makes it clear this game is something a little deeper than a hack and slash fight to the death. It quickly becomes apparent that blocking an opponent's route (models cannot pass each other without using the correct skill or arcana card) can be just as damaging to an opponent's plan as attacking them (which can turn out bad for the attacker in many cases). There is something almost chess-like in trying to block off escape routes, or access points to certain treasures; and when you think you have everything positioned perfectly, there is an equal mix of joy and despair when your opponent plays a combination of arcana cards that allows them to dodge a character, slip through a secret tunnel, dodge a second character, and then pick the lock of a treasure chest to score loads of points.

To make up for the lack of variety of the game board, the last element of the game is a set of four double-sided scenario boards. These boards are large, wonderfully illustrated, clearly written, and give details for eight different scenarios that can be played. In each game, the winner is always the gang that acquired the most loot, but the scenarios shake up the situations under which the loot must be acquired. For example, in one mission, zombies are roaming the streets, making for a hectic, combat-heavy mission; in another mission, an assassin is roaming the streets in an attempt to kill off gang members. The scenarios really do add a lot of variety and flavour without changing any of the core mechanics of the game, or adding complicated exceptions to the rules.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves scenario boards
Cadwallon scenario boards. The Duke appears to be Santa Claus.

So, no complaints on the components, but how does the game play?

I don't want to go into details of the rules, but basically, it's like this... Each player has four gang members with which to raid the district. On a turn, each gang member can perform a movement, and an action (either combat, or stealing a treasure). Each of these actions requires the player to expend an action point, and you only get seven action points a turn. Furthermore, some characters have special skills that can be activated by spending more action points. Obviously, seven action points is not enough to do everything with everyone (you would need a minimum of eight action points), so you have to choose carefully.

Before activating any characters, a player first draws an arcana card. These are one-use skills that can really help with a strategy, and you can use as many as you want at a time (unless in a combat, when the maximum is a single card). Chaining arcana cards, as already explained above, can result in amazing combinations that really change up the game and this can be a lot of fun.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves Arcana cards
Arcana cards are used for lots of sneaky tricks. Or running really fast.

After drawing a card, the player selects one militiaman on the board to activate. Roll a dice, and move the militiaman the number of spaces indicated as desired (unless rolling a six, in which case the militiaman is sleeping). You can attack with a militiaman, if he can reach an opponent's space, but often it is better to use the militia to block street locations or certain rooms.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves miniatures
The night watch, and other formidable foes.

After doing that, the player moves the gang members through the use of the action points. If a character lands on an enemy or militiaman then there will be a fight (unless using a character skill or arcana card that allows the character to sneak past), and if the character lands on a space with a treasure chest, then the character can attempt to take the treasure. For one action point you can attempt to pick a lock (requiring a roll of four or less on a single dice), or for two action points you can smash it open (requiring no roll).

After a certain number of turns (based on scenario) an alarm sounds and most of the routes off the board are blocked. Characters then have a few turns to escape with their loot, resulting in some very tense rounds. Any characters that don't get off the board are arrested, and the loot they are carrying is not scored.

That's basically it (okay, there are a few rules about scoring missions and combat that I haven't gone into, but I've detailed the major stuff). It sounds simple - too simple - and it IS simple. However, simple rules does not mean a simple game...

There is strategy available to players - you are not just moving and rolling dice. Knowing when to fight and when to block a certain location; knowing when to pick a lock and when to break it; knowing when to chain arcana cards; knowing which exits to block, knowing which types of treasures to steal... There is just a lot going on. Games with more players are quite chaotic, but two-player games certainly have a tense, chess-like feel to them as the limited number of characters cautiously try to out-manoeuvre each other. Okay - I am not going to lie and say this is the deepest strategy game in the world, but there is enough strategy to keep gamers entertained; just don't expect a brain-burner.

If the game sacrifices a certain deep level of strategy, it certainly makes up for it in other ways. The streamlined rules means you can focus on having fun without rulebook flicking, and the level of player interaction results in great situations that should have everyone at the table laughing. This game is pure fun.

There's plenty more I could say, but I might leave that for another day. For now, I will sign off with this overview...

Many years ago, my parents bought me Heroquest. It was quick to learn, and easy to play, with gorgeous miniatures and gorgeous artwork. It was dripping with theme and fired my imagination. I used to spend hours flicking through the cards and staring at the miniatures when I couldn't find anyone to play with. The game didn't have particularly deep strategy to it (although there was some strategy), but it was huge amounts of fun to play. Cadwallon is my modern-day Heroquest.

Gamers today may claim that Cadwallon is too simple, but I don't agree. This is one of those good old-fashioned fun games. It doesn't need to overload you with rules and tactics, and you certainly will not miss them if you let yourself get sucked into the theme.

This game is fun.

That's what it wants to be, and that's what it is.

Abstract Games Just In...

For years now, I have had this unhealthy fixation with filling my house with out of production board games. However, since starting this blog I seem to have inadvertently gone up a gear. I am now visiting charity shops much more frequently, and picking up games at a much faster rate. This is probably ironic, as the aim of this blog was to categorise, review, and bring some kind of order to the chaos that my hobby generates.

So, considering how my sickness has developed, it comes as little surprise to discover that I was in the charity shops yesterday, picking over the latest arrivals in the board game sections. I have only just found out that my local Oxfam hides the board games just behind the door, and it looks like I may be the only person who knows this, as I was able to pick up two very nice abstract games for a total of £7 (actually, £6.48, but I let them keep the change - I'm saving the world, you know).

The first game I found was Waddington's Campaign, an interesting game from 1971 that abstracts the Napoleonic war.

Waddington's Campaign board game

A quick glance at the box might lead you to believe this is a traditional war game, perhaps using cardboard chits on a hex-based map; but what you actually get is something far more unusual. The board is an incredibly abstracted map of Europe (with all the countries being exactly the same size), and the playing pieces are cute little plastic guys that move in fixed directions in a way similar to certain pieces in Chess.

Waddington's Campaign board detail

Waddington's Campaign player pieces

Combat is entirely deterministic. You need to gang up on opponents 2-1 (or 3-1 if the opponent is a General) to make the kill. The only time you roll dice is when determining how many movement points you have to move your troops each turn.

Seizing certain enemy towns will prevent opponents from bringing in reinforcements, and killing a General can result in a win. It looks pretty cool, and is probably as thematic as an abstract game can get.

The copy I picked up was in gorgeous condition. The box was pristine, with no dishing or scuffs. The game looks unplayed, and is 100% complete.

My second acquisition of the day was another abstract: Conquest, published by Denys Fisher (and known as Duell in some other countries).


This is a brain-burner in which two "armies" of chunky, oversized dice move around a grid by "tumbling" from space to space. The number of spaces a dice can move is determined by its uppermost face at the start of the move, and the aim is to land on enemy dice (particularly the special "king" dice). Often, after moving, a dice will be showing a different number on its uppermost face, so a dice that moved only two spaces this turn might be able to move six spaces on a subsequent turn. It's a challenging prospect, and trying to plan ahead involves using a series of confusing diagrams published in the rule book. This is one where analysis paralysis can easily set in and grind proceedings to a halt.

The copy I picked up was 100% complete, but well used.

Conquest - inside the box

Another successful day for me. Both of these games will be crammed into The Vault, and I will look at doing proper reviews once I have got them to the table.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Review - Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game

Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game
Published by Decipher
Designed by someone strong with the Dark Side of the Force
For 2-4 players, aged 8 to adult

Have I ever mentioned I don't like the original Star Wars trilogy? Well, I have now. I don't hate it. I've watched all the movies more times than I care to count; but I just think they are dopey, badly acted, and full of plot holes. I can see how they were game-changers in the world of cinema, and you have to respect Lucas for what he accomplished, but they aren't really for me. I find the extended canon of books, shows, and computer games even less appealing; and as for the trilogy of prequel movies... I won't comment.

However, any game is worth a shot, even if it has a theme that has no appeal to me whatsoever; so when I saw a copy of Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game  in a local charity shop, I was more than happy to pay my £1.50, thinking it might be a moderately distracting pastime, and a worthy addition to The Vault.

Sadly, I was wrong on both counts.

Playing this game is almost as painful as sitting through any of the movie scenes that feature Jar Jar Binks.

Rather surprisingly for a second-hand card game, the copy I picked up was 100% complete, containing all four of the 40-card play decks (two Dark Side, two Light Side) and the instructions booklet. The cards have a smooth finish, shuffle well, and are quite sturdy; the rulebook is brief yet well laid out. It's all very workmanlike, but not particularly impressive.

Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game rules
Oh good, Jar Jar Binks is in the game.
It would have been a shame if they left him out.

Before I talk about how the game plays, I want to draw your attention to that word "customizable." This is not a collectable card game, and neither is it one of those new-fangled living card games (yeah, grandad). This is merely a customizable card game. There is no expanding the game beyond what comes in this box, there are just some simple rules for mixing together the cards you already have to make new decks. The level of customisation is extremely limited because of the way the cards interact with each other, and because all characters and starships basically work in the same way with no special rules, there seems very little incentive to customise for any reason other than to create decks that don't feature Jar Jar Binks. You can customise thematically (so your favourite Jedis can team up), but the deck you end up with will still play in exactly the same way as any other deck.

But enough about that, let's talk rules...

The game can accommodate up to four players, but here I will just give a brief overview of the way it works for two players. One player picks one of the Dark Side decks, and one player picks a Light Side deck. Each deck contains three locations cards, which are laid out in front of the player (the three locations are the same for each player, and there seems to be no real reason why each player needs his own set). Each player also gets to play a starting character (the character you get to play is specified in the rules, really adding to that feeling of a truly customisable experience). Remaining cards are shuffled and then four are drawn to form a starting hand. The game starts with the Dark Side player taking his turn.

On a turn, you must either draw one card from your deck, or play one card from your hand to the table. You can never do both, and neither can you pass.

Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game
Some of the thrilling cards at the disposal of the good guys.

The basic card types are characters, starships, and attacks (erroneously referred to as battles in the rules book). You play a character to a specific location, while starships allow you to move characters already in play from one location to a different location.

Attacks cards show a character at a location; if you have that character at that location, then you can play the attack card. Each character has a "leader" value, representing the strength of his or her attack, and to add an element of chance, the attacker also draws the top card from his deck and looks at the number in the top right corner. He adds that number to the "leader" value for the character. The defender also gets to draw a single card, the value of which represents his total defence against the attack.

With that done, you compare the scores, and deduct the lowest score from the highest score. The remaining value is the number of cards that the loser must discard from the top of his draw deck. A player loses as soon as his last card is drawn or discarded.

That's pretty much how the whole game plays out, but there are two other types of card which do change things up slightly.

Trap cards show a picture of a character. If a defender has that particular character at the location where an attack card is played, then he can play the trap card to double his defence score (almost always resulting in the defending player winning that fight).

Finally, encounter cards have a picture of two opposing characters; if those characters are in the same location, the card can be played for a special effect (often removing the opposing character from play).

Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game
You will notice a recurring theme in the artwork.

As I have been writing these rules, I have been struck with quite how dull and random this game is, and also how easy it is to "read" the game strategies. For example:

Player A has a character in play that matches an attack card in his hand, but the character is in the wrong location. Player A cannot attack with that character, so instead he plays a starship to move the character to the correct location. Player B is going to immediately guess what player A is up to (although whether or not he can do anything about it is entirely down to luck of the draw).

Using your deck of cards as your health is also a pain, because if you get hit for a large amount early on, you could end up discarding all of your characters before you have had a chance to get them into play. If you lose too many characters in this way, then all the starships, attacks, traps, and encounter cards you have left are utterly worthless. Characters (combined with the right location) power almost all of your card actions, so if you have lost your characters, then you will usually find there is very little for you to do on your turn.

A similar problem can occur if you randomly lose a lot of starships (or bad luck in the draw means you never end up with any starships in hand): You can have characters in play, but they will probably be in the wrong locations, and you will have no way to reposition them.

In fact, even before you start discarding cards due to attacks, you will find that on a large number of your turns, all you can do is draw a card because you simply have no cards in your hand that you can play.

The game feels entirely luck driven. If you are lucky enough to have the right character in the right location with the right trap or attack card at the right time, you can play that card and probably severely injure your opponent. You have no way of knowing in advance what you should do or where you should go - you can't prepare strategies - you can only react to what the cards deal you.

It actually becomes apparent rather quickly that this is not much of a game at all; it is actually a big promotion for the collectable card game Young Jedi, which was made by the same company (and for which there is a large advertisement on the back page of the rules). This is like a taster set: A bridge for younger players to lead them into the full collectable game.


I suppose, for very young children, this would be mildly distracting, and I suspect it did encourage some players to try out the deeper, better card games advertised in the rule book; but for me, it's just a waste of cardboard.

And it certainly hasn't done anything to improve my opinion of Star Wars.