Friday 29 June 2012

Review - Battle Boarding

Battle Boarding - the box
Battle Boarding
Published by Condor
Designed by... oh, it doesn't say. I wonder why...
For 2 players, if they can figure out what the hell they are supposed to be doing

When I see the name Battle Boarding, I am reminded of that awesome Simpsons arcade game where Bart went around battering the big Jesus out of everyone with his skateboard. Unfortunately, this game is not that much fun.

Actually, I'll be honest. I have no idea if this game is fun or not, because I've never played it. Only once before have I reviewed a game I've never played (Jurassic Dinosaurs), and it's not something I want to get into the habit of doing; but in this case, I have no choice. I can't play the game, because I don't know how to.

Let me explain...

The game of Battle Boarding comprises a vacuum-formed plastic tray with a cardboard overlay forming the board, a bunch of plastic balls, and two special custom dice with a * symbol instead of a number six. The board is nicely illustrated (in a 70s kind of way), depicting two galleons in the middle of a sea battle. Circles joined by lines form a series of interconnected paths that link the two ships, and the aim of the game is to move six balls of your colour across the board and into your opponent's ship. This is made more difficult as there is a rotating disc built into the board (which, rather delightfully, is called the "Discomatic"), and when this is turned, certain circles on the paths open up, causing the balls on those spaces to fall into gullies in the plastic tray beneath. These gullies will lead to the "hold" of one of the two ships. If you are lucky, the balls roll into your "hold." You can insert your own jokes here.

Battle Boarding by Condor
The board - including the awesome Discomatic.

So far, so good. I know how the board works, and I know the aim of the game. So why can't I play? Well, I'll include a picture of the rules sheet, and you can see for yourself. Zoom in and have a good read:

Battle Boarding - the rules sheet
The rules - if you can figure them out, let me know!

Yes. That's right. The rules make not a single jot of sense. I have spent a long time reading them and trying to figure it all out, and once I thought I had got to the bottom of it; but no. No.

The rules mean nothing.

I can't really say much about the quality of this game other than to say, I have no idea if it's any good. But that would make this post really short, and I've got time to kill. So, let's review the bits we can figure out.

The board itself is quite nicely constructed. All the circles on the paths are slightly indented so the balls don't roll around, and the Discomatic (ha ha) spins smoothly, causing circles to open and close. If a ball falls through a hole, it rolls out as intended. It all functions rather well. However, there is a major design flaw: Not every circle will open or close when the disc turns, and just from looking at the board, it is possible to tell which circles are safe and which ones aren't.

Being able to tell which spaces are safe would actually be the death of the game if it wasn't for the fact that the chances of losing a piece through the Discomatic (he he) are incredibly remote anyway. You see, the Discomatic (I just can't stop saying it!) is only activated when you roll a double * on the custom dice, and as there is only one such symbol on each dice, you are effectively only going to activate the Discomatic (okay, I'm over it now) by rolling a double-six. You can imagine how many times that happens over the course of a game.

Battle Boarding - custom dice
I like custom dice... Not these dice... Other dice.

Without any real risk from the Discomatic (sorry, couldn't help myself), the game comes down to who can move their pieces most strategically. Here we have two problems: First, the number of spaces you can move is dictated by dice roll, so any strategy can be screwed through dumb luck; and second, I can't figure out the bloody rules to know how to move the pieces.

And that's what we're left with: A curiosity from the 1970s that has a special mechanical board without a real function, a set of rules that really don't make any sense at all, and a theme that is so pasted on you can smell the adhesive.

Could this be a good game? I don't know. Possibly. The amount of randomness seems to suggest it isn't going to be any fun for lovers of deep strategy, while the limited use of the special disc inlay for the board seems to suggest it isn't going to appeal to those people who like a quick, dumb game of luck either.

I think it's just a poorly designed game with no real merit.

My wife picked up Battle Boarding for me at a car boot sale, paying the princely sum of 50p. I'm not sure she got value for money. At the moment I am keeping hold of it, just because I don't think there are many in existence and I like weird rare stuff. However, as soon as The Vault starts to get a bit full, I can see this being one of the first games I cull.

If anyone thinks they have figured out the rules, do feel free to post below. Maybe, one day, with your help, I will get to play...

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Review - The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game

The Worst-Case Scenario Surviva Game

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game
Published by University Games
Designed by people who do not understand the concepts of "fun," "game," and "worst-case"
For 2 or more players (read, "victims"), aged 8 to adult

I own a lot of games. Lots of them are little curiosities that my wife has found in charity shops and picked up because she thought I might like them. That's why I own a copy of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game, possibly one of the most awful games to have ever graced my tabletop.

This is a game based on a book that proves that games based on books are generally not much better than games based on movies, which as we all know, are generally crap (you can see my reviews of Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game, The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle, or Eragon if you would like proof).

However, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game could well be the worst of the lot. You could say the worst-case scenario for me would be playing it (ha ha) and its chances of survival in my collection are rather slim (he he).

Man, I need better jokes.

Anyway, this is one of those good old-fashioned roll and move trivia games. I really hate those games. It ships in a big box that contains a small deck of cards, some player pieces, a dice, and the board. With the exception of the board, the rest of the game could fit in your pocket, meaning this game has possibly the smallest game-to-box ratio of any game I have ever seen. It also has the smallest fun-to-game ratio, but more on that in a minute.

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game - inside the box
Did the box really need to be this big?

The aim of the game is simple. Players each control one of four coloured playing pieces (if you feel the urge to involve lots of people - for example, you are part of a large suicide cult - then you can play in teams). On your turn you roll the dice, and then you get asked a question by the player/team on your right. If you get the question right, you move your piece forward on the track by the number you rolled; if you get the question wrong, the peson who asked you the question moves his or her piece by the number rolled instead.

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game rules
The rules - Yes, there genuinely is a warning message on the front cover.
Don't try this at home kids (playing the game, I mean).

The first person to get to the finish space on the board wins the game, thereby earning the eternal gratitude of anyone who was unfortunate enough to be involved.

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game - board details
Blue and White hunt for Bigfoot.

Okay, so the game is very simple; but the same can be said for many trivia games. Such games will rise or fall based on the strength of the questions provided. Unfortunately, the questions in The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game are crap.

Each question is framed in the same manner. You are given a scenario, and then three possible solutions for resolving that situation without ending up dead or severely injured. For example, you might be asked how to fend off a shark, or you might be asked how to escape from killer bees.

It sounds like that might be really interesting, but it isn't. With the more outlandish questions, all three possible answers seem feasible; and because they purposefully do not include the most obvious solution, you will probably end up having to guess. However, the biggest problem is the weird mix of questions in the deck. One person might get asked how to find land while lost at sea, while someone else gets asked how to do CPR.

There are also some questions which hardly seem in-keeping with the "worst-case" theme.

One of the questions asks, "how to treat skin that has been in contact with bleach." Seriously? Is this a game about survival or misplacing your marigolds?

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game question card
Spoiler: The answer in bold is the right one (no shit, Sherlock)

My absolute favourite question, and the one that made me realise this game had been rushed out as quickly as possible with as little thought as possible, was "how to fix a leaking radiator."

There is even one question that asks you the correct way to punch someone, and for a game that can be played with young children, that really made me uncomfortable.

Yeah, this game is bad.

I thought it might be okay to play with my mates over a few drinks; but it isn't. The questions aren't funny enough to be entertaining, and most of them are too outlandish to be educational for younger players. Its a strange mix that leaves the game feeling completely soulless and boring.

In fact, this game is so bad it... Actually, you know what? I can't be bothered. Screw it. It's not worth the effort.

I'm gonna go play Lords of Waterdeep.

Friday 22 June 2012

Review - Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game

Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game

Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game
Published by Milton Bradley
Designed for MB by top secret government officials as part of a nefarious conspiracy
For 2 or 4 players, aged 5 to adult

Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game box

Recently, I have been reviewing games based on movies. I never realised how many games I had based on movies. Makes me wonder why, when they are all so utterly awful...

Tonight's offering, Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game, does little to disprove the theory that all games bearing the name of a movie (or book) are likely to be shameless cash-ins, knocked out quickly by nameless designers paying their dues while they try to get their real game to market.

This game is out of production, but it turns up on ebay all the time; and that's where I got my copy. I paid more to get it posted to me than I actually paid for the game (a cool 99p). It is based on the children's film, and is, of course, a children's game. That being the case, you would probably be within your rights to mock me and say, "It serves you right." After all, how many men in their 30s buy a board game for children and expect it to be good?

The truth is, I never expected this to be a good game; but it had 12 cool little miniatures based on the characters from the film, and I am a real sucker for toys. As I would eventually find out, using the term "miniatures" is something of a misnomer for these things: They are massive. Much bigger than any playing pieces I have seen in other games.

Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game - Gorgonites
The good guys.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I talk about the game, I want to spend a few moments talking about the box. I wouldn't normally talk about a box in a review, but this box is one of my favourites because it features three things that made me smile.

First of all, it has the name of the game and the contents spelled out in three languages. That's the kind of cost-cutting and tree-saving techniques I like to see employed in games. Hell, why did they stop at only three?

The second thing I enjoyed was the contents list, which reads (and I quote): "Contents: 1 game (see instructions)."

The third thing, and the thing that really made me laugh, was the tag line that says, "Exclusive! All 12 collectible figures available only here." Honestly? Where else would they be? And how collectable can they be if you get the full set at once?

Once I'd stopped laughing and had composed myself enough to open the box, I was presented with said collectable figures. They are huge. Even as someone who collects games that have nice miniatures, I was embarrassed by these pieces. Setting up the game was like playing with action figures. The board is also three-dimensional and needs to be put together. Seriously... I had to play Sylvanian Families with my daughter afterwards just to feel more grown up.

Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game - Commando Elite
The bad guys.

However, the miniatures are nicely sculpted, and they look like the characters from the Small Soldiers film. I am sure they delighted children when the game first came out, and I suspect many of the pieces ended up being used in the sand pit for playing war games rather than being used for the frankly awful game they shipped with.

The aim of the game is to capture the enemy's flag or send all of the enemy fighters to the "toy store" (i.e. kill them). This is achieved using everybody's favourite randomiser: The spinner. In this case, a spinner that is actually integrated into the board. Ohhhh.

Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game - the spinner
Spin when you're winning.

On your turn, you spin the spinner, and then you do what it says. If you spin a number, you can move one of your figures the full amount. If you spin the "draw a card" result, you draw a card. If you spin the "recruit" result, you can bring one of your dead fighters back to life.

The cards you can draw are not actually cards at all, they are little hexagonal tokens that get stacked up next to the spinner. The tokens provide the second level of randomness, for those people who didn't find the spinner random enough to begin with.

Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game cards
Cards? Tokens? Whatever...

The tokens come in a variety of exciting flavours, but most confer a bonus to the fighter they are allocated to. Weapon +1, Weapon +2, and Armour +1 all give a bonus when rolling a dice to fight (and yes, Weapon +1 and Armour +1 are exactly the same thing with different names), while Move +1 and Move +2 give you a movement bonus. All such tokens are discarded after the fighter is involved in a battle, or is removed from the board for any reason.

There are two other kinds of token which are used and then discarded immediately: The first is "GloboTech Recall" which hilarious allows you to pick an enemy fighter to kill instantly, because random death is fun. The other token reads "launch catapult" and allows you to do something slightly less boring.

Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game - catapult
The catapult - as useless as it looks.

Oh yes, didn't I mention? This game features a dexterity element. Every time you draw a special token, you take the plastic catapult, bend it back, and then fling the plastic wrecking ball across the table. If you knock any fighters down, they are removed from the game. This actually sounds a lot more fun than it is, mainly because, in an adherence to the theme that is above and beyond the call of duty, all the characters on the "good" side have really wide bases that hardly ever fall over (one has a massive triangular base, for goodness sake!), while all the characters on the "evil" side have tiny bases, and fall over if you breathe too heavily. This makes it almost impossible for the "evil" player to rely on the catapult to kill anything.

Luckily, there is another way to kill your opponent. You can battle an enemy fighter by standing next to him and rolling a dice. Your opponent gets to roll too, and the person who rolls lowest is removed from the game (if both players roll a skull, then both fighters are removed from play). Yeah, that's right. It's a good old fashioned dice off; for those people who didn't think the spinner and the cards were random enough.

Of course, if you have randomly spun the chance to randomly draw a card that might randomly be a power up you might have a marginally better chance of randomly rolling a better result than your opponent. The only thing that won't be random is your level of interest in the game by that point, which will have bottomed out shortly after putting the three-dimensional board together for the first time.

Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game - board
The board, with 3D "toy shop."

You win the game by killing everyone, or placing one of your fighters on the same space as your opponent's flag.

The good news is, the designer realised these rules might be a little lightweight for some gamers, so some variant rules were thrown into the back of the rulebook to spice things up. These rules include (a) starting the game with a hand of five cards, of which you can play a single card before taking your turn as normal, and (b) allowing you to move all of your fighters when you spin a movement result rather than just a single fighter. These variant rules don't really add any strategy, and don't really reduce the level of luck involved, but they do make the game mercifully brief.

Small Soldiers: Big Battle Game - rules
The rules - crap, regardless of which language you read them in.

You may have noticed that this sounds like a game for only two players; well, fear not. If you have four willing victims, everyone can play in an exciting team variant in which each player will control three fighters. This variant adds extra enjoyment in the form of player elimination: If your three fighters are killed, you have to sit out until the game ends, or some mean bastard revives one of your dead fighters.

And that's your lot.

Yes, it's a children's game, and perhaps I shouldn't expect too much from a children's game; but, damn it, I've played other children's games that have been really good. I play Crossbows and Catapults all the time and I have a blast.

No, I don't think the fact this is a children's game excuses the sloppy design. I guess this is a set of small soldiers destined for my daughter's sand pit after all. A bunch of monsters and soldiers should give those Sylvanians something to worry about...

Sunday 17 June 2012

Review - Cave Troll

Due to other work commitments, I have not had the opportunity to put the time and effort into writing any new reviews this week. So, just to keep things ticking over, here is my review for Cave Troll. This review originally appeared on BoardGameGeek back in March 2009, but now you get the chance to see it with some pictures.

It should be noted that this game is not out of print (at the time of writing), so if you want to get a copy for yourself, you shouldn't have any problems.

Cave Troll board game box

Cave Troll
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
Designed by Tom Jolly
For 2 to 4, aged 10 to adult

Before I even get started, I'm just going to say right now that I love this game. I don't know why I love it as much as I do, but I do. It's by no means a perfect game, but I always have a lot of fun playing it. There, now I've got all the gushing out of the way, I can go ahead and give a balanced review. Probably...

First of all, I'll quickly go over the components. I love nice components in a game, and in my reviews I usually spend more time reviewing components than gameplay. Let's see if I can buck the trend...

The version of Cave Troll I own is the reissue with the little plastic pieces, so that's a good place to start. There are 68 plastic playing pieces representing heroes, monsters, and treasure chests. And they are tiny. Really tiny. Don't get me wrong, the playing pieces are really nicely sculpted, but they are small. Anyone expecting character pieces like those found in Descent or Runebound will be a little disappointed.

Each player gets 17 pieces (in green, yellow, red, or blue): Nine adventurers, one barbarian, one dwarf, one knight, one thief, one treasure chest, one orc, one wraith, and one cave troll.

Cave Troll board game blue playing pieces
Strangely enough, all the monsters and heroes of the same colour team up.

I think plastic figures are an improvement over the counters of earlier editions, because they are easier to pick up and move around, but they do cause a few problems. Most obviously, the knight, adventurer, and orc playing pieces all look very similar when viewed from a distance. Okay, the knight has a shield and the orc has a square base (because all monsters are on square bases to help them stand out); but even so, it isn't that easy to tell when the board is getting filled up, and an oversight can cause a mistake during play. This isn't a deal-breaker for me, I spend plenty of time studying the board anyway, but it is worth mentioning.

The other major problem with filling the box with plastic toys is it may give the wrong impression of what this game is all about. This is NOT a dungeon crawl. Each player gets 13 heroes and only three monsters! If this was a dungeon crawl, then the dungeon is in serious need of new Evil Inc management, because it is not well-prepared for an invasion of 52 gold-hungry heroes. This game is a very clever (very quick) area management game. People tempted to buy thinking it is some kind of adventure game might be disappointed.

Those issues aside, I like the playing pieces.

The game also comes with a small deck of item cards, four decks of player cards, a few variant cards for added replay value, four plastic score markers, and a beautifully illustrated game board representing the dungeon being raided.

Cave Troll board
The board - very large gold coins scattered neatly in tiny rooms.

The score track for the game runs around the edge of the board and is numbered 0-99. Special mention must go to the score markers, which are designed to stack on top of each other - very handy if several people have the same score.

All of this fits very snugly into a sturdy box the same size as the Drakon box with a simple card insert to stop bits moving around in transit. It's a very swish, professional package. (Note that there isn't a compartment in the box for each deck of cards, so you may want to make tuck boxes. However, as the decks are only small, it only takes a few seconds to sort them all out.)

The rules come on a single three-way-fold sheet (for a total of six printed pages) and are very easy to follow. You can literally start playing in minutes.

Cave Troll rule book
The rules are simple and well-illustrated.

I don't want to go through the rules in detail, but the general idea is to use your hero characters to gain control of rooms in the dungeon and win the most gold. Each room on the board has a number of gold coins printed on it, and at certain points a room (or the whole board) will be scored. If, at that time, you have the most hero pieces in a room then you are in control and will score points equal to the number of gold coins printed on that room. Obviously, you can pile lots of heroes into one room to try to make sure you win the gold; but there are lots of rooms, and if you want to stand any chance of winning, you will need to spread out your heroes to win as many rooms as you can.

Each player has four actions in each turn. These actions can be used to draw and play cards from his or her player deck (the cards represent which heroes and monsters can be brought into play, and also some special situations such as finding a magic item or scoring a room), move a hero or monster, play a magic item card, or use a hero or monster special ability (such as the orc's ability to kill hero playing pieces).

Cave Troll playing cards
The Cave Troll playing cards in four flavours, plus items.

So, the game is a very simple process of playing cards to bring heroes and monsters onto the board, and then moving those heroes and monsters around in a way that benefits you the most when it comes time to score the board. To add much-needed complexity to proceedings, many heroes and monsters have special powers. Orcs can kill some heroes, knights can kill orcs, dwarfs double the number of gold scored in a room (regardless of which player has the most heroes in the room), the treasure chest increases the score for one room by +4, and so on.

The game comes with some variant rules for some of the special characters, and this adds some replayability as well, although honestly it feels a bit unnecessary as there is plenty of enjoyment to be had from just the basic game. It's nice to have the option to play a different way if I want to, but as of yet I haven't bothered.

When I first saw this game, I did hesitate to buy it; the main reason for my hesitation was a concern that it wouldn't play well with two people. I play most of my games against my wife, and very rarely get to play games with more than three people; so being valid as a two-player game is an important consideration for me. As this game is about area control, I thought it might work out that with only two players there would not be enough need to interact with each other (i.e. there would be too many spaces on the board and not enough heroes to fight over them). Luckily, I was wrong. This game is definitely better with more people, as you have to really fight to get control of the high-scoring rooms, but even with two players there is a lot going on. It is slightly less cutthroat and a little less tactical, but still a lot of fun.

So, time for the science bit:

This is a really good little game. It's light enough that it can be taught to anyone (I taught my parents on Christmas Day after turkey and copious amounts of beer, and they usually max out their concentration playing dominoes), and it plays quickly. There is a small amount of luck involved in which cards you draw, but the game works by always giving you a choice of two cards to play at any time, so if you are careful you can always formulate a half-decent plan B for when luck fails you. There are plenty of decisions to make (do you stack your people in the best room, knowing there is a chance your opponent will wipe them out with a cave troll, or do you spread them out and run the risk of not scoring any rooms?) but the game isn't weighty enough for people to slip into analysis paralysis. Four-player games can get slightly aggressive, with orcs killing heroes and cave trolls killing everyone; but it is all done in a light-hearted way, and it is such fun that I don't think anyone will get too upset. Also, I have never seen a game where one player was so far ahead on points that there was no point carrying on (although I wouldn't like to say this couldn't happen if someone played well).

On the downside, this game does appear like an adventure game to the casual observer; and that might cause disappointment. There isn't a single dice in sight! The little cards and the similar-looking figures might also cause some concern. Also, I don't think the theme works very well because there are more heroes than monsters. I believe this game was originally about mining, and the fantasy theme was added afterwards; and that might explain why the theme doesn't seem to fit well. However, I don't think the theme is going to stop people having fun.

They are not special; they are not beautiful or unique snowflakes.

Cave Troll is definitely best with four players, so if you are looking for a game that you will normally only play with two players, you should probably look elsewhere.

Overall, I really enjoy this game (can you tell?). It has an excellent mix of thought, fun, and "gotcha" mechanics; and it can be nicely wrapped up within an hour, so can easily fit into a hectic gaming schedule. There is a concern that it is too much of a brain-burner for people looking for a light adventure game, and too light and fluffy to fulfil the itch of Eurogamers looking for something deep and mentally stimulating; but as a game that falls somewhere between the two extremes, I think it's just right.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Review - The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle

Recently, I have been reviewing games that are based on movies, so in the continuation of that theme, I thought I would reproduce a review for The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle, which I originalled pubished on BoardGameGeek back in 2009.

Before I go any further, I would like to point out that this is a negative review, and I feel bad about that. The game's designer, Aaron Watson, is a genuinely nice guy and I wish I could have been nicer about his game than I have been. It must be tough to read a negative review about your "baby," and even tougher if some douchbag reproduces the same negative review years later to bad-mouth the game all over again.

However, I am committed to gradually porting across all of my reviews from BoardGameGeek to this blog, and that includes the negative ones.

Sorry, Mr Watson.

The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle

The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle
Published by Toy Vault, Inc.
Designed by Aaron Watson
For 2-4 players, aged 8 to adult.

There are two questions you should never ask my wife...

Actually, that's not strictly true.

There are two questions you should never ask my wife unless the answer she is 100% guaranteed to give is the answer you want to hear.

1. What boardgame would you like to play?
2. What film would you like to watch?

The answer to question one will be Odin's Ravens. I love Odin's Ravens: I think it's an elegant, thoughtful game with a perfect balance of luck offset by clever forward planning. My wife loves it even more than I do, and it rates as her favourite game. I never turn down a game of Odin's Ravens (even if my wife does insist on using the raven pieces upside down because it makes them look like bunnies), but I don't want to play it all the time.

The answer to question two will be The Princess Bride. I love The Princess Bride. I love the book, and I love the film. It has the perfect balance of humour, adventure, and romance. My wife loves it even more than I do. She prefers Bram Stoker's Dracula, but you have to be in a certain kind of mood for that film, whereas The Princess Bride can be watched any time you feel like it.

Okay, okay, I think you can see where this is going: I saw a game that had mechanics similar to those found in my wife's favourite game, that was also based on one of her favourite movies. What was I supposed to do? I bought the damned thing for her.

Should have stuck with Odin's Ravens...

The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle box
The quality box.

So, what is this game?

The short answer: It's a shoddily made cash-in.

The slightly longer answer follows:

The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle The Card Game comes in a box about the same size as the Cave Troll / Drakon boxes (have I told you how much I love those games? Perhaps I can talk about them instead?) and on the cover of this stupidly oversized box it says "The game changes everytime you play." I should have known this game was going to suck. First of all, I'm pretty sure "everytime" isn't a word. Second of all, what kind of a tagline is that? "The game changes everytime you play." What does it mean? Even Snakes and Ladders changes every time you play, otherwise what would be the point?

(Okay, I do know what the tagline is getting at. The board is never the same, you have to change your "tactics" each time you play. But really, it just sounds silly.)

Inside this rather sturdy but poorly designed box there is a flimsy card insert which is an insult to card inserts the world over. This insert is so flimsy, the cards in the box had squashed it flat. The insert is entirely without function, and just increased my sense of uneasiness as my wife excitedly opened the box. This was beginning to look like a very poorly-produced game.

The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle box insert
The quality insert.

But maybe the cards would be good...

Maybe not.

There are three different types of card, each with a screen grab from the film. There is one large castle card, representing the card you are journeying towards, 54 path tiles, and 54 tactic cards (split into actions and equipment). All of the cards have a linen finish that obviously caused problems at the print yard, because a good two thirds of the cards have streaks and flakes where the print has not adhered correctly. This makes the cards ugly, but not unusable. (It's the rules that make the ugly cards unusable, but I'll get to that in a minute.)

The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle sample card
The quality cards.

The game also comes with four playing pieces. These are nasty cardboard stand-ups which fall apart every time you try to move them, making them a real pain to use. Thematically, they also make little sense, as the characters are Inigo, Westley, Fezzik, and... Princess Buttercup. Hold on, why is Buttercup storming the castle? Surely the guys are storming the castle to rescue her? Surely there's been some kind of misunderstanding here, especially as each player is trying to prevent the others from getting to the castle rather than helping each other like they did in the film.

(By the way, I should note that this game was rethemed. It wasn't originally a Princess Bride game, so this is not the fault of the game designer. Doesn't stop it being rubbish though.)

The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle playing pieces
The quality playing pieces.

Now, where was I... Ugly cards, ugly playing pieces... Ah yes, ugly rules. One folded up piece of paper that looks like its been run off on a black and white photocopier. However, I did think the rules were (for the most part) well-written. The game is about as simple as it is possible for a game to get, so there was little chance this could be fouled up, but even so, credit where credit's due.

The rules only take up two of the four pages, the other two pages give extra explanation for some of the more complicated cards.

The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle rules
The quality rules.

As I've said, the game is nice and simple to learn. Each player lays out a series of path tiles, and this represents his or her route to the castle. Each tile represents a specific challenge to overcome. There are ten different types of location, all representing places from the movie such as Miracle Max's place or the Fire Swamp, and each type of tile has different entry requirements. You enter a tile by playing the correct type of tactic card. For example, to enter the Fire Swamp, you need to play a sword card.

On your turn, you get to do any combination of three actions: Playing action cards, moving forward on the path tiles (done by discarding the correct type of tactic card where possible), or drawing tactic cards.

You will notice that tactic cards are split into equipment and actions. That's because equipment is played to allow you to move along the path, but actions can be played to do other things. A lot of these things will slow down another player, so there is a strong "gotcha" element to the game which can really make a two-player game drag on. The problem is, there are plenty of action cards, and at the beginning of each turn you can discard as many cards as you want and draw again, so very rarely will a turn go by when you are not able to do something nasty to the other player. Of course, the same is true on your opponents turn, and you are set up for a revenge hit. In this situation, the winner of the game will come down to who is lucky enough to get the cards that are needed at the right time.

Oh yes... luck. This game is all about luck. There are no clever mechanics for saving up cards, and only a few cards that allow you to enter path tiles without needing the exact piece of equipment specified on that card. That means if you are sat by the sea needing a boat, your turn will begin by discarding a bunch of cards and then drawing back up to five. If you don't have a boat, you are stuck using your actions to draw more cards, or to play "gotcha" cards on someone else. Eventually you may get the boat you need, but then the other player will just play a card that moves you back on the path and you have to do the whole thing again.

The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle location cards
More of the quality cards.

This game just doesn't have the same level of style and elegance as Odin's Ravens, and the theme is so pasted on it doesn't do anything to make a poor game more fun. There are no tactics to speak of, and what you do on your turn is obvious based on what cards you were lucky enough to get. I never once felt like I had a choice of options and had to decide which would be better for me.

Even worse, the section of notes clarifying certain cards made me more confused than before I read them. The worst case example is the Ravine Floor tile which says:

"No entry requirement, only sword if entering from Fire Swamp."

I read that to mean you can move into the Ravine Floor for "free" unless you are currently on the Fire Swamp space, in which case you need to play a sword. However, the extra explanation in the rules says this:

"The Ravine Floor may only be entered normally if the player uses a sword AND is entering from the Fire Swamp. Otherwise, the player will have to use Four White Horses, use the sword from a cliff top, use a rope to enter the Fire Swamp on the other side of the Ravine Floor, or use the Six Fingered Man on themselves in order to remove the Ravine Floor."

Phew. Glad we got that cleared up!

I wish I could be more positive, but I'm afraid I can't. I really thought this might be a fun little filler with a theme that my wife would love; but at no point does it feel like you are doing anything remotely related to the events in the movie. The grainy images don't inspire me, and there is only one card in the whole deck that has a quote from the film - what a waste!

Anyway, I should sum up because I've gone on way too long. I don't like to post reviews that are entirely negative, so I'll try to give as much balance as I can.

The game is relatively simple to learn apart from some confusing extra rules, and it is branded with The Princess Bride, which counts for something. The cards are relatively sturdy and shuffle well, but the print quality is awful, and the rest of the pieces are shoddy. The game is driven by luck, and there are only limited options available at any one time. As a two-player game there seems to be little entertainment. I suspect it would be more fun when played as a four-player game (and in that respect it gets a point over Odin's Ravens which is strictly a two-player game). As a game that requires little thought it's okay, but it tends to run a little long to be a quick filler.

All told, a disappointment, and not a game I suspect we will play much, if at all.

As you wish? Not even close.

Friday 8 June 2012

Review - Navia Dratp

Navia Dratp
Published by Ban-Dai
Designed by Koichi Yamazaki
For 2 players, aged 8 to adult

Navia Dratp (apparently the "t" is silent), is one of those games that I was bound to love. It is a Chess variant that features cool miniatures and multiple paths to victory. What's not to like? Well, there is one major thing not to like. The game is collectable. That means, after you have bought the base set, you need to buy packs of additional figures if you want to explore everything that the game has to offer. Of course, the additional figures are blind packaged, promoting the necessity to spend lots of money to get lots of figures you don't actually need.

Luckily, Navia Dratp managed to avoid some of the pitfalls that most collectable games suffer from, by providing starter sets that provide a full game experience right out of the box. Yes, it is true that if you don't own all the different pieces you can't take full advantage of the rules for drafting your own armies to play with, and you will be missing out on certain elements of the game. And yes, it is true that sometimes you will want to play a certain powerful character but can't because you don't own the right playing piece. However, the two starter set armies are well balanced and lots of fun. Playing with just those pieces will provide endless hours of entertainment, and as long as you aren't playing against someone with the full range of characters to select from, you won't really feel like you are at any particular disadvantage.

For the sake of full disclosure: This game was bought for me by my wonderful wife for a Christmas present years ago. She bought the two separate starter packs, which each contained a Navia (king piece), seven Maseitai (powerful warrior pieces), nine Gulled pieces (like the pawns from Chess, but more powerful), a bunch of plastic crystals (called Gyullas), rules, reference cards, and a board. The game was also available as a two-player set featuring all the contents of the two starters in a single box, and that is definitely the recommended why to pick up a copy.

Although I loved Navia Dratp from the start, I found it difficult to find anyone to play with, and it languished in the back of the games cupboard for years. I recently dusted it off to play against a friend who I have gradually been introducing to board games, and playing it again reminded me what a truly exceptional game it is. This is a game that definitely deserved to be far more successful than it actually was.

Navia Dratp board
The Navia Dratp board. Subject to a bit of warping, unfortunately.

If the game is so good, you might be wondering why it didn't do better. I think that comes down to several things. First, it's a collectable game, and that will immediately put people off. Second, it's a Chess variant with simple rules but very deep strategy. The use of the "toys" (plastic miniatures) might have put off serious gamers looking for a deeply strategic game, while the complex strategies and multiple paths to victory might have put off younger players who might otherwise have purchased the game for the cool playing pieces. A third reason is likely to have been all the stupid in-game terms such as "Maseitai," and "Gyullas." People want to play games; they don't want to have to learn a new language just to know what's going on.

However, the biggest reason for the game's failure is probably down to a lack of decent advertising. I never even knew the game existed until it was already out of print, yet as soon as I discovered it, I badgered my wife until she bought it for me.

Anyway, that's enough about why the game didn't succeed; let's talk about why it should have.

The game is framed around Chess, so pieces will move around a grid based on their unique movement styles, and will take enemy pieces by landing on them; but for every similarity to Chess there is a host of really interesting mechanics that make this game fresh and exciting. Each player has a Navia piece (a nicely painted female character who has the power to control the Maseitai), who will start on the board surrounded by Gulled pieces.

The Navia is the most important piece, and if she is ever in a Check Mate position, then you immediately lose. Killing a Navia is one of three unique ways to win the game.

Navia Dratp Navia Estelle miniature
Navia Estelle. Don't look into her eyes.

The Gulled pieces come in two flavours. Black Gulled can only move forward one space, and each time they do they earn one Gyullas, which the owner of the Gulled piece will store for later use. Red Gulled can move into any of the three spaces directly in front, and each movement earns three Gyullas. Obviously, the red Gulled are much more powerful, but you only get two of them compared to seven of the black Gulled.

Navia Dratp Gulled pieces
I see Gulled.

Each player will also have seven beautifully sculpted Maseitai pieces, which begin the game in "The Keep" at the edge of the board. This game was made by Ban-Dai, and their experience in the toy industry shines through in the quality of the Maseitai. They really are some of the finest pieces for a game I have ever seen.

Navia Dratp Maseitai and Navia
Estelle with some of the gang.

If you are using the pieces from a starter set, your selection of Maseitai has already been made for you. Each starter set contains a good mix of characters with good abilities that work well in combination, so this is definitely a good way to play to begin with. Once you are used to the game (and especially if you pick up some extra pieces), you can add a drafting mechanism to the game where you will select seven Maseitai from the pieces available. Unfortunately, I have never been able to do this, as I only managed to pick up a couple of extra pieces and I am therefore stuck with the pieces from the starter sets. (If anybody has spare Maseitai pieces they are looking to part with, get in contact with me, as I may be interested.)

The reason you will want to mix and match the Maseitai is because they all work differently. Every piece has a compass dial on the front of its base which indicates its movement range. Some pieces can move diagonally, some only forwards or sideways. Some can even move backwards. However, to begin with, no Maseitai can move more than two spaces in any one direction. Now, here's the clever bit: Also printed on the compass face is a Dratp value. By spending Gyullas equal to that value, you can Dratp the piece, which involves spinning the compass 180 degrees so the reverse face is showing. This second face will show a new movement grid or a special power, which the Maseitai can now use.

For example, the powerful tiger Maseitai Agunilyos starts out being able to move a single space in any direction. If you pay 16 Gyullas, you can flip his compass to reveal an extended movement grid that allows him to move an unlimited number of spaces in any direction (the same as the Queen piece in Chess).

Navia Dratp Agunilyos Maseitai
Agunilyos... Stupid name, but don't tell him that.

The Maseitai Olip starts the game being able to move one space orthogonally. After paying the Dratp cost of four Gyullas, he can still only move one space orthogonally, but at the point he Dratps he can switch the position of any two allies on the battlefield.

My absolute favourite piece is the Gyullas Turtle (who turned up in my review of Gormiti: The Trading Card Game yesterday). This piece has the same movement pattern as a red Gulled piece, but after Dratping, each time he moves he generates six Gyullas (normally, only Gulled pieces can generate Gyullas from moving). This is massively powerful, as Gyullas not only provide the means to Dratp your characters, they also provide the second route to victory: If you ever obtain 60 Gyullas, you can use them to Dratp your Navia piece, which causes you to instantly win the game.

Navia Dratp Gyullas crystals
Enough Gyullas to Navia Dratp twice!

This Dratping mechanism is the heart and soul of the game. Not only is it wonderfully implemented on the pieces, but it also creates a wealth of exciting possibilities in any game. The Dratping cost of each piece also creates amazing balance. The pieces that have the most powerful Dratp abilities have the highest Dratp cost; this means it takes a long time to save up the Gyullas to activate the power, and activating the power will also mean it will take longer for you to accumulate the 60 Gyullas needed to Dratp your Navia. Furthermore, in an interesting twist, whenever a Maseitai is killed by your opponent, your opponent will gain Gyullas equal to the Dratp value of the killed piece (even if the killed piece had not yet Dratp!).

For example, if you bring Agunilyos into play and foolishly allow him to be killed, your opponent will gain 16 Gyullas! If you had already Dratp him at the cost of 16 Gyullas, that would technically put you 32 Gyullas behind, and probably in a position where it would be unlikely you could win. Bear in mind, Agunilyos is really quite weak until he has Dratp, so if you bring him out too early, your opponent could score an easy 16 Gyullas by picking him off. Put another way, you have to carefully judge if you really should Dratp a Maseitai, or even if you should summon it into play in the first place.

This system means you really have to think about how you balance your forces. If you put all powerful characters in your army, you will only rarely get to Dratp them; but if you only use Maseitai with low Dratp costs, then you will find yourself facing much stronger opponents who will pin down your movements and make it hard for you to win.

The Dratp mechanism is incredibly clever, and incredibly simple, just like the rest of the rules of the game, which boil down to doing one of the following things on your turn:

1. Move a Gulled piece.
2. Summon one of your Maseitai from The Keep to one of the marked summoning spaces on your side of the board.
3. Move a Maseitai or Navia already on the board, and then Dratp one of your Maseitai.

Navia Dratp board details
A close up of some summoning spaces.

Summoning a Maseitai to the board is free, but takes up your whole turn, and this creates even more tension and tactical decisions. The Maseitai are your powerful pieces, and you want them in play; but to begin with you will only have a few spaces to summon them to, and you don't want to bring them out until you really need them or they might be killed, gifting your opponent with Gyullas. Also, if you spend each turn bringing out the Maseitai, you will find you do not have enough Gyullas crystals to perform Dratp actions.

A Navia piece can only move one space at a time, and will quite often remain hidden in your back line. However, there is a third route to victory, and that involves running your Navia off your opponent's side of the board. You will only rarely get a chance to win this way, but its nice to have the option.

I really enjoy Chess, and I even collect Chess sets, so this game appeals to me. However (and I may be burned at the stake here), I actually enjoy Navia Dratp more than Chess. It has simple rules, incredible depth of strategy, and beautiful playing pieces. It's an abstract game with multiple paths to victory that also feels totally thematic. Each Maseitai works completely differently, and tinkering with combinations to see how they work together provides endless replayability. It's just a shame Ban-Dai decided to go down the collectable route, as I would love to be able to have a few more Maseitai to pick from.

Navia Dratp reference cards
You give reference cards to your opponent, so there are no nasty surprises.

Of course, you will have realised by now that I have no intentions of kicking this game out of The Vault. It remains one of my all-time favourite two-player games, and a shining example of quality game design.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Review - Gormiti: The Trading Card Game

Gormiti: The Trading Card Game
Published by Giochi Preziosi
Designed by that mysterious fella who designs thousands of games but never admits to it
For 2 players, aged 6 to adult

Recently, I took a leaf out of Stuart Ashen's book. For those of you who don't know Mr Ashen, I highly recommend visiting his website. Not yet - read my blog first. Visit him later. When you're bored of all this board game stuff. Actually, forget it. Just stay here.

He gets enough visitors as it is.

Mr Ashen is a bit of a legend, and regularly posts reviews of complete crap, some of which he purchases in Poundland (the equivalent of a Dollar Store). So, recently I popped into a Poundland to see if they had any fun toys. They didn't. But what I did find were starter sets for Gormiti: The Trading Card Game.

I don't really like trading card games. I like to buy a game and know I won't need to keep buying stuff to make it good; but considering I could pick up two starters for £2, and considering I didn't expect the game to be good enough to bother expanding it, I paid my money.

I am such a sucker.

So here it is, in a special tribute post to Mr Stuart Ashen: A review of Gormiti: The Trading Card Game. An excellent game. He lied.

Gormiti: The Trading Card Game starter sets
The two offending items.

This is one of those games based on a cartoon that has also spawned a whole bunch of toys and other paraphernalia. That means the theme will automatically appeal to those people who know the show, and will totally alienate everyone else with lots of stupid words and named characters.

As far as storyline goes, there seems to be four children who can turn into monsters, and they fight other monsters. I'm not really sure how or why they do this, and I don't really care. It's all a bit silly, and it doesn't really matter anyway.

I purchased both of the starter sets, each containing 40 cards and a rule book. One of the starter sets is themed "earth/air" and one is themed "forest/ocean." I guess if I knew more about the show, I might know why fire has been replaced with forest as the fourth element.

Both boxes also claim that "Gorm needs help." I don't know who Gorm is, but I suspect he may be the designer.

Gormiti: The Trading Card Game deck
40 cards doesn't seem a lot, but you only draw one card per turn.

The cards are actually very decent quality, and they are well printed. The downside is they use artwork from the cartoon. It's bold and bright, but it looks bloody awful all the same. This is definitely not one of those collectable games that encourages you to buy more cards simply so you can marvel at the exceptional artwork.

One of the first things you will notice flicking through one of the starter decks is that all of the cards represent characters. There are no items, no events, no spells. Furthermore, if a character has a special ability (only a few of them do), then the details of the special ability are written in full on the card, so you don't need to reference the rule book at all during play. It makes it all very obvious that this is not going to be a particularly deep game. The emphasis is on dropping characters on the table and then letting them fight.

To start a game, each player takes a 40-card deck, gives it a shuffle, and then draws a number of cards that are set aside face down. Player one sets aside five, while player two sets aside six. These cards represent "life orbs" or some such nonsense. When they are all gone, you are dead, and you lose the game.

Players then draw a hand of five cards and play begins.

In each turn, the first thing that happens is a threat level increases. It begins at level one on the first turn, and increases by one point in each round. (Note: The threat chart is printed on the back of the rule book, and you need to track progression with a penny or something. Quite annoying if you should happen to need to look up a rule during a game.)

Gormiti: The Trading Card Game rules
The rule book.

The total threat represents the amount of power each player has available to summon monsters. Yes, you read that right. Each player has the exact same amount of power to summon monsters each turn, and that amount is determined by the game round and not by anything either of the players has done.

This is an utterly bizarre element of the game. I believe it may have been done to simplify the game for younger players, as it removes one of the more difficult elements of deck construction. That is to say, this rule removes the need to create a deck with a balanced mix of creatures and power-producing cards (such as "land" cards in the game Magic: The Gathering), so when you are putting together a deck, you just have to worry about including all your favourite characters.

After the threat level advances, player one draws one card into his hand. He can then summon characters. Each character has a summon cost, and you can summon as many characters as you like as long as their total summon cost does not exceed the threat level. These characters are played to a recruitment zone, which simply means they cannot be used to attack this turn.

The problem is, most of the characters have a summoning cost of four or more, and some are as high as seven or eight; so if you get unlucky with your opening hand, you may not be able to play a character for the first three or four turns. Not only is this boring, but if your opponent is lucky enough to summon a character with a value of one in his first turn, then you could be faced with two or three turns of being attacked with no way to defend, resulting in a very short game indeed. There really is nothing more annoying than playing round after round in which your opponent pecks away at your health because you are unable to bring any characters into play.

Gormiti: The Trading Card Game in play
A sample of the glorious artwork on the cards.

Yes, this is one of those games where bad luck with your initial hand spells instant defeat; and there's nothing you can do about it.

After summoning, you can attack with any characters that are not in your recruitment zone. You can attack with all of your characters, but it is usually a good idea to hold back a few characters to defend with when your opponent attacks.

To attack, you specify which characters are involved. Your opponent then selects defenders. One character can defend against each attacker. For each unopposed attacking character, the defender will lose one "life orb."

If a character's attack is blocked, you compare the attacker's strength to the defender's resistance. If the strength is higher, the defender is killed and the attack gets through anyway. However, you also compare the defender's strength to the attacker's resistance, and it is possible for the attacker to die. It is therefore possible for both an attacker and defender to die at the same time.

Some cards also have a bonus modifier for strength or resistance printed in the bottom right corner. During any combat, players can play any number of cards from their hands as modifiers to try to help win a fight, after which, those cards are discarded. Of course, if you use all your cards to modify a battle, you won't be able to use those cards to summon the characters printed on them, so there is a bit of hand management involved in deciding when to play a card as a modifier and when to hold on to it to play the character instead. This simple choice probably constitutes the only slightly interesting decision a player will be presented with on a turn.

After all the combats are resolved, and dead characters removed from play, the defender must remove one "life orb" from his stack for each hit that got through. The way health is handled is probably the most interesting aspect of the game, as each "life orb" card you lose gets put into your hand; so as you take damage you gain more cards to help you fight back. It's a relatively interesting balancing mechanism to prevent a runaway winner, and feels like it has been half-inched from a much better game.

Once player one has finished attacking, any characters in his recruitment zone become ready for use, and then player two summons characters and attacks. When player two attacks, player one can only defend with characters that did not attack this turn (either because they were kept back on purpose, or because they were waiting in the recruitment zone).

And that's it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

No interrupt cards. No special event cards. No way to draw more cards. No way to summon stronger characters until the required number of game rounds have passed. No way to link together card combos in exciting ways.

No bloody fun.

Navia Dratp Gyullas Turtle
This guy has nothing to do with Gormiti.
He is from a much better collectable game that I will be reviewing next time.
10 points to anyone who can name the game.

If one player can get lots of characters out early on, the game will be over in just a few turns, especially if the other player is unable to summon any characters to defend with. Conversely, if both players are able to get characters out early on, the game can drag on for an age as neither player is able to land a successful attack.

That means, the game will be quick and boring or long and boring. You don't have a choice in the matter, just like you often will not have a choice of which card you can play on a turn. This is just an exercise in drawing and placing cards, with no real thought required.

Although I generally enjoy "heavy" games, I don't actually have a problem with games that involve quite a lot of luck, or which have only limited options available on a turn. However, I do insist that a game should be fun. This game isn't fun. It's oh so dull. The designer tried to take a trading card game and streamline it for simplicity and accessibility for a younger market, but in doing so, all the fun got streamlined out. What's left can hardly be classed as a game at all.

As I already mentioned, I paid £2 to get the two starter sets. Even at that price, I don't think I got value for money. I will certainly not be keeping this game. I mean, it doesn't even have any pretty pictures to look at.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Continuing a Trend...

I'll keep this brief (mainly because I don't have a lot to say).

The other day I was doing my regular tour of the local charity shops. I had found nothing of interest (seriously, how many copies of Carol Vorderman's Sudoku get sent to charity on a daily basis?), and I was about to give up. Just then, a small box with an intriguing logo caught my eye. The logo said Risk Junior, and there was a cool lion insignia inside the "R" of the word Risk. A closer examination revealed this to be Risk themed around the movie The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Narnia Risk box
Real artwork - not movie stills. Saints be praised!

The box claims that this is the "first ever Risk for kids!" That seems strange to me, as I have always thought of Risk as a family game, and the age specified on this box was 8+. I don't really see children of aged eight having that much difficulty with regular Risk, which does beg the question whether this junior edition is necessary.

Recently, I acquired a copy of Platoon, and I have also been reviewing some other games based on movies, such as Eragon and Indiana Jones Akator Temple Race Game; so I thought I would continue the trend and pick up this copy of Risk Junior too. Besides, I don't own a copy of Risk, and I am a sucker for a good fantasy theme. This game also got extra marks because, even though it is based on the movie, it uses proper artwork instead of movie stills.

I dropped £3.99 for the game, and was pleased to find it was in excellent condition, and 100% complete (it even still had a little rules addendum slip tucked into the rule book).

Narnia Risk - inside the box
Inside the box - lots of plastic good guys.

The box is surprisingly small, but it is packed with goodness. The board is nicely illustrated, and best of all, there are hundreds of little plastic fawns and centaurs to represent the armies fighting on Aslan's side. Slightly disappointingly, all of the White Witch's armies are represented by cardboard tokens. I guess the game's budget only extended to two different moulds and three colours of plastic. It's a shame, because I would have loved some little plastic minotaurs... Although thinking about it, I have a copy of Age of Mythology which has loads of plastic figures in it. Maybe I could grab enough minotaurs from there.

Narnia Risk pieces
Big fawns, or tiny centaurs? You decide.

The rules for this edition of Risk have been greatly simplified, and there seems to be a lot more randomness in it; but characters from the movie are nicely implemented with special powers, and it all looks very nice. I will certainly give it a play, and at some point a review will be added here on the blog.

Narnia Risk fawn and centaur miniatures
"I don't wish to alarm you, but I think we're being followed."

Now, where's that copy of Age of Mythology?