Wednesday 31 October 2012

Review - Atmosfear: The DVD Board Game

Atmosfear the DVD board game

Published by Vivid Games
Designed by The Gatekeeper as a means to torture his victims
For 3-6 players, aged 12 to adult

It's that time of year again... Halloween. The time of year when Poundland brings out its rubber bats and dead-eyed skeleton masks, every radio station seems to be playing Michael Jackson's Thriller, and tiny little demons threaten you with eggs in exchange for sweets and chocolates.

I'm not a huge fan of Halloween; I mean, I don't dislike it, I just don't go out of my way to celebrate it in any meaningful way. However, there are a few traditions I have:

(a) I always watch Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas;
(b) I always play a game of Atmosfear.

Atmosfear is, let's be honest, not a great game. It is basically a roll and move game in which you try to collect a set of keys that will "unlock" the "well of fears." On your turn, you roll a dice (or two dice - your choice) and then move the indicated number of spaces; and on most turns you don't even get to decide in which direction you move, giving you the same number of options you get in a luck-fest such as Snakes and Ladders. But there is something that lifts Atmosfear far above other roll and move games: Speed. No, I don't mean a hefty dose of illegal substances is required to make the game playable; I mean the game is played at speed. You have only 49 minutes to win the game, and the clock is always ticking. The pressure of passing the dice around, rolling, moving quickly while the next player scrabbles for the dice creates a frantic, fun way to spend an evening. Just don't expect any hidden depths or strategic choices.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Time to back up...

Whenever I am out in town, I always hit the charity shops in the hope that I will find some old board games (I usually have my fingers crossed for something by Waddingtons or Milton Bradley). Almost every time, I will find at least one copy of Atmosfear - the old VHS version in the long coffin box. Honestly, I know people from other countries who think this game is rare; but I must see one every other week, almost as often as I see those Carol Vorderman's Sudoku games. Thing is, I don't have a video player, so I have always passed up the opportunity to acquire this old classic (I only have games in my collection that I intend to play). Of course, when I eventually found a mint condition copy of the DVD version of the game in a charity shop I had to have it, even though it was a little pricey.

The DVD version is a very nicely produced package, with plenty of plastic bits. The six player pawns stand out as being particularly good; they are like plastic Halloween-themed versions of Monopoly pieces. Some of them are pretty straight-forward (a bat representing the vampire), some are a little unusual (a hat representing a zombie), and one is just plain creepy (a stack of building blocks representing the ghost of a dead infant - thanks for that!). Of course, as my last name is Outlaw, I always play as the werewolf, who is represented by a wolf's head.

Atmosfear playing pieces
The Atmosfear playing pieces.

These pieces are moved around a board which is like a spoked wheel, with an outer circular path, and then several paths that lead to a much smaller inner circle. When a piece is on the outer circle it can only be moved clockwise, so on your turn you just roll the dice and move your piece. The board is divided into coloured sections, and several spaces on the outer ring have special symbols. If you land on one of these spaces, you do the related action (for example, if you land on the clock face, you can take a time card).

Atmosfear board detail
The "Well of Fears" at the centre of the board.

As already mentioned the aim of the game is to collect a complete set of six keys (one each in six different colours), and in the DVD version of the game, these are nicely moulded in plastic. You also get little plastic racks which hold the keys in such a way that your opponents can see how many keys you have, but not what colour those keys are (very important for when an opponent has the chance to steal one or more keys from you). A player can take one of the keys that matches the colour of the board section his piece is in every time he lands on a key space.

Atmosfear keys
The keys hanging in their special rack - that black key is a "bad" one.

If at any point a player has one key from each of the six coloured sections of the board, he can move to the inner ring and attempt to "face his fear" by randomly drawing a fear from the cool plastic pot that sits right in the middle of the board. These fears have been written on scraps of paper and put in the pot by the players at the start of the game, and if the fear drawn matches the fear the player added to the pot then that player wins.

It all sounds very pedestrian and dull, doesn't it? And it really is until you add the DVD element.

The DVD does several different things. The first thing it does is add the time limit. The DVD will run for 49 minutes, and after that time, if nobody has won, then the game wins. The time limit forces everyone to rush, and people will often find dice being snatched out of their hands as opponents try to hurry the game along.

The timer also indicates when special time cards can be used. These cards are picked up by landing on certain spaces on the board, and they are held to be played exactly at the time specified on the card. When the timer on the DVD matches the time on the card, you play the card (even if it is not your turn). These cards will ask you to scream at an opponent to make them jump, or steal keys, or swap places with other players, and lots of other screwy stuff. Of course, if you miss your chance to play the card, too bad! You snooze, you lose.

Atmosfear game cards
Atmosfear game cards.

The other thing the DVD does is provide your host for the evening: The Gatekeeper. This is a wonderful addition to the game. The Gatekeeper will pop up on your television screen from time to time and basically call you an asshole. Yes, this is a game that provides its own trash talk. The gatekeeper will insult you, and then he will probably do something horrible to you as well. He works as a randomiser in a similar way to the electronic memory in the dungeon-crawler game Legend of Zagor, picking a player and then asking them to perform a task or suffer the consequences. He even insists you respond to all his questions with "Yes, My Gatekeeper." Failure to say this also results in a penalty of some kind.

The intervention of The Gatekeeper can turn the whole game on its head, and a person with a full set of six keys can suddenly find themselves with no keys and no chance to win. This may sound awful, and like it would totally ruin the game; and it might, if it wasn't so much damn fun. Atmosfear really isn't a game you should be playing to win. You should just be playing to shout at the television, scream at your friends, and try to roll dice as quickly and frequently as you possibly can. If you are the kind of person who will get angry to have victory stolen away by a bit of bad luck in the last few seconds of the game, then you should probably look for some other way to spend 49 minutes of your life.

So basically, the game comprises a group of flustered people rushing about while an old guy shouts insults at them. It's a bit like a normal day at work, really.

There is no strategy, and no skill; you can have all your hard work undone in seconds just because of stupid luck. There are no real decisions to make (which player to steal a key from is probably the trickiest thing you will have to do), and there is no way to prepare for the intervention of The Gatekeeper. But it doesn't matter. This game is an absolute blast. Not for every night of the week; but for Halloween... Perfect.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Review - NinjaGO

Lego NinjaGO

Published by LEGO
Designed by ninjas... probably

For 2 players, aged 8 to adult

The other day I said, being as Halloween is approaching, I would review some of my "spooky" games. I had lined up the games I was going to review, but while I was out today I spotted the NinjaGO starter sets on a shelf of toys. NinjaGO features ninjas fighting skeletons and my brain immediately started connecting the dots... Skeletons... Halloween... What was I supposed to do?

Of course, I bought a set, justifying the purchase by telling myself I was spending £9 on Lego tat so I could post a review of something relatively new that was vaguely related to Halloween. The fact I didn't buy a set with a skeleton in it, but instead picked up one of the new sets that has some odd-looking snake man in it instead, is entirely irrelevant... (Okay, I admit it - I'm a big kid and I like Lego.)

So, rather than the review of Ghost Castle I was going to post, you get a review of NinjaGO, one of the most bizarre game/Lego mash-ups I've seen so far.

The starter set ships in a blister pack (no box, tut tut), and consists of two spinners, two mini-figures, six "weapons," an arena to fight in, a few odd blocks, and 10 cards (two character cards, eight power cards).

Lego NinjaGO components
You don't get much Lego for your £9.

Everything is of a suitably high quality, as you would expect from Lego; but examining the spinners revealed something I hadn't expected: There is no mechanism to make them spin. I thought there would be some kind of ratchet to twist - but no - you sit your mini-figure on the top, and then you spin the spinner by hand. Colour me disappointed.

The mini-figures are, of course, awesome. Everybody loves ninjas (except for anybody out there who has angered the clan and is currently being hunted by them), and everybody loves Lego. However, I am a bit more dubious about the snake guy. There is some rather unfortunate artwork around his crotch area that makes it look like he is armed and dangerous before he even picks up his sword. Still, you know, it's Lego...

Lego NinjaGO mini-figures
Mr Ninja tried not to look at Snake Man's junk.

Okay, so apart from the fun of pushing together the mini-figures and building the arena (which is hardly Lego's finest hour - it is just 10 plastic bars held together with connectors), is there really a reason to fork out £9 for one of these starters?

Honestly? Not really.

Here's how the actual game works: You take one mini-figure, three weapons, four power cards, and a spinner. You put a weapon in your mini-figure's hand, and then put the mini-figure on the spinner. You and your opponent then spin the spinners into the arena. As the mini-figures hit each other, a unique device in the spinner will start to turn and push the mini-figure up until eventually he falls off the spinner completely.

If a mini-figure falls off his spinner he has lost that round and loses one of his weapons. Lose all three weapons, and it's game over.

There are really odd power cards that can be played during the fight. These allow you to perform challenges in an attempt to win back weapons, and some of them are even designed to be THROWN at your opponent's spinner. Yeah... You throw your cards around. Crazy. The power cards do add some variety and choices, but at the end of the day you are still just spinning a spinner and hoping for the best.

Lego NinjaGO character cards
The characters, with the shadow of the Grim Reaper looming over them it seems.

Lego have attempted to wedge a game in here, but what you really have is a toy. The main enjoyment won't be derived from finding great combinations of power cards to crush your enemy; the main enjoyment will come from delving into your box of mini-figures and finding firemen, knights, vikings, and whatever else you have around to fight to the death in your little plastic arena. A minor distraction. Nothing more.

Lego is expensive (some would argue quite rightly so, as it is one of the true quality products you can get for children), but I've just paid £9 for two mini-figures and two spinners, and that seems a bit steep to me.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Review - Tomb of Doom

As Halloween is fast approaching, I thought it was time to review a couple of the "spooky" games in my collection. First up is this piece of sh*t:

Tomb of Doom - nothing to do with Indiana Jones

Tomb of Doom
Published by Drummond Park
Designed by David Mair
For 2-4 players, ages 5 to adult

I picked up Tomb of Doom in a charity shop for £2 expecting it to be junk, and I am pleased to say I was not disappointed. Yes, I knew before I paid my £2 I was buying something that was going to be awful; but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to buy something that looks so utterly ridiculous. You see, Tomb of Doom isn't really a board game; it's actually just a Halloween decoration that someone then tried to turn into a fun family game. It certainly isn't a fun family game, but as a gimmick to put on the shelf during Halloween it does have some value. Let's find out more...

Before I start, I have to say the box art for this "game" is great. I love it. It's a bit retro, and massively over-the-top, with a male and a female adventurer being terrorised by a giant skull, snakes, gargoyles, and a giant eyeball. Top marks.

Toom of Doom box art
Awesome box art; sub-standard game.

Inside the box there is a large unit that consists of a base and a battery-powered 3D skull. There is no board, no dice... just that weird unit, and some random accessories such as plastic keys, plastic bones and that creepy eyeball from the box art.

Tomb of Doom skull
The "game" is as ridiculous as it looks.

The reason there is no board or dice, is because there isn't really much of a game. The basic premise is that there are lots of plastic keys. One of them opens the treasure chest that is situated on the base in front of the giant skull, while the other keys will cause the skull to laugh, chatter its teeth, and roll its eyes. You get a chance to select a key by winning a challenge on your turn, which will be determined by drawing the top card from a challenge deck. These challenges are only challenging because they are entirely luck based, and they are not even any fun.

One challenge involves selecting one of the three gargoyles on the front of the base and then rolling the eyeball down a ramp. If the eyeball rolls into the slot beneath the gargoyle you picked, then you get to pick a key (and of course, picking the correct key from those available is also entirely luck-based). The only interesting thing about the gargoyle challenge is that the gargoyles were made with the same mould used to make the monster from another board game: Gonna Get Yer! (from Chad Valley).

Tomb of Doom gargoyles
The gargoyles... Ooh, scary.

Another challenge involves picking a snake from a pot of snakes. If the snake is the one with a red tail, you get to pick a key.

Yet another challenge involves picking one of several face-down cubes. If you pick the one with a skull on it, you get to pick a key.

Yes. The games are that simple, that uninspired, that random, that boring...


Tomb of Doom pieces
Bone, eyeball, key, and skull cube.

But of course, this is a game for children, and the "challenges" are really only there to create a semblance of a game before you get to the cool bit where you pick a key. There is a reason most of the keys will cause the giant skull to wake up: That's the only reason to play with this thing! When the skull activates, it is incredibly noisy, and actually pretty funny. I can certainly see it causing young children to squeal (with excitement or fear, depending on the child), and while this is not going to be the sort of game that will keep anybody interested for long, it should provide a suitably noisy distraction for a brief Halloween treat.

I certainly have no intention of playing Tomb of Doom as designed, but I will be keeping hold of the game and using it as a Halloween decoration. Bringing it out once a year to scare my daughter and her little friends will make it worth keeping.