Tuesday 31 December 2013

Review - Race Around Britain!

Race Around Britain!

Race Around Britain!
Designed by Bertram Kaes
Published by Ravensburger
For 2-6 players, aged 8 to adult

Race Around Britain! game box
Those kids are totally faking it...

So, as you might know, I have this... condition. I like to collect old board games. It's actually quite a fun way to spend the time. I enjoy hunting down the games, and then cataloguing the components, trying to find space for them on the shelf.

Sometimes, when I'm lucky, I even get to play the games I own.

Surprisingly, my wife seems to condone this kind of silly behaviour; and when she goes off shopping without me, she will always check out the charity shops to see if there is anything I might like. She once asked me what she should look out for, and I gave her one simple rule: "Never leave a Ravensburger on the shelf."

This simple rule has yielded some pretty positive results. She scored a complete Enchanted Forest (1982 edition), which is in lovely condition, and one of my Christmas presents this year was an unpunched, unplayed copy of Scotland Yard, which I was so excited about I nearly did a little wee.

However, there are exceptions that break any rule, and I was unable to disguise my horror the day my wife brought home Race Around Britain!

I mean, seriously; you know this game is going to be awful. It has an exclamation mark in the title, and it's about travelling around Britain. If I want to travel around Britain I'll buy a train ticket, not a board game.

And that front cover? Showing two smiling kids, with their dad, playing the game... Yeah. That ain't fooling anyone. They look like they've just buried Mum under the patio and are trying to act natural for when the cops show up.

Now, you may be wondering why I think this game is so bad. I'm glad you asked...

Race Around Britain! basically combines a whole bunch of game mechanisms I hate.

Race Around Britain game board
They really took the time to make Britain look as dull as possible.

The concept is simple: A starting city is chosen, and then 12 other cities are selected at random (four cards each from three stacks of location cards). The top card is turned over, and the "race" begins. On each turn, a player rolls the dice (roll and move, hurrah!) and then moves the number of spaces indicated, heading for the currently revealed location. If a player lands on the location (and of course, this requires an exact roll of the dice), he or she wins two points. Furthermore, that player then gets to answer a trivia question about that location (hurrah!), for the chance to win an additional point.

Lovely Plymouth
I went to university in Plymouth... The more you know...

After all that excitement, the next location is revealed. This continues until all 12 locations have been visited.

And then all the players have to race back to the starting city. The player who reaches the starting location (by exact roll of the dice, of course), wins a bonus three points, and then everyone adds up their points to determine a winner. Not that anyone will care by then.

Race Around Britain tokens
Plastic tokens for keeping score.

So there you have it; a game that combines everything wrong with board games: roll and move, requiring an exact roll to land on spaces, and trivia.

The trivia element is actually the least egregious aspect of the game. It almost makes sense. Most of the points are allocated to people who are lucky enough to roll the numbers needed to land on certain spaces, and the trivia element allows people who are not so lucky a chance to catch up. Of course, you only get asked a question if you land on the right location in the first place, so normally the questions just help the luckier people get even further ahead.

Race Around Britain rules
The rules sheet - great job by the graphic designer, there.

I can't even recommend this game as an educational tool. A game can last for a painfully long time, as each location needs to be reached by exact roll of the dice; and yet only 12 trivia questions will be asked. This is just as well, as there are only four questions for each city. If you played with any kind of regularity (which you wouldn't), you would quickly get through all the questions available.

You could say that the game will help children learn geography, but the terminally dull gameplay, and the terminally dull artwork on the board, is hardly going to keep anyone interested long enough for any kind of learning to take place.

Race Around Britain game components
Capture the flag... Or... You know... Don't bother... Whatever.

So, no; I'm not keeping Race Around Britain! in my collection. And maybe it's time I gave my wife a more definitive set of board game-hunting rules to follow...

Monday 23 December 2013

Review - Dr Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Game

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Dr Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Game
Published by University Games
Designed by someone who chose (or was forced) to remain uncredited.
For 2 - 4 players, aged 4 to adult

How the Grinch Stole Christmas board game
It looks like a present! Cute!

My daughter turned three this December. She has been quite interested in board games for a little while, and we have been playing Parcheesi and the like over the last few months. It is truly wonderful to watch how her ability to play games is developing, and how much fun she has spending time with me, my wife (and sometimes our friends) playing board games. And yes, I admit, I was proud when I found out her most wanted birthday present was a board game she had seen on the television called Go Piggy Go (a game I will be reviewing another time, and which is surprisingly tactical and fun).

Anyway, as a result of my daughter's increased interest in games, I have started looking for more games I can play with her. And so, I picked up How the Grinch Stole Christmas in a little charity shop ready for the festive season. I didn't expect it to be very good, but I will play anything when my little girl is at the table: Snakes and Ladders, Junior Monopoly, Candyland, it really doesn't matter. The important thing is spending time with her, and...

What? Why are you looking at me like that?

Okay, okay, I'll confess: I love the Dr Seuss books. I think they are wonderfully inventive, and excellent for teaching children to read; and one of my favourite Christmas stories is How the Grinch Stole Christmas, so if I am being honest, I would have purchased this game no matter what. Besides, it gives me something interesting to write about.

Now, where was I?

Oh yeah. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is published by University Games as part of their Beginner Games series. Games in this series are exceptionally easy to learn, quick to play, and feature elements that help children to read and learn social skills. The focus here is on learning, and encouraging children to play well, and that means you can't really expect much from the game itself. Hardcore gamers need not apply.

Inside the box, you get a nicely illustrated mounted board, four cardboard player pieces in plastic stands, a spinner, and some lovely three-dimensional cardboard "Christmas presents." The quality is okay, but not in the same league as many modern games from companies such as Queen Games and Days of Wonder.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas game board
Forks in the path encourage decision-making for young children.

The game itself is simple. On your turn, you spin the spinner, and then move your playing piece that number of spaces.

Yeah. It's roll and move. What did you expect?

How the Grinch Stole Christmas player pieces
Roll and move? Hurrah!

Anyway, after moving, you look at the space you have landed on. If you land on a space with a letter on it, you get to pick up one of the presents and look at the bottom. If the bottom of the present shows a picture of a toy that contains the same letter as the letter your playing piece is on, you get to keep the present. If you don't get a match, you show everyone what you got, and then you return the present to the pile.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas presents
Merry Christmas!

As you can see, this is teaching a number of core skills. Counting (moving the piece), reading (matching an item to the letter you are on), and memory (remembering which presents have already been looked at, and what they contain). Forks in the path on the board also encourage simple decision-making and strategies.

This is basically the whole game. There are a few other special spaces, like Grinch spaces that make you return a present to the pile, and Cindy-Lou Who spaces that allow you to take and keep any present you want, but generally, you just try to match letters, and remember where the presents you need are. At the end of the game (one circuit of the board, which only takes a few minutes), the player with the most presents wins, but everyone gets to hold hands and sing "Welcome Christmas, Ba-hoo Bo-ray."

Yeah. Really. That's actually in the rules.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas rules
Who decided to print green ink on white paper?

The description in this review should tell you everything you need to know about the game, and whether you would actually enjoy it.

It's quick, it's simple, it's about the Grinch, and it's designed to be educational. For me, that makes it a perfect game to play with my daughter on Christmas Eve. And I guess that makes it one of the best games in the world. For now, at least.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Review - Temple Run: Danger Chase

Temple Run: Danger Chase

Temple Run: Danger Chase
Published by Spin Master Ltd
Designed by Nick Hayes and Brady Lang
For 2 - 4 players, aged 8 to adult

Temple Run Danger Chase game
Evil demon monkeys? Endless running? Eternal horror? Sounds great.

So, I have this dream...

Wait, wait. Don't worry. It's nothing weird. Well, not that weird.

In the dream, I'm running away from a monster. It's normally a werewolf. Werewolves really freak me out.

I'm running away, but no matter how fast I run, I can't escape. The road I am on goes on forever, and the werewolf is always snapping at my heels.

I hate this dream.

But then I wake up, and the dream fades, and I am lounging around in my underwear with a mug of tea skipping through the daytime television channels (this constitutes work for a writer, you know). Sooner or later, I will pick up my iPad (other tablet devices are available), and I will load up the Temple Run app.

I am sure most people are aware of this app. Basically, you are a guy (or maybe a gal), who has stolen an idol from a temple. This has awoken a demon ape thing that starts chasing you. The aim of the game is to keep on running for as long as possible, through a winding maze of bridges and tunnels filled with traps. If you hit a trap you die, if you stumble, the demon monkey eats you. And the game never ends. You just keep playing, racking up a high score, until the inevitable happens and you get got (gotten? gotted?).

It's a simple but incredibly addictive game.

And that's the funny thing about games. In my real life, and even in my dreams, I can't think of much worse than endlessly running for my life from a demonic beastie. But controlling a character in a game that is doing just that... well, that's a whole other story.

Anyway, where am I going with this meandering tale?

Oh yeah, that's right... Temple Run: Danger Chase. The board game version of the Temple Run app.

I first saw the game in a discount store called The Works (other discount stores are available). It was priced at £7.99, and that seemed a little steep for a game that was probably going to be a bit crap, so I left it on the shelf. However, a few days later, I saw the same game in a Home Bargains store (other discount stores are available), and it was just £4.99. My willpower isn't that great, so I paid the money.

Luckily, the game is actually (surprisingly, perhaps) very decent.

The premise is simple, and true to the app that inspired it. Two to four adventurers (or even a lone adventurer, playing to see how long he or she survives), are running along a path made up of five double-sided game boards. Close on their heels is an "evil demonic monkey" (yes, that is how it is referred to in the rules). The aim? Be the last adventurer alive once the monkey stops feeding.

Temple Run playing pieces
The adventurers - sucks to be them.

On a player's turn, he or she activates an electronic idol timer (batteries not included), that starts playing a suitably tense piece of music. The player then grabs five custom dice and starts rolling. Dice have blank faces, faces with one or two running symbols, and a face with the evil monkey. Monkey faces cannot be rerolled, but anything else can. Once the player is happy with a roll, he or she has to slap the idol timer. If this is done in time, the player will get to move; but if the timer emits a screeching monkey sound, time is out, and the adventurer gets moved backwards, closer to that hungry monkey.

Temple Run demon monkey
Evil demon monkey - released from the closet.

Assuming a player succeeds in rolling dice before the timer expires, he or she allocates the dice. Each runner forces an adventurer to move forward one space, and each monkey symbol forces the evil monkey to move forward one space. If an adventurer lands on a danger space on the board, that adventurer dies (unless a "save me" token has been acquired earlier in the game). If a monkey overtakes an adventurer, that adventurer dies.

Temple Run dice
Custom dice - I've seen that monkey's face in my dreams.

Whenever an adventurer reaches the end of the last board in play, the first board is flipped over and placed at the end, thereby continuing the path indefinitely.

Temple Run game boards
The endless path.

It is a game that can only end through player elimination.

Just like the app.

Just like my dream.

Just like school football matches.

Temple Run idol timer
The idol timer has three speeds: agh, aagghh, and aaaggghhh.

And that's all there is to it. The game really is very simple. You can learn the rules in less time than it takes to read this review. In fact, you pretty much have learned all the rules by reading this review.

But is it any good?

Well, yes. It is the game that I have played the most in the last month. This is partly because it is easy to teach and quick to play, and partly because it is just stupidly fun. You don't really have many decisions on a turn, you just frantically roll the dice, and try to slap the timer when it looks like you have rolled well enough to avoid being caught by the monkey or falling down a ravine. Yes, there is player elimination, it is an integral part of the game mechanism; but players who get knocked out still roll to move the monkey, and as games only last five minutes, nobody really minds if they die on the first dice roll (which does happen).

Is it the best dice game out there? No. Not by a long shot. But it is good, solid fun as a light filler. It is suitably tense when it is your turn, and there is no shortage of laughs around the table. After 15 minutes you will be exhausted, and you will want to do something else; but somehow that seems entirely in keeping with the game's theme.

So yeah, why not? I'm recommending this game (assuming you can get it cheap, like I did).

The game components are okay. The boards are thick enough, each adventurer is a different sculpt, and the evil monkey is suitably creepy; the dice are printed rather than being stickers, the idol timer is large, and seems to be able to stand up to grown men slamming it repeatedly; the rules are clearly laid out and well-illustrated, although they lack any colour. The only real problem is the tokens are paper thin; but as they don't get used all that often, it isn't a major problem.

Temple Run rules
The rules - clear, well-illustrated, and bland.

I'm saying this is a worthwhile purchase. And believe me, that surprises me almost as much as it surprises you.

Now, I want to tell you about this other dream I have...

I'm on a bus, on the way to school, and everyone is laughing at me...

Monday 9 December 2013

Review - Redakai


Published by Spin Masters Ltd
Designed by John Fiorillo, Justin Gary, and Brian Kibler
For 2 players

I should probably be banned from Poundland. I don't mean because I do weird stuff, like frightening the children or stuffing washing powder down my trousers. I mean because I have a habit of going in there and buying any old tat that looks remotely like a game. I almost always regret my purchases, and considering each purchase only costs me £1, that should give you some indication of the utter dross I have picked up over the years.

Dross like Chaotic and Huntik, which still give me nightmares.

But sometimes I get lucky, and I will pick up something that turns out to be half-decent. Enter the ridiculously named Redakai, which is surprisingly okay.

My initial foray into the game included the purchase of two starter sets, each comprising two packs of random cards, and a crappy plastic tray that is used for playing the cards into if you are playing the basic game.

The cards are absolutely awesome, as they are not really cards at all. They are pieces of thick, transparent plastic, with images printed on them. Sort of like the cards from Gloom. The images even move when you move the card, bringing the characters and special powers to life.

Redakai character cards
Character cards

The transparency of the cards is important, because the main mechanism in the game involves playing cards on top of cards already in play. Bits from the card underneath will show through transparent areas of the card on top, while other bits of the card will be obscured. For example, you could play a monster card on top of a character card. This effectively transforms the character into that monster: The original character image is obscured by a new monster image, and some of the character's statistics (such as health and defence) will be obscured by new statistics. It's a very simple, very clever system to show how cards affect other cards already in play. I was impressed. But then, I was impressed by the first Silent Hill movie, so maybe I'm just not all that demanding.

However, I was less impressed by the rules. You see, falling into the same trap as most other collectable game starter sets, Redakai only includes rules in the starter sets for the basic game. And frankly, the basic game is appalling.

It's like Top Trumps, but will less choices.

Redakai rules
Redakai - basic game rules... Don't bother

In the basic game, each player lays out a single character, and then shuffles the rest of the cards in his or her hand. On a turn, a player draws the top card. If it is a monster (transformation) card, the card is played on top of that player's character. If it is an attack, it is played on top of the opponent's character and may or may not do damage.

Each character has three life bars in the top right corner of the card, and if all three bars are obscured by overlaying attack cards, the character is defeated.

And that's it.

Draw a card, and then play it.

That's not a game.

Of course, I wanted to play the more advanced game, but there were two problems.

First of all, the advanced game involves using three characters per player, and my starters only contained a total of four characters.

The second problem was that the advanced rules are available from the Redakai website, but that site has been shut down.

So, with what I had in my two starters, I couldn't play the advanced game.

Guess that's the end of the review then...

What can I say? If you are just thinking of buying two starter sets to try this game out, don't bother. You're wasting your money. Even if you're only spending £1.

Redakai monsters
Monsters - three versions of "Slab"

But wait. Wait! I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "But he said this game was half-decent."

And it is. Sort of.

Normally, when a game offers up starter sets as bad as these ones, I will cut my losses and walk away. However, I was so enamoured by the mechanism of laying transparent cards on top of each other that I was prepared to give this game another shot.

After some searching, I found the full advanced rules online, and a quick search on eBay netted me a sealed box of boosters (over 100 additional cards, for the princely sum of just £5). By the time I had opened all the booster packs, I had enough creatures, characters, and attack cards to create three distinct decks: One that focuses on heavy attacks, one that focuses on replenishing cards to your hand, and one that focuses on acquiring resources to play additional cards.

I was now set to play the game as it was intended to be played, and... Yeah... It's okay.

In the advanced rules, each player has three characters, and the aim of the game is to kill all three of your opponent's characters (and there was me thinking violence never solved anything). Each player also starts the game with a deck of 40 cards (monsters and attacks), and three "kairu" which are the resources used to pay to play cards.

On a turn, a player replenishes his or her kairu plus one additional kairu, draws one card, and then uses kairu to play cards. Monsters can be played on top of your own characters, while attacks can be played on top of enemy characters. Attacks are colour-coded, and will either cause damage (if they exceed the character's defence value in that colour), or they will block out certain defence values or special powers, making the character weaker and easier to kill with subsequent attacks.

It's very simple, very quick to play, and very slick.

Is it amazing? No. But the plastic cards have a nice feel to them when you shuffle them and flick them across the table, and it is cool to see the cards stacking up on your characters to alter their statistics in positive and negative ways.

Redakai attack cards
Attack cards in three flavours

There are still some problems though. The biggest problem is down to the fact the cards are transparent. It means you can see through the back of them. You will know what the top card of your draw deck is before you draw it, and your opponent will be able get an idea of what cards you have in your hand by looking at the card backs.

The designers realised this, and created some accessories: Stands to hold your hand of cards, and boxes to put your draw deck in. But a game this simple shouldn't need so many accessories, and if you draw from the bottom of your deck, and keep your cards well-hidden, it shouldn't be necessary to fork out more cash for the extras.

The other major problem relates to stacking cards. Sometimes a stack can get quite large, and then the cards start sliding around and may spill across the table. Of course, the designers realised this, and created some accessories: Trays to hold each character, which will stop the cards from sliding about. But a game this simple... Well, you get the point.

Basically, in order to get around all these little niggling problems, you can spend a load of extra money on accessories. This could well be one of the reasons why the game only lasted a few years; after all, what would you rather spend your money on? More cards, or little bits of plastic to organise those cards?

I guess it really is best to keep things simple.

As with all collectable card games, the more cards you buy, the more you will be able to hone and refine your deck to create killer combinations. I have no intention of doing that. I am happy just to tinker with the cards I have, and use this game as a light two-player filler.

Do I recommend the game?

Er... Not really. It's a good, simple game, but it doesn't do anything incredible; and I can't see you burning your Magic: The Gathering collection to invest in Redakai instead. However, if you can grab a lot of cards cheap, then it might be worth it, especially if you play with younger gamers.

But you absolutely must use the advanced game rules.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Review - Anima Tactics: Akio Kageshima

So, here's the thing: I am currently trying to type this with a mashed up finger, because it turns out that when you are hammering together a shed, a nail and a finger nail are two very different things. Besides that, I am also supposed to be packing for a trip to Disneyland. But if I don't post something now, you won't hear from me for another week at least. So, despite the many obstacles, I thought I would post a short review of one of the characters from Anima Tactics. See how much I love you?

Akio Kageshima
Akio, painted and ready to die horribly in close combat

Anima Tactics is a really rather lovely miniatures game. Unlike many other miniatures games, it is fought at a skirmish level with just a handful of characters. This means it is relatively inexpensive to put together a decent fighting force. I have already reviewed the game, so I am not going to talk about that again now. Suffice to say, I think the game offers a compelling mix of strategy, tactics, army building, and resource management.

I don't really play this game competitively, and I just buy the characters I like the look of, and then figure out what I can do with them afterwards. Akio Kageshima is a slight exception to that rule: I didn't really like the look of the model, and I wouldn't have bought him at all; but I saw him in a sale for less than £3 delivered, and I do love a bargain.

Yeah. That's right. I'm one of those people who will buy something he never really wanted, just because it got cheaper.

Turns out I actually like the model a lot more than I thought I would. It isn't a particularly interesting pose or anything, but there is something about it I like. Akio is a mage character, and he looks completely different to any other mage miniature I have for any game, so that makes a refreshing change.

Anima Tactics: Akio Kageshima
Akio's stat card

In terms of being a usable character, he doesn't seem great. In typical wizardy fashion, he crumples under even the lightest attacks, and his combat prowess leaves a lot to be desired. In his favour, he has two ranged attacks that can strike from 16 inches out. They aren't very powerful, but you should be able to use them to wear down your opponents while your close-combat characters close in for the kill. He has a defensive action that boosts his personal defence by five, which can help to keep him alive for an additional round, and he is also cheap to add to your force, at just 35 points.

One of the nice things about Anima Tactics is that creating your force is done with cards that come with the models. You select the cards for the characters you want (meaning there are no army books). You can then select from a range of tactics cards, which you can secretly attach to your characters to give them boosts during play. This is cool, because it moves the game away from a "what you see is what you get" format, allowing you to spring surprises on your opponent. The card system also negates the need to buy lots of different miniatures.

Akio ships with the Ring of Erebus item card, and this is quite a useful item to give him. It increases the range of all ranged magical attacks by 4 inches. That means Akio can strike from a whopping 20 inches away. However, considering the ring costs 10 points to equip to one of your characters, it takes Akio's total points cost up to 45, which is quite a lot for a character who can only dish out very small quantities of damage.

Ring of Erebus
Ring of Erebus card

I think Akio is a bit boring really. He tends to hang back, poking people with magic blasts. That can be a good strategy, but I tend to be a bit more gung-ho when I play. I would rather have a force composed of characters with big swords. Not that I'm trying to compensate for anything.

That said, I am glad I purchased Akio. At just 35 points, and with a neutral alignment, you can easily slot him into any force if you have some points to kill, or you want to add a bit of ranged firepower to a predominantly close-combat team.

Right. That's it. I've already been writing for too long. I have to get back to packing before my wife notices I'm not helping anymore.

Monday 18 November 2013

Review - World of Warcraft: Miniatures Game

World of Warcraft: Miniatures Game Horde faction

World of Warcraft: Miniatures Games
Published by Upper Deck Entertainment
Designed by a whole bunch of people
For 2 players, aged 14 to adult

It's about 2:30pm here in Merry Olde England. Time to sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit and review something. Unfortunately, Mrs Never Boring has eaten the last custard cream in the house. Fear not, I am a warrior, and that sort of minor set back isn't going to stop me.

I'm having a Bourbon biscuit instead.


Collectable games... I've probably mentioned this before, but I'm not a fan. I'm not a fan because such games are a money sink. You are constantly spending money, and the stuff is usually blind-packaged, so you aren't even sure what you are spending your money on.

Call me old fashioned ("you're old fashioned!") but when I buy a game, I want to buy a complete game that has everything I need to play right there in the box. And then, if I like the game, I am happy to buy expansions later on.

One of the biggest problems with collectable games are the starter sets. I don't think I've ever seen a starter set done right. You see, the publishers have to walk a fine line: They want you to have enough bits and pieces to play and like the game, but they also want to make sure you aren't satisfied with just the starter set and want to buy more. These two aims are in direct opposition. If the publisher includes enough stuff for a truly engaging and satisfying game experience, you won't immediately feel the need to buy more bits, and the publisher really wants you to buy more bits. However, if you don't have an engaging and satisfying game experience right out of the box, you aren't going to feel compelled to buy more.

So, what you end up with are boring starter sets, that only give you a sample of what the full game experience has to offer.

And that's why many collectable games don't do well.

I honestly have no idea how well World of Warcraft: Miniatures Game did, but it was first released in 2008, and is no longer in production. I think it got through two waves of releases, which seems to be about the average life expectancy of this sort of thing. It's a bit of a shame really, because the game (while being very simple), is actually okay, and the pre-painted miniatures are large and impressive, and painted relatively well.

World of Warcraft Miniatures Game Alliance faction
The Alliance fellas... Seem friendly enough, don't they?

I only recently acquired this game, because I saw a basic starter set in a clearance store and liked the look of the miniatures. I also liked the fact that the box stated "everything 2 players need to play."

This statement is, of course, a lie.

What the starter set gives you is "some of the bits 2 players need to almost play."

Now, I only have the starter set, so I'm pretty much reviewing that starter set on its own merits. There was a deluxe set which had more figures and a proper board, and that probably was a much better way to get involved in this game, but... I can't find one. If I ever get one, I'll review it.

So, this starter set...

You get four miniatures (not a random allocation): Two evil dudes from the Horde team, and two guys that look just as evil, but actually aren't, from the Alliance team. These guys don't like each other. I don't know why, I've never played the computer games. Could be a dispute over who got the last custard cream for all I know.

Each character has an associated card that lists all stats and special powers, and each character also gets two additional power cards that can be used once per turn.

World of Warcraft Alliance cards
Alliance character cards.

Besides the characters, you get a double-sided paper map, (which only has one side you can use), six very groovy custom dice in two colours (which isn't enough to play), and six "U-bases" (which are crap).

Sigh. Where to start?

Okay, first things first. As I've already said, the miniatures are pretty good. The paint quality is average, but definitely better than something like Dungeon Command, but they are a nice size (too big for using in other games unfortunately), and they are sturdy. The problem is, you only get four, and this game is designed for fights between teams of three or six miniatures. As a result, the paper map (and I really hate paper maps) has two sides: A start side, designed for battles between teams of two, and an advanced side, which you can't use until you have purchased some additional miniatures.

World of Warcraft game map
Paper maps are rubbish.

Fighting on a limited map, with a limited force, can give you a solid idea of how the game mechanisms work; but it sucks out most of the fun. Strategy is limited, turns are repetitive. It's all a bit boring. Like Bourbon biscuits.

You can't even customise the characters you get, because you only get two power cards for each character, and they aren't interchangeable.

The custom dice are quite cool, but you only get three in each colour. A lot of the attacks involve rolling five or six dice, so you technically need 12 dice (six in each colour) to avoid constantly re-rolling.

And then there are the "U-bases." Good grief...

The game is played out in rounds, and each round is divided into 10 measures of undefined time which are marked on a chart printed on the map. Of course, there is no token to use with this tracker, so you need to use a penny or something.

Each character also has a personal clock. These come in the form of the "U-bases" which are attached to the bottom of the miniatures. They are kind of like Heroclix bases, but more complicated. And rubbish.

If you rotate the bottom of the "U-base" it advances the character's personal clock by one point. If you rotate the bottom of the miniature, then it adjusts the character's number of hit points instead. This means everything is tracked right there on the character's base. Sounds neat.

I thought it sounded neat.

It's not neat.

The "U-bases" are utter crap. They don't fit onto the miniatures properly, so they keep falling off. And of course, when you go to put them back on, you have to remember how many hit points you had so you can reset the base properly. Constantly picking up the miniatures and fiddling with the bases is also just... well... fiddly. You have to be careful to twist them the right way, and careful not to knock them off, and careful to put the miniature back where it came from, and... you know... just careful.

This is stupid, over-engineered nonsense. The same thing could have been achieved by including a team tracker sheet in the starter set, and then packaging each character with a little token. Every time you activated a character, you could advance its token on the team tracker. Does the same thing as the stupid bases but without all the hassle. There is no need to over-complicate things.

Anyway, the game round marker starts at "1," and characters whose personal clocks are at "1" take it in turns to activate. You can make a free move, and then do one action (normally an attack or a heal spell). Doing an action costs time, so attacking might make your personal clock advance by three clicks. This is clever see. You do a big attack, advance your clock, and then... You have to wait. You can't move that character again until his personal clock matches the round marker. In the meantime, every other character on the board gets to pummel the stuffing out of him.

It's a very clever system. I really like it. It's just a shame it was implemented through the "U-base" concept.

The dice combat is equally clever, and is implemented well. The custom dice have three shaded faces, and one face with a critical hit symbol. When you attack (physically, or with magic), you roll a number of dice equal to your attack value. Each dice that turns up a shaded face is a miss, and everything else is a hit. The critical symbol may invoke a special power specific to the kind of attack you are doing, such as causing an additional damage. Your opponent then rolls dice equal to his defence (for a physical attack) or resistance (for a magic attack). Anything but a shaded face on the dice successfully blocks one hit. Hits minus blocks is the total damage caused.


World of Warcraft custom dice
Custom dice... I love custom dice.

Of course, the point of the game, as with so many other games, is to collect victory points. Oh yes, that nebulous, ephemeral concept that rears its head in so many games. Victory points. Who knows what they really are? An abstract concept? Medals of valour? Custard creams?

You get these victory points by being on or next to a victory point space on the board at the end of the round (when the round marker resets back to step "1"). You also get victory points for killing enemies.

There really is nothing more to the game than that: It's super-streamlined, easy to teach, and hangs off a very clever timing mechanism. But the component issues really hurt the game experience. It makes what should be a very fluid game clunky and cumbersome, and really just not as much fun as it should be. And of course, you absolutely need more than what you get in a starter set to experience the full game.

I think this game really needs a do-over. They need to make a proper base set, with a good board, and two balanced teams, and then release several team factions as expansions, like the new Krosmaster Arena game. They need to replace the "U-bases" with simple tokens and tracker bars. And finally, if they made the miniatures smaller, people could use them in other games including roleplaying games, which could only help to encourage sales.

World of Warcraft: Miniatures Game rules
The rules book.

Man, I should totally be a games designer.

Now, you must excuse me. I have to pop out to the shops. I don't know why, but I have a real craving for custard creams...

Friday 15 November 2013

Review - Harry Potter: Diagon Alley Board Game

Harry Potter: Diagon Alley Board Game

Harry Potter: Diagon Alley Board Game
Published by Mattel
Designed by committee, to ensure all fun was removed
For 3-6 muggles, or something...

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I don't really like Harry Potter. I don't mean the fictional character (although I don't like him either). I mean the books.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I'm jealous, because the books are massively successful, and JK Rowling is a billion times more successful as an author than I could ever hope to be. But that's not it.

I mean, don't get me wrong. I think JK Rowling is a fantastic author. She got children (and a lot of adults) to pick up books again, and that makes her an amazing person. I think she created a detailed world, filled with interesting characters (real, three-dimensional characters, with story arcs and everything). I just don't think the story she had to tell was all that interesting, and I think it could have been told using fewer words. The books are a little bloated, and there is a lot of "stuff" that I don't feel adds to the story in a meaningful enough way to be included.

And I'm totally jealous.

No, I'm kidding.

Sort of.

But anyway. Long story short: I can appreciate her achievements and her talent, and I am in awe of what she has done for children's books in general. I just don't actually like the books, and that's entirely down to personal taste.

But while I'm not a big fan of the books, what I really can't stand is the franchise. The insufferable movies, with their wooden acting and lifeless special effects, and the toys... Oh, the toys.

And it's not because I'm jeal... You're not buying this, are you?

So, considering my feelings for the Harry Potter franchise, you can imagine my delight when Mrs Never Boring returned from a day at the shops with a copy of Diagon Alley, which she had found in a charity store.

People have divorced for less.

Diagon Alley wizard hat pawns
Nice hat!

But actually, the game didn't look too bad. It had a nicely illustrated board, groovy plastic coins, and cute little wizard hats for pawns. I was intrigued, and as I have made a habit of reviewing out of production board games, of course I had to give it a whirl.

Let me tell you, my entirely adult gaming group was delighted when I dropped this little box of delights on the table.

My leg casts come off next week...

Anyway, apart from a rather nice-looking set of components, and a name that sounds like something HP Lovecraft wrote about, what do you get with Diagon Alley? Basically, you get Monopoly. And I guess that's the point where most people are going to stop reading.

Diagon alley board
The alley... Not a homeless person in sight.

It is Monopoly with bells and whistles, no trading, and extra screwage, but Monopoly immediately sprang to mind when I started playing, and I was never able to shake that feeling of sinking despair.

The aim of the game is to move around the titular alley, popping into different shops as you go, in order to buy all the wizardy things that a wizard needs for wizarding. The alley is circular, and every time you pass the bank, you collect some extra money for your shopping trip.

Diagon Alley money
If I were a rich man... I'd buy better games.

There aren't enough items for everyone, so you have to race to be the first person to buy them.

That sounds exciting, right? Like going to M&S during a sale. But with wizards.

The screwage comes in the form of cards, which you get for landing on certain spaces, or by rolling a special symbol on the custom dice (the custom dice are made with stickers, folks; don't get too excited). The cards are spells that allow you to steal items from other players, close shops to stop them getting items, or otherwise be a bloody nuisance.

Diagon Alley cards
Pick a card, any card. That's magic.

There is also some nonsense about being banished to a different alleyway, which runs around the outside of the board; but it doesn't happen very often, and it isn't very exciting when it does.

So, on your turn, you roll the dice, maybe pick up a card, maybe play a card, move a few spaces, maybe buy an item or get some extra money, and then gently weep as the next person takes his or her turn.

Eventually, someone will gather a full set of six items, and return to the starting space with them. And there will be much rejoicing.

The game lasts almost forever, and is utterly dreadful.


I've reviewed it.

Diagon Alley rules
Photocopy of the rules. That's the danger of shopping in charity stores.

What? You want to know more?

I'm not sure there's really much more to say. It is a very basic roll-and-move type game. It might be good for teaching young children to count, but that's about it. There is no tactical way to play, and who wins will be entirely determined by luck of the dice, and luck of the cards. It isn't even bad in a "so bad it's good" kind of way.

It's just bad. Really boring. And the amount of screwage from the card play might result in younger children getting upset.

Avoid this game.

If you want a game for younger children, there are many better options. This one is for the die-hard Harry Potter fans only.

And did I mention, I'm not one of them?

And I'm not jealous.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Review - Dracula

Dracula teeth

Designed by Michael Rieneck
Published by Rio Grande Games (Kosmos Line)
For 2 players, aged 12 to adult

Dracula board game
The eye-catching box.

Halloween is fast approaching, so I thought it was time to tell a scary story...

Once upon a time there was a young man who lived in a small flat all by himself. The flat was part of a converted inn, and was home to more than one ghost. Doors would bang at night, lights would come on, and dark phantasms swirled through the young man's dreams.

One day, the young man met a young woman. They quickly became friends, and soon after became something more... Within three months of their first date, they had rented a huge house together, and the young man was finally free of his haunted flat. Unfortunately, renting a large house did not leave the young couple with very much money, so they spent a lot of evenings at home.

Neither the young man, nor the young woman, were particularly fond of television, so they were always looking for other things to pass the time.

One day, the young man said, 'Hey. When I was younger I used to really like board games. Maybe we should get some board games.'

The young woman agreed that it sounded like a good idea, and a few days later a suspicious brown box arrived in the post. Inside: a two-player game called Dracula.

Dracula is a beautifully produced, and beautifully designed, game of deduction, bluffing, and hand management. The concept is simple. One player is Van Helsing, and the other player is the titular night-time menace. Drac has arrived by ship in London, and has begun hiding his coffins in various locations; Van the Man is on the hunt, but at the same time, he is trying to protect the citizens Drac wants to bite.

Dracula board game - Dracula and Van Helsin meeples
Guess who...

So, what you have is an incredibly tense game of cat and mouse, played out over a simple 4x3 grid. In each space will be a face down card (either a card from Van Helsing's hand, or a card from Dracula's hand). On a turn, a player can choose how many spaces to move his cute little wooden meeple on the board, and as he does, he can look at the cards he lands on. If the card is one of his, he can swap it (or pretend to swap it) with a card from his hand. If it isn't one of his cards, he encounters it, which often means having a fight.

Dracula board game - the board
The board - you don't need it, but it's lovely.

Each player has three types of cards: Five objectives (Van Helsing has victim cards, Drac has coffin cards), one special object (if revealed by your opponent, your opponent loses a life instantly), and nine allies. Allies are obviously the most likely sort of card you will encounter, and they represent vampire hunters or vampires. They each have a strength value, and when they are revealed, you have to play a card from a second hand of cards to defeat them...

Wait... What? Didn't I mention the second hand of cards?

Dracula - action cards
Action cards.

Okay. You see, in this game, you have to carefully manage two hands of cards. The first hand comprises the encounter cards that get played on the board (as already mentioned). You also get a deck of ten larger action cards. At the start of the game you draw five, and then once you have used all five, you get the other five. After that, you shuffle them together and draw a new hand of five, and so on...

These larger cards add real meat of the game. Each one has four elements: A movement value, an attack strength, a barrier, and (usually) a special power. On your turn, once you have stopped moving, or have been forced to stop moving by encountering one of your opponent's allies, you need to play one of the larger cards from your hand. You need to play a card with a movement value that matches the number of spaces you moved (otherwise you take damage), you also need to play a card with a strength value that will enable you to defeat the ally. Of course, the cards with the highest movement value tend to have the lowest attack strength, so you have to balance speed with strength. Nice, clever stuff.

Most of the cards will also show a barrier colour, and this allows you to place (or move) a barrier on the board. These barriers are impassable, and can be used to block your opponent from reaching certain locations.

Finally, most cards have a cool power, allowing you to take extra turns, or move your piece, or regain health.

So, going in turns, players will move to one or more locations, revealing and swapping cards, moving barriers, and generally trying to create as much confusion for their opponent as possible. But what's the point? The point is those objective cards I mentioned before. If at any point you have found all five of your opponent's objective cards, or you can prove that the only objectives left are in your opponent's hand rather than on the board (achieved by landing on your opponent's space and showing each other your hands of cards), you win.

Dracula is a very clever little game. It plays out in around half an hour, on a tiny grid, and has a very limited set of rules; and yet it offers some surprisingly deep gameplay. Bluffing and deduction play a big part of it: You need to keep swapping cards on the board, forcing your opponent to return to locations over and over again. You need to know when to place an objective on the board, and when to keep it in hand (where it is slightly safer). But there is also a second game layered over the deduction game, and in that game you are managing a limited amount of resources: Action cards. You have to carefully plan when you want to move a large number of spaces, and when you want to move cautiously. You need to keep in mind which allies you have killed, and hold on to a strong enough action card to kill any that are left.

Dracula - encounter cards
Encounter cards.

What is great about this second layer of gaming goodness, which is drizzled all over the deduction game like cream on pumpkin pie, is the fact it helps to level the playing field. I am not good at deduction games, but I am pretty good at resource management and card games. If you can kill an opponent's ally, you get to replace it with a card of your own. This makes it more dangerous for your opponent to move around, forcing more fights that might end with your opponent taking damage. If your opponent takes four lots of damage, you win. In other words, if you are confronted with a master of bluffing, you can just beat the snot out of him or her instead.

After the young man had played several games of Dracula with the young woman, he packed it up and put it on the book shelf. 'That was good fun,' he said.

'Yeah,' the young woman said. And then it was as if a dark spirit crept into the room, possessing the young couple.

The young man shivered, as if a window in his soul had been opened, allowing him a brief glimpse of his future. 'We should get more games,' he said.

Nine years later, the young man is no longer so young. He lives in a slightly smaller house that he owns rather than rents. The bookcase with a single board game on it has become three bookcases, crammed with over 150 games and expansions. And board games have become an integral part of his character.

He even writes a blog about them.

And the young woman? She is now his wife, and the mother of his daughter.

And sometimes, just sometimes, they still play Dracula.

Spooky, huh?

Thursday 24 October 2013

Review - A Shepherd and His Dog

A Shepherd and His Dog

A Shepherd and His Dog
Designed by John Spittle
Published by Spear's Games
For 2 players, aged 6 to adult

A Shepherd and His Dog
Let the terror commence...

Halloween is just around the corner, so in the spirit (ha ha) of the holiday, I thought I would try to put a few spooky reviews on my blog over the next week. And what better way to start then a game about Freddy Krueger, and his nefarious night-time exploits?

Here's the story so far: Little Timmy has been put to bed. Because he couldn't sleep, he counted sheep. He has now drifted off, leaving himself wide open to attack from Freddy, the hideously disfigured dreamland pervert. The only problem is, Timmy's dreams are chock full of all the sheep he had to count before he dozed off, and they keep getting in the way. Before Freddy can get busy with the slicing and dicing, he needs to deal with those pesky fluff balls. As Freddy is a dream architect, he can manifest anything he wants to assist him, so he creates a slavering wolf, and a pen to round the sheep into.

The game is afoot. Or maybe a severed head.

I dunno.

Okay, okay. I'll confess. A Shepherd and His Dog isn't a horror game. It isn't a game about Freddy Krueger.

But it is a game about rounding up sheep into a pen.

A Shepherd and His Dog - sheep
The horror! The horror!

So, if that's the case, why am I featuring it in my Halloween special?

The answer is simple. When I thought about the most horrifying experience I have ever had as a gamer... When I thought about the most terrifying way imaginable to spend my time... I thought of A Shepherd and His Dog.

This is a strategy game where one person plays a shepherd with his trusty four-legged friend, and the other person plays as a flock of five sheep. There are little, pre-painted plastic playing pieces to represent all these characters, but the paint jobs are pretty bad. My shepherd really does look like Freddy Krueger.

A Shepherd and His Dog - shepherd
Freddy Krueger.

I'm pretty sure that the playing pieces are actually old Britain's toys, because I know I had exactly the same set of toys when I was little. It was a nice bit of nostalgia to see these old pieces; but that was about the only thing I liked about the whole sorry mess of a game.

Each head-to-head contest is played out on a hexagonal board. You place little plastic fences at one end to create a pen with five spaces, and there are two open gates printed in the bottom corners. The shepherd player is trying to round up all five sheep to herd them into the pen, while the sheep player is trying to get at least one sheep through one of the two open gates. (Seriously, farmers; shut your gates. It's common sense.)

A Shepherd and His Dog - the dog
Nice doggie.

From that description, the game sounds like something I would enjoy. I am fond of Fox and Geese, and Thud, and I have wanted a nice copy of Tafl for my games collection for a while now. A Shepherd and His Dog seems to fit nicely into that same category of two player asymmetric games.

But I don't enjoy this game.

In fact, I have trouble thinking of this as a game, because it pretty much plays itself. Players take it in turns to move one piece. The shepherd player moves Freddy or his wolf, while the sheep player gets to move one sheep. Sheep are not allowed to move next to the shepherd or dog, and MUST move away if they are adjacent at the start of the turn. This is the mechanism by which the shepherd player will round up the sheep. Basically, the shepherd or dog moves next to a sheep. The sheep player is then forced to move that sheep (if possible). This usually means the sheep has a choice of between one and three spaces to move to. The shepherd then moves adjacent, forcing the sheep to move again, and so on. There are almost no choices to make, and very few ways to break away from the shepherd player, who is always able to move adjacent to the sheep on his following turn.

Eventually, a sheep will get penned, and suddenly (for the first time), the sheep player will be free to pick any sheep to move. The sheep closest to an open gate will be selected, and there will be a mad dash as the sheep moves in a straight line to that gate, and the shepherd or dog runs to intercept. However, blocking a gate is exceptionally easy (as sheep cannot move next to a shepherd or dog), and once the interception has been made, the sheep will be forced back into the same pattern of being pushed towards the pen.

You then repeat this process until all five sheep are in the pen.

And that's it.

It is so repetitive. So boring. So maddeningly infuriating. So pointless.

It is probably the worst game I have ever played. And I've played the Chaotic trading card game.

A Shepherd and His Dog - the board
The board, with fences in place to create the pen.

The biggest problem is that it is a strategy game that takes away your chances to use strategy. Most of your moves are forced upon you, and there is nothing you can do about it. It becomes a mundane experience, as you simply move your piece into pre-defined spaces. There is maybe one in every five turns where you get to make a proper decision. The real choices are so rare that you become bored and disinterested, your brain switches off completely, and you start to miss the choices even when they do present themselves.

I suppose it is fitting that a game about herding mindless sheep should be so mindless; but this is one of those occasions when it would have dramatically improved the game if it was a bit less thematic.

And that's not something you hear me say very often.

Besides, if I'm going to play something about a horde of mindless creatures, I'm probably going to choose something with zombies in it.

That would have made for a better Halloween review too...