Tuesday 25 February 2014

Review - Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends

Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends

Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends
Published by Z Man Games
Designed by Vlaada Chvatil
For 2 - 4 players, aged 13 to adult

I'm a storyteller by trade, and that's one of the reasons I like board games so much. A board game is just a story in a box, waiting to be told. Board games with a strong theme are my favourites, of course; but theme is a funny old beast (like a platypus), and it can be difficult to nail down (like a platypus).

Theme is more than having a bit of backstory to describe what is going to happen in the game, because a game can abstract that story to the point where the story is almost inconsequential. The wonderful Ghost Stories is a fine example, where a very strong story of monks defending a village from ghosts is abstracted into a nine-square grid surrounded by different coloured dots that require dots of the same colour to remove. Wow... I just made one of the my favourite games sound awful... Never mind, moving on...

Theme is also more than having little plastic miniatures to push around on a board. Sure, it helps if the minotaur you are fighting looks like a minotaur, rather than a red wooden cube, but that isn't the same as theme. That's just window dressing.

And theme is more than having a bit of florid text on the cards in your hand, because let's face it, after the first game you are never going to read those few lines of italicized text ever again. It will just fade away into the background, lurking behind the mechanisms of the game.

Theme is basically a bit of all the above, plus a set of mechanisms that make sense within the confines of the story being told. It is really tricky to do. Take Arkham Horror for example. Last time I played, I was a hardened detective who had seen too much horror. For my starting item I drew a bottle of whiskey, and that was it for me: I was "there." That randomly allocated starting item made the theme work, and it was amazing. Now, in the Arkham Horror game before that, where a nun was deputized, drove through the streets in a police car, and mowed down Lovecraftian monsters with a tommy gun... Yeah. The theme wasn't working so well for us in that game. That's the nature of randomness. Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes good nuns go bad.

But then there are games like Tash-Kalar (see, you knew there had to be a point in all this, right?). Tash-Kalar is one of those rare beasts (like a platypus) where the mechanisms ARE the theme. Every move you make is derived from the theme. The two things are inseparable. And that is one of the reasons why Tash-Kalar has become one of my favourite games ever in the world ever, ever, ever.

Tash Kalar board game box
Tash-Kalar: A game about punching horses. Or making glue. Or something.

You see, the theme of Tash-Kalar is simple. You are a wizard, and you are engaging in a bit of magical fisticuffs with other wizards. You have the ability to create and manipulate casting stones within an arena, and when those stones are formed into certain patterns, they channel the essence of a great warrior or monster, which momentarily manifests itself, does something cool, and then disappears, leaving behind only the stones that were used to create it. You basically have to think of it like those chess pieces in Harry Potter, where they move, suddenly come to life to make an attack, and then return to an inanimate state.

And that's the theme.

The gameplay for Tash-Kalar is simple. You are playing a wizard, and you are engaging in a bit of cerebral fisticuffs with other people playing wizards. On your turn, you can do two actions, one of which is placing a token onto the board. If the tokens you have in play match a pattern on one of the creature cards you have in your hand of five cards, you can use one of your actions to summon the essence of that creature. You play the card, perform the cool action specified on the card, and then discard the card from play, leaving behind only the tokens that were used to play the card in the first place.

And that's the game.

(Do you see what I did there?)

Tash Kalar cards - green deck
The game has stunning artwork. See the cute little tree thing? Aww...

Literally, what you are doing in real life - placing tokens on the board to make shapes, and then playing cards based on those shapes - is exactly the same as what the wizard character you are playing would be doing in the game world - creating stones in the arena to make shapes, and then summoning creatures based on those shapes.

It is pure genius.

It is also incredibly simple. The game is as a smooth as a platypus' bill. You have two actions: Play a token onto the board, or play a card. Other than flare cards, which are a catch-up mechanism that allows a losing player to take advantage of his opponent's strength to gain a magical boost and pull off some cool special moves, there is hardly anything else you need to know. You can learn how to play in about five minutes.

But that simplicity is part of the games joy. It is so quick and accessible. There is no fiddliness, and no tricky rules to get your head around; and yet the scope of the challenge the game presents is huge. When you start the game you will find it hard to summon any creatures, and you will cautiously place tokens to set up future turns; and then when those turns arrive... Boy. There is nothing quite like being able to string together multiple summons to lay waste to your opponent's forces. It is incredibly exciting, and the tension when you realise you can summon one of the powerful legendary creatures as long as no-one destroys an important piece before your turn rolls around is excruciating.

The game is also surprisingly versatile. Like a... platypus? There are two forms of play: High Form, in which you attempt to make patterns on the board to score points; and Deathmatch, in which you... Yeah, you can probably guess.

Additionally, the game plays with two, three, or four players, and includes team-play rules.

The game has incredible longevity.

And the stories you will have to tell... Honestly. Every game ends with the participants excitedly talking about what happened, where they went wrong, what they did right, and why oh why oh why couldn't they get that one last heroic piece on the board needed to summon the dreaded Bone Catapult or Time Elemental. And yes, you will probably be having this conversation while you reset the board for another match.

Okay, okay. I love the game. I think everyone should try this game at least once. But...

Man, there is always a but.

First of all, the game contains four decks of cards for the different factions you can play. Only, it is not really four, because two of the decks are exactly the same, they are just different colours. Now, I understand the concept of including two identical decks. It means you can play two-player games that are not asymmetrical, and that's a good idea. However, there should have been a fifth deck, so it was still possible to play a four-player game where everyone had a unique faction to work with.

The other problem is that the game is expensive for what you get in terms of components. All of the cards are beautifully illustrated, but the tokens you use to form the patterns are cardboard, and the board is thin and bland, with a tendency to warp a bit.

Tash-Kalar game pieces
The game in play really isn't much to look at.

However, the component thing doesn't really bother me, because the game is so much fun and gets so much play in my house that the price is justified. Besides, my wife bought it for me, so I didn't feel the punch to the wallet.

And there you have it.

I am not a Vlaada Chvatil fan boy. I am not even sure what a fan boy is, and I am probably far too old to be one anyway. However, this is the second game of his that I own (Mage Knight Board Game being the other), and both games sit squarely in my top 10 list of bestest besty best games in the world right now, while also being completely different.

Now, you'll have to excuse me. I have enemy wizards to crush.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Review - Impact: The Battle for Wolf Ridge

Impact: the Battle for Wolf Ridge

Impact: The Battle for Wolf Ridge
Published by Drummond Park Ltd.
Designed by Captain Awesome and the Theme Juice Brigade
For 2 players, aged 6 to adult

Dinosaurs are cool. I have always loved dinosaurs.

I mean, the day Jurassic Park was released was one of the best days of my childhood, and I still think it is one of the greatest films ever made (no matter how many people try to convince me it's Citizen Kane).

So, if you are going to make a game about dinosaurs, and then put those dinosaurs in a futuristic war with humans, and give them guns, and make those guns really fire, then you, Sir, have my attention.

Impact: the Battle for Wolf Ride box
Dinosaurs! Guns! Ned Kelly with a flame thrower!

Oh, yes. Impact: The Battle for Wolf Ridge is probably the most thematically awesome game that has ever been devised. Even the name is awesome.

Really. I'm not kidding here. Listen to this:

An army of dinosaurs with high-tech weaponry is invading Earth. They have sent out a scouting party, which has found an oil-rig in a location called Wolf Ridge. The humans operating the rig hastily fashion weaponry from their drilling apparatus, and prepare to defend themselves from their cold-blooded assailants.

If you don't think that's the best set-up for a game ever, then you just don't appreciate awesomeness. Either that, or you're dead.

I want to see this being made into a film.

As you may have noticed, this game had me hooked on the theme the moment I saw it in my local charity shop, and I had to buy it, even though I suspected the gameplay itself would be dire. I am that sort of a guy.

Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. While the game does not live up to the awesomeness of the theme (what could?), it is actually well designed. And, of course, it has dinosaurs with guns that really fire.

The game is basically a light two-player strategy war game, with the humans fighting the dinosaurs over a three-dimensional board. Each army has a leader, an NCO, four troopers, one large mobile gun, and one medium mobile gun. Each of the models is pre-painted, and the mobile gun units have guns that really fire! (Did I mention that, yet?)

Each model is well-sculpted, easily identifiable, and the paint jobs are surprisingly good. I particularly like the human gun units, which really look like they have been made from spare bits of the drilling rig.

Apart the models, the only other game component is the board, which comprises four pieces of moulded plastic with circular indents to indicate spaces where units can stand, linked by routes those units can travel. It looks great when it is set up, and is just the right size for the skirmish-level battles you will be fighting.

Impact three-dimensional board
The three-dimensional board.

Okay, so in terms of "stuff in the box" you do not really get a lot: 18 figures and four board pieces. However, there is a decent amount of game crammed in there, including three levels of play that range from starter rules so basic you might fall asleep through to rules that are surprisingly involved.

Impact rules book
The rules book, with three levels of play.

In the basic rules, you line up your troops, and then the players take turns firing one of their guns. First person to knock over all of his or her opponent's pieces wins. Sounds boring. It is. Moving on...

The intermediate rules add movement into the game. In turn, players move all their units, following the routes embossed on the board. You get to make twice the number of moves as the number of troops you started the game with (excluding your two gun units). If two of your units move adjacent to an enemy unit, the enemy is captured and removed from the board.

After movement, players take turns to fire their guns. Any units knocked over are removed from the game.

The first player to lose all six troops, or both gun units, loses the game.

This is actually a really fun set of rules. You get the enjoyment of shooting the guns, but strategically moving your pieces to capture enemy units is even more important, and surprisingly thinky. (Okay, that isn't a word. But neither is shpadoinkle. That's just the way life is.)

These intermediate rules are perfect for younger children, and offer enough options so that adult players can tolerate playing.

However, to get the most out of this game, you need to use the advanced rules. These introduce leaders and NCOs. (Yes, dinosaurs have a regimented army structure, and also have NCOs. Go figure.)

Leaders can capture enemy troops single-handedly (but still need assistance to capture NCOs and leaders), and at least one leader or NCO must be present with any other unit in order to capture a gun.

Impact pre-painted dinosaur figures
Question: What do dinosaurs have for lunch?

These two additional troop types, and a few other minor rules tweaks, offer the most engaging experience, and actually make the game pretty entertaining. Notably, winning comes down to skill rather than luck, as there are no dice. If you aim well with your guns, position your troops to effectively use cover, and spring attacks at the right time to surround and capture enemy units, you will win.

Impact pre-painted human figures
Answer: Whatever they want.

Of course, Impact: The Battle for Wolf Ridge is not without its faults.

For a start, the game is definitely designed with younger gamers in mind. It is on the light side for a strategy game, and it has a rather limited scope. You can only have a maximum of four troops, two special units, and two guns on the field, because that is all you get in the box. Furthermore, the small size of the board would prevent you fielding larger armies anyway. After a while, the game will start to feel a bit samey.

Another problem relates to the gun mechanisms. They are a little fragile, and if you are not careful, the wires can snap or come loose.

The biggest problem is that the game lacks a certain amount of focus, and therefore does several things moderately well without ever doing one thing that is amazing. The strategy element is good, but there are only limited options available due to the small number of troops and special abilities. Meanwhile, the dexterity bit where you get to fire the guns is cool, but with only two guns per side, it pales in comparison to something like Crossbows and Catapults. What we have here is a game that tries to be all things to all people, and ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

So, at the end of the day, is it a good game?

I don't know. I guess not really. But then again, it sort of is.

I'll admit. I'm surprised. When I purchased the game, I expected it to be really dumb. However, the ridiculous (but awesome) theme, is a bit of a smoke screen, disguising a game that has more depth than you might imagine. Okay, it isn't chess; but you aren't just rolling dice and firing missiles. You really need to plan your moves carefully, take your time, capture enemy pieces when they are exposed, and watch out for counter-attacks. Which actually does sound a bit like chess, I suppose.

But chess with dinosaurs. With guns. That really fire!