Monday 30 June 2014

Review - Winter Tales

Winter Tales

Winter Tales
Published by Albe Pavo
Designed by Jocularis and Matteo Santus
For 3 - 7 players, aged 10 to adult

Gather around Children. It is time for a story.

But this is no ordinary story. This is a story of your own creation, powered by the gears of your imagination.

Unfold the board, choose whether to be part of the valiant Spring rebels or the oppressive Winter regime, and select your characters. Your story starts here.

But in which direction will the story go?

And that's Winter Tales.

Winter Tales box
I want to frame this box and hang it on the wall.

Still with me?

Okay, this may not be the normal way to start a review, but this is not a normal gameBecause this is not a game about rules, although there are rules. This is a game about imagination and creativity. This is a storytelling game.

It is also one of the finest ways to spend a few hours with your friends.

Assuming you have the right friends.

Now, before I go any further, here is the full disclosure: I have only played Winter Tales once. I wouldn't normally write a review after one play, but in this case I am making an exception, because one play is all you need to fully understand the mechanisms of the game and to appreciate whether this is the sort of game you will like. And trust me, there will be many people who do not like this game.

The basic premise is simple: Following the war of Autumn, the soldiers of Winter (characters such as the Big Bad Wolf and Snow White) rule the realm through fear, while a small band of Spring rebels (including Pinocchio and Dorothy) strive to fight back. It is a beautiful and bleak storytelling world, with some of the most stunning artwork you will see in a board game. It conjures images of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas and The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy. It instantly fires the imagination from the moment you unfold the board.

Gameplay is exceptionally easy, hinging on a very simple concept: The story is key.

This is not a game about winning and losing, although there are winners and losers. This is not a game about destroying your opponent, although opponents will be destroyed. This is a game about taking characters on adventures, and seeing where they all end up. If, at the end of the game, you have told a fun story, figuring out who has actually won is almost irrelevant.

But here I am talking about the end of the story, when I haven't even told you how the story begins.

Winter Tales board
I want to frame this board and hang it on the wall.

The main aim of the warring factions is to complete quests, and those quests are completed through telling stories.

And those stories are told through playing cards.

Simply put, if you want to do something, you need to play a card; and if you want to play a card, you have to give a valid, logical reason why that card is part of the story you are telling.

Want to move to a location? Then play a card, and explain how the abstract image on that card represents your journey.

What to complete a quest? Play a series of cards, developing a story that involves the concepts depicted on those cards.

Want to fight another character? You guessed it. Cards.

It is a beautiful concept, made more beautiful by the cards in question: Childish scrawls that players are going to interpret in different ways.

For example, I had a card with a picture on it that looked a bit like a tooth. So, when I activated Pinocchio, I said, "Pinocchio ventured out into the dark night. He moved silently, but felt sure he would be spotted. Waiting in the shadows at each street corner for a cry from the Winter Soldiers was as agonising as having teeth pulled, but eventually he reached his destination."

Where it gets really interesting is when characters attempt quests, because then other characters have the chance to get involved in an attempt to swerve the outcome of the story in their favour. Dorothy may attempt a quest, only to find the White Rabbit is waiting to foil her plans. Snow White may take a leaf out of her wicked stepmother's book, only to be confronted by a Tin Man, who has more of a heart than she does.

In these situations, players take turns to play one or more of their cards, and then at the end, cards are added up. The faction that played the most cards wins the quest.

Additionally, there are battles and traps to contend with.

Battles take place when a Spring character tries to pass through a space with a Winter soldier: The Winter player may initiate a fight, in which case the players involved alternate playing a card and spinning the story of the conflict, until one player runs out of cards or gives up.

Traps take place when a Winter soldier tries to pass through a space with a Spring character: The Spring player hides a certain number of cards representing the trap, and the Winter player has to play cards to avoid the trap. When the trap is revealed, it is successful if the number of cards the Spring player hid exceeds the number of cards the Winter player used. (Note: it is slightly more complex than that, but that is the basic essence of how the traps work.)

Winter Tales characters
I want to frame these characters and hang them on the wall.

All these situations are geared towards getting groups of players to create a tug-of-war over the plot strands, bouncing ideas off each other, and expanding and enriching the story with each new card introduced. And that is joyous.

Except when it isn't.

Because the entire concept of the game hinges on everyone getting behind the idea of playing to make a story, rather than playing to win.

My one game with my regular gaming group was a success, and everyone had a really good time; but there were moments that fly in the face of what the game is trying to achieve, and there were the vaguest hints of the shadows that might engulf gaming groups that are a bit more inflexible than mine.

I'll give examples. This game is really only explainable with examples...

We played a four player game, and that meant two players for each faction. As the owner of the game, and the only person who knew the background of the characters and the rules, I chose to be the Arbiter, a role that involves guiding the story, and stopping players from doing things that are not in the spirit of the game.

Now, one of the players in my group is pretty competitive. We recently played Pandemic, and after winning by curing all the diseases, he insisted we play on to eradicate the diseases completely. He wants to win totally. He's probably reading this... I hope he doesn't take offence, because there is none intended.

Anyway, this player immediately objected to me being the Arbiter, claiming I would swing everything in the favour of my team.

Of course, the Arbiter is an impartial role, and I had no intentions of using the Arbiter role to fudge a win for my team. But that situation is there: One person, who is actively playing to win, is also going to have to be an impartial judge.

We got over that situation pretty easily. I even said that if I had to use the Arbiter role, I would seek the agreement of at least one other person at the table. I think it quickly became obvious that I wasn't going to use the role unless absolutely necessary anyway. Although, having said that, I did use it in the very first turn when the same competitive player tried to introduce the Gonk droid from Star Wars.


Winter Tales reference sheet
I really don't want to hang these reference sheets on the wall.

Competitiveness did seep into other areas of the game once we started playing, and there were a few times when we had to discuss an alternative to the direction players were trying to take, and where it seemed obvious to me that other gaming groups might have come unstuck.

One of the biggest problems is that, behind the story, the mechanisms of the game boil down to playing more cards that your opponent. That meant everybody kept card-counting, and then playing just enough cards to ensure a win, sometimes at the expense of the story.

The other issue is that competitive players tend to be destructive, attempting to tear down the story that other players are creating. Rather than expanding on a plot that another character has made, such players attempt to eradicate the plot completely. For example, after Alice found a secret room to use as a safe house for her rebel friends, I had to explain that it wasn't really in the spirit of the story for another player to say the room was an hallucination brought on by Alice's madness. There was an even worse example of this towards the end of the game, but I'll get to that in a minute. First, I want to tell you a story.

Our story: The one my gaming group created.

It started with Alice trying to create a safe house in the asylum where she was incarcerated. She found a secret room, which she was guarding, but the Mad Hatter broke in with his guards and captured her. Fortunately, the Tin Man, who had broken out of the Nightmare Factory where the White Rabbit was experimenting on him to create an army of robots based on the same technology, was heading to the asylum to free Alice. He rescued her, but his huge weight sent them crashing through the floor into a network of underground tunnels where they were able to establish a safe house for the rebels.

Meanwhile, there was a rumour that the cold, dead remains of Dorothy were buried in the grounds of her deserted mansion (Dorothy was not selected as a player character in our game). The White Rabbit went to investigate this news, intending to exhume the body to parade through the town square as a warning to the other rebels. The White Rabbit also had an elixir he had brewed at his Nightmare Factory, and he used this to reanimate Dorothy's body so she would shamble around the town as a living corpse.

Grumpy the dwarf had fought in the war of Autumn, but he had been captured and now resided in the prison. But the sneaky dwarf had actually allowed himself to be captured, so he could listen in on the guards talking, allowing him to use his network of allies to spread messages. He had heard of a great artefact somewhere in the park that might aid his cause, and had sent word to the Little Match Girl. Unfortunately, Mangiafuoco patrolled the prison grounds regularly, and had got wind of Grumpy's tricks. He rushed to the park to intercept the Little Match Girl, but on the way he had to enter the deserted Puppet Theatre.

As Mangiafuoco entered the Theatre, he noticed a net hanging from the ceiling: A trap laid by Pinocchio. Fortunately, Mangiafuoco was prepared, and had a Molotov cocktail, which he hurled into the rafters. Pinocchio leapt down, demanding to know why Mangiafuoco had burned down his hammock (I had been bluffing, there was no trap), but Mangiafuoco was already gone, leaving the Theatre to burn, and positioning himself to stop the Little Match Girl completing her quest.

Sensing the final battle was upon them, the forces of Winter sent the Big Bad Wolf to the nightmare factory, where he seized the key that would animate the army of robots that the White Rabbit had made based on the Tin Man's designs.

Fortunately for the Spring rebels, the Little Match Girl had her own designs, and sought to bring a new hope to her people. Using her mysterious powers, she took the flames that were gutting the Puppet Theatre, and drew them into a single flickering flame on the head of one of her matches. This match was taken by the Scarecrow, who blew on it, sending magic out into the world. For the first time in years, flowers started to bloom.

And that was the situation as we went into the epilogue. Both sides had two stories, and the winner would be determined by the faction that played the most cards in the epilogue...

Things went a bit nuts.

Spring started the epilogue. Magic was floating through the world, and in Oakes Park, the great artefact the Little Match Girl had heard of was discovered: A beautiful white horse locked in a cage. The magic shattered the cage, and the horse ran free, lifting the spirits of everyone who saw it. Pinocchio and the Scarecrow saw it as a sign that things were changing, and together they started to rebuild the Puppet Theatre.

And then the competitive player took his turn...

Winter Tales

God was angry at the introduction of magic into the world. He sent down the archangel Gabriel, who blew up the Puppet Theatre with a stick of dynamite.

Now... That right there shows you everything that can go wrong with this game. It is out of character to the story, and it totally destroys everything that the previous player has created.

Okay, it was really, really funny.

But it was not in the spirit of the game.

Although it was really, really funny.

We all laughed about it, and then I suggested (as Arbiter) that we should go a different route. However, everyone else at the table said we should run with it, so I had to concede. Luckily, it was my turn next, and I had these cards:

Winter Tales

So, as the angel Gabriel blew up the Theatre, Pinocchio and the Scarecrow were blown clear of any harm thanks to some incredible good luck. Pinocchio knew the wrath of God was on them, so he dropped to his knees and prayed. He explained that all he wanted was justice for his people. And God heard his pleas, and decided to help. Using his Godly power, he animated the White Rabbit's army of tin men, and used them to crush the remaining Winter forces.

It was a win for the Spring rebels.

And it was a win for the game.

Everyone said they had fun. Everyone said they wanted to play again. And that's all I want from any game. If people are having fun, and people want to keep on playing, then I'm happy. Even if the ending wasn't quite what I would have liked.

And that's the thing: The mechanisms for this game are a bit clunky, and sometimes the stories don't go the way you want them to; but being involved in that creative experience is a beautiful thing. This is, quite simply, one of the best games I own. There is nothing else even remotely like it.

I have the original edition, but I understand Fantasy Flight Games has just released a new edition. I have no idea what the difference is (maybe there isn't any), but hopefully this game gets even more recognition, and maybe even gets some expansions.

Now, here's the downside: I am a writer of children's fantasy novels. This game was pretty much made for me. I was guaranteed to love it, so absolutely everything I say has to be viewed through that lens. Not everyone is going to feel the way I do about storytelling, and if you play this game with the wrong group, you are probably going to have a horrible time. Furthermore, finding the right group might not be easy.

And you might need to find multiple right groups. There are only a few cards in the box, 14 characters, and a handful of locations: If you keep playing with the same people, they are probably going to start recycling old ideas. Of course, expansions would help with this, and I would love to see some more characters and quests.

Winter Tales rules
The rule book is lavishly illustrated but poorly translated.

As for what I learned from my first game:

First of all, play with the Quests Rewards and Character Powers modules. These are optional rules that you can use if you want to. And you must use them. Quest Rewards give characters special powers when those quests are completed, and Character Powers give each character a unique ability. These are necessary to combat the negative impact that card counting has on the game. Basically, if you play without special powers, it is very easy to keep track of how many cards people have. Once you introduce powers, people start getting free movements, extra cards, bonus attacks, and more, which makes it harder to card count.

Additionally, cards (for all factions) should be played onto a single pile. We played our cards lined out, making card counting quick and easy. It is much better to play the cards into a single stack, as it makes it harder to card count and people will start to focus more on the story instead.

And that's it really.

That's the end of my story.

Now it's your turn...

Thursday 12 June 2014

Review - Blankety Blank Game

Blankety Blank

Blankety Blank
Published by Milton Bradley
Designed by...?
For 3 or more players, aged 10 to adult

Blankety Blank board game

I'm going to let you in on a little secret... Reviewing games is pointless. Really, it is. Because I can never really tell you if you will like a game. I have enough trouble figuring out if I will like a game, and I know me pretty well.

The truth of it is, many times a game is only as good as the people you play it with.

That's why my reviews for bloody awful children's games tend to be positive... There is nothing more special than playing those games with my daughter.

And that is why my review for Blankety Blank is going to be positive.

Sort of.

My wife picked this up for me in a charity shop as part of a Christmas present. She basically searched charity shops for months on the run-up to Christmas, so she could present me with about 30 games on the day. There were some really rather wonderful games in the collection she amassed, including Scotland Yard and Shing Shang.

And then there was Blankety Blank.

I am sure most people remember the Blankety Blank television show.

Basically, there are two contestants. They each get given a sentence with a "blank" in it, and they need to provide one or more words to fill that "blank." Then six panellists do the same thing, and the contestant gets a point for each panellist who gives the same answer.

Well, the board game is a pretty faithful recreation of the television show. There is a book with over 80 unique games in it, and one person becomes the presenter and is in charge of asking the questions. The other two players (or groups of players) are the contestants.

The presenter gives each contestant two sentences. The contestants give answers, and compare them to the six answers in the book to see how many points are scored. Points are tracked on a peg board with plastic pegs, and at the end, the team with the most pegs goes through to the next round.

Blankety Blank peg board
The peg board - cute, but pointless.

In the next round, the player is given another sentence, and has to fill in the "blank" again. There are three possible solutions, worth various amounts of points.

Finally, the contestant and the presenter both write down a word to complete one more sentence. If the answers match, both players get points. Then another player becomes the presenter, and another round begins.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that sounds pretty boring. I know, because I was pretty bored writing it.

And it is a bit boring. Worse than that, it is not very fair. You see, the maximum number of points a player can score depends on how many matching answers are in the book. If four of the six answers match the player's answer, then the player wins four points. That would be fine if the distribution of answers was always the same, but it isn't. For example, you might get a question where all six answers in the book are different, meaning it is only possible to score a maximum of one point, no matter what answer you give.

So yeah, on paper, this sounds like a pretty poor excuse for a game, and I really wasn't expecting much when I rolled it out at my recent games night. In fact, I rolled it out for a joke, assuming we would play for about five minutes, and then do something else.

But then a weird thing happened... We actually had fun.

I'll be honest, the main reason we had fun is because one of the guys in my gaming group suggested I should use the word "penis" instead of "blank" when reading the sentences.

Yes, I am aware that is incredibly immature.

And yes, the word he suggested was actually a bit ruder than "penis."

So, we started playing, and I read the first sentence...

"After two years of yoga, Paul was so fit, he could put his 'penis' in his ear."

Blankety Blank game book
The Penisy Penis... Er... Blankety Blank game book

Good grief.

"Josephine sneezed so hard that her 'penis' turned inside out."


"At the airport, as Jack was crossing the runway, his 'penis' got sucked into a jet engine."

I could barely read the questions I was laughing so hard. My eyes were streaming, I couldn't catch my breath.

And, YES, I am aware that is incredibly immature.

And I don't care.

And I'm not even going to tell you some of the answers my gaming group gave.

Blankety Blank is a pretty terrible game. There are long periods when some players have to sit out waiting for a chance to do something, and replayability is limited. And it has paper money. I hate paper money.

Blankety Blank paper money
Paper money. I hate paper money...

And yet, Blankety Blank ended up being a lot of fun. I'm not suggesting I can chuck out Lords of Waterdeep, Kingdom Builder, and Smallworld; but I honestly feel this game has a place in my collection. After all, it is nice to be a bit silly every now and again.

As for whether you would like the game... I can't say. But here's a test. Complete the following sentence:

"I think anyone who likes the Blankety Blank game is a 'penis.'"

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Review - The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul

The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul

The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul
Published by WizKids Games
Designed by Bryan Kinsella and Charlie Tyson
For 3-5 players, aged 14 to adult

The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul
Well, this looks like a nice family-friendly game...

Being stubborn can be costly.

Recently, it cost me about £25, and approximately four hours of my life.

You see, I am a big The Lord of the Rings fan, so when I saw The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul in an online sale, I was immediately tempted. Of course, I had read the reviews on BoardGameGeek. I knew it was a very unpopular game. I knew the component quality was low. I knew the theme was not well implemented.

I knew.

But I'm stubborn. I did mention that, right?

I'm stubborn enough to convince myself that everybody else is wrong, just because I like the idea of something.

In this case, I convinced myself that everyone else was wrong about The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul, because I really, really wanted to like the game. I was enamoured by the concept of being one of the evil Nazgul, and plotting the downfall of the Free People of Middle Earth. I wanted this to be a great game.

As I was considering making the purchase, I reviewed what other people had said about the game. I had an argument against every complaint.

I told you, I'm stubborn.

"The theme doesn't work, because the Nazgul are backstabbing each other."

Yeah, okay. But with a bit of imagination you can overlook that sort of issue with the theme.

"The component quality is poor, the board is ugly, and the miniatures are impossible to tell apart."

Yeah, okay. But the miniatures look good, the board is functional enough, and the cards don't look that thin to me. And those little cubes are lovely.

The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul board
What a wonderfully thematic board... For a game about cleaning portholes.

"The competitive co-op rules don't work because if someone starts losing he or she can tank the game for everyone, ensuring there is no winner."

Yeah, okay. But that is a problem with the players, not the game. If everyone plays to win, it should be a lot of fun.

"The text on the cards is really small."

I have good eyes.

"The main cube drawing element for resolving combat is fiddly."

You're just being picky.

"The game doesn't have a lot of interesting decisions. You just do the same thing every turn."

Just shut up already. I'm buying it. All right? Shut up.

"There are spelling mistakes on the board!"


Yeah. I ignored all the warning signs. Somehow I managed to convince myself that I could see past the problems to find an unfairly overlooked core of delicious hobbit-murdering goodness... er... badness. I convinced myself that this was a great and misunderstood game.

Then the game arrived.

It is not a great and misunderstood game.

Reading the rules, and then setting up and playing the first game, old arguments came back to haunt me.

"The theme doesn't work, because the Nazgul are backstabbing each other."

You're right. The theme doesn't work. The Nazgul were loyal to Sauron, and worked only for his benefit. There was no in-fighting or petty politics. They were wraiths bound to a higher will. And the less said about Sam Gamgee leading an army of Free People to destroy the Witch King the better. This is just stupid.

You're ruining The Lord of the Rings.

"The component quality is poor, the board is ugly, and the miniatures are impossible to tell apart."

Yeah, you know what, the miniatures are hard to tell apart. It's confusing. And having half the information you need for your turn on the base of your characters (yay, Heroclix!) and half on cards and player aids in front of you is awkward. And yeah, the cards are thin, and the board is not only ugly, but incredibly confusing.

The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul pieces
Here they are... Tim, Jim, Tybalt, Archibald, and Louise.

Those cubes are lovely though. I like those a lot.

The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul cubes
One of my friends got really bored playing this game...

"The competitive co-op rules don't work because if someone starts losing he or she can tank the game for everyone, ensuring there is no winner."

That's true, but there is an even bigger problem with the comperoperative... competerative... comperative... comp-operative... Yeah, comp-operative, I like that one... There is an even bigger problem with the comp-operative rules, but I didn't notice it until my second game. At one point, I sent the Witch King along with another player to fight a battle. The other player received some wounds, and chose to allocate them to the Witch King.

"Ha ha!" my "friend" exclaimed. "Thus I have backstabbed you to save my own forces from harm. Stick that in your halfling pipe and smoke it."

Very good play.

Or it would have been if it hadn't resulted in the death of the Witch King, which resulted in the loss of the battle, which put us on the back foot for the rest of the game and pretty much guaranteed we could not win.

Well done. Very good play.

This is a massive flaw in a comp-operative game. If you focus too much on backstabbing the other players, you cannot hope to win. If you work together to win, the bidding section at the start of each turn (which is the most interesting bit) is almost entirely pointless, and the game becomes incredibly pedestrian. Either way, no-one is having any fun.

"The text on the cards is really small."

It is really small. And there is lots of it. And most of the power cards players have access to have multiple abilities to select from. Waiting for people to read through all the options to make any kind of decision is agonising.

"The main cube drawing element for resolving combat is fiddly."

Damn right it's fiddly. And it's pretty much 90 percent of the game. After bidding for various things, such as extra units and powers, each player allocates a Nazgul to a battle. You then resolve battles. This starts with a process of flipping hero cards until you have a certain number that all match the location where the battle is happening. These heroes have special powers. The powers are boring, and I cannot be bothered to explain them.

Having drawn the heroes, players need to count out all the Hero (white) and Free People (blue) cubes to go into a draw cup. The players then choose their forces (green, orange, and black cubes), and add those to the cup. Finally, each Nazgul present adds a cute little cube with a Fell Beast icon on it.

Working this out takes forever. People play powers to add or reduce the number of cubes, heroes add or reduce cubes, things slide up and down on tracks, players count cubes and then double check what they have. Painful.

And what happens with all these cubes?

The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul more cubes
The cubes aren't made of wood. Which is nice.

Each player reaches into the cup and draws a certain number. Enemy cubes drawn inflict wounds on the players, and player cubes inflict wounds on the Heroes and Free People. If the players kill all armies and heroes at a location, they win the battle.

If you think that sounds incredibly dull, then you're thinking right. It is monumentally dull. It feels more like playing with an abacus than allocating forces to a battle.

The most offensive thing of all is that this cube concept is the main bit of game. It is the thing that defines the game. And yet the cube-pulling could be replaced with a single die roll, with modifiers applied for enemy forces, heroes, allied forces, and special powers.

Of course, if you took away the cube-pulling, it would be far too obvious that there really isn't much of a game here. Every turn you would simply place your Nazgul on a battle space and then roll a dice. Which leads us nicely to...

"The game doesn't have a lot of interesting decisions. You just do the same thing every turn."

Yup. Every turn you bid, place your Nazgul on a space, and then faff around with some cubes. It is utterly dull.

"There are spelling mistakes on the board!"

Yes all right. I admit it. I tried to ignore all this, but I can't. Spelling mistakes! On the board! Come on, WizKids, you aren't even trying!

The Lord of the Rings: Nazgul spelling errors
"Strages?" Really?

This game is a disaster. It has the dubious honour of being one of the worst games I have ever had the misfortune to play. In fact, it is the only game I have ever played where every single attempt to play it ended with all the players agreeing to give up rather than finish.

In the first game, we threw in the towel after a few rounds because one of the players was having a truly awful time, and I kept fouling up rules. The second game we played almost to the end, but quit when we realised the death of the Witch King and too much backstabbing had left us in a position where we couldn't win no matter what we did (we just tallied up victory points at that point to determine a winner). In the third game, we attempted the full co-operative rules, which feel tacked on, and which remove the blind bidding (the most interesting bit in the whole game). That third game lasted one turn, at which point we all agreed the game should never hit the table again.

Okay, some people will say I'm being unfair being so negative after just three (aborted) plays. My counter is this: I tried to play the game three times, and three times everyone at the table decided to quit and play something else.

That, as far as I am concerned, tells me everything I need to know about this game. There is no way anyone could convince me to try it again.

After all, I'm stubborn.