Monday 29 September 2014

Review - Arctic Scavengers

Arctic Scavengers

Arctic Scavengers
Designed by Robert K. Gabhart

Published by Rio Grande Games
For 2-5 players, aged 13 to adult

Sometimes, things just don't work out.

Sometimes, all the elements are in place for something amazing, but the result is less than the sum of its parts.

Sometimes, like a Rolex purchased on eBay, what you first perceive to be something exceptional, on closer inspection turns out to be a bit of a disappointment.

Take Arctic Scavengers, for example.

Arctic Scavengers is a game that, at first blush, seems to have it all. It has stunning artwork depicting a desolate, frozen world and the humans who struggle for survival within it. It has a simple set of rules that ensure you can pick up and play the game within ten minutes or so. It has a classic deck-building mechanism, with a healthy dose of bluffing and direct conflict thrown into the mix. It has a core game and several modular expansions squeezed into a box that is so modestly sized it even fits on my overstuffed games shelves.

Seriously, it sounds amazing. Right?


I'll admit. I was enamoured with this game. When I saw that the UK discount store The Works was selling off copies for just £10, I had to have one. But they sold out online almost instantly. I went to several local stores. They had sold out too.

With growing desperation, I realised that I was not alone in wanting this game. It had become a hotly contested resource, and I was going to need to use all of the tools at my disposal if this was going to be a successful hunt.

I went old school: I started phoning stores.

And eventually, I found a place that still had two copies left. I reserved one, and then drove out the next day to collect it.


Arctic Scavengers insert
Nice insert... Except it doesn't fit in the box without cutting the bottom off.

I had outwitted my opponents, and acquired this valuable commodity.

I had also, in essence, played a real life version of Arctic Scavengers.

Let me explain...

This game presents a near-future Earth, ravaged by a climate change that has brought on another ice age. 90% of the population is dead, and the few survivors desperately try to eke out a living in the frozen wastelands, building shelters, hunting, and hoarding resources.

There are no zombies. No monsters. No aliens.

Just desperate humans, living in desperate times.

For the theme alone, this game demands attention. It is brutal and unfair. It is shocking. It is like being hit upside the head with a spade. Violence and despair is embedded in the very heart of the game, from your ability to dismiss characters from your tribe (effectively sending them off into the wilderness to die alone and lost) to playing as a cannibal who is not opposed to eating members of the tribe when things get tough.

This game is an unapologetic punch in the gut.

And yes, when I first played the game, that theme drew me in. I suffered from snow blindness. But the game does not (perhaps cannot) live up to the theme.

At the end of the day, Arctic Scavengers is a deckbuilding game, and it plays like many others. I am not a huge deckbuilding fan, but I really like Thunderstone Advance. The problem with Thunderstone is that there is a lot going on. There are dozens of characters (which can all be upgraded to have different powers), there are dozens of monsters with special abilities, dozens of weapons, and limitless combinations in every game. That means every game is unique and exciting, but it also means that the game is a little intimidating at times, and sometimes certain combinations lead to dull or incredibly hard games.

You certainly don't get that trouble with Arctic Scavengers. There is a very limited card set, and almost none of the cards offer any kind of special power. It is an incredibly lean game. Almost emaciated...

Arctic Scavengers rules
The rules are clear and easy to read.

You start with a deck of almost useless refugees, a few scavengers, and some tools. Each of these cards gives you one or more actions or action modifiers. On your turn, you draw a hand of five cards, and then you use them to collect more cards. You can take as many actions as you want, but you can only take each action once per turn.

Arctic Scavengers Hunter
That polar bear needs to cover his nose. Fast.

One of the most common things you will do is hire a new character to add to your tribe, using the currencies of food and medicine (as money means nothing in a frozen wasteland). So, to hire a character, you simply discard cards that provide enough food and medicine to meet the cost of that character. You don't start with any medicine, so to get the best characters you will need to dig for some first.

Digging allows you to draw one or more cards from a common "junkyard" pile, and then put one in your discard pile. If you are lucky, you might find some tools or medicine. If you are unlucky, you will find some junk, or one of the refugees that another player kicked out of his tribe on a previous turn.

These are your main options for the first three rounds of the game. From the fourth round on, at the start of the turn the player with the first player token gets to peek at the top card in a deck of 14 contested resources. The round then continues as normal, but players have the option to set cards facedown in front of them to use for a skirmish later on.

After all players have taken their turn, the skirmish cards are revealed. For a brief moment the quiet frozen wastelands ring with the sound of battle as thugs with shovels charge into action. There is the crack of a sniper rifle. A scream.

Silence again.

And at that point, the person who has the highest fight value claims the top cards from the contested resource deck, secretly placing it in his or her discard pile.

And this was the first sign that this game was not all I hoped it would be.

Arctic Scavengers contested resources
The contested resources deck on its cute little play mat.

The contested resource could be anything, and only the first player gets to know what it is. You could turn up a card that instantly grants you five victory points, or you could get  a card that grants you three. You could find the ridiculously overpowered Field Crew, that gives you two digging, two hunting, two fighting, and a massive four victory points, or you could just as easily get the Wolf Pack, which grants you a hunting and fighting modifier (that must be used in conjunction with another card), and gives you no victory points at all.

It is absolutely possible for a player to win this game through dumb luck of the draw, winning all the high-value contested resources simply by having the right cards to win the skirmish at the right time.

Arctic Scavengers resources
Some of those bloody contested resources.

However, the biggest problem is that the game simply moves too fast. There are 14 contested resources, and the game ends when the last card is won. Adding in the three rounds in which there is no skirmish gives you a total of 17 rounds for each game. That just isn't enough time to build an engine for your deck, especially when many of the cards you add to your deck are drawn at random.

In most deckbuilders, you gradually build your deck. You use special abilities to trim the fat, and you carefully collect the cards that build into your game-winning strategy. In contrast, Arctic Scavengers lives up to its name. You are scavenging.

You make mad grabs for whatever you can get, because you don't have time to play the waiting game.

You randomly draw a bunch of cards from the "junkyard" and you just take the best one, which is not necessarily one that keys into your strategy.

You win a contested resource (hurrah!) only to find the card is a Wolf Pack that grants you no victory points, when you are already loaded up with weapons and actually want some victory point cards instead.

It is mad and maddening.

The game even acknowledges the limited time frame by allowing you to trash any number of cards you want each turn in an attempt to give you some way to control how your deck plays. You just ditch cards you don't want and then carry on with the rest of your turn as normal. You can even chuck your whole hand into the "junkyard" (where it gets shuffled in) if you feel like it. Of course, if you do that, you may not ever get enough cards back into your hand to make up the shortfall due to the randomness of digging, the battle for contested resources, and the short playing time.

Arctic Scavengers thugs
Did I mention the artwork is stunning?

Ultimately, the game is a triumph in terms of integrating the theme with the mechanisms. You do feel like a desperate scavenger, struggling to get anything remotely useful into your hand. Digging for random cards truly reflects the struggle for survival in a hostile wasteland. Fighting over resources like dogs over scraps feels real, and dangerous, and feral.

Really, I should love this game.

But I don't.

I just felt there isn't enough control, and there isn't enough time to gain control. Furthermore, the core game seems to lack real depth. There are a very limited number of cards available to purchase, and fewer still that offer any kind of special power. As a result, every card you buy feels a little bit the same: Do you want the card that gives you two hunting and one fighting, or the one that gives you two fighting and one digging? They are different, but... You know... Not that different.

Fortunately, the game ships with a bunch of extra expansion modules. They don't really add complexity to the game; they just add extra options. For example, there are extra victory point cards that get dished out at the end of the game based on what kind of tribe you built, giving you a more defined goal. You get avatars that represent your tribe leader and offer distinct special powers. You even get new building cards, that allow you to build structures to grant you in-game benefits.

Sadly, these expansions all suffer due to how short the game is, giving you loads of new options without giving you the time to take advantage of them.

Take buildings, for example: First, you need to dig for some medicine. Then you need to hire an engineer with that medicine and some food. Then you need to dig for a building schematic with the engineer (giving you a random allocation from four different types of building). Then you have to put the building in play with a number of cards from your deck face down on top of it. Then, each turn, you have to remove one card from the building (plus one card for each tribe member discarded to assist in construction). And then, when all the cards are removed, you can use the building for the rest of the game.

Arctic Scavengers buildings
Why build a pharmacy? Just build a medicine cabinet.

Honestly, there seems little incentive to go through the process of making a building, because by the time it is up and running, a good chunk of the game has already been and gone, and you are probably losing.

It is infuriating.

It is infuriating because this is so close to being a game I love. The theme is there, the streamlined rules are there, the relatively quick playing time is there. Gameplay flows effortlessly, the artwork is evocative, there is a sense of dread, there are tense skirmishes, there is a fun bluffing element. There is just so much packed into this little game to enjoy.

And I know there are many people who enjoy this game, or would enjoy this game.

And for a little while I enjoyed Arctic Scavengers too.

But I've spent enough time scrabbling in the snow for buried treasure. Unfortunately, all I've found are broken tools. The game has left me cold.

And now I'm suffering from exposure.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Review - Battleship


Designed by Dustin DePenning
Published by Cartamundi in association with Hasbro
For 2 players, aged 7 to adult

Battleship card game
Look at those guns - it's overcompensating for something.

If you're a family man like me (or a family woman, like me on special weekends), once a week you probably have to endure what I call "the big shop." You know, where you head to the nearest large supermarket, and spend an interminably long period of time looking for the cheapest yoghurts that won't make you spew, and the last bread roll that doesn't have a thumb print in it.

I hate "the big shop." It is one of the worst things I have to do on a regular basis, and I even felt that way when I used to have to change my daughter's nappy multiple times a day. Even after that one time I got poo in my hair.

However, recently the supermarket where we do "the big shop" was running a special promotion. If you spent £40 in one transaction, you got a free card game.

Now, that's the kind of promotion I like. Sure, it was done to encourage you to shop in store, and to spend more than you might want to; but as a by-product of that aim, the store was offering a way for families to do something together. Anything that promotes playing games gets two thumbs up from me.

To be honest, we did quite well out of the campaign. Over a month, we acquired Frozen and Mickey Mouse Happy Families games, and a set of Doc McStuffin Dominoes cards, all of which my daughter has really enjoyed.

We also acquired Battleship.

Which nobody has enjoyed.

Battleship cards
The cards.

This is actually a streamlined version of the card game Battleship: Hidden Threat, which is, of course, a simplified card-based version of Battleship. And if the thought of simplified Battleship makes you feel a bit sea sick, you probably don't need to read any more of this review. You already know this is a game that is going to sink without trace.

Here's how the game plays:

Each player has a set of coordinate cards laid out in a grid. Some of these cards depict ships, others say "miss" on them. Players also have a deck of destruction cards, comprising white pegs and red pegs of different strength values.

On a turn, a player uses a white peg card to reveal one of his or her opponent's coordinate cards. If the card is a ship, on subsequent turns, the player can target that ship with red peg cards. When the strength of red pegs matches the defence value of the ship, the ship is sunk. Play continues until one player has no ships left.

And yes, that is as random as it sounds.

There is absolutely no skill involved. You randomly reveal a coordinate card, and then hope you get red peg cards that are strong enough to sink the ship. There is no way to work out which card you should target based on previous "hits", so you literally get Battleship without any of the deduction element.

Battleship miss card
Yes, this describes the game perfectly.

What you are left with is a bland, random game. Okay, each ship has a special power that becomes active as soon as a ship is revealed, but these powers don't change the nature of the game, or offer any kind of strategy. If anything, they just increase the randomness even further.

Battleship card
The battleship card.

To be fair, this is supposed to be a light filler game for young children. But here's the thing... young children are not stupid. You can't underestimate them.

Any games designer that does is sunk.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Review - Claustrophobia

Way back in 2010, I wrote a review for Claustrophobia. Looking back at that review, I don't think I am particularly happy with it (although my opinion is largely unchanged). So, rather than repost that original review here, I thought I would revisit Hell. Please stand clear of the elevator doors. Going down...


Designed by Croc
Published by Asmodee
For 2 players, aged 14 to adult

Claustrophobia box

Have you ever been told to go to Hell?

I have.

It was one of the best boardgaming recommendations ever. Although, now I come to think of it, I am not sure that shouty, red-faced guy waving his fist on the pedestrian crossing as I drove by was really talking about Claustrophobia...

Either way, I am glad I booked my one way ticket to hell (and back), because Claustrophobia quickly became a jewel in my gaming collection, more than capable of holding its own against the likes of Space Hulk and Gears of War. And the reason for its success is a set of mechanisms that are so slick they probably taught the Jets how to dance.

In fact, this game is more than slick. There's no clutter, no fiddly rules, no exceptions. There is just game. Stacks and stacks of bloody brilliant game, crammed into a rule set so streamlined you get faster when you walk behind the box.

Here, pull up a chair, and I'll tell you about it... No, not that chair. That's my dark throne.

Only I get to sit there.

You can sit here. Just push the bits of bodies onto the floor. One of the trogs will "clean them up" later.

Right, Claustrophobia is an asymmetric two-player miniatures skirmish adventure game thingy. One player gets to control a small group of humans, and the other player gets to control an endless stream of troglodyte warriors and demonic beasties. All of these characters are represented with rather lovely pre-painted (fully assembled) miniatures, which are incredibly well done and look great on the board.

For the good guys (and I use that term loosely, because the humans have actually invaded Hell and are technically the wrongdoers here), there is a Redeemer who leads the team, two Blades, and two Brutes.

Claustrophobia characters
Blade, Redeemer, and Brute. They mean business.

The Redeemer is an interesting choice, as rather than being a great warrior, he is a priest who leads his allies with the force of his religious convictions. He is a competent fighter, but his main strengths are raising morale, healing, and guiding everyone through the darkness. And he has a big hammer, because for some folk, the way you deliver your message is just as important as the message itself.

The Redeemer is the lynchpin in a team that otherwise comprises condemned criminals, who literally have to go through Hell to win a second chance at life. There are fast-moving Blades, who nimbly duck and weave through the tunnels, and there are the lumbering Brutes, who can soak up damage and keep their allies alive.

This is far from your traditional team of goody-goody heroes. This is a group of doomed men who just want to slip through the cracks in the system, and a zealot who wanted to bring order to chaos, but somehow got lost along the way.

I don't think I have ever seen a game that creates such a strong metaphor to represent the journey its protagonists take.

And I am a sucker for a kick-ass theme.

Of course any heroes (or anti-heroes) are only as good as the villains they face, and Claustrophobia gives you plenty: A clutch of demons with a range of monstrous abilities, and a teeming (infinite) horde of subterranean beasts called trogs.

You get 11 troglodytes in total, and while I really like the miniatures, and I love the concept of a wave of monsters crashing against that small force of humans, I do find the trogs a little disappointing. These doomed men are supposed to be trekking through Hell, so I would expect the monsters to reflect that. But instead of monstrous, tentacled fiends, and damned souls, there are these generic goblin creatures.

Rounding out the evil forces is a single demon miniature. There is only ever one demon in play at any time, and this miniature is used as a proxy to represent any of seven different demon types (with the current scenario dictating which demon is available). It is disappointing to see one miniature standing in for seven distinct and imaginative villains, but it is an acceptable compromise to keep the costs down. On the plus side, the demons are varied and really change up how each game plays. Some demons hunt their prey, becoming stronger each time they draw blood, while others are gargantuan fiends that block the corridor, preventing the heroes from slipping through into the tunnels beyond.

Claustrophobia demons
Demonic beasties.

And while we're talking about variety, let's mention the game tiles: 32 of them. 32 tiles that fit together in almost limitless combinations to create unique underground mazes. For some scenarios, the board is predefined; but in many of the scenarios, the board grows as the heroes explore. They start at an entrance tile, and cautiously delve into darkness, randomly drawing new tiles that may be flooded chambers, narrow corridors where blood-hungry tentacles lash out from the walls, or breeding chambers where the trogs hatch.

Claustrophobia tiles
You could tile your bathroom with these things.

When I first purchased the game, I was slightly underwhelmed by the lack of variety in the enemy characters, and the very limited range of weapons and armour for kitting out the team of heroes (there are only six equipment cards, and two of them are duplicates). I believed there was a requirement for an expansion. However, I admit I was wrong. There is an expansion out now, and another on the way, but you really don't need them.

Claustrophobia cards
Don't look behind you.

This is a complete game.

With six scenarios out of the box (and more online), advanced rules for team creation through a reverse auction, and a massive variety of tiles, it is going to be a long time before you start to feel like you have "seen it all before."

And as for a limited variety of villains... Well... There may be a limited number of miniatures, but over the course of several games you will face trogs, tough trogs, fast trogs, burrowing trogs, frantic trogs, suicidal trogs, seven flavours of demon, possessed humans...

There really is a lot going on here.

And I haven't even talked about the mechanisms yet.

Here's how it goes: Each turn, the good player rolls a number of dice equal to the number of characters in the team, allocating one dice to each character. The number on the allocated dice dictates which of six unique stat lines the character uses for that turn.

Claustrophobia character board
Brute character board for tracking damage and dice allocation.

Things get more complicated when characters start to get wounded. Every wound a character takes blocks one of the stat lines. If you allocate a character a dice with a number corresponding to a wounded stat line, then that character is exhausted. He can't move or attack, and he gets a very low defence score for the turn. Furthermore, every time a human character dies, you roll one less dice for generating stats. Your options dwindle, the pressure mounts.

Thematically, it's perfect: Over time, your characters become weaker, less capable of fighting, slower... They stumble more frequently, they get lost in the winding tunnels, they panic. They are bleeding. God... there's blood everywhere. And the shadows... There are so many trogs. Too many demons. The enemies are remorseless, relentless... And what can men do against such reckless hate?

The answer is obvious.

They can die.

And there will be death. It is close to a miracle for all of the humans to survive the ordeal. Indeed, they are not expected to survive.

There is a reason these men are condemned.

In Space Hulk, the tension derives from the inclusion of a timer to add pressure for the marine player. Things move fast. Too fast. One turn can end it for the marines. But in Claustrophobia, you get to see in agonising detail as your team gets picked apart.

At the start of the game, the heroes are strong and the trogs are weak. Over time, little injuries stack up. The heroes begin to weaken, but the army of trogs grows ever stronger. The scales balance, and then slowly... terrifyingly... inevitably... they tip.

The tables turn.

First your heroes take a few wounds, then they begin to bleed out. Someone becomes exhausted. He collapses, with the sound of approaching trogs ringing in his ears.

He begs the others not to leave him behind.

But they cannot stay. Not here.

Not in Hell.

Every moment wasted brings them closer to failure, and so they press on, leaving their fallen colleague to the clamouring masses of the troglodyte horde.

It is horrible to watch as your small force of humans gets eroded. Horrible, and magnificent. You really start to invest in your characters. It actually hurts when you lose one of them, or when you have to make that tough call to sacrifice someone for the good of the team.

Genuinely hurts.

This is actually one of the cruellest, most vicious games I have ever played.

And I've played Monopoly.

After the dice allocation, any characters that are not exhausted get to move, explore, and fight. But there are no grids for defining your movement here; there are no range rulers for figuring out who is in your line of sight. This game is far too streamlined to worry about things like facing and flank attacks. This game is far too busy being all kinds of crazy fun to let that kind of thing get in the way.

Here, a movement of one space means moving from one board section to an adjacent board section (revealing a board from the stack if necessary). If you are on a board section you can attack any other piece on that board section, and if you have a gun you can attack any piece on an adjacent board section that is not blocked off by a wall.

There are a few simple movement rules (no more than three pieces from each side on a single board, and you can't leave a board if you have less pieces on that board than your opponent does) but there is nothing complicated. The game actually pushes as many rules out of the way as possible, so you have a direct view of your opponent.

After all, this is a battle, and you want to look your opponent straight in the eye when you land the killing blow.

Claustrophobia redeemer cards
The Redeemer has powerful abilities to turn the tide of battle.

However, that doesn't mean this game lacks meaningful decisions. The order in which you move your characters is vital, as some characters never get pinned (the Blades), and some prevent enemies from leaving the tile even when outnumbered (the Brutes). You need to know when to run, when to stand and fight, when to explore a new tile, when to guard a demon entry point to prevent new monsters arriving in play, when to concede ground, when to play one of your valuable and ridiculously rare advantage cards, when to sacrifice a character for the good of the team, when to activate a Redeemer's special ability. The list goes on, and that's just the decisions you face when you are playing the humans.

The demon player has an entirely different set of challenges to face, and an entirely different set of game mechanisms to work with.

At the start of each demon turn, the demon player rolls a set of dice and uses those dice on the "board of destiny" to generate monsters or other special powers. For example, it is possible to allocate two dice with odd numbers to give all trogs +1 movement for the turn. Similarly, it is possible to allocate any combination of dice with a value of 12 or more to spring a trap and automatically wound a hero character.

Claustrophobia board of destiny
The board of destiny: like a menu at a restaurant that serves up pain.

Playing as the demons isn't easy. It may look like using the humans as chew toys is simple, but the condemned warriors have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and they have no intentions of going down without a fight. These are men who won't think twice about throwing a grenade into a room of trogs, even if one of their allies is already in there. These are men who will do whatever it takes. And a bit more.

And that's what you get with this game.

You get drama.

You get a lean, tightly-packed set of rules that allow you to create stories you are going to talk about long after you have put the toys back into the box.

You get despair, exhilaration, last-gasp victories, crushing defeats. And you get a challenge, regardless of which side you are playing. The demon player really has to work to win. It takes effort to evict the human scum from the tunnels of Hell.

Claustrophobia demon

Of course, not every scenario is evenly balanced. Some missions are harder for one side or the other, so it is always a good idea to play each mission twice, swapping sides at half time. There is also one mission that I personally believe is almost impossible for the demon player to win, even against a sub-par opponent. But that's okay. Every scenario-based game has at least one clunker in the mix, and while it is a little disappointing, it does not detract from what is otherwise a first-rate game, with stunning presentation, and far more replayability than you might think.

Certainly more replayability than I first thought.

If you like asymmetric, theme-heavy, beautiful, tense, squad-level miniatures games, there really isn't much more I can say. So, what are you waiting for?

Go to Hell.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Review - Space Hulk: Death Angel - Mission Pack 1

In the first week of September 2014, Games Workshop announced the reissue of the seminal sci-fi board game, Space Hulk. To celebrate, all this week AlwaysBoardNeverBoring has been running Space Hulk themed reviews in a feature imaginatively called "Space Hulk Week." In the final instalment, we take a look at the Mission Pack 1 expansion for the Death Angel card game.

Space Hulk: Death Angel - Mission Pack 1

Space Hulk: Death Angel - Mission Pack 1
Designed by Corey Konieczka and Andrew Meredith
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
For 1-6 players (in conjunction with the Death Angel base game)

Variety is the spice of life.

And like with many spices, if you add too much, you are going to get burned.

Don't believe me?

Just ask any bigamist who has to go Christmas shopping (Tony Ferrino understands).

Better yet, try adding the Mission Pack 1 expansion to your games of Death Angel.

You thought the game was tough before? Forget it. Add the contents of this expansion and you aren't just turning up the heat. You're blowing up the promethium tank and stripping to your underpants for the ultimate tan.

And yet, the truth of the matter is, this expansion adds very little content at all: Just 12 new location cards (including two objective locations for specific end-game scenarios), one new terrain card, and four cards depicting a new type of alien called an adrenal genestealer (basically, an alien who had one too many espressos).

So really, you are getting just 17 new cards to play with. But like all good spices, a little goes a long way.

The Mission Pack 1 expansion is the kind of expansion I like. It doesn't really change the way the game plays at all, it just gives you more variety and options. As the name suggests, it offers a series of new locations that string together in the same way as the original locations from the base game to create variable missions. However, you do not simply mix these locations in with the base game cards. You have to make a choice when you start: are you going to play a base game mission, or an expansion mission?

It is a shame that you cannot mix the old and new cards together for even more mission combinations; but keeping the mission cards separate is an acceptable compromise to get around the fact that the expansion cards are not of the same quality as the cards found in the base game. (The Death Angel expansions use Fantasy Flight Games' print on demand service, so the cards are smooth rather than linen-finished, and the cardstock is thinner. That being said, I still think they are really good quality; and they shuffle like my nan doing the Cha Cha Slide.)

Space Hulk: Death Angel - Mission Pack 1 location cards
Void Vault sounds like a cure for constipation to me...

The new missions work in exactly the same way as always, so there are no additional rules to learn in that respect. However, two new threats are swirled into the mix of an already pretty threat-heavy game. First, you have to face the terrifying prospect of adrenal genestealers. They spawn at specific locations, and basically don't stop hitting you until they draw blood. The other new threat is a terrain feature called a hull breach. I am sure you can imagine what happens when your space marines stand too close to that.

And that's basically it: two new objectives, numerous locations, and a few nasty surprises for space marines who think the base game is just a touch too easy.

So, is this an indispensable purchase?

No. Not really. There isn't anything in this expansion that is technically necessary.

But then, it isn't necessary to cook with spices either...

Friday 19 September 2014

Review - Space Hulk: Death Angel - Tyranid Enemy Pack

In the first week of September 2014, Games Workshop announced the release of a new edition of Space Hulk. To honour this occasion, AlwaysBoardNeverBoring is running a series of Space Hulk themed reviews. Next up is an expansion for Space Hulk: Death Angel.

Space Hulk: Death Angel - Tyranid Enemy Pack

Space Hulk: Death Angel - Tyranid Enemy Pack
Designed by Brady Sadler
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
For 1 - 6 players (in conjunction with the Death Angel base game)

You know Space Hulk, right? It's that game where you send a team of heavily armed and armoured marines into the wreckage of a spaceship, and then watch hopelessly as an army of genestealers go all Jackie Chan on the poor sods.

Yeah. I love that game.

Well, you know Space Hulk: Death Angel, right? It's that game where you send a team of heavily armed and armoured marines into the wreckage of a spaceship, and then watch hopelessly as an army of genestealers go all Steven Seagal on the poor sods.

Yeah. I love that game too.

Well, you know one thing I have never thought when playing either of those games?

I have never thought, "Man, I wish these enemies were a bit more Bruce Lee."

I may not have thought it, but someone at Fantasy Flight Games sure did, and the Death Angel - Tyranid Enemy Pack expansion is the proof: A set of cards that takes a brutally tough game and ratchets the hurt levels from "wet towel on the ass" up to "stepping on an electrical plug with no shoes on."

Now, I don't often do expansions. They tend to add extra rules to games I already love, and they end up overegging the pudding. However, the Tyranid Enemy Pack is an expansion done right. It is simply a new deck of tyranid cards that replaces the existing genestealer deck. It is completely modular, allowing you to swap it in and out without any fuss, and it does not change any of the core rules. 

(As an aside, it is worth noting that, as this expansion is from Fantasy Flight Game's print on demand service, the cardstock is not the same as the cardstock used in the base game. The cards are smooth, rather than linen-finished, and there is a small amount of feathering around the edges where they were cut. Having said that, the cards shuffle like silk, and they are still really nice to handle. Furthermore, you never shuffle base game cards and expansion cards together, so the difference in card quality does not impact gameplay in any way.)

The main purpose of the tyranids is to add some variety to the way the enemies act during a game. While the genestealers in the base game all do exactly the same thing, the tyranids are a completely different kettle of piranhas. Now, as you trudge through the claustrophobic ruins of the hulk, you are going to meet a host of different foes, each with a rather delightful and evocative name:

The Raveners, which get multiple attacks; the Rippers, which chase down marines mercilessly; the Lictors, which are sneaky b*stards; and the Hormagaunts, which may bring additional tyranids to the party when they show up.

Sounds like fun, right?

And it is fun, if you like getting the beating of your life.

Space Hulk: Death Angel - Tyranid Enemy Pack cards
The gang's all here... to tear your face off.

But if you're craving an even greater challenge, you can introduce one of the four new objectives that ship with this expansion. Just shuffle the four objectives and randomly draw one instead of using the objective locations from the base game. Simple.

If only winning the objectives was so easy.

You see, each new objective represents a Hive Lord you need to kill: A gigantic, ferocious, unstoppable killing machine with slavering jaws, immense talons, and a thirst for terminator blood.

Having trouble picturing it?

Imagine the alien queen from Aliens.

Got it?

Right, now imagine you left your powerloader at home.

Space Hulk: Death Angel - Tyranid Enemy Pack Mawloc
The Mawloc is one of the toughest adversaries.

Ultimately, the Tyranid Enemy Pack is an expansion for people who want a horrific challenge.

It piles on the pressure.

It pounds you mercilessly with enemies that are stronger, faster, and cleverer than the original genestealers.

It makes you suffer.

It makes you feel hopeless.

But then, it's an expansion for a Space Hulk game. What did you expect?

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Review - Space Hulk: Death Angel

In the first week of September 2014, Games Workshop announced a limited release of the seminal classic, Space Hulk. To celebrate, AlwaysBoardNeverBoring is running a series of Space Hulk reviews. We started with Space Hulk: Third Edition (obviously). Next up, is Space Hulk: Death Angel.

Space Hulk: Death Angel

Space Hulk: Death Angel
Designed by Corey Konieczka
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
For 1-6 players, aged 13 to adult

Space Hulk: Death Angel box
Compact, and perfectly formed.

It's no fun being a terminator space marine charged with clearing the alien infestation from one of the gargantuan "hulks" floating through outer space. You're clumsy and slow, you're out of place, you're constantly being asked to do stuff that doesn't make sense, and you're surrounded by feral creatures that want to give you a sound beating.

It's a bit like being at school.

In fact, the original Space Hulk board game came out in 1989, when I was still at school. Maybe that's why I wasn't keen on it at the time: Playing it was just a bit too much like a busman's holiday.

Over time I grew to love Space Hulk... You know, after I finished school, and all the therapy started to pay dividends. I learned to appreciate the tension, the sense of clawing dread, the terrible panic...

But there was always a problem.

Space Hulk is a two-player game: One marine player versus one genestealer player.

What I really wanted was a way to experience that gruelling terror with a group of friends. Or even on my own in a solo game.

What I really wanted was Space Hulk: Death Angel.

This card game comes in a box that is as lean and compact as the original Space Hulk rules; but that box is full of gaming goodness: 128 full colour cards depicting marines, actions, events, aliens, locations, and terrain; a punchboard of tokens; and one dice... One dice made out of refined evil. But more on that in a minute.

Space Hulk: Death Angel - inside the box
With two expansions, the box is pretty packed.

As you would expect, the game is a valiant (and almost entirely successful) effort to distill the essence of Space Hulk. In other words, it is an effort to put you under stupid amounts of pressure, and to make you feel like you are constantly on the verge of losing.

The back of the box says, "44% chance of mission success with 86% squad casualties."

To be honest, I think those odds are quite generous.

Death Angel is an incredibly simple and streamlined game, but anyone confronted with the rule book is going to feel much like a young space marine scout confronting his first slavering genestealer. The mixture of bewilderment and panic is probably going to be enough to convince you that coming to this floating graveyard was not your best idea.

The rules are baffling, badly laid out, and incredibly long (32 pages for a simple card game is more overkill than a squad of marines with assault cannons on overwatch).

They are also complete.

The rules are actually good; but if you just sit there and try to read them, you're going to feel like you stepped inside an M C Escher painting.

I really struggled until I actually set up the game. Seeing the cards in play, suddenly all the rules I had been struggling with made perfect sense.

And so, my marines boarded the hulk, and the mission began...

In Space Hulk, you spend a lot of time in narrow corridors, walking in straight lines, and trying to avoid flank attacks. So, perhaps it is not surprising that in a card game seeking to recreate that kind of environment, you start by placing your marines in a column. Some of the marines are looking left, and some are looking right.

You reveal a location card, representing where the marines are at the moment. Then, you place items of terrain, such as air vents and dark corners.

And then the genestealers appear...

Random card draws dictate where they arrive. They could pop out of that tunnel on the left, or from that vent on the right. They could spill through a narrow corridor, or emerge from behind a closed door.

They arrive in hordes, and then they start to scurry... The genestealer that spawned in front of your sergeant suddenly skitters across the ceiling and drops down behind him. The genestealer you had lined up in the sights of your flamer suddenly dodges.

The game is on.

You respond with fire: Bolters blaze, your assault cannon whirs, lightning claws crackle as you slice through the approaching masses. Desperately, you order some of your squad to adjust their facing to tackle approaching enemies that are sneaking up behind. The stuttering white light of the bolters illuminates the foe. And still they press closer...

All this is achieved through a simple system of card play, and a single custom dice.

Each player has one or more pairs of marines, and each pair has exactly three order cards. One card is an attack action, one is a support action, and one is a move action. You simply choose one action for each pair, with the only rule being that you are not allowed to play the same action two turns in a row.

Space Hulk: Death Angel cards
Two marines with their associated action cards.

The attack action allows your two marines to attack, your support action allows you to place a support token on any marine (which allows that marine to reroll a dice once), and the move action allows your marines to swap spaces with an adjacent marine, change facing, and potentially activate a special terrain feature such as a door.

Additionally, each action offers a special ability unique to the marine pairing. For example, the player who controls the librarian gets to make a special psychic attack when playing his attack card, and so on.

The design of the cards is exceptional, and really does create a lot of tactical options. Sure, at the end of the day you are making a 50/50 choice each turn (because you cannot use the same card twice in a row), but that's fine, because it's not just about your choices, it's about the choices the entire team is making. There is plenty to have heated discussions about, and yet there are never so many options that players feel overwhelmed.

It is an incredibly streamlined, incredibly effective, and incredibly challenging design. And that challenge is compounded by the presence of that bloody custom dice.

Space Hulk: Death Angel dice
Expect to see the "0" often; the skull never.

When you attack a genestealer, you roll the dice and you successfully kill the genestealer if a skull turns up. There are three skulls, so there is a 50% chance of killing an alien with a basic attack. That's not so bad.

When genstealers attack a marine, you roll the same dice. If the number that turns up is less than or equal to the number of attacking genestealers, your marine dies.


Just to emphasise the point, this dice has a face with a "0" on it, and caps at "5." So, if your marine is attacked by a single genestealer, you have a 33.3% chance of dying. If you are attacked by five genestealers, there is nothing you can do about it... You're alien chow.

And the dice hates me.

It must do.

It defies the rules of chance to get quite as many "0" results as I get. It verges on the ridiculous.

Space Hulk: Death Angel tokens
Support tokens. THEY DO NOTHING!!!

But if you manage to defy the dice for long enough, your marines move to a new location (by replacing the current location card). New terrain is laid out. Some genestealers chase after you, while some may get locked behind closed doors.

You press on. Ever onwards. Until you reach the objective location.

Here you have a special task, such as blowing up something, or clearing out all the genestealers. If you succeed, you win.

If you fail, of course, your helmet gets used as a nice decorative vase.

Death Angel is easy to play, easy to teach, but tough to master. It is exciting and tense. There are real decisions to make. And yet...

And yet...

Whether you win or not is only partially down to your tactics.

The order of the events you draw, the numbers you roll on the dice, the locations where the genestealers arrive: Every variable directly impacts your chance of success, and only sometimes does good play get you out of a jam.

It is possible to march into the hulk and romp home to victory without taking a casualty. It is just as possible (in fact, much more likely) that you will march into the hulk and suffer a horrifying defeat. And afterwards, you will review your performance, and you will realise there really wasn't anything you could have done differently. You handled the challenges as they turned up, but the dice failed you. You did what you could, but it wasn't enough.

And then you will set up the game and play again.

Because it's fun.

Space Hulk: Death Angel genestealers
Genestealers. Nothing to worry about...

Yes, there are times when the luck has to go your way. Yes, there are times when the actions you need to take are blatantly obvious.

But then there are the stories.

Your marine standing valiantly at the rear, hacking to bits genestealer after genestealer with his lightning claws before finally succumbing to weight of numbers. Your sergeant blowing the reactor, sacrificing himself in order to suck a horde of genestealers into outer space. Your librarian toasting genestealers with his psychic blasts before being sucker-punched from behind by that one genestealer nobody saw coming.

It's all there...

The heroism, the misery, the insurmountable odds, the last-minute victories, the teeth-gnashing defeats.

The essence of Space Hulk.

Monday 15 September 2014

Review - Space Hulk: Third Edition (2009)

In the first week of September 2014, Games Workshop announced a new limited edition of the classic tactical squad-based miniatures game, Space Hulk. This edition would be almost identical to the 2009 third edition release, but with a few extra scenarios and board sections. This is fantastic news for those people who have always wanted a copy of the game, but who are not prepared to pay the obscene eBay prices.

To celebrate, AlwaysBoardNeverBoring has decided that this week is going to be Space Hulk week. I will be bringing you a series of reviews relating to man's desperate battles with aliens in outer space. Starting, of course, with my review of Space Hulk: Third Edition (2009).

Space Hulk

Space Hulk: Third Edition (2009)
Designed by Richard Halliwell
Published by Games Workshop
For 2 players, aged 12 to adult

In my youth, a hazy period of time that was longer ago than I like to think it was, I owned a lot of Games Workshop games, or games produced in association with Games Workshop. I had Heroquest, Advanced Heroquest, Warhammer Quest, Space Crusade, Advanced Space Crusade, Necromunda, Talisman, Battle Masters, Blood Bowl... The list goes on, but I won't.

The one game that I never owned was Space Hulk.

That may seem unusual, considering how highly regarded the game is; but there you have it.

I think the reason I never really wanted it was because it seemed less colourful and varied than the other games I liked. All the terminators were pretty much the same, and they trudged through very similar-looking corridors, shooting a bunch of identical aliens.

But as I grew older, I grew wiser. I started to realise that Space Hulk is an immaculate game.

Yes, I said "immaculate."

It is a lean, muscular game with a stripped back design that exposes all the bloody guts of the thing and makes you root around in the filth and bile. It is a visceral, atmospheric experience that wrings the maximum amount of tension from just a handful of game mechanisms. Some might say it is an elegant design. It's not. It's about as elegant as a punch in the face.

Thematically, it is everything you could want from a science fiction game. Hundreds of wrecked space craft have fused together over time to create a floating mass of metal, infested with alien life forms that scurry through the husk like vermin. A group of terminator space marines infiltrate the wreck in order to exterminate the aliens, retrieve valuable artefacts, and most importantly, retrieve lost honour.

It was a bad call, Ripley. A bad call.

Space Hulk contents
The game barely squeezes into the box.

The theme sets the bar high, and the game lives up to it in every possible way: You create a maze of brutally narrow tunnels with modular board pieces, you grab a pitifully small group of terminator space marines with woefully inadequate weapons, and then you start your mission...

Your terminators are slow. Really slow. They have limited action points, and by limited I mean, "not enough." When turning to your left or right costs you one of your four actions, getting anywhere with any kind of speed is arduous and difficult, and making a bad move that costs you several actions to rectify could be fatal.

But why would you make a bad move?

Because you're on a timer. That's why.

Space Hulk tokens
The game tokens.

At the start of your turn, the timer flips. And then you flip. Your rational brain turns to mush. Your best laid plans suddenly seem impossible to execute. Even rolling the dice seems to take too long. So you scramble to get things done, desperately trying to move up to ten marines, setting up firing arcs, covering routes where you expect enemies to appear, advancing as far as possible... as far as you dare... while the sands drain away inexorably.

You form your squad into single file, and then push into the claustrophobic tunnel ahead. Here there is no room to manoeuvre; you have to continue, or you have to fall back. If you have placed the wrong marine at the front of the line, it's game over. If you didn't leave a marine defending your rear, it's game over.

You made your decision fast, and now you watch in agony as your slow marines plod through the motions, revealing too late - always too late - that you have just made a bad call.

Your marine with the flamethrower doesn't have line of sight because he is not at the front of the line; your sergeant doesn't have enough command points left to defend himself; the marine at the back... well, you never liked him anyway.

Space Hulk in play
Looks like fun, right?

And now your opponent, who is playing the genestealer aliens that infest this ship, places a small cardboard token on the board. A blip.

A small round counter, representing the readout on your marines' motion scanners.

A small round counter that could be a single alien scurrying to hide, or a swarm of aliens in a tightly packed mass waiting to turn your marines into confetti. Horrible, meaty confetti.

He places one. Then another. And another. Suddenly the board seems too small, and the enemy are too many.

One of the blips is RIGHT THERE, only a few spaces from your tightly packed smorgasbord of marines who are just waiting to get peeled out of their armour like crab meat.

It's okay. You're okay. You put one of your marines in that corridor, and you used two of his valuable action points to put him in overwatch. That means his bolter gun is loaded and ready, and if anything moves in his line of sight he gets to take free shots at it.

No worries.

Your opponent flips the blip to reveal it is a swarm of genestealers, and they spill into the tightly packed corridor. They move faster than the marines. Much faster. They get six action points each, and they get to make free 90 degree turns as they advance, allowing them to dart through the maze at terrifying speed.

Your marine fires his bolter. You roll two dice. You need at least one six to kill the genestealer, but you roll double three. You miss. Even worse, the bolter jams when you roll doubles. Your marine frantically tries to unjam his gun.

His scream echoes through the corridors.

The rest of the team need to push on. They must push on. There is honour at stake... And their lives.

Space Hulk dice
These dice hate me.

And if that sounds like something you would enjoy. Then you need to own a copy of Space Hulk. The fact it is one of the most beautifully produced games I've ever seen, with astounding artwork, thick cardboard tiles and tokens, and stunning plastic miniatures, is really just the icing on the cake. The big, bloody, meaty cake.

But wait. Wait.

There has to be a downside, right? No game is truly immaculate.

Space Hulk does indeed have faults.

For a start, you need to assemble the miniatures (and paint them if you want). I enjoy modelling and painting, so this isn't a problem for me (although my set is still unpainted after five years); but if you just want to break open the shrink wrap and play the game, better think again.

Space Hulk librarian
Terminator marines are cool.

While the miniatures are fantastic, they are also a bit cumbersome to use at times. For example, it is vitally important to know which direction miniatures are facing, but with the dynamic poses of the marines, this is not always easy. To be fair, I never had this problem (the rules state that where the miniature is looking represents the front of the model), but it is a fair criticism that the facing of each miniature is not as immediately obvious as it really should be.

Space Hulk Sargeant
Which way, exactly, am I going?

The genestealers might bother some people too. In older editions of Space Hulk, the genestealers tended to get their limbs tangled up during play. This time around, Games Workshop tried to minimise that problem by sculpting the genestealers at different heights and in different poses. Some of them are towering over the board on pillars, while others are bursting up through the floor. I think this is neat; but some people do not like the look of a genestealer running around dragging a piece of the ship with it.

Space Hulk genestealer
He looks friendly enough... Shall we ask for directions?

And to be fair, some of the genestealer miniatures are a bit whacky. Four of them have bad sculpts and they only have three arms instead of four; and one of them looks like he is having fun sexy time with an iron girder.

Speaking of genestealers; playing as the aliens isn't anywhere near as fun as playing as the marines. Genestealers are all the same, with the exception of a boss monster called the Brood Lord, so options on any turn are sometimes limited. I enjoy the challenge of playing the genestealers, figuring out when to reveal blips, amassing my troops, and then watching the marine player panic. However, there is no denying that the marine player has more to do, and more to stress about.

Space Hulk Brood Lord
That's a nice collection of skulls you have there.

And then there are the scenarios... Some of them are completely one-sided, making them a real challenge for one player (and one of them is basically broken, making it impossible for the marine player to lose). This makes it almost essential to swap sides after playing, so the other player gets to see what it is like when the shoe is on the other foot.

And that's it. If those things don't sound like things that would bother you, I think you should try this game out. In fact, I truly recommend Space Hulk to anyone who likes tense, atmospheric, puzzle-like games with lean rules and a strong science fiction theme.

Of course, some people might just refuse to buy it because... you know... Games Workshop.

Yeah, I couldn't really sign off without addressing the big faceless corporation in the room.

A lot of people dislike Games Workshop. A lot of people hate Games Workshop.

I don't.

I do believe they make very bad decisions. Often.

I believe they have lost touch, and I believe they are struggling. They built an empire that anyone would be proud of, and some of the richest, craziest fantasy and science fiction settings in gaming history. I would love to buy games in those worlds; but it just isn't possible most of the time. When they bother to release a board game, like Space Hulk, I buy it. The rest of the time, I just ignore them, and leave them sitting in their ivory towers making stupid mistakes, while their forward-thinking rivals gobble up the market share.

So no, I don't hate Games Workshop. If anything, I pity them.

Space Hulk librarian cose
The detail on the miniatures is exquisite.

In some ways, the company reminds me of those terminator marines, trudging through the shattered hulks. They are slow moving, set in their ways, and totally dedicated to a dying order. And as they advance relentlessly, their faster, smaller, more agile opponents swell in numbers, and occasionally make sneak attacks. One by one, the terminators fall, and their mission becomes more desperate. They want to turn back... They need to turn back... But the corridor is long, and they have travelled far along it.

And so they press on into darkness.

We all know how that story ends.

It ends with a jammed bolter, and radio static.

Sunday 14 September 2014

I Love a Good Bargain

Coin Age

I love a bargain. I'm one of those people who buys an extra bottle of milk he doesn't need, just because it's "buy one, get one half price." There's nothing quite like the satisfaction of kicking back with a long, cool glass of slightly gone-off milk, knowing you got it for marginally less than the usual sticker price.

My love of bargains explains why I spend so much time in charity shops searching for that elusive copy of Heroquest, and an equal amount of time in Poundland, hoping there might be some discontinued card game that has somehow turned up among all the broken toys and blind-packaged oddities.

And my love of bargains is why I bought Coin Age.

Coin Age is one of those games that came into existence following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

(You know, Kickstarter: that site where you pay a load of money and then, at an unspecified time in the future, someone sends you a box of disappointment.)

Normally, when I back something on Kickstarter I am pretty excited about the prospect of receiving it. Coin Age was the exception. I backed it solely because you could get the game delivered to your door for just $3. Okay, I paid $5, which was the suggested minimum amount, but I didn't have to... I love a bargain, but I'm not an asshole.

So, I dropped my $5, and then pretty much forgot all about this game. Which is just as well, because it was delayed by about six months. If I had been waiting expectantly for its arrival, I might have been a bit annoyed.

Then, this Saturday, after I had spent the day painting a garden fence (it was a big fence), I came into the house to find the postman had dropped off a little envelope with Coin Age printed on the front. Which was a nice surprise.

Coin Age envelope
Postman's been.

And it's pretty cool considering what I paid.

Inside the envelope there is a plastic ziplock bag, a rule sheet, two punchboards of tokens (for people who don't want to play the game with real money), four sticker sheets (for people who fancy defacing their pocket change), two double-sided game boards the size of playing cards, and one game board made in plastic so you can slip it in your credit card wallet.

Coin Age game boards
Isle Oyou... Get it?... I'LL OWE YOU! HAHAHAHA!

I admit, I wasn't quite as excited opening this as I was receiving my two Dark Darker Darkest Kickstarter boxes, but that is hardly surprising.

But yeah... It's all really nice. The punchboards are relatively thick, the game boards are good quality and nicely printed, and the rules are clear.

Coin Age tokens
Money money money...

The game itself is a simple area control game, but it looks like it has some good strategy for such a compact title. I'm not going to review the game just yet, because I haven't played it. But I should be able to get some games in with Mrs Never Boring soon.

So, until then, I guess that's all I have to say.

Now, you'll have to excuse me. I left some milk out, and I really should go drink it...