Wednesday 18 March 2015

Review - Rail/Road


Designed by Frank Dyksterhuis and Mark Wood
Published by Dr Wood Challenge Centre
For 2 players, aged... Hell, I dunno. Doesn't even say on the box.

I don't find toilets particularly interesting...


Man. That's a weird way to start a review, even by my standards.

Ah well, here goes...

I don't find toilets particularly interesting. I appreciate how all the little bits and bobs inside them work together to make a functional device. I just don't find that device particularly exciting.

I mean, there are many ingenious ways in which a toilet could function, but in most cases, the designers of toilets go for a simple solution.

A bog-standard solution, if you will.

And if I'm being honest, that's for the best. Most functional items should be simple. They should have a defined purpose that they achieve with the minimum of fuss. Sure, it might be nice at first if your toilet summoned a magical unicorn-riding elf, but honestly, there are only so many times you can clean hoof prints out of the carpet before it gets tiresome.

However, there are many products in the world that could be likened to toilets, but which should really be aiming for something better. Things that, from a mechanical point of view, work as intended, but which ultimately are a bit boring. Fast food, for example... Food that is indeed fast, and which looks a bit like food, but which is almost always bland, uninspiring slop that no sane person would put in his or her mouth.

And then there is Rail/Road, a game that could be the poster child for board game toilets.

Rail/Road box
Witness the arrival of Metatron...

Frankly, I don't even know where to start trying to review this game, which seems to have done everything in its power to take the fun out of functional.

Actually, yes I do... I'll start with the box art.


It is the most unusual mishmash of clipart I've ever seen. It actually looks like a prototype mock-up. There is a man in a hat, and he is staring at a woman in a hat, and behind them a derailed train is crashing into a car, and... And I just made the art sound a lot more exciting than it really is.

It's just awful.

The back of the box says Rail/Road takes place in a land "far, far away," and I suspect that could be where the artist spends a good deal of his time.

When you pick up the box, the first thing you will notice (after the hideous artwork) is how heavy it is despite the small size. That is because the game is entirely made of wood. You get 50 wooden tiles (25 railways and 25 roads) and a wooden board with a raised lip that holds the tiles in place.

Rail/Road components
Some motorists are about to have a very bad day...

Unfortunately, it is one of those rare products that is made with high-quality components yet still manages to look and feel cheap.

I have to assume the amount of wood in the game is the reason the publisher is called Dr Wood (which sounds like someone who should team up with Dr Hook to make a nice line in hat racks).

Anyway, the game itself is pretty simple, and yes... functional. The box claims it is a battle to connect civilisation, but really it's just a two-player abstract tile-laying game.

The aim is straight-forward enough. One player has the rail tiles, and the other has the road tiles, and they alternate turns placing one of their tiles on the board. Each tile shows a section of road or rail, with up to six connections, and when placing a tile, the only rule is that it must connect with a tile already in play. The weird bit? It doesn't matter if it connects to a road or a rail, and it doesn't matter if other connections lead to dead ends. As long as at least one connection joins up with a connection on any other tile, it's all good.

And that's pretty much it. Players take turns placing tiles, matching connections, and trying to close off sections of the board, which stops the other player from placing tiles there. When no further tiles can be placed, each player adds up all the connections on his or her unplayed tiles, and the person with the lowest total is the winner.

Rail/Road rules
Would you be surprised to find the rules are badly written?

Really, it couldn't be more bog-standard if it tried.

Everything works. It is a game.

It is functional.

But I honestly can't recommend this to anyone. There is nothing there that lifts it above the competition. There is nothing to breathe excitement into the game.

You just put down tiles until you can't put down tiles.

Rail/Road tiles
Dr Wood, with these tiles you are really spoiling us...

If you like artwork that is functional without being attractive, tiles that are serviceable without being high-quality, and mechanisms that allow you to do stuff on your turn without generating any kind of entertainment, well then... You might like Rail/Road.

You probably like fast food too.

And I bet you don't have a magic unicorn in your toilet.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Review - Claustrophobia: De Profundis


Claustrophobia: De Profundis
Published by Asmodee
Designed by Croc
For 2 players, aged 14 to adult

Tobias staggered through the darkness, his ragged breathing reverberating in the damp confines of the hellish place he knew now would be his tomb. He found a wall, felt its pitted surface with his bleeding fingers, and allowed it to guide him deeper into the winding catacombs. Behind him, the cacophony of wailing troglodytes grew louder.

They had finished feasting.

They were coming for him.

He redoubled his efforts, forcing himself to greater exertion despite the screaming protests of his lungs and the burning muscles in his legs.

There were lights ahead: flickering torches in the blackness.

Tobias let out a strangled laugh, almost breaking down in tears. The only light here was the light they had brought with them.

'Wait,' he screamed, almost choking on the word. 'Wait. I'm here.'

He could see twisted, jittering shadows in the flare of the torches. Shapes that were human, and yet somehow...


He paused.

A hand gripped his shoulder, pulling him into an alcove. He tried to scream, but someone clamped a hand across his mouth.

'Quiet,' a harsh voice commanded.

Tobias relaxed, identifying the voice even as lantern light swelled in the gloom, etching out the hard lines of the Redeemer's grim features.

Slowly, the Redeemer took his hand from Tobias's mouth.

'It's not them, is it?' Tobias muttered.

The Redeemer shook his head solemnly. 'We can't get past them. All we can do now is pray. Here, take my hand. We will pray together.'

'What shall we pray for?'

'We shall pray that we die well. We shall pray we live long enough to avenge our fallen brothers. And we shall pray for angels of mercy to carry us to a better world than this one.'

There was a noise behind them, and both men turned to see a tall, red-haired woman leaning against the wall. She was smeared in blood, marked from countless battles, and with a trio of trog heads hanging from her belt. Her expression was unreadable as she wiped black stains from her sword.

'You could do that,' she said. 'Or you could follow me.'

Tobias's heart began to race. 'Are you an angel?'

The woman hefted her sword, smiling grimly. 'Not even close,' she said.


Claustrophobia game
This is the artwork for next year's International Women's Day, I think.

So, here's the thing... Claustrophobia is one of my all-time favourite games. It's up there in the top three, along with Mage Knight and Tash-Kalar. It really is just a superb product.

When I first bought the game, I mistakenly believed the base game lacked content, and that it needed an expansion. I wrote a review saying as much.

Turns out my review was wrong.

So, years later, I wrote another review, re-evaluating my view of the base game, which actually has more replayability packed into it than many other games of a similar nature. It is far more replayable than Space Hulk, for example.

Claustrophobia may only have six scenarios, and very limited ways to customize your team, but every game is a tense duel between two players. The cards you draw, the dice you roll, the map tiles in play (even the orientation of the map tiles), the tactics you try, the equipment you carry, the demons you face... There are so many variables, and so many ways in which the game can surprise you with its ingenuity.

But of course, just because I realised there was no need for an expansion didn't mean I wouldn't get expansions when they became available.

This is one of my favourite games, after all.

Claustrophobia: De Profundis (which translates into "I don't speak Latin"), is the first of two expansions for Claustrophobia, and it is a very special little box of tricks indeed.

It is also incredibly difficult to review.

You see, De Profundis, doesn't really bring anything new to the table, so all the good things I have to say about it, I have pretty much already said when I reviewed the base game. In fact, the new rules from this expansion fit on a single side of A4 paper.

I guess, if you have a winning formula, you don't want to break it.

Claustrophobia rules
One page of new rules, for 12 new scenarios. It's a good ratio.

What the expansion does bring to the table is a bit more of everything you already like. More equipment, more demons, more map tiles, more event cards, and most importantly of all, 12 new scenarios.

Oh man, the scenarios... They are so good. They follow a storyline, so they are great fun played in sequence; but they also work as solo encounters, so you can dip into the scenario book wherever you fancy, and just see what happens.

And so much good stuff will happen...

But I don't want to tell you about it.

There is a certain joy in reading the scenario setup, and figuring out your tactics, and I don't want to spoil that for you by telling you about that mission where the demon constantly reincarnates but there are troglodytes that... Oh no. Wait.

I wasn't going to tell you that.

Claustrophobia map tiles
I think we're lost...

You see? This is a tricky expansion to review, because part of the fun is encountering all this stuff for yourself.

I can't even tell you about how evil the new event cards are, because I don't want to deny you the absolute joy of drawing one of the new cards from the deck, and realising for the first time how cruel you can be to your opponent.

So you just have to trust me.

You do trust me? Right?

Okay, here's something I can tell you... The expansion includes four new characters. Two Sicaria, which are Valkyrie-style warrior women for the human player, and two hell hounds. Four miniatures may not sound like a lot, but they really do add a lot to the game.

The Sicaria are bad-ass warriors that get customised with special skills at the start of each mission, in the same way a Redeemer gets customised with Redeemer powers. This means that even though you only get two new characters, they play very differently depending on the equipment and skill loadout. They are fascinating additions, and they genuinely give the demon something to worry about, as they can go toe-to-toe with a demon and leave the encounter carrying a brand new hood ornament.

The hell hounds are even more interesting, and not just because they remind me of that cenobite that runs along the walls of narrow corridors in Hellraiser.

Claustrophobia hell hounds
Smile for the camera.

They swell the ranks of the demon horde, and add some interesting new dynamics. Basically, in any scenario from the expansion, the demon player has the option of bringing in up to two hell hounds; however, every turn thereafter, the demon player must allocate one of his dice to each hell hound. The number on the dice indicates the hell hound's stats for the turn (in much the same way as with the human characters). If the demon player doesn't allocate a dice, the hell hound just chases its own tail, or rolls on its back, or starts humping the postman's leg or something.

This is a really interesting wrinkle in the rules for the demon player. The hounds are powerful, and bringing them into play is easy. But having to allocate each one a dice every turn in order for them to be even remotely useful really starts to drain resources, making it difficult to activate special powers, or gather reinforcements.

It's just bloody clever, and introduces exciting new decision points without changing the basic rules of the game at all.

Oh, and by the way, as with the base set, the miniatures are painted. However, I would say the painting is not up to the same standard. My Sicaria are particularly bad, with rogue paint smears on the face and clothing.

Claustrophobia Sicaria
"You are a strong, confident woman."

Unfortunately, the paint is not the only issue I have with this expansion. My other issue is that the integration of new components with old is not quite as seamless as I would like. For example, the new event cards are only supposed to be used in the new scenarios, and should be removed when playing a scenario from the base game. That is pretty annoying, and is made worse as there are no icons on the cards to indicate which ones are from the expansion.

Similarly, new map tiles and equipment cards are supposed to be kept separate when playing the base game.

Finally, Claustrophobia included a points system that allowed players to bid for control of the humans, and then build a force around the bid amount. This concept seems to have been abandoned for the expansion.

But that's all I have to complain about really, which isn't actually a lot.

If you loved Claustrophobia, I think it is safe to say you will love this expansion. It genuinely does what you expect an expansion to do: it gives you more of everything.

You may look at the components and think four miniatures, 10 map tiles, and 52 new cards isn't really a lot for the money. But if you did that, you would be falling into the same trap I fell into with the base game. With just a handful of new components, Croc has dramatically increased the options available to each player, and added plenty of variety.

And no, you don't need this expansion. Claustrophobia isn't less of a game through the absence of the hell hounds or the Sicaria.

But trust me, you do want this expansion.

You really do.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Nova Aetas: Inane Ramblings About Kickstarter

Nova Aetas

I grew up with Zelda.

I don't mean literally. That would be weird.

But I grew up playing Zelda. However, all that running around and bouncing into people with swords didn't really interest me all that much.

What I really loved was the tactical thrill of crushing enemies on the battlefield in turn-based roleplaying games. I think it's because I was a boardgamer before I was a video gamer, and playing too much Heroquest had ingrained it in my mind that all good games require a little grid of squares for working out movement.

The Shining Force series on the Mega Drive was my favourite. Interesting characters, cool powers and levelling up options, groovy in-fight animations, a challenging campaign, and dynamic music that changes whenever someone attacks. Man, I used to really panic when that music played and one of my healers was in the line of fire.

Best of all, when you look at the battle map where you move your units around, everyone does this little jigging on the spot thing that makes them look like they want to go to the toilet.

It's adorable.

Beyond Shining Force, there was Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, Valkyrie Profile... You get the idea.

Those games, along with other roleplaying games such as Secret of Mana, Landstalker, and (yes), The Legend of Zelda, sculpted my formative years. It's no wonder that, as an adult, I write children's fantasy adventure stories. You can see the influence of those games in a lot of my work.

So, you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled across the Kickstarter campaign for Nova Aetas.

If you don't know what Kickstarter is, it is basically a crowdfunding system. You give developers some money to make something, and then you usually get a copy of the thing they make.

I pretty much swore off Kickstarter after the unimaginable depths of my disappointment with the game Myth, but then Nova Aetas came along.

It's a pretty tempting proposition. Set in an alternative "Dark Renaissance" populated with famous historical figures and monsters such as fawns and centaurs, it promises tactical combat in a linked campaign.

Leonardo... Not the turtle.

Players select a small group of heroes, and advance through a series of battles, levelling up and progressing through a skill tree that is clearly inspired by many video game roleplaying titles. Part of the evolution of the characters involves hunting for creatures, harvesting the corpses, and then crafting your own fabulous weapons. You also get the chance to meet NPCs, and then hire them, or piss them off and fight them instead.

Choices made by players dictate how the story unfolds, and the available missions, and there are three different endings for one campaign.

Apprentice skill tree
The apprentice mage skill tree.

It all sounds pretty interesting, but a campaign means nothing without good mechanisms to back it up, and here I think Nova Aetas offers something special.

Each mission involves opposing forces on a grid, and every character has a certain number of action points. A special device called a horologium marks the passage of time (and the length of the battle). When the minute hand moves around to a space containing character tokens, the associated characters get to activate in speed order. They use action points to move, fight, and use special powers, and for each action point their token moves one space on the horologium. The character is then unable to act again until the minute hand catches up with them.

Now, players of The World of Warcraft: Miniature Game may recognise this as being similar to the u-base system. And it is, but with one massive improvement... No bloody u-bases. Man, those things were crap.

The horologium

Furthermore, the villains in the game run on an AI, so everybody gets to be a hero. I have come to realise that, when it comes to this sort of game, I really prefer a co-operative setup where everyone plays against the game, rather than one person having to command the bad guys. Of course, a good AI system isn't easy to create, but from what we know about Nova Aetas, this one seems pretty solid. Each hero represents a threat level, which gets higher as they do bothersome stuff like bashing in the skulls of the bad guys. While the threat level is low, the heroes get ignored, but as the threat level increases, they suddenly become much more interesting.

So, there is is... Nova Aetas. A "Dark Renaissance" tactical roleplaying skirmish thingy, with some very nice looking plastic miniatures, and what appears to be a good set of game mechanisms. The game has already funded, and the combat rules are available to read. That has to be worth a look right?

I'll stick a link...


So you can see for yourself.

Nova Aetas mage
Look. The link's up there.

Now, before I sign off, I have to throw out the usual warnings and caveats. I am not affiliated with this Kickstarter campaign in any way, it is just a game that I thought looked cool. I do not have any insider information. I do not even know if the final game is going to be any good. If you want to back the game, that's cool. Tell them Kevin sent you.

Just don't blame me if the final product doesn't live up to everything I hope it will be.

Happy gaming, folks.

ADDENDUM (30/03/2015):

Sadly, as the campaign for Nova Aetas progressed, it became apparent that the company had not prepared well. They were translating the rulebook on the fly, and had no adequate gameplay videos to show off all the interesting nuances the game promised. Eventually, backers started to pull out, and even though the game was fully funded, eventually enough people fled the sinking ship to defund the project completely.

It's a shame it happened, and I very much hope Nova Aetas returns in the future. Better videos, the beta rules, and more images of completed miniatures could make all the difference. For now, this is just an example of why it is so important to prepare well before launching on Kickstarter. Sometimes, the promise of awesomeness simply isn't enough to get those backer dollars rolling in (and staying in).

* All photographs are the property of Ludus Magnus Studio LLC. Reproduced here with kind permission.