Tag: board games (page 2 of 3)

2013: The Best

Courtesy Irrational Games

This is the season for Top 5 or Top 10 lists. Games or films or books or toys – people like to rank what was best for the year, and find out how those ranking stack up against others.

You may have noticed that I’m not really doing that. It’s hard to pick just one thing from among the various pools of entertainment into which I dip, but things I’m still thinking about, and enjoying thinking about, in this late part of the year are definitely worth discussing, if not mentioning. So, without further ado, here are the best entertainment experiences I had in 2013.

Best Video Game – Bioshock Infinite

I want to mention Hearthstone at least in passing. Blizzard’s computerized CCG is an absolute blast and challenge to play, with a surprising amount of depth and bursting with variety. The monetization system makes a great deal of sense, and it’s one I don’t mind at all. However, as much as I enjoy playing it, it wasn’t the best game I’ve played that came out in 2013. That honor goes to Bioshock Infinite.

While the combat isn’t necessarily ground-breaking, which can be a major blow to a first-person shooter, the story and its presentation are what keep this game in my mind long months after its release. The fact that the story is less about gritty, hard-boiled everyman Booker DeWitt and more about Elizabeth and her plight is, to me, a sign that storytelling in games is moving in the right direction. The ‘Burial At Sea’ DLC reinforced this, and with the news that we will, in fact, play as Elizabeth soon, I’m quite curious to see how 2014 treats the franchise.

I played a lot of great games from 2012 this year – Journey, Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead – but among the games that came out in 2013 that I actually played, Bioshock Infinite takes the prize.

Best Board Game – Archipelago

2013 was the year I got back into board gaming in a big way. I started building my own collection, I had design ideas and gave feedback to others, and I continue to espouse that there’s more to board games than staid, stale standbys like Monopoly, Clue, and Risk. I’ve played a lot of games with hidden roles (Avalon, Coup, Battlestar Galactica) and several cooperative games (Pandemic, Elder Sign, Escape: The Curse of the Temple), but one game that’s stood out in my mind since I started this endeavour is Christophe Boelinger’s Archipelago.

The best way I can describe Archipelago is “Settlers of Catan meets Twilight Imperium where everyone sort of works together but not really”. I love its expanding scope and constant need for players to cooperate to keep ahead of a loss, but also allows subtle plays through worker placement mechanics and hidden objectives. Its gameplay is much deeper and less random than Settlers, and it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to play as Twilight Imperium. As much as I adore a deep and rich space opera universe in which I can take an active role and vie with other players for dominance through diplomacy, trade, and treachery as well as straight-up space combat, I also like to play a game that takes less than an entire day. Archipelago hits all of the right notes in just about perfect harmony, and on top of not being able to recommend it highly enough, it’s the best board game I’ve played in 2013.

Best Book – The Fault In Our Stars

Okay, this is where I cheat again. The Fault In Our Stars was published in 2012. And while I’ve read quite a few excellent books – and one particularly shitty one – the one that had the most profound effect on me was John Green’s New York Times bestseller. In world where a lot of people tend to look towards young adult works with skepticism or even open content, here’s an example of dramatic, involving, romantic young adult fiction done absolutely right.

Green paces his story just right, fleshes out realistic and endearing characters, and invokes our sympathy and support without pandering, writing down to his audience, or relying on cheap tricks or narrative slight of hand. It’s a fantastic read and extremely well-written. I feel like I’m going to be repeating my review of the book a great deal, so here’s a link to that. And here’s a link to buy the book on Amazon.

Best Film – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Apparently, 2013 was saving the best for last. None of the films I’ve seen this year were truly awful (again, I avoided certain ones deliberately), there were only a couple of disappointments, a few surprises, but for the most part, I’d say the movies of the year were “good, but not fantastic.” I like that I’m seeing more character-focused storytelling, more investment in world-building, and comic relief that doesn’t feel too forced. However, the experience in cinemas that excited me the most, involved me the most, and blew me away the most was definitely The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

There’s so much I like about this film. Thorin as a noble, dignified dwarf reminds me of why I like them so much in Middle-Earth, in Dragon Age, and even in World of Warcraft. Bilbo Baggins is shown truly coming into his own and still employing his brain and wits as much as his sword. Gandalf and Radagast working together always makes me smile. The world feels expanded and deepend with stops like Beorn’s house and Laketown. And Smaug. Smaug. I really don’t have to say anything else, do I? It’s my movie of the year and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again.

There you have it! 2013, all wrapped up. I’m interested to see what the year ahead brings, in many ways. I hope you all have had a safe, warm, and rewarding holiday, and are ready to ring in the new year. I know I am.

Let’s Get Together

A sample setup of Archipelago. Sort of.

I’m finding more and more that the games that I truly enjoy playing with other people aren’t necessarily straight-up competitions. Oh, I still enjoy a good game of Magic, don’t get me wrong. And Blizzard’s collectible game Hearthstone scratches that particular itch while having a purchase system that makes you want to buy packs to both explore and collect, not just to “buy power” as you can in other free-to-play games. But with JayCon approaching, I figured I’d gather up the games I plan on taking which might get played, and I noticed that all of them have at least some level of cooperation.

Both Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Elder Sign are fully cooperative, with players rolling dice together to overcome the obstacles presented by the game. Elder Sign is perhaps best described (if somewhat derogatorily) as “Arkham-themed Yahtzee”. Players are investigators in an old museum whose exhibits are making it easier for some sort of horrific elder god to awaken. The investigators must gather the mystical signs and defeat monsters to prevent the end of the world. There is a ticking clock, and investigators have limited amounts of stamina and sanity. Escape, on the other hand, is a game played in real time. Instead of taking it in turns to explore the temple, battle its curses, and unearth its treasures while looking for the exit, players move and act as fast as they can roll their dice. The game comes with a soundtrack, which both provides atmosphere and audio cues as to when players must race for the safe room before losing one of their dice permanently. It’s a great, intense little burst of fun and adventure that only takes ten minutes to play, and it’s even fun to take on solo.

I’m sure some people are tired of me going on about The Resistance: Avalon and Battlestar Galactica, cooperative games with hidden threats. Player cooperation is not so much encouraged as demanded, and the fact that one or more players are intentionally deceiving the others adds an entirely new wrinkle to the gameplay. It’s entirely possible that two completely different levels of cooperation are going on simultaneously, all without direct communication, and that makes for a great time with friends who you may end up resenting because they were so good at fooling you. But perhaps the game I’m most eager to play (or play more of, I tried it out Tuesday night) is Archipelago.

I don’t have enough experience with the game to write up a full review, but the game is fantastic. It takes a series of various game mechanics – player bidding, worker placement, card drafting, and so on – and chains them together into a rotating arrangement of ever-evolving depth and complexity. From a relatively simple starting point, just a couple of turns in, the game explodes with choices and challenges. Each turn sees a problem on the islands that must be overcome through a combined effort of everyone involved… but not everyone has to participate. In addition to all of its other systems, Archipelago gives each player a personal, private objective. This could be as simple as having the most money or building the most churches, but it could also be supporting the natives in a war for independence. The fact that the players do not know what each other’s objectives are, and can interpret the actions of an obstinate player in multiple ways, lends even more depth and nuance to a game that is already keeping several plates spinning at once. I’m very curious to see how the game players with more than two players, especially if one is aggressive and ambitious, or if one is manipulative and keen to whatever fears may be sweeping the islands at any given moment.

Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to this weekend. Be it rolling dice, dealing cards, or buying local beef to export pineapples to Europe, it’s going to be a great time at the tables.

The Hidden Threats

Courtesy Universal Pictures

There are many board games where all of your information is public. Monopoly players can see just how badly they’re boned with a glance around the table. Many other games prefer to keep a player’s information hidden. In any classic card game, from poker to rummy, it can be difficult to determine how good or bad the hand of an opponent is at any given time. Some games mix an element of the unknown into their gameplay. Lords of Waterdeep keeps the true identity of its players hidden until the very end, as does Archipelago from what I understand. And then there are the games where hidden information and deception are a focal point of gameplay, a system without which the game could not operate at all.

I’ve recently been playing Mascarade at lunch with the dayjob crew. Technically a party game, Mascarade distributes a number of role cards to its players, each with an ability to earn gold coins from the stockpile in the middle. Some, like the King and Queen, generate wealth on their own, while others, such as the Bishop and the Thief, take that wealth from other players. Not only are these roles hidden from all players, but the main action of the game is in swapping roles. The swaps happen out of sight of all players, as the swapping player must execute the swap under the table. A player may not know what role they have until they either spend their turn looking at their card, or get challenged by another player when they try to use their assumed role’s ability. In addition to requiring deductive reasoning and a decent poker face, it’s a good test of memory skills as well: did you actually swap your Witch card for that guy’s King card, or did you lose track of which card was which while they were under the table?

I’ve mentioned The Resistance: Avalon here before, and it’s still a favorite of mine. Another game of hidden roles and deductive reasoning, Avalon‘s sole focus is on making the most of scraps of information gathered through observation. You have to pay attention, actively, to what other players are saying and doing, to either determine who among you are the traitors, or shift and deflect blame like some form of deceptive judo. Avalon adds the roles that The Resistance lacks to give the game an additional layer of deception and deduction: if the traitors can determine who Merlin is, they will win even if the loyal players succeed in their missions. It requires a great deal of concentration.

I think the pinnacle of this use of hidden threats may lie with Battlestar Galactica‘s board game adaptation. The game is, essentially, cooperative: players take on roles of the Galactica’s crew and characters, from hothead Viper pilots like Apollo and Starbuck to well-reasoned leaders like Adama and Roslin. Every turn, players will face a crisis that either requires them to work together, presents the active player with a choice that could sap the group of precious resources, or places Cylon forces on the board that must be fended off while the Galactica prepares to jump to the next system. The game could function well enough with just this system, but on top of this is the fact that one or more players around the table could be Cylons themselves. At the start of the game and at about the halfway point, Loyalty cards are dealt to each player to tell them what side they’re on. A player can reveal themselves as a Cylon at any time, activating a special power that can cripple Galactica or cause other kinds of trouble. However, an effective Cylon will remain hidden for several turns, perhaps working to sabotage a crisis here and there to make victory all more the difficult to attain for the humans. Savvy players must then try to discern who at the table might be a Cylon at the same time they’re trying to keep the civilian population safe and the Galactica’s supply of Vipers repaired, all while searching for the route to Earth. I’ve only played the game once as of this writing, but given how much fun I had in spite of the rules confusion and other factors, it’s safe to say I will definitely be playing it again.

Game Review: High Command

I’m a big fan of the Iron Kingdoms universe. This steampunk fantasy setting has an interesting marriage of magic to technology, several unique-feeling yet familiar nation-states, and semi-sentient steam-powered robot warriors acting as battlefield avatars for wizards who know how to handle themselves in melee combat. Until recently, the two roads into the setting were the two miniature wargames (Warmachine and Hordes) which featured finely detailed minis sure to drain your bank account faster than you can say “I need another warcaster to round out my army”, and the surprisingly difficult to find role-playing game. Privateer Press is opening more doors into their world, however, with the stand-alone deck-building game High Command, which I was fortunate enough to play at PAX.

Courtesy Privateer Press

In High Command, up to four players assume command of one of the factions within the Iron Kingdoms. The game does come in Warmachine and Horde flavors, giving players plenty of choices. The goal of the game is to acquire the most victory points by occupying territories and commanding the most powerful weapons available. Acquiring troops and getting them into the field is accomplished via drawing cards from the player’s individual army deck and spending them to acquire one of the resources available to that player. These resources then become part of the deck to be drawn later. Once in the field, troops, warmachines, warbeasts and spell-casters fight over the territories available in the center of the table. There are events that happen every turn that can tip the balance of the game one way or another, and one of those events ends the game. Whoever has the most points when that event occurs wins.

Each player begins the game with two decks of their own: a Resource Deck containing cards to acquire, and an Army Deck containing some basic means to acquire said Resources. The system feels a lot like Ascension but on an individual level. Instead of vying with the other players for unique heroes or weaponry from a common pool, a player’s turn consists of deciding how best to spend the cards drawn from the Army Deck to prepare for future engagements. There’s an element of random chance in both drawing from the Army Deck and setting up the Resources to be chosen from, which is mitigated by the ability to bank unused Army cards between turns and the removal of cards from the Army Deck each time it’s shuffled. The system is easy to understand for new players and seems flexible enough to provide interesting strategic permutations.

Courtesy Privateer Press
It’s nice to have big guns that are always available.

While Dominion only allows player interaction with certain cards available to all, and Ascension eschews direct player confrontation altogether, High Command is all about player-versus-player contention. Army cards deployed or rushed into the center of the table are bound to be opposed by Army cards employed by the other players. Each Army card has a strength rating and a health rating. Combat is a somewhat watered down version of Magic: the Gathering in that strength is directly compared to health to determine victory. Event cards and resources used from a player’s hand can tip the scales, a Warcaster or Warlock can appear in the field to give a one-time bonus to the encounter, and multiple troops can pool their strength to overcome larger foes. Much like the system of the two player decks, the combat system is streamlined and simplistic enough to appeal to new players.

My qualms about High Command are similar to the ones I have about Lords of Waterdeep, the Forgotten Realms worker-placement game. Veterans of deck-building games with more complexity and options may be turned off by the simplicity of the gameplay, and while the game can be good for getting an Iron Kingdoms fix, those with a keen interest in the universe may be more interested in either the pen-and-paper game or the wargames. My big bone of contention with the game is that it’s one of those experiences that can lead to a player focusing almost entirely on their own engine, rather than directly interacting. The pace of the game, especially in the first couple turns, feels somewhat sluggish. Players are dealing with their decks and resources and units, and it can be easy to focus on that rather than pay attention to what an opponent is doing, since your opponents are, in essence, doing the exact same thing you are. While I don’t think this is a huge problem for the game, it does bear mentioning especially if you’re introducing new players to deck-building in general or the Iron Kingdoms as a setting.

Courtesy Privateer Press
The art is high quality and the cards are easy to read.

In the end, I would lean more towards recommending High Command than not. I do feel that the direct confrontation and combat in the game make it fun and involving, and crafting your deck to execute your master plan can be intriguing. It definitely has appeal for fans of the Iron Kingdoms who are unwilling to make the monetary investment in miniatures. Everything you need for up to four players is right there in the starting box. Hardcore deck-building fans may be content with their Dominion set, but if you’re looking to check out the genre and like a bit of face-smashing to go with the card dealing and shuffling, I’d check out High Command.

Gaming in 2013

SmallWorld with the 'rents

The new year is in full swing. I’m starting it off writing by carving out writing time on a daily basis (for the most part, more tomorrow on that). But once the writing is done, and with Fringe done and Sherlock‘s third season not yet underway, what sort of amusements fill my time once I tear myself away from the allure of social media and videos on the Internet?

Magic Type <2

With the introduction of Gatecrash, you might think that I’m eager to get involved with new decks for Magic: the Gathering‘s Standard format. And you wouldn’t be wrong. However, I have to admit the format is beginning to lose some of its luster. New sets to Magic come out every few months, and when they do, your current Standard decks either need an overhaul or get scrapped altogether. I like theorycrafting and deck-building as much as the next Planeswalker, but the recurring investment is starting to bother me. I’d much rather make small alterations to decks I already have than having to keep build new ones every quarter while sinking money into boxes of new cards.

To that end, I’m turning more towards Modern and Legacy formats of Magic. I’ll talk more about the decks I’ll be fielding next week, but suffice it to say the new expansion does factor into at least one of them…

Warhammer 40k

Oh, 40k. If ever a hobby was even more of a time and money sink than collectible card games, it would be you. Your little plastic men are much pricier, your rules are a great deal more complex, a fighting force takes a lot more to prepare than a deck, there’s painting involved…

…yet I can’t deny there’s appeal. The universe is steeped in baroque, melodramatic lore, the disparate forces guarantee there’s something that will appeal to players, and I’ve played it and other wargames enough to understand the appeal of plotting out a strategy to defeat the enemy, preparing the right mix of troops, seeing how the enemy responds, and the thrill of adaptation on the fly. I have a Dark Vengeance starter kit sitting near my writing desk, just waiting for me to make the time to start doing something with it.

Soon, my minions… soon.

Video Games

I played a bit of the original PlanetSide back in the day, so I figured since it has the same name and is free to play, PlanetSide 2 would be worth checking out. There are plenty of multiplayer shooters out there – Team Fortress 2, Blacklight: Retribution, Tribes: Ascend – but this is the first one where I’ve felt like part of a major military outfit instead of a being out for myself. To succeed in PlanetSide, teamwork is required, not unlike League of Legends. And rather than approaching the enemy with a couple friends, you do so as part of a group that could include 100 or more fellow players. This leads to some chaos, to be sure, but after joining up with an Outfit and getting on Mumble with them, it really provides a gaming experience I hadn’t realized I missed. It feels like a worthwhile investment.

On the single-player front, I have quite a few video games left to finish before I feel comfortable downloading new ones. I kickstarted Strike Suit Zero and definitely need to play more of that before I weigh in on it, I haven’t finished Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and I have an itching desire to play through LA Noire and The Witcher 2, which probably means I should finish the first Witcher as well. At this rate, it might be a while before I finally play FarCry 3 or Dishonored, which is a shame, because I really want to play both of them! Not enough hours in the day, unfortunately.

Board Games

Here we have perhaps the rarest of specimens amongst the games I play. I live with someone who finds board games to be rather boring, and so my boxes containing SmallWorld, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Android: Netrunner, and Lords of Waterdeep go largely unopened. We do play Cards Against Humanity and Chez Geek from time to time, but I don’t think the others will ever really win her over.

But I will not be deterred! There are still board games I want to experience. I am a huge fan of space-themed 4X games, and Eclipse looks poised to scratch that particular itch. After Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop showed me how Alhambra works, I find myself intrigued by a game with such a pastoral theme that still has deep strategy and requires forethought and negotiation. I hear wonderful things about Battlestar Galactica, and the theme in and of itself is enough to encourage me to buy. And tying back into Warhammer is Chaos of the Old World, a game that will require me to scrape together three friends, no more and no less, who will probably get annoyed at me if I keep calling dibs on Tzeensch.

That’s a rundown on what I’ll likely be playing in the year ahead. What about you? What’s on your docket for gameplay and other amusements?

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