Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Star Realms

So a few weeks back, I mentioned Star Realms as a game I'd played. It's a game I've played both in person and online via their app. It's a game I like.

But it's no Dominion.

Several of my friends have told me that Star Realms is their favorite deckbuilder - and I just don't understand that.

Like most deckbuilders, players start with a pre-set deck of cards.  In the case of Star Realms, it's eight Scouts and two Vipers. Players also start with 50 life points (called "Authority" in this one).  There is a small deck of "Explorers," and the top five cards from the rest of the deck is turned up to create a purchase line.

The first player draws three cards. Later players draw five. During your turn, you play cards from your hand, either one at a time or all at once (most of the time it doesn't matter).

Scouts give you one trade (money). Vipers give you one attack.

You use Trade to buy cards from the purchase line (or from the Explorer deck, which is a bunch of identical ships). You use attack to ... attack your opponent to reduce their life.

Cards in the trade line are of two types - ships and bases.  Both of them are purchased to your discard pile (which introduces a timing element with some of the expansion cards - more on that later).

The cards fall into four factions, whose names I struggle to remember. Realistically, it's Red (who help you remove cards from your deck), Yellow (who help you draw cards and can force your opponent to discard cards), Blue (who increase your health and money), and Green (who blow stuff up real good).

Most cards grant either money or attack. Many of them also have an Ally effect - that is, if this card and another card of the same faction are in play, they are more powerful. They can also have a "scrap" effect, which you can choose to remove the card from play entirely to gain.

There are two basic kinds of bases, too.  Normal bases, and outposts.  Before I can attack an enemy, I have to destroy all of their Outposts.  Note that discard effects are not attacks.  So if you have three or four outposts with a total live of 14, and I play a yellow fighter that has one Attack and forces you to discard, then you still need to discard. Even though my one Attack isn't getting anywhere near you.

The difference between a Base and a Ship is that Bases stay in play until they are destroyed.  Ships are returned to the discard pile at the end of your turn.

Every time a ship is purchased from the purchase line, a new ship is drawn from the deck to replace it.  This means that you will not know from turn-to-turn what will be in that line for you on your turn.  You're also not restricted to one Buy.  If, somehow, you manage to accrue 20 or more Trade, you can buy as many ships and bases as you want until you hit 20 spent.  And you buy them one at a time, so buy one, see what comes off the deck, buy another, and so on.

The fact that the available cards each turn depend on your opponent's purchases and a random draw means that there is no long-term planning available in the game.  You can try to buy Only Red Cards or Only Green Cards - but if there are four Blue cards face-up in the purchase line, you need to decide what you're going to do. Buy Explorers?  You can, but a 2-cost card from any faction is going to be better than the Explorer. So you need to have fallback plans. And remember: The more factions there are in your deck, the less likely you are to be able to use those ally abilities.

Compare this to Dominion, where everyone starts on an equal footing, and everyone has the same set of cards available at all times throughout the game.  In both games, there is the random "What will I draw from my deck this turn?" issue, but Dominion has no other random element. You can look at the cards and come up with a plan. "If I have X Coins, I will buy Y," and so on.

For casual players, I can definitely see the appeal of Star Realms - as I've said: I do like the game. I just don't like it as well as Dominion.  If pressed, I think I'd put Star Realms in second place for deck-building games. Third if you consider Hyperborea a deckbuilder.

Its ease of play makes it a solid introduction to the concept of deckbuilding, so I do think it's a better gateway to deckbuilding than Dominion.Not least because the buys in Dominion being limited can be a hard thing for a player to grasp.  "I have 14 Gold, and I can only buy one card?" is a common question I get from new Dominion players.  The direct head-to-head combative nature of Star Realms is also appealing to a lot of players.

And yes - I know that Star Realms supports more than two players, but it's not made clear enough on the box that multiplayer requires two starters. Not only that, but most of the discussions of multiplayer suggest that you only use the Vipers, Scouts, and Explorers from the second box for your multiplayer game.

So, factoring all of this in, I think I'd give Star Realms a 7 or 7.5 rating.  It's playable. It's fun. It's fast. It's filler with a little bit of meat to it. Just don't look for some of the deep strategic interactions you'll get when playing Dominion.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

One Good Day

Sometimes, all you really need is one good day.

One of my online friends is in town for a few months, and can't make most of our regular Wednesday game nights.  So I decided to host it on a Sunday, instead.

Over the course of about nine hours, I played eight different games.

I started with Sun Tzu against Brian (who owns the FLGS). I really like this one, and dig it out as often as I can. After the first turn, I had zero armies on the board, but I still managed to win this one.

We then played Age of War. Three-player. Dice hate me, so I didn't win.  As we drew near to the end, everything was "locked" except for that one green castle. I had 10 points, Brian had 13 points, and Joseph had 12 points. The green one was worth three. If I got it, Brian and I would tie for the win.  If anyone else got it, they would win outright.  But dice hate me.  Brian won.

We then set up Argent: the Consortium, but, before we got through explanation, the shop got busy and so Brian had to break away to help some customers, so Joseph and I went and played another couple of games.

We started with Province which he described as "the tiniest Eurogame."  I dug it, even though I did crazy-poorly.  I think I'd do better if we played again, but I'm not sure how much better. I think this was the weakest of the games we played that day - but I don't know how colored that perspective is by my loss. Since there is little or no randomness, I can see this game getting stale, too.

That was followed by Star Realms, which I enjoy. The more I play it, the more random it seems to be, though.  Especially once you stir in the expansions.  There are broad sweeps of strategy that you can try to adopt, but, if the cards you are looking for don't come up, you won't get anywhere.  I won big, but that was because I saw that the initial set of cards included a bunch of red, so I whittled my deck down to only about seven or eight cards, most of them red. And that meant I had a lot of firepower (and not a lot of purchasing power) every turn.

While we were in the middle of Star Realms, my wife arrived.

Stephanie, Joseph, and I payed a quick couple of games of Murder of Crows.  I won the first one, Joseph won the second.  It's pretty random but also pretty quick. It's a set-collection game with some screw-your-neighbor elements.  It was fun, and I'm thinking about getting a copy for myself.

We then moved back over to Argent: the Consortium, and actually managed to play a (three-player) game.

Worker Placement as a mechanism has been done almost to death, so I hadn't expected to like this one. Especially given how crazy-busy the board is and the huge number of components that need to be used. With that said, however, I loved this game. Players are competing for votes, but we don't know at the beginning of the game what will earn us the votes. During the game, there are ways to peek at who the voters are and what will get their votes, but I ignored these and, instead, pursued a strategy of getting as much of everything as I could. At the end, Joseph had five votes and I had four votes. Stephanie had one.  But a bunch of Joseph's votes came down to a tiebreak, so even though Steph had a low score, it wasn't due to poor play.  My second place finish was a surprise to most of us, I think.

I've already placed an order with Brian for my own copy of this one.

While we were in the last round of play, Crissy arrived.

We followed Argent with a four-player game of Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension, a favorite of mine that doesn't hit the table often enough. It sits in an odd position for me - it's too thinky to be pure filler, but it's too random to be pure strategy. And there are two random elements. The first is the deal. Players get to draft cards, but you only know what half of the cards you are drafting are. Then there's the movement - your turn order is based on the cards everyone has played, and movement is based on the current position of everyone on the board. So it's possible that what would have been a very good move early in the round becomes a very bad move later in the round. Admittedly, this isn't necessarily randomness - but it's beyond your control and involves guessing, so I tend to treat it as randomness.

And then we wrapped the evening up with a game of Musketeers. Remember how dice hate me?  Cards are ambivalent towards me.  This is a semicooperative card game, where the players are working together to beat opposition cards. But they're also competing - the best card gets a bonus when you beat the opposition, and the worst card takes a penalty when the opposition beats the players. I barely squeaked out a win by managing to Not Be Worst at any point during the last round. Steph was only three or four points behind me.

Eight games, no duds.  For me, that is an ideal day. And it was an excellent way to acclimatize to the time change that always comes with Daylight Savings.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Real

We've hit that tipping point for GenCon.  The point where it becomes real instead of being in the theoretical future "later this year."

I mean ... I know it's coming. I know it's real. But it doesn't hit me until I have travel arrangements. Every year. I'm going to GenCon!

But as of this week, I have my hotel details.

Every year, I'm also so crazy-thankful that Stephan B. thought to give me the opportunity and Christophe A. was willing to give me a shot.

This year, I'd also like to thank Audrey and Carol for their help with the hotel room.

I can't wait to see what the team is like this year.  Last year, I posted that we had the best team to date - and I strongly believe that it was. And it sounds like this year's team will include most (if not all) of last year's team. And more folks. "The biggest team to date," I've heard. Which is crazy.

And, of course, there will be a new crop of games for us to teach.

Since the last GenCon, Asmodee has acquired both Days of Wonder and merged with Fantasy Flight Games. I don't know how this will impact the booth(s) at GenCon, but I'd be surprised if there wasn't some sort of impact.

Other than the size of the team and booth. Because "MOAR BIGGER" has been the theme of the last few years. And that is astounding to me, in large part because I remember my first GenCon, where Asmodee was in a small 10x20 booth with Jungle Speed and Woolly Bully for sale with demo copies of Dungeon Twister and Mall of Horror. And a total of four of us in the booth. Close to 90% of the people wandering by had never heard of Asmodee Editions, and the remaining 10% spoke French well and English poorly.

This year, I'll be at Origins, too.  For the first time in about a decade (and the third time ever for me). And I've seen the hotel reservations for that one, too.

The only missing piece of the puzzle is the airfare for both - but we have some time on that front.

Are you excited?  I am ...

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Technology and Gaming

It's funny. I love technology. I love all of the doors it's opened for us. I love the possibilities it has presented to us. Both in gaming and in the rest of our lives.

But I'm still resistant to games with a required technological component. Take, for example, Fantasy Flight's XCOM game. By all accounts, it's a phenomenal game. Players seem to love it. But it requires the use of a smartphone app.

It's not like One Night Ultimate Werewolf, where the app facilitates play, but isn't actually required. You flat cannot play XCOM: The Board Game without a smartphone.

And yet I have no problems playing in campaigns where the GM requires the use of Obsidian Portal.

Or playing Space Alert, which requires a CD player. And - as MP3 files take over - CD players are in process of disappearing from homes. When I bought my current computer, I had to pay extra for an optical drive. Because those are slowly disappearing, too. Microsoft Office? It's a subscription program, now. Not a CD with an authorization code and hoops to jump through. And I can access most (if not all of it) online. When even Office doesn't require a CD-ROM ... well ... 

Wizards of the Coast has keep the 4e D&D Insider tools up for those of us who want to keep paying for them. It costs them a pittance and brings in some subscriber fees even now. And (honestly) I've found it much easier to track my character online than the old-fashioned way with pencil & paper.

I have a smartphone. Like most smartphones, it's crazy-powerful when compared to the computer my family had when I was a kid. It's more powerful than the computers we used in school. And I trust Google. I actually have a couple of apps on there that aren't in the Appstore anymore - but when I upgraded my phone a few months ago, Google transferred them for me. Automatically. I didn't have to call anyone. I didn't need to go online and track down some obscure file to install the apps on my phone. They just installed themselves on the new phone.

So I don't know why the app has been such a barrier to entry for my interest in XCOM. But somehow it is. And that makes me feel like a total Luddite.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Prepping

Short post this week - there are some things going on at my day job that are drawing an inordinate amount of my energy and focus.

I'm getting ready to run a Legend of the Five Rings campaign. I've actually been dragging my feet for a while, because the last time I ran an L5R game, I got GM Burnout.  Burned out to the point where it was a decade before I was willing to run anything again.

So I'm doing a few things differently.  Right now, I'm working on a pre-Character Generation questionnaire. I've never done that before. But I have a larger-than-usual group of interested players, and I want to know what their expectations are before we sit down to play.

I'm starting with the basic questions - "What Clan(s) are you most interested in? Which Clan(s) do you most dislike?" But I'm also asking about the metaplot (like/dislike care/don't care) and the various eras of play. And, of course, determining the politics/mysticism/romance/action balance of the game.

Adding to this, I'm going to be using my (experimental) Winter Phase rules. Largely as a playtest - I want to make sure they work.

Until a week or so ago, my delay was "I don't have The Book of Void yet!" It was the last book I was stalling for, and, now that I have it, there is no reason not to go. Other than my own hesitation.

The last game I ran, I did a terrible job of balancing action and investigation. I dropped too many red herrings and not enough clues. And there were four or five different storylines that I had going on, which was too many for me - and when I'm off-balance, so are the players.

This game will be monthly. Or so. Everyone involved is a grownup with a busy life, so scheduling will be not great - which is another factor.  I need to make sure the game won't collapse if one or two players miss a given session. In fact, I need to plan for players to miss sessions.

But, most of all, I need to relax and let it go. I need to pull the trigger on my pre-game questionnaire, and I need to start working with players on character generation.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Room 25: Season 2

There are (to my mind) three types of expansion for a game.

There are expansions that are designed to correct or rebalance a flaw with the basic game. There are expansions which take the base game and add essentially more of the same. And there are expansions which take the game in a completely different direction.

Room 25: Season 2 is mostly that second type.  It's more of the same.  But it also fixes a few flaws that the base game suffered from.

But before I talk about the expansion, I should probably give an overview of the base game. How have I not brought this up before now?

Room 25 is a futuristic game show that is Cube crossed with ... hmm.  Maybe Twin Tin Bots is a better comparison than Robo Rally.

The game starts with 24 face-down rooms and the players in the center room.  One of the face-down rooms is Room 25, and the goal of the game is to get all of the characters into Room 25 and then move the room out of the complex to escape. Before time runs out.

Each turn, you will program your character(s) with one or two actions, and then those actions are resolved.  There are four actions available in the base game: Peek into an adjacent room, move into an adjacent room, shove someone into an adjacent room, or shift the complex.

Each room does something different, too. There are a few beneficial rooms in play, but most of the rooms are a mixed blessing at best.

There are also several modes of play, ranging from fully cooperative to team-based competitive to a semicooperative game with a traitor mechanism at work.

In the base game, each character is the same, and they are given names of archetypes rather than character names. The minis are decent and are cast in grey plastic.

Almost from the minute the game came out, folks on BoardGameGeek started working up rules for special abilities.

The base game includes 32 rooms, of which 25 are in play at a time.

It is one of those games that I really love to play but which slipped under the radar for many many other people.

So I was really surprised when I received a file of expansion rules to work on.

Remember when I said the expansion fixed a few flaws?  Here's what it brings to the table:

1) Two new characters, bringing the total up to 8 possible players. Be aware: Playing with more than six people ups the difficult considerably, as you'll have fewer total turns in which to beat the game.

2) New sculpts for the base game characters which are cast in colored plastic instead of gray.

3) New player boards for all characters (including the base game characters) that give them names. "The Geek," for example, is now "Kevin."  Or "K," as he prefers to be known.

4) A fifth action for each character that is unique. That's right: Character special abilities. One character can hide from hostile actions. One character can move and take someone with him. One character can hack the complex.

5) A once-per-game ability for each character to take a third action in a round.

6) A batch of new rooms with new hazards and abilities, including tokens, figures, cards, and markers for these new rooms.

7) A box with an insert that will hold both the base game and the expansion. Which is important because there is no way all of this stuff will fit back into the base game's box.


Several of the items on that list are - you will note - strictly upgrades to the base game. Most of them are add-ons.  Some of them straddle that line.

Either way, I had a chance to play Season 2 last week, and I loved it. Even more than I love the base game.

Amazon claims that Season 2 will release in mid-March. I'd check with your local game store, as they may be able to get it before that point.  The base game is available now (and has been for a while).

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

7 Wonders: Babel

I'm going to do something I don't do very often, here.  I'm going to talk about a game I've only barely scratched the surface of.

7 Wonders: Babel is the fourth expansion for 7 Wonders. I say "fourth," but - really - it's the fourth and fifth expansions, because this box contains two separate expansions.

The previous expansions - 7 Wonders: Leaders, 7 Wonders: Cities, and the Wonder Pack, all reinforce or accentuate what's already there in the base game. They're "more of the same" expansions.

This is not, by the way, a weakness or a problem. 7 Wonders is a phenomenal game. And I'm not the only one who believes that - here's the list of awards it's won via BoardGameGeek:


That's ... that's a lot of awards.

Babel is the first expansion to take the game in an entirely new direction. Let me briefly recap the expansions thus far:

7 Wonders: Leaders added a preliminary draft before the first Age, and it added a Leader phase before each Age where players could play a leader. This expansion allowed players to start to focus their strategy before the game really began.  It added a few new symbols to the mix, but didn't really shake gameplay up much.

7 Wonders: Cities added another color of card to the mix, and increased the maximum number of players to 8. The "big adds" in this set were team play, peace tokens, debt, and the ability to copy your neighbors' science symbols. The peace tokens allowed players to withdraw from the military phase, forcing their neighbors to fight each other instead. Players who went into debt lost victory points that couldn't be bought off later.

The Wonder Pack added a handful of wonders to the game. Nothing new mechanically, but the wonders themselves were interesting and entertaining.

What these expansions didn't do was allow players seated across from the table to interact. Now, I'm not saying Babel does this directly - but it definitely increases the interaction between players and the complexity of the game.

Based on my limited play so far and the discussion I've seen online, this is going to be a love-it-or-hate-it expansion because of how much it changes the game.

There are - as I mentioned earlier - two different parts to this expansion: The Tower of Babel and Great Projects, each of which include a number of new components.

The Tower of Babel expansion is a Babel Board with three or four slots for Babel Tiles, depending on the number of players. 

Remember what you can do with your card each turn in the base game?
  • Play it face-up;
  • Discard it face-down to gain 3 coins;
  • Slide it into one of the spaces in your Wonder.
If you're using the Tower of Babel, now you can also choose:
  • Discard it face-down to place a Babel Tile
Babel tiles are drafted at the beginning of the game, much like leaders. When played, they change play for everyone at the table.  And they have a wide variety of effects: Some of them increase or decrease the costs of playing certain cards. One of them decreases the points earned for military victories. Several of them cancel out the abilities of certain cards (Tile #3, for example, cancels the brown Double Resource or Split Resource cards, and is a truly evil tile to play during Age III). A couple of them provide free resources.

Depending on the number of players you have, there are only three or four slots available for tiles. New tiles go on top of old tiles. Once a tile is covered, its effects stop.  If multiple players build Babel tiles during the same turn, then they are place in ascending numerical order.

Our first game with the Tower, it severely reduced our final scores. We weren't sure what to expect, and spending a turn playing a tile to potentially set up future points cost us time. Every turn spent building Babel is a turn not spent building your own city. Not only that, but the afore-mentioned Tile #3 showed up during Age III, and so most of the third age of the game was players discarding for coins because they lacked the ability to build anything else.

The other half of the expansion is the Great Projects, which are a handful of large cards. The game includes five per age. These are shuffled and one is turned up each Age. You then place a number of wooden "Participation tokens" on the card equal to the number of players minus one.

I've only played this part of the expansion once so far, and we goofed. So I can't say 100% how good it is. I liked it, but I want to play it correctly so I can judge it fairly.

The Great Projects are things that everyone is cooperating to build. Each card has a reward, a penalty, and a cost to participate. In short, when you build a card of the appropriate color, you can pay the participation cost (which I believe is always gold) to the bank to grab a participation token. At the end of the Age (before the military phase), you check to see if all of the tokens have been grabbed.  If they have, then the participants get a reward and the non-participants do not.  If there are tokens left on the card, then the participants get nothing but non-participants are penalized.

It's possible to have more than one participation token, at which point you get multiple rewards (if the project is completed). Rewards vary - you can gain money, increase your military power, get a free building in the future, get extra points for science or your wonder, and so on.

The penalties can cause you to lose cards from your city, or lose money, or even lose your starting resource.  If you can't pay a penalty, then you take penalty tokens and lose points.

Unlike the Tower portion of the expansion, the Great Projects don't burn your turn, so they didn't hurt scoring. In fact, they helped my scoring when we played (I managed to reduce my opponents' military by enough points that I wasn't in last place).

As I said earlier: I think this box will be a love-it-or-hate-it expansion. Since I like a bit of complexity, I think that - over time - I'll come down on the Love It end of the equation. But I'm also very aware that added complexity isn't for everyone, and this exact flavor of added complexity also won't be to everyone's taste. But I really like it, and am looking forward to the next set.