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GH63: Spider-Man, Spider-Man Does Whatever a Spider Can

GH63: Spider-Man, Spider-Man Does Whatever a Spider Can
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In this episode, our heroes discuss web-slinging across New York in the new Spider-Man game for PS4, strange diseases in Two Point Hospital, and the worst placement for an appendage in the Kingdom Death: Monster board game. Hear the response to the previous week’s Question of the Week “What is your funniest video game addition story?”, and be sure to tune in to find out what this week’s question is!

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GH63: Spider-Man, Spider-Man Does Whatever a Spider Can

Top 12 Most Anticipated Board Games of 2016

As an avid board game enthusiast, part of the fun of this hobby is looking forward to the new and exciting games coming out soon. 2015 was a strong year for board games, and so far what little news we have from 2016 appears to be shaping up to be another exciting year. Already there are more than 150 board games that have been announced for release during 2016 with varying degrees of information available about those games at this point. Most of the board games announced look mediocre or don’t appeal to my taste, but some have me just waiting to pre-order as soon as it becomes available.

som

Before I begin my list, I should say that this list doesn’t represent the games I think will be the best this year. Some of the best board games that will come out this year won’t be announced until much later in the year. The games in this list merely represent the games I’m the most excited about. Some, I’m sure, will turn out great, others have the promise of being great, and it’s almost certain at least one of these will flop, but I’m dying to learn more about them anyway. Since this is going to be a long article, I’m going to list out my board games first, and if you’d like to see what they’re about, keep reading or just skip to the one’s you’re interested in.

Here’s the TL;DR Board Game list:

12) Apex Theropod Deck Building Game by Die-Hard Games
11) (Tied) Back to the Future: An Adventure Through Time and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past by IDW Games
10) (Tied) Legendary Encounters: Firefly and Legendary Encounters: Big Trouble in Little China by Upper Deck Entertainment
9) Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks by Gale Force Nine
8) The Networks by Formal Ferret Games
7) Campaign Trail by Cosmic Wombat Games
6) Victorian Masterminds by Space Cowboys
5) Star Wars: Rebellion by Fantasy Flight Games
4) Chronicles: Origins by Artana
3) Scythe by Stonemaier Games
2) SeaFall by Plaid Hat Games
1) Untitled Star Trek Game by Gale Force Nine

Intrigued? Keep reading, and I’ll give you my take on the most exciting games set to be released in 2016.

12)  Apex Theropod Deck Building Game by Die-Hard Games

Apex Board Game Image

The Apex Theropod Deck Building Game is a deck-building game where each player takes on the role of a dinosaur species brood mother.  As the game progresses, you use dinosaurs from your clan to hunt for food along a rotating game trail, which you use to feed new dinosaurs that can be added to your brood, or to unlock new evolutions that give your species certain powers.  Each species of dinosaur includes a custom deck of cards with very distinct playing styles that fit the type of species you are playing.  For example, Raptors need to focus on ambushing and attacking in packs, whereas Tyrannosaurus can scavenge dinosaurs that were killed by other predators in the game trail.  Occasionally, a more powerful dinosaur shows up in the game trail to challenge your brood for dominance.  The game ends when the world is destroyed by a massive meteor strike, and the player who managed to hunt the most game, including bosses, wins.

This pick is a little bit of a cheat.  The first Kickstarter edition of this game was released early in 2015, and while I played it a lot, there were some flaws.  Some dinosaur species were unbalanced, and it was a little too easy to end up in a ‘death spiral’ where your deck becomes so clogged by wounds that you can never recover.  That said, the play was really thematic, and the card artwork was amazing.  Last summer, Herschel Hoffmeyer, the game designer and artist, announced that he was releasing what amounts to a second edition of the game, even though it’s not called such.  He took a lot of the feedback, fixed some of the balance issues, and the new version of the game is set to be released in late January or February.  The game looks even better, and if you like deck-building games, this one is worth your time.

11)  Back to the Future: An Adventure Through Time and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past by IDW Games

idw

This will be the first of two ‘ties’, but it’ll make sense why I’m ranking them this way.  Last year, board games saw a glut of campaign style games, some of which were great, many of which were not.  Very few had licenses on par with Back to the Future and TMNT.  IDW is a company mostly known for their comic book lines, but in the last few years has ventured into board games.  They’ve put out a few decent games, including Machi Koro and Yedo, but they’ve been focusing recently on licensed properties, including The Godfather, X-Files, and Orphan Black.  All of those games have been largely disappointing.

Last year, Cryptozoic Entertainment released the Ghostbusters game, which primarily used artwork from the IDW Publishing Ghostbusters comics.  Ghostbusters is a game that hits the nostalgia factor hard, and has great miniatures, but the story and gameplay falls flat and feels very repetitive.  Ghostbusters was one of several games to try and add a campaign element to it that just feels underwhelming.  Now IDW is venturing on their own with TMNT and Back to the Future, and while once again the nostalgia factor is high, I’m REALLY nervous.

IDW Publishing has been putting out TMNT comics for a number of years now, which I’ve quite enjoyed.  The new TMNT game appears to let players play as one of the half-shell heroes or as Shredder (which I assume means it’s a 1-vs-All style game as opposed to purely cooperative), and will recreate stories from the comic book arcs of the last four years.  The artwork promises to be great with Kevin Eastman on the project, and the game is being designed by Kevin Wilson, who has done some great games (Descent 2nd Edition, Arkham Horror, and Fury of Dracula), but has also had some misses.  With a summer release, we should get more information soon.

Back to the Future is a more nebulous game right now.  From what we know so far, it’s a card game for 2-4 players that involves traveling back and forth between 1955, 1985, and 2015 to ensure that key events from the movies happen as they are supposed to that plays in about 30 minutes.  Each turn, players take on the role of one of the iconic characters and will be trying to maneuver other characters from the movies to their play areas to trigger key events from the movies.  It adds an interesting ‘ripple’ mechanic, where you bank cards in between the three time periods that represent positive changes that occurred because of how events in the past were changed.  While I’ll have to wait and see as more information comes out, I’m not sure I’m sold on a filler-type version of a Back to the Future game yet, but the idea is interesting.  We’ve yet to see a great game with this license, so maybe this one will be it.

10)  Legendary Encounters: Firefly and Legendary Encounters: Big Trouble in Little China by Upper Deck Entertainment

legendary

The Legendary system is one I have raved about before.  Towards the end of last year, Upper Deck announced there were two different new Legendary Encounters games being planned that would be standalone titles, but both of them had me very intrigued:  Firefly and Big Trouble in Little China.  For those unfamiliar, the Legendary System involved a Deck-Building engine with a story-driven event track of villains/challenges that the players must overcome all while trying to accomplish a set of objectives to complete the story/defeat the villain.  The Alien and Predator versions of the game are among some of my favorite games of all time, so it’s a system I like a lot.

My concern is how these two IPs will fit into that system.  Every variant of the Legendary engine so far has been focused on combat.  This gives me some concerns when it comes to the Firefly license.  The idea of a Firefly game being a cooperative effort I like a lot, but it never felt like combat lay at the heart of the show, so I’m curious/nervous to see what direction they take it in.  Big Trouble in Little China is a fantastic cult classic film (set to be remade soon as well), but my only concern here is the depth of the story.  Marvel Legendary has a billion villains available to play now, Aliens has 4 movies to recreate, Predator only has two, but you can play as either Humans or Predators, which gives effectively 4 scenarios to play (plus the Alien crossover pack which allows you to combine the two games).  Even Firefly could probably pick a couple of episodes to recreate, but there’s just the single story from Big Trouble in Little China, which is my only concern there.  I think the theming would work well in this engine since there is a lot of combat, and bosses along the way to define the story.

So, long story short, I’m excited to see what they do with both games, since both have the potential to be interesting iterations of the Legendary system, but both could just as easily turn out to not work at all.  Both look to be released by GenCon 2016, which will be in early August.

9)  Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks by Gale Force Nine

doctorwho

This has every appearance of being the game that Whovians have been waiting for, though there’s not much more than an initial press release known about the game right now.  The press blurb indicates that the Daleks appear to be waging an all out war across time and space to eliminate the Doctor, and players will step into the role of one of the various incarnations of the Doctor to try and stop their plan to erase the Doctor from history.  Promising miniatures (Dalek miniatures make me want to do a little happy dance by themselves) and interesting game play, I’m actually really excited to see where this game ends up.  Gale Force Nine, unlike IDW or Cryptozoic, has an almost flawless record for licensed IP adaptations.  Their versions of Firefly, Homeland, Sons of Anarchy, and Spartacus are all incredibly thematic, well-designed games that have received a lot of critical praise.  A great property in the hands of a solid company makes me really excited to see where this one goes.

8)  The Networks by Formal Ferret Games

TheNetworks

The Networks is a game released on Kickstarter this past Fall and set to release in June 2016 about running the best TV Network.  Players compete to have the best prime-time lineup and draw the most viewers to their network.  Players must manage their lineup of shows, which may gain or lose viewers as the shows age, and fill those shows with acting talent and advertisements to keep their network in the black.  Many of the cards are very tongue-in-cheek references to existing shows (my favorite being NCISICMBOMGOMG: Scranton), actors or ads, and the humor is one of the elements that really drew me to this game and I think will help it be a hit with a lot of people.

I’ve had a chance to print out a print-and-play copy of this game to try out, and I was surprised to see how strategic the gameplay is.  The humor across all the cards really belies that fact that there’s a lot of competition to get the shows you need.  Money always feels tight, so there’s always a balance to make sure you’re able to take the right actions when you need them.  With a catchup mechanism that feels very fair, special abilities that can be gained through the game, and ways to specialize your network to your advantage, I’ve been very impressed with how solid this game is, and can’t wait to get the real thing in my hands this summer.

7)  Campaign Trail by Cosmic Wombat Games

campaignTrail

Another Kickstarter project, this one is more forward looking.  Campaign Trail ran a campaign this past fall that didn’t fund, and will be relaunching again next month.  Don’t be afraid when I say this is a game about politics, specifically running for President.  There’s actually a lot of game to like here, and while politics is the setting, this game is at its core a fairly competitive area control game, with players vying for influence in key states to make sure they maintain their edge in electoral college votes.  When my Republican candidate runs ads on, say, Gun Control, I don’t have to say what position he takes, just that he’s out campaigning on that issue, which helps avoid the ideological problems many other political games have in forcing players to argue or defend positions that they don’t agree with or (more commonly) that start out of game conflicts at the table.

Each player represents either a Republican, Democratic, or Independent candidate (and when you play with more than three, players form teams of President and Vice President candidates), and while candidates will be running ads and holding debates on a number of pressing topics, players aren’t required to actually espouse or argue a given opinion.    Using one of my favorite mechanics, players have a hand of cards with each card capable of performing most of the 6 actions available each turn.  Some cards are stronger in certain actions such a fundraising or travel, but this gives you a lot of tactical options to respond to what other players are doing.  There’s a really cool scoring track that shows who leads in each state that represents the role that polling plays in an election and gives all players at the table a real-time view of who is in the lead at any given time.  This looks to be a really strong game that fills a theme I think is really underrepresented, and one I can’t wait to back once it becomes available.

6)  Victorian Masterminds by Space Cowboys

While the game title (which is not finalized yet, apparently) doesn’t give you any real idea what the game is about, the setting from the game descriptions is as follows:

“Sherlock Holmes is dead! And with London’s greatest detective out of the way, those with villainous minds decide to wreak as much terror as possible on the populace — and you are one of those dastardly no-goodniks!  In Victorian Masterminds, you use five agents to destroy buildings, kidnap scientists, complete missions, and collect resources in order to assemble your custom death-dealing device. Don’t forget to increase your firepower, too, so that you can then put that device to good use.”

Add to that description that the game is being designed by Eric Lang (Blood Rage, XCOM: The Board Game, and Arcadia Quest among others) and Antoine Bauza (7 Wonders, Ghost Stories, Takenoko, and Tokaido), and you have my attention.  It’s supposed to feature worker placement with different kinds of workers, and will likely be released towards the end of 2016.

If you’re curious to know more, here’s an interview with Eric Lang discussing the prototype at BGG.CON 2015:

5)  Star Wars: Rebellion by Fantasy Flight Games

rebellion1

Reminiscent of the PC Game of the same name released in 1998, Star Wars: Rebellion is a game of galactic conquest for 2-4 players developed by Fantasy Flight Games.  They’ve done pretty amazing work with the Star Wars license, though almost all of that work has been either in card or miniature games.  This appears to be their first ‘pure’ board game effort with the license, and I couldn’t be more excited.  This game appears to be the first to try and take the full galactic view of the conflict, and players will have to manage system morale, ground and space combat, and either find or protect the Rebel Alliance Headquarters to win.

rebellion2

With 170 miniatures, custom dice, cards, and a massive board, it promises to be an engaging experience, though the retail MSRP appears to be set at $100, which is a little steep for my liking.  What remains to be seen is whether the game will be a great game for Star Wars fans, or just a great game period.  With an estimated release in Spring of 2016, Fantasy Flight Games should soon start releasing teaser content to give us a better taste of what this game will involve, so keep an eye out for that in the next few months if this sounds interesting to you.

4)  Chronicles: Origins by Artana

This game is one of the hardest to get my head around, but could end up as one of the most unique gaming experiences of the year, assuming it gets released during 2016.  Set to launch on Kickstarter next month, Chronicles: Origins is the first in a planned series of Chronicle games that attempts to take the Legacy game concept to places it’s never been before.  It seems like the goal of this game is to take the legacy experience you get from playing through a single arc, then apply the concept used in some video game franchises of taking your saved data to inform the next game, except in this case, you’re filling out the breadth of civilization.

Hard to get your head around?  Sure.  This video may help.

I’m really, REALLY excited by the idea of a series of Legacy games all linked together, with the big advantage being that you can change up the game style between Ages.  Really interesting idea, and one I’ve definitely got my eye on.

3)  Scythe by Stonemaier Games

scythe

This is another game that’s a little hard to summarize, so I’ll simply fall back to the Kickstarter video to explain:

Did I mention this game raised $1.8 million on Kickstarter?  It’s fair to say a lot of people are looking forward to this one.  A 4X, alternate history, area control and resource management game with Mechs with beautiful artwork and custom miniature Mechs?  Yeah, I’m pretty excited.  Did I mention Mechs?

2)  SeaFall by Plaid Hat Games

seafall

SeaFall has been seemingly stuck in development hell for a long time now, which proves just how hard it is to actually balance a Legacy style game.  SeaFall is a 4X game (I guess I just really like that genre) set in the age of exploration, where each player plays a world power beginning to establish their naval supremacy.  From the brief game description:

“In SeaFall, the world is starting to claw its way out of a dark age and has begun to rediscover seafaring technology. Players take on the role of a mainland empire that consults with a consortium of advisors to discover new islands, explore those islands, develop trade, send out raiding parties, take part in ship-to-ship combat, and more. As in Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy, co-designed by Rob Daviau, SeaFall evolves as the game is played, setting their grudges into the history of the game and building a different narrative at every table as players open up the world.”

This game has been kept under rather tight wraps as development has progressed.  Unlike Pandemic: Legacy, it would seem that individual games will tend towards 120 minutes instead of 45 – 60 minutes, which I’m totally fine with.  What I’ve been able to see of the game reminds me of the Uncharted Waters video game series for the SNES/Genesis that I spent hours playing when I was younger.  I think a lot of people are eagerly waiting for a release date to be put out there for this one, but all indications are that it will come out this year.

1)  Untitled Star Trek Game by Gale Force Nine

While there’s been a glut of good Star Wars board and video games, there hasn’t been a great Star Trek game in quite a while.  Mayfair’s most recent attempt (Star Trek:  Five Year Mission) was just not good.  I happen to enjoy Star Trek: Fleet Captains a fair amount, though the rules are so dense and the setup time pretty intimidating to the point it almost never hits the table anymore.  The X-Wing Miniatures game is superior in all aspects to WizKids Attack Wing.  That’s why when I heard last month that a new game was being developed, and by Gale Force Nine (see my earlier gushing over them about Doctor Who), my ears perked up.  There are actually two new Trek-themed games coming out: one a reskinning of an existing game called Mage Knight by WizKids, who doesn’t have the best track record in my book, and this game.

What we know right now is pretty slim.  Planned to be released in time for the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek during the summer (read GenCon 2016 I would think), this currently untitled game is meant to be a giant 4X style game in the Star Trek Universe.  (I just realized my top 3 games are all 4X style games.  Hmm…)  Rather than play characters, you play as an empire (in what I REALLY hope feels closer to the old Birth of the Federation PC game released nearly 20 years ago) starting at the discovery of warp travel.  The game is currently in alpha testing, and has been kept largely under wraps, so we don’t know a lot yet, but the promise of a good, big, meaty Star Trek game has me the most excited of any game that’s been announced to this point.  Here’s a video from BGG.CON with about as much information as is available yet.

If it’s at GenCon this year, it’ll be my number one acquisition.  I want this to be good so badly, yet I fear for my wallet if it is.

So, that’s my list for the most anticipated board games of 2016.  If something caught your eye here, or there’s something you’re excited for this year, let me know down in the comments below.

Top 12 Most Anticipated Board Games of 2016

Pandemic: Legacy – Case Files #5 and Final Thoughts

(Please note that this article and others in the series may contain spoilers for the game’s progression, events, and content. While each post covers specific “months” of game play, there are times things occur in different orders or out of place and might spoil something for a future month.)

Welcome back to this, the final installation in my Pandemic: Legacy play-through.  If you haven’t read any of the previous articles, you can start here.  This time around, we will complete our story, and I will add some final thoughts on the experience.

When we last left off, we were heading into the final month of December.  Having played 15 games to this point, we sit with a record of 9 wins and 6 losses.  We were recently given the ability to finally cure the outbreak of C0dA, though to this point we were only able to cure 5 of the 15 cities infected by faded.  Three cities in the Middle East have fallen, including Karachi, which we nuked out of existence.  The organization known as Zodiac has revealed themselves, and we dealt with the betrayal and loss of our Soldier, Rooster Cogburn, aka Saggitarius.  While the broad strokes of the plot were now in the open, we were excited to see what sort of new challenge would present itself as we begin our last month of the game.

Pandemic Legacy:  Case History

Game 16:  December

Dagin:  Immunologist (Jerry Mary)
Dave: Medic (Aaron)
Nick:  Researcher (Susie Broadchest III)
Adam:  Generalist (Typhoid Mary)

DecemberBriefingTo begin the month, we reveal the December briefing which basically amounts to a threat from Zodiac, letting us know that even though we might get a handle on the existing outbreak of C0dA, there’s plenty more where that comes from.  It turns out they’ve been stockpiling a bunch of mutations of C0dA in Atlanta, and in order for us to win, we’re going to have to do something about it.  We’re instructed to tear up all previous objective cards, which includes the researching cures for the diseases, and get to replace them with two new mandatory objectives, both of which will be required in order to complete the month of December with a victory:  Vaccinate every Faded city, and destroy the stockpile in Atlanta, which brings with it another searching mini-game, this one by far is the most complicated we’ve ever seen.

After doing some planning, we all mutually agree that we’re going to take two cracks at the month, since it seems impossible that we’d be able to satisfy both conditions in one month.  Our focus for the first run through December will be the easier of the two goals:  vaccinate the remaining 10 Faded cities.

NewObjectives

Our new searching goal, which must be completed before the 5th Epidemic is triggered.

Our two new goals, plus our searching mini-game, which must be completed before the 5th Epidemic is triggered.

We pick up the same roles we used in November, with Dagin taking the lead as the Immunologist.  Our Generalist, Typhoid Mary, took the upgrade that will grant her one more scar voluntarily to prevent one infect step, which will be helpful since our Funding Level is back to nothing again.  We also have some aerosol deployment cards that will allow us to crop dust the vaccine over an entire city, which will help us manage the triangle of doom in the Middle East.  We also use our November win bonus to start the game with three vaccine capsules in Istanbul.

Between Dagin and I, we get most of the C0dA sites vaccinated, but things over in North and South America begin to explode, so Dave and Nick have to rush west to deal with it.  After doing all that could be done, I race over to South America to help out.  After triggering an Epidemic, we determine that there are three different cities that could all potentially trigger massive outbreaks in South America, so I have Typhoid Mary take her last scar and become Feeble, meaning she can no longer Quarantine, which we don’t really use anymore anyway.  We decide to push through and research a cure for Walken Fever, just to make it easier to get things back under control, at least until Dagin finished vaccinating C0dA, but It turns out to be bad timing.  Two turns later, she gets caught in Mexico City during an Outbreak, and is lost.

lionking

While this was sort of our plan, we were hoping to be able to squeeze another heroic act from her before she became lost.  This also forces me to have to turn in all my remaining cards, which destroys any hope of trying to sneak in the search game goal this month.  Following another Epidemic card, Susie also gets caught in Lima, and since she’s been carrying her scars for a long time, she too becomes lost.  That one hurts, since it feels like the Researcher was going to be incredibly important to passing cards around in the right way to find the C0dA stock pile in Atlanta.

By the time the dust settles and we trigger outbreak number 8, Dagin just barely got all of C0dA vaccinated, but Mexico fell, Montreal is Collapsing, and even Atlanta experienced one outbreak.  I’m not sure what we would have done if it had triggered a second.

AllFadedCured

We’ve finally managed to quiet the Middle East. No more C0dA here.

Record:  9-7

Looking at our board after our first attempt at December, we’re feeling very uncertain.  With so much panic around the world, it’s going to be hard to keep things in check, since we’ll need to save all our cards for finding the stockpile.  We give a couple of minor upgrades to our Medic and Scientist, then brace ourselves for the final round of play.

EndDecember1

Board State following our loss to begin December.

Game 17:  December Part 2

Nick:  Quarantine Specialist (Jamima Buttersworth)
Adam:  Scientist (Marie Pasteur)
Dagin:  Dispatcher (Craigly)
Dave:  Medic (Aaron)

RIP our fallen comrades. Tearing these ones up hurt.

RIP our fallen comrades. Tearing these ones up hurt.

With two lost characters, we know we’ve got to rotate out at least half our crew.  And, with everything vaccinated, the Immunologist has no real purpose to serve.  In looking at the useful roles, Nick decides to bring back Jamima, our Quarantine Specialist.  While not quite as effective without the military bases, being able to place quarantines, especially the one token anywhere on the board, seems like it would be really helpful.  Plus we have the Co-Worker Relationship with the Medic that will help move cards around to set up the pairs needed for the end of the stockpile track.  I decide to play the Scientist, since we just gave her an upgrade to allow her to hold up to 8 cards in hand.  Dagin decided to go back to the Dispatcher, since it feels like his ability to move people to each other will really help with the sharing of cards.  Dave of course stays the Medic, the only role he has played during our entire time.  We offered to let him play one of the others characters, but he decided he’d rather see it all the way through with his character, so we obliged.

Our strategy for the month is simple:  Pool our cards, stay close to the Research Centers, protect Atlanta, and try to keep things from getting out of hand everywhere else.  If we trigger the 5th Epidemic card, we lose.  No more retries, and only a limited amount of government aid, just 2 cards.

Essentially our plan works well, and we were aided by a great initial setup.  All three of the three cube infect cards his prior-C0dA areas, so there’s not that many disease cubes on the board and no threat of outbreak.  For the first couple of rounds, everything goes according to plan.  We drop in to Atlanta, spend what cards we have to search, and start trying to focus on collecting doubles for the harder search elements.  It’s not until we trigger the 4th Epidemic card that we really start to sweat.

sheldon.gof

The cramp in our plan is yellow cards.  They’re just not coming up, so no one is getting pairs.  The panic starts to set in that we won’t make it, that there just isn’t enough time.  Counting the cards left in the player deck, we know we’ve got only one safe turn left, and six total before we’re guaranteed to hit that last Epidemic card, and we need at least four turns before we can get all the cards we need, much less in the right order.  We’re really, really missing the Researcher right now.  We have to play four more sets of pairs, and we have three in hand, but we need a pair of Yellows before Dave can turn in his two Blues to complete the track.

The state of the board at the end of our final round

The state of the board at the end of our final round

Nick begins, takes his turn, and draws no yellow cards.  I take my turn, draw a yellow card, but it seems unlikely I’ll get to go again, so we’ve got to get me to a place I can let someone else take the card from me.  More importantly, no Epidemic.  Dagin spends his cards in Atlanta to advance us to within two spaces, then moves me to the city matching my yellow card, then moves Dave to my location so all the pieces are in place.  We’re in a position to win unless Dagin draws an Epidemic.  He draws… two yellow cards!  Dave takes the last yellow from me to give him a pair, travels back to Atlanta, and with his last action successfully sabotages the C0dA stockpile.  We win!  Out of curiosity, we flip over the next card from the Player Deck, and it was the last Epidemic.  We manage to steal victory from the jaws of defeat!

loki

Final Record:  10-7

Following our victory, we draw the last few cards from the Legacy Deck.  Aside from a very short and slightly anti-climactic card telling us it’s finally over, we draw a score sheet, and are given a way to put a score to how we did.  We had no idea this was coming, but we’re all pleased at the idea that they’ve given us a way to compare our experiences to other players with this score.  A perfect (impossible) score would be 1000 points.  Our total ends up being 784, which puts us near the top of the Disaster Averted range, and just 17 points shy of Legendary.

Our final score for Pandemic: Legacy. Just 17 points shy of Legendary.

Our final score for Pandemic: Legacy. Just 17 points shy of Legendary.

We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, and as our last act for the game, we broke out the permanent marker and signed the board.

FinalBoard

And, for the last time, I’ll run through the final state of panic in our world.  We only triggered two outbreaks in the second half of December, but the first half was pretty rough, leaving Mexico City as the only non-C0dA city to fall.

Panic Levels Blue Cities Yellow Cities Black Cities Red Cities
Unaffected 2 3 2 8
Unstable 5 3 1 2
Rioting 2 2 3 1 1
Rioting 3 1 2 5 1
Collapsing 2 0
Fallen 1 3
Faded 2 / 12 Infected 12 / 12 Infected 1 / 12 Infected

Final Thoughts

We’ve now finished the game of Pandemic: Legacy, Season 1.  I’m not sure what direction they’ll go from here, but this was one hell of a ride.  We all felt just blown away by how rich an experience that was.  The narrative the game creates as you play, the way your choices really have consequences, all of it came together to create games where we were always invested in what was happening.  The constant changes to core rules and the way the focus was always shifting made each month feel very different and unique, which is good for a game that you’ll play so many times.

The game balance was extraordinary.  I can’t even imagine how much play-testing had to be involved to keep the game working the way it does with each new change.  The catch-up mechanisms were great, and they gave even those who might struggle with the late game a chance to get caught up so you can enjoy and be prepared for the final struggle.

I know for some people the idea of a board game that I can’t keep playing indefinitely is a little off-putting, but I will tell you that the experience we’ve had playing this game is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a game, even campaign-driven games.  And I know everyone else at the table with me felt the same way.

I have to also comment on the story.  The narrative told here is just incredible.  To think what began as a zombie outbreak would end with thwarting a new world order bent on using the zombie plague to overthrow humanity and rule it all was awesome.  The plot is parsed out in bits and pieces, each month bringing with it the potential for new surprises and new drama.  The final third of the game really seems to crescendo beautifully, and was one of the best scripted narratives I’ve seen in any game, and rivals the type of story you’d see in a movie or full role-playing game campaign.

SuVHez2

One of the chief criticisms of the original Pandemic is that it basically created what’s known as “Alpha Gamer Syndrome”, where one strong or loud player can basically tell everyone else what they should do and can dominate play.  I’m not sure that’s completely mitigated by Pandemic: Legacy, but I felt like the experience was incredibly cooperative.  There were numerous moments where we would all sort of stop play and try to figure out as a group what the best moves for everyone would be.  It helps that all of us were familiar with Pandemic before playing.

I do think you need at least one player who is experienced with the game of Pandemic before attempting Pandemic: Legacy, and the more familiar the players are, the easier it will go for them in the early months.  I don’t think there’s a lot of new rules introduced early, but I do feel like the potential is there for players to forget certain actions or abilities if they aren’t really familiar at least with what their character can do, especially as the game progresses.  I also really feel like you get the best experience by playing the game all the way through with the same people.  I think it would be really difficult to have someone come into the story line half way through, because of all the rules changes.  They all evolve naturally for the players playing, but for someone new, I think it’d be difficult to catch up with the narrative and how the rules support the narrative.

And that’s as close to criticism as I come for this game.  It was hands down the best game released in 2015, and I couldn’t be any happier with how it all turned out.  If you like Pandemic, buy this game.  You will not be disappointed.  If you like cooperative games, buy this game.  There’s just something special here, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.

SoGood

So, while I go figure out how I’m going to turn the final game into something I can hang on my game room wall, stop by and let me know what you think of it, once you’ve played it for yourself.  How’d you do?  Let me know in the comments below.

Pandemic: Legacy – Case Files #5 and Final Thoughts

Top 10 Board Games of 2015: Part 2

Welcome back to my review of the Top 10 Board Games of 2015.  In this article, I’ll be presenting my Top 5 games released during 2015.  You can read the first part of this article covering Games 6-10 and a few honorable mentions here.

That said, let’s pick back up with the:

Top 10 Best Board Games of 2015

5.  Baseball Highlights: 2045 by Eagle-Gryphon Games

BaseballHighlightsBaseball Highlights: 2045 is a game for two or more players that is supposed to play like watching the SportsCenter highlights of a series of baseball games. You start out with a generic team made up of rookies and a few veteran players of three types: naturals, cyborgs, and robots. Each type of character has a set of strengths, for instance robots tend to generate a lot of hits, naturals are better defensively and draw more fan support, and cyborgs tend to make the best pitchers. Each team has a deck of fifteen cards representing their roster, and only six players will play in each particular outing. Players score a certain amount of revenue based on who played that game which they use to draft new players from the market. In order to place a new player card in your deck, you demote one of the current players from your roster to the minor leagues, ensuring you never exceed your 15-card roster. Single games take maybe five minutes, and most plays typically have you playing several games to start customizing your roster, then playing out a championship series.

I’m not a huge fan of baseball, but this game is just fantastic. The back and forth between players is really exciting, and even though you only get six players per game, the timing of when to play them is really important. Where this game really shines is in it’s ability to stage tournaments. The base game comes with the ability to play four different teams, but new expansion team decks were released that allow you to expand the tournament out and accommodate a lot of players (up to 16 teams) that would make for an incredible larger bracket. There’s so many different strategies you can take as you build out your team: You can sign a bunch of robots to generate runs, but not a lot of fan support; you can build a heavy defensive team to shut down other players; you can try to build a team that generates a lot of fan support to try and recruit a few really powerful hitters; or you can try and sign a bunch of players that try to combo off each other. I love playing this game, and have to say it’s probably the best sports-themed game I’ve ever played.

4.  Specter Ops by Plaid Hat Games

SpecterOpsSpecter Ops is a 1-vs-All game where one player takes on the role of a secret agent trying to infiltrate and sabotage a Raxxon Corporation facility, while the other players play Raxxon Hunters dispatched to chase the agent down and take him out before he can complete his mission and escape. This is a hidden movement game, where the Agent records his movement secretly on a sheet of paper and is only visible to the Hunters when he enters their direct line of sight on the board. The Agent has to sabotage three key mission objectives and escape before either the Hunters can do enough damage to him or reinforcements arrive to pin him in after 40 turns. Each Hunter has a couple of abilities that allow them to narrow in on the location of the Agent, while the Agent is given a couple of limited use pieces of equipment to help them against the Hunters. It makes for a tense game of cat and mouse that’s fast paced and exciting the entire time.

I love this game. I believe this is the best hidden-movement game out there (though I concede there’s a case to be made for Fury of Dracula, which takes twice as long to play as Specter Ops). The variety of Hunters and Agents allows for a lot of replayability. With all the movement recorded on paper, there’s this great moment when the game ends, win or lose, when you can replay the entire mission and relive exactly where the agent was the entire time. There is an additional play mode when you play with five players (Four Hunters and the Agent), where one of the Hunters is secretly a traitor working with the Agent. The rules for this mode are a little clumsy, and I would strongly recommend not attempting this unless every Hunter has played before, but it definitely creates a different experience when you can no longer trust that the information coming from the other Hunters is truthful. I think I prefer playing the ‘standard’ play mode to this variant, but the way it takes a 1-vs-All game and makes it more of a team game is very interesting. All in all, this is a fantastic game, great design, great theme, and one I’m always excited to play.

3.  Legendary Encounters: A Predator Deck Building Game by Upper Deck Entertainment

LegendaryPredatorIf you’ve read some of my earlier articles, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of this game, the Predator franchise, and the Legendary game system. Previous entries in this system, which are set in the Marvel and Aliens universes, are cooperative deck-building games where players recruit heroes or important characters from their respective universes to struggle together to accomplish a get of goals while overcoming wave after wave of enemies along the way. The Predator version of this game allows players to recreate the events of the first two Predator films, which would be enjoyable by itself, assuming you are also a fan of that franchise. Mechanically, I think this is the best implementation of the cooperative Legendary system. Where this game really shines is in the alternate play mode as Predators. The Marvel version attempted to do a semi-cooperative experience where everyone works together but one player does the most good and wins, and that didn’t work at all for me. In this version, they created a truly competitive mode where each Predator is trying to hunt the biggest game, and can scrap with each other along the way, trying to collect the most trophies gathered by killing human characters from the first two Predator films. There’s additionally some expansion cards that allow the Predators to try and hunt Aliens if you also own the Legendary Encounters: Aliens game, which was a major draw for me as well.

This game has everything I want from a good cooperative game. It’s challenging, and forces the players to work together to be successful. It really does a great job of incorporating the story elements from the Predator films. The deck-building aspect of the game is interesting and allows players to specialize and even work together to help other players recruit great cards to their decks. Then you take all those mechanics and flip it around to be a purely competitive game, and it still works perfectly. It should go without saying that the theme of the game is violent, and that theme is reflected in the game art. If that’s something you have a problem with, then I would stick with the Legendary Marvel line, but if you’re a fan of the franchise, or if you enjoy tough cooperative games with strong theme, this gets a solid recommendation from me.

2.  Codenames by CGE

CodenamesCodenames is a party game designed for two teams that draws inspiration from other word games like Taboo or Password. Unlike those games, which typically use time limits to create tension, Codenames places a five by five grid of random words out in front of all the players, then has one member from each team try to give clues to guess which of those 25 words belong to their team. Both clue givers are working off the same grid of words using a clue card that identifies which words within the grid belong to the red team and which belong to the blue team. Some words are ‘unaffiliated’, meaning they just fill up the grid with additional words to be avoided, and one word is the bomb. If any team accidentally guesses the bomb word, they instantly lose that round. Teams alternate giving clues by saying a single word and a number, for example “Fish Three.” This would indicate to my team that I believe three words in the grid of 25 have something to do with fish. They guess a word, one at a time. If they’re correct, you place a card with your team’s color over the word, and they can continue guessing up to the number given in the clue plus one additional guess. This allows you to potentially go back and take another stab at a previous clue you didn’t get right. If the word they guess is unaffiliated or belongs to the other team, you place the appropriate color card, and have to yield play to the other team. And if you guess the bomb word, you lose. The first team to correctly guess all of their words first wins the round.

There’s just nothing quite like Codenames, which feels initially intimidating, but the challenge becomes really rewarding. It works great in just about any group of six or more, though in theory you could play with just four players. This was by far the most requested game by my family this Thanksgiving, appealing to both the gamer and non-gamer. The challenge in the game comes from trying to link as many words as possible in a single clue, as opposed to trying to guess the most words in a minute. You can give clues for a single word, but if you limit yourself too much you can allow the other team to race ahead of you. It’s challenging, but in a good way that leaves you always feeling like you could do better and wanting to try again. This was easily my favorite party game of the year, and for the shear approachability was almost my favorite game released this year.

 1.  Pandemic: Legacy by Z-Man Games

PandemicLegacyThe distinction of favorite game of the year has to belong to Pandemic: Legacy. I’ve been writing a series of playthough articles about my experience with this game, but the short version of my review is that this game is brilliant. It takes the core engine of an already fantastic cooperative game, Pandemic, and adds on top of it a layer of narrative and customization that allows a story to evolve as you play. Pandemic: Legacy tells a story about major disease outbreaks threatening the world that takes place over one calendar year, beginning in January. Each game still operates under the framework of being a standard game of Pandemic, which I won’t try to explain in full here, but is one of the most groundbreaking cooperative games ever designed. Starting with this core system, it then adds unique events and decisions that are revealed piecemeal from a secret deck of cards and multiple hidden compartments, cards, and stickers, that allows (and sometimes forces) players to interact with the game rules and modify elements of the game permanently. This allows a narrative to play out over the course of the year that includes twists and turns, and more than a few surprises. My group at the time of writing this article is currently in the month of November, and the story arc is about to reach its climax. I won’t spoil that here, but every time we sit down to play this game, we’re blown away by how invested in the story we’ve become and always wanting to push farther to see how it will end.

As a hobbyist, I buy a lot of games. This means that I will typically play through a new game a few times, and if it’s a truly great game, it’ll come up in the rotation every couple of months maybe, depending on the mood of my gaming group. The idea of sitting down to play the same game so many times (it takes anywhere from 12-24 plays of Pandemic: Legacy to complete the story line, though I’ve yet to hear of anyone who did it in less than 17) was a little intimidating. My group is sitting currently at 15 games played, and we play two rounds of the game each Friday over lunch. It’s become one of the highlights of my week. Pandemic is a great game, and I would say experience with Pandemic is probably required from at least one player you will be playing with should you decide to try this for yourself, but this just takes that experience to a whole new level. It feels like we’re playing through our own Hollywood blockbuster like Outbreak or Contagion. We’ve spent so much time with our characters that we’ve really become attached. Areas of the world have taken on a life of their own. The experience you have playing this game is only really comparable to playing a great Role Playing Game. The core mechanics of the game start to fade into the background and you find yourself just participating in the story, and trying as hard as you can to succeed in that story. There are moments that have occurred while playing this game that I will never forget. This is the best game released in 2015.

So that’s my list. Did I leave off one of your favorites? Let me know what you think down in the comments below.

Top 10 Board Games of 2015: Part 2

Top 10 Board Games of 2015: Part 1

During 2015, there were thousands of new Hobby Board Games released (just shy of 3000 according to boardgamegeek.com, the largest index of board games), which doesn’t count expansions to existing games. It’s impossible to keep up with so many board games coming out all the time, either from the ever increasing number of small publishers or the surge of Kickstarter projects, so you have to make something either truly great or truly singular to capture people’s attention today. Some have great names (Assassinorum: Execution Force, I’m looking at you), some make big splashes on Kickstarter (Exploding Kittens, which was better than it has any right to be), and some try to ride the coattails of great IP licences (like the new Star Wars Risk Edition, which is actually nothing like Risk and a surprisingly decent board game).

Each year, there are a handful of board games that stand out from the crowd. With Christmas nearing, I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be the Top 10 best board games released in 2015. I’ve had a chance to play each of these games multiple times, and they’re all games I intend to keep in my collection for a long time. With each board game, I’ll give an explanation of the game itself, and why I like it.

Before I do that, however, I want to start with a few honorable mentions. These are games I don’t own and haven’t had a chance to play (though I certainly want to), but each of them possesses something unique that I think makes them stand out from the crowd. In no particular order, here are my honorable mentions:

Honorable Mention:  Elysium by Space Cowboys

ElysiumIn Elysium, two to four players take on the role of a demigod trying to curry the most favor with the Gods on Olympus. Each player is given a set of four colored columns, which form the basic currency of the game. Each of the five game rounds, or epochs, involves recruiting cards and quests, which are separated between a players Domain area that represents the land of the Living, and their Elysium, the land of the Dead. Most of your points are earned based on the cards you are able to move into Elysium. Players compete for the favor of eight gods, though only five are used in any given game, which gives a fair amount of replayability.

If you like games like Seasons or Abyss, you should also enjoy Elysium. The game plays in about 60 minutes, which feels about the right length to get a challenging experience without taking too long to play, though it can be prone to Analysis Paralysis. It’s definitely one to check out if you enjoy Euro-style games.

Honorable Mention:  XCOM: The Board Game by Fantasy Flight Games

XCOMThe XCOM Board Game doesn’t have the frenetic, first-person shooter elements featured in a number of the video game implementations, but does capture the feeling of having to defend the world against an unknown hostile alien force. This is a cooperative game that features a digital companion application that is required to play the game. Lest that put you off, this is probably the best digital element incorporated into any board game to date. The app is more than just narration or instructions, but actually serves to randomize the game and give the aliens an unpredictable A.I. that responds to what the players are doing and how the game is progressing. While the game is capable of being played with one to four players, I would really only consider playing it with a full group of four. This allows each player to take on one of several important roles responsible for making certain key decisions.

There are a couple of reasons I’ve not played this one yet. First, I don’t know someone who owns it. Second, as someone who is not all that well acquainted with the video game franchise, I don’t feel the connection to the franchise to lead me to want to rush out and buy it. Third, the game has a reputation for being very difficult. Some of you might enjoy that, and I certainly don’t mind challenging games, especially cooperative games, but there’s a real-time element that makes the game hard because you will inevitably make bad rushed decisions that add to the difficulty of the game. It’s a game that really requires you to play it multiple times to understand how the game plays before you have a change to be successful. If you’re a fan of the series and willing to run though a few plays that will end badly before you feel like you get it, this one is definitely worth a look.

Honorable Mention:  Mysterium by Asmodee

MysteriumThe easiest way to describe Mysterium is to say that someone took a deck of Dixit cards and made an actual game out of it. That may seem a bit harsh to Dixit fans (I’m not a big Dixit fan myself), but it’s probably more accurate to say that Mysterium is Dixit with theme. In Mysterium, one person plays a murder victim, and the other players are psychic mediums or paranormal investigators who have come to help solve this murder. The victim has a deck of cards much like a standard Dixit deck, and ‘communicates’ with the other players by presenting them cards that represent their dreams. Without any other verbal clues from the victim, the rest of the players are trying to use the clues given to identify the particulars of how the victim died.

I think the main reason I include this board game as an honorable mention is the fact that I don’t really know any other game like this. It’s different and strange, which is usually a selling point for me. The reason I haven’t bought this yet is that this game, more than most others, is very dependent on the group. In the right group, with some ambiance and willingness to dive in, this game can be incredible. In the wrong group, this game can be an exercise in controlled frustration, especially for the victim, who often has to play cards that may not actually have anything to do with the clue he needs them to guess, and has to sit silently and watch while the other plays overanalyze all the wrong details from the card.

So, without further ado, here’s my:

Top 10 Best Board Games of 2015

10.  Apex Theropod Deck-Building Game by Die-Hard Games

ApexThis board game is my sentimental pick, despite it being a relatively obscure game. This game was a Kickstarter project launched by a military veteran that lives in my area, and the artwork to this game drew me in immediately. I would have been happy if all I got was a mediocre game with beautiful art, but I was surprised by how great this game actually is. It’s a deck-building game (similar to games like Dominion and Core Worlds), where you are playing as the brood mother of a particular dinosaur species. You hunt prey that comes out along a cycling game trail, use that prey to feed your babies, and recruit those grown up dinosaurs into your deck. Occasionally a Boss will show up in the game trail that has to be fought off or killed, and the game ends when a giant meteor strikes earth and everyone is rendered extinct.

This game is chocked full of theme, and may be the game I’ve played the most this year. It can play up to 8, though I would never want to play with more than 4 as the playing time increases linearly per player (at about 30 minutes per player), and has a surprising robust single-player mode. It’s tough, but each dinosaur clan has a distinct style of play that takes several plays to figure out and master. There is a chance with some bad card draws early for an incredibly thematic but frustrating ‘death-spiral’ to take place, where your dinosaur gets so messed up and sick from early hunting mistakes that there’s no recovering. I love this game, flaws and all, and when the designer announced he was taking all the feedback and releasing a second edition with refined game play, more player interaction, and more playable dinosaur species, it was a Day 1 Kickstarter purchase from me, as well as several of the people I’ve introduced the game to. I even funded high enough to be allowed to design a card for the new version, which should tell you how much I enjoy this game. It’s really one of the best deck-builders I’ve ever played, and the second edition will be releasing in January/February of next year, so keep an eye out for that one if it sounds interesting to you.

9.  Flick ‘Em Up by Pretzel Games

FlickEmUpI’m not typically a fan of Dexterity Games. For those not familiar with the term, the standard bearer of this genre is Jenga, though the term broadly means any game that has an element of physical interaction (dexterity) required, such as pushing blocks, flicking disks, or throwing pieces. For many of these games, the dexterity element is the game, and the concept of theme doesn’t really apply or is loosely pasted on. This is where Flick ‘Em Up is such an interesting departure.

Flick ‘Em Up is a game that strives to recreate an old-fashioned western shoot out. Players split into two teams of sheriffs and bandits then position their figures in their town ready to go. Players exchange fire by flicking disks at their opponents, with hits registering if you can knock the target figure over. You can also move for better positioning by flicking a rounded disk to maneuver between buildings and behind hay bales or other props. You can move into buildings which grants you cover, but if another person enters that building with you, you engage in a duel, flicking at each other over increasingly shorter distances until one of you emerges victorious and the other is thrown out into the street. It’s brilliant, hilarious fun that works well for a wide variety of age ranges, since flicking is a skill we all suck at.

8.  7 Wonders: Duel by Repos Production

7WondersDuel7 Wonders is a great board game about civilization building that uses card drafting as the primary mechanic. It’s a game that can play anywhere from three to eight players, though I always prefer to play it with the higher player counts. There are two-player rules included with the game, but they’re pretty terrible. Enter 7 Wonders: Duel. This game, designed only for two players, takes the basic concepts of 7 Wonders, and instead of card drafting inserts a game of pyramid solitaire. Unless you’re a big solitaire fan, that probably doesn’t sound very appealing, but they use the mechanic well. Instead of choosing a card from your hand, you can choose from any card uncovered in the pyramid. Some cards start each round face down so you can’t completely predict what cards will be revealed, but there’s a surprising amount of tactical decisions to be made. Add to that major changes to the military and science systems, a changed system for building wonders, and several other system tweaks, and what you have is a really great version of 7 Wonders that feels like the original game, but plays a little faster.

7.  Blood Rage by Cool Mini Or Not

BloodRageThe only board game on this list I don’t own (*yet), Blood Rage was one of the most hyped games coming out of GenCon this year. Thematically, it’s a game about Vikings pillaging the nine Norse realms as Ragnarok begins to destroy the world one realm at a time. Mechanically, this game is a Frankenstein of some of the best elements of other games that works so much better than it has any right to. Take a little card drafting from 7 Wonders, sprinkle in an energy system from Core Worlds, a combat system that’s part Area Control and part Cosmic Encounter, and an empire upgrade system like Eclipse and you get this game that feels familiar and strange at the same time. Oh, and the miniatures. This game features some of the best miniatures of any game I’ve ever seen, which is what you expect from Cool Mini or Not.

I’ve had a chance to play this game a few times now. The theme is strong, and really shines through all the game systems at work here. Blood Rage is unsurprisingly not for the faint of heart. It’s strategic, and brutally punishing of mistakes. Almost every game I’ve played has left someone feeling hard done by. Miscalculations or combat surprises early in a round can severely cripple you for the rest of that round. With only nine territories to compete over, you’ll be fighting multiple times each age, but unlike many direct combat games, winning isn’t everything. In fact, sometimes you’ll send your units deliberately into a fight just so they’ll die and go to Valhalla, since there are several ways to make a glorious death profitable, sometimes even more profitable than winning a fight outright. Then there’s Ragnarok. Each turn, one area on the board is destroyed, and any units in that territory at the time earn glory for their clan simply for having died in Ragnarok. I still don’t feel like I’ve been get my mind around how to win, and I love that.

6.  Tiny Epic Galaxies by Gamelyn Games

TinyEpicGalaxiesThe Tiny Epic series of games has been mostly a dud for me, until Tiny Epic Galaxies, the third in this line of pocket games created by Scott Almes. Tiny Epic Galaxies is a game for one to four players where each player controls a small system of planets and uses ships to try and colonize new systems or raid systems for resources. Actions are determined by dice rolls, and the game rules include a few ways to manipulate dice if you get stuck with an unfavorable roll. There’s two main currencies in the game, energy and culture. Both can be spent in increasing increments to upgrade your empire, but energy can also be spent to take additional rerolls, and culture can be used to copy the actions other players are taking. This leaves you constantly invested while other players are taking their turns, if you have culture to spend. Colonizing new systems earns you points and gives you access to new special powers, and the game ends when the first player reaches 21 points worth of new colonies. Additionally, the game includes rules for an incredibly challenging single player mode, and all of this comes in a box slightly larger than two decks of cards.

The game is surprisingly strategic, and competition over available systems can be incredibly tight, especially when playing with four. There are difficult choices to be made throughout the game, weighing whether to improve your empire, stock up on resources, or push to colonize a system before someone else can steal it. There are also really interesting combos that can be achieved by chaining together actions between systems you control and uncolonized planets. The ability to spend culture to duplicate the actions of other players can be a huge, effectively either giving you additional actions or forcing other players to avoid taking an action they know will benefit you more. The size of the game makes it easy to carry with you just about anywhere, which is awesome for a game with so much depth and replayability. There’s just so much variety in such a small package that I highly recommend it.

This ends Part 1 of my Top 10 Best Board Games of 2015. What did you think of picks 6-10 and my Honorable Mentions? Comment below with your thoughts!

Also, stay tuned for the Top 5 Best Board Games of 2015, coming soon!

Top 10 Board Games of 2015: Part 1

Pandemic: Legacy – Case Files #3 (SPOILERS)

(Please note that this article and others in the series may contain spoilers for the game’s progression, events, and content. While each post covers specific “months” of game play, there are times things occur in different orders or out of place and might spoil something for a future month.)

Welcome back to my playthrough experience of Pandemic: Legacy.  Be sure to check out my introduction and initial playthrough of January here and the previous Case Files report here.

When we last left off, despite a rocky start in January, we had just rattled off four successful months in a row.  The dreaded Zombie Plague classified as C0dA is still running rampant, and while we were narrowly able to pull out a victory in May, things are looking pretty bleak moving forward.  At this point you should know that SPOILERS ARE COMING, but I’ll say it anyway.

Pandemic Legacy: Case History

Game 7: June

Dagin – Quarantine Specialist (Jamima Buttersworth)
Adam – Researcher (Susie Broadchest III)
Nick – Soldier (Rooster Cogburn)
Dave – Medic (Aaron)

We went into June knowing that there would be no Funding Action support from the government. This means we’ll have no special cards to play from the Player Deck, and we lose the extra turn those cards add.

AloneWe discovered to begin the month that there would be other help coming in the form of Equipment Upgrades. Several new stickers were revealed that contained upgrades we could attach to City Cards in our hands that grant the card an additional effect. Some upgrades can only be attached at Military Bases, others only at Research Stations. Some examples are HazMat Suits, which allow a character to discard that card to avoid taking a Scar when starting in a city with Faded, or Hand Grenades, which allow a player to discard that card to remove one Faded token from the player’s current city. Aside from that new wrinkle, we were also introduced to a new playable character, the Soldier. The Soldier cannot research cures, but can remain in a city with Faded without taking Scars, and as an action can gain an Equipment card from the Discard pile.

Nick decides to play the Soldier, which he names Rooster Cogburn, and establishes a Rivalry with Susie Broadchest III.  Turns out everyone is jealous of Susie’s status as the lone civilian in the fight right now.  I debate whether to bring in the Researcher or the Scientist, but we ultimately decide the Researcher does more good for the group. Dave and Dagin continue to play their roles as Medic and Quarantine Specialist respectively.

After the initial setup, which includes a modest number of Faded already beginning on the board, we set to work. We place our initial roadblock tokens to keep the Faded from spreading out of the most heavily infected cities. Dagin, now operating out of our Military Base in Istanbul, is amazing at Quarantining everything near Istanbul, often able to place 4 Quarantine Tokens per turn. Nick, working out his new Soldier role, starts laying waste to Faded in the hotspots.

seanOfTheDead

The one problem we’re having is that no one is really getting multiples of any given color, so researching cures for diseases is going slowly. Dave and Adam have to spread out to keep things from getting out of control around the world, and eventually we concede there may just have to be some problem spots that we ignore so we can focus on researching the cures and making sure we keep 7 cities quarantined so we can complete the required goals.

Once again, Mortenson Syndrome (Red) is cured and eradicated pretty quickly, but both Sad Pandaitis (Blue) and Walken Fever (Yellow) are taking too long. We research the cure to Sad Pandaitis, but are struggling with Walken Fever, which is spreading through Africa. Meanwhile, we start tripping an unfortunate number of Outbreaks: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Lagos, and Johannesburg all crop up. Shortly after triggering the final Epidemic, we get all the needed cards to Dagin, who is able to research the cure for Walken Fever, so now it’s a rush to place enough Quarantine Tokens to cover 7 Faded Cities before we run out of cards, which we just barely manage to pull off. We end the game with only 1 Yellow Cube remaining, and with more than half of the yellow cities poised for chained Outbreaks. We eke out a hard-fought victory, much to our relief.

A view of the board state after our narrow victory!

A view of the board state after our narrow victory!

Current Record: 5–2

After finishing the round, we reveal the next Legacy Deck card, which grants us our win bonus for next month of either 3 initial roadblocks like in June, or attaching one piece of Equipment at the start of the game. Our Funding Level remains at 0, so that’s not encouraging, but we’re excited to move forward. For our Game End Upgrades, we decide to use some of the character abilities, so we give Susie Broadchest III two upgrades, one that allows her to now have a hand size of 8 cards (instead of 7), and one that allows her to charter direct flights by showing, but not discarding, the destination city card.This is what happens when everyone tries to make it up to her for always getting her name wrong.  With that, we’re all ready to move on to July.

It gets a little lonely on the top, but there's no glass ceiling for Susie.

It gets a little lonely on the top, but there’s no glass ceiling for Sally. (I mean Susie.  Darn it, I did it again)

Game 8: July

Dagin – Quarantine Specialist (Jamima Buttersworth)
Adam – Researcher (Susie Broadchest III)
Nick – Soldier (Rooster Cogburn)
Dave – Medic (Aaron)

We all decide to stick with the same cast of characters, but as we reveal the new surprise for the month, a whole new mini-game is introduced. We’re informed that a Virologist doing research on C0dA has become lost, and was last seen at a Research Station in C0dA territory. The mini-game mechanics allow players as an action to discard cards matching the same color at a Research Station to represent search and rescue operations at those locations. Extra points are earned for discarding the card belonging to the city with the research station. You begin the round with 0 points, and the search target begins at 6. Every time an Epidemic comes, the search target advances along the track and becomes harder to locate. We reveal a new goal card telling us that retrieving the Virologist is now one of the objectives we can work towards, and are given a card with a large scratch-out block to be revealed if we successfully rescue her. Not sure why we decided the Virologist was female, but we all seemed to think it was, so we stuck with it.

The Search Mini-Game. You need to try to finish these while also still completing the actual game of Pandemic you're playing.

The Search Mini-Game. You need to try to finish these while also still completing the actual game of Pandemic you’re playing.

Our plan was to try and get Nick’s Soldier to get one of the Equipment cards so he can just discard to search and pick it back up again for his characters ability, which was a great plan, and was even rather effective. We rescued the Virologist by Nick’s second turn. This was about the only thing that went well this game.

In short, the massive outbreak of C0dA that we’d been fearing finally happened. It started in the game setup when our Forward Operating Base of Istanbul took two Faded before we could do anything. Five of the first 9 infected cities were Black, including two each in the 2- and 3-cube setup steps. With Dagin having to play first, it meant Istanbul was off-limits until we could clear it out, and without the Colonel, it meant we needed the Soldier to draw into a Grenade. In the mean time, there was a massive wall of Faded between Hong Kong, where we were forced to start, and Istanbul.

There's just too many of them. The Middle East is just a loss this month.

There’s just too many of them. The Middle East is just a loss this month.

It was all just downhill from there. Dagin was barely able to extend his Quarantine bubble because he didn’t want to end his turn in a city with Faded. Nick was so focused on rescuing the Virologist that we didn’t make any headway into Faded cities. By our second Epidemic, we were triggering Outbreak after Outbreak. Dave and I couldn’t do much but sit and watch, helpless to do much about C0dA. We managed to research the cure for Red, but immediately following our second Epidemic, we triggered one of the largest chain Outbreaks I’ve ever seen, spreading across 6 different cities, and since we’d already had 5 Outbreaks before the Epidemic, we lost, and lost badly. City after City fell to rioting. C0dA finally spread outside of the Black territory, with Milan and St. Petersburg falling in Blue territory and Jakarta falling in Red territory. Tehran and Baghdad were the first two cities to reach the Panic Level of 4, which is Collapsing.

Current Record: 5–3

Despite our loss, we did manage to rescue the Virologist, so we tear up that goal card and scratch off the block on the card. We now have the gene sequence to C0dA, but she informs us we need to work with a special Immunologist to develop a formula. We all assume this means there will be another Searching quest to be done in August, but we have to make it through July to figure that out. The Virologist also casually mentions that we should stop taking the retrovirus being distributed by the military, which is in reality just a placebo.

The board state following our loss in July. Not good...

The board state following our loss in July. Not good…

Things are now looking VERY serious across the Black territory. Every single Black city is now corrupted, as well as 3 non-Black cities. Eight of the twelve cities are now at least in Rioting, which means almost no flights in or out of those cities, which as we saw can make things very difficult if you can’t start in the middle and clear things out first. One other nagging concern we have is that Tehran, ground zero for the spread of Faded, is now in a Collapsing state. We still don’t know what significance that will have for us, but I’m guessing it’s not a positive development.

On a positive note, it does mean we will receive some Government Aid in the form of two Funded Action cards, which will be really helpful to have access to again. We decide because of how bad things went without being able to access Istanbul that we should make the Military Base we built in Delhi permanent. Delhi is now one of only three cities in the Black region that has not yet seen a Panic Level increase. We also give the soldier an ability that allows him to remove a Faded cube from a city he leaves behind. It should give him a little more firepower for clearing things out if we use him for our second attempt at July.

To update you on how the world now stands, here’s how things changed in the last two games:

Panic Levels Blue Cities Yellow Cities Black Cities Red Cities
Unaffected 8 5 (-1) 3 (-2) 10
Unstable 2 (-1) 3 (-1) 1 (-5) 2
Rioting 2 1 (+1) 4 (+2) 5 (+5)
Rioting 3 1 1
Collapsing 2 (+2)
Fallen
Faded 2 / 12 Infected 12 / 12 Infected 1 / 12 Infected

As an interesting side development, while opening packets at the beginning of July, I accidentally opened the wrong door. I revealed a set of new Action stickers that allow us to sabotage Military Bases. We put it back immediately once I realized the mistake, but that really threw us for a loop. We rely heavily on our bases right now, so sometime between now and whenever those stickers should be opened, the story is going to turn against us to have us working against the military(?!). It’s a little like watching an episode of your favorite TV show 4 episodes ahead of where you’ve watched, so half of it doesn’t make sense, and then you try to figure out how you got from here to there. We don’t have a clue yet, but the possibilities are certainly intriguing. Rather than spoil it, I think it gives us an even more heightened sense of anticipation. Is the military going to set us up to fail? Weaponize C0dA? Steal our research? Why would we want to sabotage those bases if C0dA is still running wild through the Middle East? So many questions, and we’ll find out soon enough.

Game 9: July – Take 2

Dagin – Quarantine Specialist (Jamima Buttersworth)
Dave – Medic (Aaron)
Adam – Researcher (Susie Broadchest III)
Nick – Soldier (Rooster Cogburn)

To begin the month, four of the first nine cities infected are Faded cities, though only three were originally C0dA. The newly faded Jakarta is also in the mix. There’s also a large portion of North America showing signs of infection this month. Since we completed the Virologist quest last month, we’re back to our ‘standard’ set of goals. We decide to set up road blocks preventing anyone else in Red territory from having access to Jakarta, and begin play.

We sort of fall into our default roles. Rooster Cogburn’s new ability allows him to kill Faded as he leaves those cities, so most of his turns are spent hoping around between Faded cities. The Soldier role is most useful with Equipment, and while he has some (A HazMat Suit), what he really needs is the Grenade to be effective. We don’t see any of those for a long time. Aunt Jemima begins doing her Quarantine thing, while the Medic and Researcher each leave for North America and Asia respectively.

Animated GIF from our playthrough of July the second time. I took a picture every time it came back around to my turn. Click for a larger view.

Animated GIF from our playthrough of July the second time. I took a picture every time it came back around to my turn. Click for a larger view.

It took us a couple of loops around to the table to release we were in trouble. Initially, it felt like most things were in control, but before long, most of North America was crawling with disease. As we tried to tamp that down, northern Asia also started to get out of control. We’re also having trouble putting together the right sets of cards to research cures. This is also the first game we start to feel the pain of having so many cities Rioting. Since we can’t charter flights in or out of rioting cities, it makes some of our efforts in trying to move around the globe quickly that much harder. We’re forced to lean on the Military Bases (which cannot be used for travel by the Researcher) and Research Stations, which slow that down considerably.

The doom sets in once we look up and see that we’ll only have one more rotation around the table before we run out of Player Deck cards, and only Mortensen Syndrome has been cured, though Dagin and Dave each have the cures for Blue and Yellow in hand. That would be great, but we need to satisfy two other goals besides researching cures.  We originally focused on trying to eradicate diseases along with the 7 Quarantines goal, but once we realize there’s no way to stem the spread of any of our cured diseases in time, we shift to trying to get 6 Military Bases in the separate regions. By the time it gets to my turn, the last round of the game, I am able to construct Military Bases numbers 5 & 6, but Dagin’s Quarantine net was broken, so we only satisfy two of the required goals when we run out of cards in the Player Deck. July it turns out is just not our month.

gameOverAliens

Current Record: 5–4

We tear up the card that would have been July’s win bonus, then set about to decide on game end upgrades. After some discussion, we decide to place two more permanent Military Bases in Miami and Bogota. This means if we do need to fall back on the 6 Bases goal, we’d just need to construct one more somewhere in the Far East, and usually the Red region is pretty friendly to us. Just not in July. Because we lost, our Funding Level increases back to 4, which is the silver lining of a bad month, I suppose.

Game 10: August

Dave – Medic (Aaron)
Adam – Researcher (Susie Broadchest III)
Nick – Soldier (Rooster Cogburn)
Dagin – Quarantine Specialist (Jamima Buttersworth)

The Mission Briefings for July and August. Gotta catch 'em all.

The Mission Briefings for July and August. Gotta catch ’em all.

Following the search for our Virologist in July, our August mission briefing instructs us to commence a search for the Immunologist hinted at earlier in July. Apparently he has been lost hopping about through Rioting cities in C0dA territory, and we need to go find him. I guess this is the one time where having a bunch of cities rioting is a positive thing. We’re given a new search track, and the difficulty is slightly harder to catch the Immunologist, though it’s easier for us to get to locations to perform searches, since any of about 6 cities would work. We’re also instructed to focus on dealing with C0dA, and the goal card to eradicate one disease is torn up and gone.

We also discover a new Action that players can take: Self Sacrifice! Players can add a Scar to their character to skip the Infect step of the turn! This is like having the One Quiet Night Funding Action card available at almost any time. In light of this new revelation, we pull out all the Scar effects, and identify a couple that aren’t terribly inconveniencing. Turns out there aren’t very many of those. There are several new pieces of Equipment revealed, including Binoculars, which move you an additional two points on the search track when you discard that card.

To start the game, we realize there’s a great opportunity to make progress in Chennai. Dave has this card to start the game, which had a HazMat Suit Equipment on it, which we then replace with Binoculars. He discards the card to search, which allows Nick to pick it up later. What it effectively allows us to do early in the game is find the Immunologist by Nick’s second turn. In essence, the Military asked us to find this guys running around the Middle East, and the Soldier grabs a pair of binoculars and says, “Oh, he’s right there.”

Our first character scars. No too bad, but they get worse from here.

Our first character scars. No too bad, but they get worse from here.

Following Dave’s first turn, however, before we have a chance to place a Quarantine marker in Istanbul, the Istanbul card comes up, and a Faded is placed in Istanbul, where all the rest of us are waiting for our first turn. Rooster Cogburn doesn’t care about Faded, and he’ll easily be able to take care of it before Dagin’s turn. I don’t have the same luck. When my turn starts, I have to take the first Scar of the game. Susie takes the Indicisive scar, meaning she can no longer place Road Blocks. This is an action we probably aren’t using as much as we should, but it seemed the least impactful for her role.

With a lot of early cards coming up in the Middle East again, we decide we’re going to clamp down hard on the rest of the world. In an unusual turn for us, Mortenson Syndrome is really running amok, especially in Seoul, which experiences two Outbreaks during the game. Unlike last game, however, we’re getting pretty good Player card draws, and each player is without meaning to naturally collecting cards of different colors.

We do decide after a particularly nasty turn in Europe to have Rooster Cogburn take a Scar to prevent the Infect step during a turn, and Rooster ends up taking the Overcautious Scar, meaning he needs one extra card of a disease color to research a disease cure, which is fine for us, since he can’t research cures anyway.

The board at the end of August.

The board at the end of August.

Our goal quickly becomes to place one new Military Base in the Far East, which we place in Osaka, and then leave Asia to be devoured by Mortenson Syndrome. Between that and finding the Immunologist, we just need to finish researching the three cures to complete the month. In the process, we strike at a chance to eradicate Yellow, which Dave manages to pull off with the Medic’s super curing ability once a cure has been found. Even though things in Europe were pretty dicey, we finish researching our cures, and successfully complete August.

seanOfTheDead2

Current Record: 6–4

Once we scratch off the Immunologist card, he informs us that he suspects this virus was bio-engineered, but can’t say by whom. To create a vaccine, we’re told he needs three things: A Gene Sequence for C0dA (which we already have courtesy of the Virologist rescued in July), some DNA Samples, and Virus Development Records that would document how it was created if it is a man-made strain.

The Virologist and Immunologist cards, after they've been found.

The Virologist and Immunologist cards, after they’ve been found.

Looking ahead, we assume next month we’ll be sent to search for DNA Samples at a minimum. The victory bonus for August seems to confirm that, since it gives us a one-time bump along the Search track for either one or two search tracks (which I guess would be needed if you hadn’t been able to find the Virologist or Immunologist by this point).

nuclearOptionThere are a few new upgrades that are opened up at the end of the month, including new Equipment, a new Character Upgrade, and a card I’ve been wondering about this whole time: the Nuclear Option! This upgrade attaches to any City card in the Player Deck. It can be played at any time to nuke the city shown on the card. This means it kills all faded tokens in that city, you then tear up both the Infection card and Player card involved, and the city immediately moves to a Panic Level of Fallen.

We talk about this card quite a bit, but decide since we managed to eradicate something other than Mortenson Syndrome for the first time since March, we need to add some Positive Mutations to Walken Fever.

We also get a new character, the Virologist! She’s now a playable character (whose gender we guessed correctly) because we’ve rescued her (her card says she can’t be played until she’s been rescued). She can ‘cure’ a Faded in any city by discarding a Black card, or clear out all Faded in a city if she discards that card while in that city. Cool, but as we’ve been learning with the soldier, having a character totally dependent upon the Player Deck draws can make things very difficult.

Let’s take a look at how things have changed in Panic Level around the world. No new cities fell to the Faded, which is good. Blue took the worse hit, with Outbreaks happening on both sides of the Atlantic. Black didn’t really change at all, which is to say it’s still bad, but didn’t get any worse. Seoul went from completely unaffected to major rioting. But, given how bad July was for us, it could have been worse.

Panic Levels Blue Cities Yellow Cities Black Cities Red Cities
Unaffected 5 (-3) 4 (-1) 3 9 (-1)
Unstable 5 (+3) 3 1 2
Rioting 2 1 5 (+1) 5
Rioting 3 1 1 1 (+1)
Collapsing 2
Fallen
Faded 2 / 12 Infected 12 / 12 Infected 1 / 12 Infected
Map state at the end of August.

Map state at the end of August.

This puts us now two-thirds of the way through Pandemic: Legacy. We’ve got four months left to play, and I couldn’t be more excited to see how this plays out. It seems pretty clear the government has been orchestrating C0dA, so how that plays out as we get closer to wrapping up the game will be interesting.  And just to put it out there, we will be nuking something.  It may take us all the way to December to pull it off, but you can’t give me a nuclear weapon in a game like this and not expect us to use it.  After all…

Ripley's Advice

Enjoying this story?  Hating it?  Got suggestions for things you’d like to see or questions you’d like to ask?  Let me know if there’s something you’d like to see in my playthroughs going forward. Just leave me a comment down below.

Pandemic: Legacy – Case Files #3 (SPOILERS)

Citadels the Card Game, a Recommendation

Citadels is an excellent casual card game that is best described as something like Texas Hold’em done with a DnD theme. Coming out back in 2000 from France and winning many game awards the game is recommended for ages 10 and up. Anywhere from two to eight players can play and it actually plays quite well with just two players if need be. Set up can be done in under 5 minutes and play times range from 50 minutes to longer spans of about 1 hour and 20 minutes if the game has to be explained as it goes. Like a lot of other German style or Euro board games, Citadels downplays luck in favor of strategy and tends to be more indirect in its character interaction. And unlike a game like Monopoly where players are eliminated, Citadels keeps all players actively involved up until the very end.

Game MaterialCitadels Stuff in da box

The game comes with instructions, coins, a card deck and king token (used to keep track of who goes first). The deck consists character cards and various districts that are superbly rendered. The districts cards are of certain domains and each round of the consists of taking these district cards into your hand or instead taking coins. District cards are built by spending the coins. The types of districts are; Royal (Yellow), Business (Green), Religious (Blue), and Military (Red). These have the cost in gold coins in the upper left to build and once a set number of districts are built the game is over and the cost in the upper left is tallied and the winner is determined.

There are also some special districts colored purple that imbue the owner some special abilities that give the owner a slight advantage. The more expensive the purple card is, the stronger the perk. A purple card could allow you to get more coins or make it harder for you opponents harm you for example. The purple cards change things up and make the game hard to predict as you never know just what people will put down and play midway through. The person to be the first to build a set number of districts and crosses the finish line first gets a score bonus. Also if the person has one color of every districts , including a special purple one, another bonus is given. Scores are easily tallied and the winner is determined. Generally, the first one to finish wins, but not always. Something to consider when you build your last district is whether or not your final score will be greater than that of others.

CharactersCitadels 02

But the main grab of the game is the unique persona a person chooses every round. 9 different characters are in play at anyone time and they go in numerical order of play, from low to high. The number on the face of the card, in the upper left. Players secretly pick the character they’ll be using that round and no one is ever a hundred percent sure who will be who then the round starts. The characters are linked to the colors of the domains found in the upper right of the card near the number. And if, for example, you are the Merchant who is green then you will get an extra gold coin during your turn for every green property that you have built, a sneaky way to collect extra money that will in turn help you build the more expensive districts.

These characters also grant certain abilities to the player. The the Warlord, who is red, can destroy other players districts for a price. The Bishop(Blue) has special protection from the Warlord and the Wizard can swap the card in his hand with his own, even if he has no cards at all. The Assassin goes first and can chose any character to kill, the player is basically skipped that round, devastating. But you have to target the character not the player. So if you want to kill your friend beside you before he wins you’ll need to guess what character he will be, announcing it after everyone has picked their class but before the round has begun. The Thief functions like the Assassin and as you may have guessed, he steals a person’s coins. Most games of Citadel are about hiding from the Assassin and the Thief but its harder than you might think.

This is what makes the game so good. Never knowing what character people are going to be playing that round. You can look at what districts they have and guess what character they’ll pick. Say if that person has no coins and some blue religious districts he may take the Bishop, he may be a good target for an assassin. On the other hand, a player may have some red districts and have an ax to grind so they may take the Warlord, they may be a good target for a clever Thief who realizes this. In many ways its like Texas Hold’em, you know what everyone has on the table and using this you kinda have to guess their game plan. Are they bluffing or will they go straight for the plain and obvious.

 

Game play Advicecitadels_card hand

Some general advice for the game is pretty simple, it’s all about turning coin into districts , all else is an means to an end. Some characters have to guess what persona you are that round but others are able to target a person’s hand or what that person has built. because of this its real easy for player who has been knocked out of contention to still affect the game’s outcome by sabotaging the leaders. This won’t make for a come back possible, it just lets a person who has been burned get some revenge. As a consequence of the easy revenge its often best to maintain a low profile until you pull into the lead, and when you do make it quick and try not to hold a grudge yourself, let others do you dirty work.

Summary

This is a fun little game that just about anyone can pick up and play. After a couple rounds people get the hang of it and after the first game they’ll have it down. The social interaction and simple game mechanics ensure even the most casual board game player can not only pick this up quickly but have fun with it. The game can be found on amazon and some game stores, and from time to time Citadels can be spotted in Barnes and Noble. But I’d recommend you buy some card sleeves as the character cards do not wear evenly and become easily identifiable, ruining the mystery of who is playing who. This is an excellent, quick to pick up, card game that is great addition to your board game night or to be used to liven up party with friends.

citadels4

Citadels the Card Game, a Recommendation

Top 6 Halloween Themed Board Games

Some board games are evergreens, playable all year round. Some games are only playable in certain conditions. Perhaps they have certain player count requirements that are hard to meet, or the style of game only works for certain gamers, or the length is either too long or too short for some people. Some games, like some of the ones I’ll be mentioning below, only come out when the mood is right. Halloween always makes me want to break out games that fit the season.

For me, a great Halloween-themed game needs to explore settings that feature terror or horror as a key element of the experience.  They might involve famous monsters or haunted landscapes, but without question, they need to allow me and my friends to experience something together.

With some good music and a few willing players, you can create your own great Halloween gaming memories. Presented below are my Top 6 recommendations for creating that Halloween theme at your Halloween Game Nights (along with a few alternate choices for the more experienced gamers out there).

 

Top 6 Halloween Board Games

6.  A Touch of Evil: The Supernatural Game by Flying Frog Productions
The best Dinner Theatre Troop money can provide!

The best Dinner Theatre Troop money can provide!

A Touch of Evil: The Supernatural Game is set in the early 19th century. This game definitely draws upon settings like Sleepy Hollow to create a Gothic horror vibe where witches and vampires and other horrors stalk the night. The players choose to play one of several heroes trying to work together to save the town of Shadowbrook. There is a different play mode that allows you to compete to save the town the best, but you should avoid this like the plague. This game definitely borrows mechanics from other games, some of which do those things better, but the game just has a cheesy charm (the tone of which is set with the artwork, which looks like a dinner theatre troop about to do a murder mystery show) that has yet to really be recreated in any other game. The reality is, there just aren’t any other games that explore this setting, at least that do it well, and this game rewards committing to the silliness.

5.  Last Night on Earth by Flying Frog Productions
Get your B Movie on and get ready to kill some Zombies

Get your B Movie on and get ready to kill some Zombies

You can’t talk Halloween games without mentioning zombies. With the rise of The Walking Dead and zombies generally in pop culture, it’s been a theme that a number of game publishers have approached to cash in on. Very few of them are good, but the few that are can be really good. I chose Last Night on Earth, not because I think it’s the best zombie game, but because I think this game has the best combination of serious and silly from the “B Movie” tradition. The characters are clichés, the scenarios all feel vaguely familiar, but the whole can be richly entertaining. There are some expansions that add good stuff, but the base game contains enough to be entertaining. I also think this is one of the easiest games to jump into for new players, which is always a positive.

Honorable Mentions: Dead of Winter by Plaid Hat Games, City of Horror by Asmodee Editions, Zombicide by Guillotine Games

4.  Werewolf by Andrew Plotkin (Multiple Publishers)
The Ultimate version of Werewolf, capable of up to 75 players (!!!)

The Ultimate version of Werewolf, capable of up to 75 players (!!!)

Werewolf is one of the pioneers of hidden role games. It feels like it’s been around a long time, even though it was created back in 1997 (and the original game it was based on, Mafia, was only developed in 1986). At its core, Werewolf, and all it’s variations, is a team game focused on two sides: villagers trying to survive, and werewolves who are slowly thinning the herd, with a moderator helping enforce the roles and drive the game. The werewolves know who the other werewolves are, but the other villagers have no idea who the werewolves among them are. The goal of the game is for the villagers to try and identify the werewolves and hang them during the day before the werewolves have eaten too many of their number during the night.

This game is a fantastic game for large parties, since it requires typically at least eight people to play. It does require a good moderator, either an experienced player or someone with a touch for the dramatic, especially as more custom roles are added to the game. Done right, Werewolf is a fantastic deduction game that is great for large settings and adds as much Halloween flavor as you bring in to it.

Honorable Mention: One Night Ultimate Werewolf by Bezier Games

3.  Eldritch Horror by Fantasy Flight Games
Eldritch Horror - All the Tentacles you can stand

Eldritch Horror – All the Tentacles you can stand

You can’t very well talk about great Halloween themes without mentioning H.P. Lovecraft. These days, there are lots of games that feature the Cthulu mythos in some form or another, but only a few try to take the theme seriously, and even fewer of those are actually enjoyable to play. In Eldritch Horror, players are working together, racing against time to prevent the advent of one of the Ancient Ones and beat back the waves of horrors beginning to spread across the earth. The game really captures the Lovecraft theme well, and can be very challenging. To me, this game strikes the right balance between immersion and length. While the game is capable of playing up to eight players, I would personally never play it with more than four.

It’s worth giving more than a mere mention to Arkham Horror here, the grandfather of Lovecraft games. None do it bigger, and the expansions add tons of options and elements straight from Lovecraft. Its strength is also its weakness: there are so many expansions and options that no other game rivals it in depth, but that depth comes with an almost exponential increase in complexity. The game, even in it’s base form, is just so long to play that unless you are prepared to commit four to eight hours to it, not to mention the setup time, it’s just not worth the investment. Additionally, most players who have the game and the expansions are really reluctant to play without them, since it’s so hard to get to the table. I’ve never yet seen or played a game that didn’t involve the game stopping multiple times while some arcane rule or another had to be searched out of the right rules booklet. I would almost never consider playing this game with new players. Eldritch Horror gives a similar feel in a shorter playing time, still likely two to three hours, and in my mind is the superior game.

Honorable Mention: Mansions of Madness by Fantasy Flight Games

2.  Fury of Dracula by Fantasy Flight Games
Fury of Dracula, 2nd Edition - One of the best hidden movement games out there

Fury of Dracula, 2nd Edition – One of the best hidden movement games out there

There is no denying the influence of vampires in our society. Bram Stoker’s version of Dracula is far and away the gold standard. This story has been told and retold so many times over the years, and there’s just something compelling about the character of Dracula that draws us back. That’s why Fury of Dracula is my pick for the game that best represents this theme. This game is set in the time frame roughly eight years following the events of Stoker’s novel and features many of the characters from that novel. One player plays Dracula, moving around Europe, trying to expand his following and create more vampires and expand his influence. The players represent those few characters actively trying to stop Dracula before he becomes too powerful. It’s a game of cat and mouse, with Dracula either trying to remain one step ahead of his pursuers or trying to lay traps for them to take them out before they can stop him. I really enjoy hidden movement games, and this is one of the gems of this genre, dripping with theme. It’s been out of print for a while, but is being reprinted next month, and is definitely worth your consideration.

Honorable Mention: Letters from Whitechapel by Fantasy Flight Games (same concept, but detectives chasing Jack the Ripper in London)

1.  Betrayal at House on the Hill by Wizards of the Coast
I have a great idea, guys. Let's split up! What could go wrong?

I have a great idea, guys. Let’s split up! What could go wrong?

This game feels like a movie you’ve seen a hundred times: a band of strangers wanders into a Haunted House and gets stuck. You have a varied cast of clichéd characters, such as teenage babysitter, high school jock, old priest, and creepy little girl, all coming together, though no one knows why. Rather than doing the sensible thing, the strangers begin to split up and explore the house. As they do, mysterious things being to happen, challenging players physically and mentally. Once the game progresses to a certain point, the Haunt begins, which is where this game really excels. While all the players have been working together to this point, you learn that one person in the group has lured everyone here under false pretenses, and their plot to secretly murder the rest of the group is revealed. The game then switches to become a One-v-All game until one side emerges. There are 50 different possible Haunt scenarios that come with the game, and tons more available online to mix things up if that’s not enough. Rich with theme, this game more than any other makes for a fun Halloween experience. It feels like you’re acting out a bad B-Movie the entire time, and the way the game manages to sustain the suspense of what’s really going on is fantastic. This game isn’t perfect, but it is one of a kind. Betrayal at House on the Hill creates fantastic stories, and is my clear number one choice for best Halloween themed game to play.

A house like this just screams "Explore me. No evil murders here."

A house like this just screams “Explore me. No evil murders here.”

So, what do you think? Are there games I left off this list? Are there other games that you only feel like playing at certain times of the year? What’s on your Halloween must play list? Let me know in the comments below.

Top 6 Halloween Themed Board Games

The Magic Circle and the Rise of Modern Board Gaming

Board gaming as a hobby is on the rise, and not just in the United States. Perhaps you’ve barely noticed, wondering why Target or Walmart now has a lot more shelf space devoted to (mostly terrible mass market) games. Perhaps you only play video games and don’t get what all the fuss is about. Perhaps you’ve seen the Wil Wheaton Table Top show on YouTube and wonder how on Earth there can be so many games they play week after week. Perhaps you know someone like me who has a whole closet full of board games of their own and is always proselytizing the hobby. Or perhaps you are already like me, and you don’t wonder why anymore.

Today I want to talk about why we play games and how that relates to why board gaming is on the rise. That’s a pretty abstract concept and one with a lot of room for personal approaches and opinions. We’re going to get a little theoretical and while many of the things I’ll be talking about don’t apply exclusively to board games, my hope is to convince you why so many people are putting down controllers and playing with dice and cardboard instead.

We need to start with some background. When I talk about Modern Board Gaming, I am not referring to many of the games that used to (and in many people’s minds still do) define this hobby. I’m not talking about Monopoly or Scrabble or Sorry or most of the games that many of us played when we were kids. While there’s nothing wrong with those games (except Monopoly, which is a terrible game, but that’s another topic), they just lack something. Playing Scrabble isn’t an experience, it’s a pastime. When my family sat down to play Uno, which we did a lot, it was fun to be together, but aside from the occasional stories of when someone got stuck having to draw a ridiculous amount of cards, playing always felt more like a way to just enjoy spending time together as opposed to playing a great game.

Playing Chun-Li is bad, and you should feel bad...

Playing Chun-Li is bad, and you should feel bad…

As I got older, two games dominated much of my teenage years: RISK and Street Fighter II (for Super Nintendo; it just wasn’t the same experience on Genesis). I had a circle of friends that got together weekly or bi-weekly to play RISK. The games were cutthroat. We had our own set of house rules that had evolved over time, and we loved it. Similarly, many of us really got into playing the Tournament mode in Street Fighter II. Everyone got to pick a character, and we would run through tournaments or call next any chance we could get. That experience also developed it’s own set of house rules (like using Chun-Li was cheap and always a sign of desperation). Trash talking was a requirement at both games.  It occasionally got heated, but we enjoyed playing together and when we weren’t playing, we were talking about things that had happened last time or planning the next time.

The Magic Circle and Gaming

These gaming experiences first introduced me to the game theory concept of the Magic Circle. Johan Huizinga is credited as the originator of this theory. In his work “Home Ludens” in 1955, he describes it like this:

“All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course… The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e., forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules [apply]. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

A much better description of the Magic Circle can be found on the Extra Credits YouTube channel, a fantastic channel focused primarily on video game design.

The key thing to understand about the Magic Circle is the way it enables experiences. We define a space in which we can change the way we act, change who we are, accept that things behave differently than reality, and as long as we agree to commit to that change in reality and are surrounded by others who also agree to that change, we can actually experience what that world is like. It’s what allows us to act like jerks to our friends in a game, then walk away from it without holding on to that anger (which is usually what happens… usually) because those actions took place within the context of a game where such behavior is expected.

This is not an experience you can get playing Monopoly or The Game of Life; you never actually felt like you were going to college or building hotels, those were just actions you took. In my mind, this experience was perfected by video games with the introduction of split-screen multiplayer. When I try to recall the best experiences I’ve ever had playing video games, it’s been when several friends and I have sat down to play Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64, or Perfect Dark, or Halo 2 on xBox, or Time Splitters 2 on the PS2 (from which I still have a slightly irrational fear of monkeys). We’re all there, sitting in the same physical space, fighting either against each other or against a horde of Bots (or just one DarkSim in Perfect Dark), peeking at each others screens, laughing, trash-talking and playing round after round after round until my fingers hurt.

Anyone who has played this game remembers that sound and the moment of panic when you try to figure out if you're in first place

Anyone who has played this game remembers that moment of panic when you hear the monkeys coming and scramble to figure out if you’re in first place.

Somewhere this experience went away, replaced with online multiplayer.  There are plenty of reasons for this, and plenty of new experiences to be had, but I don’t think it ever spoke to me the way it has others.  Trash talking with strangers through a headset just isn’t the same as trash talking with my friends in the same room.  For me, the Magic Circle broke. MMOs try to recreate that feeling to an extent with guilds and raids, building player communities and relying on graphics and sounds and animations to create the feeling of immersion.  These types of games can create a great single player experience, but I have never felt like that’s a great shared experience, though I will admit that MMOs in general have never been my thing. I found that what I was missing, and what I was really looking for, was that same sense of shared fun I had while playing those great split-screen games.

That’s when I was introduced to the world of modern board games. Games like Monopoly and RISK dominated the gaming world until the 1990s, which saw the release of two huge games that still resonate strongly: Magic: The Gathering in 1993 and Settlers of Catan (now rebranded to be just Catan) in 1995. These two games would bring a massive influx of new gamers into the hobby, and though it began slowly, the hobby has been growing steadily year after year since. Now, there are thousands of games being released annually, and cultural awareness is beginning to seep into the mainstream. But why? Why is it surging the way that it does?

The chief reason I believe they are surging is because of the experiences modern games create. Gone are the days of having to settle for games that just an OK way to kill a few hours on a rainy day. The last five to ten years have seen a wave of games created that are not just fun to play, but which also create vivid, compelling experiences during play. Game designers today understand the power of the Magic Circle and encourage players to commit to the experience of playing their game and embrace the setting and theme. When you do, you get the emotional payoff you get from truly great entertainment. You get stories that endure, and experiences you are eager to repeat. To demonstrate this, I’m going to give three examples of games released recently that I think really excel in this regard and that I’m always looking forward to playing.

Specter Ops by Plaid Hat Games (2015)

specterops

Specter Ops is a One-vs-All style of game where one player plays an agent trying to infiltrate and sabotage an evil corporation’s facility. The other players at the table play hunters trying to track the agent down and eliminate him before he can complete his mission. The agent’s location is secret as long as he remains out of the direct line of sight of any hunter player, and he records all his moves on a pad of paper with a representation of the board map on it. The agent also has a limited supply of equipment he can use to confuse or escape the hunters while attempting to complete his task. The hunters in turn all have special abilities that help them narrow in on where the agent might be hiding or where he wants to go next.  The agent wins if he can destroy three of the four key objectives spread across the board and escape off the board in 40 turns.  Anything short is a victory for the hunters.

This is basically Metal Gear Solid: the Board Game, except the soldiers hunting you are your best friends. Unlike other hidden movement board games, the hunters from the beginning have a rough idea where the agent is hiding. Games feel incredibly tense, with the agent player always sure he’s about to get caught and the hunter players always afraid they’ve been given the slip. During the hunters turn, they all get to scheme together, out loud, to try and figure out how best to track you down while the agent does his best to keep a poker face on, hoping not to be discovered. When the game is over, regardless of which team wins, you have the ability to replay the agent’s turn and relive the match again, discussing where you made clever moves and just how close the hunters were at various points in the game.  I have yet to introduce anyone to this game that hasn’t immediately wanted to play it again.

Legendary Encounters: Predator by Upper Deck Entertainment (2015)

legendary

The Legendary system is a deck-building system, similar to earlier games like Dominion. Players start with a small deck of cards that gives them a limited amount of combat strength and recruiting power that they will use to buy additional, more powerful cards to add to their deck, which grows in power over time. This game recreates the events of the first two Predator films, allowing players to recruit characters from the movies and try to survive, either as humans trying to outlast the Predators, or as Predators tying to hunt the best game and have the largest trophy collection before the end of the game.  Mechanically, this is one of the strongest deck-building games in print right now.  It should be noted this game is for mature players only. The artwork and theme is definitely inline with the movie in terms of violence portrayed.

There are so many great thematic elements woven into the core mechanics of this game. Having the option to play cooperatively against an increasingly difficult assault of mercenaries and Predator attacks feels very tense. When you win, if you do, it’s incredibly satisfying. The game rewards you for working together as a group, so you feel invested the entire time. Where Legendary Encounters: Predator shines compared to its peers is the option to flip the table and play competitively as Predators. Very few of the rules change, but the feeling of the game shifts dramatically. All the mechanics fit the Predator mythology perfectly. And, in a tidbit I feel was designed to make me personally happy, you can combine this version with the Legendary Encounters: Aliens game to play Predators vs. Aliens. I’ve done it, and while I don’t think it’s actually possible to complete the entire scenario, it’s action-packed and brutally unforgiving, which may sound like a bad thing, but not for this franchise. I found it incredibly enjoyable and thematic, and couldn’t wait to play it again.

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game by Plaid Hat Games (2014)

deadofwinter

Plaid Hat Games does a tremendous job designing games with great theming. The easiest way to describe Dead of Winter is to say it’s The Walking Dead set in the arctic north. Dead of Winter is a cooperative game for three to five players with a traitor mechanic, similar to games like the Battlestar Galactica Board Game. This means that while all players are working together to attempt to accomplish a common goal, each player also has a personal goal to achieve that may include betraying the rest of the group to their death and your victory. Each player controls a group of survivors who either perform tasks inside the Colony, the survivor’s arctic headquarters, or venture out to various locations in this abandoned town looking for resources. Each game is scenario-driven, meaning there is a specific objective that has to be met to end the game before a certain time limit has been reached and before the colony’s morale is eradicated. A player only wins if both the story objective was satisfied AND if they completed their own personal objective. This creates situations where even non-betrayer players are forced to sometimes make decisions that benefit themselves at the cost of the colony, and suspicion at the table is ever present.

This game is the clearest example to me of a game that really creates and relies on the Magic Circle to be successful. There are survivor-specific events contained in a Crossroads deck of cards which are assigned each turn that help reinforce the narrative immersion in the setting. The game does such a fantastic job of creating suspicion – even without the presence of a betrayer in the game – that really reflects the game setting well. This element perhaps more than any other is what makes this the most successful zombie game (among the many undead hordes of terrible zombie games) ever made in my opinion.  It’s much more concerned with the interactions between characters and players than with the need to continually fight off the undead, though that threat is always there. This game encourages you to be cagy, to distrust your best friends, to know, in your heart of hearts, that one of your friends has been lying to you the whole game, waiting to betray you at just the right moment and win. And when they pull it off, it’s amazing, and all the mistrust evaporates once the Magic Circle is complete. Even having been betrayed on the cusp of victory, the experience you create stays with you.

This is just a very small sampling of the kinds of games being made today. The world of Modern Board Games is growing all the time and the quality is getting better and better. It costs $13, give or take these days, to go see a great movie. For $50, I can buy a great board game, have the experience of living out my own movie with my friends, and can do it over and over again until I get sick of it, with each experience being unique and memorable.

What games do you like to play with your friends?  Which games help you create the best stories?  Let me know in the comments below.

The Magic Circle and the Rise of Modern Board Gaming

The Trouble with Licensed Games – Part 2

In my last post, I talked about how the key to making a good licensed game is tapping in to what makes that license special and allowing players to experience that for themselves.  Great licensed games allow us to immerse ourselves in that world.  This level of gaming immersion was really first mastered by traditional pen and paper role-playing games, of which Dungeons and Dragons hold prominence.  While not directly a licensed IP (at least not then), D&D was for many players a chance to explore the fantasy realms they grew up with from Tolkien and others.

For me, my first RPG experience was with a licensed IP RPG called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness by Palladium Books.  In this game, you created your own mutant animal character, rolling to determine the extent of the mutation, whether your mutant was secretly trained by ninjas, and what kind of relationship your mutants had with humans.  I made scores of mutant sparrows and wolverines and rhinos to go fight some of the weirdest enemies imaginable.  It was fantastic.  I saw a near-mint copy of the original sourcebook, now long out of print, at a recent convention.  The vendor wanted $100, which seemed ridiculous, but what price do you put on nostalgia?  I almost went and bought it anyway.

TMNT

Maybe not the best system designed, but the nostalgia factor still gets me.

The trouble with RPGs is that they take a lot of time to invest in properly.  They provide the deepest emotional payoffs, but it can be challenging as an adult to find others willing to help you build this common experience.  It’s also impossible short of schizophrenia to engage in these games by yourself.  This is one area in which video games can certainly shine.  When a video game captures the experience of an IP we love, the result can be magical, and, for the company behind it, incredibly lucrative.  Just how much money has LucasArts made again?  And I promise you, if they were to re-release their classic X-Wing and TIE Fighter series of flight simulators today with updated graphics, the internet might near break from glee.

To me, though, the peak period of licensed video game tie-ins seems to have passed.  For every Star Wars: Battlefront we get, we have to wade through tons of terrible Spiderman or Transformer games.  Maybe there’s something like an uncanny valley effect taking place.  As we get closer to photorealistic games that might as well be movies themselves, the experience seems a little more artificial and isolated.  The theme of that property seems to get lost in the constant pressure of console wars and frames-per-second and trying to figure out just how old my graphics card is.

This is one of the reasons I have turned to the blossoming market that is modern board games.  They seem for me to be the happy medium, balanced somewhere between the creativeness of a video game and the imagination that fuels an RPG.  When done right, board games can create powerful experiences with a great license.  There have been a number of hits in this space, as well as plenty of misses, but my feeling is aside from the Cash Grab games, they’re getting more right than wrong right now.

To provide an example, let’s look at the world of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. An undeniable cult classic, we Browncoats have been dying for more from this setting. I’ve read the comic books, what few there are. I’ve thumbed through the Firefly RPG. I’ve played almost every non-Cash Grab board game that exists (Firefly Yahtzee Special Edition I’m looking at you…). There’s a Firefly Online MMO in development, the first real video game treatment of note, which has me feeling more cautious than hopeful. Let’s look at two board games that will show how it works – Firefly: the Game by Gale Force Nine and Firefly: Shiny Dice by Upper Deck Entertainment.

Firefly Boardgame

Firefly: The Game being played at a recent convention.

Firefly: the Game has players captaining one of several vessels, typically Firefly-class transports, with each ship being led by one of several key characters from the show. The slogan for the game is “Find a Crew. Find a Job. Get Paid”, and that describes the gameplay fairly well. You fly your ship around the ‘Verse, avoiding Reavers and the Alliance Cruiser, looking to take jobs from various key characters in the series, trying to hire crew that were also characters in the series, and accomplish a set of goals to complete a game. It takes a long time to play, typically 2 – 3 hours once you know the rules (longer if you’re learning), but the game drips with theme. It creates stories that feel like they could just as easily have been ripped from the show. The game mechanically isn’t much more than a traditional “pickup and deliver” game, but it uses the Firefly theme to great effect. There’s a real depth to the setting, and it’s tough to imagine this game working as well with a different setting. I love it; I own all the expansions, and can’t wait to play it again, which I’m planning to do soon.

Firefly Shiny Dice

At least I can use the playmats as mousepads?

Firefly: Shiny Dice is a lightweight, push-your-luck game of rolling dice, resolving their effects, then spending dice to cancel other dice. Some dice have faces that represent the crew from Firefly, some dice have other cast members or supplies, and still others have villains on their faces. Once you finish spending and canceling dice, you get paid some money if you didn’t fail, and can then decide if you want to keep going with fewer dice to press your luck. There are some cards that give you various dice modification effects, and the cards have lots of flavor text on them reciting famous lines or moments from the TV show. You could absolutely replace every component in this box with a couple of different colors of six-sided dice and some cards with text and nothing would be any different. The theme just didn’t work. It’s not a terrible game (though not a very interesting one), but nothing in this game felt like Firefly to me. In fact, failing to deliver the promised theme took a game that would have been just mediocre and made me hate it.

This is why so many licensed IP games fail. What is Firefly about? It’s about pulling together a misfit crew and struggling to make your way through an unfriendly universe and do the best you can. If you can help me recreate that experience, regardless of the medium, respect what it’s about, I will happily throw my money at you over and over again and tell all my friends to do so, too. If you’re going to try to trick me into buying the Top Gun drinking game turned Party Game, expect me to ignore anything else you have to say.

What games do you think really capture the spirit of an IP best?  Let me know what I’m missing out on in the comment section below.

The Trouble with Licensed Games – Part 2

The Trouble with Licensed Games – Part 1

Generally speaking, when we talk about a TV or film franchise being adapted for some other medium, if that IP doesn’t come from a Galaxy Far, Far Away, it’s going to be bad. Game tie-ins have a rather long and mostly dubious history beginning back in the 1950’s when game shows started creating ‘Home Versions’ of their show that people could take home and play themselves. This then expanded into applying a popular IP to classic games, with Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, and Clue being some of the most prominent examples. Most of us have probably sat through a game of Harry Potter Scene It? or Modern Family: The Board Game or Halo Risk or Friends Clue. That last one isn’t an actual game, but you’ve seen enough of these to believe it. You’ll have to just settle for The Big Bang Theory Clue instead, which does.

Once video games started to gain popularity, the video game tie-ins began to happen. The E.T. game for Atari is the stuff of legends now with it being so bad they just threw it away. Nowadays every summer blockbuster gets a video game tie-in, and they are almost universally reviled. This has proven to be such a trend now even a mediocre adaptation is usually enough to generate sufficient sales to parents eager to let their children sate themselves on whatever the new hotness is to justify their budget.

The Big Bang Theory Clue

Don’t we all want to play that classic game where Raj murders Sheldon with a dog-eared comic in the laundry room?

Despite my pessimism, there are the occasionally successful licensed adaptations. I will still gladly stop and play my friend’s arcade cabinet version of Turtles in Time, being a passionate TMNT fan. I have fond memories of the Lord of the Rings movie tie-in games from EA for the Playstation 2 more than a few years ago. The LEGO series of games is also one that comes to mind, but that series has more in common with licensed versions of Monopoly than with a traditional adaptation, taking the very successful LEGO engine and pasting all sorts of different themes on it. LucasArts has made a small mint on successful Star Wars licensed products, but they are more the exception than the rule. This certainly doesn’t stop people from trying. There are definitely passionate communities behind some of these products, and if you can do it right, they will reward you.

I think we can learn a lot by trying to consider why so many licensed games fail. One simple answer is that developers often expect that a game with a strong license and current market relevance will sell, even if it’s bad, so it becomes a rushed attempt to maximize profit before their window of excitement closes. It is nearly impossible to succeed if you don’t try, so lets ignore those for now. What about those games that do try? Why do so many of them still fail?

As a quick case study, let’s look at two recent examples from a single, high profile IP, the Aliens franchise – Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013) and Alien: Isolation (2014). Both games were developed by separate development houses but released by Sega. They provide a good contrast between successful and failed licensed games. Colonial Marines was a technical disaster, universally panned and unintentionally hilarious, but it’s failure goes way beyond bad code and goofy character animations.

AlienGameygif

Get your knees flexin’ and your arms T-Rexin’, and do the Creep.

Alien: Isolation, however, is a fantastic game, critically acclaimed and palpably terrifying. The main difference between the two, aside from a little polishing of code, is the experience players have while playing the game. Alien: Isolation captures the essence of what the Aliens franchise is about: being terrified in the face of the perfect killing machine.   It puts players in that world, not just mechanically but emotionally. If you want to see what a licensed property title can be like done right, go pick this game up from Steam and treat yourself to a few hours in the dark by yourself playing Isolation. There have been many, many attempts to recreate the Aliens experience in video games, and while some of them have not been terrible, Isolation is the first game I have ever played that actually feels like being in an Aliens movie.

Let’s take a look at another massive IP: Star Trek. The Star Trek Universe is abundant with story telling opportunities between mining the existing lore for great content and having such a vast universe capable of encompassing new content. The canon spans decades with compelling settings and conflicts for whichever part of that timeline you happen to enjoy. And there is a committed fan base, eager for good content and willing to pay when they find it. There have been several new fan film projects recently that prove this to be true.

Star Trek Monopoly

To boldly go where no collector has gone before…

There are dozens of licensed Star Trek games, both board games and digital games. A brief browsing through Wikipedia in the board game space shows a pattern typical of many popular licensed properties: The Cash Grab.

  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive VCR Board Game
  • Trivial Pursuit: Star Trek Edition
  • Star Trek Scrabble
  • Star Trek Monopoly, featuring numerous editions including the Original Series, The Next Generation, Klingon, and a Continuum Edition covering all 5 TV Series
  • Scene It? Star Trek
  • Star Trek Catan (full disclosure: I own this one, and it’s virtually indistinguishable from standard Catan)

There have also been some attempts to develop serious board games using the Star Trek IP, but most have flopped. There’ve been multiple attempts to build a collectable card game using this license. All have since been discontinued. There was a game called Star Trek: Expeditions designed by acclaimed designer Reiner Knizia (who has designed a number of very popular and well-designed board games) where players assume the role of cast members from the 2009 film. It received middling reviews and has since mostly faded from discussion. There is a miniatures game called Star Trek: Attack Wing, the inferior cousin to a similar Star Wars game, which is producing expansions at a prodigious rate and seems to remain fueled mostly by the collectability of the models rather than the gameplay. My personal favorite, a game called Star Trek: Fleet Captains, gives a fairly time consuming but immersive experience achieved through a tremendous amount of complexity and poorly written rules with players controlling an entire faction, such as the Federation or Romulans, in a game of exploration and conquest. Even that game is much more of a niche offering and is hard to find now.

Star Trek Fleet Captains

A two-player starting setup for Fleet Captains. Nice and simple, right?

The video game side of things doesn’t fare much better. With the exception of Star Trek Online (released in 2010), which saw modest success, before going free-to-play, changed the dynamic of the game, there hasn’t been a good Star Trek video game since maybe 2000. There have been several games released as tie-ins to the new movies as Cash Grab titles, which have almost universally flopped. My favorite Star Trek game is an older title called Birth of the Federation, a classic 4X-style game from 1997 that inevitably bogged down into micromanagement late in the game, but I have spent many enjoyable LAN play sessions with friends over the years, and still have a copy of the game fondly on my game shelf.

Why aren’t they more successful? In some cases, the quality is just inferior, but people buy it anyway because they are fans or collectors (because I gotta have at least one copy of Monopoly, so it might as well be the Collectors Edition Star Wars Episode I Monopoly. It was a gift…). In other cases, the usage of the license makes no sense. At this past GenCon, I had a chance to demo a board game using the Top Gun license which had me initially incredibly excited… only to be massively disappointed in discovering it was a weak party game that mainly involved reading movie quotes from cards. Few things generate as much vitriol as butchering a popular license, which is one of the reasons I think publishers are less prone to take the risk. The Internet can be a scary place for people who make bad games.

In most cases, especially with the more serious attempts, they fail because the creators of the licensed product don’t understand or fail to capture what draws us to that content in the first place. We will come for the license, but only stay for the feeling. This is one thing that the Star Wars IP does so well. Want to feel what it’s like to fly an X-Wing? They have you covered. Want to feel what it’s like to engage in lightsaber duels and crush your enemies with the force? Covered as well. But what does it feel like to do something Star Trek-y? It’s much harder to define, and probably different for each person, which is why capturing that experience is so much harder. It’s one reason I think the Bridge Simulator game Artemis is the best Star Trek game that exists right now, despite not actually being a Star Trek game. Artemis captures what it feels like to work as a crew, to solve problems together, and to recreate the best aspects of that collective experience.

Artemis

A glimpse at some of the different stations in Artemis.

To make a truly great licensed game, you have to tap into what makes that license special.  It’s a lot harder to get right than it seems.  In my next post, I’ll take a look at some examples of licensed games done correctly, and some keys to their success.

Got an example of a licensed game that really hit home for you?  Let me know in the comments below.

The Trouble with Licensed Games – Part 1

A Little Bribe, A Better Supply Chain – A Sheriff of Nottingham Review

“You there, fellow in yellow. What do you bring through these gates?” The Sheriff chuckles at his own wit.

The yellow gentleman, confident as ever, “Good Sheriff, today I return from market to bring nothing but these 4 wheels of cheese to the good people of Nottingham, and I hope to fetch a fair price.”

“And you, what might you have to confess, lady in the purple dress?” The Sheriff is still full of his own humor, though the vendors roll their eyes at this one.

“My good sir, I have but these 3 bushels of apples, and if you see your way to letting me through, I might have a coin for you.”  The Lady in Purple reposts.

“Lastly, the supposed lordling in green, what have you brought me after yesterday’s fine confiscation?” The Sheriff studies the merchant in green carefully.

“Why good sir, I brought 5 perfect loaves of bread, and if you wish to inspect them, that is your prerogative,  but you will find nothing but bread today. Though I did hear the other gentlemen mention something about a democratically elected Sheriff after this shipment.” Sir Green smiled with never a care.

The Sheriff had seen this lot before, and none were truly to be trusted, but his own purse was light from having to pay out to the merchants for “misappropriating” their goods. He thought long and hard, and came to his decision.

“My Lady, you are free to go. You have always spoke true to me, and I thank you for the coin.” “For the cheese, you, too can go, but I’m keeping an eye on you.” “Sir Green, I believe I wish to hold your shipment for inspection. Especially after the last time you snuck those crossbows in.”

The Lady in Purple went to her stand, and put away a bushel of apples, and a couple casks of fine mead. Then smiled.

The Man in Yellow, sold 4 good wheels of cheese that day.

Unfortunately for the Sheriff, Sir Green was telling the truth, and by the laws of the land, he must be reimbursed for the delay caused by the Sheriff’s suspicions.

This Sheriff, poorer and maybe wiser, would return.

Sheriff of Nottingham

Sheriff of Nottingham is a bluffing game by Arcane Wonders and is part of The Dice Tower Essentials series. This game, for 3-5 player, pits one rotating role of the Sheriff against the wits and bravado of the other players who are but simple merchants. And by simple, I mean lying, conniving, wheeling and dealing wonderful folk.

The game plays 2 full rounds of each player having the role of the Sheriff. The other players are attempting to get products from the Market, through the Gates of Nottingham, and into their Stand. These come from three piles in the center, which represent the Market. The center pile is face down, and is blind pull. The two other piles are face up, and are seeded with cards first at the beginning of the game, and then later by player discards. Each player must choose between 1 and 5 cards, out of a hand of 6, to try and get past the Sheriff. They go into a colored envelope which matches their personality card, and then the fun starts. You can only declare one item type, you must state the full quantity of cards in the envelope, and you cannot declare contraband good. So, if you put 3 apples cards and 2 crossbows in, you would state “There are 5 baskets/bushels of apples in my shipment”, or something similar, like “there are 5 loaves of bread in there”, but you know there aren’t. Yes, you can lie, but not about the number of cards. Then, you can choose to grease the palm of the Sheriff. This can be money, or a quantity of the declared goods. If the Sheriff accepts the bribe, you must pay out, unless you declared something that wasn’t in the packet at all and then the Sheriff is just out of luck. Everyone starts out with seed money, and various actions cause you to earn money, or pay money to either the Sheriff or the Bank. Your personal coin stash can shape how you make choices in honesty or smuggling.

At the end of the 2 rounds of being Sheriff, points are totaled, with extra points being awarded for king (most) or queen (second most) of an item. These extra awards, along with the money you have in your hand, can really turn the game around in the final couple rounds.

Sheriff of Nottingham really picks up in fun when players begin to play a bit with their characters, and the game becomes a bit of light role playing. The basic mechanics are a breeze to learn, with only a few cards to take out for the 3 player game, or adding in extra special cards for the unique items to smuggle. The cards to take out or add in are easily identified.

Sheriff of Nottingham is one for a permanent location in most people’s tabletop game library.

Arcane Wonders – Sheriff of Nottingham: http://www.arcanewonders.com/sheriff-of-nottingham

Have you picked this one up yet? Let me know your thought in the comment below.

A Little Bribe, A Better Supply Chain – A Sheriff of Nottingham Review