Twilight Struggle Review

Twilight Struggle game

One of the highest rated games of all time is Twilight Struggle.  So, of course, I felt the incessant urge to try it.

In Twilight Struggle, players re-live the Cold War.  One player takes the role of the US, and the other is (of course, if you know history) the USSR.  On any given turn, both players will start with 8-9 cards in their hand (depending on what phase of the war you are in).  These cards have both an Event on them and an Operations value.  At the start of the turn, each player selects a "Headline" event to occur first.  Next, players take turns playing cards as either Events or for their Operations value.  Some cards represent US events, some are USSR events, and some can be played either way.  Playing a card for it's Operations value allows you to place new influence in countries (after all, keep in mind that the Cold War was primarily a war of influence, and not of direct conflict), make Coup attempts, realign a country, or even in advance in the Space Race.  If you play a card for it's Operations value then the Event does not occur - unless it's your opponent's Event!  As the game progresses, players will score victory points back and forth; sometimes from playing "scoring cards" (which score various continents based on who influences the most countries and battleground countries), and sometimes Event cards will score points.  The game is played until one of the end of game conditions occurs: 1) one player has scored 20 Victory Points (keeping in mind that when the other player scores points, you just reduce your opponent's score, as Victory Points are a constant tug-of-war), 2) until Defcon is reached (the world blows up), 3) one player has Control of Europe during a scoring phase (they own more total countries, at least one non-battleground country, and all of the battleground countries), or 4) 10 turns have elapsed (at which point whoever has the most points after a final scoring phase wins).  There are a lot of things I skimmed over... like 5-20 pages of rules.  But then again, I'm hoping you're not here for me to teach you everything about how to play the game.

Twilight Struggle duck and cover cardHere's what I liked: first off, I loved the tug-of-war nature of Twilight Struggle.  Throughout the game, you rarely feel like you are truly winning.  You may have advantages in certain places, but you know that your opponent will be able to counter you somehow - and you're just hoping to be able to get a slight upper hand.  I don't have personal memories of living through the Cold War, but I think that Twilight Struggle does a good job of grasping the kind of tension that occurred during that time period (obviously without the fear of a nuclear holocaust - I do realize that boardgames aren't life and death).  Sometimes you will have to concede certain areas to your opponent to gain an upper hand in others - the winner of the game won't be the person that played the better cards; it will be the person that was able to repeatedly capitalize on small advantages.  The give and take nature of Twilight Struggle truly feels like a masterpiece of game design to me.  I can't express how highly I appreciate this aspect of the game.

The next thing that I appreciate about Twilight Struggle is how rooted it is in history.  Every card is based on actual historical events in the Cold War.  What's more, there is a section in the back of the rulebook that goes over each of the different cards, and what that history entails.  I really appreciate this, as it allows people (like myself) who don't necessarily have a strong knowledge about history to learn in a fun way; yet it also allows people who enjoy studying history to have an opportunity to relive an important historical time.

The third thing that I like about Twilight Struggle (that is really a "sub-pro" of my first pro) is that you have to make sacrifices in the game.  At some point, your opponent will perform an action, and you will have to decide if you want to counter them in that area (Space Race, a certain continent, etc), or if you want to counter them elsewhere.  The world is too big, and there are too many aspects to the game to be able to do everything that you want.  You are forced to decide where to allocate resources, and what areas you're willing to sacrifice.  Do you want to control Asia?  This will probably come at the cost of South America; or Europe.  To win, you have to make sure that you don't sacrifice too much, and make sure that you are sacrificing smaller benefits to gain larger ones.

Fidel Castro card from Twilight Struggle
Everyone's favorite dictator
The final thing that I will mention as a pro for Twilight Struggle is that it factors in realism in Influence placement.  What this means is: you cannot place Influence anywhere.  When placing Influence, the country you are influencing must already have your Influence, or must be adjacent to a country where you do have Influence.  Yet, with this, there are enough Events that place Influence in new territories that this rule is not crippling.  (After all, the USSR would have little to no chance of influencing Central or South America otherwise.)

Now, an interesting topic in Twilight Struggle are the scoring cards.  There is a scoring card for each continent where you can place Influence.  These cards might be drawn by a player, just like any other card.  The main difference is that scoring cards cannot be kept until the next turn (you typically have a card that you will keep at the end of each turn).  Scoring cards are interesting - they give you the advantage of knowing a continent that is about to score, and even having the power to decide when that scoring occurs.  Yet, there is a disadvantage in being dealt a card that has no operations value and no Event.  It may be advantageous to be dealt a scoring card, but it might be detrimental to be dealt two or more of them.  Whereas I don't see a problem with how the scoring cards work - I just view it as a part of the game, some people may dislike them.  The same can be said for how the Space Race and Coup/Realignment actions are performed.  These actions all determine whether they are successful based on rolling a six-sided die.  Again, I don't have any major problem with this, but it can be frustrating when the die roll goes against you.

There are some more things you need to be aware of in Twilight Struggle.  You could classify these as "cons", but I think that they are more accurately termed "points of note."  The first one is that Twilight Struggle is a complicated game.  There's not getting around that.  I've played this game many times, and I still don't know that I got every rule right in any of my play sessions.  With that said, however, every time that I've played Twilight Struggle, I've really enjoyed it.

warped Twilight Struggle first edition board
Why you want the Deluxe Version
Second, there are different version of Twilight Struggle that have been printed.  I highly recommend that you get the "Deluxe" version.  The map in the other version is made of cardstock and refuses to lay flat.  Most of my games have been played on this version, and we had to keep phones and mp3 players placed on strategic positions throughout the board to try to get it to lay flat.  After all, keep in mind that Twilight Struggle has tons of very small pieces that must be placed in just the correct place on the board.  And, these pieces can easily slide around on an uneven board.  The Deluxe version also has overall higher quality components, card text has been cleared up in a few places, and also has some color in the rulebook to make it less intimidating.

Overall, I give Twilight Struggle a 9.5/10.  Let's put it this way - I enjoy Twilight Struggle enough that I am tempted to stop reviewing games so that I can dedicate more time to re-playing Twilight Struggle and games like it.

If you like Twilight Struggle, you might also want to check out
1960: The Making of the President (same designers), 1955: The War of Espionage (similar feel but much shorter), and Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861 (two-player historical war game).

Infiltration Review

So, when I heard that Donald X. Vaccarino (designer of Dominion) was working with Fantasy Flight to create a new game, I was quite excited.  So, I've been eagerly anticipating the opportunity to write about Infiltration.

Infiltration is a game of "corporate larceny."  Each player takes on a character that is attempting to steal data from an (evil?) corporation (if the corporation isn't evil, then I suppose your characters are; I'm not sure which is true thematically).  However, it's very important to escape after stealing the data - after all, a dead spy that knows a lot is worth much less than a living spy that knows something.  And it sucks to be dead.  Each turn, you may do a few things - you may advance further into the building, retreat closer to the entrance, interface with the computers in a room, extract data that is available, or play an item.  Items can do things like kill Non-Playable Characters (such as the Officer that keeps pressing the silent alarm), break Tech Locks (thus finding more data), kill Lab Workers (another way to find data), slow down other players, etc.  On a turn, players will each select their action, and then in turn order will reveal their action and perform it.  Next, if there are any Non-Playable Characters, they perform their scripted actions.  Finally, you roll a die and add the alarm total to your die roll (that's why the Officer that keeps pressing the silent alarm is annoying), and you add this total to the "proximity dial."  Once the "proximity dial" reaches 99, the security drones arrive and kill everyone still in the building.  At this point, whoever has the most data and escaped is the winner.

The first pro that I found about Infiltration is the press your luck element to the game.  You definitely have to decide how far into the building you're going to go, while trying to balance the fact that you have to escape.  (In your first few games, it might be common for the winner to be the only player that got out in time - of for you to all die.)  Really, what I enjoy about the press your luck element in this game is that it is the central theme of the game, and yet, it isn't the only aspect of the game (like in Farkle, or so many other press your luck dice games).  Yes, you have to figure out how deep to go, and how many turns you will risk being in the building, but you also have to do a lot of strategic actions - the winner isn't necessarily the person that stayed in the building the longest and escaped (pressed their luck the furthest).

The board setup looks cool, too
The next pro that I had for Infiltration is that there is quite a bit of replayability - if you enjoy the game, then you can play it several times, and it will stay fresh.  There are a lot of extra rooms, and each game you shuffle up the order of the rooms, and so the building will be different every time you play it.  Plus, there are enough different items that, though you will see the same ones each game, you will get a different combination of them and in different order.  Finally, there are a few different variants that you can try that deal with item drafting and character specialization, further expanding how you can play the game.

However, with those two pros, the game had some areas where I felt it could have been improved.  First, I felt like the items were just "off."  It's hard to explain what I mean here, and everyone that I played with had this same feeling, and attributed it to different things.  The items were really a crucial element of the game - without them, the game would be very bland.  Yet, there weren't very many ways to get items (I think this is to give them a feeling of scarcity).  There are also several items that seem to be only good in very specific situations, that there is a good chance you will never encounter.  Really, it just felt like many of the items were not valuable enough to fit with their scarcity - if I only get four items all game (which will probably happen to several players in a six-player game), then I want those items to be really good.  But, instead, many of them seemed to be worthless enough that you might not even bother using them (though you will watch angrily as one of your opponents has an item very effectively).

Instant exit - if it's in the game
I think that the other main con with the game is that because of the end of game countdown, the game doesn't really feel like it has time to develop.  One aspect of this is the second floor (each floor consists of six rooms).  In order to get to the second floor, touch it, and then escape the building you must use 13 turns (if I counted correctly) without any special rooms or items.  That doesn't include collecting any data.  The length of the game can vary a decent amount based on what you encounter and how you roll, but if you assume that you roll a 3.5 each turn, then you will get about 28 turns.  Now, if you want to go to the last room in the building and escape, that requires 23 turns.  So, these last rooms are essentially going to be unused.  Now, let's factor in the alarms.  We played one game where the Officer that presses the alarm was in the very first room.  This basically cut our game in half, as we had 5-7 alarms going off before we could deal with him.  If, however, you average having the alarm at 3 all game (which I think is conservative), then that die roll suddenly averages 6.5, cutting your game down to about 15 turns, or, enough to get to the first room of the second floor, extract data twice, and get out.  I realize that there is a lot of variability in this, but I really said all of this to reinforce my main point - it feels like the game doesn't have enough time to develop.  I should also acknowledge - there are a few rooms that help mitigate this; the Loading Dock allows you to escape immediately (it's a first floor room), and the CEO's Office allows you to get a Blackmail File that allows you to escape from any room.  There are also rooms that allow you to move over several rooms at once.  However, depending on where these rooms are placed and if they are placed, they may be incredibly helpful, or incredibly worthless.  After all, a Loading Dock as the sixth room will give you the freedom to explore the second floor quite a bit; a Loading Dock as the first room gives you no benefit whatsoever.

Third, very briefly, I was disappointed that the characters didn't have anything unique about them.  There is a gameplay variant where they are "specialists" and thus two of their four items are pre-selected - but that's it.  One of the things that I really like about most Fantasy Flight games is that they often have this balanced but asymmetric starting position element I like, where you are a character, and it matters who you are (more than just what your piece looks like).  This isn't anything wrong with the game, per se, but it was something that I was disappointed by.

Overall, I give Infiltration a 7.0/10.  I think that it's ok, and I would be willing to play it more if my friends requested that we play it.  However, I was a bit disappointed by it (because I had really high hopes for it), and I will probably wind up trying to trade my copy.

If you like highly thematic games, you might also want to check out Dungeon Lords, Battlestar Galactica, and Mob Ties.

Ploy Review

Another classic 3M game from my large box that I bought at GenCon is Ploy.

In Ploy, the object of the game is to capture your opponent's commander, or all of his other pieces. It has a very Chess-like feel. Each of your pieces has 1-4 lines on the top of it. On your turn, you are allowed to move 1-3 spaces (depending on the piece), but only along one of the paths that the piece is pointing towards. Conversely, you may take your turn to re-orient one of your pieces instead. Play consists of taking turns moving a piece either along a line or by re-orienting it until all but one of the players (it can be played two or four player) have lost their commander or all of their pieces other than their commander.

The first pro for Ploy is that it is very simple to teach (as is the case with most 3M games), as it is designed to be able to see what is going on. Each piece is able to move as many spaces as it has lines on it - aside from the Commander who can only move one space (though he has four lines). I really like that the 3M series had a great balance of complexity and depth through gameplay and not through rules. I have not played any 3M games that were more than a page of rules. And yet, the game is engaging and quite challenging.

The next thing that I like about Ploy is how the movement works. I think that it is neat. I don't really know how to describe this pro better. Seeing the board and orienting your pieces, then moving them to where they need to go as you try to strike while your opponent's pieces are facing the wrong direction just has a "neat" feel to it.

However, though I think that Ploy is neat, there are definitely some cons. First of all (disclaimer - I don't like Chess), Ploy embodies everything that I hate about Chess. It is a game of positioning and patience. I like thinking in games, but I do not have the patience for constantly protecting each of my pieces as I attack my opponent at a glacier's pace. That is how I feel about Chess, and that feeling is carried into Ploy. If you like Chess, I think that you will actually love this aspect of Ploy, and it may put you on a level footing with your friends - if you enjoy playing Chess with them, but have not studied the game as much as they have. Playing Ploy may be a way of getting a similar feeling game without feeling like someone wins because they've studied the game more.

The last thing that I will mention about Ploy is that it is "fiddly." Since the pieces spin, and do not lock into place, it is very easy to accidentally nudge them and have them facing between two lines with you not knowing which ones they are supposed to be facing. If you are a gamer that constantly need things to be neat - your always stacking discard piles, etc, then you will probably find yourself spending a lot of time in Ploy fidgeting with the pieces on the board trying to make sure that they are always lining straight up with the lines that they point towards.

Overall, I think that each person's enjoyment of Ploy will be directly related to how much they enjoy Chess. Therefore, I give Ploy a 6.5/10. I have debated this quite a bit - I think that Ploy is a very good game. Unfortunately, I also think that it is horribly boring, in the same way that I think that Chess is horribly boring. If you disagree with me on this one crucial point, then you should definitely check out Ploy, because it is a game that you might love!

If you like vintage 3M games, you should also check out my reviews of Acquire, Quinto, and the (non-3M game that might appeal to a similar audience) Ploy.

Catacombs: Horde of Vermin Expansion Mini-Review

Today's quick review will be of the Catacombs expansion Horde of Vermin.  Horde of Vermin is (I think) the third expansion to Catacombs, but the first one for me to play or review.  I have, however, reviewed the base game of Catacombs, and I recommend reading it if you're not familiar with the game, as I will be talking about what Horde of Vermin adds to the game.

Essentially, Horde of Vermin adds two things: monsters, and rooms that use those monsters.  However, these new monsters also have new abilities.  The most prevalent two are poison and swarm.  And, with an expansion with "horde" in the title, you would expect there to be a lot of monsters, right?  You are correct!  Some of the new rooms have 12 sewer rats in them!  12!!  However, these sewer rats have the "swarm" ability, which means that they don't deal melee damage in the standard way.  Instead, if you hit a hero with one of them, you set your monster on the hero.  If three of them hit the same hero in a single round, then they deal one point of damage (either melee or poison) to the heroes, then are discarded from the room.  These swarms of monsters will really appeal to people that really enjoy flicking, and can't really get enough of it.  However, they also exacerbate the biggest problem in the base game - you have no idea where discs left the table.  Instead of there being a few discs on the board at any given time that might go flying off, now there are dozens of discs that go flying off, often 5 or more on a single shot, and you are completely guessing at where they left the table!

Hordes of (mostly) very small discs.  And a giant fireball!
The next main ability is poison.  Many of the new monsters inflict poison damage when they hit a hero.  Whenever a hero takes poison damage, they draw a card from the poison deck.  These cards range from 1-5, and can also deal immediate damage to a character's hitpoints.  If a hero ever has more total points of poison than health, then he is "overwhelmed" by the poison, and dies.  Poison can be incredibly powerful, but it really depends on how many monsters you encounter that have poison.  The new rooms use the new monsters (with poison); obviously, none of the old rooms do.  However, you are also allowed to use new monsters as the "wandering monster" in any room that is drawn, which I think is a nice touch, because it allows the Overlord player to actually have a chance to poison the heroes.  (And, heroes, don't worry, the Wizard has a couple of "Cure Poison" spells that he was given in this expansion, too.  Oh, and a Giant Fireball.  It's a Fireball... but bigger.)

Briefly, there is also a new "Fear" ability, and some new monsters that actually have more than two hitpoints.  Fear allows the monster to make a (non-damaging) melee shot with the hero that was damaged, representing that character running away.  This can be very powerful, as your monster can rush in and not worry (as much) about retaliation.  

That is really most of what was added!  There are also a couple of new versions of previously existing monsters - specifically a new version of the Centaur, Crypt Spider, and the Giant Scorpion.  Oh, and of course, they're noticeably harder.... because apparently your Overlord wasn't winning enough!  (As a note, we actually intentionally picked the player that was worst at flicking to be our Overlord last time.  That seemed to help.  We still barely won (I died twice), but it was a very fun time.)

Overall, I give the Horde of Vermin expansion an 8.0/10.  Some people will absolutely love it (people that want to flick a zillion times), and some people will find it horribly annoying (people that hit 4 sewer rats in a flick, and are annoyed at having to guess where they left the board).  I thought the game added some neat new elements, and I'll probably go ahead and leave it mixed in with my base game of Catacombs in the future.

If you like flicking games, you should also check out PitchCar and Caveman Curling.

I would like to thank Sands of Time Games for providing me with a review copy of Catacombs: Horde of Vermin.

Pixel Lincoln Preview

Basic setup of the game - Pixel Lincoln scrolling through the levels
Well, because of this blog and people that I have met through it, I occasionally I have the opportunity to do something cool.  This time?  I got to play a game of Pixel Lincoln with it's designer, Jason Tagmire.  Now, due to schedules and such, I only got to play a single game of it.  Because of that, I'm not going to call this a review (hopefully after the project funds on Kickstarter I'll be able to pick up a copy and do a review at that point) - this one is simply a preview so that you can know what's going on with the game when deciding if you want to back it on Kickstarter.

What is Pixel Lincoln?  I know that I was wondering this after checking out their campaign page.  It's a deckbuilding game based on a DS game, based on a different game??  What??  Well, basically, what happened is that Jason made a little game that he was showing off at conventions as a novelty, more than anything - kind of like, "hey, this is neat."  Well, a local (video) game development studio thought that it was cool and decided to make a Nintendo DS game from it.  That's pretty cool.  I don't know the details on that, but I think that it should be coming out sometime in the quasi-near future.  However, in the meantime, Jason got to keep playing around with this "Pixel Lincoln" character.  When doing so, he came up with the game that you see on Kickstarter.

So, a few game designers seem to have gained inspiration from classic video games recently.  I don't know that I can blame them - I played a ton of Nintendo games, myself, as a kid.  So, now we have Puzzle Strike, which is a Tetris/boardgame hybrid, BattleCon which is a throwback to Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter 2, and Pixel Lincoln. Instead of the fighting or puzzle genres, Pixel Lincoln takes its inspiration from the classic sidescroller.  It really reminds me a lot of the old NES game "Bad Dudes," because of the pixelation and the scrolling through levels to fight mini-bosses and bosses.  There's also an element of Super Mario Bros, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, and maybe even some Double Dragon involved.

Purposeful pixelation and over the top items
How does it feel like an old video game?  Well, obviously, the first thing is in the purposefully pixelated artwork.  But, the actual game is played in an interesting sidescrolling fashion.  There are levels that your character attempts to fight his way through - represented by cards that are in front of your character.  As you encounters each card (item, enemy or character), you must decide how you will deal with that card - do you want to jump over it (like in Mario), do you want to fight it (if it's an enemy), or do you want to purchase it (if it's an item or character)?  To start the game, you have a few jumps (which are worth $1 and allow you to avoid cards that you don't want to deal with) and a few "Bearderangs" (which are ranged weapons that deal 1 damage).  Any enemies that you defeat go into your score pile - and any items that you purchase go into your deck to be drawn later.  And, once you get to the end of the revealed cards, 5 new cards come out and you continue fighting your way through - just like having the screen transition in some of the old games.  (I can still see the end of the level for TMNT: The Arcade Game where suddenly Bebop shows up as a boss and you have to fight him.)

Really, the initial setup reminded me of Ascension, and I was very concerned that the game was going to be far too reactionary and chaotic. When we played, it was two player, so it might have some of that feel with more people playing.  However, in our game, I didn't have that frustration.  It's very odd - you are still reacting, but you have both more and less control as you react.  You have less control, because you have to react to every card in the line.  Yet, you have more control, because you can choose to end your turn instead of reacting to the card - thus prepping your hand to deal with that card on your next turn (or just jump over it, if you've got the right card).  It really just has a completely different feel than any other board game I've played.

Losing life is less common in Pixel Lincoln
Another game that I think it needs to be contrasted with is the Resident Evil Deckbuilding Game, though, they really work drastically differently in every way.  The main reason that I will make the comparison is that both of the games go for the "you don't know what you're going to encounter while exploring in the game" concept.  In Resident Evil, bluntly, this annoyed the snot out of me.  I would setup for an amazing turn, and then I would encounter some tiny monster that was barely worth any points.  Then, I'd have a pretty good hand - one that would kill everything but the final monster.  So, inevitably, I would run into the final monster and die.  In Pixel Lincoln, however, you get to see what's coming - at least the next few things that are coming.  And, when you get to "a new screen", you aren't forced to deal with any of those new cards immediately - you can end your turn and draw back up before resuming.  Plus, the boss is at the end of the level!  As life should be.

Now, one of the other hot words right now is "deckbuilding."  Yes, this is a deckbuilding game, but a lot of the traditional strategies and feel of "traditional" deckbuilding games (Dominion) isn't really in place here.  One of the main deckbuilding strategies is to get rid of all of your initial cards, since you will be buying better ones.  But in Pixel Lincoln, there aren't any jumps that you can buy (in the game we played at least), so you will need these initial cards all game, unless you intend to defeat/purchase every card you encounter.  Yes, you might be better off by getting rid of the Bearderangs, but that's about it.  And, there are still a few times that you can cull a few cards from your hand - when you encounter a "Level Checkpoint."  Notably, this is also when you deal with bigger bosses: the mini-bosses and then the final boss for the level.

Overall, I don't think that Pixel Lincoln is going to revolutionize the way that you look at boardgames.  However, I do think that it provides a fresh new game that gives a very different gaming experience from any other boardgame that I have played.  I enjoyed the game that I got to play of it, and I intend to get a copy of the final release.

Hopefully I've helped shed a bit of light on what Pixel Lincoln actually is, and helped you make a decision on whether this is a game that is worth funding on Kickstarter.  If not, I understand (after all, it's not my game), but if you're interested in supporting Pixel Lincoln, you can check it out the Pixel Lincoln Kickstarter campaign.

Space Alert Review

Space Alert setup to play

So, about a month ago, I got an email from one of my wonderful readers.  The email was pretty simple - just asking for me to review Space Alert.  Well, I had coincidentally just acquired a copy of the game the weekend before, and so I did my best to get the review turned around in a timely manner.  In fact, I'm posting it approximately one month after the request (having never played the game when she asked)!  Yes, I'm quite proud of myself (and am now verbally patting myself on the back).  Hopefully, that person is still reading my blog!

In Space Alert, your crew is taking your ship out to explore uncharted sectors of space.  Unfortunately, (as when Q sent the Enterprise to unexplored space and they encountered the Borg in Star Trek), you have no idea what you will encounter.  Even more unfortunately, encountering friendly aliens that want to help you can make for a good TV show, but makes for a lousy game - and so, everything you encounter is trying to kill you.  Space Alert plays very differently than most games.  After setting up the game, you play a 10 minute sound clip, and (as a team) you plan all of your actions during those 10 minutes.  During the track, you will be setting up your actions to determine what your character will be doing on the ship - moving, firing lasers and rockets, charging shields, recharging energy supplies, fighting intruders, and more.  Once the track is complete, you resolve all of the actions that you planned, and you see if your ship survived.  If so, great!  You win.  If not.... well.... good thing it's a game.

The first pro that I have for Space Alert is that it is a very innovative game.  You very rarely have a game that comes with some kind of media interaction (well, unless you play video games).  The last game that I can remember doing something like this is the old Star Trek Interactive VCR game that I had as a child.  Fortunately, the creators of Space Alert planned ahead a bit more than the Star Trek creators - they provide several different ways to play the tracks.  You can use the CDs that are provided, download mp3 tracks to use on an iPod, or (if desperate) even have a person with a timer read aloud what happens.  And, unlike my Star Trek VCR game, though there are only a few different tracks (around 8 I think), the tracks don't limit the replayability.  Instead, the track will call out that a threat is appearing and coming towards a certain part of your ship - but the replayability lies in the different threats that might appear.  There are several different threats provided, and there are even different difficulties of threat, so the game will stay fresh for quite a while.

Space Alert board
You must protect this ship!
The second thing that I like about Space Alert is that it is a cooperative game that really requires cooperation!  I have played a lot of cooperative games - I really like them.  However, people are always quick to point out that you can really play any of them solo.  Though I do not prefer that, I can understand this argument.  You can also run into issues where one person bosses everyone else around and ruins the fun for everyone.  Space Alert avoids these issues.  There is simply too much going on for one player to run the game for everyone else.  If each player isn't paying attention to what's going on and coordinating with all of the other players, then the mission will quite possibly be doomed.  Lack of communication can cause critical issues - such as a player shooting a laser that doesn't have enough energy to actually fire, because another player already used their energy (or failed to charge it as they were supposed to).  You can also get in each other's way on the elevators.  Or you can redundantly attack the same threat while a different threat is left unimpaired.  Or not realize that another player expected you to coordinate an attack.  (Or.... or... or...)  Coordination is critical in this game.

The third thing that I will mention as a pro for Space Alert is that you do not have to do all of this coordination blindly.  I was very concerned when I first heard about Space Alert, because I thought it would be way too much like Robo Rally or Epigo. In fact, they share a core mechanic - you program in all of your moves and then afterwards you execute them.  However, in Space Alert, you are allowed to (encouraged to) move pieces around on the board.  Also, you setup your actions during three different phases.  What worked very well when I played was for us to setup the board and move things around so that we would know what the game setup should be at the beginning of each of these phases.  This doesn't handle all of the coordination (there will still be lots of questions like, "what step are you charging the energy in, again?"), but it really, really helps.  I probably wouldn't play the game if you just had to remember where you are and what the state of everything is while hoping for the best.  In fact, there is even a rule called "tripping" that helps people like me - if you screw up and place a card the wrong way (or place the wrong card), then you can "trip" and do what you intended, but you are penalized by delaying your future actions (shifting them down the action track).  This can be really important if you place an order incorrectly really early in the game (and so you wind up in the wrong room... for the rest of the game).  And, let's just be clear - this will happen at some point.  It happened to me, and I'm sure that I'm not the first one to have this happen (or else the rule wouldn't be there).

Juggernaut from Space Alert board game
He's not "friendly."
Now, here's the big thing to talk about.  The CD.  Yes, I said that it is innovative (though "unique" and "uncommon" might be better words).  Some people will think that this is amazing.  Some people will absolutely hate it (I got the game from someone who was getting rid of it because his gaming group hated it).  Either way, it will probably limit the places you can play the game - I choose not to play this at one of my normal gaming groups, because it could be really annoying to the other groups of people playing games in the same room.  Overall, I don't love the soundtracks, but they also don't bother me.  I like that it forces a more frantic game speed (which I believe is the intention behind it).  Also, it adds to the theme of the game, which is a plus.

I guess the main thing that I don't like about the game is how much one small error can have epic consequences.  I realize that this is part of the game, and that's why I didn't even bother using the term "con."  It's simply something that I'm not a fan of.  Yes, the trip rule helps with this quite a bit, but you can still be completely obliterated if you are in the wrong place because you didn't coordinate correctly.  Really, I'm even fine with that.  I think that I ultimately dislike that getting yourself in the wrong position very early in the game can cause the rest of the game to go poorly, because the game never resets itself.  This is a minor thing, but it was the biggest negative that came to mind.

Overall, I give Space Alert an 8.5/10.  Like Wok Star, it's not a game that I'm going to want to play 5-7 times in a row.  It's going to be more of a game that I think, "ok, that was fun; now what are we playing?"  Note - I did say that it is fun.  But, the frantic pace and the soundtrack will prevent me from wanting to play it for hours at a time.

For a second opinion, you might want to read this Space Alert Review on Play Board Games. Or, if you want to check out more cooperative games, you might also read my reviews of Wok Star (which I just mentioned), Shadows Over Camelot, and Legend of Drizzt.

Zooloretto Mini Review

So, you know how Zooloretto is waaaay too complicated?  (Just as a point of note, I've never had anyone actually agree with that.)  Well, lucky for you, they came out with Zooloretto Mini!  (And, just to be clear, this is a review of Zooloretto Mini, not a mini review of Zooloretto.)  Since I haven't gotten around to reviewing Zooloretto yet, I will not assume any knowledge of that game on your part, dear reader.  However, I will put in a quick section detailing the differences between the two games, for in case that is something you're looking for.

In Zooloretto Mini, your goal is to build a sweet little zoo that small children will want to come see.  However, you have a cramped space, and so you can only hold a few animals.  What's more, everyone knows that children don't like their animals to be mixed in different areas (when you're in the mood to see giraffes, you want to see giraffes!  Not zebras!), so you are not allowed to have animals share a single area.  To setup the game, you will have one truck per player.  These trucks bring new animals to your zoo.  Each turn, you have the option of drawing a random animal tile from the bag and putting it on the truck of your choice, or you can take one of the trucks.  Once you take one of the trucks, you must immediately place all of the animals (and landscaping items) in your zoo - and, since animals can't share areas, if you have a type of animal that you cannot place, then they must go in your barn.  At this point you check a couple of different things.  First, you check to see if your animals have made a baby - because, you know, they actually do that... and we need to teach this to our children... have fun with that.  The other thing that you check is to see if you have filled an area.  If you have filled an area, then you immediately get a bonus - you may either discard an animal tile from your barn, or you may take an animal tile from an opponent's barn.  Then (after taking a truck), you are done for the round.  Once everyone has selected a truck, the round is over, so you set all the trucks back and start over.  The game is played until the bag is empty (you pull some out at the beginning so that you don't use all the tiles each game).  At this point, you score points based on the number of animals you have in each area, and for each kind of landscape you have - then you lose points for everything that you have in your barn.

So, as promised, here are the main differences between Zooloretto and Zooloretto Mini:
The new enclosures
  • Zooloretto Mini does not have money actions of any kind.  Instead, you get a small bonus action when you fill an enclosure.
  • In Zooloretto Mini, you have three enclosures (since there's no money action, you can't gain a fourth), and they are all the same size (they also are not actually on the board; the board consists of three interconnecting pieces, and then you put the animals next to them.)
  • It is obviously smaller and more portable
  • The animals are different (and can be intermixed with Zooloretto's animals so that you can use whichever ones you prefer in either game)
  • You have "landscape tiles" instead of lemonade stands ("vending stalls")
  • The scoring is tweaked to work with the new style of enclosures
  • Zooloretto Mini is suited for a slightly younger audience than Zooloretto - they could probably handle this a year or two earlier than normal Zooloretto due to the simpler rules
Now, with that taken care of, it's time for the pros.  If you name no other pro for Zooloretto Mini, you must point out that it is kid friendly.  This entire series is probably the apex of my "kid friendly" label.  It is a simple game, and it has cool animals in it!!  What kid doesn't like animals?  For the same reason that your kids want to go to the zoo, they'll also want to play Zooloretto Mini!  However, there are lots of games that look cool and can draw a child's attention briefly.  I think that Zooloretto Mini has done a very good job of being simple enough to play (and quick enough to explain!) to keep a child's attention, and the game is engaging enough (it's their turn quickly enough) that they can enjoy it.  I have played Zooloretto Mini with a four year old.  He was able to play the game, but it was also pushing his attention span (it was also bedtime), and so I think the game is probably ideal for kids about 5-6 years old (or older).

The (kung fu) panda protects the end of game tiles
The second pro that I have about Zooloretto Mini is that the animals make babies (and that the game has strategy)!  Really, I think that it would be much more amusing if I could just take this around to play with my friends kids and explain the baby making part ambiguously enough to get them to start asking their parents where babies come from, and then sit back and chuckle as I watch them decide what to tell a young child about why two Rhinos make a small Rhino, but only when the Rhinos have different symbols on them (male and female).  However, game-wise, I think that it is nice that Zooloretto Mini has strategic choices that affect gameplay.  One of them relates to babies and deciding if you want to go after fertile animals. Another aspect of strategy in the game is determining which truck to place animals on - should you load up a truck with the animal you want and hope other players don't take it, or do you want to spread them out so that you'll hopefully be able to at least get one of the animals you want.  Also, when should you take the truck?  Should you take it as soon as it has one animal that you want (doing this often will get you less animals long-term than other players), or should you wait until they are full - thus hoping that it doesn't get something that will have to go in your barn.  This balance between having an engaging theme for children and having strategy I think combines for a good game to play with children.  (You can also read that as "a game to play with children that won't make you want to stab your eyes out after playing five times"  (ahem, not Uno).)

Honestly, no real cons jump to mind about Zooloretto Mini.  Yes, you may have to play it hundreds of times if your child falls in love with it, and yes, I think that you will hate it by the end of that, but does that count as a con?  I'm going with no.  Therefore, I have nothing to list in this section - feel free to add a con in the comments if you feel that there are some I've missed, because I'm sure it's not perfect.

Overall, I give Zooloretto Mini a 9.0/10 as a children's game.  I was going to give it a lower score (around 8), but then when I couldn't think of any cons, it made me realize that I was shortchanging it.  Sure, I'm not going to take it and play it repeatedly with my gaming group, but I think that it is a wonderful game to play with kids.

If you're looking for more kid's games, you might also check out Fastrack, Gubs, and duck! duck! Go!.

I would like to thank AbacusSpiele for providing me with a review copy of Zooloreto Mini via Eagle Games.

Friday: A Solo Adventure Review

Friday, one of the best solo games, in play

So, I normally don't play solo games. Because I have so many friends? In my mind the answer is yes, but in reality it's probably because the part of board gaming that I enjoy is the social aspect. Yet, when some reliable sources (other blogs I read) highly recommended Friday (and when I realized it is really cheap), I decided to give it a try.

In the game Friday, you are on a deserted island - and you love it! Unfortunately for you, the infuriating Robinson has crashed on your island. So, you decide to teach him how to survive (not because you're nice, mind you, but because you really want him to gain the survival skills needed to leave the island by defeating pirates). Let's face it - Robinson was a bit of a wimp when he landed (and not very smart either). So, you go through teaching him the basics of survival. In terms of gameplay, you start with a basic deck of cards - Robinson's initial skills (as pitiful as they are). There is also a hazard deck, and each turn you draw two cards from the hazard deck and choose one of them to resolve. The hazard will give a certain number of cards that you can play for free, and any additional cards will cost you a life to play. If you have enough points to defeat the hazard, then it goes into your deck (it has two images on it - one representing the hazard and one representing what Robinson learns by defeating it). If you lose the hazard, you lose life equal to the difference - but when losing life, you can also trash cards that you played based on how much life you lose (which can let you get rid of cards that are -1 strength). Unfortunately, you don't live in a time-warp where Robinson can do this forever. He is getting older. This is represented by having an "aging" (bad) card added to your deck each time you have to reshuffle it. You will go through the hazard deck three times (with it getting progressively harder), and then if Robinson is still alive, he fights two pirates. If you win this, Robinson has left the island, and you are left in peace!! (Otherwise, he died while fighting the pirates - so either way, you win, because he's leaving you alone.)

Friday game card
Cards are dual use
The first thing that I like about Friday is how the deck building element of the game works. I like just how bad your deck is when you start the game (mostly 0 and -1 point cards). Yet, I like the fact that you can purposely lose hazards in order to sacrifice some of these cards. I also love the fact that Friday prevents you from doing a fairly standard deck building strategy of trashing most of your deck to only leave the best cards because, if your deck becomes too small, you will get aging cards very quickly. Yet, even with the aging cards, there are hazard cards that (once defeated) you can put in your deck that allow you to discard (or redraw) a drawn aging card. All of these things fit together beautifully.

The second thing that I like about Friday is that it is incredibly challenging - and that there are different difficulties in which you can play the game. Specifically, there are four different difficulties, and they change what the initial cards and lifepoints are. It amazes me how tightly balanced this game is, because a very slight adjustment to the starting conditions can make the game drastically more difficult. The first time I played was on Level 1 (since I was learning). I scraped out a victory with about one life left. So, I began trying Level 2 (which means that I start with an aging card in my deck). I played Level 2 about 5-10 times in a row, and I never won; I didn't even come especially close to winning.  I went back to Level 1 - won again, this time by more than I did the first time. I think that these different difficulties make Friday have a lot more replayability than I expected from a solo game.

pirates from Friday: A Solo Adventure
You must defeat two pirates to win
The final pro that I will mention about Friday is that I like how the hazard deck works. Since you will go through the hazard deck three times, a lot of the strategy of the game lies in which cards you choose to encounter at various points throughout the game. If you choose to encounter all of the small hazard cards early in the game, then you will be more likely to lose many of the hazards - but if you win, you will have better cards for challenging the hazard deck the second time through. If you choose to take on the easier cards, then you're more likely to win, but you won't have very good cards for challenging the more difficult hazards - which only get stronger the second and third times through the deck. This aspect of the game is another area in which I think that the game is masterfully balanced.

The only real thing that I can come up with as a con for Friday is very nit-picky. When playing the game, since the hazard cards are two sided, it can occasionally be a bit confusing to remember which card you are challenging at any given time. You are told to put the "free" cards on one side of the hazard and the cards that you sacrificed life for on the other side. However, when you actually look at that, it often looks like you just played one of your cards upside down, so it takes a second to register what exactly is going on.

Overall, I give Friday a 9.5/10. I originally was thinking 8, decided that 8.5 was more appropriate, and really just kept talking myself up from there. When I struggle to find a con with a game, that means that the game really probably deserves a 9.5. I recommend that everyone try Friday at some point or another, and if you're like me and both love board games and periodically travel for work, I think that Friday is crucial for your gaming collection.

If you like games where you are playing against the game itself, you might also want to check out Nemo's War, Defenders of the Realm, and Lord of the Rings: the Card Game.

Hecho Review

Another game that I played after it was mailed to me as tornado relief (thanks!) was Hecho.

Hecho is a real time game that I find to be somewhat similar to the classic game of Pit. In Hecho, there are six different piles of buildings that the players are attempting to build. They "build" the building by allocating the necessary resources, represented by cards in their hand, to that building. There are six different kinds of resources, and each building will have a different mix of exactly how many of each kind they need. Anytime a player has enough resources to build one of the buildings, they take the card, yell "Hecho", put the used cards with the constructed card, and draw two new cards from the middle (everyone else draws one). At any time, players can also take two cards from their hand that match numerically and throw them into the middle, thus replacing them with two other cards. They can also trade cards with each other, but are only allowed to indicate the size of their card, not the material. Play continues in this manner until one of the six piles of buildings is empty - at which point whoever has the most points from building buildings is the winner.

The first pro to Hecho is that there seem to be enough different types of materials and enough buildings that you are trying to construct at any given time to keep you somewhat frantic. It is quite challenging to pay attention to all six piles at the same time - and of course, if you don't pay attention to them, you may trade away the resources that you need in order to complete those other buildings (and worse yet, you may trade them to your opponent who is paying attention to them)!

In addition, the fact that you can always trade matching pairs with the bank and that you can trade anything with other players keeps the game flowing. If either of these rules were missing, there would be far too much down time while waiting on someone else to realize that they had the correct materials to build a building.

The third thing I like about Hecho is that there are some buildings that can be constructed using only a single card. This also helps the game flow by putting more cards into the players' hands. Yet, these buildings (since they are so easy to construct) are not worth very many points, thus keeping the balance of the game intact.

However, Hecho has some definite cons. First of all, though the game says that it can be played with 2-6 players, in my opinion, it is pointless to play with 2-3. You simply don't draw cards often enough in 2-3 players to keep your hand flowing so that you can continue playing. Here's an example - I was playing a three player game, and I was doing well, so I wound up using all of my cards. I drew two new cards after constructing another building and I looked and realized that all of the available buildings required at least three different types of resources. I was able to teach someone how to play the game and help them join into it while I was waiting to be able to do anything. Granted, I don't think this is the norm, but every three player game I have played has been incredibly slow.

The other thing that I would consider a con about Hecho is the number of different values on the cards. I realize that this is a major aspect of the game and it's design, but the fact that you are just as likely to get a "Metal" of value 2 as you are of value 8 seems odd to me. This also heavily favors the person that draws the value 8 card. If you draw mostly cards with high numbers, you will be able to construct the same buildings as someone with low numbers while using less cards. This means that you will have more cards than they do after a Hecho - which gives you a major advantage when trying to construct the next building.

Overall, I give Hecho a 7.0/10. I think it is a decent game that I would recommend to people that enjoy the frantic real time trading nature of games like Pit. However, due to the number of other games available to me, I went ahead and passed my copy along to another tornado victim. (And thanks again to all who sent me Hecho and many, many other games for both my collection and for others in Joplin after the tornado. I did my best to make sure that they all found great homes!)

If you like real time games, you might also check out Jab, Wok Star, and (the less good) Frenzy.