Riff Raff Review

Riff Raff game in play

In my continuing efforts to try out every awesome sounding dexterity game that comes along, I've unsurprisingly hunted down a copy of Riff Raff!

In Riff Raff, each player has a pile of miscellaneous pieces that he is trying to stack on a boat.  Sound easy?  Well... the boat is leaning.  And, you have to place your pieces on certain sections.  Specifically, each player is given a hand of cards ranging from 1-10, which correspond to the different parts of the ship (four on the lower part, and six on the masts).  Each card can only be used once (hence the game can only last up to ten rounds).  To start each turn, all players reveal a card.  Whoever plays the highest card gets to place a piece on the ship first (in that section), followed by the other players in order.  Players cannot touch the ship or previously placed pieces directly, but are allowed to bump them with their current piece.  If a piece is successfully placed on the boat, with nothing falling off, great!  If pieces fall off, then the active player can attempt to catch them.  Any pieces that are caught are removed from the game - and any fallen pieces that were not caught are added to that player's supply.  The first person to run out of pieces wins the game!  (Alternately, if nobody is very good (which happens regularly), whoever has the least number of pieces after the tenth round is the winner.)

Riff Raff closeup of ship
Crewmen holding on for dear life!
The first pro that I have for Riff Raff is that the game is ridiculous.  It can be incredibly fun to watch, as well as to play.  Not only does the boat lean, the boat will often look like it is about to fall over.  And when the boat is at a 45 degree angle, you very well may only have cards left in your hand that have to be placed where they will immediately slide off.  So, your only chance is to try to somehow balance the ship (without knocking everything off), and also balance it with your chosen piece.  You probably will not succeed.  However, everyone nearby will get a kick out of watching you try!  (And you'll probably have fun at it, too.)

The next pro for Riff Raff is that I the components are very well made.  This is not something that I generally care much about, but in a dexterity game, it can be critical.  And, more specifically, the components for Riff Raff are very well made for the design of the game.  It's not "hey, this is a good piece of cardboard," but it is "this piece makes the game play better."  The main piece that I'm thinking of is the ship, and it's balancer.  The box has a cardboard insert that folds up and sits on top of the plastic insert.  The ship sits on top of this (on a wooden ring), but the ship has a large wooden piece with a metal ball attached to the bottom of it.  This metal ball is what causes the ship to lean every direction imaginable without toppling over.  No matter how many of your pieces you set on the top ledge of the ship, it will not topple, because it is weighted well.  So, as I said - the pieces being made well enhances the game, instead of simply being a nice cosmetic aspect.

There are some elements of the game that I'm going to mention that aren't really pros or cons.  One of them is that in my copy of the game, the boat is often leaning from the beginning.  It doesn't really lean very far (maybe 10 degrees), and if you mess with it enough, you can get it to lean even less than that.  I can't decide if this is something wrong with my copy, and it really should stand up straight to start the game, or if this was something intentional to make sure that the game is challenging from the beginning.   And if it is something "wrong" with my copy, I haven't decided if it makes my copy better or worse.

Riff Raff game in play
A mostly empty boat
The next thing that I will mention is more of an "I wish they had added this."  The pieces in the game are all very smooth.  In most games, this is a sign of being high quality, and in fact, that is still the case in Riff Raff.  However, with as smooth as the pieces are, and as angled as the boat is, the smoothness of the pieces can increase the challenge.  I wish that the mast pieces were double sided with one side smooth and the other side with a bit more texture.  This would allow the game to be played with two different degrees of difficulty, as the players could choose which side to play with in any given game.

My only real con for Riff Raff is that I dislike the rule about catching pieces.  Or, more specifically, I dislike that you can catch the piece that you are currently placing, and it goes out of the game.  It is far too easy to balance it for half of a second, and then as it falls, catch it.  And catching it that way is almost as good as playing it!  (I say almost, because it is still better to play a piece so that there are more pieces for the next player to potentially knock off.)  I think that this can be fixed with house rules - either everyone has to play with just one hand, or the current piece cannot be caught, or something of that nature.  However, whenever I feel the need to make a house rule, I am disappointed.

Overall, I give Riff Raff an 8.5/10.  It is a fun game with amazing components, and the designers have managed to find something unique within the dexterity genre, for which I applaud them.

If Riff Raff sounds interesting, you should also check out Crokinole, Hamsterrolle, and Catacombs.

Neuroshima Hex 3.0 Review

Neuroshima Hex 3.0 game in play

Though Neuroshima Hex has been around for quite some time, I finally was able to explore the game in the latest edition - Neuroshima Hex 3.0.

Before I get into the main review, I wanted to address what has changed in the new version.  Having not been totally familiar with the old version, I may be a touch off; but here are the things I am aware of: there are solo puzzles, there is a new faction, and the art is different.   The solo puzzles are a nice way of exploring the game and honing your skills.  However, having played several of them, I found that the setup time took longer than actually solving the puzzle, so they may be something that you try without bothering to set the pieces up on the board.  New factions are obviously a plus, and I found the new faction (Doomsday Machine), to have a very unique style of gameplay.  I think that if you played the previous versions, you will definitely appreciate this being included.  Finally, there is new art.  Based on what I have read, the new art makes it unappealing to mix in the previously released expansions - I believe that you can, but the art style is different enough that they don't feel like they "fit".

Now then, for those of you that are new to Neuroshima Hex, let's review the game!  In Neuroshima Hex, each player selects an army and attempts to raze his opponent's base.  Each turn you draw three hex tiles, discard one, and either play or keep each of the other two.  There are three types of tiles to play - units, modules, and actions ("instants").  Units and modules go out on the board and can cause different effects - attacking in melee, at range, improving other units, trapping opponents, etc.  However, none of these units will perform any of these actions until a battle is performed.  Alternately, the action tiles do various "one and done" things - they can start a battle, move a unit, attack a single unit, or push back an opponent.  Whenever a battle occurs (either from one player using a battle action or the board being filled), casualties are determined in initiative order - with the higher initiatives attacking before the lower ones, and with all units within the same initiative attacking at the same time.  Play continues in this manner of placing units and battling until one player's HQ has been destroyed, or until one player runs out of tiles - at which point the player with the healthiest HQ is the winner!

board closeup for new Neuroshima Hex game
Four-player death match
The first pro that I have for Neuroshima Hex is that I really like the skirmish system that it implements.  Is that cheating?  Essentially, this first pro is "I like how the game works," as the skirmish system is the game (just using more eloquent terms).  It all works very well - there is a nice tension about when a battle will occur.  Essentially, at the end of most of your turns you feel like you are positioned well and wish a battle would immediately begin.  Yet, by the start of your next turn, you feel (sometimes justifiably) like you are going to get obliterated.  And, whoever does finally start the battle will generally be using one of their two tiles in order to trigger the event, which means they will not be able to position their armies as much as they would like.  Everything fits very well together, and the flow and balance of the game make it great for anyone that enjoys skirmish-style games.

The next pro that I have for Neuroshima Hex is the initiative system.  Much of the positioning of units is centered around this.  A great example of this is when one player has a very strong unit positioned to attack his opponent's base.  Yet, that strong unit will quite likely have a low initiative - and so his opponent may be able to destroy the unit before it would be able to attack, assuming he can play a higher initiative unit.  Which then can be countered with an even higher initiative unit.  The fact that the units' attacks are staggered makes the placement of units much more important and is a brilliant facet of the game.

The third pro that I will list for this game is that I like that the bases all attack in melee.  Specifically, each of the bases has an initiative of zero and performs a melee attack in every direction (though it cannot damage another HQ).  This minor element of the game is helpful in two ways: it prevents the board from stagnating, and it also helps avoid one player running away with a victory.  It prevents the board from stagnating by killing units - specifically units that are directly helping a player win.  Regardless of whether a player positions a different unit to kill those tiles, they will be destroyed by the headquarters, thus clearing space on the board for players to place the next wave of reinforcements.  It also helps avoid a runaway leader by removing the units that are most directly helping a player to win.  For example, if I have a unit dealing three points of melee damage to my opponents base, and the base doesn't attack him, all I have to do is protect that unit and I will probably win.  However, since the base itself attacks, my strategy will have to change as my units die and as I draw new units.

two player example of new Neuroshima Hex game
Two-player game where blue has the advantage
The last pro that I will mention for Neuroshima Hex is that I enjoy the differences of the armies.  There are five armies included in the game, and each of those armies plays differently.  Some of them have really neat ranged powers, others are major melee attackers.  Some armies have an advantage by attacking repeatedly with the same units, and others use area affects to attack.  One of my favorite elements in games is when each player has a completely unique (yet balanced) way of playing, as it adds tons of depth to the game.  Neuroshima Hex is an amazing example of this, and I think that designers should desire to achieve this aspect in their games.

Though there is a lot to like in Neuroshima Hex, there is at least one element of the game that can be frustrating.  My primary con is that the game can swing drastically based on the luck of the draw.  This problem is most apparent after a battle.  Often, after a battle, one player (or team) will have an advantage - such as being the only team with units on the board!  This is generally the team that initiated the battle, as you wouldn't want to start a battle that you are not going to win.  Fortunately, the game balances itself by allowing the other player (or team) to take their turn immediately after the battle - thus the weaker team can immediately reinforce!  Yet, if they draw a combination of modules and action tiles (if you draw all actions, you can discard and redraw), they will not be able to improve their position.  And, the next player might be able to improve his position while triggering another altercation.  I have seen this occur in multiple games that I have played, and it generally means that the player at a disadvantage will not recover.

Overall, I give Neuroshima Hex 3.0 a 9.0/10.  If you are looking for a tactical skirmish game, this is probably the one that you should try first.  It is not for everybody (as some people have no interest in skirmish games), but after trying it, I understand why it has been published and re-published, and why so many people enjoy this game.

If Neuroshima Hex sounds interesting, you might also want to check out 51st State: The New Era, Summoner Wars, and Star Wars: The Card Game.

I would like to thank Z-Man Games for providing me with a review copy of Neuroshima Hex 3.0.

Trains Review

Trains board game in play

One of the newest deck building games that has been generating buzz is Trains.

Trains, simply put, is "Dominion with a board."  (If you haven't heard that phrase yet, then you probably haven't heard much about the game at all.)  Each player starts with a train track in a single city on the board, as well as a very basic starting deck (consisting of "Normal Trains" which are money, and a few cards that allow you to interact with the board).  On each player's turn, he is allowed to buy, play actions, lay tracks and build station improvements as many times as his cards allow (based on icons and available money).  When buying cards, they simply go into the player's discard pile.  When performing board related actions, the active player will also collect "Waste."  Play continues in this manner with players attempting to lay tracks to connect different cities while also building stations in those cities until one player has exhausted their supply of track, all of the stations are built, or four piles of cards are exhausted.  At that point, whichever player has the most points based on what they have built, what they have bought, and what they have played is the winner!

The first pro that I have for Trains are the Waste cards.  Every time you do anything beneficial, you gain a Waste.  Want to lay track?  That's a Waste.  Want to improve a station?  Waste.  Buy victory point cards?  Waste.  Go where another player already is?  Extra Waste.  Granted, the Waste cards slow down the game by causing each player's deck to be suboptimal, but Waste management is also a nice addition to the genre.  In previous deck building games, there have been bad cards that clutter up your deck, but in Trains, dealing with these cards is a central facet of the game.  Additionally, there is a rule built just for this - a player has the option of passing his entire turn and simply trashing all of the Waste in their hand.  (Seems fitting to trash waste, doesn't it?)

Trains board closeup showing cities and track
Building multiple stations can be valuable
The next pro that I have for Trains is that there is quite a bit of replayability to the game.  The board is double sided, and there are 30 different piles of cards to choose from each game.  (These are called "kingdom cards" in Dominion, but do not appear to have a specific name in Trains.)  Of these 30 options, you only use eight piles per game.  Thus with the double sided board and 30 different options for available cards, there are a large number of different setup choices.  This will allow people who fall in love with the game to play it repeatedly without worrying about it growing stale.

The game also plays smoothly.  But, instead of spending time fleshing out that, let's move on to an element that I haven't decided about.  There has been a strong tendency in the games that I have played to ignore the board.  How does this work?  Well, instead of gaining points by connecting cities and building stations, you can also gain victory points by purchasing certain cards.  The crux of this strategy lies in Waste management.  Whereas improving a city multiple times and connecting different cities on the board may gain a player 5-10 Waste cards, buying a victory point card only nets a single Waste.  Therefore, it is much easier to build a deck that can buy a lot of victory point cards than it is to build a deck that can utilize the board efficiently.  In the games that I have played, I have not seen anyone win while completely neglecting the board, but there does seem to be a strong strategy around ignoring the board for the first half of the game.

This leads to my first con.  If you have improved several cities and built your infrastructure, it is far too easy for other players to connect to your cities and earn the same points - and this can be very frustrating, as there is nothing that you can do to stop them.  At the end of the game, cities score full points for each player that has built a track in them.  To build where another player already has track costs some extra money and gains extra Waste, and building in a city that has been upgraded also costs extra money.  However, there are cards that allow you to ignore each of these extra costs.  So, it will happen that one player will improve several cities, and another player can swoop in and claim equal credit - and do so much more quickly (and inexpensively)!  I wish that there were at least an occasional option (possibly one of the card piles) that allowed a player who was already in a city to prevent other players from being able to build in it.  I would imagine that something like this would be coming in future expansions.

basic setup cards for Trains
Here are your basic currency: worth 1/2/3 money
My second con for Trains is that it feels a bit too similar to Dominion.  Essentially, it feels a bit like a re-themed expansion to me: "Dominion, the Board Expansion!"  Whereas I think that Dominion is a brilliant game, the similarities cause Trains to conjure up thoughts about Dominion throughout the game.  Then, Trains can start to feel a bit incomplete as it has not had the time to build the vast array of expansions that Dominion has.  I will freely admit that not everyone will share this con, and many people will like Trains much more than Dominion as they will feel like they are doing something with their deck, instead of building a deck just for the sake of having a deck. Yet for me, I don't know that I can play Trains without thinking of Dominion.

My final con is simple.  I cannot shuffle the cards in Trains (which is really annoying in a deck building game).  I have actually played on two different physical copies, and when I shuffle the cards, they clump together.  Now, when I say this, please keep in mind that I have been shuffling cards for 20 years or longer, as I have been playing games of some sort my entire life.  Each of the individual piles of cards seems to be the same height, but I think that some of the cards are a fraction of an inch different than others - which causes this problem.  And, now that I've said this, also be fully aware that many people that I have played with think that this is all in my head.  I'd be curious to see if other people have experienced what I'm talking about here - please leave a comment and let me know if you have noticed this, or if you can shuffle the cards with no problems.

Overall, I give Trains an 8.0/10.  I think that it is a very well made game, but (as you're tired of hearing), it is so similar to Dominion, that I don't see myself pulling it out instead of Dominion, except for with friends that really didn't like Dominion.

If Trains sounds interesting, you might also check out these deck building games: Nightfall, Puzzle Strike (which is actually "chip building"), and Quarriors (which is "dice building").

I would like to thank AEG for providing me with a review copy of Trains.

Lords of War Preview

Card game of Lords of War in play

A British game that just hit Kickstarter is called Lords of War.  Specifically, they are Kickstarting the latest faction pack, which is a fully playable game that can be combined with their previously printed packs.

Lords of War is a two-player skirmish game in which each player takes control of a different fantasy army.  Each turn consists of playing a card, removing any destroyed units from the board, and then "reinforcing" your hand back up to six cards.  (You can either draw a new card or sometimes take a card back into your hand from the table.)  With as simple as the rules are, the strategy lies in placing cards.  Each card can attack with different strengths and in different directions.  This is represented by arrows with numbers on them.  A card can attack in anywhere from 0-9 different directions, and I have seen them attack with anywhere from 1-5 power!  (If they can't attack in any direction, they are probably a ranged unit, which has slightly different rules.)  Play alternates in a "survival of the fittest" (aka, your guys keep dying) manner until one player has killed 20 of their opponent's units, or has defeated four of their "command" units - their best units.

Lords of War mid-game picture
Fighting was intense on the rear flank in this game
So, taking from the format of my Dungeon Roll preview, I'm going to try to answer the three main questions that I think you need to know as a potential Kickstarter backer.  First - what does Lords of War do differently?  The first thing that comes to mind that sets Lords of War apart are the placement rules.  In Lords of War, each card that I place must be oriented towards me.  This is important as many of your troops will have one side of the card which they fight best with - some strongly in front, others in back, and some even on one side (or even on one side diagonally).  So, these restrictions force you to think about your strategy a bit differently (and you'll have to resist the urge to turn your cards).  Second, in Lords of War, all of my units have to be placed adjacent to an opponent!  (There is an exception in that "Support" units can be placed adjacent to friendly units.)  This rule forces the combat to be heated, and causes players to immediately be engaging each other - thus preventing the downtime of a more defensive struggle.  Next, I haven't played another game that uses the directional attacks in the same way as Lords of War.  The closest game I can compare this with is Neuroshima Hex (which I haven't reviewed yet), but it still has it's differences.  In Neuroshima Hex, each unit dies (or takes a wound) as soon as it gets hit.  In Lords of War, each unit has its own defense value, and it is not defeated until this value is exceeded.  This forces players to position multiple troops around a stronger unit in order to defeat it.

Lords of War lizardmen cards
Some of the Lizardmen
The second question to address is: who would like this game?  Well, Lords of War is a tactical skirmish game.  Players will find themselves reacting to what their opponent has played (as well as what they have drawn), and trying to make the best decisions accordingly.  Also, Lords of War is not text heavy - each of the units is set apart from the others based on what and where they can attack, not by a block of text that describes different abilities.  This allows Lords of War to be pretty easy to teach, but may not have the same card combinations that other games present.  (I'm thinking of Omen: Reign of War here as a text-heavy opposite.)  So, overall, if you are looking for a light, easy to teach skirmish game where positioning is key, then Lords of War might be for you.

The final question is: who would not like this game?  Well, the obvious route is to point out the opposite of everything in the last paragraph.  If you like games with overarching strategies where the decisions you make in the first turn will affect your abilities in the middle and later turns, then this is one to avoid.  Another group of people that may want to avoid this game are players who prefer the "turtle and defend" strategy.  If you played Starcraft and built 8,000 turrets before attacking your enemies, then you might want to pass on this one, as Lords of War does not allow for that option.  The fighting will be heated from turn two, and you cannot put too much value on any single unit.  The last group that may want to avoid this game are those who are looking for a long, incredibly deep struggle.  Lords of War is on the lighter end of the spectrum (lighter than Summoner Wars in my opinion) and, though I think that the strategy of the game grows so that your third and fourth play are deeper than your first, it will not give you the plethora of options of something like Mage Wars.

Overall, what do I think of the game?  The more I think about it, the more unique it becomes in my mind.  It had the unfortunate privilege of me learning it on the same night as Neuroshima Hex, and so they are linked together in my mind.  Yet, Lords of War provides some different takes on the skirmish genre and, as long as you're looking for a light game, it is a game to consider. If you want to go check out their campaign, you can see it here.

If Lords of War sounds interesting, you might also check out Dungeon Command, Pixel Tactics 2, and Smash Up.

I would like to thank Black Box Games for providing me with a review copy of Lords of War.