The Scepter of Zavandor Review

The Scepter of Zavandor game in play

A neat auction game with some very nice engine building mechanics is The Scepter Of Zavandor.

In The Scepter of Zavandor, every turn consists of finding ways to improve your income.  This can be done in a few ways.  First, you can buy better "gems."  Each gem produces income for you, so having better gems improves how much money you make (and you can only have a certain number of gems, so you will need to upgrade them).  Second, you can auction artifacts.  The various artifacts can provide you with additional gem slots, give discounts on future items, increase your hand limit (how much money you can carry over from one turn to the next), etc.  Finally, you can improve your "knowledge."  Knowledge allows you to have various bonuses - a temporary boost of gems, unlocking better gems, increasing your base income, and providing you a better price when buying gems.  Ultimately, the game continues with players seeking to maximize their income every turn until a certain number of "sentinels" (super artifacts that are worth a lot of points) are purchased.  Once that happens, players add up points - from gems, artifacts, sentinels, and knowledge.  Whoever has the most victory points (most likely the person with the highest income) is the winner!

So, let's start out the pro/con section for Zavandor with this statement - I like a lot of things about this game.  First, I really like that you get a varied income from gems.  What this means is that each gem does not produce a set amount of money.  For example, you don't get $2 every turn for having an opal.  Instead, each gem provides you a card, and the cards have a range of values, with the better gems obviously having higher values.  This does a couple of things - first, it gives you some turns where you are able to have a "better" turn than you should (though at the cost of probably having turns later that are "worse" than they should be).  Secondly, it prevents your opponents from knowing how much money you have.  And this second element is very important in an auction game.  Now, instead of knowing that they can outbid you at exactly $52, your opponents know that you have somewhere around $40-60; but they don't know any more than that!

artifact cards from the Scepter of Zavandor
Various artifacts to be sold
There is actually a second element to the cards-as-money mechanic that I like.  There is a hand size that is enforced at the end of every round.  And, this hand size is fairly small.  Because of this, it really encourages you to improve your gems.  Since the better gems produce higher value cards, you are able to carry more money from one turn to the next if you have higher level gems!  And, while I'm talking about the cards-as-money mechanic, there is one more great feature.  In case you dislike pulling random cards, once you have enough of a certain type of gem, you get to pull a "concentrated energy" card instead of a normal card.  These cards allow you to get a set price for your gems that is slightly above average - and doesn't count (as much) towards your hand limit!

The next thing that I like about the Scepter of Zavandor is that it is really fun to try to get your financial engine going.  If you really enjoy one decision building on the next, and having one purchase pay off throughout the rest of the game, then Zavandor will have a lot of appeal to you.  I enjoy this kind of system, and so I have enjoyed selling gems in order to get better gems, carefully planning which auctions I need to win versus the ones I can hold back on, and where to improve my knowledge to get the most impact for my money.

The last two pros that I will mention briefly are these: I like the diverse starting position where each player starts with a different piece of knowledge (and thus should have a different initial strategy), and I like that the discounts provided by purchasing artifacts at the beginning of the game encourage you to buy a wide variety of items.

The Scepter of Zavandor player sheet
One of the different player boards
Yet, with all that I like about the Scepter of Zavandor (and, again, I like a lot about this game), there is one glaring con.  This game might have the worst runaway leader problem that I have ever seen.  Remember how I said that each decision builds on all of your previous ones?  So, if I make a few great decisions in the first 2-3 rounds, and they help me to earn some extra income, then guess what: I will have more money with which to buy the next things that come along.  And, that will help me earn more income.  Which, in turn, makes me more income.  There is a mechanic in the game to try to slow down the leader (and help the player in last to catch up).  The top 2 players are forced to pay extra on artifacts, and the bottom two players get discounts on them.  This is not enough.  In the last game that I played (in which I believe everyone had played the game before), the leader defeated the player in last place by about 80 points (the scores were something around 100 to 25, from what I recall).  And, in case you thought one player just played especially poorly, the leader also defeated second place by about 40 points.  Now, I said that I think that everyone had played the game before.  I know that the person in first, second, and last had played the game before - and it was still that uneven.  Whereas I like my decisions to matter in any game that I play, it seems that the decisions made in the first few turns set the course of this game a bit too much (the leader led from approximately 10 points until the end of the game).

The second con that I have for the Scepter of Zavandor emerges because of the previous con - the game is far too long.  Having an engine building game in which early decisions are unforgiving is completely fine.  It encourages you to make good decisions throughout the game!  But, more specifically, they are fine in a 30-45 minute game.  Zavandor is advertised as a 90 minute game, but I think is closer to 120-150 minutes as average.  Yet, the last hour (or more) of the game might not have any real impact on who wins or loses the game.  It can wind up being an extra hour of the player in first pummeling everyone else, while they watch helplessly (and with ever-increasing frustration).

Overall, I give The Scepter of Zavandor a 6.5/10.  As I keep saying - there are many aspects of this game that I think are wonderful, and that I enjoy greatly.  But, with how badly the leader can runaway with the game (and with how long everyone else in the game has to suffer), I just can't justify giving the game a higher score.  (Really, I think it speaks highly for the game that it gets a score this high while having such a frustrating element!)

If you enjoy auction games, you might also want to check out For Sale, Modern Art, and Biblios.

Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game Review

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game in play

In my opinion, one of last year's most anticipated titles was Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game. And, after a friend told me about how much he enjoyed it, I decided to try it out.

In Pathfinder, you take control of a (wimpy) character, and you go on adventures (hence the name).  Your specific adventures will be to go around to various locations, hunt down an evil villain (while thwarting his henchmen), and bring him to justice.  Along the way, you may get loot!  (Let's not ask questions like "where is this loot coming from?" or "is my adventurer really a hero if he smashes everything in his path and steals whatever he finds?"  Asking these questions ruin lots of fun games.)  Essentially, the gameplay is very straightforward - each turn you can optionally move, and then you can "encounter" a card at a location.  This location might be a monster, item, weapon, armor, spell, or blessing.  Whatever the card is, you will either have to defeat it, or (if it is some form of loot) you will have an opportunity to add it to your hand.  Either of these things requires you to pass a skill check.  Skill checks are based on rolling a die (which die depends on your character's abilities), and then getting bonuses and additional dice if cards are played.  After rolling all of your dice, if the total value that you rolled equals or exceeds the difficulty of the check, then the check is passed (monster defeated or loot acquired).  While going around to the locations, you are ultimately trying to defeat all of the henchmen (which allows you to "close" locations), and once all of the locations but one are closed, you defeat the villain in order to win.  (Note: I've used the term "loot" here as a generic term to mean "sweet stuff that you might acquire", though there is an official card type in the game called "Loot" (which is something cool that you can acquire).  Perhaps I should have used "booty" instead, but the phrase is "loot and pillage", not "booty and pillage.")

My first pro for Pathfinder is the looting.  I love looting things.  (In games!  Not in real life.  Sheesh…)  The first time that I was able to get my wife (girlfriend at the time) to play video games was in Gauntlet: Dark Legacy.  What appealed to her about it?  It was very straightforward - kill the bad guys, and collect cool rewards while doing it.  That is the formula for the Pathfinder card game, and it works fairly well.  What's more, through the deck allowances (or whatever they're called), the game does a good job of letting you loot while still keeping your character true to their nature.  For example, if I am a wizard, then I can keep a lot of spells in my deck - I can gain weapons and such, and I won't (always) just throw them in the trash while we are adventuring, but at the end of each scenario I will have to adjust my deck back to something that is legal for my character.  This is a great balance.

My second pro for Pathfinder is the customization that you perform while playing the game.  You start with a wimpy character and very basic cards.  However, as you play through different scenarios, you will get both loot and character rewards.  The loot allows you to customize (improve) what is in your deck.  If you like to play the "Hulk Smash" character, then you can add all of the gigantic weapons that you find, and replace the smaller daggers and short swords.  If you like to play as the dryad/animal adept character, then you can switch out which animal allies you have to work well with your style of gameplay.  However, in addition to customizing your deck, you also get other rewards as you play the game.  Some scenarios (or adventure paths (which is a set of scenarios)) will give you character bonuses - such as your character getting a permanent +1 bonus to a skill, being able to hold additional cards of a certain type, or getting special abilities.  However, the bonuses that you get are infrequent enough that you probably won't get to upgrade everything (at least not for quite a while).  So, you must pick how you want to play your character.

Another image of the Pathfinder card game
Cards and piles everywhere!
The two pros that I just mentioned really both blend together for the key pro for the game - Pathfinder ("Adventure Card Game") is very engaging.  You become attached to your character as you play.  You see them improve, and you want to keep playing so that you can try to add more stats to them, and to improve their stash of cards.  I found myself generally wanting to play "just one more" scenario as I was playing the game.  (As a note - you can actually play the game as just a single scenario instead of taking a character through the various adventure paths, but that doesn't really have any appeal to me at all.)  However, if you truly play the game by the rules, then if your character "dies" (runs out of their deck of cards during a scenario), then you are supposed to completely start over with a different character, thereby losing all of your customizations.  I haven't had my character die quite yet, but I'm not convinced that I'm going to do that instead of just restarting the scenario.

However, as great as the pros are, there are some equally strong cons.  The first con is that there are massive rules ambiguities and places where the game is unclear.  Even some of the things that are covered (such as evading) are covered so briefly that it is almost impossible to find the rule that you're unsure about in the rulebook.  Pros and cons are often hard to quantify, but take this into consideration: according to my colleague from Board Game Quest, BoardGameGeek had 600 rules questions within the first two months of the game's release.  Ouch!

The next con for me is that all of the adventures are the same.  Honestly, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt for now, and assume that this will only be true in the base game.  However, in all eight of the scenarios included in the base game, you are playing with the same formula - setup locations, close all of the locations and then defeat the villain.  Whereas this works, variety is important for ensuring that the game has lasting appeal.  (And, based on the fact that they are already planning five more expansions, I would say that they are banking on the game having lasting appeal.)  The game that Pathfinder is most often compared with is Lord of the Rings LCG.  But, one big difference is that Lord of the Rings has used it's formula of going through objective cards in a variety of very different ways - even in the base set.  So far, Pathfinder does not have that diversity - and unless it starts to have some diversity in the upcoming expansions, I do not think that it will have the longevity of Lord of the Rings.

My final con for Pathfinder deals with quality of components.  Before I even started playing the game, I had some cards that were marked, and others where the printing simply wasn't clean.  This is very disappointing as Paizo is generally a very high quality publisher.

Overall, I give Pathfinder an 8.0/10.  I love the looting and customization of the game, but, as with Risk: Legacy, I find myself enjoying these meta-game elements more than the game itself.  (Though to a much lesser degree than with Risk: Legacy.)

If Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game sounds interesting, you might also check out Dungeon Command, Mice and Mystics, and Dungeon Lords.

Never Deal With Dragons Review

So, today's review will be a little bit different - it will be about Never Deal with Dragons.  Now, some of you that really keep up on board games may be thinking to yourself, "hey, I haven't heard of that one."  And, those of you that clicked on the link may be going - "wait, that's a book!"  Yep.  Today I'm going to review a lesser-known eBook that I recently finished (hence the lack of pictures), which was written by a friend of mine (but to be honest, many of the games I review are published by friends of mine, so I think I've learned how to not be too biased).

An unrelated dragon (Defenders of the Realm)
Now, before I continue, there's something that you should be aware of.  This book is classified as romance.  Yeah - it made me feel slimy, too.  That classification does a terrible injustice to the book, as it will immediately make thousands (millions?) of people like me skip it without looking any further.  In fact, I bought it to support my friend, and as I was reading through it, I was fully intending to stop and move on as soon as it got all romance-bookish.  Fortunately, that didn't really happen.  Yes, there is one obligatory sex scene (it's about a page or two), but really, I didn't think that it had any more sex in it than the recent fantasy series that I've read through - it's fairly in line with the Game of Thrones series, the Dresden Files, or the Sword of Truth books when it comes to amount of sex versus cool stuff.  (Though, in Never Deal With Dragons, sex is more emotional instead of just straight physical, because it's told from a female perspective.)  And, why do I relate it to those books?  For a couple of reasons - first, that's what I read, and second, I feel that this should be classified as urban fantasy instead of romance.

Now that I've disclaimed a few times, let me start telling you about the book.  In my opinion, it reads very similarly to the Dresden Files, except that it is told from a female perspective (and the female lead is a dragon speaker, and not a wizard).  As a guy, it is interesting to read a story that is told from a female perspective, as there are some things that are shared that I would never have thought about, and it gave me a bit more (fictional) insight into a potential female thought process.  Yet, the inner monologue wasn't too distracting from the story itself.  If you enjoy the first person narrative style of Dresden, and the swirling of tense and breath-catching chapters of Butcher's stories, then you should feel right at home in Never Deal With Dragons.

Another unrelated dragon (Dungeon Command)
Next, I think that Lorenda (the author) has done a remarkable job in creating a fantasy universe.  I really enjoyed when she would include bits of lore about the setting that the story takes place in.  These little tidbits helped you feel more immersed in this alternate reality.  Here are some basics about the setting of the book.  Dragons are real; they were created by a failed lab experiment.  The dragons are also intelligent.  This combination means that the dragons have essentially taken over the world, and humans either work with them or serve them, depending on the part of the world you live in.  The humans that work best with dragons are "dragon speakers" (like the main character), and this language is still relatively young.  In addition to these post-apocalyptic features, the author has mixed in some traditional dragon lore (such as hoarding wealth), but has done it in a way that fits in with the rest of the environment - like wealth is hoarded by the dragons owning all of the world's major corporations.

One final unrelated dragon (Heroscape)
Now, since I've not really written book reviews, I don't know how much plot to write about (I don't want to give anything away), but ultimately, the heroine finds herself (completely unprepared) in a major quarrel between dragons, and she must figure out what is going on before things get out of hand.  This causes some chapters that are dripping with tension, where I felt like I couldn't put the book down until it had been resolved, as I waited to see what was going to happen next.  (I've read enough Game of Thrones books that I no longer take for granted that main characters will make it out alright.)

Overall, I found Never Deal with Dragons to be a nice, light read that wound up fitting incredibly well within my preferred style of reading (I'm anxiously awaiting the next Dresden book).  Plus, it's only about $3 dollars on Amazon - so, ultimately, why not pick it up and see what you think?  And, if you do, please leave a comment and let me know what you thought.  I think that it was really good, but I wouldn't mind some other opinions.

Euphoria Review

Euphoria board game

After really enjoying the first game by Stonemaier Games, I was privileged to have an opportunity to check out their second title - Euphoria.

In Euphoria, you are attempting to build the best dystopia.  In order to build and maintain your dystopia, you have to keep your workers dumb and happy as they mine for resources, build markets, and tunnel into neighboring cities.  In game terms, each turn you will either place a worker (or multiple workers, if they show the same number of pips on the dice that represent workers), or you can pull any number of your workers back.  When placing workers, they can collect resources, contribute to building markets, get you victory points, etc.  When retrieving workers, you must either pay a resource and gain some morale, or sacrifice a morale.  Additionally, when you retrieve your workers, you immediately re-roll all of them and add the total of all your available workers to your score on the knowledge track.  If this total is too high, then one of your workers runs away.  The game progresses in this fashion of placing and retrieving workers until one player has successfully scored their 10th victory point - at which point they are the king of the grumpy, unhappy land!

The first pro that I have for Euphoria is that I enjoy the strategy involved in attempting to get your workers "bumped" as much as possible.  In the game, there are three different types of locations for your workers - one can hold any number of workers, one can hold a single worker that can't be displaced, and the final type of location holds a single worker which will be "bumped" if another worker accesses the location.  When you get a worker "bumped," he immediately is re-rolled and returned to your active worker pool.  This is a wonderful thing for the owner of that worker, as they suddenly have another worker that can be placed, and they didn't have to spend a turn pulling the worker back.  Thus, determining where you think your opponents might want to place their workers and taking advantage of those locations first is a great strategy.

Another thing that I have found interesting in Euphoria is balancing your morale.  Initially, I thought that you could basically neglect morale early in the game and wait until the game has started to blossom.  After all, that way you don't have to waste resources early on in the game when pulling back your workers.  But, if you do this, then you will have a hand size of one when holding artifacts.  (I haven't mentioned artifacts.  Essentially, they are cards that you can turn in to get victory points.  You will need at least three of them or two that match.  Plus, you'll have an artifact that is special to you each game.)  Since you can turn in three artifacts for a victory point (or two matching ones), you really don't want to throw them away!  And, the earlier you increase your morale, the earlier you can start trying to match these cards (and not grow angry as you have to throw away the second card of a pair because you neglected morale).  I found the importance of morale in the early game to be interesting.

Euphoria game in play
Nice artwork for the board
Now, before moving on to the cons, there are several things I just want to mention about Euphoria - not good or bad things, but things I want you to be aware of.  First, "60 minutes" is.... optimistic.  None of the games that I have played have really come close to that mark.  I think that it is possible, especially if playing with about 3 people, all of which are experienced.  However, I really don't recommend playing your first game with 6 people.  Start smaller.

The second thing that I will point out is that there are a couple facets of the game that can make it a bit swingy.  First, if you roll doubles on your workers, you get to place multiple workers on the same turn (which is a very good thing for you). Also, if you roll really high numbers on your workers when you pull them off the board, you might lose them, even if your knowledge is not very high.  Both of these die rolling elements can turn the tide of a game - either towards you or away.  In one of my games, I saw someone with a moderately high knowledge (4 on a track that goes from 1-6) lose two workers on almost back to back turns, because they rolled too high.  This made them go from having three workers to place on the board to having a single worker.  Needless to say, they did not come back.  Some players will enjoy this element of the game, whereas it will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of others.

Now that you're feeling great about Euphoria, it's time to list some cons.  After all - this is a game about dystopias, right?  My first con is that there are four tracks relating to each specific allegiance.  Each player has a couple of recruits, and as the tracks that correspond to his recruits advance, he will get bonuses - and, in fact, one of his recruits will not even be available until the corresponding track goes a certain distance.  This sounds cool, right?  It allows for some uneasy alliances, where you are helping other players because it is ultimately in your own best interests.  However, in practice, it feels like these tracks basically just move as the game goes along.  I don't know if the recruits have been too well distributed in all of my games, but in my experience, the tracks have all stayed very close together throughout the game, and players are too often forced to advance a track that they care nothing about in order to get a bonus that they do want.  So, instead of this being a neat feature of the game, it turns out to be a really cool sounding non-factor.

Another picture of the Euphoria board game
Another action shot - I was purple this time (and I won!)
The next con that I have for Euphoria is that I thought that the tunnels should be scaled based on the number of players.  In the game, there are tunnels that lead from one part of the city to another - so that the Wastelanders can steal resources from the Euphorians, etc.  Realistically, players place workers on the tunnels to transform commodities into resources and/or artifacts.  As they do this, the miner moves along the track, and once he reaches certain places, recruits become flipped, and eventually a new place is opened up on the board.  However, the miner has to go the same distance no matter how many people are playing.  Thus, in a six player game, you have a new spot open up and more recruits available.  But in a smaller game (possibly even four player!), you have these same tunnels, but they might never be completed.  This is especially true since the resources that are provided from digging are scaled, as there are less resources needed to build each market in a smaller game.

My final con for the game is that it felt.  Disjointed?  I'm not sure what term to use.  It felt like I was placing workers for the sake of placing workers.  There is strategy involved and there is a theme, but they didn't mesh together overly well for me.  The flow of beginning, buildup, and climax also seemed a bit missing.  It was hard (at least for me) to envision how what I was going to do this turn was going to help me in the long run.  It felt more like, "well, I guess I can do this - I don't have any of this resource type."  There were occasionally long pauses of people thinking - but it wasn't because they were overwhelmed with choices.  It was more that they were trying to figure out how this turn would lead towards anything later in the game.  I don't think that I captured this con well, but it just felt like each turn only leads to the next 1-2 turns instead of the game building upon itself throughout.

Overall, I give Euphoria a 7.0/10.  There are some neat elements to the game, but overall the game left me a bit disappointed - though this is quite possibly because I expected a bit more based on how much I enjoyed Stonemaier's first game (Viticulture).  I would play Euphoria in the future if my friends were interested in it, but it won't be something that I regularly seek out.

If Euphoria sounds interesting, you might also check out Android: Netrunner, Kingdom of Solomon, and Alien Frontiers.

I would like to thank Stonemaier Games for providing me with a review copy of Euphoria.

Edit: It has been pointed out to me that I got a rule slightly wrong.  Originally, I had stated that when your workers are bumped, they did not have to make a knowledge check.  That was incorrect - sorry.  I still think that getting your workers bumped is far better than having to pull them back on your own, but I wanted to make sure to clarify this in case I had made anyone second guess themselves.