Space Ninja, review

Slightly obscure review today: Space Ninja from the English-language friendly Japanese company Group SNE.

The box art is way more violent than the game

The game is a worker placement, your workers are agents placed onto various planets in order to influence their individual politics. At scoring time, they earn you points based on who controls planets: player with most agents getting one point for every ‘civilian’ living on the planet, second place getting half that. In case of ties, the earliest agents win.

The heart of the game are the different planets available. 

The game comes with 6 though not all of them are used in each game, and they are very unique. They all follow the same basic format:

  • an area for the population to live on, with a maximum size
  • a row for the player owned ninjas to line up on
  • the effect that happens when you place a ninja
  • and the effect that happens at the end of the row

Most of the planets involve a ‘programming’ mechanic where placing ninjas gives you a say, either by moving populations to voting areas, or paying off officials to pass legislation, or rolling a dice to determine what the fate will be unless someone else shows up and rolls as well. I’m making these sound kinda plot driven, but they’re very euro in practice, heh.

Which leads us to the core mechanic: more population is more points, but only up to the limit. If the population ever crosses over it, the planet ‘explodes’. Half the people die, and more importantly, half the agents die, oldest first. This means that the game is an endless balancing act between the people earning points trying to keep the population high but not too much so, and the players whoa aren’t earning points who are trying to either crash it, or grow it over the limit. And with the complex actions possible on the planets, predicting which is easier is non-trivial.

Programming example: the mandarin planet is set to export a pop counter-clockwise, then shrink their own population while giving everyone a free ‘placeholder’ ninja. Meanwhile, Enlil in the back is at it’s final state where it grows slowly and kills of pops in the neighboring planets.

Btw, did I mention the game is very low luck? Two planets involves a die roll (one to determine the population limit, one to determine how it will behave at turn end), but generally speaking you have a very good idea of what will happen at the end of turn and the only difficulty is predicting the actions of your fellow players. I definitely would not recommend this at 2p since I have a feeling it’d turn into an AP fest.

A very good game, recommended. It takes us about 2 lunches to get through the full 4 rounds, but well worth it if you like the more experimental Japanese euro-game scene.

Game of Thrones, the Board Game, review

A classic, for good reason. It’s the area control game that gave backstabbing a good name. Often imitated, never duplicated.

Game of Thrones, I own the blade and the Raven. Good signs.
Game of Thrones, I own the blade, the Raven, and have ships over the east coast. Good signs.

Ameri-gaming done right: start by taking an interesting property, put a slim game on top of it, then make sure that the game ‘feels’ like the property. And that’s the secret of it’s success: GoT:tBG feels right. The backstabbing (sometimes proper invasion, more often in the form of denying support that was promised) is woven integrally into the game. The combat is deterministic which makes the backstabs sting even more as you went through and counted all the math and you have had enough if not for those awful Tyrrels.

The game’s victory condition is holding enough castles. The temporary nature of this means the game is a constant dynamic rotation of who everyone else is ganging up on. The dream is to be 3 castles behind as everyone else fights each other, then to leap across the map on a chain of boats and grabbing 3 in one turn.

Ah, the boats.

Top down GoT
Top down GoT, my boats on right won me the game

The boats allow armies to teleport across the map. They prevent the game from becoming a slow bottleneck of fighting over choke points and allow for grand master moves like distributing 3 armies across 3 different landing zones. Don’t underestimate them or you’ll find yourself with foreigners at your shores sieging your muster spots.

The game’s narrative is driven by power tokens. Instead of using a region militarily, it can be harvested for that abstract currency. That’s then used to help fight against the periodic Wildling attacks and to bid on the 3 tracks which functionally represent turn order, military power, and flexibility with orders respectively. Winning the top tracks gives added benefits: the Throne breaks ties in the other appointments and decides how some event cards play out, the Valarian Steel gives +1 to a combat, and the Raven swaps two orders in response to them displaying, letting the owner respond to someone doing something unexpected.

End of game. Baratheon rode from King's Landing to outside Winterfell
End of game. Baratheon rode from King’s Landing to outside Winterfell

It’s a great game with a caveat: it’s kinda off-balance at 4 and 5 players. Highly recommended at 3 and 6 players though.

Really, my only ‘complaint’ of any sort is that the characters don’t look enough like their TV show versions that I’ve gotten used to. Makes since the game predates it by quite a bit, and to be honest the hand painted art is much nicer than any film stills could be.

Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia review

Tomo picked this up on one of those online sales so I finally got to play what I passed on to get Evolution instead.

Bioshock Infinite: The Siege Of Columbia
Bioshock Infinite: The Siege Of Columbia

This is pretty much the quintessence of a Ameri-game. Miniatures for area control. Combat with custom dice. Completely theme based. Simple rules that involve a lot of weight up front. If you like the genre, you’ll like this.

For those unfamiliar, the board game is based on a video game of same name. In it you try and rescue a girl from a floating city while factions fight for domination. In the board game you represent one of two of those factions, while similarly to Lord Of The Ice Garden, the protagonist of the original story wanders about the map causing massive destruction.

The game was introduced to me as “basically Nexus Ops with a Bioshock skin”, and that’s a very good starting point to understanding it. The game is won by placing your 10th victory point, and they’re placed by either succeeding in a VP objective, or by holding an area of the board. The first are yours forever, the second only until you lose the area.

The main driver of the game are cards. They are dealt to players each turn and represent the units available to the faction. They can be spent to gain money (allowing purchases of units, buildings, and upgrades), to give bonuses and special effects in combat à la Game of Thrones, or to win votes to pass new laws that change the rules slightly each turn.

On top of that there’s the aforementioned protagonists. They run around the board willy nilly, sometimes knocking out entire districts, sometimes killing all units, sometimes helping whoever they share the sector with.

Top down view of Bioshock Infinite
Top down view of Bioshock Infinite

If the game sounds kind of random, it rather is. There’s the combat dice, the card draws, Booker’s movement, Elizabeth’s effects, the laws you vote for, and the victory point conditions. None of these do you have any real control over. On top of that, 1 card in either deck is game-changingly powerful: the Songbird / Airship ones. They add a giant amount of points to the fight, on top of letting the unit teleport in and bring its die with it. It means that you basically get a free win each time you draw it. I used that to win the game but taking over a needed final point, despite my opponents best efforts all game to prevent that.

I mean, it’s not a bad game. The theme is done well and it looks great. But it definitely feels a bit like everything they could think of from every FFG game they liked was picked up and throwing into a pot. Check it out if you’re a hardcore Bioshock fan, but you’re probably not and you’re probably ok sitting this one out.

The minis are ok
The minis are ok, the cardboard buildings are nicer


Cthulhu Wars, review

David brought over the colossal box that is Cthulhu Wars, so I finally got to try it.

Early game, the King in Yellow spreading the good word
First things first, the miniatures really are all that. They’re genuinely fantastic, interesting, well made, and huge. See the photo above? the little human guys with books are the size of your average miniature. There’s not even in any elder gods in that photo, the big things are just regular monsters.

Second things second, this is not a generic miniature cash-in, which I was rather worried about that from seeing photos. The game does involve area control and there is dice based combat, but the game plays much more about power building and give-and-go of gate control vs “throw all your people into all his people and whoever rolls better wins”.

Tactical view. Nyarlothotep (blue) off to a great start
Let me expound more on that cause it’s pretty key to whether you’ll like this game or not. Every faction has very different units with very different powers, but they all share the same winning condition which is “Control gates and keep your old ones alive, then spend power points to double each turn’s winnings”. The differences are in how the factions go about keeping their gates controlled, monsters resummoned, and power points growing, and the differences are significant enough to keep the game interesting. Each faction starts with a bunch of cultists, one gate, and one power. Throughout the game you will achieve conditions that will unlock new powers, sort of like victory points in Twilight Imperium, or (as the manual says) Xbox achievements.

The powers tend to be pretty interesting and there’s actual strategy to what order you need to come out. For example, I played Hastur. My special ability is as a faction I can desecrate areas which will then give me power points as long as I keep a unit there (units from multiple factions can coëxist without fighting). One of the early power I chose was whenever I lost a cultist, I gain a power point. It’s a faction that doesn’t gain much from fighting and is actually kind of powered by avoiding conflict. Some other examples were Nyarlothotep moving twice as fast as anyone else, Cthulhu being able to resurrect for bargain prices, and Shub-Niggurath bypassing the 1 summon per action limit.

So the game isn’t much Cthulhu Risk as much as it’s a weird asymmetric Nexus Ops (or a very minimalist Twilight Imperium if you’re not familiar with Nexus Ops). There wasn’t much combat in our game, actually. Maybe 3 or so actual fights total (4 players), and a few more cultists getting kidnapped and sacrificed, which happens without die rolls.

It also plays pretty quick: we finished under 2 hours and that was with mostly new players.

Let’s be honest, the real reason why any of us played this game. Look at those things.
Keeping it real, there’s really one reason you’re going to play this game: the giant honking minis. And that in itself is enough to check it out, I’m just letting you know that they managed to make a pretty good area-control game underneath all that, once you actually get those giant things on the board.

Carcassonne review

Carcassonne is relevant to me as it was the first ‘real’ board game I bought and played. It was an impulse buy from a mall board game store back when those existed still.

The game is a quintessential ‘euro-style’ game in that it’s really a graph optimization problem with the thinnest veneer of medieval Europe on top. Tiles are flipped and added to previous ones, workers are placed, victory points are scored.

Carcassonne. “My First Euro”, but also my first euro.

It ended up being an excellent purchase cause the game ended up teaching me the other half of what makes a euro game a euro: great strategic depth. Carcassonne gets competitive very quick as players start to steal cities, set up complex road networks to define the farms, and all hope that that one “1 road abbey” comes up for them.

It’s genuinely a great game. It’s also a great introduction to modern board games as there’s no secrets (no hand of cards, no hidden information at all) so a player teaching the game can openly give strategic advice and clarify rules in real time.

The pretty constant playtime (there’s only so many tiles) means that it also never stretches too long, making it a go-to at my work for lunch play.

Quick post-scriptum thought: the expansions are definitely not “must-buy” as they all add either randomness or complexity. They’re great if you get bored of the base game, but by no means necessary. The only one I would even remotely consider for your first play though is “The river” and that’s it.

Twilight Struggle, a non-war gamer’s review

It feels strange to review Twilight Struggle as there’s so much written about it already. I suppose I’ll target this as “what to make of the hype around the game if you’re a board gamer, but not a war gamer”.

What hype? Well, it’s the #1 game on BGG, it’s got its own article on 538 discussing why it’s the best game of all time, and its wiki is being made into a 400 page strategy book coming out pretty soon. And that’s before the many other review posts and videos.

So what is it?

Twilight Struggle, round 2. Please do not mock our beginner strategies
Twilight Struggle, round 2. Please do not mock our beginner strategies
It’s a 2-player card driven cold war war game. You get a hand of cards, you play them in one of few ways, and from that you update board state. Some of the cards cause scoring to happen, and when it does you check to see who’s winning a region, and update points.

There’s a couple hooks to this. The major one is that both players draw from a communal deck which gives out both USSR and US cards. Oh, if you haven’t guessed, one player is US the other USSR. Your own cards can be played as event, or just for numeric effect allowing a certain number of operations, but never both. Your opponent’s cards have to be played for numeric operations, and then the event will trigger. All but 1 cards (generally) have to be played.

What’s that mean? It means you draw a hand that’s half great for you, half awful, and you have to make the best of it when you do. This is the main hook of the game, dealing with how to best play these cards that on the surface look just terrible to play.

Keep in mind though the game is a war game and comes from that culture, so it includes a bit of a rule wall up front. Placement vs realignment vs coup. Keeping track of war points and measuring it against defcon. The space race. The China card. None of the rules are difficult but they take a few minutes of time to teach up front. But, and this is important, it doesn’t play like a war game once you get going.

In fact I should make this its own paragraph: Twilight Struggle doesn’t play like a war game once it gets going. Each phase takes maybe a minute, and then flips to the other player, so downtime is very short. The actual rules are quite simple and importantly there’s a very clear mental link between “I want to achieve X, what’s the best way to achieve X”.

Twilight Struggle, also new vest
Twilight Struggle, also new vest from Santa
So what’s the catches for people not used to war games? One, the game is long, and requires a lot of attention. Probably looking at 2.5 to 3 hours, but again, that’s 3 hours of seriously paying attention. I did ok with it, but Angelica needed to take a break about midway. The other is that the game has a lot of room for strategy growth. It’s not rules hard, but it is strategy hard, meaning a player who is good at it will win very easily over a player who isn’t. Some of the strategy comes very quickly (“Use space race to get rid of cards that will lose me the game”), but other things like “If you don’t use your own events they come back and your opponent might use them for you”, or “Use ops after enemy events to undo the damage” take a bit longer. And of course, there’s the final layer of “Remember every card and know what your opponent has and how they might play it”.

So is it worth checking out? If you’re willing to invest the time to learn the rules, the game is good. If you’re willing to invest the time to learn the strategy, the game is Very good. I can see what the hype is about cause the cards are interesting and a very good balance between “too swingy” and “not powerful enough”, the map is very well designed with chokepoints and dynamic relationships, and the famous flow of the game (Russia starts strong and ends weak) is very much there.

It really is a very good game. I’m hoping it gets to hit table as often as it can.

Magnates: A Game of Power (mini-review)

My copy of Phalanx Games’ “Magnates: A Game Of Power” arrived and we gave it its first test run. It’s a medium weight euro based on the famous Polish history book “God’s Playground” that plays quite a lot like a semi-coöperative El Grande.

Magnates: A Game Of Power
Magnates: A Game Of Power

The essential mechanic is first bidding on cards that give powers and allow placement of units, then using the leftover cards to try and fight the constant flow of invaders. Bid too low in the first part and you won’t win any estates or power cards, bid too high and you won’t be able to stop the invaders and the countryside will burn. If enough of the invaders get through the country becomes partitioned and everyone loses.

We played the game with 2 players, and a blind-bidding bluff game with 2 players is probably a subpar way to judge the full gameplay. I can say that it’s definitely a very well made game and one where you constantly balance the need of the country against the personal profit of your family, usually ending in the collapse of said country. So basically a surprisingly good simulation of that era of Poland.

Portal, the Uncooperative Cake Acquisition review

We got to play it at GenCon and pre-ordered it soon after: Portal, the Cake.

It’s a very stylish proposition. The game comes in a faux-aged box (well done too, at first glanced it really looks damaged), and first thing you’re greeted by is a fake 1970’s manual, in the style of a scientific testing protocol:

The very retro Portal manual
The very retro Portal manual

The game isn’t particularly like the video game in the sense of testing and puzzles, but is more influenced by the little cartoons that were used as advertisements for Portal and Portal 2. It’s also very chaotic. The rooms move from one edge to the other quite quickly and triggering powers requires killing off your dudes (who respawn even quicker).

Portal: Cake Game, including illusion inducing board
Portal: Cake Game, including illusion inducing board

The game is very low-randomness as far as dice rolling or similar, but very “random” in the sense that with so many options available to everyone else, any sort of long term planning is by-design impossible. It very quickly devolves into a mad rush and murder simulator that never progresses towards a final round, inasmuch as it just suddenly stops and whoever is ahead at that instant wins.

Only exception to that that we found is the Opera Turret card’s winning condition (usually triggered by the card Greg). That one you can sorta plan for, but since firing both of those requires 2 cakes and a 1 test subject, you’re pretty much on track to win anyways.

It’s a great game if you don’t take it too seriously. Especially since all your friends will want to try it at least once, guarantee it.

Small World: Underground review

We liked the iPad version of Small World enough that we got the Underground spinoff for actual meatspace

Small World: Underground, small 2 player map
Small World: Underground, small 2 player map

If you’re not familiar with the gameplay in the series, you combine 2 racial powers at random to create a series of dungeon dwelling civilizations like “Reborn Gnomes” or “Tomb Will’o’Wisps”, grab a bunch of tokens, and start invading the world. As you spread out, you get less and less tokens, then finally you give up on the race, set them to passive, and start a new one. Repeat until turn 10.

The Underground spin-off plays very similarly to the original, but with more interesting races and the addition of new artifacts that modify the game a bit each time. Compared to the iPad version it plays about twice as slow just cause of the time it takes to put down tokens and count the coins.

One small tangent: I very much appreciate the use of the dice on the final attack as a game design decision. Without that little bit of variability, the game would quickly bog down in nothing but cold calculation of the most efficient way to use all tokens without wasting any, but that dice roll at the end allows any “leftover” tokens to still be useful, and moves the game along much faster.

Fire In The Lake review

Angelica is traveling for work so I tried the single player Fire In The Lake, my first ever GMT game.

Fire In The Lake. I will not fear, fear is the mind killer
Fire In The Lake. I will not fear, fear is the mind killer

It’s weird how intimidating this game feels considering how really not too difficult to either set up, or play it is.

The entire mechanic is:

  • flip a card
  • in card order if you’re available, make a move
  • repeat until coup card. if coup, check if someone won, then reset

The moves are very clearly written out on sheets, ditto the coup order. In fact, the main thing about the game that jumps out is how much effort was spent making it playable. There’s flow charts for everything, there’s pages and pages of explanations and tutorials, advice for factions, advice on specific cards…

In fact, once I got into the flow of the game, what caused me to stop was something completely unexpected: my feet gave out. Not a phrase you often hear about board games. In this case, the actual game board is so large that I had to play standing up to be able to reach the back, and after a day at the standing desk, my feet were hurting enough that I gave up after finishing 1964.

Looking forward to giving it a hardcore college try on a full Saturday. It looks like a very solid beast.