Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bellwether - So, Elminster Meets Bob Vila At A Bar One Night To Discuss Ratios...

Joe Magic Games, some time ago, sent me a copy of their latest creation, "Bellwether", which is a game that has three to five players acting as surviving wizards after a great war. The players' goals are to free the land of critters that hung around from the war and, ideally, rebuild their shattered civilization; Bellwether, in fact, is the name of the School Of Magic in this realm. But as it turns out, this is another game that has quite high ambitions and does a lot of really neat things that other games have done individually, and it mashes them up into one little game. It even gets a lot of them right, in fact.

The only real problem with this game is that it presents you a huge, and I do mean huge, array of options to take on a turn, but in the end, there seems to be only one truly viable path to victory, which is beating monsters up and collecting sets of spell cards, which are almost mutually exclusive since you need spells to beat up the monsters. You can most certainly spend time building up portions of civilization, but the cost is so bloody high to do so, with such little return as far as victory points, that it just doesn't make all that much sense to do so except in very specific, and unpredictable, situations.

Before I get too much further into the game's play, let me tell you about what comes in the box. Inside are two Joe Magic style (as I've come to call them) cardboard-backed, laminated boards. These things are indestructible, and for a "desktop publishing" affair, these boards are the gold standard. It also comes with an array of little winks and thirty little plastic cubes that I think are just the dog's bollocks. I wish I knew where he got them, because every gamer's "someday I want to make a game" kit should include these. Finally, there's some D6 dice, and two piles of poorly registered laminated cards. Think "Last Night On Earth" cards, but on a budget.

Again, these are indestructible due to the awesome laminating job. The rules are all laid out on a single, folded 11x17 sheet, which amounts to four pages. There's a little back story which serves to give you a reason to care about what the deal is in-game, but it's clear to me that Joe Magic may have a lot of good game ideas, but he is no fiction writer or copy editor. Suffice to say, the story about some nasty wizard going a bit mental and trying to take over the world is less than compelling while giving you all you need to understand why the world needs rebuilding.

Now, the game gives you a bunch of ways to win, as I noted, with the worst possible option being the given object, building. Any given player can build up to six buildings, at which point the game ends. The buildings are valued at between three and eighteen points, and they cost varying amounts of spells, tokens, or worst of all, you must have already built a building of a type first. The thing is, though, it's pretty simple to see that if a building costs two spell cards and a token, you're going to need to spend a minimum of three turns in order to build the building in most cases, with the building earning maybe eight points. But, when you start thinking about it, if you spend those same three turns getting two spells and defeating a monster, you are likely to end up scoring more points.

Gaining spells is a simple affair, where you declare you want one, and you can take one from the spell deck. Sometimes monsters appear when you do so, and these generally end up populating the game board, blocking you from building certain things. These are a pain in the ass, because if you're going for the "building" method of scoring, if a monster is sitting on a spot you want to build, you need to kill that monster first, which expends resources. But, the spell cards come in three suits with their own symbol, and the more symbols you have when the game ends, the more points you get, up to 55 points per type. So, this is quite easily the quickest and best way to win, which means that set collecting is what this game really stems down to.

Another note about spells is that while you can use them to score points by having them in hand at the end of the game as well as being used to kill stuff, they have other abilities which are noteworthy, and change the game a bit. One, for instance, allows the holder to gain ten points if he's built one of each of the four types of buildings. Another gives you points for having ten tokens of a color. There's maybe 40 different powers, which are all explained in detail on the last page of the rules, so it's not complex or anything when it comes to understanding them, although the card text is pretty good at explaining it. The only detriment is that it makes the already mathy scoring at the end of the game even more mathy.

Now, killing monsters amounts to simply using spell cards with attack values printed thereon to equal or best the attack value listed on the monster. Each monster also has a point value, and thus, beating a monster gives you points. And monsters are pretty much always present on the game board, blocking building sites, and they're also hanging around on the table, so it's not like it's hard to find a target. But that said, when you start getting past five or six spells of a kind, it becomes ludicrous to get rid of spells in order to get points for killing monsters. That said, if you've gotten lucky and start getting a lot of one suit and have some stragglers, it's a good plan to kill off some baddies for quick points.

Now the one thing that really sets this game apart, and that I really thought was slick, is that to do virtually anything, you need those colored winks, the "Midland Tokens". To get them, you just take an action and pull all of one color off of the board. But, really, only two colors matter, the yellow and the blue, because those are the two that allow you to gain spells. The thing about the way this mechanic is implemented is what makes it neat, though; if you take an action, you can repeat the action on the same turn by spending one token, a third time by spending two tokens, and so on, in incremental manner. Each time someone takes tokens, he has to add one of each color to the other piles, sort of like how in Puerto Rico, actions that don't get taken get a gold piece put on them to make them more viable next turn.

All in all, the game isn't a bad game at all. It's actually pretty decent, all things considered, and has moments of real fun. I would say that the play testing group should probably be castrated for not mentioning that the whole affair of building things, the core tenet of what the game is supposed to be about, is pretty much pointless in most cases. But other than that, it's reasonably entertaining and will certainly test your resource management skills, because besides set collection, the resource management is the other key ingredient. There's even some "take that" stuff when it comes to stealing tokens that you know someone else wants, which causes some table commotion.

Now that you've heard about the game and have an idea on the quality and the play itself, let's talk about the one thing that Joe Magic has thus far failed at every single time I've seen their games, graphic design and art.  The graphic design on the main boards is so ridiculously bad that it defies reason that nobody said anything to the folks at Joe Magic. For example, there's text on the token areas that tells you what the tokens do, but you can't read the text. Why, you ask? BECAUSE THE TOKENS COVER UP THE TEXT! Perhaps they could've put the text in a header box above the area where the tokens actually sit? It's things like this that require a big head-scratching, since they could've easily been implemented better with minimal effort, yet the idea of good graphic design seems to elude Joe Magic on an ongoing basis.

The monster art is also truly terrible in almost all cases. There's maybe five nice looking cards in the entire bunch. This is just like the other game I've reviewed, The Agency, which suffered from the exact same problems of them not having a single person on staff who knows graphic design, and worse, not a single person on staff that has anything better than a Wal-Mart 1001 Clip Art CD to use. On the Agency I didn't really beat them up that bad, but this time, I'm going for broke: Joe Magic, please, get your shit together. The art is embarrassing. Hire someone, pay a couple bucks for better clip art something. You have good ideas, maybe even great, but without taking the look to the next level, you're going to be missing out on a lot of sales.

The art for the spell cards, though, is far more passable and actually, many cards are nice looking. I especially like how clearly the rules for spells are explained on-card. The suit choices, though, had us scratching our heads. They've got ladybugs, snakes, and pine martens, and the icons are ugly, although easily identifiable. Now I get the snakes and ladybugs, but a pine marten? Really? I didn't even know what the hell it is, and not only did I have to look it up, when I did, I realized that it was misspelled in the rulebook!

The long and short is that if you're going to use some obscure ass animal in a game, at least spell it right for the love of all things good and holy. But beyond that, the thing could easily pass for a weasel, which is what we ultimately ended up calling it because between all of the people that played this, not a single one of us had a clue what a pine marten was. That provided us no end of enjoyment, with commentary like "Hey, stop playing with your weasel at the table!" and "Hey, if you kill that monster, are you going to do it by draining your weasel, or are you going to slap it in the face with your snake?"

But again, above and beyond the fact that the vast majority of the art is atrocious, the graphic design is seriously brain damaged, and the whole game's concept of "rebuilding society" is quashed by the fact that building stuff is mostly counterproductive, the game is actually pretty fun. If you're looking to try an indie publisher's game, and like games that are brain-burners with no direct interaction, then you might like this. Us, we were pretty tepid on it, with me liking it the most primarily because of the fact that it was something that I looked at, underestimated due to the look of the game, and then was surprised to have enjoyed it as much as I did. I'd play it again if I could, but I sent it off last week to one of my 2nd Anniversary "winners", so I'll never see it again.

Why The Weather Is So Warm And Cozy At Bellwether:
- Truly interesting approaches to game design
- For a indie publisher, the production value is quite good, not counting the art
- Despite the balance issues, it's fun to play
- Depending on how you play, this game is under an hour with four players
- The spell abilities really add to the overall experience

Why The Bell Tolls For Bellwether:- My 10 year old might actually have been able to produce better art
- The graphic design is questionable at best, and that's being generous
- Copy editing required, with "Pine Martin" being the biggest weenie misspelling
- It will take you five minutes to score the game at the end, because it's mathy as hell
- For the AP-prone, this game is like a douchebaggery magnet

Overall:If you wanted to find a company that could build you great prototypes, this is the one. The production value is far better than VPGs was before the laser cutter came on line, and I'd argue that their cards are on par, quality wise, with Flying Frog's indestructible cards, notwithstanding the front/back registration. The art takes a bit away from the game, as does the balance issue regarding the paths to victory, but all that said, if you want a $25.00 game that will entertain you and make you rethink what "smart games" are, this is a pretty good choice. There's some luck, but this is a very Euro-ey kind of game where every turn counts for something. 

3.25/5 Stars

You can learn more about this game at their website here:

The Elusive Pine Marten:

A Weasel:

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