Friday, April 30, 2010

Red November - Wee Drunken Gnomes In A World Of Hurt

I have a good friend who was a naval officer, and he told me that the single most dangerous aspect of life at sea is the constant scourge of a fire on board. He noted that although drowning is a bad thing, indeed, there is not a whole lot worse than being trapped inside a watertight room with the ship burning and sinking around you while all you can do is sit and wait for the air to run out or for the fire to reach and incinerate you. Well, after that conversation I have both a newfound respect for the men and women who serve in our navy, and I have nothing but pity for the gnomes that inhabit the Red November, a Silver Line game from Fantasy Flight Games.

The premise of the game is that you play one of several gnomes who serve aboard the Red November, an ill-fated gnomish nuclear submarine that, at one point or another during the game, will be on fire, flooded, on the verge of being crushed, be completely devoid of oxygen, have a reactor meltdown, or my personal favorite, eaten by a Kraken. To paraphrase a quote by R. Lee Ermey, the ship "is in a world of shit". The good news, though, is that the gnomes are a crew of hardened sailors that have the capacity to fix these items cooperatively, and they only need to survive for an hour until help arrives to save the stricken vessel. It's simply an odyssey in chaos, with gnomes scrambling over one another to correct the myriad problems before being killed individually or as a group. It's also a complete and total blast to play, and I cannot tell you how many times I've played this, as it is a favorite with both my wife and myself.

The intriguingly illustrated little box itself is quite small by any standard, and is about the same size as Citadels’ box. Within is a well designed quad-fold board that lays out at about a foot long by seven inches wide, which is perfect for small play areas like a bar or coffee shop. It has spaces for a multitude of bits, pawns, and has several tracks to help with the upkeep of the various deadly situations that will result in certain doom if the players fail. Further delving into the Lilliputian box, you'll be greeted with a variety of well-drawn chits, a ton of half-sized cards, three little wooden cubes, plastic gnome figures in eight colors with matching stackable plastic timekeeping buttons plus an extra white one as a ghost timekeeper, a cute little rulebook, and a single D10. All in all, the production value is reasonably high for what you pay for the game and the art is both whimsical and rather on the good side.

Setup takes all of about three minutes, with each player taking a gnome figure, its matching timekeeper, and its matching card, which rather humorously tracks not only which color your pawn is, but how drunk your gnome is as well. After rolling the D10 to determine which numbered room your pawn starts in and taking two item tokens, you then set your timekeepers on the "60" mark on the outer edge, get the event cards in a pile, set the doom tracks to zero by placing the three wooden cubes on their appropriate places, and finally, putting some items into the storeroom and grog (read: vodka) in the captain's quarters.

When the game starts, there's nothing bad happening, which allows the first player the ability to do whatever they want, be it moving to an area they think may flare up or they can head to pick up an item in the storeroom or some grog at the captain's quarters. The downside, however, is that they're also the first player to draw an event card, which is the cause of all the bad things that happen on board.

Gameplay is really simple in Red November. You may either move, as many spaces as you wish, which costs one minute per space, or perform an action, which costs variable amounts of time, depending on how long the player wishes to spend on it. Once they complete an action, they move their timekeeper along the time track on the outer edge of the board, and if they pass a space on the track illustrated with a star, they draw and resolve an event card for each star they've crossed. These events vary greatly in scope, with Respite cards doing nothing at all and other cards that cause fires to break out or spread, floods to occur, main components of the ship to fail, hatches to become stuck and block movement through them, or other really, really bad stuff. The mechanic for repairing these is simple: The player moves to the room that they want to fix, decide how long they want to spend fixing it, and roll a D10 to determine the outcome. The idea is to roll under the number of minutes you chose to spend working on the problem, meaning that the more time you spend to fix a problem, the more likely you are to succeed. Item tokens help you with these by providing a bonus to your roll, and most items are specific to a type of problem, like a water pump that evacuates the flooding in a room or a shop manual that helps you repair a broken engine.

All of this seems easy until the fires start to erupt or a room starts to flood. You cannot move into or through a room on fire unless you have an extinguisher on hand or take a drink of grog to provide you the liquid courage to run, intentionally, into a room that has burst into white-hot flames. The downside of the grog is that every time you drink a snifter of it you have to perform an inebriation check, and failing causes the gnome to faint for ten minutes. If a room catches fire during that little siesta, the gnome dies, instantly and painfully, with no recourse.

Similarly, you cannot enter a room that is completely flooded, but can open an adjacent hatch to allow the water to recede, spreading the flooding to that adjacent room while lowering the amount of water in the original room. Rooms that are half-flooded also pose another problem in that they take more time to cross through, costing you valuable minutes and potentially forcing the player to draw more event cards. Another problem is that rooms that catch fire add to the Asphyxiation track, brining the entire crew and ship one step closer to a watery grave.

The last type of nastiness that can happen on board due to event cards are the Timed Events. These cards force a player to put a special marker on the time track which, when all players have crossed them before resolving the issue, cause an instant and painful end to the game, with all players dying and the ship sinking. These are the most nasty simply because when they occur, all hands on board generally decide who has the best item to successfully repair the damaged system, and that person has to stop whatever it is they were planning on doing and run to save the ship on their next turn. You generally have ten to fifteen minutes to do this, and in the case of the Kraken attack it is incredibly tough because you need to get an Aqualung item to leave the ship, which is one of the rarer items, and in order to effectively attack the Kraken you need a spear gun, which although is not as rare, it's not an item that you generally want to get. The good news is that the Kraken card is removed from the deck until the first reshuffling, so you have some time to prepare for the attack, which in fact may never come at all.

The last ten minutes of the game are more deadly than the rest as well because the stars are closer together and many players may already have gotten to the end, thereby removing them from play and leaving the remaining players to save the ship alone. The game ends successfully when all players have expended all 60 minutes and the ship hasn't sunk, imploded, become devoid of oxygen, or any other manner of expiration. The game is fast-playing, easy to learn, and remarkably well designed. That, and it's a tremendous amount of fun.

Things I truly loved:
*Fast, frenetic gameplay keeps everyone on the edge of their seat for the entire game
*Collaborative conversation really gets players in the character of a harried sailor aboard a doomed vessel
*Really decent art makes the game not only easily understandable, but humorous
*Replayability is exceptional, and I never really get sick of it; playing 3 games in a row is not out of the norm
*Drunken gnomes are funny, I don't care who you are

Things I wished were different:
*There seem to be more Blocked Hatch and Fire Starts cards than necessary, making the game very tough to beat if you get several in a row
*If the box was a hair taller it would be more conducive to getting the lid to completely close once all the chits are bagged properly
*The rules have some spots that take a bit to get your head around, but they're minimal an after a play or two you'll be an expert gnomish sailor

If you like cooperative games and have even a modicum of a sense of humor, this is a complete win for you. This is, hands down, my wife's favorite cooperative game and every time it hits the table we have one hell of a good time. I would recommend this to any person on the planet that reads English, has 45 minutes, and enjoys a fast, light cooperative game.

4.25/5 Stars

Learn more about our doomed sailors at: November

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Politico: Fall Of Caesar - Small Box Game, Big Ass Fun

Last night I had more fun than I've had in a great many moons, well, that is excluding some booty action with Mamasan. We received our copy of Politico: Fall of Caesar from Small Box Games, a small but incredibly prolific self-publisher of some uber-badass games. Small Box is the same company that made Seii Taishogun, one of the most incredible Samurai-ish games ever made. In fact, John Clowdus, principal game designer and owner of Small Box, has been recognized by some of the top names in gaming as a fucking genius. Unfortunately, being a genius in the world of board games amounts to either Jack or Shit if people don't either know who you are, and Jack left. Let's change that, together.

This is my little contribution to the cause of supporting the underdog, by bringing you a review of a game that absolutely amazed me with its brilliant, yet simple design. My wife and I played this game for TWO HOURS on a Monday night. Getting my wife to play a new game, and especially on a Monday night when I would normally be at my regular Game Night Event, is about like pulling a bad tooth out of a rabid Pit Bull who was very recently kicked hard in the balls. It just doesn't happen much, and usually, when I make it happen, I suffer for it.

Not last night, though. I'm not going to lie, Small Box has incredible games, but their rulebooks are a bit on the "hard to get" side. This never stopped powerhouses like AEG, so I'm guessing that this won't stop Small Box, either. That being said, Politico was very easy to get into, and once we did a little re-reading of the rules we were playing like champs! The premise of the game is that you're a Senator that's sick of being tyrannically ruled by the Caesar, and so you're trying to gain enough supporters to stab the bastard mercilessly, "et tu Brute" style. The game is absolutely a family-friendly game, but is deep enough to play with the hardcore "Taped Glasses and Fingerless Knit Gloves" gamers too. It's just completely accessible, incredibly thoughtful, and plain old fun.

When you open the box, you'll find a 8.5x11 standard sheet of paper which serves as the rulebook, 10 "Hail Caesar!" Tactics Cards, 10 Supporter Cards, 16 Supporter Score Cards, and about 70 or so regular Tactics cards. The art on the outside of the box is a little on the bland side, but once you crack out the other cards, all are colorful, jovial, and a lot of fun to look at; The Entertainer image is especially funny to me, since he looks like a toga-wearing, crackhead version of the guy that played "The Greatest American Hero".

To play, you simply give every player one of each of the four types of Scoring Track, give them 2 Tactics cards, and flip the first Supporter card into play. The Supporter cards act as the "suit" you're trying to match, as well as a game timer as once you've played all ten of them, the game ends. Alternatively, the game ends when one or more players gains 13 Supporters, but must include at least one Supporter of each type. Essentially, either have enough clout to overthrow the Caesar, or be the closest to the goal when time runs out.

The idea is that if you play a Tactics card that matches the type of current Supporter card, you get one action, and if you played a card type that is different than other players, you get an action for each player you didn't match. The tactics cards fall into one of two categories: Persuade or Manipulate. Playing a Persuade card allows you to score one supporter of the current type for every action that you've earned, getting you closer to victory. Playing a Manipulate Card allows you to the options of drawing a new card into your hand, playing a card from your hand that matches the current Supporter to gain a Supporter of that type, or playing a card from your hand as a Tactic, which allows you to perform the Tactic that is printed in the Tactic box on the card. Finally, the Hail Caesar! cards are wild cards that allow you to automatically match the card to whichever Supporter type is the current type.

The gameplay is fast, and with the Tactics ranging from denying your opponents Supporters to stealing their Supporters and other such backstabbery. The game time printed on the box is 30-45 minutes, but we have yet to crest a 20 minute game with 2 players. I will be playing this on my Friday Game Night Event at home, and I suspect that everyone else at the table will be as giddy as we were.

As an aside, I told John Clowdus that I'd be reviewing this, and he told me that Preorders for the game will be opening May 2nd, 2010 (4 days from now). Get over to the site and order's just simply a no-brainer.

Things I Absolutely Juiced My Jeans For:
*The art is really, really funny and fits the game's lighthearted play very well
*Brisk turn times makes the game very fast playing with minimal downtime
*The price point is so low that he is almost giving this away - the value and replayability is OUTSTANDING
*The cards are actually as good or better, in quality, than his older game cards

Things That I Wish Were Done Far Better:
*I'd just about give my left nut for Small Box to make the rules more clear for douchebags like myself

Anyone that does NOT have this game is missing out. If you like good games, this is one that is a MUST HAVE game. Sell your dog to the butcher, do what you have to do to get the twenty bones to buy it. I have yet to play a Small Box stinker, and I've played quite a few. Last word: BUY THIS GAME.

4.5/5 Stars
To learn more about Small Box Games:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Top Secret Spies - More Anonymous Screwing Than Cyber Sex

Some time ago I was looking for a game that allows for six or more players and I was turned onto Heimlich and Company, published as Top Secret Spies, by Rio Grande Games. I traded away a crappy game to get it, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that not only does it seat up to seven, but it's a really fun game! It's about spies, subterfuge, and most important, screwing over every other player you can. The magic to the game lies in the fact that nobody actually knows which player is which until someone wins. This game is fast-paced, has a ton of player interaction, and is backstabbity. The only thing missing is assassination and waterboarding, but since this is a Eurotrash, it makes sense that anything involving killing or torture is absent.

The premise of this game is that you play a Top Secret Spy trying to get information out of each building in the game, with the winner being the person who gets the most information when the game ends. I, personally, like to imagine it in the context of the Jason Statham film, "The Bank Job", where you find photos of the Prime Minister wearing leather gear like "The Gimp" in Pulp Fiction while he's being whipped by a nasty-looking slag. It may not be true in this game, but it certainly makes it more entertaining. That being said, since the players do not know which characters are being played by other players until the end of the game, the entire game is players moving themselves and other players' pawns, vying to get the most information while concealing their true identity. Now that you're familiar, let's take a look-see inside.

When you open the cloak-and-daggery box, you're met with a nicely illustrated board, about 60 nondescript Top Secret cards, seven player role cards, a wooden safe, a specialty D6 die, wooden scoring markers and a bunch of large, wooden player pawns cut to look like silhouettes of, well, spies. That, or perverted flashers wearing hats and overcoats, you take your pick. What impressed me about the box itself is the blow-molded plastic insert that has a nice little spot for everything within, and thus the requirement for bagging is foregone. Overall, production quality is the usual Rio Grande level, meaning quite good, with a real attention to detail.

To start off, each player randomly selects one of the seven player cards, looking at the image on it and then placing before them face-down. The image will have revealed which of the seven player colors is theirs, and with everyone doing the same, the game is ready to set up. All of the pawns are put into play on the church space and all scoring markers are put on the zero. The safe is then placed on the building marked with the seven. Finally, the Top Secret cards are set in the center of the board in the park and each player takes two of them into his hand. The rules say that you are to set up the pawns first, but I like allowing each player to grab a pawn of their choice, in order, and place it on the board to allow an initial feeling of bluffery to get everyone's motor warmed up. Another cool aspect is that even if only three players are involved, all seven pawns get placed, which adds a ton of confusion to determining who is who. There have even been instances at home where a non-human pawn has won!

The game is played with each player rolling the D6, which is marked with the normal D6 values of two through six, but where the one value would be, it is instead is marked with "1-3". The result of the die is how many movement points the player gets that turn, and they must move any number of pawns a combination of spaces in the clockwise direction that adds up to the rolled value. The only caveat is if they rolled the variable value, they can elect not to move anyone at all or may use one, two, or three movement points. This means that they can move any pawn they want at any time, and this is why it is crucial to have a pokerface equivalent to the strength of marble to retain your secret, lest you give it up like a drunken prom queen and have everyone gang rape you. Bluffing and smack-talking around the table is absolutely a key ingredient in this game both to cause misdirection and to make the game a full-on party game.

Each of the twelve spaces on the oval movement track is sequentially numbered zero through ten, with the last space being marked with a negative three before rotating back to zero again. These indicate the points that a player will receive when any player's turn ends on the building with the safe. Essentially, the safe is the trigger for the scoring phase of the game, and is the only way anyone gets any points. Because of this mechanic, the pawns that are nearest to the more valuable end of the board are invariably the ones that get moved further ahead to end to the ruins, where if it is scored, they will lose three points, and be pissed. There is a way to help yourself if you're on the ruins, or a way to move a pawn when it's not your turn, and these are how the Top Secret cards come into play.

At the end of each player's movement phase the opportunity to play Top Secret cards rears its head, and the playing of cards revolves around the table and allows each person, in turn, to play a Top Secret Card. These cards are the nastiest, backstabbiest part of the game because they can be used to move the safe, move pawns forward or backward, and do all kinds of other nastiness. These are especially good in the end-game where they can literally cause someone in the lead to get bumped back to the middle of the pack, which almost always results in the leader giving away who they are due to either the expression of outrage that enters their visage or a physical revulsion directed at the person who played the card. We've not had anyone come across the table at anyone else yet, but I can see it happening, provided you have the right, or wrong, crowd in the perfect state of inebriation. You may only play one card at a time, but the card playing goes around the table indefinitely until either everyone passes or runs out of cards, at which time the next player takes the die and begins their turn.

Any player who moves one or more pawns onto the ruins, either via using a card or moving them normally, may take a card from the park. Alternatively if they rolled the "1-3" on their turn and elected not to move anyone, they may take a card. There is a four card hand limit, and so you may not always be able to reap the card benefit from moving a player onto the ruins, but you can still make fun of your fellow players, knowing someone just got hosed. The game reaches its conclusion when one or more players end up passing the 50 point mark on the scoring track. When someone crests that point and all the players have been scored, the winner is the person with the single highest score, unless there's a tie, in which case both win. Everyone simultaneously reveals their player role card, and the winner proceeds to rub the opposing players' noses in the fact they they, at one point, contributed to the win.

Things I Really Liked:
*The production values on this game really make it shine
*Fast, brisk gameplay leaves little room for Analysis Paralysis or long bouts of waiting
*Backstabbery is a requirement in this game, and you can't even catch shit from a spouse because you have no idea who's who

Things That Could've Been Better:
*Some versions of the game have better looking boards, and there's no text, so why not use the best-looking art?
*Some of the cards could've been omitted, because they're completely lame
*Assassinations and torture are absent, and I can imagine several ways that torture-induced thievery and turn-denying killings could've been easily included

For such a bloody simple game, it's just brilliant. It's not going to be your favorite, for sure, but it certainly will be one of the games you will always turn to when you have an hour to play a game with six of your closest allies. It's a blast, plain and simple.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Halo Interactive Strategy Game – The Only Halo This Emulates Is The One Poo Comes Out Of

Today, a coincidence has occurred that, like planets aligning, can cause bad things to happen. Some days I wake up in a mood that can only be described as “foul as a dead witch’s beaver." The coincidence is that I woke up in such a mood as described above and it happens to be review day. It is for these days that I hold back some of the games that are so deserving of a solid beating that I am forced, even duty-bound, to buffet so mercilessly with my words that it shall fade off into obscurity like so many extinct species on Earth have done. Today’s contestant on “The Game Fucking Sucks” is the Halo Interactive Strategy Game. While based upon the Halo series of video games, which I love, this game is completely and totally hobbled by incredibly poor rules, boring gameplay, and worst of all, inclusion of a DVD to give it interesting elements, which fails miserably. The idiots at B1 Games seem to be DVD guys from their website, and were apparently thinking we'd all get wood if they threw "Interactive" into the title.  They should've simply stuck to, "Halo: The Board Game" for that purpose, or "Halo: Don't Buy Me", if they were being honest.

This game can still be found, if at all, in the bargain bins of Wal-Marts and Toys R’ Us stores across the US, and they are there for good cause. The game is a pariah, with its only redeeming value being the tremendous production values that were poured into it. When you open the well-detailed box, you are met with a veritable treasure trove of wonderfully molded plastic terrain pieces, fences, and miniatures that represent the units and areas in the popular online death-match maps. Some tokens, cards, and player cards also accompany the game to represent teleporters, item pickups, weapon abilities, and player stats counters, and they are all of incredibly high quality both in design and durability. The dice included are of the Heroscape type, with little Master Chiefs and Elites indicated which are used for combat resolution. Finally, there is an included DVD which can be used to substitute for cards and dice if you elect to play the game using that option. The only thing that I’ve not mentioned is the nasty, nasty little rulebook that tries very hard at making all of the love put into the wonderful components turn to a steaming heap of cat feces, which I will get into later.

I would attempt to get into a rules summary as I customarily do, but this time I am going to stick with the basics because the manual is very nearly as bad as anything I have ever read. We're talking jokes-on-toilet-paper bad. It attempts to tell you how to play, and even has “advanced” rules, but all in all it is astonishing how poorly written it is. I just cannot fathom how someone with a bag full of money and the connections to put this game in the world's largest retailer decided that this would be a great way to capitalize on an existing, well liked franchise.  Two Words, Mr. B1: EPIC FUCKING FAIL.  Sorry, that was three. 

The basic premise of this semi-game is that you are either the Covenant forces or the Marines, and the objectives are essentially exactly like the video game; capture the flag, kill the enemy, or somewhere in-between. The game itself, as written, is very simple and it’s nothing more than a “move a guy/shoot a guy/turn ends” game. It does have a Heroscapish feel to the combat in that both the attacker and defender roll the dice that are prescribed by the weapons or armor that a player’s figure is equipped with, and this may be the only redeeming value of the gameplay. The game amounts to a very fast paced game of individual movements and actions, and it’s near-impossible to get any cohesive squad-based strategy on track because you are taking turns with your opponent, moving one guy at a time.

There are some items that you can pick up to augment your wee warriors, and in doing so you randomly select from a pile of pickup cards that neatly lock into the character cards. Again, all of these items are from one iteration or another of the Halo franchise, and are well illustrated, but are cut right from game stills. In short, there’s not a lot new here. The most quizzical aspect of these pickups is that you can use the DVD on-screen menu to have the game tell you which card you’ve received, at which point you can sort through the piles to take the card you were told to.

The question to the designer is, “Why the hell would I want to have to mess with a menu on a DVD to have it tell me which card to dig through and take when I can save all that time and just randomly take one from the pile?” It’s retarded, and the idea that this somehow makes the game more interactive is about the same as the idea that masturbating while viewing a porn movie makes masturbation more interactive. It’s the height of stupidity. The only sense it makes to me is that if you use the DVD to resolve combat, you can’t blame the dice when you fail an attack. The downside, though, is that it precipitously slows the game’s pace because you have to use the DVD menu to select the attacker and defender as well as their equipment just to resolve a battle. The eye candy may be appealing to some, but there’s a reason I play board games, and it’s not eye candy, it’s great gameplay and interaction with other humans. This does provide the latter, but the former is completely absent.

Why they decided to make a boardgame version of one of the best-selling video game series’ of all time, and then to make it so absolutely craptastic that without making most of your own rules up it's unplayable, is just beyond me. Were it not for the ability to repurpose the components, such as using the really great terrain bits for other games like Star Wars Miniatures and Mage Knight Dungeons, this game would be a total loss. The funniest thing, to me, is that they apparently heard the consumers complain that the rules sucked and then revised them, but the resultant revamp of the rules are just as dull and undesirable as previously realized. The only thing about this game that makes perfect sense to me is that the game went uncredited, and so we have no single individual to hunt down and berate for years to come.

Things I thought were pretty groovy:
*The terrain is well made, albeit dull looking, but is perfect for use in an actual game, not this dog vomit they say is a game
*The figurines could be used to create cool Heroscape squads and heroes
*The art and design of the components are top-notch

Things that I wondered "who thought this would be a good idea":
*The DVD aspect of the game is completely retarded
*The rulebook is either written by someone with a diminished mental capacity or is a bad translation from Mandarin
*Even if the rules were well written, which they are not, the gameplay that is half-explained is still boring

If you’re looking for something Halo-themed and are not averse to taking the components and designing a game around them, you’re in for a treat. If you want to open the box, play a game, and enjoy yourself, you’re probably better off sliding down a 30-foot Santoku knife that’s been lubed with iodine. It’s just not very fun, regardless of the “level” you play on, and the rulebook really ruins the game. It’s worth 10$ at the Bargain Bin, though, because the terrain is excellent for use with a real game.

1.5/5 Stars

If you were unfortunate enough to buy this and want to play it as designed, the updated rules are here:

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pandemic – The Plague-Induced Fall Of Man Has Never Been So Much Fun

Unfortunately for the consumers of the world, there are only a few games on the planet that are considered to be true masterpieces. Some would evidence Space Hulk, others might note Agricola, both arguably worthy of the title of Masterpiece. That being said, they are lonely at the top as very few games exude such excellence that they are universally lauded as the best board games of our time. I am very happy to report that I have indeed found one of these near-perfect games, and I felt a sense of duty to report to you the magnificence that is Pandemic.

Z-Man games has produced Pandemic, a work of art that transcends the seas of tripe that exist in the tabletop gaming industry and thus I will state, without equivocation, that it is likely one of the best games ever made. I’m actually a little pissed at Z-Man Games for this, because they seem to have recently developed and dispersed their own insidious plague which has clearly infected me; I have been stricken with the inability to resist buying their games!

The thesis of the game is that you and your compatriots are working to stop the world, as we know it, from succumbing to four plagues that threaten us. As one of five types of main character you and your colleagues must travel the world, putting down brushfires of infection and curing the diseases before time runs out. The game has almost no luck to it, meaning that every decision that you and your fellow saviors of man will make affects the outcome of the game, and ultimately will determine if mankind falls to its microbial nemeses or survives the viral storm. The key to abolishing each disease is to have a player trade five city cards of one of the four plague colors at a research station for the cure to that colored disease. The trick, though, is that humanity can only survive if all four plagues are extinguished by finding their cures before the players run out of the finite supply of city cards.

The box itself is quite small, typical of many European games, and has art that I would not consider to be incredibly good, but passable. Once you crack the box you’re met with a cornucopia of wooden bits and several cardboard chits that represent everything from character pawns, plagues, research centers, outbreak counters, and cures. Further, there are about a hundred cards that represent cities, epidemic outbreaks, player identifiers, and events, not to mention the well thought out player reference cards to help each player remember their options. A very well written rulebook with pictures and explanations accompanies the package, and reading through it once is all it will take to get you ready for your battle against human extinction. Finally, the included gameboard that depicts the planet’s cities is quite well illustrated and organized, with spaces for counters and card piles depicted within.

The game begins with the players selecting their character types from the five available, which range from the Medic, who can cure all infections of one variety in the city they currently reside in, to the Researcher, who can share cards with others, breaking one of the game’s rules. The rules state that you should randomly select your roles, but in my experience the game is more fun when the players consciously choose which warrior of science they wish to utilize against the swarms of disease. Once the players have chosen their champions, they place their corresponding pawns in Atlanta along with the first research center in the game, the CDC Headquarters. Each player takes an initial hand of two to four city cards, depending on the number of players, and they are almost ready to begin.

Now, as stated before, this game is about the fall of humanity and thus the world is already beginning to falter in the face of the viral menaces. Once the board is set up as indicated above, the first player chooses 9 cards from the infection deck, which is essentially a deck that has one card representing every city in the game, and places one, two, or three cubes of the appropriate color plague on the indicated cities, infecting them. Once all of the unlucky cities are infected, the cards from the infection pile go into the infection discard pile, and the game can now begin with the first player taking their turn.

Each player’s turn has three phases: Take four actions, take two cards from the city card pile, and then take a number of cards from the infection deck, subsequently infecting the indicated cities. Actions available to the players range from simply moving to an adjacent city, using one of the city cards in their hand to travel to other nonadjacent cities, curing diseases within the city, creating a research center, giving a card to a colleague, or curing a plague. Each player’s role has special abilities associated with them that break some of the game’s main tenets, which is likely the single most important aspect of the game. Getting stuck with crappy role mixes in two-player games can be the difference between mankind surviving the pandemics or becoming massive piles of worm food.

As noted, players can always expend an action point by moving to an adjacent city, but they can also use their cards to travel over long distances for that same action point expenditure. The tradeoff is that using a hand card deprives you of that card, which may be crucial in curing one of the plagues. Examples of expending the cards are that if you have the card that represents the city you’re currently in, you can travel anywhere in the world by using the card or you can build a research center there. Alternatively, you may travel to any city that’s represented by a card in your hand for that same one action point. The cards are finite, so every card you spend goes to the discard pile and is permanently out of the game, forcing each player to make very tough decisions on how to best use their cards. This is amplified by the fact that you cannot arbitrarily trade cards with other players, and you have a hand limit of seven cards.

Once you’ve taken your turn, you must take 2 cards from the draw pile of city cards, which contain a single copy of every city in the game as well as some special event cards that can be used at any time to help your cause. These cards range from allowing you to rearrange the infection deck to allowing you to travel anywhere on the planet, and are of the one-time-use variety that are gone forever after use. If you already have six or seven cards in hand when your turn ends, you must discard down to seven cards after taking the required two cards into your hand. Making sure that this never happens is an important point, because once you run out of a certain color of city cards, you cannot cure that disease, and thus humanity is doomed.

The most dramatic aspect of the game comes in the form of a quantity of Epidemic cards, residing in the player deck, and when an Epidemic card is drawn it immediately causes the world to be hit by a wave of infections above and beyond the normal infection phase of the game. These epidemics are resolved before any other actions are taken, meaning that even after the epidemic card is resolved the player must still perform the subsequent infection phase. When the Epidemic is drawn, you first move the Epidemic track forward by one space. This track determines the number of cities that are infected after each player’s turn. Next, the player takes the bottom card from the infection deck and places three plague markers of the appropriate color on the affected city and then discards the card, not only causing another infection, but adding a new city to the mix of cards that are constantly under infectious siege. Finally, the infection discard pile is shuffled and placed on top of the infection deck, exponentially increasing the chance that a city that has previously been infected will be affected again.

The final action that a player takes before the next player’s turn is to draw an amount of cards from the infection pile, as determined by the epidemic track, and then infecting those cities. If, at any time, a city would have more than 3 infection markers of one color on it, an Outbreak occurs. This mechanism forces the player to place an infection marker on every adjacent city, as well as moving the Outbreak track down one space toward impending doom.

The game ends in victory only when all four plagues have been cured at research stations, but there are multitudes of ways to lose, such as when you run out of city cards in the player draw deck or when the Outbreak track reaches the biohazard symbol. This game does have a bit of an anticlimactic ending with the players breathing a sigh of relief once the last plague is cured, but the edge-of-your-seat feeling of the game is unparalleled in the overwhelming majority of games I have ever played.

At the end of the day, this is a very tough game that scales well from two to four players and is never plays the same way twice. As of this writing, there is one official expansion, On The Brink, which brings new mechanics into the fold such as a bio-terrorist and a fifth viral species that has different behavior than the previous four. Additionally, there are several fan-made expansions for Pandemic, including the Threat Level Six expansion and a very cool Zombie Apocalypse expansion that completely reworks the game. This is a must-have game for anyone who likes games, fun, or is in possession of any semblance of a normal brain. It’s simply one of the best games ever made.

Things I am completely impressed with:
*The game scales well from two to four players, making it equally hard with any group
*Although Analysis Paralysis is a real concern, the gameplay is quite brisk
*The simple rules and mechanics help keep the game approachable yet deep
*The replayability value is huge, even though the game itself is mostly static

Things I am not too keen on:
*The art, while acceptable, is certainly not great
*The difficulty level is quite high unless you have several smart people playing with you
*There always seems to be one player who knows everything and tells everyone else what to do

This is a brilliant game, executed flawlessly, and should be on every gamer’s shelf. Although it is not for everyone, anyone who likes smart games that have almost no luck component to them will enjoy this game immensely. If you’ve never played Pandemic, you’re absolutely missing out.

4.75/5 Stars

Learn more about Pandemic here, at Z-Man Games’ page:

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sorry Sliders - How To Get Away With Throwing Stuff At Dad

My eldest daughter wanted to pick a game for a new game review, and she selected one of her favorite games of all-time, Sorry Sliders. It’s a simple dexterity game that uses Hershey's Kiss style pawns like those from the original Sorry game, but these have ball bearings built into the bottom so they, well, slide. The object is to flick or toss your wee sliders (no, not White Castle sliders, the pawns) down one of the 4 colored lanes to an attached “bull’s eye” panel with concentric rings valued at one point at the edges up to five in the center. It’s really a simple sounding game, but in practice it’s a heck of a lot harder than you’d expect, provided you have able opponents who are trying to hose you over at every turn, making it very difficult to score.

The game is a typical Hasbro/Parker Bros./Milton Bradley family game, in the standard family game type box, with some art on the front that reasonably depicts the gameplay. Once you crack open the box, the contents are of the typical game-mill quality, with ample little goodies included. Inside are four lane sections in four colors, two target sections, four scoring cards, four pawns of each color, and four scoring pawns, as well as some plastic backboards to keep the sliders from launching off of the back and taking out your eyes when your children get a little overexcited. Also included is a rules guide which is very easy to read and remarkably well written.

The first thing to do is decide how many players are going to play, hand out the pawns and scoring cards, and hand out the lanes. This is pretty simple as everything is color coded, but once this is done you then must decide how to configure the track. There are a multitude of options, depending on which of the ample variations you wish to play. The fact that there are two double-sided target pads gives you a lot of variety in the track configuration, but unfortunately all of the variants are only variants in name as the game itself is pretty much the same no matter how you elect to configure it. The more interesting of the two target sections has a hole in the center to catch pawns, allowing you to bollocks your opponents by knocking them into it, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same with either target pad. Regarding the lanes, you can attach them to the targets with little hooks, which was brilliant on the part of the designers, and you can set them up in myriad configurations to make the lane area longer than the normal 1-lane-length-per-player configuration. We’ve played this game a few hundred times, it seems, and we have used every piece that came in the game, but we’ve yet to see a huge difference in the gameplay.

The long and short is that you take your little sliding pawns and toss them down your lane to the target area, attempting to land within a numbered concentric ring and score some points while also knocking your opponents into less desirable areas, or ideally, off the board through little corner openings marked “Sorry”. Everyone takes turns tossing their pawns until all the pawns are played, at which point a scoring round occurs. If any pawns went off the board, or in the case of the target with the hole fall in, the player has to take their highest-point scoring pawn and move it back to start. Pawns that were scored move a corresponding scoring pawn forward on the scoring track to Home, meaning those pawns are safe. You can only move each scoring pawn once per round, so any unusable points are lost. Furthermore, if you score too many points with a pawn, you cannot reduce the scored pawns’ value, meaning you have to hit exactly the right amount without going over, a la Price Is Right. I will say that the game is actually a lot of fun until you’ve played it twenty times in a row as my daughter likes to do, which can be grating at best.

The winner of the game is the first person to get all four pawns across the finish line on their scoring track to Home, which is the seventh space on the track from start. It’s really a quick game, and from setup to a winner being decided is usually within 15 minutes. Although the game itself is not incredibly engaging, it is colorful and very accessible. I would recommend it for parents with kids in the seven to twelve year age bracket, and beyond that it’s going to sit on a shelf and gather dust. Don’t even think about following Agricola or Race for the Galaxy with Sorry Sliders, it just isn’t that type of game.

Things I thought were pretty slick:
*The game is very quick to learn, assemble, and get to playing
*Although pretty simple, the components are of good quality and very colorful
*While not Pitchcar, it’s not a bad little game if you want to play a dexterity-based game
*Playing with the family makes this a backstabbity little nugget that just may end up having your kids want to knuckle you up

Things I thought were lame as hell:
*The game includes a bunch of “variety” options, but the variety amounts to a choice between “very mediocre” and “can I slice my wrists now?”
*The game is so quick that you end up playing four or five times in a row, and you’ll probably be sick of it by round three
*The game is about as absorbing as a block of stone

This is a simple, simple game with just a miniscule amount of strategy involved, but for what it is, it’s pretty decent. I would recommend it for families with a couple of kids, but that’s about it. This is not a game for adults, unless those adults are imprisoned or have been otherwise institutionalized for some manner of mental handicap. It’s just not all that incredibly fun, even if you like playing games with your kids.

2.0/5 Stars

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dread Pirate - Break Out Your Peg Leg And Plunder Some Booty

I’m not a huge fan of pirates, especially the new breed of Somalis that launch RPGs at modern day transport vessels, but there is a certain coolness that exudes from the old time pirate myths. I mean, swashbuckling scallywags sailing the Spanish Main with letters of marque and deluging enemy emplacements with crescendos of cannon fire sure sounds cooler than a bunch of Africans shooting up a container ship loaded with Honda Civics, doesn’t it? Thus, when I feel like plundering some coastal cities and sinking my friends’ schooners, out comes an old favorite, Dread Pirate, from Front Porch Classics.

The game comes in a handsome wooden box, cruising casually through the sea of cardboard that otherwise populates my shelves. Once you crack open the hinged little chest of goodness, out pops a perfectly printed linen game map, loaded with images of islands, sea monsters, and other neatly illustrated images. Underneath the map is a little plastic cover that keeps the other contents from spilling adrift while sailing the rough seas over to a friend’s house in your Jeep. Once you remove the cover, you’re met with myriad little bags loaded with gems (meaning little glass beads) in 4 colors, a ton of the nicest metal stamped coins I have ever seen come in a game, four well-detailed metal schooners that serve as pawns, the Dread Pirate flag bearing the Jolly Roger’s visage, a bunch of decent looking cards, 4 bad-ass wooden dice, and finally, a lovely little rulebook that is quite well put together and eminently readable. All in all, these folks put a lot of time and money into making this game look razor sharp and just opening the box makes you want to stab someone through the liver with a boarding saber while chugging some rotgut.

The idea of the game is that there are 4 major ports that house different colored gems and you, as a privateer, are tasked with snatching up as much gold and treasure as you can before being sunk or the ports run out of gems. To do this, you can trade with a port, rob a port, or steal from your opponents, the latter being preferable as this is indeed a pirate game and surely some backstabbery is in order. Once you have plundered or bartered for at least one gem of every color you then have leave to head to Dread Island, the only place you can get doubloons aside from your starting allotment. The island is loaded with free gold doubloons that are available every time you visit, and more importantly, the flag of the Dread Pirate, which makes the owner the deadliest ship in the game.

You start at one of these ports with a ship, a gem bag, 10 gold doubloons, and 10 of gems of the color of your home port. These home ports have no intrinsic value to the player except for the fact that you may not raid your own home port, but you don’t have to defend them, either. Each port starts with 12 gems of its color that act not only as victory points, but as a game timer as well. Once all of the ports are devoid of their gems, the game ends and the winner is determined by the amount of gems and doubloons they’ve collected during the game. In the case of a tie, the player who has the most gold is the winner. It’s really a very simple roll-and-move game, and the gameplay is quite brisk, as I will now illustrate.

The starting player takes two wooden D6 dice and rolls them, moving their player up to the shown total of the dice, with the only exception being that when doubles are rolled a player can split the two dice into separate turns, allowing an extra raid or attack in between moves. If you become adjacent to an enemy ship, you can skirmish with them. This really only amounts to rolling dice and comparing totals, with the winner taking treasures blindly out of the loser’s bag in the amount being determined by the value of the winning roll. If you end a turn adjacent to a port, you can either raid them, which is the same as skirmishing except that if you lose the raid you do not lose treasure, or you can barter with them by buying their gems with doubloons. This too is semi-random, because both parties in a trade roll to see how much they have to spend to trade. The only hard-and-fast rule with port actions is that you may not attack or trade with the same port without performing another action first, such as raiding a different port or skirmishing with an opponent, which eliminates the camping that might otherwise occur.

While travelling, if you happen to cross a shark icon or Triangle, such as the Abyss Of Doom, you must take a card and read it aloud, then resolve it. In many cases it’s a simple “Lose A Turn”, “Lose Some Treasure” or other pedestrian action, but in some cases the cards give you boons such as an attack bonus or extra movement. The cards feel as if they were tacked onto the game after the game’s central mechanics were decided upon, but they still add a bit more Ameritrash to the game due to the sheer randomness of the card actions. None of the cards are game-breakers or overpowered, so at best they are an inconvenience.

The final aspect of the game is the Dread Pirate Flag and Dread Island itself, which are also the most fun aspects of the game. Once a player has the requisite 4 gem colors in their bag they are able to cross the barrier to Dread Island and claim the flag, which actually sits inside a holder in each ship, as well as take a quantity of doubloons from the island as determined by the player rolling a die. Again, no anchors may be dropped at this port, forcing you to go out and stir up some trouble elsewhere before coming back for more free booty. The critical point of having that flag flying above your deck is that being the Dread Pirate not only gives you an extra die to roll for movement, it gives you a persistent bonus to all combat rolls, making you faster and deadlier than all of your opponents.

Finally, there is an “advanced” game version that uses the fourth D6, which is not marked with pips as most are, but is instead labeled with the cardinal directions of a compass and 2 null symbols, which allow you to double the higher single die of your movement rolls provided you do not travel in the direction rolled on the die. This is not that much of a departure from the normal game, but it does add a hair more strategy to the normal roll-and-move formula.

All in all, this is not a great game in any way, shape, or form, but it is a decent one with incredibly good components. I got mine for seven dollars some years ago at a Barnes and Noble store during their fabled game sale, and I have certainly gotten my money’s worth. The components alone are worth three times that. This might have been a better game if it had more depth, but in reality, this is simply a family game by all definitions and is one of those “Thanksgiving Time Killers” that you can drop in front of your bloodthirsty tweens when Grandma doesn’t want to hear Halo or Gears of War being played anymore or when Grandpa is watching football.

Things I Really Liked:
*The components are absolutely beautiful, and are a real treasure
*The theme is really adhered to well, making you yearn for the days of dropping enemies into shark-infested waters
*The game is backstabbity as hell if you play with the right group, and especially so with your no-good kids

Things I Was Mildly Put Off By:
*The gameplay is brisk but rather repetitive, with few truly interesting decisions
*There aren’t many pirate jokes out there, so the table chatter always ends up with “Arrgh” and “Shiver Me Timbers”
*The game is not even close to as bad-ass as the box would have you believe

While not a bad game, it’s not a good game either. It is simply a game to play with your kids or to table when everyone around is too drunk to play a more interesting game. That being said, this game is well worth bargain-basement prices because the components are so absolutely brilliant.

2.5/5 Stars

Learn more about Dread Pirate here:

Friday, April 9, 2010

Las Vegas - City Of The Damned Or Just Morally Maladjusted?

Sorry, dear readers, for the delay in getting you a new review or bit of wisdom, but as is the norm, real life keeps getting in the way of pursuing one’s passion. I had to travel for work, and when I do this I generally have almost no free time due to my rather strange work ethic of doing everything I can to squeeze every drop of productivity from every dollar I spend of my company’s treasure.

So, for this trip I had to visit Sin City itself, Las Vegas, and I say “had to” because I truly despise the city, and up until Wednesday I thought it was a city completely beyond salvation. I’m not saying that I want it to be hit by a one-kilometer meteorite and completely annihilated down to the subatomic particle level, but I sure wish they’d let up on the “sin city” theme a bit. It’s not the people that I hate, it’s the entire fact that there’s a place that almost every possible form of putrescence, debauchery, or vice can be found and abused. If you’ve never been, the first time on the “Vegas Strip” is like being hit in the face with a brick that’s been wrapped with dirty thong panties, used condoms, and gin-soaked olives. Now, I am not one to judge, nor have I ever held anyone else to my standard; if you want to head there to get drunk, high, and laid all in one fell swoop, go with God. That’s your bag, and more power to you. Me, I’m a family guy. I have a wife, kids, and some semblance of a “bushido” code that requires that I am faithful and humble in all my endeavors. I have two daughters, and the notion that women that have their images plastered all over the place in various states of undress makes me wonder what the hell their fathers think about their chosen career path. This place is simply too surreal for my simple mind to accept, and my synapses falter and recoil in horror at the sheer insanity of the place.

For example, where else on the planet can you drive for 20 minutes and during that time witness:

• A Rick James impersonator with a jacket proclaiming “I’m Rick James, Bitch”
• Mexican guys handing out cards bearing photos of naked chicks with phone numbers and dollar amounts to couples pushing strollers
• Mobile billboards mounted on trucks with larger-than-life photos of naked (but censored) lesbians making out
• News-stands on every corner with titles in huge fonts offering “Gay News” and “Hot Ass Chicks”
• And my personal favorites, huge replicas of the Eiffel tower and the Statue of Liberty

It’s simply fucking madness. It’s a collision of worlds spinning out of control leaving mayhem and madness dripping almost tangibly from the towering structures that define the skyline. All that being said, you can imagine that there’s a hell of a lot to do, and if you’re the kind of person who’d get bored in Vegas, chances are you’re that same guy who jerks off and has your hand fall asleep on you. It is the ultimate dichotomy; thousands of things to do, architecture unparalleled almost anywhere on the planet, yet an abhorrent culture of sex, drugs, and debauchery that embraces you as a brother, noting that whatever you do in their city of wonder is fair game and that nobody will snitch you out when you get home. It’s almost a secret society devoted to causing you to abandon all your morality, social beliefs, and to send you home with almost no recollection of what you did.

My trip out to the Big V was for business, as there was a huge convention of people in the industry that I work in, and I’ve been doing things so long that I cannot walk anywhere for more than 3 minutes without running into someone I know and probably like. I stayed at the Luxor again, which is a towering, ebony pyramid with a full-size Sphinx posted up outside, luring onlookers in with the myriad tools of marketing and the hope of hitting it big. It’s truly a marvel of engineering, to say the least, but in all its splendor, it’s still rife with perversion. Everywhere around the place are giant billboards with half-naked chicks and the bells and lights of all manner of games of chance. The sad reality is that these are all simply an illusion, and that with little exception gamblers’ hopes and dreams are being dashed upon the rocks of the reality that if casinos lost, they’d be out of business, not to mention the fact that if these girls weren’t being paid, you wouldn’t have a hope in hell of seeing them naked.

The residents of Vegas, though, appear to be good, honest folks just trying to make a living. That their sustenance is derived from people coming from all over to world to toss their money into the abyss of the casino bosses’ coffers says nothing of the fact that although the place is set with the sole intent of separating people’s money from their pockets, this does not preclude the inhabitants of this modern day Babylon from being good, honest people. I only realized this during this trip, where I left the “strip” to explore the surrounding area and check out the “real” Las Vegas.

On my first day into the city I headed directly to the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, which is a beautiful structure in and of itself, to meet up with my salespeople and form new alliances with companies that might see benefit in working with me. The convention hall itself is mammoth, having enough room to hold at least 80,000 souls as well as a cornucopia of products, displays and sundry items. As I walked the aisles, I noted that what I saw had not differed from the last five or six years, and that the electronics assembly market has essentially remained stagnant and unchanged for a very long time. There were very few new companies, little in the way of new technologies, and if anything, far fewer people and entities in attendance than the previous few years. I keep hearing “positive economic indicators” on the local and national news channels, but if this show is an indicator, we’re still in deep, deep shit, collectively. As the day’s business wound down, I left with a business acquaintance to adventure into the labyrinthine halls and corridors toward the hotel and casino proper to talk some shop and work out a deal.

We settled on getting some dinner at one of his favorite haunts, the Red Brick Pizza parlor, which is north of the Strip by a good 15 miles. This was the first time I had been off-strip, and it was an eye opener. The place looks like almost every Southern California city I’ve ever been to; palm trees, stucco, Latinos and graffiti abound. When you get outside the casino section, it might as well be Los Angeles. We ate at the pizza place, which was not only cheap, but excellent, and we headed back to the den of evil for some more conversation and a cocktail, ending the night on a good note with a Tanqueray Tonic and a firm handshake. As I sat in my overpriced and underwhelming room, I pondered the duality of what I had experienced; an area with all the possible depravity you can imagine surrounded by a city that is not unlike some of my favorite places. It was then that I decided more exploration would have to occur after work the following day.

The next day started with a meeting with my largest rep group, where I read them the riot act and noted that their performance “sat somewhere in between craptastic and fucking pathetic, leaning more toward the latter.” I, of course, ended on a positive note that they were good men that had simply lost their way and that I had faith that this meeting would begin our relationship anew, with a much better result than had previously been evidenced. I ended up spending a few more hours talking individually with some of the reps before my next meeting, sharing some tips on how to get new business, starting with the original sales idiom, “You’ll never get the business if they don’t know what you sell.”

After a few more meetings and some positive results that will likely bear fruit, I went with a new potential partner to another hotel on the Strip, Planet Hollywood, a gleaming bastion of steel and glass that is truly a sight to behold. We ate at Koi, a Japanese fusion restaurant that my Director took me to last time I was in town, which has the best sushi and sashimi dishes outside of Sapporo in Japan. We dined and discussed our potential partnership while listening to remixed versions of classic songs like Pink Floyd’s “Breathe”. The food was wonderful, as expected, and by the end of the meeting I had decided that this gentleman might be exactly what I am looking for in his respective territory, ending the encounter with promises of follow-up and an ensuing contract.

I hopped a cab back to my hotel, where I met a friend in the business to vet some of the reps I talked to during the day, and who knows the area very well, at which point he told me of the “Fremont Street Experience” just a few miles away. I was immediately made a believer, and we adventured onward toward our destination. We arrived 20 minutes later, because while it is truly only a few miles away from the strip, the traffic on the Vegas Strip is ridiculously bad for such a small area. It’s as if some mystic force descends upon every person who owns a car there and causes them to lose 50-100 IQ points. Anyhow, we stepped out of the cab and into a place that is truly a mix of modern-age cutting edge technology and old-school mobster casinos.

This place has not only the older casinos, but a pantheon of amazing things to see and do, such as landscape painters who use only aerosol cans, live music on several stages, and street performers such as the killer sax player outside of Binion’s. It’s simply an overdose of light, sound, and aroma, with the pinnacle being the largest television on the planet which spans a few hundred feet across and two full blocks long, at least. Every half hour there is a show played with accompanying music, and it is truly the only place in Vegas I have witnessed truth in advertising; it is an experience, indeed.

After walking the area for two hours, we cruised back in a cab and had a final round of drinks at the bar closest to the elevator, ending the night with good conversation and hopes of a renewed and invigorated electronics assembly industry, as well as an ever-better economic climate. Maybe it was the drinks or the walking, but by the end of the show I was convinced that even with Congress spending money faster than it can be printed, the end of the recession is near and business will pick up.

Anyhow, I'll be back to writing reviews today and next week, as well as on Jury Duty for the Commonwealth.  I've just gotten Prophecy, Runebound:Midnight, and I still have about 70 more games to review, so keep coming back for more!!!


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Race for the Galaxy – The Game That Gave Emperor Palpatine The Idea

I’ve often thought that the science fiction genre was underserved in board gaming, and the games that do exist generally take several hours to play. I know we have games like Twilight Imperium, Ad Astra, and others, but I don’t always have an hour or five to try to take over the universe. What can I say, I'm a megalomaniac on a schedule. Well, luckily for sci-fi gamers, Rio Grande Games has put out a fast-playing card game that takes a novel approach to empire building, Race For The Galaxy. This game has body counts on a galactic scale, malevolant aliens, evil empires, noble rebels, and everything else associated with the sci-fi genre, but it only takes 20 minutes to determine the fate of the galaxy.

The game components include about 150 cards which are made up of action cards, world cards, development cards, and some extra cards for a 2-player advanced game. Further, there’s some nicely detailed summary sheets, a well organized and easy-to-read rulebook, and about 30 little chits to keep track of your bonus points. All components are of quite good quality, but the real stars of the game are the cards themselves. The art is breathtakingly well done, and the theme is smashingly adhered to throughout the game. I like the art reasonably well with most of the Rio Grande Games I’ve played, such as Mystery of the Abbey and El Grande, but this game really stands out as the best looking game they’ve ever made. It is simply outstanding. The illustrations are truly above and beyond what I expected, looking at the outer box, and it is so well organized, regarding the icons and information on the cards, that this is just an amazing card game.

The basic concept of the game is that the players are attempting to build up their galactic presence, scoring points for settling planets, overtaking military targets, and enslaving indigenous life forms. Now, while there is no specific verbiage in the rules calling you the Emperor of this spacefaring race, because I am a bit on the devious side I decided that players would be known as “Supreme Leaders of the United Terrestrial Systems”, or SLUTS, for short. It was either that or "Darth", and I've heard that title is getting a little played out.

Anyhow, the game starts with the players receiving two starting planet cards and a hand of six random cards, of which one starting planet and two cards of each starting hand is discarded. Players are also dealt 7 action cards each, and these cards are identical to all other players' action cards, aside from the color which represents their player color. Finally, each player then plays their starting planet in their tableau of cards on which you build an empire, discards the two excess, and the game begins. This tableau is essentially each player's area where they place cards that have been scored and are active in the game.

As SLUTS, players select an action card, simultaneously playing the cards so that everyone’s selection is secret until the reveal occurs. There are seven unique action cards, which allow a game phase to take place that turn, meaning that if no player takes one of the actions, that phase will not be available to anyone that turn. This very clever mechanic forces you to look at your opponents’ tableau and note how many cards they have in hand throughout the game to guess which action they will select, causing them to potentially aid you while retaining your ability to select an action that will not be beneficial to your fellow SLUTS. Further, since all selected phases of play are available to all players, the player who actually chose an action to play receives a bonus for playing it, whereas other players may still use the abilities but are limited in how they can utilize them. Finally, the action cards are persistent in your hand, so once the turn ends you collect the card you played for future use in subsequent turns.

The seven action card abilities really come down to five types , the first being the two Explore abilities, which allow you to draw seven cars from the deck and keep one, or draw three cards and keep two, respectively. This ability is useful early in the game, but as your burgeoning galactic empire grows, you will have a multitude of avenues to grow your hand. It is also wise to remember that you have a hand limit of ten cards, so management of your hand is quite an essential ingredient to being effective SLUTS.

The third is the Develop ability, which allows you to place installations into your tableau by discarding the amount of cards from your hand that is indicated on the installation card that you’re looking to develop. These installations grant you varied powers, such as reducing the cost of developing new installations, providing you with bonus point chits if you meet certain requirements listed on the card, or increasing your military value. Many of these installations also carry a victory point value, so developing them also increases your total score towards being the dominant species in the universe at the end of the game when cards in your tableau are scored.

The fourth ability is the Settle ability, which is similar to the Develop ability in that allows you to play a card to your tableau, but instead of developing installations, you're settling planets and establising colonies. Some of these planets are production worlds that will produce item cards such as Alien technologies and Novelty goods that can be traded for cards and bonus point chits, and some planets are militarily significant planets that require conquering. All of these planets generally have a victory point value printed on them, just as installations do, and thus these planets are another path to the righteous and glorious rise of your empire.

The one caveat to the normal use of the Settle ability is that military worlds are conquered rather than settled, and thus instead of discarding the proper amount of cards from your hand as you would to settle a production world, you simply need to have a military score equal to or greater than the defense score listed on the planet you’re trying to subjugate. Although you only need to declare that you are invading the world and subsequently adding it to your tableau, I prefer to envision a planet being glassed from space by dreadnaughts bearing massive batteries of high-order particle beam cannons, firing undulating streams of white hot plasma, resulting in the inhabitants being charred beyond recognition, their history and culture utterly destroyed. Maybe I’m just too imaginative, but the art on the cards really brings out the sadist in me.

The fifth and sixth abilities are the Consume abilities, which allow you to trade items for new cards or utilize these items to trade for bonus point chits and other special abilities derived through cards within your tableau. The Consume:Trade ability allows the former, and the Consume:2X ability not only allows the latter, but if you were a player that selected that action, your scoring of victory points can be doubled. The Consume:Trade ability is the most often utilized method of taking new cards into your hand, and the Consume:2X ability is one of the only ways to acquire the scoring chits, which increase your overall victory points. This is a key element of the game, as once the starting chit pool, which totals 12 chits per player, is exhausted, the game ends. It bears mentioning that if anyone selects a Consume action, unless you choose the Consume:Trade ability, you are forced to consume all of your items within your tableau using any card powers granted by cards in your tableau, which can stymie your plans to trade the items for cards at a later time with the Consume:Trade ability.

The final ability is the most pedestrian of them all, the Produce ability. This simply allows you to place item cards on each of your planets that produce goods, and this is done by taking a card, face down, from the draw pile and setting it on top of each of the production worlds in your tableau. The type of item produced is static, and based upon the type of world you have banked. As such, some planets produce expensive goods that provide you more cards than the less expensive goods, forcing you to really think about what you want to produce down the road when selecting planets for settlement or invasion.

As noted before, the game ends at the end of the current turn when any player takes the last of the victory point chits, but the alternate climax of the game occurs when any player places their twelfth card into their tableau. Some developments have variable victory points depending on the conditions listed on the card text, and as such you must do a hair of math to make sure to score yourself properly. You simply add your chits in hand to your installation and planet scores, and the player with the highest score truly becomes the “Emperor of the Known Universe“, or "Head SLUTS".

Things I Absolutely Loved Beyond Compare:

*The game’s art is superb and draws you into the battle for supremacy in the universe
*With the varied cards and mechanics going on in the game, replay value is ridiculously high
*The speed with which you can rule as the One True God-Emperor makes this a game you can play two to three times in an hour
*There are currently 2 expansions in existence, "The Gathering Storm" and "Rebel Vs. Imperium" which provide you a boatload of new options and special abilities, as well as "The Brink Of War" expansion which releases soon
*At $23.00, this game is an outstanding value
*The space required to play and the small box size make this the perfect coffee shop/bistro game, playable anywhere, anytime

Things I Found Mildly Annoying:

*The learning curve with the symbology is a little steep, but playing one game through will be enough to make you proficient and hook you like crack…forever
*The game was not packaged with a laser pistol, blaster rifle, or lightsaber


This is an extremely fun game, and completely surpassed my expectations. The card art is incredibly immersive, and the simple, yet effective, mechanics make this a far deeper game than I would expect from a twenty minute takeover of the Milky Way. Two words define how I feel about this game: BUY IT.

4.75/5 Stars

To learn more about how to crush the galaxy under your anti-gravity boots, head to Rio Grande Games’ page:

And if you want to play it solo, for free, here’s the fan-made game download for both PC, and surprisingly, OS X: