Sunday, November 28, 2010

Conquest Of The Fallen Lands - Is That A Stronghold In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

A couple of Saturdays back, I was invited to an epic gameday at my buddy's house in the Indianapolis area. The original date was in October, but after the unexpected death of my father I had to reschedule. So, he, another friend from Southern Ohio and his daughter, and myself and my daughter all met up, finally, and had a hell of a time. We played a variety of cool games, such as Hive, which was very interesting and not nearly as simple as I'd have thought by looking at it, Zooloretto, which I subsequently ended up getting through a trade, and one of my new favorite games, Conquest of the Fallen Lands. This game was such fun that I wrote to the boys at Assa for a review copy, but they never responded. In fact, I have another buddy who is sending me his spare copy all the way from the lovely, and recently accidentally invaded, Costa Rica. Thanks, Tom!

Anyhow, this game is a tile-based romp where the players are heroic types who need to rid the countryside of all the nasties that tend to overrun said countrysides. You do this by retaking territories, which are comprised solely of the tiles themselves, and to retake a territory, you simply need to have enough soldiers to take that territory. No dice roll, unfortunately, but instead of randomness being injected, they've put a supply chain system in place. It's one of the neatest area control games I've ever played, although it won't be upsetting my beloved El Grande anytime soon, and not just because it's not packed with a small wooden dildo like El Grande is.

The art, as you can see from the box cover, is not Boris Vallejo's fantasy art, but it's actually pretty neat and the game adheres to the theme fairly well. That being said, the gameplay is such that you're not really all that concerned with the theme, so it could've been a game about a pimp putting his merchandise in the best areas for Johns, so the theme isn't really all that important to the game. The components are of good quality, and included are five sets of colored stones that act as markers for your conquests, a ton of little square cards that depict your allies such as mages, soldiers, and workmen, and a bunch of cards which act as your soldiers, bases, and your spells. In addition to that, there's a really easy to navigate rulebook that is clear, concise, and readable, as well as 61hexagonal tiles that make up the game map. Finally, there's a bunch of coin tokens in varying denominations that act as both the coin of the realm with which to purchase allies with as well as acting as victory points. All in all, I was very impressed with the stuff in the box, it really is very pleasing to the eye, and it's all very durable.

The exact setup is dependent upon the number of players, but in all cases you're starting the game by placing the tiles, each emblazoned with a value, randomly in any shape you deem to be interesting. This is the actual gameboard upon which you will be playing, and once you've got that set up, players simply choose a color and retrieve that color's marker stones. Once the fistfights over who gets to be Mr. Pink are done, each player draws eight cards from the deck, 25 coins, and two allies. All in all, we're talking about five minutes from start to finish to set the game up.

Gameplay is just as straightforward as the setup, which is lovely. On your turn, you may spend coins to buy an ally for five pence a pop, then you may play cards to cast spells or take over territories. Each soldier card has an Attack value and a Support value, and to take a territory over you must play that card right on top of the tile, provided you have enough Attack and Support points to meet or exceed the value of the tile. The supply chain aspect kicks in when you do this, because your soldiers are generally not all that strong, with a common Attack value being one or two points, and you may only play one card to any one territory.

To take higher valued territories, you need Support. This is managed by adding the Attack value of the card you wish to play, to the combined Support values of all your soldiers in territories adjacent to the target territory. Thus, if you wish to invade an area and own five territories adjacent to it that have soldiers with a Support value of one on them, you have a combined Attack value of five plus the Attack value of the card you wish to play upon that territory. It's not "mathy" at all, and only a complete imbecile would get confused, so I was in luck in playing this because if it involved counting past 10, I'd have to remove my pants, and my buddy certainly wouldn't have appreciated that.

There are also fortification cards that can be played upon territories you already control, and these beef up the Support value of that territory, so it's best to hold onto them until you are nearby a very strong territory, such as a 12 point territory. Now you're probably wondering about the allies I spoke of before, because they seemed to be important since you need to give up five victory points to buy them. Well, they are.

 In order to actually play a card at all, you need to meet the ally requirement on the card. For instance, if you are playing a soldier that has a little image of a workman, you need to have an available workman to do so. If you choose to play that card, you must immediately flip the ally card over to indicate that he's done his deed for the day, and that ally can no longer be implemented for further destruction and havoc that round. Once you've taken over a territory, you gain the value of that territory in coins, which can be retained as victory points or spent down the road on allies.

Beneficial spells can also be cast, and these are activated in a very similar way to the soldiers, although these require the activation of your allied mages instead of soldiers and workmen as is the standard for the soldiers. These spells vary greatly in what they do, from denying a key territory to allowing you to multiply your force for a turn. We played several different spells during our game, and they are indeed integral to gameplay, not an afterthought. In fact, the most significant play of our first game was when my friend's wife was kind enough to play an area-denial spell upon a 12 value territory that effectively removed my ability to expand any further by blocking my strongest fortress from supporting my troops.

Once you've expanded the influence of your empire, you may then opt to discard cards and gain new cards at a ratio of two to one, and in addition to any cards you got through trading in that manner, you may take one card for free just for being so heroic. Finally, you may take another free card for any Mages you did not activate on your turn. Once you've replenished your hand, you flip your allies back to the face up side, and your turn is over.

The game ends when the last territory has been taken over, or if no players can play any further cards. It is at this point that you regret buying so many allies, because your coins on hand are the sole determining factor of victory. The player with the most victory points wins, and the game is over. All in all, this is a very, very fun, replayable game that I cannot see getting old anytime soon. I'm waiting with bated breath for my Costa Rican copy from Tim Tim Timmy!

What Makes This Conquer Crappier Games:
- So easy to learn, a caveman can do it (TM)
- Fast plays and minimal downtime make this game epic fun
- Neat, light hearted art makes the game fun to look at
- Light enough to not stroke out while playing, but complex strategies can be devised and executed

What Made The Lands Fall In The First Place:
- Lack of much direct player interaction makes this far less backstabbity than I'd otherwise have liked

This is one of the more fun area control games I've ever played, and I'd absolutely abandon Small World for this ten times out of ten. It's not incredibly deep, and there's not a tremendous amount of direct player interaction, but it certainly isn't multiplayer solitaire. I highly recommend it after three plays, and I'm seriously jazzed about getting a copy from my buddy. If you have a spouse that likes light, friendly games with a splash of cut throat, this is the one you want. Just a great, fun little game.

3.75/5 Stars

You can learn more about Conquest of the Fallen Lands at the Assa website here:

If you didn't get my reference to Boris Vallejo, then you not only may be an uncultured swine, you apparently do not like nakedness, either. Google Boris Vallejo, and learn about the best fantasy artist of your lifetime. He makes Larry Elmore look like a 9 year old, novice finger painter.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! Now Let Me See Your Genitals, Please!

Ah, Thanksgiving. It's the merriest time of the year, especially for the TSA, who will get to see more nakedness in one day than half of the internet porn fiends in the world.  When I was growing up, I never would've imagined that the State would illegally search people with carcinogenic, high intensity x-rays to the point where they could see every part of your glorious naked body, down to the millimeter. Why is anyone submitting to this illegal search?

Have the American politicians finally weakened our resolve as Americans to the point that we're OK with giving up some of our most sacred rights for the ILLUSION of a tiny bit of security? What's next? The mall cops are going to be fondling your wife's breasts on the way in to get your Christmas presents because you might be a terrorist? Americans need to "man up" and accept that our policies over the past 50 years have pissed some people off, and they may want to blow YOU up.  Not "You" as in Americans, but YOU, PERSONALLY.  Deal with it.  Embrace it.

Go get a Concealed Carry license if you're worried about it, because the cops can only show up to clean up the crime scene after you're already dead, and the TSA are no different. Embrace the fact that as "civilized" as we believe ourselves to be, our Chevy Suburban's tires are soaked with the blood of millions that we've allowed to be repressed and murdered, all so we can have that big screen TV and drive to the golf course in our 10MPG trucks. Everyone knows it, so don't act surprised that I'm saying it.

There's a crackhead within 30 miles of you that would slit your neck for a rock if they had the chance, so don't think this is something new. There's always people that want to do you harm, but is that a good reason to let your God-given rights (or Natural rights, if you're not into that whole Deity thing) slip away to make you "feel better"?

But back to the subject, the Blue Shirts.  The TSA has been granted extraordinary leeway, by the fucking morons in Congress, to illegally search you, and the sole reason is economic and political. They want people to fly so that money can be made and taxies levied.  They want people to "feel safe" when they fly to aid in this, and the fact is that we're no safer now than we were on 9/11. Terrorists can still blow you up, shoot you, or do anything they want. It's all theater at the airport, because it's extremely obvious to anyone with a modicum of sense that it's not about actual safety and more about making you feel safe. The only problem is that I now have more fear of my own government than I have for being blown up.

Let's take a look at what our friends at TSA are doing to "protect us":

First, they said that "no images will be saved", but in the usual Washington bullshit machine style, they lied:

Then, they said that "these machines are safe and do no harm", yet this is substantially false as well:

But wait, it's effective in stopping terrorism, right? Fuck no, it's not:

But that was just a fluke, right? Nobody else, especially not a foreign national, could do that, right? Yeah, let's just see about that, Mr. TSA douchebag:

But the TSA has sound judgement, right? They have the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom that tells them what is a weapon and what isn't, right? Yeah, right:

But this is all totally legal, right, because Congress says so? No, it's not. Back in the 1960s, our good friends on the Supreme Court actually indicated what constitutes a legal search and what doesn't, and this is the case that decided what the government COULD and COULD NOT do:

So, this Thanksgiving is the National Opt-Out day.  I encourage you to send a strong message to the Politburo in Washington that we, as Americans, do not want to be looked at by a bunch of fucking TSA perverts, nor do we want images of our children's naked bodies to be viewed by pedophiles on the internet at some point when the images are leaked, as they will most certainly be.

Check here for more info about this:, and while the liberal morons will say this is about "the right's agenda of racial profiling" to attempt to create a racism issue, because really, that's all they ever do anymore. It's not about racial profiling, it's about individual profiling. If you have 20 stamps on your passport, some from the Gulf region, you need to be pulled aside and talked to.  The Israelis have done this for years and have never had a terrorist penetration into their airport, so why do we need to spend billions on this equipment that will most certainly be found to be illegal, then sent to a scrapyard somewhere? What, you say? The Israelis don't need to see your kids' naked bodies to stop terrorism? Let's take a look at that:

Don't give up your rights without a fight, that's all I'm saying.  Just remember that the Government looks at your rights with great envy and furious anger, and they'll do just about anything to make sure that eventually, you'll be just a tax-creation machine with no individual rights for the purposes of "making this nation more secure."

At least one Congressman has some cojones, though...

"Those who would give up essential liberty for temporary security deserves neither liberty nor security, and will invariably lose both." ~ Benjamin Franklin

Monday, November 22, 2010

Heroscape - Saving Some Of The Best For Last

Wizards of the Coast was nice enough to send me a complimentary set of Heroscape Wave 13, or D&DScape Wave 3, called Moltenclaw's Invasion. Now, I am not a huge fan of D&DScape because I think much of the draw of Heroscape is the interesting backstory and wide cast of compelling characters from different genres, so I was more than a bit skeptical about how Wizards would decide to end the seven year run of Heroscape's existence. I was pleasantly surprised.

I'm here to tell you that they went out with a bang. Some of these new squads are on their way to becoming my favorites, and for good reason. In the typical Heroscape formula, they've made characters that can be implemented in a wide array of armies, and to really get the full power of these new guys, you really need to have some of the older stuff as well. Allow me to elaborate.

First, there's the obligatory Hero Pack, called Heroes of Fallcrest, which contains four new heroes to battle it out on the landscape of Valhalla. The first is Moltenclaw, a dragon whose stature is about the same as a Deathwalker, but is so much more. He's worth 170 points, and he has a special attack that's a cross between Mimring and Zelrig, with five squares affected by four attack dice. Further, he's got Lava Resistance, can fly, and has six life points. His only downfall, if any, is that he's only got three defense dice, so he is a bit on the fragile side.

Next in the Hero pack is Siege, a Warforged hero with a really slick new special power type. If you placed the X order marker on him, you may, when activated by another order marker, reveal the X on him which activates his Crag of Steel power. This power raises his defense from five to eight, but lowers his attack and move rating from five to three. With five life points, he's a real tank and can walk right up to someone like Charos, take some beating without flinching, and start hacking. All in all, he's really a neat looking model, and is an interesting addition to the game.

Eltahale, a Goliath Warden, is the third hero in this pack and he has an interesting new power as well. His Thunder Ram attack allows her to advance to a target, attack with 4 dice, and these dice affect two figures of your choice that are within 2 spaces of that target. With five attack dice and four defense dice, she can move up to six spaces and cause some pain and suffering. She also has a second special attack that allows her to teleport up to 5 spaces away to an adjacent figure and then beat on that opponent with an additional attack die. The downside is that at the end of her activation, you must roll a die, and upon a skull's appearance she takes a wound.

The last hero in this pack is Evar Scarcarver, a Human Frostrager. Not sure what a Frostrager is, but suffice to say there'll be no bonding there. Anyhow, Evar has the double attack power, and with 2 attack, it's not that impressive. What is impressive, though, is that he has a Kruglike power called Frost Rage (Now I know what a FrostRager is!) which can be activated in the same manner as Siege's power, with the X order marker. This power allows you to add an additional attack and defense die to Evar for every wound marker he currently has. With five life points, we're talking about him having six attack and seven defense dice by the end of his life. That's a very potent little figure, and for 110 points, he is every bit as good as similarly costed figures, if not better. I've played with him as a forward scout, and he can run the gauntlet through squad fire, taking wounds and getting stronger with each hit, until he comes across a powerful hero, at which point he's juiced up to the point he can put some serious carnage in play upon them.

The next pack in the wave is called Bugbears and Orcs, which is comprised of two common squads. The first squad is the Horned Skull Brutes, who are clearly meant to be marine-type invasion units. With three to a squad, and costed at 75 points each, they're quite impressive alone as they have four attack and four defense points each. What really makes them impressive is that, like Tor-Kul-Na, they can expend other units to ignore all the wounds they receive. In this case, it's the Goblin Cutters from the last wave. These guys have a second power as well that allows them to swap places with friendly, engaged figures, meaning that you can move faster, lighter units into place and then swap these guys in for a surprise attack with a far more powerful unit. Very slick, indeed.

Moving on, the final squad in this pack is the Death Chasers of Thesk, a Gorilla-like squad of three Orcs. These guys have hero bonding that's very flexible, and can play well with any Large, Wild hero, such as Me-Burq-Sa or an Ogre Pulverizer, who is in this wave as well. With four attack and two defense dice, these guys aren't going to set the world on fire, but for the cheap cost of 55 points, they're exponentially better than the Roman Archers that share that cost.

The third pack in this wave is called Icewind's Scourge, and surprisingly is a second hero set. The first hero I'd like to talk about is the fearless Frost Giant of Morh. Gone are the days of Jotun-sized giants, though, as this guy is about as tall as Brunak. At 140 points, and with six life, he's an average costed hero, but when you consider he has four defense and attack dice, he appears bit on the weak side for an expensive hero. That is, until you check out his powers. He comes with the Indomitable power, which adds two movement points to his original five when he begins his turn unengaged, but adds two attack dice instead if he begins the turn engaged. To add to that, he has Battle Frenzy which allows him to attack subsequent times on a D20 roll of 16 or better, just like the Aubrien Archers. His final power, which is the most fun to play, is the Dying Swipe ability. This power allows you to roll three attack dice upon his death and any skulls rolled are unblockable hits against any adjacent figure or figures of his choice. This is incredibly satisfying when a powerful, high defense hero is close enough to be killed for free, essentially, and I did exactly this on Sunday afternoon. You can fill your ranks with these guys, becuase this guy is Uncommon, not Unique.

Next up in the cavalcade of heroes is the Master of the Hunt, or the Golden Spearchucker, as we've come to call him. Besides being the single coolest looking figure in the last two waves, this guy is all beef. At 140 points and with six life points, he's tough as a box of rusty nails, and he has four attack, defense, and range to boot. That is, until you include his Javelin special power, which can extend his range to seven spaces if you can roll better than a 15 on the D20. To add to his exquisite lethality, he has the Mortal Strike power which allows you to re-roll any skulls, giving an additional wound for every skull you roll a second time. All in all, he's my favorite hero from this set, and he looks a bit like a buffed out Luchadore due to his golden, winged mask. Very, very cool, and to add to the coolness, this guy is an Uncommon hero, meaning you can have two or three Luchadores chucking spears and mortally wounding people all day long. In the words of Palpatine, "Excellent!"

The last hero in this pack is the Ice Troll Berserker, who is a Ferocious Beast, sans Maggie. Yes, I have a 2-year old, so I know about Maggie and the Ferocious Beast. Anyhow, this guy is an 85 point Uncommon hero who is both tough and can regenerate either one life point normally, or two life points on an ice or snow tile. With four life, five attack, and two defense, he's really a gambler's figure as he can either whip some ass on an epic scale, or if you're luck is rotten, die quickly and cost you big. He has the Ice Troll Charge special ability which is almost exactly like the Tarn Vikings' power, allowing you to move again on a D20 roll of 13 or higher. If you're on an ice or snow tile, it then becomes a 50/50 chance because you add three to that skill check roll, meaning you only need to hit an 11 or better to activate it.

The final pack in this set is the Valkrill's Legion pack, which is loaded up with all kinds of goodness in the form of ridiculously neat squads and a big Ogre. The first is my new personal favorite, the Mezzodemon Warmongers. These billy badasses are hands-down some of the juiciest in all of Heroscape. With three attack and defense dice, and at 65 points a squad for two units, they don't look very juicy at first. When you look at their Exoskeleton power, which allows them to completely disregard an attack at the cost of one Exoskeleton marker, these guys are very tough to kill. To elaborate, you start with one marker for each Warmonger in your army, and you may discard one marker each time one of these would otherwise be killed, disregarding all wounds. This only affects normal attacks, which weakens it a bit, but still, if you have eight of these, you essentially get sixteen life points between them all. That's epic. On top of this, these figures have a range of four spaces, making them deadly from a distance, and they have a Poison Cloud power that adds one attack die when attacking adjacent figures. I just love these ugly little bastards, and I've completely murdered a Knights and 4th Mass build with them.

The last squad in this wave is the Death Knights of Valkrill, an incredibly powerful little two-man death squad that costs 60 points to field, but can bond with any Relentless hero you control, meaning you get to team up with Khosumet, a Dumatef Guard, Taelord, or a variety of others. These guys have a meager two attack dice, but they also have the Soul Weapons ability which reduces any attacked figure's defense by 2 dice. These guys are amazingly powerful, in short, against virtually all squads and all but the most powerful heroes. With five defense as well, these guys can take a pounding while getting into attack position, meaning that while you only get two attacks per activation, both will be effective.

The last hero in this wave is the Ogre Pulverizer, mentioned before due to its bonding with the Death Chasers. This guy is costed at 100 points, which seems expensive, but he has six life points, four attack and three defense points, making him a strong defensive figure to field. He has the double attack ability, allowing him two attacks per turn, but this is softened by the Lumbering Bully power which causes him to take wounds based off of an unsuccessful attack. This is, in my opinion, the worst hero of the entire pack. He really isn't a figure I'd field, and unless you have nothing else to bond with the Death Chasers, I don't expect to see him around. This is unfortuante, because he looks really, really cool.

Now that I've given you all the information I could on these guys, there's one last thing I need to say about this wave. The models are a lot better looking than the last wave, but the paint job is a lot worse. This wave's paint jobs are full of missed spots and colors that don't match across figures of the same squad, such as one Death Knight's sword being black and another's being cyan, and smudged at that. Maybe it's just my pack, but this is the one I got, so that's what I have to base my opinion on. The other thing is that the Exoskeleton Markers were not actually included inside the pack with the Mezzodemons, but instead is in a hero pack. This is no biggie if you plan to buy one of each pack, or even one of each Hero pack and two or three of the common squad packs, because the markers come in sets of six. If you just want the Mezzos, though, you can contact Wizards customer service and they'll ship the markers out to you for free. Alternatively, you can just paint some standard wound markers or use a proxy token if you don't want to mess with it.

The long and short is that while Heroscape has died after a spectacular run, all things must end and instead of softballing, Wizards has produced a great new wave of figures. My only complaint here is that I now have to go back and spend some money on the old Dungeons and Dragons waves because they've made me, the ultimate D&DScape skeptic, a believer. These are solid figures and I plan to play them now and in the future.

What Makes Moltenclaw's Invasion All Kinds Of Hot:
- Mezzodemons and Death Knights are some of the best squads ever
- The Golden Spearchucker has quickly become one of my favorite heroes
- The Frost Giant's Dying Swipe is super cool and the ultimate F-You to attacking figures
- New, innovative X order marker powers are a neat new use of the worthless X order marker

What Makes Moltenclaw Fizzle And Sputter:
- Epic Fail of quality assurance regarding the Exoskeleton markers being put in a hero pack
- The low quality paint jobs are distracting on the otherwise very cool models
- The Ogre Pulverizer is quite simply the Dund of D&DScape

It's a sad day for all Heroscape fans that the line has gone the way of the Dodo, but this pack really indicates that Wizards has committed to going out with some style. Great new heroes and awesome squads will have you wishing for more, but the quality of the paint jobs and the failure to properly package the markers takes a bit of shine of this otherwise great expansion.

4/5 Stars

Head to for more info on these and other Heroscape units, because this is the last chapter in a very, very long saga of battles in Valhalla.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cartouche - Plagues, Pestilence, And A Pyramid Of Cards

Sometimes I just don't have the time to set up a huge Heroscape war, defy the Great Old Ones in Arkham, or protect Fortress: America from the rest of the world. It's times like this that I look to Small Box Games for a quick card game that doesn't require hours to play or set up. Today's entree into the world of fast card games is Cartouche, the latest Pure Card Line game from Small Box. It's a deck building game where players vie for control of Egypt, attempting to create the greatest Dynasty in the known world. Now, I'm going to put out there that there are very few deck building games that I've ever really liked, including Dominion which I got rid of a month after buying, although Smallbox was the one that made me a believer in the genre when I played Bhazum, which I still play quite a bit.

The concept of the game is that players call upon Egyptian deities in order to build their decks into more valuable cards and combinations of cards, and at the end of the game, when two of the Deity decks are out of cards, the players score their Dynasty deck based upon the types of cards they've won. In theory, it sounds to be simple, but Cartouche is not for the faint of heart; the rules, while diminutive, are very hard to understand until you've played a couple of times, and the iconography is such that the game takes you a good long while to actually figure out. This isn't to say that it's a bad game, it's more that it's got absolutely no text on any given card and so there's a lot of icon memorization. Think Race for the Galaxy, but harder.

When you open the box, which is two standard size poker decks wide, you're met with the rulebook, which is larger than Small Box's usual size, and 144 half sized cards. Of those cards, there's only four cards that are not used for gameplay, and those are the reference cards. The art on the cards is pretty and definitely recreates the hieroglyphics that it is clearly trying to, although the folks I played with thought it to be bland. I was an Egyptian history enthusiast at one point of my life, and I went to school next to the San Jose Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, which is the coolest museum in the area for all things Pharoah, so maybe I'm biased.

Setup of Cartouche is pretty simple, but sorting the cards is a bit of a pain since they're so small and there's so many of them. Luckily, though, there's little color coded cartouches on the sidebars of the cards that allow for quick recognition and sorting. Anyhow, to set up the game, hand out the reference card to each player and then sort all the cards into six stacks based on the color of the deity cartouches. Once the stacks are made, hand one card from each stack to each player, so everyone starts with six cards. As per what Small Box Games has started to do to mitigate luck of late, there's then a draft round where each player, in turn, takes one card from their original hand, places it face down in front of them, and then passes their deck to the left until it's rolled around six times and everyone has six cards. Shuffle your 6 cards, place them face down into your Dynasty deck, and then draw the top 4, placing them in front of you as your Staging Ground. Once you're there, you're ready to build your Dynasty.

I'd get into the nuts and bolts of how to play the game, but this game is very complex by my standards, so instead I'm going to simply give a short summary of what the basic premise is. Each round consists of four steps, starting with the Choice step, where you decide whether you want to play with what you have in your Staging Ground via a Standard turn, or you can alternatively choose a Shuffled turn, which allows you to take a card from the Exodus deck, which is non-existent at the beginning of the game, and discard it and then shuffle the Dynasty, Discard, and Staging Grounds together to create a new Staging Area, although you get to only play one card because you shuffled, and your Staging Area will only have three cards in it rather than the normal four.

After you've chosen your type of turn, you move to the Blessing step, where you take cards from the appropriate Deity decks, based upon the icons at the bottom of cards in your Staging Ground. If you have pairs of matching deities on your staged cards, you can take the top card of that deity deck and place them on the bottom of your Dynasty Deck. This is a major way to get new cards into your Dynasty, although because you place them on the bottom of your deck, you may not see them for a while.

Next is the Development step, where the meat of the game really happens. Depending on your choice during the Choice step, you can play either one or three cards from your Staging Ground. This consists of either discarding a card from your Staging Ground and taking two new cards from the Deity deck that matches the minor deity at the bottom of the played card, moving one of them to the Exodus deck and the other to your Dynasty deck. Now alternatively, you can play the card ability icon instead of using the deity icon, and this allows you to use the card's ability, which varies with the type of card ability icon. Card abilities can be used in conjunction with other cards you have in play to augment the cards, such as having an Armory card and a Soldier card in your Staging Area and playing the Soldier card to gain the War ability, thus stealing a card from an opponent. In short, the game is about creating combinations of card types to stomp the piss out of your opponents, forcing them to discard allowing you to gain cards either from the various decks or from the opponents themselves. Unlike Dominion, this is a very backstabbity game, and I think this is what really separates it from other deck building games of this type.

The last step in a player's turn is the Replenish step, where you simply draw up cards into your Staging Area until you either have the maximum of four, or are out of Dynasty cards, in which case you'll probably want to play a Shuffled Turn next round to re-up. Cartouche, in a nutshell, is about getting your Dynasty deck trimmed to the best combinations of attack cards and points cards as possible, so that you don't get stuck with cards that are essentially useless or not good combinations in your Staging Area. It's not "mathy" or anything like that, and there's twelve different card ability types, so it's not like there's a huge amount of possibilities. The "mathy" part comes at the end of the game, when you do the scoring.

The game ends when two Deity decks are gone, and it comes a lot sooner that you'd think, especially in three or four player games. Scoring was a little wonky for me every time I've played, but it gets more intuitive over time. Essentially, each Person card is worth one point, and for every three of a card type you have, if you have a matching Progress card type, you get to score that Progress Card too. The player with the highest score wins, goes onto become Pharaoh, and his distant heirs end up having their firstborn killed off by the Angel of Death! Some legacy, huh!

Why Cartouche Makes Frankincense:
- The game has a LOT of cutthroat, which I always enjoy
- Smart players can quickly figure out what the best combinations are, making it interesting and competitive
- Short playtime allows for several plays in a night or allows Cartouche to be a warmup for some Ameritrash later in the night

What Mummifies Cartouche:
- The amount of iconography makes Race For The Galaxy look like tiddlywinks
- The scoring is overwhelming, even after a couple of plays
- I'd give my left nut for Small Box Games to make Quick Reference Guides, because there's a lot of stuff going on here

Cartouche is a pretty complex game with a ton of options and excels at player interaction and smart combination building, but the artwork is really only appreciated by those who like the sort of Egyptian artwork that is exhibited. Further hampering the game's appeal is the fact that the icons are plentiful and can be completely overwhelming, meaning you must refer constantly and copiously to the rulebook, which can slow gameplay down. Even after several plays, I still had to go back to the rulebook several times during my turn, and so did everyone else at the table, meaning that the rulebook essentially acted as a player turn marker.

That being said, we enjoyed Cartouche fairly well, and the one guy in my group that digs Dominion said that although it was more complex, he really liked the idea and gameplay of the game. So, in short, if you like deck building games, you should certainly try Cartouche, especially if you think that these kinds of games should have more interaction and less multiplayer solitaire. Cartouche is heavy on interaction and when you get past the intial information overload, it's a neat little game.

3/5 Stars

To learn more about Cartouche or Small Box Games, check out 

Small Box combines shipping, so check out some of my other Small Box Games reviews, such as Bhazum, Irondale, and Politico: Fall of Caesar and see if you want to get a couple at the same time.

Note: The Superfly Circus has officially received Porkinz' Stamp of 4pproval.  If you weren't aware, it is a highly coveted prize, and I thank Porkins kindly for his acknowledgement of the skill and talent of the Superfly Circus Staff. w00t!!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Miniature Painting With A Purpose - Charity Auction

Mercilessly Pilfered from Fortress:Ameritrash, with permission from Jim Bailey:

I made a post about this earlier but here's a refresher. Sorry if I ramble a bit. Dave Taylor is a legend in the Games Workshop world as a painter, organizer, and all around stand-up guy. He also happens to be a pal of mine and John's. When he put up his exquisite Legio Custodes army for a charity auction, my ears pricked up. It turns out we have a couple of folks in our gaming community who have recently suffered incredible, insurmountable tragedies and Dave has raised the banner to rally us all. John and I do Grindhouse Games for fun as most of you know, just as we run the Alamo Fantasy and 40k GTs every year in San Antonio and do what we can to build community locally and worldwide. It's all about the relationships we engender and lifelong friendships. Having just returned to my house at the conclusion of Alamo VI, I'm a bit choked with emotion. I spent the weekend with folks just coming into the hobby and folks I've been friends with for literally decades now. It was a time for sharing what has happened in our lives over the last year and discussing triumph and tragedy. The recession has not been kind. Many are out of work or underemployed. Some have suffered worse than mere financial woes. As you will see from Dave's posts, It CAN get worse. What brought me into this hobby as a child soooo many years ago was a fascination with toy soldiers and gaming. What kept me in the hobby all these years was my friends and the community we have all built. All of you who are reading this know wat I mean. Every one of you is linked to your own local gaming crews just as strongly as I am to mine. You are also emotionally linked, as I am, to extended gaming groups that you only meet up with upon occasion over the years. I tell you this: We are ALL inextricably linked in a worldwide network of gamers...nay, friends. All for one, one for all. When I hear of the unimaginable misfortune of two of our comrades in arms, I am moved to follow our champion Dave as he does all that is in his power to alleviate the suffering.

Dave has painted up a complete set of Incursion models and resins from Fenris Games that, together with a brand new copy of the boxed game are being auctioned NOW on ebay. Dave is one of the best army painters in the world so this is indeed a rare treat. I encourage you to visit his blog, read about his process, and read about our cause. 100% of the take from this auction will go to pay the medical bills of our extended friends and you, the winner will have a one -of-a-kind: the best Incursion set in the world, bar none. Hell, if you want, I'll send you a box with a thank-you note scribbled on it rather than the one Dave has in his possession :-). I have personally bid 500 dollars as a challenge. Beat me and you take the prize, help gamers in need, and get the coolest box of toys ever...

Thanks folks. It's a tough old world. We may not be able to beat it, but we can damned sure do our best to help our friends.

Click here for to go to the ebay auction:

You can read more on Dave's blog where he goes into detail about both the cause and his painting process on all the pieces:
And all I can hear, ringing in my ear, is Fat Mike singing "..The cause, we're just doing it for the cause..."  Get out and bid it up. 

This is the cause Dave's trying to support:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Smallworld - The 7-Up Of European Games

What, you ask? Why is Smallworld the "7-Up of European games", you ask? Because, like 7-Up claims to be, Smallworld is light, bubbly, and refreshing. Smallworld will never win any awards for being a triumphant example of tight, highly strategic boardgame design, but it sure as heck has for being light, easy to learn and play, and most importantly, fairly fun. It's games like Smallworld, though, that I have the most difficulty writing about because the game itself has no major flaws that would allow me to desecrate its good name, but on the other side, myself and the folks I've played this with are not exceptionally keen on it either. In short, it's a game with merit, a neat "mixed-up Mother Goose" mechanic to keep it fresh, but it's not something I would pine for or beg to get to the table. The only downside of the game is that Smallworld propagates racial genocide, which hasn't been in vogue for a while in Europe, or so I hear.

The concept of the game is that the players each play a race, or several races, of randomly drawn creatures with the sole desire to take over the world as best they can in a limited amount of time. The name "Smallworld" is derived from this concept, because the world is simply too small for everyone. Each race has its own racial special power, and to add to that, each has an additional, randomly drawn power. Further, each race and special power has a number of troops associated with it, and thus the amount of troops any given race/power pair has varies with the random draw, allowing for exceptional balance across the game. Each player takes turns placing troops or redeploying troops, all the while expanding the scope of their dominion. Eventually, though, the players' newly formed empires will recede, and the players have the option, at that point, to stop using that race and begin again with a new race. The game is made up of rounds, and at the end of each round, the players earn Victory Points (VP) based upon their level of control of the world, and at the end of a set amount of rounds, determined by the player amount, the game ends with the most dominant player winning the game.

The component and art quality is really quite good, and although the art direction is a bit on the caricature, cartoony side for my tastes, the theme is consistent and very suitable to the game. All of the components are of good quality cardboard, with the exception of the exceptionally well-designed troop tray, which is made of plastic and has a nice cover to stop the natives from escaping, of which there's 186. Other components consist of two double sided boards, a bazillion VP chits valued at one, three, five, and ten. Then there's the meat of the game, which is made up of fourteen racial banners and 20 special power badges, along with a gaggle of special chits which can be used with some of the power badges during gameplay. There's also a turn marker made to look like a 2-D crown, and a special die for use during some attacks. All in all, there's a crapload of stuff packed neatly into the little Smallworld box, and all of it looks very nice indeed. Finally, there's the game manual, which is very understandable and well laid out, and six player references.

Setup is a little more complex than other games, and takes a little longer than one might expect for such a light game. First, a board needs to be selected and flipped to the correct side, based upon the amount of players in the game, with the turn marker placed on the first turn on the turn track. Next, shuffle the race cards and select five of them randomly, and place them on the board in a column, and in the order you chose them. Although the game calls the race cards, "racial banners", this is a political year, so I'm calling them race cards specifically to attempt to get you to tell other players on the table that they've played the race card when they use their racial powers in game. Yes, I digress. Anyhow, do the same thing with the power badges, which physically dovetail with the race cards to create one new, unified race card with an associated power. Once you've got five complete race cards, make a stack of the rest at the bottom of the column, as when one is used, a new complete race card comes into play at the bottom of the column. In essence, at the beginning of the game, you'll have six races to pit against one another, with the sixth being the last of them and sitting on a stack of the remaining completed race cards. This acts to hide the identity of the racial mixes so you can't plan racial jokes in advance, such as, "How the hell are the Dwarves Mounted? Who's short enough to get behind them while they're bent over?"

Now that you've got the race cards sorted out, you'll need to get into "Capitol Hill", which is what I call the tray where all the races are intentionally segregated for the purposes of being pitted against one another later, and get out the "Lost Tribe" tokens to place them on their respective places annotated on the map by the Lost Tribe icon. Finally, hand out five VP tokens to each player, and you're ready to start your fascist, imperialist aggression against your friends or relatives. There's some token-placing which really seems like a waste of time, such as placing mountain tokens on spaces that depict mountains, but really, if the damned board has a picture of the mountain on it, why the hell do I really need to place a big token shaped like a mountain, with an illustration of a mountain, on it? Total redundancy, because as far as I can tell, and as many times as I've played it, you can't destroy the mountains, so this is a serious WTF design choice. Anyhow, let's skip that and just move onto how to play.

To begin, you need to select the first player, which is done by determining who has the pointiest ears. I'm not making that's in the rules. Assuming someone is more Vulcan than the rest, that green-blooded monster must pull a "Jesse Jackson" and choose a race card to play. To do this, one can simply take the first race card in the column, but if the person has some sort of bigotry against that particular race, they may choose any race they wish in the column, but as a penalty for being an unabashed racist, they must place reparations, in the form of a VP token, on any race card that lies above the one they chose in the column. Next, they must move all of the race cards up one space to fill in any gaps made by the player's selection, which exposes a new race card for exploitation. As noted before, each race card and mated power badge has a value placed on it, and you simply need to add the two values together to get your starting army size, and once you've done that, simply head to Capitol Hill and snatch that value's worth of the troops of your race.

To play, you may place your tokens on any space adjacent to water on your first turn, to represent a hostile invasion by sea. This is only on your first turn, as you can move your troops from owned territories to adjacent spaces in later turns. Anyhow, to take a territory, simply place two tokens on an empty territory as an occupying force, plus one token for virtually any other token in the space, such as a mountain, a Lost Tribe token, or an enemy token. There's a ton of these little special tokens, but the rule is pretty hard and fast regarding the cost of a conquest, so it's a pretty pedestrian matter to figure out how many troops are required to place in a potential conquest. In some sort of strange homage to Ameritrash, on your last declared conquest, you may roll a specially pipped die that has zero through three pips on it, and add that value to your attack value.

If you conquered an unoccupied space, nothing happens other than the fact you've occupied a space, but if an enemy or neutral territory was taken, that player sends one of their defeated tokens back to Capitol Hill and the rest are normally redeployed into one of their owned territories at the end of the current player's turn. After spending all of your tokens, you can then redeploy your own guys to reinforce your territories to further expand your influence. At the end of your turn, you tally up the amount of territories you control, plus any racial or power badge bonuses, and take that amount of VP tokens. That, in short, is all there is to playing Smallworld. Well, almost.

As I noted earlier, when your race essentially runs its course, you may put them into decline. This consists of simply flipping over all of the tokens of that race to their dark side and removing all but one of those tokens from each occupied territory. Then, you remove the power badge from the race card, mercilessly stripping any power from the newly-subjugated race, and finally, you flip their powerless race card to the darkened side. Doing this costs an entire turn, and once you're done putting your race into decline, you score the territories as you normally would. These powerless tokens, while not able to be deployed or used in any manner, still score points for the ruling player until they are conquered or until the same player puts yet another race into decline at some point in the future, where they're arbitrarily removed and thus have failed as a viable gene pool. On your next turn, since you do not have an active race, you simply draw a new race as you did on your first turn, hoping this race will fare better than the last.

Now, that's really all there is to Smallworld. It's a very, very simple game, as I said initially, but that doesn't mean it's not full of strategic choices, because it is. It's almost a wargame, except that it's actually an area control game masquerading as a wargame, in my opinion. There are a lot of really neat pairings for race cards and power badges, and some make for interesting and fun "master races" that are generally more powerful than most, such as the Commando Amazons, which only require one token to occupy a territory due to their Commando power badge, start with 10 troop tokens, and get to play 4 additional troop tokens per turn for the purposes of conquest but which are removed at the end of your turn. The balance between the power badges and races is actually really well done, though, so there's not much in the way of Kingmaking, so to speak.

Now that you've learned about the basic gameplay and what the game's about, let's talk about the all-important fun factor. There's not a game that's quite like this out there, with so many neat little qualities all stuffed into one package, but at the end of the day, I just didn't have all that much fun playing it the first or any subsequent time, and neither did anyone I've played this with. I'm not saying it's bad or boring, so save your nerd rage for someone else, but I am saying that it's just not a super-compelling game. I like the fact that it's a pretty short game, playable in under an hour in almost all instances, and I also like that it's got very few rules, so it's easy to learn and play.

The problem is that it's pretty redundant, and the choices allowed you on any given turn are pretty much obvious; there's no "masterstroke" plots within plots you're going to pull off. Further, the endgame is pretty anticlimactic, with one guy usually saying, "yep, I won" and that's about it. El Grande, Cave Troll, or any number of games do Area Control better, and there's a bazillion games that do wargame better. There's a bazillion games that do variable player powers better, too. There's just not a lot that seem to pack them all into one little package, and do it so pretty, so it's clear that the game has a lot of merit. It's just not for me, that's all.

There's a bunch of expansions out for Smallworld, too, that have a bunch of new races and powers, and the latest one I know of has evil Necromancers or something and a new, bigger Capitol Hill tray that will hold all of the original races as well as all of the expansions. Hell, that must be the U.N. Building.

What Makes Smallworld Bigger Than Elvis:
- Neat art and a wonderful theme
- Brisk gameplay and easy rules allow a low barrier to entry for everyone, including the "Powerful Bilt Yoot Fa'Merica"
- One of the best chit trays, ever
- It allows you to be an overt racist without offending most people at the table

What Makes Smallworld Smaller Than El Vez:
- It's not incredibly compelling, and a bit on the repetitious side
- Fiddly as "The Devil Came Down To Georgia"
- "Jack of all trades and master of none" game design

The fact that it's sold incredibly well and is way, way up in the charts indicates that it's a good game, and I'm here to tell you that I agree with that assessment. I think the game has some merit, but it's just a lot on the dry, repetitious side for me. I guess the best analogy I can put out there is that it's a fairly cut-throat pseudo-wargame for people who like Eurogames and don't dig Ameritrash-style wargames. There's lots of player interaction, which is great, but all I can say is that I just really didn't like the game all that much. I'd play it if I was at a buddy's house, and I'd be fine with it, but I know that I'd be wishing I was playing Cosmic Encounter instead. I recommend that you either try Smallworld, or research the piss out of it, before taking the plunge, because you and I both know your OCD will make you buy all the expansions too, and that's another $80.00 on top of a $40.00 price tag, and if you don't like it, you'll kick yourself.

3.5/5 Stars

For those of you interested in Smallworld, go ahead and check it out at Days of Wonder's site here:

For those of you interested in who the hell El Vez asked for it...

And my new pre-emptive strike for all the recent letters of anger regarding not telling players EVERY SINGLE OPTION IN MY TRUNCATED RULES SUMMARY:
For all you Smallworld fanbois that are going to inexplicably write me and tell me how I've forgotten all kinds of critical aspects of, I didn't. I'm not writing a complete rules summary here with, as Arlo would say, "twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was." Leave it to Universal Head to write a summary, because he's the best at it. I'm just giving people the basics here. Go nitpick Twilight's depiction of vampires or debate whether Greedo fired first if you want an argument.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wizards Of The Coast - Driving The Pacific Coast Highway...To Oblivion

I was once at a sales meeting where a hot-shot seminar guy came in and talked about his experience with the Olympics. He was an Olympic rower, and he was on a Scull team. They had not a hope in hell of winning, or even less, not embarrasing themselves and their country. So, they get this idea in their completely abandon ANYTHING that doesn't make the boat go faster. They practiced, trained, and devoted every single fiber of their collective humanity toward doing one thing: making the boat go faster. In a totally unexpected turn of events, not only did they not embarrass themselves, they won the Olympic gold medal. Pretty cool story, and very motivational. There's a lesson for everyone there: abandon things that are not useful toward achieving the goal, and in short, determining "what makes the boat go faster."

I wish to God I could remember that guy's name. I would send an e-mail to the management at Wizards, because they clearly don't know how to make their boat go faster. Let me tell you what I know, or at least believe I know: when Wizards got bought by Hasbro, they looked pretty good. Nearly ten years later, they look like the poster child for a dysfunctional family. They've alienated their core by continually reimaging of D&D and revision after revision of the core rules, their loss of the LucasArts license, their patent mismanagement, and their clear inability to understand what consumers want. If you put it in the context of the old idiom, "You don't shit where you eat" they look like a dog that's been fed a pound of ex-lax and chained an inch from their bowl. I simply cannot understand why a company with such promise and such strong branding can possibly destroy the legacy left to them by Peter Atkinson. It's a damned shame, really.

So, Wizards wants to be known as "The Magic Guys", and I get that. It's profitable, and it's still very popular, many years after its original launch. That's great. The problem is that eventually, as all things do, Magic will wane in popularity, and what is their exit strategy? Is their fallback going to be Dungeons and Dragons, the game they've taken in circles for 9 years now, upgrading from Revision 3 to Revision 3.5, then changing the game's core tenets for the most part with Revision 4? Don't they realize that with each passing revision, they alienate those who bought all the previous iterations, and eventually they'll have nothing left? It's as if they believe that the "Star Wars Expanded Universe" model that LucasArts has cashed in on by introducing new books and characters on an almost daily basis will work for them, not realizing that Star Wars is about as mainstream as Apple Pie where Dungeons and Dragons is not nearly as ingrained in popular culture.

Wizards also had a golden opportunity to cash in on the reprint wagon with their recent reimagining of Betrayal on House on the Hill, but they opted to use cheap, flimsy materials and a wave of consumer buyer's remorse and bad reviews are clearly staining thier image in the marketplace even further. They could've gone the way of FFG or Games Workshop, making a premium product that commanded a higher MSRP, based upon the clear demand for the product, but instead, as usual, they undervalued the license, made a poor quality product, and must either absorb costs for replacements or lose whatever goodwill in the market that they still retain. It's a tough spot, and again, this all points to one of two things: the lack of understanding of their market and core consumer base, or mismanagement.

There is a huge demand for old MB/Avalon Hill licenses, such as Fortress: America, but they've opted to completely avoid reprinting these games in favor of cheap plastic miniatures for the sole purpose of blind packaging them to increase profits based on repeat buys. To me, it seems like they're preying on gamers' inherent OCD completist gene, but that's just me. Magic is no different in that the people with the most money are inherently more able to be competitive in the tournament circuit, which seems to be a big part of their business model. I can't for the life of me understand how they feel that this can be perpetually successful as I know far more EX-Magic players than I do NEW Magic players. It baffles me.

They've also recently come out with Castle Ravenloft, which is a decent game in its own right, but the market is begging for a high adventure light RPG game, such as Hasbro's "Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy Adventure Boardgame" which never released in the United States, but has a huge cult following. The recent release of FFG's reprinting of the Games Workshop classic, Dungeonquest, should've signalled to someone over at Wizards that the demand is there, but instead of filling that market need, they created an incredibly light co-op adventure game with magnificent components, and it could've been so much more. A game like that could set them up with expansion dollars for years to come and open up an entire new market. Maybe people might actually look at them as a real player in the market again, which the market conclusively does not at this point. I know I'm not alone as viewing Wizards as nothing more than "The Magic Guys" these days, and with my deep history with Dungeons and Dragons, it's a bloody shame.

Now, just today, they've yet again pissed in their own bowl by cancelling HeroScape, one of the all-time most popular, classic light wargames. HeroScape is nothing short than Craig Van Ness's Magnum Opus, his masterpiece, and to this day not a single game can possibly eclipse its rabid fans, its tight gameplay, and its marketability. In the past few years, they've slowly eroded any hope of its success by walking away from the big box stores, starting with Target and ending with WalMart, and now they have virtually no avenue but online brokers and rinky-dink FLGSs to sell their wares. Further, they got rid of "Classic" HeroScape entirely, in favor of "D&D-izing" the license, further alienating their customers and damaging the Wizards brand. They then, to add insult to injury, changed the miniatures' bases about a year ago, or so, which in and of itself isn't a big deal, but it made consumers feel as if the HeroScape brand was no longer what it once was, and that Wizards had irrevocably tainted the line. There is still an incredibly strong fanbase for HeroScape, a huge market for the game, and if anyone with any semblance of brand management and sales skill would've come to the rescue, it would still be a profitable and lucrative line for them to carry.

So, in short, I wonder to myself who is steering the ship over at Wizards, and perhaps they should take a note from yesterday's national elections in the United States: people are tired of being run in circles, and although we can't vote the management of Wizards out of office at the ballot box, we most certainly can do so with our wallets, and in this recession, I don't really believe that they can afford to alienate any more of their constituents. Someone had better learn, and fast, what makes the boat go faster.

Good Luck, Wizards, you're certainly going to need it.