Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Caveman - Prehistoric Swingers Engaging In Risky Behavior

Sorry for the delay, Circus goers, in getting reviews out. I haven't played many games in the last month due to my normal group not being able to meet for a variety of reasons, the least of which is my dear friend's poor, but improving, health. So, forgive the lags in between reviews for a while as it's getting hard to get people together. I'll try to get more out in the near future. I had planned a "Holiday Buyers Guide" and have the template made, but I missed the timeline pretty heavily and so I've cancelled it. Finally, I'll have a 2011 recap done this week. Onto the fun!

This week's review subject is a 2007 game out of Germany, from MAG Games. I know, you're thinking, "What the hell do I care about some German game from 5 years ago that I never heard of?" Well, it's my stated goal to bring you news about games you may not know about that are worth your time.  Well, Caveman is that game. It's got painted dinosaurs intent on chewing your brain stem out. It's got half-naked cave-chicks who will, without compunction, have sex with cavemen at the drop of a hat, provided there's another man or woman involved in the act. That's right: the game not only encourages threesomes, but you can't really advance without them.

The upshot of the menage-a-trois action is that you have kids who more often than not will die without so much as a whimper. And the best part, there's an opportunity to chuck spears at each other, or at the dinosaurs. It's simply a really fun little game that really amounts to a sort of set collection game with a healthy infusion of "essence of Ameritrash". There's even custom dice, and if you have a pulse, you should like custom dice.

The idea behind the game is that you play the part of a tribe of Cretaceous humans who are struggling to emerge from the Stone Age through technological advancements. The players are tasked with winning through two possible paths: players can develop five stone age technologies or can grow their tribe to eight adults. The board is strewn with randomly placed chits that depict animals, berries, caves, trees, and flint, each of which must be landed upon in conjunction with one another to discover technologies.

Alternatively, when a man and woman of a tribe is on the same space and another woman is on berries or another man is on an animal, the paired up lovers produce a cave kid. Kids can, at the end of a turn, be converted into adults via a die roll. The "die roll" is aptly named, too, because in many cases, the kid never grows up because if you don't roll well, he dies. The game ends immediately upon a tribe growing to eight adults or when a fifth technology token is earned.

The components are top-notch as well, with the box art being quite attractive and the chits being very well illustrated. I mean, the box art alone just begs you to buy the game. Inside the box you'll find several custom dice in green, yellow, and red, with each color being used for something different. Also inside are a big pile of cards that ship with a plastic cigar band sleeve to keep them from flying all over the place.

Inside are six tribes' worth of people chits, with men, women, and children represented, not to mention the five technology chits used to track a tribe's progress toward civilization. A neat thing about the people chits are that the chits representing the men are larger than the women, which in turn are larger than the children, so that the nature of a stack of people is easily identified. On top of that, there's a big pile of resource chits which are used to populate the board's resource locations, allowing each game to have a different layout. This aids replayability greatly, but it also can unbalance the game a bit because you can end up having a slew of goodies in close reach of one tribe over others.

Beyond that, there's a rulebook that is written in several languages, yet is one of the worst-organized I've ever seen. I mean, it's all over the place, even for as short as it is, and several reads would be required had they not included some of the best reference cards ever. The cards alone allow you to completely understand the flow of the game, and using them alone is the best way to play.

The board itself is actually very nice, with nice illustration and is easy to play on. The last bit worth mentioning is that the game shipped with an baggie of prepainted dinosaurs that look really awesome. I mean, the game wouldn't be nearly as fun without tangible, carnivorous beasts vying to chomp you or squish you in between their feet like Godzilla did to soap during the third step in his recovery. All things considered, the game is has remarkably good production value, although miniatures for the tribals would've been nicer, a little. Still, it is well worth the price I paid for it.

So now you know what it looks like, but how about gameplay? Let's explore that, and I'm fairly certain that you won't be disappointed.

To set the game up, simply choose a color of tribals, shuffle the deck of cards and place it on their volcanic resting place on the board, shuffle and place the resource chits on their board locations, and finally, choose and place your three dinosaurs in their start positions around the volcano. After that, you're ready to play. The whole process should take around five minutes, at the longest, which is in my opinion the sweet spot for all board games.

Gameplay is quite simple, which makes this game all the more fun because while the method of playing is simple, the strategy is actually quite deep if you choose it to be. You can win through procreation, which is always my first choice, or you can win through developing the five required technologies, each of which provide you a bonus or ability upon development. Random events occur which can augment or stymie your chances of success as well, which throws a bit of an "X Factor" into the mix as well, so nothing is absolutely certain, and sometimes timing can be critical.

On your turn, you simply pull a card from the deck and resolve it. Cards are split into two sections, with the top section giving your tribe an allocation of movement points to share amongst your people, and the bottom section has either an event or allows you to move a specific dinosaur a certain amount of spaces. You must first use whatever movement points you wish, and these points can be used to bring new tribals into play by placing them in your start zone. Adding new tribals can only happen if you have three or less in play, so once you've hit your fourth you can only expand your tribe through engaging in threesomes with your adult tribals. Apparently the game is OK with polygamy and bestiality, but draws the line at incest as children can not procreate.

To procreate, you have to have a woman on top of a man tribal, which makes sense, but you also need to have one of two conditions met. The first condition is that a different woman has to be grabbing some "berries", and the second is that a man has to be on top of an animal. So, it really does take three to tango in Caveman. If the conditions are met, you can place a child on top of the man and woman who were the principals in the mating process. The only restriction is that there is a stack limit in play, so if you have too many people engaging in the orgy or too many children around, you can't effectively make babies.

At the end of a turn you may choose to advance the children into adults which, like life, pretty much amounts to the roll of a die. You roll the special die to determine if your child survives and becomes an adult, and be advised that the deck is stacked against you due to the distribution of the icons. If you've developed the "fur" technology, your odds improve, as does the advent of developing fire. King Louie had it right. If you make a successful roll, the child chit is removed and a man or woman chit is placed in its stead, but if not, the child simply ceases to be and is removed. On top of that, children must always be accompanied by an adult, so if you elect to abandon one, it immediately dies. 

Developing technologies is done by having your tribals sitting on different resources at the same time, such as having two different tribals on flint resource chits simultaneously, which allows you to develop the spear technology, thus giving you a stronger fighting ability. Develop the fire technology and your kids run a better chance of survival, and develop the wheel and you gain a +1 movement rate on each subsequent turn. There's also a cave skill that you can develop that allows you to hide out in caves, earning sanctuary from attacks. The only restriction in developing these technologies is that you can only develop one technology per turn, so there is no hope of placing your people on a bunch of chits and getting a windfall of technological breakthroughs. The only thing missing is a monolith chit which would allow you to develop all the technologies at once; apparently the designers aren't Arthur C. Clarke fans.

Once you're done moving your tribals, you may be allowed to move dinosaurs, depending on the card you pulled, which may end in bloodshed. This is epic, because while each dinosaur has a different aptitude for gnawing tribals' bones into meal, all of them are more lethal than your average tribal. Getting into combat, seeing as it makes sense to do so now, there are different rules for combat depending on who is involved. To initiate combat, you simply need to share a space with an enemy tribal or a dinosaur. While all cave dwellers roll the green dice, the thunder lizards get to roll their own red die, which has a higher hit percentage. It's got the Heroscape combat system, essentially, where each success counts as a hit, with opposing hits cancelling one another out. Killed dinosaurs respawn at their start position, but tribals who die go back to the owner's pile to be put into play later.

It is immensely satisfying to combat against tribals with dinosaurs. They are, without a doubt, the most efficient way to reduce an enemy force quickly. The T-Rex is the baddest of them, with three red dice to chuck against the meager tribals' one die per chit. Luckily, the tribals can help even the odds with a spear, which allows the spear symbols to cause a hit as I alluded to earlier. The fighting is truly intense, because with limited resource spaces on the board, killing an enemy tribal before who is sitting on a resource can cripple them momentarily, giving you the momentum to surge for a win. You not only deny them the ability to use the resource, you also wipe out people, which sets them back on that front as well.

Going back to the cards, it's about a 50/50 ratio between allowing dinosaurs to move and events. The events can be downright nasty, such as forcing all players to lose a technology, while some can be simply annoying, such as not allowing use of caves for a turn or not allowing children to advance to adults for a turn. The random events aren't so pernicious that it's distracting or unbalances the game, but the fact that you always have to be wary of them does make you think, especially after five or six games where you know most of the events.

The game ends immediately when a player either develops his last technology or converts enough children to adults to hit the eight adult bogey. In the games I've played, it's usually tense right up until the climax, and if anything about this game is truly well done above all else, the balance of keeping a runaway leader from emerging is it. It's a clawing, teeth-gnashing good time the whole way through, and thus far I've never experienced one player truly being the leader from the start and staying in the lead the whole time, even when the resources are stacked in his favor. It's just a fun game, albeit a little on the random and simple side.

Why Caveman Is A Jurassic Park Full Of Awesome:
- Nice art and brisk gameplay make this a fun ride through the stone age
- It seats up to six players, and is fun playing from three to six equally
- An hour and a half is the perfect sweet spot for a game like this, and it's right there
- The reference cards are brilliantly executed and the game can be played solely by using them
- The game encourages prehistoric threesomes involving bestiality

Why The Game Exudes A Steaming Pile Of T-Rex Turds:
- Random events can be brutal in rapid succession, extending the game by as much as forty minutes
- Growing children into adults can be an exercise in frustration
- The rulebook seems to have been written by actual Neanderthals

While this is a really good game, it's not a great game. It's definitely a game that sees the table quite a bit at my place due to the fun factor, and it's playable by anyone from about 8 years old and up, although that may be too young as you'd likely have to explain why a mommy and daddy caveman need to have mommy's sister with her hand on daddy's berries in order to make a cave kid. Barring that issue, though, it's well worth the price of admission. I'm certainly glad that I own it, and I'd say that very few people wouldn't enjoy playing this well-produced game a great many times.

4/5 Stars

I'd usually say that you can learn more at the publisher's website, but for some reason, they don't really seem to give a fuck:

You can't read the rules, either, which may be a blessing. Just look at the photo of the reference card below to see how to play, it's really the only way to go.

For those of you who didn't know what I meant when I referenced Godzilla, see Joe Lansdale's "Godzilla's 12 Step Program" won't disappoint:

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Stated Policy Of The Superfly Circus On Language And Metaphor

After much soul-searching and deep meditation, I am inclined to specify the policy of the Superfly Circus as it relates to the use of language and metaphor in our blog postings. I hope this clears things up for those that might take offense to some of the things written here.

Friday, December 2, 2011

This Is How We Dooooo It

Someone referred to "my ratings" a few days ago, and it kind of hit a note with me that I haven't explained very well how this whole "Circus" thing works.

It's not just me. Not remotely.

I'm just the guy who writes the bad jokes and foul language. The Circus is actually a group of people, and there are guidelines on how I review the games that appear here. With little exception, the rules are adhered to strictly, and the games we review are reviewed in a manner that allows us to have little room for error. Well, at least that's how we see it.

  1. Each game reviewed must be played a minimum of three times.
  2. Each game must be, if possible and appropriate, played by at least 3 unique people.
  3. No game can be rated solely based upon the minimum number of players advertised.
  4. Scores are based on a 1-5 "star" scale, with fractional accountability to 0.25
  5. Scores are an average of all games played and all scores received
  6. The game's rating is based on actual plays, and if we get the rules wrong, write better rules next time.
  7. Reviews are representative of my views, but will likely contain feelings from all the Circus Players who played the game. 
  8. If we receive a sample copy of a game, we're reviewing it without exception. You may not like the outcome, so beware. 
  9. The Superfly Circus' mission is to be, first and foremost, a CHAMPION OF THE CONSUMER. If it is reviewed on this site, it was likely purchased with the fruits of my labor, traded for, or otherwise acquired through means that do not involve someone from a publisher sending a copy. Occasionally we will get unsolicited games, and the fact that this was a free game is NEVER disclosed to the participants in testing until after the review has been written. Short version: No "payola" here.
  10. I will not be requesting review copies in almost all cases unless my readers, specifically, request me to review a game that I don't know anything about, do not have a compelling desire to buy, or otherwise have little interest in. The exception will be if the company is a small-run company that I feel should get recognition in the market. If a company sends me a product unannounced (as Wizards of the Coast does regularly) I will review it, obviously.

These bylaws allow our ratings to be given based not on one guy (who is arguably a complete douchebag), but on a vast array of ratings, which minimizes the "one guy manipulates the market" or one guy's opinion alone. The entire purpose of this site is to inform, delight, and most importantly, entertain you, not fuel the hype machine that the board game industry has become.

THE GOLDEN RULE: Thou Shalt Not Be Bribed
At least 75% of all review copies received must be given away, donated to charity, or otherwise disposed of  for free, and the site is forbidden, forever, from advertising or being profitable in any way, shape or form. There is literally be no way for any vendor or publisher to have any way of influencing the opinions of the writer or members of the Circus.

What all of this does is allow the Superfly Circus to give well-rounded scores based upon one thing alone: FUN and QUALITY.  As we make no money, get no benefit, and get no "compensation", we are completely unbiased, and we do our thing as a wholly philanthropic venture. It takes a lot of time and energy to do this, and we do this for one purpose alone, which is to be an honest assessor of games so that our readers can be informed and entertained while knowing that no "infomercialism" goes on.

So, now you know how it works. It ain't just me, it's many people. I'm just the one who does the typing and pissing off of the masses. I play the games, but my votes are essentially just that - votes based on plays among a swarm of votes.

Live long, and prosper.

The Circus Cast (regulars):
"Danger" Dave

The Circus Roadies (not so regulars):
David "Professor Black" H.
Jason "Sam Adams" V.
Eric "Big Country" W.
Jason "The Teach" W.
Mark "The King Of Heroscape" P
Mike "Lonewolf" J.
Rob "What the hell is up with that hyena laugh" L.
Jessica "Bigfoot" G.
Chris "ConaChris" M.
Tim "GreyElephant" N.
Carmen "Attacktix Queen" N.
Sandy "Sandini" P.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Perfect Job And Income Inequality

Imagine this job, and tell me it's not perfect:

* You join one of two unions, who will pay for your application fees.
* You spend several months in the interview process, and you get to beat up on the other union members.
* You can say anything you want, true or untrue, and you have a 50/50 shot of getting the job.
* The job is almost always guaranteed for 4-6 years.
* You're hired based on what you said during the interview process, but your employers have no real avenue to fire you if you didn't do what you said.
* The expectation is that whatever you do, either way, you'll fail.
* Even if only 9% of the decision makers that employ you like what you're doing, you'll still keep your job.
* You have a review every 4-6 years, and while the interview process is generally arduous, you have better than an 80 percent chance you'll keep your job.
* On the job, companies (clients) will pay your interview fees, and do much of your work for you, provided you simply agree with their point of view.
* Some companies will offer you a job to fall back on if your current job doesn't work out.
* You can vote with other union members to NOT increase your salary annually, but if you don't, it will automatically raise.
* Almost all of your expenses are paid.
* You're offered a full staff to handle your day to day work.
* You're given a private bodyguard.
* You're paid in excess of $150,000 a year.
* 47% of your co-workers are millionaires.
* The job affords you the right to break certain laws, such as insider trading, or sexually harassing one of your staff.
* Your job's only requirement that you only show up at specified times, and during those times you are required only to vote. You are allowed to abstain from the vote, but you need to be there.
* If you don't like the rules in the employee handbook, you can rewrite them and vote on them as you see fit.

Yes, I'm describing the US Congress.

While Wall Street may turn a blind eye to the protesters who are clearly piss mad about income inequality, I'd expect that Congress would not. After all, Obama himself stated that "We should spread the wealth." But do we really expect that Congress will act? I mean, why would Congress not see what's going on in the streets, or at least examine whether there is an income gap, and how to stop it?

Well, for starters, look at who enriches Congresspersons' "re-election campaigns" the most. Well, wouldn't you know it....the Financial industry as a whole is the #1 campaign donor, with a whopping $122,000,000+ going into the political machine.  Let's do some math...there's 535 members,  plus the President. So, $122,000,000 divided up by 536 people...let's see here...that's $227,611 for each and every elected official.  And that's just in 2008. And that's JUST from the Financial industry.

But wait, there's more!  Besides all that Federal "donations" (read: bribes) there's also lobbyists. People that go wine and dine people, offer things in return for votes or sponsorship of bills.  Best part? Many of the guys who got fired from their "perfect jobs" get to come back and talk with their old friends who kept their jobs. "Remind" them of the fact that when they were sitting in the front row that they made "compromises", and use those "reminders" to help steer the "still employed" Congresspersons of their "responsibilities". Guess how much gets spent on Lobbying. Guess! How about $3.51 BILLION ($3,510,000,000.00) dollars in 2010. I mean,  if you go back to the 536 guys....that's $6,436,567 per person! Six and a half million dollars was spent to help "persuade" Congress. But it's not bribery, right? No, these are men and women of honor. Their character is above repudiation; above the stain of bribery, right?

The argument I hear from Congressional apologists is that while the lobbying industry is there, they don't really change votes. There's no graft. But, the question is this: if it wasn't effective, why would industry and special interest groups spend three and a half BILLION dollars in a year? Who would spend that kind of loot on "persuasion", persistently over the span of decades, if it wasn't effective? Only Congress spends money forever on wastes of time like that, right? Yeah, lobbying is effective or it would've been replaced by a different system long ago.

But, let's take a step back. Get back to the "perfect job" and ask why these Occupy Wherever people aren't getting noticed in Washington. Let's note that it's not remotely conjecture to say that there is income inequality in the United States. It's proven. It's verified a trillion times over.  The wealthiest top 1% of Americans control 40% of the money. I can live with that. I'm sure that it's been earned. But, moving forward, don't you think that "Trickle Down Economics" has proven to be an abject failure? Time and time again we've proven that giving federal dollars to the richest people doesn't spur economic activity. We're in a terrible recession, for the second time in ten years or so, due to the failed policies of spending money we don't have, giving it to the people who need it the least.

So, let's get to the 1% theory. Does it hold water? Seems to be.

But do the Occupiers, as many occupying forces before them, really believe they can change hearts and minds?  You bet your ass they do, and it's the idealism of youth that fuels that incredible belief. The problem is that they forget psychology. Most people, when faced with a decision, will choose to do whatever they perceive benefits them the most at the time. And while they're getting "donations" from bankers, the banks will never be held responsible for the carnage they've wrought upon the world economies.

As every occupying force should know, there's only two ways to break the will of an occupied people: win their hearts and minds (Bush Doctrine), or cause them so much pain they give up (Chuck Liddell Doctrine). Unfortunately for the Occupiers, they have no power to win the hearts and minds of Congresspersons (read: racketeers) making millions in the protection business, and they sure as hell can't cause them more pain than the local constabulary can cause them; they have no super-humanly strong overhand right coming from a crazy angle.

On the flip side, most people think Occupiers are nothing more than a bunch of homeless, lazy, dope fiend, radical hippies. Therefore, no heart-string pullers in hand and no mind control devices.  No leverage, no power. Not a snowball's chance in the coolest part of hell of getting anything more than an occasional bone, stripped clean of the marrow, to appease the great unwashed masses. When Congress has a 9% approval rate in the middle of a huge, calamatous recession and yet virtually all of the electable incumbents are re-elected, it's clear that it isn't working.

In other words, go home. It was a nice try, and I commend you fine folks for exercising your First amendment rights. But until the system changes, nothing will change for us 99%. It's not in their interest to change. When it comes right down to it, they ARE the 1%. In fact, they're above the 1% because they have the power to take from the 1%, and everyone knows that if you have something that can be taken, you never really had it in the first place. And Congress has the power to make anyone an offer they can't refuse.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Panic Station - I Never Knew Passing Gas To Thwart Alien, Parasitic Buttworms Could Be So Awesome

You enter the computer room and run a station-wide heat scan, only to find that two of your former team members are not what they seem. Their heat signature indicates that they have have been infected by an alien creature, and the infection has spread through the station at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, you have no idea who is infected. Every room you enter with one of your fellow team members runs the risk that they will attempt to infect you, and the only defense you have is either to attack them to keep them back, or to pass gas. Yes, this infection is most certainly rectal. This is the core principle that I learned while playing Panic Station: Beware the insidious buttworms.

Panic Station is a new game from my favorite artist-turned-designer, David Ausloos, who previously reskinned "Survive! Escape From Atlantis" for Stronghold Games. It's a four to six player romp through a remote mining station that quite skillfully recreates the events depicted in the 1982 horror classic, "The Thing", which is not only one of my all time favorite horror/suspense flicks, but has been called "the scariest movie ever made" by many. It has all the elements that one could hope for in a suspense game; thrills, tension, fast turns, tough decisions, and the single most important hallmark of any game, it is absolutely a blast.

Upon hearing about the Essen release of Panic Station, I was optimistic, as I always am, but I was also quite skeptical since this is Mssr. Ausloos' first published design. Turns out that I had nothing to worry about.  I've played this game six times now, and after pre-ordering it from Stronghold, then giving it away to a friend, and then re-preordering it from Coolstuff, I have to say that this game has absolute Game of the Year potential. There are some problems with the design, especially if you're the kind of asshat that needs to be spoon fed every possible scenario in the rulebook or a 30 page FAQ, but to the groups I've played with, it's one that has been perpetually requested and has been universally enjoyed.

The concept of Panic Station is fairly simple: up to six teams of two characters enter a complex that has been taken over by an alien parasitic life form, that has the unique attribute of looking like a big freaky worm, and the object is to torch the hell out of its hive, thus clearing the base. The challenge is that each two-character team consists of a human, who is inexplicably trained to use flamethrowers but not firearms, and an android who is programmed only to use firearms and not flamethrowers. You explore the station by expending action points, whose number is determined by the health condition of your team, to do such things as move, shoot, and expand the footprint of the base by adding room cards to the table. The trick is that every time you enter a room occupied by anyone else, you must trade a card from your inventory with them, or shoot them.

It all sounds pretty simple, but there's a catch: there's hardly any ammunition in the base to shoot people with and when you trade cards with someone, if they pass you an infection card, you're immediately infected and change allegiance. What's worse, the only way to stop from being infected is to pass them a card depicting a gasoline can. Did I mention that you're not always going to have a gas can, and to win, you have to have three gas cans in hand when you reach the hive? The game is just plain nasty, challenging, and instills absolute paranoia in everyone playing, especially if you play with some imaginative friends. I've even been known to paraphrase a dear friend, Simon Müller, by stating in-game, "Who invades my ass at this early hour!?" Fear the nefarious buttworm infectors.

Let's talk about the bits for a second. The first thing that you'll notice is that the game comes in an embossed metal tin, which sounds awesome if you're looking for a new dope stash box, but in reality, the box is non-standard size and thus you will have some heartburn trying to find a proper place on your shelf for it. Once you look inside the box, you'll find a sticker sheet, a bunch of wooden disks in many colors, a big pile of cards, a D4 die, a index card sized cardstock board, and a rulebook. Everything is quite nice, with the exception of the rulebook. While it is easily readable and understandable, the organization could have been better, and it could've used a couple more pages of explanations of key points to defuse the "rules lawyer nerdrage".

I found it to be quite an easy game to learn and play, but if you look at the Boardgamegeek forums you'd think the rulebook contained no words and only a pair of stick figure depictions attempting coitus. Such is the nature of nerd-dom, I guess. Anyhow, everything, including the rulebook, was great in my opinion. My only gripe is that the tin is not a standard size, and is embossed, which makes it harder to store than most games. All that being said, the designer has put out an updated rulebook and FAQ document which alleviates any concerns that one might have, so you can download either and you're even more prepared to take on the buttworm menace.

Before you can play the first game, you need to apply stickers to the disks, which takes 10 minutes or so. After that, the game is good to go, and you can begin to set up. Setting up requires you to pull three cards from the room deck: the hive, the terminal room, and the starting room. The rest are shuffled, with the terminal room put somewhere in the middle of the deck and the hive being placed somewhere in the last five cards of the deck. Then, each player is given three infection cards in their color, their two character cards, two status cards, and their two player disks. You must then pull the Host card, one gas card per player, and two random item cards per player less one. Shuffle these, and hand two each out to each player. Once all of this is accomplished, set the starting room in the center of the table and set the status board off to the side. You're now ready to catch, or torch, some buttworms.

The game is taken in two phases, with the first being the parasite phase. Except on the first turn of the game, any buttworm parasite tokens that are on the board all move in one direction, which is determined by a die roll, and then wound anyone in a room they end up occupying. I'm assuming rectal incursion followed by hemorrhaging is the method of attack. After this has been resolved, the players may begin their turn.

Each player, in turn, may then use their allotted action points to perform tasks, and the action points allocated to them are determined by how healthy their characters are. The default is Actions allowed are determined by what items they have in hand, which room they're in, and other specific instances. A neat thing about this game is that each player has two characters in the game, and the action point allocation can be used by one character or the other, or both.

First, players can explore, which consists of drawing the top card from the room deck and placing it adjacent to either of their character tokens. The room cards are double sided, although the sides indicate the status of the room rather than having unique sides, and thus the players always know which room will be next to be placed. Some rooms have icons on them which depict areas rich with items, rooms that cause buttworms to appear, cabins that allow you to perform actions on a station terminal, and other things. Any room with any icon can be searched, allowing a character to draw items from the item deck, and this is the only way to bring new cards into the game.

Another action type allowed is to move into an adjacent room with one of your character pawns. Even this can be dangerous as some rooms have a buttworm icon which forces you to bring a buttworm token into play. Also, if you enter a room occupied by another player's token or tokens, you must either trade cards with one of them or attack one of them. This is the mechanic which causes people to become infected and the primary way to gather information on your team. Every room has openings on the card that indicate viable passageways, and some doors are security doors that require you to have a keycard to pass through, although a special room will allow you to open all the security doors for a round. More on that later.

Now, as I noted, each player but one starts the game with three infection cards, and two item cards. Chances are that most people picked up a gas can card, which is both a key to winning the game as a human and one of the only ways to defend against a rectal incursion from another player. I mean, since the creatures look like worms and the only way to defend against an infection is by passing gas to the infected player, I've deduced that they are indeed buttworms. I guess I could've explained that earlier, but this is a suspense game and I wanted to keep the suspense going for you. Because of the initial distribution of cards, one player is guaranteed to be the Host, which is the primary antagonist in the Panic Station. His goal is to infect as many people as possible, create as much strife and paranoia as possible, cause as many parasite tokens to enter play as possible, and to attempt to thwart the other player's exploration and subsequent uncovering of the hive location.

Trading cards has some restrictions, though. A player may never trade an infection card of his color unless he is infected, and a player may never reveal his hand to another player unless forced to do so by another player using the hand scanner card. A player may also never trade an infection card of another player's color unless he has absolutely no alternative. The one omission in the rules that caused me frustration is that even in the updated version of the rules, there is no mention of what to do if a player has no cards other than their own infection cards to trade. I can only surmise that the player is forced to take a card and give none in return, thereby completely leaving them defenseless. I like that option the best because it's the nastiest, and the game's spirit is all about nastiness.

Moving on, the next action type you can take is to search a room. To do this, you must simply be in a room that depicts any icon, and draw a card from the item deck. There are all kinds of useful items in the deck, such as heavy weapons which have a higher rate of fire than the norm, ammunition to power the weapons, hand scanners that allow you to look at another player's deck, medical kits that heal your characters, armored vests which defend from attack, combat knives which allow for attack without using ammunition, and finally, gas cans which are truly the coin of this realm. There are also "parasite alert" cards which immediately cause a new buttworm to spawn in or around the searching character's location.

When a room is searched for the first time, you must flip the room card over from the grey, normal side, to the red side. When a room's status is red, if the room is searched again, parasites spawn when the room is searched any subsequent time. This is a very slick mechanic because it allows infected players to simply seem like they're loading up on goodies, since there is no hand limit, when in reality they are trying to force other players to spawn parasites by changing all the rooms to the red side.

The next action you may take is to attack an opponent or a roving buttworm. While a player's Android token is the only one who can use firearms, both characters on a team are capable of using a combat knife. Using firearms requires you to not only have ammunition, but in order to play a card to the table such as ammunition, the knife, or a heavy machinegun, you have to have at least five cards in your hand, plus those you wish to play to the table, at the time. Ammunition cards are four-sided to indicate you have four bullets, and each time you use them you have to rotate the card to the appropriate number to indicate how many bullets you have left. Guns always hit their intended target and always do one point of damage per bullet.

Knives, however, do not require ammunition, and unlike guns, knives require a die roll with a 50/50 chance of scoring a hit. All characters only have four life points, and when any character's life is halved, so is that character's action point donation to that player's action point pool. Thus, a player who has an android with two life and a human with four is allowed three actions per turn instead of four. This allows infected players to whittle away the humans' ability to gather items and explore while allowing humans to weaken the suspect players' ability to cause chaos.

Aside from using weapons, some item cards can be used as an action, and those that cost action points are marked with an appropriate icon. Using the hand scanner, which allows you to look through another player's hand, costs an action. Healing one of your characters costs an action as well. Some items do not require using an action to use them, so they are essentially free.

The final action type that you can take is room-based; in other words, it depends on which room you're in. The rooms with icons in them perform different functions, such as the medical bay that allows you to heal a character. One room allows you to draw three items rather than one when you search, and the icon that has a magnifying glass allows you to search it with others, allowing others in the room to take items without themselves initiating a search. Of all of the rooms available, the most useful are the terminal rooms. These allow you to do one of three things, all of which are critical.

The first is to allow all security doors to remain open until the end of the round. This allows free passage of all players through the doors, which is incredibly handy if all of the keycards are at the bottom of the item deck. The second thing you can do with the terminal is remotely explore, allowing you to place the top room in the room deck in any legal space adjacent to any existing room. The last thing you can do, which is the most important as well, is to run a station-wide heat check. The heat check mechanic allows all players to know precisely how many infected players are in the station.

The heat check mechanic works a lot like a mechanic in the Indie Board and Card game, The Resistance. Each player puts a status card on the "true" area of that little board you set to the side at the beginning of the game, and then puts the other status card in the false pile. If you're infected, you have to indicate that you are by placing your infected card on the true pile. The initiator of the scan then rounds up all the true cards, shuffles them, and reveals the number of infection status cards to everyone. After doing so, the player rounds up the false cards, shuffles them all together, and then hands one card of each type back to each player. Nothing adds tension like the simultaneous realization that someone was infected and not a soul at the table noticed it.

The end of the game comes when one of several situations occurs. If the base has been completely overrun by the aliens, as determined by a heat scan, the Host and his minions win. If an uninfected player has three gas can cards in his hand and on his turn has his human character in the hive room, the uninfected players win. There's another endgame scenario involving being the sole uninfected player and not having the ability to gain the required three gascans, but I can't really see that happening; I think it was put in to avoid a stalemate situation. One thing to note: I immediately houseruled that only the host wins for the infected team so that players have no impetus to get infected, since if you're a douchebag who "has to win", you might decide to just seek out the host and change teams when it's convenient.

All things considered, this is a really tense, fun game. We didn't stumble one bit the first time I broke this out, but the second time I forgot to tell my friends that you can't pass someone else's infection cards during a trade unless it's the last option, and it cost me. I was the host and attempted an anal probe attack, but was blocked by the dreaded passed gas. Unfortunately, when the player I tried to violate was up, he traded with another player and passed my infection card.

Subsequently, both players knew that I was the host, and it reduced my chances of winning to roughly zero. I gave them a run for their money, though, because I kept announcing loudly and with conviction that those two had just traded, and one was the host while the other was the new minion. I almost had them believing it, right up until the next player used the terminal room to verify how many infected players there were. It was right then, that very moment, that I knew I was fucked. Still, it's a lot of fun to be the host.

The only downside of being the host is that you're alone in your quest for malfeasance, and timing of trades is incredibly important, as noted above. Attempt infection too early and you tip your hand. Attempt infection too late and the chances of having your infection blocked by passed gas. The flipside is that if you successfully infect another player, both their android and their human is infected, and the newly-created infected team has three new opportunities to spread their ill will due to that player's three infection cards.

I played another game where I, as the host, expended all of my infection cards without successfully infecting the enemy, all the while convincing the other players that the person I tried to infect was actually attempting to infect me, both through loud protest and spending all my actions attacking that player or "searching for ammunition", which was simply a ruse to buy me time while I turned all of the grey rooms to red.

Being uninfected is fun, too, and far more tense from the beginning on, where the tension only starts for the host when he attempts his first infection. The human player really needs to watch everyone, observe both their demeanor and their board action, and trust absolutely no-one until later in the game. And even then, watch your buddy like a hawk, lest he be turned to the buttworm side of the Force while you're not looking.

Why Panic Station Mines Awesome Sauce:
- The tension of this game is unbelievable
- Great artwork throughout makes this look nice on the table
- Fast turns allow you to play a 5-player game in an hour and a half and offers surprisingly little downtime
- The promo cards from preordering add a TON of cool stuff to the game, unlike the usual "collector" garbage
- You get to make jokes about defending against buttworm attacks with passed gas

Why Panic Station Has Been Buttwormed:
- The rulebook was a little muddled, although highly serviceable
- Tin? Really? Did nobody think that it might be nice to have a box that fits on the shelf like the other hundred?
- If you didn't get the promos, well, sucks for you, because they rock

This is a truly fun, very easy to understand, fast-playing game for anyone who likes suspense, tension, and absolute, unabashed fuckery of the highest order. Lying, accusing,'s all in the tin. All I can say is that it's just a slick, bad ass, nasty little game.

4.375/5 Stars

Learn more about Panic Station at Stronghold Games, here:
Here's the latest rulebook, which will be packed in the second printing, or so I am told:

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thanks To Those Who Serve Us All

From all of us at the Superfly Circus, our thoughts are with those of deployed to the various sandboxes of the world, sitting in scorching heat, catching incoming mortar fire while you're just trying to make it home. Our thoughts are with those at Ramstein Air Base, Walter Reed, and other military hospitals where you may be recovering, or if you're taking care of America's finest. We're thinking of you if you're just sitting at a desk in a Quatermaster's office, making sure that the supply of tobacco, whiskey, and ammunition makes it to where it needs to go to keep our men and women supplied. We're with you in spirit if you're standing guard at the South Korean DMZ, sleeves rolled up in 10 degree weather, proving you're tougher than those sons of bitches across the no-man's land.

The Superfly Circus supports each and every last one of you. While we may not always like your orders, and we know you may not either, the fact is that having the courage and honor to do what you do every day, on my behalf, on behalf of my wife and little girls; the sacrifices you make, the lives put on hold, all of it...we're damned proud of every last one of you.

Someday, maybe, the world will be at peace and we won't need Minuteman missiles, F-22 Raptors, the Charles Vinson, A-10s, and M-4 Carbines. Until that day, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts because without you manning those weapons, without the steel resolve required to stand firm when every instinct in every facet of your soul tells you to run like hell and get the fuck out of there, YOU are the difference between me being able to live a free man and living under the tyranny of a dictatorial regime that would do us harm. YOU are the reason our cities aren't being devastated by the madness of power-hungry megalomaniacs and idealogical zealots.

So we thank you.

And we also thank the families of the folks who serve our country with honor and distinction. The fathers who raised their children to love freedom, and to have the courage to send them off to dangerous jobs in dangerous places. To the wives and husbands who cry alone at night that they may never see their loved one again. To the children who go without a father or mother because their parent is a true American patriot. To those of you, we say thanks.

And even though it's an American holiday, we say thanks to our allies' troops that, in many cases, don't even have a dog in the hunt, so to speak. Folks that have no business being embroiled in conflicts that their countries sent them to primarily to appease American politicians. To you, your families, and to your nations, we thank you for what you do for us. While political alliances come and go, individual alliances are not so easily forgotten. To the British, the Poles, the Japanese, the Canadians, and all others who serve your countries and fight alongside Americans, you will not be forgotten. And we thank you.

Thank you all for what you do. Thank you for making the world less chaotic so that free societies can exist, and individuals are free to seek out their own, personal brand of happiness. Without the sentries at the gate, without good men and women who knowingly choose to stand watch against the oppression of hate and madness, we would surely perish.  We'll always be in your debt, and we'll always owe you more than we can ever repay. The best we can offer is a true, heartfelt thanks, and knowing that we honor you not just as soldiers, seamen, airmen, marines, and coasties, but as individuals who are truly the finest representatives of what freedom means: The choice to make a difference in the world, no matter the personal cost.

Thank you.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

King Of Tokyo - How A Giant Bunny Robot Stomped The Eldritch Quiddity Out Of Recent Dice Games

From GenCon 2011 until just recently, companies have decided that dicefests are the new deckbuilders. We've seen Elder Sign, Quarriors, Bears!, Martian Dice, and now King of Tokyo come to fruition, and I'm quite excited that publishers are finally realizing that deck building has been done to death. I'm a huge fan of tossing overstuffed handfuls of dice at unsuspecting tables, so the fact that dice games may be the 'next big thing' gives me great joy. The only problem is that the games, thus far, have either been too light, too abstract, or just totally, unabashedly retarded.

Enter King of Tokyo, a game that has more "personality" than Minka, succeeds where the inexplicably popular Quarriors miserably fails, and costs about half to boot. The game is a big, wet tongue-kiss to the glans of anyone who wants a dyed-in-the-wool Ameritrash game that doesn't take 2 hours, isn't incredibly deep, isn't sadly shallow, and can seat from two to six players. It's totally a Goldilocks game that hits the balance just right, and for 25 bucks, it's a total no-brainer.

The concept of the game boils down to six big baddies doing big baddie shit in the capitol of the most infamously unlucky place on Earth, Japan. Not enough that America nuked them not once, but twice, not enough that they've recently nuked themselves once, not even enough that Katsuhiro Otomo nuked them. No, apparently every big bad monster in the known universe wants to devastate Tokyo as well. I truly weep for the people of Japan.

Anyhow, each player rolls dice and can heal, hurt, score points, or gain energy which is used as the currency of the game to buy cards which represent mutations and events which change the game. These little green cubes have colloquially been known by my friends as Energon Cubes, for what it's worth. Players can be eliminated, and the only way to win is to earn 20 victory points or to kill off every other big baddie in the game. In short, it's awesome.

Not only is the gameplay slick and polished, the bits are damned fine as well. First, the art is really campy, but not sloppy, and fits the theme very well througout. Then there's the cards, of which there's a metric assload, which all detail cool things that your monster can buy or do. On top of that are six standies, six standie holders, and six character cards with two wheels a piece to track stats. While the cards are a little on the thin side, the standies are really stout cardstock and the character stat trackers are superbly executed. The last little bits are the eight dice, two of which aren't always used, the energy cubes, and a eight inch square board that represents poor Tokyo and Tokyo Bay, the two locations that monsters can attack.

Now getting into the rulebook, I don't even think there's 5 pages. It's a very simple game, and some of the more wonky powers that cards represent are given as examples in the book to allay any confusion. While it's easy to read and understand, there's some terms that aren't covered in the glossary, such as "neighbors", and some of the card timing could've been explained a little better, especially the card that provides you wings that allow you to pay two energy and avoid damage. All this considered, unless you're a fun murdering, rules lawyering asshat, this game is totally playable without a single point of contention.

Setting up is a breeze, which is awesome as well. You set the board in the middle, pick whichever creature you want to play with, get the standie in its holder, take the stat sheet, and make a pile of cards. Three of these are laid face up, and these are the ones that players can buy initially. That's it. Choose a first player, and begin the assault on the proud Japanese homeland.

Each player, on their turn simply rolls the dice and decides what to do from there. Each die has a one, two, three, heart, lightning bolt, and claw on it, and each performs a different function. Numerals, when rolled in triplets, score you that many points, and for each additional numeral you get that matches your triplet gains you one additional point. For example, if you roll three twos, you get two points, and one extra point for each additional two you roll. Lightning bolts earn you one energy cube each. Hearts heal your monstrosity one point each, up to the maximum of ten, provided you're not in Tokyo. Claws hurt players that are in Tokyo if you're outside of Tokyo, and hurt all players outside of Tokyo if you're inside.

You can reroll any dice you wish, with three possible re-rolls allowed per turn, and once you either stop rolling and keep the results or run out of rolls, you resolve them. The trick is that if you wound someone in Tokyo, they may choose to yield the city, and you have to enter. While you may choose to leave, you are required to enter if the city is vacant or recently vacated when you roll even a single claw. This simple mechanic makes King of Tokyo one the daimyo of press-your-luck dicefesting, because if you accidentally roll a claw and are forced into the city when you're on the verge of death, you are unequivocally fucked because it's a sure thing that your opponents are going to beat you down and take you out of the game.

The good thing about being in Tokyo is that you earn a point for just entering the city, and if you manage to stay there for an entire round, you earn two points for not abdicating your position. While two points doesn't seem like much, most of the games I've played ended up with a couple of players low on health with 17 or 18 points, battling it out for a win. Now normally there's only one monster at a time allowed in the city, but if there's five or six monsters still in the game, one monster may occupy Tokyo while another occupies the Tokyo Bay location, doubling the chances of being hit when you're outside the city, but allowing you to tag two enemies at a time as well.

At the beginning or the end of your turn, but not any time during, you may purchase powers using cubes. The cheapest power we've seen was valued at three, and the most expensive was valued at seven. These powers are so various that I could not possibly list them all, but my favorites are those like the "Two Heads" card that allows you to do an extra point of damage and the Nova Breath that allow you to do damage even if you didn't roll a claw. Other notables are those that allow you to re-roll numerals for free and those that heal.

Some cards, however, are not mutation buffs, they're events that can do various things. One card allows you to buy it and immediately heal two points of damage. Another causes fighter planes to come swooping in and hit you for several damage points but grants you an immediate five point boon. Another cool thing about the cards is that if you don't like the cards that are showing or want to deny a power to someone, you can pay some energy and change them all out.

The end-game comes when either all players but one are dead or when any player gets their twentieth point. It's always tense, always climactic, and always a total blast. I was one of the first to pooh-pooh this as yet another dicefest in Chancetown without merit, but I have totally eaten my words. This game rocks like Kiss and AC/DC playing together at a birthday party at the Playboy Mansion. I was shocked to find out how much I enjoyed it. This is a game that may even knock my old big monster favorite, Monsters Menace America, from the top slot in Monsterland. While it absolutely does not have the epic feel of taking over a city block by block or territory by territory, this game is the best game with an oversized monster theme I've ever played.

Why King of Tokyo Is The King Of Dice:
- Fast turns will not allow asshats to play on their Iphone between turns
- Great art, bits, and outlandish monsters really get you in the mood to destroy Tokyo...again
- The game's all about tension, important decisions, and fuckery that would make a senator blush (or take notes)
- The replay value's immense...I played this twice in a night and wanted to play two more times that night

Why King of Tokyo Should Be Exiled:
- The rules could've had a little more meat to explain the more exotic cards
- The box says 2-6 players, but I'd not play less than three at a minimum

This game is phenomenally fun if you like a lot of randomness that is mitigated by important decisions. It's just a truly wonderful hour-long romp through Chancetown, and the fact that every single action you take is crucial, from deciding to vacate Tokyo or not, which card to buy, or when to roll or stay with dice. This is twice as fun as many 50 dollar games I've bought, and this will surely hit the table more often than most. This game trumps Elder Sign and Quarriors, so if you only wanted one of the current generation of dicefest games, this is without a doubt the one.

4.5/5 Stars

Check out the game's site here, but you'd better speak French if you go:été/IELLO/King-of-Tokyo

Or, you can check the BoardGameGeek.Com page, which is more useful:

Friday, October 28, 2011

Solution: The Welfare Program And Energy Security For America

I've heard over the years that poverty is cyclical because people who grow up in poverty tend to be in poverty most of their lives. That the "vicious cycle of history repeats itself" over generations unless something changes. I don't see a problem, I see unrealized opportunity, because I'm a opportunity kind of guy. Where others would throw money at the problem, I throw solutions.

You see, many people think of spending tax money on Welfare checks and food stamps is simply wasting money. I disagree. I see it as investing in our future energy security as well as creating jobs and a healty lifestyle to the empoverished. You see, with General Motors being owned by the taxpayer and General Electric's CEO being 'friendly' with the current White House, I think the time is ripe to capitalize on the amorous relationship between the poor, corporate chronyism, and the Government.

The key to all of this is in putting Welfare recipients back to work. Republicans are always lamenting the fact that men need work to retain dignity and that welfare is a form of modern slavery, so let's put that mentality into action. Let's give those on Welfare a reason to be proud, a sense of national pride, so to speak, knowing that they're contributing to the energy independence and security of the nation.

We feed them healthy foods through the Food Stamp program, we provide them shelter through Section 8 housing, and we provide them cash for everyday needs through the Welfare program. But thus far we don't provide them anything to do in those houses, while eating that food, in their government-subsidized housing. Let's explore how all of these seemingly distant factors I spoke of above can be tied together to create a better future for everyone involved.

First, General Electric should develop portable battery cells for the new Chevy Volt, a taxpayer-funded electric automobile. These batteries should be easily portable and as simple to install as your everyday double A battery. This would allow service station workers to swap out the batteries on-the-fly at newly created swapping stations. This would be the first step in creating jobs, since engineers and United Auto Workers union members would now have a new project to work on, let alone all of the newly-certified Government Auto technicians that would be hired at the swapping stations.

The next step would be to use TARP construction money to build warehouse-sized power generation facilities that have several drive-through bays. This would put unionized construction workers back to work on building thousands of these new buildings. Union electricians, plumbers, carpenters, framers and roofers would have a windfall of newly created jobs to work at. These facilities would be state-of-the-art accomodations, complete with beds, and televisions that are programmed for Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, and Judge Judy. Why, you ask? Let's get into that.

Michelle Obama is all about talking up healthy eating and lifestyles, so let's put her ideas into action. Her husband was keen on mandating health insurance for all, so let's take it a step further and mandate healthy lifesyles and food for those who require government intervention in their lives. You see, every person who receives government assistance through any of the above programs will be required to report to government-controlled medical centers for health testing for the purposes of determining their suitability for exercise. Those deemed unfit for an hour a day of exercise would have their Food Stamp allocation cut if they are too fat, and if they're simply out of shape, they will be sent to the government warehouses for a Richard Simmons exercise program to get them into shape. Those with medical conditions outside that would preclude them from exercise would, of course, be exempt.

Those who are worthy to exercise, though, would report to their assigned warehouse swapping station where they would perform an hour's labor on a stationary bicycle that is mounted with a high output battery charging dynamo. These systems would, of course, be built by General Motors and General Electric, all funded by taxpayers either through the bailout money (GM) or through tax avoidance and tax breaks (GE). Each station will simulate the experience of being at home, on Welfare, where they will have comfortable easy chairs and the aforementioned television shows piping to their station all day. The only noticable difference would be that they would be pumping away on the dynamo pedals for an hour at a time before being offered the opportunity to take a nap in the resting areas.

But what of those who have young children, who need care, and would deny some Welfare recipients from being able to perform an hour of work? Got that covered. In these same warehouses there will be Teacher's Union approved teachers working at the government Day Care centers. This keeps unionized teachers working, and allows those who have several (or several hundred) children to earn their Welfare checks through an honest day's work pumping away on the cycles.

So, you see, this is the perfect solution. It puts "shovel-ready" jobs into the market, spending only TARP money that's already allocated, it makes electric cars viable, and it puts tens of millions of people to work doing labor that not only supports energy independence, but it also creates an entire new industry. The best part is that while the system can be copied in places like China, there won't be any outsourcing of jobs to Mexico, India, or China. It's real Americans doing real work, and it will establish America as a leader in national good health, environmental protection, and the fight against Global Weather Weirdness. Truly, it is a remarkable plan.

But how, do you ask, can you ensure that these Welfare Patriots(TM) will actually show up, since they're often characterized as lazy? It's simple - provide their daily allowance of Welfare cash right there at the service station where they show up to pedal their way to American energy security. The upshot of all of this is that once the entitlement-minded folks that had always received Welfare money for nothing will now understand what it means to have a purpose greater than themselves, to understand national service, and to understand that if they can pedal a bicycle for money, they can go out and start new small businesses such as owning their own bicycle courier companies. This is not even beginning to touch on the national savings on healthcare costs from people getting several hours of exercise a day and seeing doctors regularly.

Long and short: Vote For Pedro.

Note: This is a satire piece. If you can't figure that out, you're probably retarded.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ascending Empires - Proving That Converting Men Makes Both Empires And Trousers Ascend

As pretty much everyone knows by now, I love most dexterity games, but even more than that, I truly love science fiction. Even more than that, I truly love 4X conquest games, so when I heard about Ascending Empires, it immediately folded space into the forefront of games I wanted to buy. Well, now that the remodel is done at Superfly Circus headquarters, I had some spare change lying around, and five clicks later, Ian Cooper's masterpiece was hurtling toward my house at sub-light speed. And by 'sub-light speed', I mean in the back of a U.S. Post Office tractor-trailer, on I-75, at about 65 miles an hour. It was accompanied by Chaos in the Old World, and after many, many lusty nights, Survive! Escape From Atlantis. Oh yes, there would be blood.

Ascending Empires is, at its heart, a 4X empire building game that tells the story of up to four intergalactic peoples exploring, building, advancing, and mercilessly subjugating one another. While the concept is not remotely new, what is new is how the game unfolds, or rather, doesn't. The board itself is made up of nine Swiss cheesy puzzle pieces that lock together less-than-flawlessly, wherein you place toilet paper roll sized discs in the holes, representing planets. The most novel thing about the game, though, is the fact that to move ships, which are represented by small discs, you flick them in a Crokinole-style fashion across the board, hoping not to have a mechanical failure during the flight, which is represented by careening off of one of the seams on the board, which as I mentioned, do not fit together seamlessly as I'm sure the designer intended.

Even with the improperly tested FTL drives, this game is hands-down one of the best games I've played in a long time. I'm totally biased, since not only did I drop the cash to buy it, but I knew going in I'd probably like it because it ties so many things I like into one game. Heck, it could've sucked ass, but luckily, it didn't, not in any way. All but one of the other players I've played with also loved the game based solely on its own merits, none of whom are sci-fi or 4X nuts like I am. The one guy who didn't dig it as much said he liked it, but just didn't understand it. That's understandable, since it was midnight, and he had done both radiation and chemo therapy earlier, let alone the fact he was loaded with enough morphine and percocet to make Timothy Leary seem like a straight-edge kind of guy. Truly, this is an incredibly fun, unique, and challenging game that will most assuredly go down as one of the most unique and remarkable games of the year.

Opening up the box, you're going to be met with nine well illustrated puzzle piece boards, a truly well-written and well-organized rulebook, some plastic men, two pre-cut sticker sheets, and roughly a metric assload of wooden bits in various shapes and sizes. I will note that if you've ever owned a Columbia Games block game before, you'll totally relate to the suffering you'll endure when you place the veritable billions of stickers on the myriad disc-shaped blocks in the game. That being said, the art for the planets is really dope, and the ships, while a little bland, are still decent. On top of this stuff, there's four player boards that track all of your technological advancement as well as how many units you have available at any given time. Finally, there's a bunch of tokens which represent victory points, 16 tokens which stay with the players, four each, for use on the technology track, and four range rulers to determine firing distance in combat. All in all, everything's really nice, with the planets and player boards being the coolest looking of all.

To set up the game, you first have to assemble the nine-piece board, which takes quite a soft touch, and needs to be done in a specific order. Pressing too hard will cause major mangling of the edges, which will truly bollocks your future experiences. I've realized after many plays that the corner pieces are almost identical, but they fit better in certain spots. So, I've marked the back side of the boards with little arrows so that the board gets put together the same way each time, and now I don't have a problem putting them together. I also considered taking a Dremel cutting wheel and shaving the edges so they fit more loosely, which would alleviate a lot of the problems regarding the tight fit, but I'm not sure it would make the problem easier.

To understand why this is important, and a real pisser of a problem, I need to jump ahead a bit. Each piece is almost a foot square, and to move ships in this game, you flick them across the board like a Crokinole disc. If there's ridges that form from repeated misalignment or too much pressure, when ships cross the threshold from one board to another, they can catch the lip and careen off into uncharted space. One current explanation is that while faster-than-light engines exist in the game, they have not perfected their telemetry technology, and thus certain areas of space are littered with more micrometeorites than others. To cross these planes is eternally dangerous, and impacting a stone marble travelling at millions of miles an hour causes near-instant death and dismemberment.

Why does this matter, other than inconvenience? Because if you go off the board, your ship is killed. If you inadvertently, or purposefully, crash into any other spaceship, both are killed. So, these ridges seriously test your manhood because to truly excel at the game, you need to have the balls to attempt very long-distance travel, and over dangerous terrain such as the ridges, it's a 50/50 proposition at best.

Back to setup. Once you've got the board assembled, you refer to a chart and illustration to set the planets into the holes in the board. These are randomly distributed, but there's a set amount of each of the four planet types and asteroids per quarter of the board, so no player has an advantage in their home system. These are set face-down, so you need to explore the galaxy to uncover the planet types, which is a big deal down the road. After this, you need to pull a set amount of VP tokens from the box in accordance with how many people are playing, and these act as the game timer, since once they're gone, the game ends.

Once the stage is set for galactic warfare, you hand out the four player boards, the ships, troops, research stations (cubes), colonies (tiny discs), and cities (rectangles). Here's the catch, though, when it comes to the bits: the structures always stay out of the bag, but you only keep six troops and two ships on your player board to begin with. As the game progresses, you earn more expansion ability, but initially, you have very limited resources to work with. The two ships are immediately put in orbit around your home planet. Each planet has a printed ring around it on the board, and this delineates the planets' orbits. As long as a piece is touching that ring, it's considered to be in orbit.

That's all there is to setup. Provided the bits have been bagged by player color, this should take all of about five minutes. One of the neatest things about the setup of this game is choosing the first player. Unlike German games where the oldest player goes first or American games where it's a roll-off, the game asks the player "with the most compelling reason to go first" to begin. Seeing as my good bud has cancer, he always trumps us by stating, "This may be the last game I ever play, so I'm going first." Can't really argue with that logic.

On each player's turn, they may take almost exactly one action. Of these actions, they can choose to build a structure, advance a technology, mine for VPs, recruit new troops, or make movement actions. Building a structure requires certain things, such as having a certain mix of things on a planet, at which point you remove those things and put a new one down. An example is that you have to have a troop and a colony on a planet to build a city.

This is a huge strategic decision since you may never have more than three items on any planet at any given time. To mine for VPs, you simply remove a certain amount of troops from a planet and take a certain amount of VP. Recruiting troops calls for you to pull a certain amount of troops off of your board and put them onto planets you currently control, meaning there's already something on the planet.

Now movement, well, that's an entirely different animal, hence the reason I noted you get "almost exactly" one action. You get a certain amount of movement actions when you choose the move action, which can consist of any combination of launching ships, landing ships, and navigating ships. The former two actions, launching and landing ships, consist of converting a ship in orbit to a troop on a planet, or vice versa. Hell, pretty much all of the actions in this game consist of converting one thing to another, and almost all of those actions require the conversion of your men.

Movement is simple, really, in theory: pick and flick your ship. If it hits a planet, it's not actually hitting a planet, it's careening off of the atmosphere's gravity well, swooping around the planet and launching off into a different direction per the "Star Trek IV" slingshot move. That being said, if you hit any other ship, be it an enemy or your own, you're not only dead, but you take you're partner in collision with you. While I initially thought this was a bad thing, in reality, my 10 year old successfully had a comeback near victory due to her implementing this "crash and burn" strategy.

At the end of your turn, if you have ships in combat range, which is determined by using the ruler, or if your ships are in orbit of a planet, combat may ensue. In order to blast an enemy ship into atoms, you have to have two of your own ships within firing range. No die roll, no ace pilot defying the odds and winning the battle. You simply cease to be. If you're in orbit of an enemy planet and there are no enemy ships in orbit to defend that planet, you may well be able to free the planet from the tyranny of your opponents.

It is at this point that I should discuss the fact that structures have defense values, and if you want to nuke them from orbit, just to be sure, you have to have a stronger force attacking. Colonies and troops have a defense value of one, and cities have a defense value of two. So, if you wanted to involuntarily vacate an opposing planet with a city and a troop, you'd have to have four ships in orbit to do so. Furthermore, to attack a planet, there cannot be any enemy ships in orbit.

One other thing to note is that ships may only initially attack one ship at a time, so if you have two enemies within range of two of your ships, you can only choose one to decimate. I haven't mentioned it, but anything that is killed, blown up, or converted goes back onto your player board, not back into the box, so you're only temporarily hosed. Also, you get a VP for every ship, unit, or structure you waste, so it's as viable to be a bloodthirsty galactic emperor as much as it is to be a peaceful explorer.

The last little thing about ships and combat I'm going to mention are the battleships. Battleships are twice the size of normal ships, there's only one battleship per player available, and can only be acquired through technology upgrades. These are essentially treated as having two ships in the same space, and having one of these means that you can send them into the far reaches of space to annihilate people more easily. It is also far more immune to bad flicks than their smaller counterparts, so when you get the battleship you are far less susceptible to FTL drive malfunctions and micrometeorite impacts than the little guys.

In addition to being able to blow planets up, if a ship is in orbit of an enemy planet, but can't wipe out all life on the planet for whatever reason, the ship automatically blockades the planet. This means that the player who has units or structures on the planet can't do anything with them, such as launching ships, recruiting, or using research stations. This is a hell of a strategic option if you want to stop enemies from developing technology or building structures, and it also works as a stalling option to allow you some time to get other ships there to bombard the planet into the stone age and don't want the player to launch ships from the surface.

The last aspect of gameplay is the technology tree. There are four planet types, and in order to develop technology, you need to build a research station on whatever type of planet you're hoping to upgrade. There are four levels of each, and in order to increase the level, you need to have research stations on multiple planets of the type. For example, if you want to have level three orange technology, you need to have earned level two as well as have three research stations on orange planets. You can have two research stations on one planet in your entire empire, but beyond that, you have to have multiple planets in order to upgrade your technologies. Once you've developed a technology, though, you can use it even if all of your research stations are destroyed.

Technologies do different things, and the technology trees are pretty linear within each type, although each type is much different than the next. Grey technologies revolve around movement, orange around warfare, purple is devoted primarily to defensive issues, and brown is primarily around troop development. Each of these levels also offer a very important bonus in that the first person to develop any level of technology gets a VP bonus equivalent to the level, not to mention that the first person to develop an entire row of technology through diversification gets a hefty bonus.

After each turn, you may also scan one planet that you're orbiting, which consists of secretly looking at the planet type by flipping it up and then placing it face down again. This is a quick way to determine if it's a planet you'd like to colonize on later turns as well as a way to feint opponents out of wanting the planet with an outburst of "how many damned asteroids are in this game??"

The game ends when the last available victory point is taken, at which point everyone gets one last turn to soak up the gravy as much as they can, taking more VP tokens from the reserves left in the box at the beginning of the game. Players tally their VPs, then add one VP for every occupied planet, one VP for every colony, and two VPs for every city. Finally, players check for some special conditions like having cities in three or four quadrants. The winner is the person with the most VPs at the end of the game, simple as that.

That's pretty much all there is to the game, in a nutshell. Flick, kill, develop, harvest, and win. What makes this game so neat is that there are so many different viable strategies to win, not to mention the base mechanics which absolutely rock. You can spend all your time developing technologies, earning points, or you can spend your time making war. You can develop the technology that allows you to recruit more troops, and then convert them to VPs by mining, thus creating a little economic engine. There's just so many different strategies that you simply cannot get sick of the game. Or, at least, I haven't so far, and I don't anticipate doing so.

Why This Game Has Ascended To My Top Ten:
- Great mechanics and fast turns make this an exceptionally intense and exciting game
- One of the best rulebooks ever, with little left to question
- The ship movement aspect of this game adds all the randomness the game needs
- If you sit for more than a minute between turns, even in a four player game, someone is doing something wrong
- This is one hell of an intense game

Why Ascending Empires Has Failed The Emperor Of Mankind:
- The edges of the puzzle board can really piss you off when your ship catches them and careens off to its death
- The art on the ships is a little on the bland side, and all of them are the same aside from the color
- This game could've really had 8 pre-made races with variable player powers to make it more unique

This is truly one of my new favorites. I've played the piss out of it, and I cannot wait to play it again. Once all of my home repair and remodelling projects are complete, I'm kicking back into the full swing of gaming, and this game will most assuredly be one of the first played. Truly an astoundingly great design, and I recommend it to any gamer, Euro or Ameritrasher. Just an excellent game.

4.5/5 Stars

Check out this awesome game at the Z-Man games site here:

And check out the rulebook too, if you'd like: