Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Risk Legacy: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Sharpie

I'm going to tell you up front that I'm a huge Dudes On A Map worshipping, GameMaster Series adoring, Cyclades Loving son of a bitch. I love conquest, I love to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentation of their women. But, that being said, I hate Risk with a passion. If you asked me to play Risk, I'd probably get up and call you a fun murdering cunt. It's the weakest of all of the DoaM games I know of, and by a long shot. So let's set that straight right up front. Fuck Risk, in the ass, with no Astroglide and a handful of sand. Sharp sand.

Now I've heard all this jazz about Risk: Black Ops, Risk: Godstorm, Risk: 2210, Risk: Lord of the Rings, Risk: Halo Wars, and all the other Risk games being so much different than any of the others, but I hate Risk so very, very much I've never played them, or had any desire to play them. So, when I got this press copy of Risk Legacy from my buddy Chris, I told him that I'd better send it back because I'm NOT the guy for it. I'd destroy it and tell people how shitty it is, just like the original Risk. 

Undaunted, he explained that it is so unlike any other Risk game that I would have no choice to sit at its altar and sacrifice my children to it. Yes, that's a paraphrase. So, I cracked it open, wary that I'd have to shit on a dear friend's first published project. Luckily, he was right, it's not like any other Risk game I've ever played. It doesn't suck, not a bit. In fact, it's rocks out with its cock out, and it's going to change what "hidden information" means to a gamer, forever.

The concept of Legacy is that scientists got sick of Global Warming, Global Climate Change, overpopulation, food shortages, sex trafficking of underage Indonesians, Sean Penn, and all the other ails of the world. So much so that they found a way to make completely new copies of Earth to escape the madness. Unfortunately, people are people and shortly after the five evil corporations that run the world sent their people to New Earth #00010542 they got sick of each others' shit and decided to do what man always does: kill one another with reckless abandon using the most efficient killing machines available at the time.

In short, it's about killing and subjugating, which is my favorite pastime. But, unlike normal, shitty Risk, you're not trying to wipe enemies off the map so much because the object instead is to earn four Red Stars, which are points that can be started with, bought, or earned through conquest, and are represented by both tokens and headquarters pieces. If you get four Red Stars, either by controlling headquarters and tokens or just with tokens alone, you immediately win the game.

Looking to the components, there's an assload of wee miniatures in five colors and in two styles per faction that represent individual troops and three troops, a bunch of cards that represent the territories and some that have coins pictured on them, five dice, a rulebook, two sheets of stickers, a sideboard with some areas to stack cards, and a huge, truly well-designed map. On the map are all kinds of icon-based helpers that make it really easy to remember what does what, and when. On top of that, there's a bunch of tokens that have missiles depicted on them, and some tokens with stars on them.

The final bits are a set of nearly poker-sized cards with more stickers on them, and five cardboard faction cards. All in all, everything is Hasbro quality, and the miniatures, while not super detailed, are very good. They're easily the quality of Conquest of Nerath, which I think are pretty damned good, especially considering the diminutive size. I should also mention the art, because it's wonderful. Each faction has its own look, and the art is on par with Eminent Domain, which I consider to have some of the best sci-fi artwork not made by Games Workshop. Really, truly pretty.

During the initial setup the owner, presumably, will place some coin stickers onto some of the resource cards that represent the territories. This buffs them up so that when you earn one of these, it's more valuable. During the following 15 plays, some of these may be buffed with stickers further, and some will be torn into little rippy bits. Further, during the game there will be stickers placed onto the board as permanent alterations, stickers placed into the rulebook to change the rules forever, and shit written onto the board that forever changes it. In short, there's a lot of things that are going to change between play one and play fifteen, and that's just how it is designed.

Now, there's this big Internet controversy about people not wanting to "destroy" the game by writing on it, changing cards, all that jazz. Well, folks, let me set you straight. Do you bitch about ruining your pristine bottle of Citadel paint or cry about tainting your Warhammer 40K Space Marine when you paint it? No, Internet geniuses, you make it AWESOME. Do you lament ruining a condom when you bust your load into it inside of your lady (or guy) of choice? No, you accomplish the desired effect. This game is designed specifically to be changed permanently, and it's for good cause. It makes the game better, and it's meant to be done.

So, in short, get over it. Revel in the experiences that life rewards you with and stop worrying about return on investment. The investment is indeed paid in full with interest via the experience. And, it's not like the game goes in the shit can once you've unlocked everything. It's far better than when you opened the box, anyhow.

There's also another aspect to changing the game that people have tended to overlook, and it's from a philosophical perspective. A decision that is easily mitigated or can be reversed is not a powerful decision. It's a throw away. It has no real meaning, and there's no lasting repercussions. In this game, the decisions are as real as they get, and more emphasis and weight is duly applied to them.

There's more angst, more tension, and more power wielded by the choices because the decisions are both game-changing and permanent. That's the single most novel thing in this game; it forces you to take all decisions seriously, and think about the long-term consequences of the things you do, the rewards you take, and the powers you wield because they are irrevocable. It's a brilliant way to force players to invest themselves into the universe's setting and the inhabitants therein.

But let's talk a minute about the hows and whys of changing the board. First, when you win the game, you get to name a continent, add a major city that only you can start at during future games, create helpful or hindering terrain for future games, or make some territories more or less valuable. The game itself is a work in progress, and everything ties in seamlessly.

Have a player who put a city in Brazil, thereby giving him a potential advantage in subsequent games? Skullfuck him when you win next time by tearing up his 3-coin Peru card so that continent is inherently less attractive to start on in future games. Factions become more powerful as the game progresses, and have new, unique powers, and these stay with the factions forever, and that alone is awesome.

The naming mechanic is awesome as well. For example, I was playing last night with my very good buddy Mickey. He attacked me with eight troops, and I had only one wee little Halo marine-looking dude there to defend it. I only took it so he couldn't get a bonus when he got reinforced. Anyhow, that lone dude, who incidentally was named Master Chief after that game, killed five of his people before succumbing to his barrage of tanks.

I asked him if it was worth five legions of his people to get a measly couple troops bonus, and he declared "That Mandingo mother fucker had to die." Well, he won the game, and as his reward, the continent is permanently named "Mandingo MoFo." That, and in future games, if he controls that continent, since he named it, he gets an additional bonus troop during reinforcement.

You just can't get that kind of long-term, epic revenge that completely redefines the meta-game in any other game on the market. Ever. And that's just a small sampling of how the game is not just a one-off skirmish, but a long-term epic war that rages on, right where it left off, with all the battle scars and founded cities and fortresses being there every single time you play from that point on. It's as if at the end of every game, once rewards are doled out, the game gets put on pause until the next time people sit down and play it.

Those aren't the only things that change, either. The first time you completely murder an entire civilization, you crack open a sealed envelope that adds new stuff to the game. New rules, new powers, new stuff. When you found the ninth minor city, same thing. When you place thirty troops in a single turn and have a missile token, same thing. When three nukes are fired off in a single battle, same thing. The game changes every single time you play it, just like how the landscape of our world changes every time there's conflict.

Don't believe me? Afghanistan has more civilian deaths due to landmines and unexploded ordinance than any country on Earth. Why? There's been perpetual war there for as long as I've been alive. Shit, longer. So, this game is the first game I've ever played, seen, or heard of that actually remembers the sins of governments past, and although I'm sure the game isn't meant to be a political statement, there sure as hell is a lesson to be learned from it.

But all this can be written off as a gimmick by the uninformed. A money grab. A scam. Of course, those sentiments are complete bullshit, but I can understand why people might think that if they don't know any better. Like a kid picking his ass and licking his finger, right? Here's the thing: how many games do you own that you bought expansions for, and how many times after getting the expansions do you go back and play the base game?

The one thing that really chaps my ass about this whole debate is that people who are the first to buy the "Smallworld: 4 Bits And A Box For 25$" expansion are the first to bitch about "defecating on my new game", but this game has at least six expansions built right into the fucker, and included for the initial purchase price . If you can't see that, you're beyond my help.

That being said, let's assume that this game had none of this, and talk about the game above and beyond the "unlockables" and modifications. Why is Legacy any good? what makes it better than the old-school Risk, and what makes it any better than any of the games on the market in the genre? Let's explore.

Legacy is an very neat DoaM game on its own, without the unlockable aspect. Thankfully,  only some gameplay aspects have remained from the original Risk game, such as  the movement mechanic, the dice mechanic, and the lack of unit differentiation from the perspective that there is only one kind of troop per army with all armies essentially acting the same way.

The rest is a sweet melange of the unique player powers and missions found in Nexus Ops, terrain modifiers in Small World, and the resource accumulation in Axis and Allies. It's a really, really tight design and there's really not that many rules to it. The best, most refreshing part is that a five player game can be over in under two hours. Hell, I don't even think you could make this game take much longer than that if you tried.

"But how, my good writer, do you play the fucking thing?" Well, allow me to give you a short version. First, to set the game up, pick a faction, and then you must simply place your headquarters building and eight troops onto any unoccupied, unmodified territory or a territory with a city you founded previously. If you've never won on this Earth, you get a free Red Star coin, which is a victory point, but if you have won before, you get a missile token for each time you've won.

Speaking of factions, there's five of them, and all are completely unique with respect to their figures and their special power. Each faction starts with one special power, but during the game's expansion there can be up to five unique powers per faction. There's barbarians, armored suit wearing folks, Fremen-looking sand chicks, Imperial Guard looking folks, and Halo marine looking dudes. Again, all the models are unique and look really cool. I especially dig the Fremen chicks because their little car figures remind me of Westwood Games' trike units from the PC RTS game Dune 2000. Anyhow, moving on.

Once you're all set up, the battle begins. Each player takes their turns, completing phases in order. The first phase is reinforcements, whose number is calculated by counting all of your territories, adding the value of any cities you control, and dividing by three. It sounds wonky, but it's actually a cakewalk. On top of that, you can spend resource coins, which are earned through conquest, to buy more troops.

You can place them on any territories you own, in any denomination. If you had all of your troops killed on your last turn, if there's an open, legal territory, you place four troops on that space and start from there. If there's no legal space, you are out of the game and, the first time someone is eliminated, you crack open a secret envelope and immediately do what it says to do. Sorry, no spoilers here.

Next, you can expand your domain by moving your troops, either taking vacant territories or fighting an enemy. As in old-school Risk, you can never abandon a territory, so if you enter a new territory and want to expand further, you have to leave at least one troop as a garrison. If you want to fight, simply declare the battle, and roll the dice to fight. Some terrain modifies the rolls, such as ammo shortages and bunkers, which can give +1 or -1 to a die roll. It's the same Risk formula, with a twist, essentially. Additionally, if you've won on this map before, you'll probably have a missile token which you can play, and it makes your highest roll an automatic six, which cannot be trumped, although ties always go to the defender.

Once you're done crushing rebellions and whatnot, you can make one final repositioning movement, which allows you to move figures from one adjacent position to another to reinforce a front line. This is how you get troops from one friendly position to another, and one faction initially has a power that allows you to move troops from any friendly territory to another, not just adjacent ones.

The trick is that you initially only get to reposition once per turn, so placement and strategy are critical here. I initially thought it was total bullshit to not allow troops to reposition during your movement phase since if there's tanks and giant mechwarriors on the board, someone surely had invented a C-130, but after screwing around with that just to see how it would play, it was immediately apparent that the game would last forever if you could persistently fortify any position you wish anytime you wished. That, and a lot of the strategy would disappear.

If you happened to snatch a territory from an opponent, you earn a resource card. These, as I noted, can be used to buy troops, but more importantly, if you trade in four of them, you earn a Red Star. Some territories are worth more than others, based on how many stickers are on them, and if there's any territories that you own in one of the four slots, you can take your pick of them. If you don't, you simply take a one coin value card instead.

That's all there is to the core game, really. Fight, kill, get four stars, and win. As the game expands itself through play, much, much more comes into play. Random event cards are drawn. Secret missions abound. The game just keeps getting deeper and deeper, more interesting and more devious with each new play. It's fucking awesome. Every time some new packet opens, it's like Christmas, even when bad shit happens.

Now that you know what I like, here's what I didn't, since it's not all strawberries and cream. First, if you play this with a bunch of regulars and a new guy comes along, he's in an odd position. The new player will never have built a city, meaning he can't take advantage of the benefits of having a one or two value city, essentially denying him one free troop per turn in many cases. That's mitigated, and to a degree overcompensated for, by the fact that players who haven't won yet get a free starting Red Star token, meaning that with their HQ they're halfway to victory from jump street. But it also means that there's fewer safe havens to respawn from if all of their troops are killed.

While it's as well balanced as it could be, I still think it's uneven because the new guy gets to start with a quarter more victory points than the opponents who have won before, and potentially fewer advantageous positions than anyone who has built a city, which is any player who lost a game but wasn't completely wiped out. And if it's a mature game, there's a shitload of cities, which reduces the legal starting places exponentially. Sure, other players can't use them, but when you start out with less options than anyone at the table, and its a persistent disadvantage, it can never be quite on par. Matt Drake and I disagree on this point, and you should read his review as well to get his thoughts on the game. If ever an honest broker lived, it's he.

Second is the fact that all the troops are the same. I would've really liked to see Legacy enter Axis and Allies, Smallworld, Nexus Ops, and Conquest of Nerath territory by having differentiation between units. In Legacy, you have the one unit marker and the three unit marker, and that's it. With the cool models in the box, I'd have enjoyed having a giant robot figure shoot big plasma bolts that destroy cities, have the little trikes be able to reposition for free, or maybe have the big bear-riding barbarian bits be able to get a new unit for free by eating three enemy troops or something. As it rests, it's just plain old Risk in that regard, and that's not something I look upon with great endearment.

So, at the end of the day, while Risk Legacy is not the best game I've ever played, it's hands-down the most unique and completely revolutionary game I've ever played, not to mention exceptionally fun. The persistent warfare aspect of the game is stunningly brilliant, and it is absolutely mind-blowing in its potential. I've still not unlocked everything, and I may never, even with 15 plays where the game is locked and continues on in its final state forever. I currently have several cities, such as "Pickle Pus", a small village in the Ural Mountains, "DNS City" (an ode to Pulp Fiction) in Greenland, "Cheyenne" in Eastern Australia, and continents called "Craquilonia" and "Mandingo MoFo".

And while I like the game as it is, every time I crack open the box, I don't know what the hell is going to happen next, what event will totally screw us all, what will be unlocked or what rule will change, and that's something I can't say with virtually any other game. Very, very cool.

Why The Legacy Of Risk, And Perhaps Board Game Design, Has Been Upgraded:
- The "Achievement Unlocked" aspect is just too fucking cool for words
- The game, even without the unlockables, is tight and well designed
- The art is truly wonderful without exception
- It's the only Risk game I've wanted to play more than once
- Each game played makes it better, and even after 15 plays the game is playable in its final form

Why This May Be A Risky Purchase:
- If you can't hack modifying your game, first, I pity you, but also, this may not be something you can handle
- The lack of unit differentiation is a huge bummer for me
- Playing a mature game with a newbie feels unbalanced if you have lots of drifters in your group

This is definitely one of the better DoaM games that has come out in the last few years, and not only for the unlockable and persistent aspects of the war, although those features are what catapult it from a really good game to a great one. There's a few things I don't like, specifically the lack of unit differentiation and the newbie factor, but those are meager bitches when weighed against how truly fucking awesome this game is when viewed in its totality. This game will undoubtedly spawn knock-offs of the 'evolving game' mechanic, but I suspect that these charlatans will not have the jacobs to force players to make permanent changes to the landscape. And that's a shame.

4.25/5 Stars

Read the rules here, because there's some minor bits I left out, and you can see the art for yourself:

One More Important Point:
I have not opened all the sealed pouches, so I don't know EVERYTHING that is in store. I can only base this off of five plays, and I can only talk about what I know. What I do know is that I want to open those pouches almost as much as I want to have sex tonight, and since Aunt Flo just winged her ass back to Uteropolis after an unwelcome stay, I want to have sex very, very badly. Very. Just sayin'.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Nitro Dice - Racing For The Finish, But Only To Get It Over With

I got this copy of Nitro Dice from Minion Games at the same time that I got Five Fingered Severance, and I specifically requested it from them because it looked really cool. It has the stereotypical "Fast And The Furious" crowd; the big-boobie blonde wearing too-tight clothes, the asian chick with a plaid schoolgirl outfit, and even a juggy little skank on the front of the box, holding a hanky to start the race. The concept was cool, too: a light, racing card game with some screwage that was short enough to play at the beginning or end of a night. Everything seemed perfect...right up until I was reminded of my late friend Frank Hatton.

Frank was one of the best friends I ever had. He was a pill-popping, smack shooting, alcoholic mess. Half the time he'd be sitting in his garage, watching Sin City or Van Helsing for the 300th time, talking to himself or laughing at something for no apparent reason. He was an older guy, and as 'country' as cornbread, hailing from Harlan, Kentucky. Salt of the Earth kind of guy.

Anyhow, the reason I thought of Frank was that he had a penchant for wordsmithy, and at one point we were headed to the liquor store to go get something to replace the Scope he'd been drinking, all minty-breathed, and we saw this woman. At the time, there were no words to describe this terribly unfortunate-looking woman. 'Fugly' didn't even begin to describe her. Not remotely.

Anyhow, Frank, in his generally incoherent manner, said, "Oh my God! She's TERROCHEROUS!" To this day, I can only surmise that it was a mixture of 'terrible' and 'treacherous'. But the context was dead on. This woman was indeed terrocherous. And the ghost of my dear friend Frank was summoned by Nitro Dice after the second play, where I looked at the other players and had to ask, "Does this suck as bad as I think it does?" The answer was, in all cases, of the affirmative kind, with the exception that my buddy Mickey, who knew Frank, said, "Pete, that was fucking terrocherous. I never want to play that again." And sadly, I have to concur.

Getting into the concept of the game, it's essentially a card game that uses dice as cars, set at a street race. The D10 die that represents your car also represents your "gear", which is the same as speed, and it tells you and everyone else at the table how fast your car is currently moving. As you cruise on the tracks, which are simply a bunch of poker-sized cards with track sections illustrated thereon, you must play cards that match the type of section you're about to enter in order to enter them without taking damage.

You can also play cards as your car leaves a track section, replacing the section with one that has an obstacle, in order to make your opponents' time harder. There's even a damage tracking card and chit that tells players how bad their cars are beat up, thereby limiting their speed. All in all, the concept sure sounded neat.

Getting into the art and components, the box itself, as noted, has a little red-headed chick on the box with 3/4 of her tits hanging out of a tube top, with 2 race cars in the background. It's all done in the "new" anime style, with a computer-drawn look to it. It's actually quite nice, really, all the way through the box, and the copious amount of cards that represent the track really look great.

In addition to the many cards are six D10 dice in unique colors, and six matching card stock tracks and chits to keep track of damage as well as some nitro tokens you can use to give yourself a speed boost. If you were to rate this game just on the look and bits, it really is quite good. The rulebook has some little ambiguous spots, but after re-reading it a couple of times you get all of the mechanics down; it's just not laid out incredibly well.

To set up, you simply place the track cards in a row for a drag race, or in any configuration your mind can conjure. You can add a pit stop too, if you wish, which allows you to fix your car once it's been damaged. Deal out nine cards to each player, and once you're done with that, you simply roll off to see which starting positions the players begin in. You're off to the races.

Playing the game is simple, really. At the beginning of each round, all players set their speed by adjusting the value of their die. You start the game at zero speed, and can adjust it up or down one point for free, or two points if you discard a card. The damage track has a value of one through nine, and this indicates your maximum speed, so you can never adjust your speed higher than the the speed indicated on your damage track.

This is where the game begins to piss me off. Because the numerals on D10 dice aren't sequential, it means that as you speed up and slow down, you have to take the die off the track, find the number you're looking for, and put the car back. It would be OK if that was something that wasn't done often, but until you get to the top speed, you're pretty much changing the die every turn.

After the first play we abandoned that idea and used the damage tracker to indicate speed, using the die to indicate damage. That alone took fifteen minutes off of the game time, and it stopped all arguments about "where was the car before you picked it up" which occurred several times during the first play.

Getting back to the actual racing rather than the fiddling around with dice, once everyone has set their speed, the person who is moving fastest may move their car first, and in the case of a tie, the player who is furthest ahead gets to go. In what is the smartest part of the game, movement is done not only by simply moving your car forward as many spaces as is indicated by the speed value on your car die, you can also change lanes and perform advanced manoeuvers by discarding cards.

You can zip in between cars and drift around corners in this manner. While this is neat, the actual practice of doing so is really wonky and anti-instinctive because of how the movement takes place. The illustrations in the book help, but even after three plays I was constantly going back to the book to make sure I was doing it right.

Additionally, every time you enter a new track section, you must discard either a matching card type, or any three cards, in order to do so without taking any damage. Not having the right cards is a real killer in this game, and it's important to make sure that you don't inadvertantly discard cards you'll need on later turns in order to move around the track, even in a straight line.

Another neat aspect to this game is that you can draft other cars. If a car is directly behind you in the same lane on a straightaway, and you're moving at the same or a greater speed, you pull that car forward one space for free. While you normally wouldn't want to help an opponent, you can use this to pull the opponent's car onto a hazard, causing damage, or better yet, over the threshhold of a new track section, causing that player to have to discard a card as normal.

If you're moving too fast or a previous player screwed you over, you can brake to slow down. Simply discard cards to reduce your speed by one per card, and then record the new speed by changing your die. Like I said, you're messing with that die a hell of a lot in this game. Alternatively, if you're on a straightaway, you can use the nitro tokens to move two bonus moves, although this doesn't change your die.

There's also a copious amount of screwage in the game by changing the track on the fly. This is truly the one saving grace of this game. If you have a card that matches a track section, you can discard the track section and replace it with the one in your hand. This is a hell of a way to remove an obstruction from in front of you or put obstacles in front of your opponents, forcing either damage or lane changes, and sometimes causing collisions. The only real restriction is that the track section to be replaced must be free of any cars when you do it.

Speaking of wrecking out, there's a fair amount of damage dealt in the game. This can be from hitting obstacles that you can't avoid, from not having the right cards or enough cards when entering a new track section, and from hitting other players' cars. Each time you hit someone, both cars take a damage point, and if you rear-end someone, you immediately must reduce your speed to match theirs. If you've taken too much damage, you can go into the pit stop, which allows for you to spend your speed points to regain health. You can't enter the pit going faster than five speed points, and you regain one health point for every movement point you give up on your turn.

The last thing you do in a round is replenish your hand. Depending on your position, you take either 5, 4, or 3 cards, with the leader taking the least and the slacker taking the most. If you're in the pit at the end of a turn, you get a freebie as well. All in all, managing your hand is the single most important aspect of the game, and if you run short of cards at the wrong time, you're completely and unabashedly fucked. The winner is the player who crosses the finish line first on the last lap of the game.

Some games can be one lap, others as many as you wish. The game is quite flexible on length, but while this is advertised as a fast-playing game, it's not. It's very slow, very tedious, very fiddly, and not a whole lot of fun. I would recommend having as few track sections as possible in a small circular track for the learning game as well, since there are some tricky bits to understand, such as the drifting and swooping between cars.

Overall, I would not recommend this game to anyone who likes Formula D, Powerboats, Snow Tails, Rush n' Crush, or any other racing game. This feels much more like a dry piece of toast than a fast and furious racer. It's just so damned fiddly that you never seem to get into the groove of the game, even knowing how to play and having played before, and the whole die-is-speed mechanic totally and utterly fails.

I'm sure there's people who would appreciate this game more than I do, because it's well-produced and the design is pretty slick, but like so many games that look great when you read the rules and fall completely flat when you actually play, this game just sucked ass for myself and every one of the six people I've played this with. And thanks to Frank and Mickey, the final assessment of this game can be pared down to one simple word: terrocherous.

Why Nitro Dice Is High Octane Racing Fuel:
- The art is really nice all the way through and the production value is quite good
- There's some smart stuff in the game, with cool screwage mechanics being foremost
- Hey, everyone loves skanks and juggies

Why Nitro Dice Exploded Into A Fireball Of Pain And Death:
- Incredibly dry, fiddly and torturously boring gameplay killed this for me
- The dice being used as the speed was an epic failure
- Odd drifting and slotting rules made it harder than it had to be

I, and all of my friends, unambigously hated this game; it took over a month to get through three plays. I went into each of the games I played with an open mind, but at the end of the day, this is a terribly boring game. I mean, boring beyond all comprehension. For $22.00, maybe you can try it and see if it was just us, but I think you'd be better served getting six D10 dice and a copy of Cherry Pop Tart instead. The one thing I got from this game is that I should add "terrocherous" to the Urban Dictionary.

1.5/5 Stars

You can read the rules at BGG, and check out the Minion Games site if you wish here:

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Chaostle - One Part Adventure, Two Parts Chaos, And Four Parts Awesome

It's a rarity that a roll and move game is anything but an effort in futility, and even rarer is it fun. Chaostle, the new game from upstart publisher Chivalry Games, has managed to not only create a game that defies the odds, it also defies reason. It's fucking brilliant. It's as if Mark Jacobs, the designer of Chaostle, reached back 20 years and took all that was good about Sorry!, Talisman, and D&D, and threw it in a blender of awesomeness to create something so unique, unexpected, and just plain fun that you're simply not sure how the hell it took so long for something like this to come out. I met the designer at Origins this year, and by GenCon, I had gotten a review copy from him. I'm glad that I did!

The concept of the game is simple in that it's essentially a roll and move with combat, with the object being running around the semi-linear path to get to the castle, designated by a space in the center of the board, in order to destroy its defences and move a set amount of your characters to the sanctuary within. While the concept is simple, the game is actually a fairly deep hack-and-slash light RPG when you boil it down.

There's no exploration, as it were, such as you might find in Prophecy or Talisman, but instead there's totally random events that can help or hurt you, and all of them are highly thematic. It should also be noted that each character is completely unique, with unique weapons and powers, which can be upgraded throughout the game either by events or by battle victories.

To get into the components, it bears stating that the production values are superb, which is truly unexpected from a first-time entrant into the world of board game publishing. There's a bunch of great plastic figures, all of which were designed by top-tier sculptors such as Kevin Contos, but there's also a ton of big plastic castle walls that were designed by one of my personal heroes, Bruce Hirst. The other art is outstanding as well, with it being illustrated by well-known artists such as Tom Sorenson and Paul Abrams. In short, everything looks exactly how it should, and all of the parts are beautifully intertwined to produce one hell of an awesome package.

For the specifics, though, there's a decent amount of stuff in the box, especially by the standards set by the overproduced FFG hundred dollar boxes. There's sixteen unique models in the box complete with character cards, there's the board, there's the twenty or so pop-in style castle wall segments which are numbered to match the numbers on the board for easy identification, and then there's the two fate cards and a castle card. Aside from that, there's a bunch of metallic pegs to use in the cards, which note changes in the characters such as upgrades and life and finally, sixteen colored snap-rings with which to mark your characters' bases for easy identification.

All in all, everything is truly superb, with my favorite aspect being the peg-in-card system that's reminiscent of Formula D or Claustrophobia, which makes tracking your statistics very, very easy and chit-free. The rulebook and fate sheets are also awesome, with great art, an interesting yet clich├ęd back story, and all kinds of illustrations to both explain things and spice up the reading. The flavor text alone with the powers is enough to make it a fun time reading the powers.

If I had to nitpick about one thing, it's the game board itself. While the art on the character cards is exceptional fantasy fare, the board itself is just a hair on the under-illustrated side. It's not that there's not enough on it to spice it up, it's more that it doesn't compare in resolution or color to the magnificent art found virtually everywhere else in the game.

Setting up takes all of about two minutes. You place the castle walls on the board, draft your army of up to four characters, get the cards set in front of you, and that's that. Players need to agree beforehand on how much damage the castle can take before death as well as how many characters need to reach sanctuary to win, and then you're ready to choose a patron, then you're good to go. The choice of patron, King or Queen, makes a difference because if you choose a King, you're going to be headed one direction around the board, and the opposite if you choose a queen, not to mention that the patrons also define which color you choose.

Once you're all set up, the game begins. The game revolves around rolling a die and moving one of your characters that far. But, there's a twist. Many of the die values trigger events, such as when you roll a "lucky three", you get to take another turn. Roll a one or two, and you can put a character into play on your patron's space. Roll a five...and you may be fucked. "Fate Fives", as they're called, cause events to occur. After moving, you roll the red die and two white dice, and check the chart to determine what happened.

There's both "Doom" and "Happiness" fates, and all of them will affect you greatly. You may end up in a shark pit, or you may end up with two of your weapons upgraded. You may end up having all of your rolls count as ones until you roll a six, at which point your rolls revert to normal. Hell, you may even have one of your characters betray you, losing them forever to the player to the left while the player to the right has to give up a character to you. The game was named aptly, because this fate mechanic absolutely is the epitome of chaos. Totally salty, fucked up shit can happen, but on the other hand, you can get totally hooked up; you just never know.

Back to movement, though, for a moment. Moving around the board on the outer track is the longest, yet easiest path to take. There's three levels of the castle, with the board representing level one, and the third being the highest and most difficult to navigate. If you decide to take the high roads, which are shorter, you end up facing jumps which are not always simple feats. You may only jump from one level to another space on the same level, and you have to roll at least as high as the distance between where you are and the nearest space on the same level.

In some cases, you need to hit the space exactly, and therefore it's very hard to make the jump. The good news is that with four characters in play, you generally always have a valid move to make, and if you can't or don't want to go forwards, you can always go backwards. With the exception of rolling a four, though, you must always make a valid move if one is available. On top of that, each character has a movement value which can be added, optionally, to your movement, although it doesn't change the roll itself; it's above and beyond the roll. If you get all the way through one section to the next king or queen start space, you get to place a peg on your card indicating you start at a new spot if you go out of play; it acts as a new spawn point so you never have to start all the way back at your original starting space.

Besides moving, there's also killing. After moving, you can choose a character to attack another character or characters, or even sacrifice your own in order to buff your attacking character up. Attacking is random as most things in this game are, because while each character has six weapons available to them, they don't get to choose which to use. Players roll a die, and that determines which weapon was used. If the weapon's range is equal or greater than the distance to the target characters, it's a hit. Simply subtract the damage rating from the attacked character, less any defense rating, and that's that.

If a character's life points drop below zero, the character is killed, although in Chaostle, all that happens is that the character is taken out of play and may re-enter play with a roll of one or two by the owner on his turn. The victor gets to choose an upgrade for themselves, and with all the options here, there's little chance of completely buffing your characters up to the maximum in all categories.

Speaking of the categories, it should be mentioned that each character has three unique skills, both bizarre and powerful, that can be upgraded, with some being active powers that can be used at certain times, such as the Arrow Dynamics skill that allows a free attack at very long range, and others are passive skills that are automatically available under certain circumstances, such as the Protection skill that adds armor points to your character. Those I just mentioned are the simpler, more sane ones, but there's others that are just nuts, such as drinking Dragon Spit to gain some protection in battle or the Time Travel skill that allows you to go back in time and bring a "Glow In The Dark Gamma Melting Pistol" with you to fight with. And those are part of what make the game so awesome.

The end of the game comes when the castle's defenses have been beaten and one player has the predetermined amount of characters in the sanctuary. All in all, the game can last anywhere from an hour to four, depending on how many players you have. There's been talk of shortening the game by neglecting one quadrant's worth of spaces, and I tried it, and it does indeed shorten the game by a good amount. Alternatively, you can play with fewer characters, but in my experience three characters a piece with a goal of two characters in the Sanctuary as a win condition is the perfect balance in a game size between three and five players.

Why I Embrace The Chaos...tle:
- Great art, awesome minis, and Bruce Hirst castle pieces make this glow on the table
- Action RPG elements make each character unique and interesting
- Crazy random events make this a beer-and-pretzels gamer's dream game
- The whimsical theme takes liberties with fantasy stereotypes, big time
- You get a lot of wicked cool plastic for US $60.00

Why The Emperor Of Mankind Wants To Crush Chaos...tle:
- Some random events really crush your hopes and cause serious frustration and angst
- Combat is a little too random for my tastes, I'd have liked to be able to choose weapons
- The length can be a little long for the style of game, but this can be altered to taste
I'm the last guy to get into a roll and move game. I'm not a big Talisman fan primarily due to the fact that the movement mechanic is very frustrating. For some reason, though, it's fun in Chaostle. Each die roll counts for something, and since you have so many characters to move you're very rarely stuck in neutral, just waiting for a specific die roll to happen. That, and the stuff that the die roll does, like granting free turns or causing fate to screw or help you, makes it seem so much less futile. If you're looking for a beautiful beer-and-pretzels action RPG style game, this may be a winner for you.

4/5 Stars

You can learn more about Chaostle at:

There's a new expansion coming out in November or December, and there's new player reference stickers you can pop on the back of your cards:

And for those who were early adopters, the Fates were updated to make it less frustrating to be in the Shark Tank or other traps:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan - "All Warfare Is Based On Deception"

I met with Todd Rowland during GenCon 2011, at the AEG "Game Night" event, to talk to him a bit about what AEG was up to of late, and after he gave me the skinny about their awesome 2011 lineup he offered me a copy of Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan (Ninja) for review. I was ecstatic as it was on my radar for a while since I'm an unabashed theme-monger, and this game has theme swinging off of the box like a stealthy assassin off of a pagoda's roof. Not only that, but it's a game that's quite unlike any I've ever played before, which had me more than a little intrigued.

What made the concept of this game so appealing to me was that while one player has his guards sitting all over the place on the board, the other's movement is done purely on a printed sheet that has an image printed thereon. In short, the bad guys in the game are invisible, and can only be detected through the guards listening, or just stumbling blindly upon them, however unlikely that may be. Sure, Fury of Dracula and Scotland Yard have hidden movement, but honestly, the mechanics of Ninja are such that it's an entirely different affair. The object is to have the intruders find their individual mission objectives and escape the map without being killed.

Sure, it sounds simple, but it is incredibly difficult for both intruders to get the goods and escape just as it's near-impossible for the guards to catch and kill both intruders.Four plays later, I can tell you that it's an incredibly interesting game. Played with the right person, or people, it can be exceptionally tense and engaging. That being said, you have to accept that one side is pretty much doing most of the active playing and the other is mostly scribbling notes behind a shield, occasionally playing a card and muttering something about inebriating or killing a guard. It almost has a "Battleship" or "Marco Polo" quality about it, where the guard side will ask, "Did I hear something?", with the intruder side indicating whether or not the sentry or patrol in question did or did not.

Looking at the components, from the box to the cards, the art is absolutely outstanding. There's 36 great looking cards for the guards to use, and 22 for the intruders, as well as six large, cardstock mission objective cards. On top of that, there's some outstanding miniatures to play with; 2 lanterns for tracking status, 20 guard figures in two designs, three "drunk guard" figures, and finally, a ninja and traitor figure. Beyond that is a rulebook that is moderately well written and organized, four player shields that are used to obscure your notes, a game board that is very nicely illustrated, and finally, four reasonably thick pads of paper with images of the game board printed thereon. All in all, the components are what I've come to expect from AEG, meaning they are wonderful.

I have a few gripes, though, about the complete package. My first and very minor complaint is that the folds on the board can cause initial confusion in a very limited number of zones on the map, making one section appear to be two. This is easily overcome, though, after your first play when you realize that the folds are, in fact, folds and not lines. The bigger bitch is that the player shields, while nicely illustrated, are sterile and serve very little purpose other than blocking wandering glances. With the large surface area the shields have, I'd have far preferred that player references had been put on them, such as an explanation of how specific cards work or a short reference on how to take notes as the intruders. It is an incredible waste of space, and a missed opportunity in my opinion.

Finally, the biggest complaint I have is that the intruders' card back design is inverted from what would make sense. There's a prominent red or black symbol on them, which one would immediately convey to mean that they are associated with the figure of the same color. Instead, the color of the card back which is far more subtle, is what matches the figure. That was definitely a design failure, but fortunately, after several times grabbing the wrong deck, you won't make the mistake again. Other than those three relatively small whines, I'm completely content with the physical aspects of the game, and AEG did an outstanding job.

Moving onto the gameplay itself, let's start with the setup of the game. Because I prefer the two-player game, I'm going to tell you how to play that version. Honestly, there's not all that much difference between the two player and other sized games, but I like the idea of playing a 'side' rather than an individual intruder or set of ten guards. Anyhow, setup consists of placing the lanterns on the timer and alert tracks, taking one player pad per player, and putting up your player screen.

Once those steps are done, while the intruder player is noting the starting positions of the ninja, traitor, and the entrances to the secret passage between any two zones, the opposing player is placing eight guard models on any of twelve guard starting positions, placing three "patrols" of two guards on any patrol track spaces, then marking where eight sleeping guards are passed out on any of six barracks positions that are marked on the board.

Each player will then draw cards from their decks, with the guard receiving a whopping 24 of the original 36 to play from and the remainder acting as a draw deck. The ninja and traitor, however, only take eight or seven, respectively, and the remainder are put back in the box. Finally, the guard player marks six mission objectives, two hidden guards, and two traps on their maps.

The mission objectives are lettered A through F, and correspond to mission objective cards, of which one is drawn by each of the intruders at the start of the game. The cards need to be assigned to individual characters, and the easiest way to track which character is associated with a character is to put the player's action cards on top of the mission card so that the missions never get confused by the intruder player, especially as the guard player will not know which mission is whose until the game's end.

Once you're all set up, the game can begin, and each turn is played in four phases. The guards always go first, with the guard player first checking the alert status, which allows for card draws and free card play if a guard is alerted, then reducing the alert level by one. The alert level only increases when an event causes it to do so, such as a guard hearing something, being gutted by the ninja or traitor, or stumbling upon an enemy. There's only three levels of alert above the normal zero alert level, and each level allows the guards to pull a card from their draw deck and either play them immediately for free, or he can put them into his hand for later use.

It's an important point to understand that almost all of the guards' cards fall into two groups and then, beneath them, two types of actions granted. The two groups that the cards affect are sentries and patrols, and the two types are listen and search actions. Sentries are defined as individual guards where patrols are two or more guards whose bases are adjacent and in the same direction. Listening actions force the intruder player to respond whether or not one of the intruders has been heard, which has its own subset of conditions, and search actions simply allow the guard player to move a patrol or sentry up to two zones, with the intruders being forced to reveal their location if they have been stumbled upon.

Listen actions are the most effective at finding enemies, and the effectiveness of the action is wholly dependent upon how far the enemies moved. For instance, if an enemy moved 3 spaces on his turn, he can be heard from 3 spaces away. The trick, though, is that the card is played upon an individual patrol or sentry, so you have to either have an idea of where an enemy is, or get damned lucky.

There are counter-actions that the intruders can use as well, such as the "It was a cat" card, which allows the intruders to simply play the card and smugly note that while the guard did hear something, it was only a cat. In the case that the guards successfully hear something, the alert level goes up a notch and the sentry or patrol who heard the noise may move two spaces in order to try to find the source.

After the alert phase has been resolved, the guard player may then play up to two cards on their turn, with the only restriction being that you cannot activate two cards on the same sentry or patrol per turn. Again, the cards you may use are quite limited to simply listening or moving figures during searches, and cards reserved for sentries cannot be used for patrols, and vice-versa. The main advantage that guards have is that they have a large starting hand, but this dwindles quite a bit against a clever intruder player who doesn't allow the guard player to draw up cards through alert increases.

The last thing the guard player does on his turn is to advance patrols two spaces on the printed patrol tracks. These tracks are circular tracks with junctions that connect them, and any group of two or more sentries that are facing the same way are considered patrols for this purpose. Having many patrols is nice because it allows you to get free movements at the end of your turn in order to hunt for the intruders, but the disadvantage is that you must move the patrol, and it always moves in the direction of facing.

You can't simply choose to change direction, you have to play a Patrol Search card in order to turn them around. So, patrols are predictable, which makes them easier to avoid. The real draw of patrols is that if they find an intruder, they can put multiple hits on an intruder, increasing the chances of hacking him to death in a single turn rather than wounding him as he moves back into the shadows.

Speaking of hacking people to death, the guards have but one life to give to their daimyo where the ninja can be hit three times and the traitor twice before dying. If one or both intruders are killed before the 11th round, they may respawn, drawing a new set of cards, albeit fewer of them than they originally started with, but if one is killed after the 11th round, they're dead and the best that the intruders can hope to achieve is a draw.

The last phase is the intruder's turn, where they may move up to three spaces each and search the castles in the center of the map for mission objectives. They don't need to declare which order they are searching, but they do need to tell the guard player which zone is searched and by which intruder. This is a free action, and the guard must tell the intruder player what was in the space, either a trap, a lettered mission objective, or a hidden guard.

If a hidden guard is found, the guard player may place a new guard on that space on the board as well as increase the alert level to its highest level. A trap simply raises the alert level to it's highest level as well. If an objective is found, it is permanently marked on the intruders' map, and if it matches an intruder's mission, they must move over that space and then make their escape. The intruders may also play any cards they wish on their turn, and while they have a very limited number of cards, they have a much more varied set of actions to use on their turn.

They can use rope cards to create paths through walls that are permanently marked on their maps. Additionally, the ninja can throw shurikens and kill a guard in an adjacent space, with no alert level increase. The traitor can play a Potent Sake card, which puts a guard in sleep mode, forcing the guard player to replace his figure with a drunken guard figure until he can play an Awaken card on the guard to bring him back to his regular, ninja-hunting self. Drunken guards might as well be stone statues, because when they're drunk, they can't do a bloody thing.

Both the traitor and ninja, as well as the guards, can use the secret passage, provided they are on one of the spaces that they marked as entrances, although the guards have to have discovered the entrance to use it. Finally, both the intruders may use a card to katana a guard, but in doing so, they not only give away their location to some degree, they also raise the alert level by either one or two. That being said, once the intruders play a card, that card is gone forever, where the guards simply put them back into their discard pile that doubles as a draw deck during the alert phase.

If the 20th round comes and goes without the intruders accomplishing both of their missions and escaping, the game ends with either a partial or total loss. If the guards can stave off the intruders completely, they win. If the intruders can get both missions complete and escape, they win. Any other combination of results ends in a draw, which in my experience seems to be the most common way to end the game, at least thus far.

The short version is that I liked the game quite a bit, and while the four player game is fine, the best way to play this is mano-a-mano. It's also a completely different game when you play as the intruders versus playing as the guards, so there's some replay value in the fact that playing one side is so foreign to playing the other. The downside is that the game has a hard time keeping me interested as the intruders because most of the time you're simply notating movement on your map sheet, with little being said.

It doesn't detract from the fun of the game, but it does take a bit of getting used to. You also have to consider that if you're playing with an inattentive player, or a straight-up cheat, you can totally have your game ruined. I also think that part of the fun of making clever moves in any game is in having the opponent realize it so that you can smirk at him knowingly, but in this case, the opponent doesn't really know what you did until the end of the game when you go back and have a "Scooby Doo reveal recap" if you so desire.

Why Ninja's Kung Fu Is Strong:
- Clever design and interesting choices beginning with the initial card draw make this a thinking man's game
- Superb art and production values make this a beautiful game to play
- This game runs about an hour and a half, making it perfect for a light game night
- The hidden movement of the intruders can lead to devilishly delicious plots
- The game's balance between the sides is as perfect as I could've ever envisioned

Why Jack Burton May Have Been On The Design Team:
- The card back situation and lack of player aid on the shields were serious oversights
- The intruder card decks have little in the way of variance, limiting replay strategies

The great warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu wrote in his magnum opus, 'The Art Of War', "Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate." This single verse in personifies what Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan is about; to be invisible, subtle, and unflinchingly patient. It's a very interesting game, but it just seems to lack some of the excitement I was expecting because it feels like such a one-sided event. That being said, it's definitely the best of this designer's "hidden movement" trilogy, the other two being the poorly received 'Van Helsing' and quite fun 'Nuns on the Run', and it is a pretty fun game.


This game comes out in October 2011, and you can learn more about it at AEG's website here: