Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Earth Reborn - The Miniatures Mission Simulator Sandbox, Complete With Kitty Cigars

Well, this is the last of the Nate reviews; if you recall, Nate, a F:AT user sent me some games to review as a tribute to a dear friend of his that he lost. I thought it fitting to save the best, or at least the most in-depth, for last, notwithstanding the fact that he was most interested in hearing how I felt about this game, particularly as a two player game. Sorry it took so long, Nate; to get through the tutorials and then play three games using the scenario generator is a tremendous amount of time investment. Earth Reborn, quite simply, is the single most realistic tabletop skirmish game that I have ever set my paws on. It has more chrome than a full-dresser Road King being ridden by the Silver Surfer. In fact, I'm not entirely sure that there's NOT a rule for virtually anything you could conceive of. Don't take that as a criticism, though, because this game is perfect for those who want to play with cool little toys in a mission-based miniatures skirmish, but also want the depth of options normally found in a RPG or PC simulation game.

What shocked me the most is that this is not only from Z-Man, a company not inclined to do "15 pound coffin box" games, but that it was designed by a man who I consider to be one of the greatest designers of our time, Chris Boelinger. What didn't shock me was that it is truly remarkable as a design, and the ambition and sheer scope of the game has set the bar quite high for all other games of its ilk to come. This is, I suppose, the next step in the evolution of games like Space Hulk and Descent, and this is mere inches from being so complex that it really should be an iOS app or full-on PC game. In fact, about 3/4 the way through the scenarios I was thinking to myself that this game is the analog version of the Jagged Alliance series.

The core story behind the game is there is a big nuke-ya-ler war and everyone dies, aside from the people who hid in big, underground cities for 500 years or so. Think "Fallout" without the radscorpions, raiders, and Pip Boy. As an aside, just for the record, the half-life of Cs-137, the longest-lived radioactive element in nuclear fallout, is ~30 years, so they essentially hung out underground more than 10 times longer than they needed to. Anyhow, out of the ashes, when the planet has once again become inhabitable on the surface, the people emerge to rebuild their planet, but things aren't as peachy as one might hope. There's two factions, the NORAD folks, who were the scientists and soldiers, and the Salemites, who are essentially folks who went mostly completely mental and read way too much Lovecraft, came up with absurdly bad names such as Franck Einstein and Jack Saw, and started reanimating their dead for what I can only assume are necrophiliac purposes. 

Now, the back story is actually pretty slick and interesting, centering on alternative energy sources, with the best bit being about that Greenpeace is the one who really starts the whole royal rumble that ends up with the near extinction of all life on earth. Really, though, the long and short is that the two sides are hell bent on duking it out because their world views are so askew from one another that they can't possibly live in harmony. Without being too coy, all I can say is that "war never changes." The scenario guide has this eleven page u-chronic timeline that lays everything out and describes the characters and factions in great detail. I have to admit, they went to great lengths to come up with an interesting, albeit implausible, story with which to get players into the mood and make you care about what caused the strife surrounding the game play.

But enough about the back story and that bollocks, let's get to the "product".  First, while there is SO MUCH SHIT IN THIS BOX that it took me damned near two hours to punch, bag, and otherwise organize it, there's not a tremendous amount of battle space. Part of this time was trying to get everything to fit in the box, which was met with utter defeat, and I summarily tossed the insert into the skip because it's much easier to get everything back in the box without it. Each tile is double sided, though, so while you're not going to be making anything even close to the scale of a Space Hulk setup, you can certainly outpace Incursion as far as the size of the place where the characters can tool around. A large amount of the volume of the tiles are one-space and two-space tiles and counters, wee bits, and, of course, the command tiles that make up the control mechanism in the game.

We're talking about a top-notch production here, although I have to admit that I found most of the art outside of the cover art fairly lackluster. I'd put it just above mediocre, but not bad by any means. It gives Descent a run for its money as far as "bits", and there's more than enough stuff in the box to play for a very, very long time. All that said, the miniatures are the centerpieces, though, because they are beautiful. There's only twelve of them, but all are great, and just like Dungeon Twister, come in two colors so you know which side the character is on. All that said, this wonderful little sandbox is not without some serious kitty cigars buried within.

The most irritating flaw in the entire affair is that the spent eleven pages of story to immerse you in the theme and feel of the game, and unfortunately, it fails to get you over the hump because of a truly bizarre graphic design choice: the icons and text. On almost every single room tile, card, and other bit of this game, there are a ridiculous amount of these over sized, gaudy icons. There was a debate on Fortress: Ameritrash about the icons back when this game was released and the reviews started stating this was the game of the millennium; one camp said that they are intuitive and easy to use, another camp said that they were ugly as a witch's grizzly pubic region. I stand by my assessment of the latter, and now that I've finally played this enough to have an informed opinion about the product as a whole, I'm telling you that the icons damned near ruined the whole experience.

The terrain tiles are simply so busy with iconography and text that it takes you out of the immersion that otherwise exists and painfully reminds you that you're a portly, balding guy sitting across from someone else playing a game. It's as if the graphic design team assumed that every person who played would be nearly blind, and so they put huge, bright orange icons and big, black, bold text all over everything, just to be sure you wouldn't miss anything. It's quite a disappointment, really. How about instead of labelling something "Kitchen", you hire a good artist and make it look like a kitchen? And if you're going to spend 10 full scenarios, at an hour or more per, to teach me a game, how about you ditch the icons all over the place, and print a small booklet that has each room's special abilities, or at the minimum, just make the icons about half the size of a pencil eraser?

What makes Space Hulk so incredibly immersive is that you have Dudes, Alien Dudes, Corridors, and nothing more. There's no icons or room identifiers all over the place on the tiles, making what is beautiful and concise into something busy and fugly. It does its level best to allow you to FEEL like a Space Marine in the service of the God-Emperor or an insidious alien swarm bent on assimilating all life in the universe. In Earth Reborn, this policy of slapping icons everywhere simply halts the suspension of disbelief like a supersonic F/A-18 into the side of the Carl Vinson. I understand why the icons are there, or at least why they felt they needed to be there, but I think the game would've been far better served with a couple of pages in the back of the book explaining what each special room's options are rather than printing the distracting icons all over the otherwise very thematic and awesome tiles. Or maybe some very small icons rather than huge, bright, gaudy ones. What they did is the equivalent of having "THIS IS JUST A BOOK: THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS GREAT OLD ONES" written on the margins of every page in every HP Lovecraft book.

And this design concept doesn't stop at the tiles, it continues onto everything, with the character cards being the most apparent. I mean, these are, hands down, the most complex, ugly, too-much-shit-on-a-shingle set of hieroglyphics-laden cards I've ever seen. Even the item cards are loaded. After several plays, you get to know what they all mean, but honestly, the graphic designer who worked on these did no favors to players due to the density of the icons on the cards. The information most assuredly had to be there, but I believe that there was a better way to do it, as evidenced by some player-made cards that are infinitely superior. The graphic design is simply ugly as a muddy fence on a rainy day, and it could have, again, easily been avoided by shrinking the icons or simply thinking a little harder about the look of the game as it applies to suspension of disbelief. A saving grace is that there are player shields which act as a sort of Rosetta Stone, with all of the icons laid out in understandable terms for all to see.

Now, all of the graphical complaints said, none of them in any way take away from the fact that the game is brilliant in almost every sense. The brilliance starts with the teaching method, which amounts to a scenario guide that walks you through the game, beginning with simply moving around, all the way through advanced combat tactics, and shamefully, ending in a scenario where one side has to torture secrets out of another side's character. Why the hell they decided it would be a good idea for board gamers to be able to faithfully re-enact torture is beyond me. It may raise the bar on things you can do in a game, but in this respect, it lowers the bar in what SHOULD be available in a game. Worse, it's not even optional. It's a required part of the learning process to run through the torture tutorial. Replace the word "torture" with "interrogate", and all of the sudden the game loses that repugnant feature that does nothing to elevate the game. And Jesus wept.

Once you're past the not great art, the bad graphical design, and the torture, the game itself is ridiculously good, from a design standpoint. The game is played using randomly drawn command tiles, each with their own point values for different action types such as moving, shooting, and searching, and command points, which are effectively the meat of the game, and are used to allow the activation of characters and subsequent allocation of the command tiles. The neat thing about the command tiles is that the numbers on the tiles are, essentially, how many dice you roll to try to pass a skill check, for lack of a better term. You can spend extra command points in order to get an extra die, but doing so limits the available actions you can take on your turn. This resource management mechanic is quite different than the usual "action point" systems that other games use; it's almost a mashup of the "push" mechanic from Heroclix and the action system of Dungeon Twister, but with huge random elements dropped in and an innovative interrupt system built in. It's truly one of the most clever action systems I've ever seen, and I hope to see it implemented by other games in the future, because it works really well.

The thing that really makes this so neat is that it's complex at the macro level, but simple at the micro level. There's only really five actions you can take in a turn; move, fight, shoot, interact with something, or search. But, due to the layout of the boards and the scenarios, there are several quadrizillion things to interact with and search for. Everything is resolved easily through dice throws, and what I really love is how you can press your luck and just roll using the command tiles you have, add to a value using command points, or burn a command point to swap out a command tile. That's really the driving force that provides the tension in the game; you really never seem to have enough resources to do what you want to do at any given time, and so you are constantly having to re-evaluate your position and compromise with yourself. I think this is the one thing that shines brightest in the game, and what makes it worth owning; this simple, straightforward mechanic, layered with the terrain, tokens, and destructible terrain make this an incredibly smart, tight design that provides you with a ton of tension and hand-wringing.

To add to the tactical depth and sheer tonnage of awesome in the box, each character has its own bad ass little miniature with its firing arcs printed on the base and specialties listed on the card. Some characters excel at hand to hand combat where others are crack shots, where another is an expert with computers and devices. In the game context, this means that they get to roll more dice than other characters, meaning there's a higher probability of success. Surprisingly, it's a lot harder to shoot and kill people than you might think, but, as you start hitting combatants, their cards are flipped to their "wounded" side, which generally makes them less able to do things effectively. To quote Career Sergeant Zim, "The enemy can not push a button... if you disable his hand." Some have complained that there's just too few characters in the game for the long term, but I'm not sure I agree. On Board Game Geek, in the files section, there are some HeroClix customs that people have made to extend the menu of characters, but honestly, I'm not sure that having too many more characters would be all that valuable, since this is a game played with two to four figures per side, maximum, in a two player game. In a four player game, we usually play with only one.

There are a large variety of items in the game, from smoke grenades to infra vision goggles to machine guns, and this game is packed to the gills with unique and inventive ways to accomplish tasks. In fact, I think there are more item cards than anything else. Each item allows different abilities or augmentations, and while most amount to allowing you to roll more dice to perform a task, some do other things like allowing you to obscure line of sight. The level of detail is, as I keep saying, astounding, and if one were to take the time to come up with a bad ass campaign, I'm sure that you could utilize everything and really make the game shine. The website,, even has a bad ass map builder flash app that allows you to come up with maps and whatnot. Unfortunately, there's not a campaign available anywhere because nobody has posted one. Not there, not on Board Game Geek. So, as it turns out, as much hype and love from the adoring press as this game got, nobody seems to give enough of a shit about it, including Ludically, to bother to put together a follow up campaign after more than a year in print. For as much effort as they expended to come up with a neat story, they completely neglected to cash in on it by putting together a campaign that exudes a narrative that is in line with the back story.

Thus, unfortunately, once the pre-made learning scenarios are done, you're left with a "random dungeon generator" mechanism, which the scenario guide goes into great detail to explain, and does a good job in creating a scenario to sit and play, but does nothing to carry a narrative. This is a game that demands a well designed, thematic campaign and while the tutorial scenarios do provide one, the SAGS (Scenario Auto-Generating System) only provides you a way to create fairly rich one-off scenarios. In actuality, the auto-generating namesake is a misnomer, because there's little automatic about it, since each player takes turns placing a tile back and forth, more or less, until a frame is completed, using a counter track to use points, and then continue to add layers, starting with characters through equipment, and finally ending with each player taking four secret mission objectives. It's actually a very smart way to create asymmetrical, but balanced scenarios because both sides participate in its creation. Further, it's a hell of a lot easier to take turns placing tiles than trying to assemble one from a diagram, because it takes forever to do.

In the end, Earth Reborn has a lot of really cool stuff going on, and it allows players a great deal of freedom in designing scenarios due to the tremendous flexibility built into the game. It also has a vast wealth of replayability due to the aforementioned SAGS and the flexibility within, but it suffers greatly in a number of ways for the same reasons. While the sum of its parts is more complex than any individual aspect, the simple fact that the game is nearly unlearnable without running through the learning scenarios means that you will have to have dedicated players. This is not a game that you're going to crack out with people that haven't played it before and expect to just jump right into SAGS, because there is a fairly steep learning curve. I think once you've mastered it, you can probably effectively teach it, but the fact is that to a newbie, the sheer magnitude of shit to learn in one sitting is daunting at best. If I had to level one charge as the cardinal sin of the game, it's that Chris put too much stuff in the game, in too scatter shot a manner, and so it requires a certain level of dedication to play it. The same can be said of Arkham Horror, but the payoff is much richer there because that game tells a great story where Earth Reborn is set in a great story but doesn't actually tell one.

Now, one thing I have to mention about the physical design is the way they have a puzzle-board frame design that all of the terrain tiles fit into. It's brilliant. With most tile games, they interlock and the edges inexorably start to fray and get ugly. But this design is such that it truly fits together seamlessly into what might, to an outside observer, look like a standard bi-fold game board, at least from a slight distance. If there's one thing other than the command point system that should be passed on to future generations of games, it is this. Granted, as I said, trying to assemble a map from the book takes a long ass time, even if you're an irrationally anal game organizer like myself.

If you have a group, or really, just one other battle buddy who you like to play very heavy thematic games with, this game is an excellent mission simulator. There may not even be another mission-based miniatures game that is as deep and rich as this. In comparing this to Tannhauser, which I think is the closest living relative, so to speak, Tannhauser is checkers where this is not only chess, but that Star Trek three dimensional chess. There is simply an abundance of awesome ideas in the box. Even despite the art being just better than mediocre and the iconography being overwhelming and gaudy, this is truly an epic game both in scope and vision. It is simply not for the lighthearted or someone who is not willing to devote some serious time into learning the game in its entirety.

To rate this properly and in accordance with the policy of the site, We had everyone sit in on sessions so they could learn the game, and we rotated out people during the process so everyone could have a go, over the span of weeks. Then we did some three and four player action, which is neat too since instead of it being a two versus two affair, it is an all-for-themselves game.  In the end, there's a minimum of ten to fifteen hours of game play in the box. There's not that many games that you can get on Tanga for 30$ that are going to provide you that kind of value, so really, it all comes down to whether you dig the depth of this game or not. As far as a "Dudes In A Corridor" type game, it's easily among the top ranks, but honestly, after playing the scenarios through, using SAGS several times, and looking back, it lives up to some of its hype, but not even close to all the hype it originally got. It is most certainly not the best Ameritrash game ever, not the best "Dudes In A Corridor" game ever, and it is sure as fuck not the cardboard equivalent of the second coming of Christ.

It is indeed a smart, big game with great ideas. But there's a lot of effort involved to get to the point where those ideas are realized, and the amount of time involved to get the map set up is actually worse than that in a Heroscape map since the tiles are not generic. Add to that the problematic graphic design choices that clutter everything in the game with symbols, and it just isn't going to go down as the Space Hulk killer like people have said. In that regard, it's a bit like an overly long joke with a great punchline; sure, the laugh you get at the end is worth it to the people that can appreciate it, and it will certainly be memorable to them, but many others will simply lose interest and wander off. But boy, if you hang around, I'm not kidding, the punchline is one that you're going to appreciate. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to play the hell out of it, and while not all the Circus folks were insanely ga-ga over it, we all thought it was very unique and as close to a rich mission simulator as we've ever seen.

What Brings Earth Reborn To Life:
- The SAGS system is the best scenario generator ever, allowing infinite replay value.
- The miniatures, while few, are superbly sculpted and designed, and the in-game art is better than mediocre
- The learn-as-you-play technique, lifted in part from Space Alert, is genius
- The overall production value is simply outstanding and sits in the top of the class
- You can actually act out "Lay Smoke, You Dick, And Use Overwatch"

Why It Could Have Been Called Earth Stillborn:
- The complexity can be overwhelming and the learning curve is steep
- Ludicrously poor graphic design eliminates all hope of suspending disbelief
- Requires dedicated players; not a "toss it on the table" affair in any regard
- The great back story is abandoned after the tutorials as SAGS doesn't adhere to it
- No figure expansions, no item expansions, no campaign, and little support

This is a simple call for a prospective buyer, in my mind. If you like Tannhauser but want something deeper, with even more tactical options and a more complex system, AND you have a lot of time on your hands, this is a no-brainer. Just surrender your wallet at the door. But if you want a light "Dudes In A Corridor", mission-based game, this may be too much meat for what you're looking for. At the end of the day, what you get in the box amounts to a very fun tutorial with an excellent random dungeon generator, complete with everything you could possibly want as far as game play options, perhaps just shy of an RPG-grade tactical mission simulator.

4/5 Stars

You can learn more about this game at Z-Man Games page on it:

And you can check out the map builder here:  but only if you use Chrome, Firefox or Safari, because this doesn't run on Internet Explorer.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.25/5 Stars

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

The Elusive Pine Marten:

A Weasel:

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

iOS Spotlight: Battle Fleet - Dreadfleet Meets Axis And Allies War At Sea

Now that I've finally advanced out of the dark ages and gotten an iPad and iPhone, I've realized that there's a veritable sea of amazing board game ports and strategy games out there to waste time with. I'm firmly of a mind that eventually, all games will become digital, with only the most afflicted of Luddites still having the cardboard versions. 

I've heard arguments that cardboard versions will never go away, with the least compelling being that people in the same room will always trump online games. Personally, I think it's a load of BS because virtually all ports to iOS of any note have both hot-seat, wi-fi, and/or online versions, so technically, a bunch of guys with iPads (or one iPad passed between them) can all get together on Sundays and sit at the same game table and play the same games they always have, but without the need for 20 minutes of setup, 20 minutes of tear down, and an hour of time savings on doing all the rather pedestrian "upkeep" required when playing many of the more complex board games that exist. I mean, how awesome would it be to play Command & Colors: Ancients just as easily with a guy from next door as it would be to play with a guy who actually lives in Rome? Without taking three hours to apply stickers to blocks, and for 40$ or so less?  Epic.

Anyhow, due to my belief that the proliferation of tablet computing will change the face of board gaming irrevocably, I will be doing some spotlight articles on new and upcoming games that I think have promise and should be supported by board gamers. But anyone can review any old crappy iOS game, so I'm only reviewing the ones that you probably haven't heard of, and that are in the nascent stages so that you can support them on the ground floor so they can have the means necessary and, really, a good reason to further develop the game.

This first article is about a really inexpensive, yet truly entertaining game called Battle Fleet. It's available in the App Store for about three bucks, and while it's a little rough around the edges regarding some bugs, the developer is committed to developing the game to its fullest potential.

It's a bit like the old "Scorched Earth" PC game from the 90s, where you choose your weapon, give an angle and a power setting, and fire away, but it's far more than that. It has a nice variety of ships such as cruisers, destroyers, battleships, and carriers, each with their own speeds, damage levels, and weapons slots. I've been playing it for around a month now, I guess, and I'm still enjoying it, which is tough for a ADD-prone guy like me.

The game comes with two campaigns with absolutely no historical reference, one US campaign that is around ten missions long, and another Japanese campaign that is half the length, but is under further development as I write this. Additionally, there is a PvP hot-seat mode, which allows two players to duke it out on the high seas using a maximum point value used to buy ships. Ships are selected, with a current maximum of three per side, and then a wide range of weapons may be loaded into the available slots of each ship.

Additionally, there are "Command Cards" which are collectible on islands around the battle map, each of which provide powerful and quite differing boons to the players. One gives you a precise range and angle from a ship to a target, another allows you to call in an air strike upon an area of the sea, while yet another allows you to sabotage an enemy ship, thereby causing that ship to lose its turn at a time of your choosing. It's a great little adder to the game's strategy, and it's always fun to pick up a card mid-game and get a nice bump that could potentially tip the balance of power slightly in your favor.  For those who want less luck involved, though, you can disable Command Cards in the setup menu.

Some of the finer points in the game that really set off the mood is that all of the mission briefings and commands are spoken in the native language as well as written on the placard that pops up on the screen. This means that when you play the Japanese campaign, you can actually hear the mission briefing in Japanese while reading along in English, and when you select a ship in-game, you're met with either an American saying, "Yes Sir?" or a Japanese commander giving one of several responses in his native tongue. It's those little things that make the game just feel right for a World War II war game.

Another really cool thing I really enjoy about this game is that the soundtrack has a "John Williams" quality about it, in that it really helps keep the tension going a bit. I almost always turn music off in video games, but this is an exception. Another great thing is that, like the old Star Trek simulator BEGIN, there are range rings shown that help you estimate range.

The graphics are really sharp to begin with, but the developer is currently overhauling the backgrounds as there have been some complaints that it's a little too bland. I didn't think so, but I can see why some people would. Also, they are going to be expanding both the US and Japanese mission portfolios with extra campaigns, more surface ship types as well as other, alternative craft, different weapons, and a host of new mission types including raiding a land-based airfield. 

Now it would be unfair of me to exclude a couple of niggles that I have with the application. There's a couple of minor bugs that can be painful, such as a "Player X's Turn" placard not going away for a turn, which leads to basically not being able to take a good turn. It is very seldom seen, and I have yet to be able to replicate it in any repeatable way, but it does exist. The most annoying thing about the game, which isn't really all that annoying, is that when you place weapons on ships in multiplayer mode, sometimes the touch-sensing isn't all that hot, so you may have to take a couple tries to place weapons.

Finally, and most crucial, the multiplayer mode currently only has a "let's kill each other's ships" mode, and I'd like to see some mission-based modes where two players can duke it out using one of the campaign missions, or ideally, go through an entire campaign together on opposing sides.  There is no online multiplayer yet, which is the one thing this game will really need to have in order to be competitive in the game market. The developer is already working on all of these things, so I am hopeful, and he has a blog where he posts updates and whatnot on a semi-regular basis.

At the end of the day, if you're a sucker for seaborne turn-based war games, this is a great start. I recommend it, even with the bugs, because it has given me more playtime than many other games at much higher price tags, including Xbox and Wii games.  It's $3.00, people, so get behind this app, and let's get the developer the means and motivation to expand this from a great, truly fun app into an exceptional app, which I truly believe it can be. Eventually, asynchronous games will become available, and we can all play together, which is what this hobby is all about. Until then, I'll just have to settle for wiping out my friends locally.

Why Battle Fleet Makes Me Bleed Salt Water:
- Crisp ship graphics and easy-to-use menus make it a fun
- Exciting soundtrack makes you feel a little patriotic, even if you're Japanese
- Simple interface and well-devised game play allow for lots of replayability
- Strategy is not limited to "Aim, Fire. Aim, Fire" as movement and position count
- For less than a pack of smokes, you get a bunch of game play and fun

Why Battle Fleet Sinks:
- Underdeveloped multiplayer and a lack of online multiplayer hurts the game
- Some annoying bugs still remain, but are being worked on currently
- The Japanese campaign is very short, and much harder than the American one

This has provided me with more entertainment value than a lot of the other games I've played. While it's not as polished as some, the developer is committed to the title and I've had many conversations about what he has in store for the game. This is a chance to get in on the ground floor!

3.75/5 Stars

Learn more about this game at

There's a trailer, too!

And, for a limited time, and first-come-first-served, if you're looking to become a serious play tester for iPad or Mac to help him work out the bugs, get a free copy by contacting JJ at:
jj -a t- iphonestrategygames =d o t= com

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Dungeon Run - Bunglin' In The Dungeon, Well, That's Alright With Me

Pretty much all of the Dungeony games I've played are all about a band of stoic and noble heroes with names like "Bimbo Slaggins" that battle through hordes of evil while being henpecked by a sadistic fuck of a Dungeon Master the entire journey. They are very serious games where players emit such inane and long dead words as "forsooth" and "huzzah" to get into the mood. These games contain magic swords with groovy names like Glamband or Lamisil, which are capable of cleaving through bone and armor as if they were a warm spoon through Chunky Monkey. Yes, serious games that take themselves very seriously, indeed.

Yes, dungeon delving has long been a serious affair, but not so with Dungeon Run, which has a skeevy goblin character named "Stabbins" who is a sneaky bastard that will steal your shit. No, Dungeon Run doesn't even attempt to take itself seriously; even the FAQ and easy-to-read rulebook is funny. If anything, it could be described as Dungeonquest Plus, because at the beginning of the game, your party of ignoble adventurers are mostly working together, but only as an alliance of convenience.

By the end of the game, there will be no "huzzah"-ing, but there might be some expletives and nastified name calling, because at that point, it's every sentient being for themselves and it gets downright ugly. Each of the characters in the game has their own weaknesses and strengths and there's a ton of characters to play with, so while you have the option to test out some, you will probably end up with a favorite or two.

The idea of this game seems to be a mashup of Cutthroat Caverns, DungeonQuest, Talisman, and Ravenloft in a lot of ways. First, you are in it for yourself, but can help people not get killed if it's opportune to do so. Second, you're all running through a tile-based maze of creatures and traps that will all attempt to ruin your day, and you can buff your character up with skill points, special powers, and weapons. Finally, the endgame is such that the guy with the big shinyprecious becomes a great big target for everyone else, but he also has a super power to even the odds. Like Dungeonquest, though, this game is weighted heavily toward being a luck-fest in Diceville, and the game comes with well over a dozen to ensure you don't run out. That's part of what makes it awesome, though. That is not to say that it's devoid of all strategy, because that's not the case.

It's just that the strategy is generally to be incredibly opportunistic, which leads to many cases of one person slaying a monstrous abomination only to have another player steal the goodies that the creature left behind while the victor is licking his wounds. I, personally, have revelled in the fact that if you time it right, you can act as if you're running to the rescue of a fellow player, just to get there in the nick of too late and steal the treasure out from under the guy who was damned near bludgeoned to death by a creepy Raggedy Andy doll. While that might piss some people off, I believe it's because they don't understand the game's core concept. It is truly all about being a backstabbity bastard whose sole goal is to pretend to be helping other people while keeping in mind that at the end of the game, only one person is leaving the place alive, and with the treasure, preferably you.

The art is incredible, too. While it has a bit of an Army of Darnkess, campy kind of vibe, everything from the illustrations to the fonts chosen fit this game to a tee. In fact, I think I'd prefer this art to that found in other fantasy games such as Runebound and Descent. It just screams fantasy, to me, I guess. Add to that the tile artwork, which is foreboding enough to make the dungeon seem dangerous and dank as it should, along with some of the coolest miniatures ever, sculpted by the indomitable Chad Hoverter, and you have a well-rounded package. All in all, it's a great value for what you get, and the game play underscores that you don't need 100 miniatures in a $60.00 box to make a great game.

All that said, there's a few bitches that I have with the "package" of Dungeon Run that I would be remiss in my duties not to point out. First, there are not enough encounter cards, so three games in, you've seen all that it has to offer, generally. Further, the cards would've been better off half-sized because there's not all that much info that is on them, and since you lay them on the tiles, they make it hard to see what's on the tile itself, such as which ways you can exit. Finally, I feel there's  too few unique tiles in the box, which I also said about Ravenloft, and so the generic-to-unique tile ratio is maybe 3 or 4 to 1. Of these few failures, having so few Encounter cards is the single most important, with the size of them being more of an annoyance than anything else and the lack of a lot of unique tiles being the least important. None of these are in any way a deal breaker, but it would've been nice to have had more unique monsters in the deck and a lot less traps because most of them are really cool and I'd liked to have seen more.

Back to the game play, it's perfect for what Dungeon Run tries to do, in a Bruce Campbell, campy sort of spoof-of-itself kind of way. It is one of the most fun beer-and-pretzels games that I've ever played, and even my skeptical-ass wife, who mostly hates these kinds of games, really, truly enjoyed it. I asked her to play again, back to back, and she said she wanted to retire a champion. That said, the next day we had 4 others come over and she was all about Dungeon Run. Only Red November and Pandemic have met with such unabashed approval with her, so this was a total win for us. One great aspect of the game is that it's still fun with two players, although not as fun as with more, and with six players it's completely nuts. Killings, thievery, and cussing all around. And it's a blisteringly fun time.

If you go into it thinking you're playing Warhammer Quest where you'll spend 4 hours with your allies slogging through a Skaven-filled dungeon and deflowering the many treasure chests that reside within, you're going to be sadly disappointed. This is a light dungeon game that's much more like Dungeonquest than anything else, but is so much better in so many ways. Prepare yourself, though, to be absolutely trounced by your friends as I can see this game causing the same kind of hostilities that Cutthroat Caverns or Cosmic Encounter often do, although not with as much vitriol as Diplomacy can cause. It's simply a fun game that takes one and a half or two hours to play with six, and pretty much anyone can enjoy it. If they ever put out an Encounter expansion that would be like the Summoner Wars reinforcement packs, I would be in hog heaven.

Why Dungeon Run Is Such Dungeon Fun:
- The art totally makes this game; between the miniatures and the cards, it's simply beautiful
- The backstabbity, hateful game play is deliciously evil
- This is one of the few games that can be played by two to six players and is enjoyable in all cases
- Indecipherable names allow funnier versions such as Satanic Raggedy Andy to spring forth
- Lots of replayability due to many unique characters, random bosses, random tiles, and human opponents

Why Having "The Dungeon Runs" Should Be Avoided:
- If you don't like games where luck is a huge aspect, don't even think about it
- If you're a pussy who can't handle people beating you up for fun, go play Agricola
- There's a lot of tiles, but not too many unique tiles, which is kind of a bummer
- There's not enough Encounter Cards, and the cards
 would've been better as half-sized.

We loved this game so much that of the eight recorded ratings, none were below an 8.0. Most of the players were light-to-medium game lovers, myself included, so that may skew the score higher as well as the fact that we dig games with lots of skullduggery and betrayal. But as it sits, I now have to give this game to Doc Mabuse and rebuy it. And that pains me deeply because not only did I have to trade to get this, I got it from none other than the undisputed king of Ameritrash reviewing, the God-King Michael Barnes. I never would've seen that shit coming, but here we are.  So, go try this game, at least, because if you're not an anal retentive type that values depth and complexity over sheer fun, this game is a total blast.

4.375/5 Stars

Learn more about Dungeon Run here:

And on the G*M*S Podcast some time back (Trivia: the same Podcast I made a segment for that was too dirty for their tastes so they shitcanned it), we learned that Dungeon Run 2 is in development. So, prayers really do come true.