Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tooth And Nail: Factions - Call It A Furry Party If You Want, But It's A Fun Card Game

Well, as usual, Small Box is up to no good. First, they make this killer game called Omen: A Reign of War which took everyone by surprise and turned into the "out of left field" smash card game of 2011. I mean, if ever a game needed an iOS app, it's that one. And then they delivered Hemloch, an odd little card game with an odd little theme that is oddly, pretty fun. So, I was kind of thinking they were due for a stinker. I mean, we've loved most of what came out of the joint for a while, and then came Tempt, one of the most truly awful games I've ever played...with a rulebook so bad that it was incomprehensible. But John Clowdus and Company are, by and large, batting close to 1000. So, here comes Tooth And Nail: Factions (TANF), which has what I think is the best art and theme to date out of the company. "But how does it play?" you ask...well, let's talk about that.
But let's not put the cart before the horse, let's talk about what it is before we talk about what it does. To sum it up, the game's about factions of weaponized, bipedal critters such as an American Bulldog toting a DPSAM (dog-portable surface to air missile) or a lizard dude with a tomahawk. And it's not all guns and whatnot, some of these creatures are magic users (like, I know, right?...Of course there are! How could there NOT be magical, glowing foxes?) and will mess you up with a fusillade of fireballs. Now, these factions are small, 30 critter armies whose sole purpose is to tear the guts out of opposing armies. In short, it's a war game played with cards.
Now, as I said, the art, while a little "artsy" and "dark" really shines for the most part. I love it. I think it really carries the theme well, and there's enough unique creatures in the game that it's not too repetitive, although there are five copies of six critter cards in each of the six decks that come with the base game. As usual with a Small Box game, TANF has nothing but cards. You get seven factions, although one is more or less a mercenary faction that you can add into your own faction, which is made up of regular, full-bleed cards, and one card for your faction that lays out it's special faction power. Then, there's five reference cards which double as action point counters. If there's one thing I have to say about John Clowdus, the man knows how to stretch a buck. I suspect, in fact, that some Clowdus long ago invented copper wire by fighting with his kin over a penny. Every card has multiple uses, per the "Way Of The Small Box", and as usual, it's clever and really adds to the game's strategy.
Now about strategy, TANF really shines in the way it goes about what it does. This game is a duelling game, no more, no less. It's probably had its roots in Magic The Non-Showering the way you tap cards in order to activate them, but it's not like M:TG as far as I can say, although I am the last guy you'd call an expert on M:TG. There's essentially two ways to play cards to your tableau, either as a "Command" card which allows you to use their card powers as actions, or as a "Warrior" card, which you can use to beat up the enemy. Now, the thing that is neat about this game is that it's a bit like the old-school card game War in that you're trying to deplete the enemy's deck. To do this, you can attack, use your command cards, and use special attacks that are straight out of a game like Final Fantasy Tactics or something. Shit, really, this game is more like an old school JRPG's tactical battle sequence than anything else. And it's really fun, especially when you make elephant roars during the slaughter. Perhaps I've said too much...
Anyhow, the idea is that you have these two areas on your side of the battle. You have the war zone, which is where your front lines are. Then you have your command zone, where your hyenas laugh their asses off at your pathetic enemies, or use powers, whichever you prefer. While you get one action for free per turn, the more command cards you have on the table the more action points you can take. Alternatively, you can draw a card from your deck instead of taking an action point for each command card played, but that has its disadvantages since every card you draw is a "life point" gone, in essence. Now, each turn you get a card from your deck in addition to the cards you can optionally take, but the real goal is to have the maximum guys on the line and in the command center so you can deal as much damage per turn as possible without expending your own cards. It's really quite a balancing act, and with so many options, there's a lot of times that there is no obvious "optimal play" to make. Pretty tense, really, especially when your deck is getting thin.
The one thing that I think really stands out about the factions is that they are really, truly unique feeling in how they operate and interact. Even though there's only two troop types, magic and mechanical, Small Box really found a way to make each faction stand apart from the rest. I'm not entirely sure that I'll ever really master how to play each, but after the several games I've been in on thus far it's clear that you can't just use a cookie-cutter strategy and hope to be competitive. I should note that while each faction plays differently, you essentially only have a total of six unique cards per faction, so the strategy isn't found in the wide range of cards that you can play as much as what you can do with the cards you have, and the fact that they can be played multiple ways.
The one thing that's really lacking from the faction decks are responses to actions taken against you. Sort of like what I hated about Dungeon Command, whatever your enemy does to you, it just happens and there's not jack squat you can do about it. You just have to sit there and take it, without any real way to stop it. From that standpoint, it's another "I go, you go" game that doesn't have the variety of defensive options that something like Summoner Wars has. In that regard it's no different than a game like Ascension, but I generally prefer games where you have the option to make a saving throw, or have some mechanism where attacks will not always succeed. I guess I've been in enough fights that I've learned that you simply don't land every single kick and punch. Now, I'm alone in this at my house, since my PETA-mocking friends and family here all liked the game and didn't think it was at all like Dungeon Command. I suspect that it's because a miniatures game has a different feel, but I stand by my estimation regardless.
That said, the other thing that John Clowdus is known for is being the master of variants, which is really just him doing what he always does, stretching that buck 'til poor old George Washington looks like Joan Rivers. That's where the dog faction comes into play. If you want to spice up your game, and really, I think it's the only way to play after you've mastered the concepts of the game, every card in that mercenary set is a reaction card played when it's not your turn. Were it not for the Dogs of War faction, I think the game wouldn't have gone over nearly as well since the rest of the game, while much more strategic than Dungeon Command, would suffer from the same deficit of what I'd call "actual interaction" where players are playing at the same time rather than taking turns shooting arrows while the other watches. In short, for me, I think the Dogs of War are really integral to the game play and really makes the game shine more than it already did although, again, my friends disagree with me on this point.
There's also a three and four player variant in the box, which I haven't tried, but which I'm not keen on trying either because I really like it as a fast, two player game. There's also other variants in the rulebook for alliances, which allow you to pool two decks and then remove ten cards, leaving you with a 40 card deck. That's a neat variation on the game which we did play, and I enjoyed greatly having foxes fight alongside vultures, knowing that under any other circumstances, the foxes would be vulture food. This alliance variant is a lot of fun, and I have to admit that I might even like it more than a single faction because of the neat pairings that end up on the table.
I've talked about using them as commanders and warriors, but I haven't talked about other uses. Some of the other ways to use the cards is as currency to boost attacks or initiate special attacks. In addition, you can sacrifice cards in your hand to "take the hit" if you want to preserve cards already played to the table that would ordinarily be forced to die. At first, I thought that there weren't enough unique guys to go around, but that was before I got to playing the game really, and once I got to the point that I understood the game, I was glad there weren't a bazillion unique cards because it would become unwieldy. I think the mix is really quite perfect when you bring in the Dogs of War deck, and if you really require more dudes, play an Alliance game and use two decks.
Now, as a final thought, I'm going to do what I always do, rip on the rulebook. I love John, but the man needs a proofreader and a blind play test team like I need hair plugs. There are some misspellings, which are no biggie, but the layout is wonky and there are some things that we couldn't really figure out easily, like how many "formation attack" troops you could use in a single attack. Thanks to BGG, we found the answer quickly, but Small Box's penchant for making rulebooks that are sometimes all but indecipherable has reared its ugly head again. It's not that you can't read the book and play it, it's that some of the things are explained in such a way that they're harder than they need to be or not completely explained, I guess. Either way, after a couple of plays and one lookup on BGG, we got it sorted out and were pecking the eyes out of walrus' with giant bipedal vultures.
All in all, it's a great little medium weight duelling game with the only luck factor being in the draw of the cards. I'm not a big card game fan, in general, although John has come a long way towards breaking me of that predilection, and Tooth and Nail: Factions is yet another successful example of how a guy who started out selling 20 copies a pop of card games nobody ever heard of can grow into a powerhouse publisher with a high quality product that is not only a good value for the dollar, but a lot of fun. I think one final thing worth mentioning is that John already has some Print-and-Play expansions you can download, and it's pretty clear that the only thing that will limit the "legs" this game has is John's sick and twisted imagination, which has shown no sign of wearing out anytime soon.
Why The Only Thing Cooler Than Chaingun Toting Elephants Is NOTHING:
- The game play smart and engaging; you will want to keep playing
- It's not as complex as many SBG titles, making it a great for the family
- Lots of truly unique factions make this game infinitely playable
- Expansions, variants, and print and play content keeps the game fresh
- Because gun toting elephants FUCKING ROCK, that's why!
Why I Broke A Tooth And Chipped A Nail Playing This:
- This is the big time, so I expect better rulebooks with no typos
- Without the Dogs of War expansion, it's a little less exciting
- There are no iOS or Android versions, which would make Small Box RICH
Everyone really dug this game, and I really was the one lone dissenter because I felt like the game had too much deterministic effects laid against the defender. Once the Dogs of War were unleashed, the game immediately changed, in my mind, from a fun duelling game into a really dynamic, action packed game of critter gittin'. The pace is fast, the options are all very intriguing and there's very rarely an obvious play, which are all signs of greatness. While the rulebook could use some TLC, don't let my ongoing critique of Small Box's rulebooks deter you; it's worth the hassle, without a doubt.
If you missed out on the Kickstarter, or abstain from Kickstarter in general for personal reasons, the great news is that you can always order it from John at the Small Box website. Personally, if Small Box could Kickstart this game as an iOS app, I'd be first in line to sign up, because this really would be perfect for it and would absolutely get me off the Ascension wagon for good. It's simply a great game, and I honestly hope it does as well as Omen. While it's not going to unseat Bhazum as my all-time favorite, it most certainly is in my top 5 hobby card games.
4/5 Stars

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

World Conquerors - Rome May Not Have Been Built In A Day, But Empires Can Be Built In Under An Hour

My first brush with Jeff Siadek was at Origins 2011, where he was next to the Ninja Magic booth, selling copies of Battlestations. I introduced myself and told him I was a big fan of Battlestations. We chatted, and he was a truly nice, laid back kind of dude. One might not expect him to be a designer of conflict games based on his personality, but trust me, his latest creation under the Gorilla Games brand, World Conquerors (WC), has his trademark flair for carnage. That said, unlike Battlestations which is a very long game, WC is a one hour exploration of how Hitler would interact with Napoleon, had they both lived at the same time. Suffice it to say that it would be a glorious bloodbath, although history tells me to bet against France every time.
WC was sent to me at the same time as was Banditos, and I apologize for taking so long to get this review out, because this game is incredible. Unfortunately, with it's "Riskesque" look I had a lot of trouble finding people who wanted to play it. But, after seven plays at this point, I'm no longer having the same problem. It's nothing like Risk except that you have some territories, some armies, and you kill stuff. And that, in my estimation, is a good thing because I despise all Risk versions but Legacy. In fact, I would have to say that WC is actually unlike any other war game I've played. The only game I can think of that's even close, and by close I mean a distant relation, is Smallworld, and that's primarily due to the ever-changing leaders and the time track.
World Conquerors is not about conquering the entire board, there's not any player elimination, and while you're technically playing against everyone else, there's more of a feeling that you're simply trying to pick off the lowest-lying fruit, which are generally wherever your enemy isn't. "What," say you? That's right, the object of WC isn't to smoosh all of your opponents into little rippy bits, it's to have the maximum amount of territories owned at one time. The catch is that you only have four rounds of battle to do it in. As such, there is no king making, and the game can be played just as well with two, three or four. Obviously, it's harder to get as high a score in four player games as there will be more opposition, but at the end of the day, the whole premise of the game is that you're just trying to build the largest empire you can, measured at the end of each turn, rather than dominate others. It just works remarkably well.
Now, let's talk about the bits for all of you bit whores like myself out there. The game's box, bits, and cards are all of very nice quality, with the box art having great illustrations and the cards have decent depictions of the conquerors you can play to the table during the game. There's a ton of wooden cubes which represent single armies, and there's beads which represent a legion of five armies, all of which are also very nice quality. In essence, I'm not unhappy that there's no expensive plastic soldiers, a sheet of supply tokens or some such other crap, because the game just simply wouldn't benefit from it, and as it rests, the game is really inexpensive due in part to the lack of that crap. Considering that you can get the game at Coolstuff for $26.00, you really can't beat the value. Just as with Banditos, there's a lot more game in the box than the low price would indicate. All in all, it's a steal of a deal, especially after I tell you how it plays.
I think the best part of what comes in the box is the rulebook, though. There's not a lot of things in there that require an FFG-esque 20 page FAQ with highlights and pictures. It's really not that complex of a game, and the rules are all laid out in...wait for it...a total of eight pages, only six of which actually have rules on them. It's definitely one of the easier games to learn and put into play, but that doesn't mean it's a throw away. In a way, the game reminds me of Small World, but with much more direct interaction, with more random, and with a better and more historical flavor. I've included a link to the rules at the bottom, and I invite you to check it out. It's a shame there's not more reference to the cards because the cards really are where the game play kind of melds into the finished product, so to speak.
What makes this game special and different is really in the goal. As I said, instead of conquest based on eliminating enemies, the object is to, by the end of the fourth round, have built the largest one-time empire. What this means is that you don't need to end the game with the most territories owned, you simply need to have, at one time, had the largest empire in history. It's unique and fascinating in its implementation, and I have to admit that it is one of the best empire builders I've played, based primarily on it's terseness and lack of bullshit chrome ornamentation. This doesn't even begin to talk about the fact that it scales well and is one of the only war games I'm aware of that can be played with three players and be a bullshit exercise in king making.
The game play is based on the idea that you start each round with a grand emperor, who are historical nasties and not-so-nasties, all of whom have special abilities. You have a set amount of armies, and you simply start taking territories by a simple roll off. Now, this is where the game really shines: If the territory has an occupying army, the defender gets to roll an extra die for each adjacent territory that is occupied, where you get to roll one for each of your territories bordering the defending territory. So, you really are simply trying to pick off the easiest targets most of the time. Now, while this isn't much different than any other territory conquest game, what IS different is that you have very little in the way of compelling reasons to do so. Similar to Smallworld, the points you score are based solely on the number of territories you hold at the end of your turn, but unlike that game, the points are not cumulative. The highest score you ever had is your score. It's like the song says, "I'm not as good as I once was, but I was as good once as I ever was!"
Another unique thing about the game is that the Conqueror cards are multipurpose, to say the least. One is always played at the beginning of a round as your Ruler, which gives you a bonus and a mission. Their pawn is also placed on the board in their home location, which are treated as Generals, who give you a re-roll in battle. Further, the cards can be played as Generals in and of themselves, which act like rulers in a way, but they only allow re-rolls. The third way to play a card is as an agent, which is used to help or hurt your opponents during battles, or give a bonus in some way. It's very Clowdus-esque in the sense that each card can be played in myriad diabolical ways, and I think that the cards inexorably promote the theme and pair with it well.
As to the cards, there's a wide variety in what they do. Some give bonuses only to one kind of battle such as a naval battle, one allows you to transpose 6's into 9's, one allows you to move your General pawns thus giving you more situational flexibility. The fact that they can be played three ways really makes the game exciting, and there's a lot of cards to choose from. Unfortunately, though, you start with only three cards and during the game you only get one additional card per turn, meaning you will always have a tough decision to make regarding implementation. Do you use them as an agent to cause trouble? Do you use them as a General? Do you make them your Ruler for this turn? Some of the decisions are agonizing, which just further underscores how great the game is. The tension can be truly excruciating, and there's several times in every game I've played that I wished I had one more turn, or one more card, which in my opinion is a sure way to determine whether a game's length and pacing is a match for the game play.
Now at this point I'd normally have a complaint or two. Maybe it's priced too high, maybe the plastic is shitty quality and can't be easily painted, like Flying Frog's minis, maybe the game is just too dull, too long, too short, too silly, too light, too heavy, maybe it has a pasted-on theme....SOMETHING. But honestly, there's just nothing bad to say about this game. Turns are short, there's a good amount of player interaction, the bits and art are all good, and it just seems to do everything right. I Can't even call it soul-less because if there's anything that Jeff Siadek can do to a game, it's give it a soul. So, really, the only negative that I can mete is that perhaps the game is too random in that if you roll poorly you will be destined for failure. To me, though, it's not a negative. Just as the Spanish Armada lost to the English back in 1588, partly due to skill, but in large part due to bad luck, so can you lose the game if you have ruddy luck. In other words, it's a matter of taste.
Why I Love To Conquer The World, Repeatedly:
- Solid game play and unique theme make this a remarkable conquest game
- The mechanics' implementation makes the sum greater than the parts
- A three player war game? Whatchoo Talkin' 'Bout Willis?? Yep, it's true!
- One hour to rule the world!
- The price of Gorilla Games are great, and for $26 bones you're a fool to not get this
Why This Game May Never Even Grow Up To Be A Tin Pot Dictator:
- A lot of random, so if you can't handle that, go back to Waterloo
- AP prone players may take longer than they need to during turns, maybe
- People who like these kinds of games MIGHT find it a bit too light
It's really simple to me - if you're looking to get a conquest "Dudes on a Map" type game with card play and that only runs about an hour, look no further. If you've ever played Risk or Axis and Allies but never get it to the table due to length, look no further. Hell, if you liked Smallworld but wanted more meat, then you should definitely get this. In all cases, if you're a fan of Ameritrash games, you should certainly do your level best to give the game a try, because as far as these kinds of games go, to pack this much game in a $26 box and an hour of play time is just spectacular. Suffice it to say, I will be very sad when this goes off to a reader's home tomorrow, as promised him. Yes, I'm still giving away the last review copies that I got before the July 4th moratorium I imposed on the site...and this is one of the last casualties.
4.375/5 Stars
Buy it direct from Jeff and cut out the middle man: