Saturday, August 31, 2013

Scoundrels Of Skullport Expansion - Waterdeep's Dark Underbelly Makes Me Want To Pet It

For those of you who never played Lords of Waterdeep, it's a Euro-style game of intrigue and treachery, with five conflicting factions vying for position as top dog in the city. The thing that stood out, thematically, was that not only was it a Dungeons and Dragons Euro, it was a Dungeons and Dragons Euro that really didn't have any "bad guy" factions. Sure, the good guys did bad things, but it was pretty much about five factions attempting to gain power for the good of the residents, for the most part.

Well, the first expansion for this game, which was sent to me by Wizards of the Coast without notice and without me requesting it, changes the aforementioned theme of a bunch of good guys trying to make the city a better place for the people. The aptly-named Scoundrels of Skullport expansion has really bad dudes and non-dudes doing not so nice things and attempting to make the entire city a den of thievery, or at least that's how it feels. This expansion introduces a new mechanic, corruption, as well as really turns up the heat with regard to sticking it to fellow players. The one thing that I want you to go away with, though, is that this expansion changes the game and how it plays in considerable and noteworthy ways.

Before I get into the ways it changes it, I want to mention that this is really three expansions in one box, sort of how El Grande Decennial Edition has a bunch of expansions that you can pick and choose. The first expansion is the Undermountain expansion, which has three new Lords which are quite different from the previous Lords, a new sub-board which essentially expands the amount of places you can go, and as a huge change, it has 40-point missions for each type of mission, which, if you can pull them off, are game-changers. The beauty of this expansion is that it's not really adding mechanics as much as simply opening up the board. The one thing that it does change, and in a big way, is the resource allocations; this expansion's buildings provide you a lot of resources, so much, in fact, that they now have "5 resource" chits because in the mid-game, you'll pretty much be loading your tavern with gold and dudes wholesale. This is augmented by the fact that most of these new spaces don't just give you stuff, they force you to add stuff to the board so that when other players take a space, they get the stuff you left there in addition to the stuff they normally get.

Now, do you remember how I said (like 20 seconds ago) that this expansion changes the game? The way that it changes the game is that, like El Grande or Puerto Rico, the base game has a sort of cramped board, where you always seem to have the space you wanted taken by a previous player, and that you never seemed to have enough resources to go around? By opening up the board like this, there are a lot less blocking moves that you can take, and because resources come so fast and furiously, you will spend a lot of time in the Undermountain and you will not be impeded in your quest for resources as you were in just the base game. In other words, it allows you to pretty much do what you want to do, when you want to do it, to a larger degree. It takes the game from a positional battle to get what you need quickly to a veritable smorgasbord of stuff, and buildings generally get to the table a lot faster than they did in the previous game. 

The second expansion is a real game-changer, though, because it adds an entirely new mechanic, that of corruption. Many of the new cards and buildings in this expansion are tuned to give you something good, but also corrupt you, which is abstracted these little blue skull meeples, and these little blue devils cost you negative points if you have them in your tavern. The truly clever bit about this new mechanic, the one I think is astoundingly smart and well-conceived, is that the amount of points that each costs you slides on a scale based on how much corruption all players have. There's a little side board that holds the tokens on spaces marked with a negative value, and as more corruption is taken, it uncovers the next highest value, meaning that the more corrupt all "city officials" are, the more damaging these tokens are to everyone. 

The buildings are far more dark in theme than the old buildings, with such a slave market, a prison, a monster hatchery, and a necromancy supply store, although that is pretty much only elicited in flavor text. The effects provided at these new buildings almost all revolve around corruption, with some returning tokens to the pool from your tavern and others adding them. The overarching strategies around corruption are such that if you have only a few tokens and other players have many, by taking the last token from a space on the corruption track, you make them more damaging, thereby hurting yourself a little but hurting them a lot, a net gain for you. Furthermore, some new Lords get bonus points for each corruption marker they possess, so by increasing the negative value for the markers, you essentially can negate their bonus, if you infer that they, in fact, possess that Lord. All in all, it adds another layer of depth to the game, and it's a welcome, and backstabbity, change.

The third expansion is pretty much an expansion in-a-card, the sixth player. So, now you can expand this game to include a new faction, The Grey Hands, and as noted, these new Lords are quite different than the previous ones in that they may get bonus points for being corrupt. As an added bonus, you get to play as a skeevy looking beholder, if that rustles your jimmies. You can only play with six players if you add one of the side board expansions, which makes sense as the base game is already crowded enough and with six players it would become nonviable. 

As a final note relating to how to implement these expansions, you may put one expansion or both expansions into play, especially when six players are in the mix, and there is a new optional rule for longer games, which revolves around the number of agents that each player has to begin with. The expansion has one extra agent meeple per player in the set, so that if you play a two player game with all the bells and whistles, you start with five agents. When playing with both expansions at once, though, there are some setup changes that you need to take into account, and luckily, each new card is marked with an Underdark or Skullport symbol so that when you put the game away, you can more easily sort the cards into their respective pools.

In the final analysis, this is a welcome expansion in that it isn't the typical expansion that has become prevalent in the hobby game world; the kind that just pile more of the same on top of a base game or that fix flaws in a broken base game. These expansions add depth to the game, change the conditions of the game, and with the new cards, add new, interesting, and in some cases, infinitely harder quests. This expansion retails for  $40.00 but can be had from online retailers for $27.00, and I think that if you're a fan of the base game, this is a really cheap way to truly expand and alter the way the game plays. I'm not sure that if I was a person who primarily plays two-player games that I would recommend this, because it spreads things out so much, but if you play three through five player games, or want to be able to table this with six, it's a must-have expansion.

As per Circus policy, I gave the base game away after review, since it was sent for review by Wizards, and so in order to play this, I had to buy the base game again, which I did immediately after I sent the subscriber my review copy. Just as last time, I'll be giving this expansion away as well, and I will most assuredly be buying this in the short term, because as much as I enjoy the base game, this adds so much new and different content that the base game, after playing it as many times as I have, will seem to be a little less shiny. 

Scoundrel? Scoundrel...I Like The Sound Of That:
- So many new ways to play, and a sixth player option
- The corruption mechanic adds so much to this game that it's a must-have
- The darker tone gives the game a little better theme, considering it's a game of politics

Why This Is A Scruffy Looking Nerf Herder:
- This takes up a lot more table space, especially with both expansions in play
- New card backs don't match the original, so you have an idea of what's up next
- It takes a little angst away from gameplay due to more resources being available
- The "block you, sucka" aspect is gone, with so many new spaces available

This is a must-have expansion for Lords of Waterdeep unless you're only playing two player games, and even then, you'll probably enjoy it. Wizards didn't just add more of the same, they changed quite a bit of the game, and in really smart ways, and in such a way that you can play one of four ways, which will assuredly add replay value. All in all, for under thirty dollars, it's a hell of a value proposition for fans of the original. All of us really enjoyed the new options, and we all agreed that each mini-expansion adds something new to the base game, although the corruption aspects of the Skullport mini-expansion is the star of the show.

4.5/5 Stars

Learn more at the Scoundrels home page:

And if you never played the original, which means you're missing out, check out my review here:

Friday, August 30, 2013

Circus Train - VPG's Gold Banner Game Gave Us Wood For Lions And Tigers, Oh My!

Only the oldest members and readers of Superfly Circus reviews would remember the vicious beating that Victory Point Games (VPG), publisher of Circus Train 2nd Edition, experienced at the hands of myself some time ago. I was lambasted by some of the folks at VPG as well as other sites, for such a vile review. Well, I stand firmly behind that review because it was easily one of the most truly terrible games I've ever played. I'm still reeling.

That said, in that same article I spoke about some of the really fun and clever games that VPG has produced, such as Nemo's War, although the production value was only marginally better than the game I reviewed. You see, while I am a "toy guy" who likes little metal miniatures and plastic bits, the fact is that I am well-equipped to identify what a good game is despite poor game pieces. Production value is not everything in a game; the purpose of everything in the box is to immerse you in the game, to draw you in, and to enhance the user experience.  A game doesn't have to have the amazing art or bits of Cyclades in order to make the game enjoyable, but it sure as hell doesn't hurt it, either, if it's done right.

Why am I telling you this? Allow me to explain: Victory Point Games got themselves a laser, and they now produce what they call their "Gold Banner" line, which has laser-cut wood counters, and in addition to a paper game board, they include a laser-cut wood game board. Compared to other publishers who use cardboard counters and a fiberboard-mounted game board, these games are absolutely the pinnacle of quality, aside from one major flaw; the game board sections don't always line up. From a play standpoint, it really doesn't make very much difference at all, but from the aesthetic one, it's something that might piss you off a little. 

Circus Train is a mature title, originally released in 2010, and has recently been upgraded to the Gold Banner standard, which sells for a premium price of $55.00, and in my opinion, is worth almost every penny. It comes in a nice box instead of the old polyester zip-lock bag that most of their games come in, and it has really, truly well done artwork throughout the production. I got this game second-hand in a trade, and I have heard first-hand that during the removal of bits, the game leaves a powdery ash over the whole affair from the laser cutting process. To me, that's not a big deal, but I thought I'd mention it so you know what to expect. All in all, this is a top-notch production, and I think that it easily commands the price they're asking due to the immense quality that is built into the game.

As I said, a game isn't only components, and the underlying design is where the true quality lies. The reason all of us at the Superfly Circus thought this was a great product is that aside from the quality inherent in the components, the game itself is truly wonderful to play. I'm not really all that partial to the circus, aside from MY circus, the game really gives you the feeling that you're running a circus, which we all thought was pretty damned cool. In a lot of ways it's a very traditional design, but it also has a lot of modern Euro built into it, which adds quite a bit of strategic options for players. 

The game itself is really a sort of pick-up-and-deliver design, with players moving their circus trains all over the map, which represents major US and Canadian cities, in order to please the crowds with their fabulous acts. A core concept in the game is that you have to manage the acts you have on hand and weigh them against the demand for acts, as indicated on "demand markers" which are placed on the board. Too many acts, and you can go bankrupt, forcing you to sack the acts that you paid dearly to acquire; too few, and you limit your ability to score points. Your actions are also limited by a player deck, which contains cards that allow movement, performances, and even more interestingly, the ability to snatch acts away from other players. 

The game isn't scored in a traditional way, either, because points are scored based not on only how many points you've accrued during the game through various means, but on the score of the best single performance you've made. Another facet of the game for players to manage is that money is quite important in the game. Initially, each performance renders five dollars, but as the game progresses the performances scale in value up to ten and twenty dollars, allowing you to buy more acts, and more importantly, pay for them when you choose to play, or are forced to play,  the "pay up sucker" card. As I noted before, if you run out of money, you have to sack performers, which absolutely kills your ability to raise your "best performance" level, a key aspect to winning the game.

Not unlike another Euro design, El Grande, you score points at pre-set timing along the "calendar", which acts as the game timer. During this scoring period, the person with the highest maximum performance rating scores the most points, and then players with the most of a type of performer, from acrobats and clowns to cannonballers, scores points. We all really enjoyed the complexity in scoring as it provided several paths to victory, and more importantly, provided impetus to stealing other players' performers at the most opportune time. It's quite impressive that the game isn't weighed down with player-versus-player backstabbing, but instead is augmented by it, which is a hard balance to achieve. Beyond that, at the beginning of each "month" of the game has an "event card" which is put into play until the end of the month, which affects a wide variety of things, such as not allowing one type of performer to score.

Also included in the game are special characters, which sometimes randomly pop up on the board and provide the person who acquires them some more options, such as allowing further movement than normal, or giving players extra performance value when performing at a "demand marker". There's even solitaire rules included, which is a hallmark of VPG, and while I only played it solitaire once as I don't really like solo games, it was fun and easy to learn. I'd argue that it was more of an afterthought, or perhaps a hold-over from the first edition which was far more geared toward solo play, since the game has so many features that are designed with multi-player games in mind. At the end of the day, this game has a lot of different ways to play, with basic, advanced, solo, and optional rules that are all well written and easy to understand.

The red circles are added to show where the problems lie.
With all of that praise in mind, my one complaint about the "product", as alluded to above, is that the art on my board is misaligned fairly badly, although the puzzle-piece design is very good and precisely what I would've wanted Z-Man Games to do with their amazing Ascending Empires. The pieces interlock seamlessly and flawlessly, but the art is skewed such that some of the cities' names have letters missing, and some of the railroad tracks don't quite line up. Again, it's a minor annoyance, but what is a major annoyance is that inside of the box is a mea culpa sheet that tells purchasers that the game is likely to have misaligned artwork, and to "please accept the game as-is". As someone who shelled out $60.00 (or equivalent in trade) for a game, if there's something wrong with it, one should expect to be able to contact the publisher and remedy it.

As such, I wanted to see what they had to say about it, so I contacted VPG with an image of my board, asking for a replacement board since the art was so badly misaligned. Their response was as follows,  after almost two weeks had passed:

Hi Pete, 

Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about the misalignment. Due to the size of this map, it is cut in separate parts, and this is the result. I could send you a replacement in hopes that it will be better than the one you currently have, but most likely it will be the same. Would you like me to send it anyway?

Stephanie Marroquin
VPG Shipping Manager
I'm not so much upset about the response as the time it took them to get back to me; in the age of the Internet, one would think that a company, even one as small as VPG, that produces such good games would have someone to answer more rapidly, but alas, it doesn't appear that this is the case. Even that didn't bug me, though, all that much. What I'm really bothered by, if anything, is that they are claiming that the boards are pretty much always going to have printing errors. What I extrapolate from that is that they don't know how to adjust the art for the laser cut width due to inexperience with their laser.

As a former CAD designer who spent four years working with lasers, I can understand the complexities, but in light of the fact that I did the design work for many of the products that company made, and with little training, it seems that they need to get with the laser or software company and discuss the issue rather than just throw up their hands in frustration and accept that they'll be making mistakes on every game they produce. That's just plain lazy, and it does a disservice to their customers. To add insult to injury, you can do a simple Google search and can find photos of boards that are NOT nearly as misaligned:
ESpaceJeux.TV Circus Train (OLGS)
Quarter To Three Circus Train Review
Angry Imp Games (OLGS)

What I'm seeing isn't poor quality, per se, as much as inconsistency. Now, I know I've belabored the point perhaps more than I should have, but it's my duty to you, my readers, and potential buyers of this otherwise outstanding game, the things that you need to know to make a purchase decision. There is no spite, only the facts as I have illustrated them to you. The final "dot on the I", so to speak, is that I want to reiterate as strongly as possible that the errors do not affect play, or at least didn't affect us, and that this game is truly outstanding from a design and "fun" standpoint. 

The long and short is that Circus Train is a very accessible, easy to learn, and very fun game that we have truly enjoyed playing. Aside from the board problem, which can be easily mitigated as the game also includes a folding paper game board, this game's components are amazing, and easily stand up to much larger publishers. I wholeheartedly recommend this game to pretty much everyone, but especially if you're a fan of medium-complexity Euro style games. My Circus friends loved it, my 12-year old loved it, and my "mostly non-gamer" wife loved it. If that's not enough of a glowing endorsement, I cannot envision what is.

Why I Have Become A Fan Of Trains In General, And Most Especially Circus Trains:

- Simple, easy to learn, rules make this a great game for anyone
- Fast turns keep downtime to nearly zero, even in a 4 player game
- The art is nice, and evocative of the days of carnies impregnating your daughters and whatnot
- The optional rules REALLY add a lot of depth to the game, especially the named characters

Why Circus Train Is Not As Awesome As The Superfly Circus:
- Epic fail on the board alignment and subsequent customer service
- The game might have a little too much "random" for your taste, but there's not much
- Silly child, NOTHING is as awesome as the Superfly Circus

Despite the lack of alignment on the game board, despite their slow customer service, and despite their unfathomable inability to produce a board that doesn't have glaring errors, this game is outstanding. Everyone who played it either liked it or loved it, and what really intrigued me, and still does, is that there are so many viable strategies to win, especially for a game that is so streamlined and simple. No game has played out the same over the span of our testing, and above and beyond that, you always feel that if you had JUST ONE MORE TURN you might be able to pull out a win. That's a sure sign of a competent, entertaining design. For me, it's a total autobuy, and I think this might even make it onto the Forever Euro shelf next to El Grande and Lords of Waterdeep.

4.25/5 Stars
Check out the rules here:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The GenCon 2013 Special Edition Magazine HAS ARRIVED

Folks, I've been working long hours to get this magazine written up for your enjoyment, and this 32 page extravaganza of game reporting is nothing short of a labor of love. I think it's the best work I've done in a long time, and I'm really quite proud of it. I only hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it.

It took a lot of time out of my gaming to do several hundred interviews with players, GMs, event people, and booth folks, but you're worth it. I tried to get the big name stuff as well as some of the smaller stuff, and I also wanted to include a little bit of everything, from RPG to Euro to Ameritrash to Miniatures, and I really had to cut down from the 900+ photos I took in order to create a snapshot of what the con was about this year.

It's a 65MB download, but it's worth every byte. Hell, every bit. Here's the link:

Monday, August 12, 2013

I Just Can't Understand Why Consumption Is Superior To Enjoyment With Gamers

I'm probably beating the last vestiges of flesh from a dead horse at this point, but I'm going to anyhow because as much as I write about it, I still don't understand it, and it's never been adequately explained: Why is it so important to so many gamers to acquire games rather than play the living shit out of what they have? Really, the question boils down to, "Why do so many gamers have no sense of value anymore?" It vexes me, and as I read about people's huge lists of shit they're planning to buy at the next big convention, I shake my head and wonder why.

It seems to me that the culture of Kickstarter is an extension of many people's good will; people are ultimately pretty generous and want to help a brother out when they can. I view Kickstarter as giving a guy money who may or may not give you something in return, and what you get in return may be quite dissimilar to what they initially thought they were going to get. That's just part of Kickstarter, which is fine as long as people remember the phrase, "caveat emptor", before they click "pledge". But it's not so much the pledging or buying something sight unseen that vexes me, it's the fact that these games are generally very expensive, even in the board game world, and that so many people are serial backers who do not appear to be serial players. Why buy 50 games a year, every year, when it's incredibly unlikely that you'll play each of those games more than four or five times in the span of two or three years, especially if you're buying and trading for the same amount of games every year?

I understand that people buy for the "experience", sort of like paying $10.00 each to go to the movies when you can pay $4.99 on Amazon Streaming a year later to see it in your home. It even makes some sense in that frame when you consider that a game played four times by two players that cost $100.00 on Kickstarter comes out to $12.50 a play, which is equivalent, more or less. The rub is that there are very few truly great games that come out every year, so it would be like going to see Ishtar and Battlefield Earth 3 out of 4 weekends, and only occasionally seeing a movie of the quality of Saving Private Ryan once in a great while. It just doesn't compute for me. Why not simply save all that money and buy the best of the best games, playing them repeatedly?

Consider also that if you buy a bunch of mediocre games, the "new game smell" wears off much faster than a game that is good, or great, because you simply don't want to take the time to play them and get really good at them, or really understand them, since they're just not good enough to command that sort of time investment. I'm sure this falls back into the "experience" philosophy, where just playing a game a couple times is sufficient to get the full experience. I'm sure there's also a social aspect to this phenomenon, as playing lots of games just enough to get the gist allows you to get onto your favorite forum and talk about your experience or answer questions, which gives one the sense of being "in the know", or a feeling of superiority in being experienced with a wide variety of games.

I think the largest reason I feel that the serial buying of mediocre games that you'll never play much bothers me is that I'm not of the mind that I want to  just experience games. I've never played Princes of Florence, or Le Havre, or a host of other games, and I'm not entirely sure it makes me a worse person for never having played them. I don't feel the need to be able to interject in every single forum thread or at every game meetup. If it's a game I've never played, I'd rather listen to the conversation than actively participate. I just don't feel like I need to be superior, or some sort of fucking game aficionado, able to speak on every game ever made and offer up several games similar to that game with different themes or whatever. It just doesn't make sense to me that having that ability is worth spending several thousand dollars or more annually.

The real problem with buying all of these mediocre games "for the experience" is that sales are the only way producers can measure quality, or rather, the market's response to any given product. For every mediocre, or just plain shitty, game that gets purchased, it sends a signal to producers that there is a demand for that kind of product. Kickstarter, for instance, has become a great way for idea guys to get out from under the oppressive thumb of editors and quality control folks, which has an advantage in that a wider variety of products enter the market, but has the disadvantage of not having anyone but some guy with an idea produce a game that may or be complete, utter shit.

For instance, Gunship! First Strike is a very neat game, but had they had someone with some practical experience looking at the game, perhaps it wouldn't need to be a $50.00 game that was designed, apparently, for people with poor vision due to huge boards and cards. Also, it might have had a professional editor overlooking the rule book and it could have been far less difficult to learn. It's abundantly clear to me that very little blind play testing was done on that particular game, something that is an industry standard, and done by every traditional game publisher on the planet. It's these problems that are creeping into games of late, and I think it's due to the fact that people are buying "ideas" instead of "products", and not just using Kickstarter, but whenever they are buying games. 

Some people buy games based on theme alone, which I fully understand, but the problem is that the industry's sales and marketing is done almost exclusively by "serial reviewers" and bloggers (like myself), and almost all reviewers that I've ever seen do not do many negative reviews for a host of reasons, some very valid in my opinion, and some not so valid. To write a negative review, you have to play the game enough to understand it on a fundamental level, and further, to form a strong opinion that will carry the review. This is a time and frustration investment, and most negative reviews I've seen (including every one of my own) were met with such venom and vitriol that it's even more of a reason to simply not review a game than to deal with the zealots. I've set up a policy here that if I receive a game, it WILL be reviewed in order to keep myself honest, but I am in the very small minority in this respect. Several reviewers I've spoken to indicated that they do not do any negative reviews because of the time involved. 

What this means is that all the games you buy are almost always tilted in favor of a "buy" recommendation because the publishers aren't going to link to a scathing review if one even exists, and most reviewers won't even produce an article if they play a game once and hate it. Pair that with the predisposition of gamers to buy games that they're interested in based on either mechanics or theme alone, and you have a swirling vortex of a consumption culture. As noted, at the center of this vortex is the publishing world, where all of these "idea guys" are being told by the market that "those kinds of games sell reasonably well", which entices them to create more games that use some of the mechanics or themes in these mediocre but oft-purchased games, continuing the death spiral.

In the end, I think that we all have to do our part in order to keep the industry honest, by not buying things sight unseen, not buying games just to buy them irrespective of quality, and really, just being good stewards of our money and not rewarding mediocrity. If we all do that, publishers will produce less games, potentially, and more importantly, they will produce better games. "No more Munchkin and Atlanteon, lots more Space Hulk and Agricola" should be our battle cry, and we should resist the temptation to buy everything we see. If we don't keep the industry honest, who will?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

How To Remove "Frost" From Models Sprayed With Matte Finish In Humid Conditions

We've all done it - we paint up something and think it's the bee's knees, and want to immediately seal it to protect the finish. Sure, we could use brush on sealer (Winsor & Newton Gallaria, Daler Rowney Soluble, Or Liquitex Matte are best choices, in that order) but that's a lot of work. So, we go outside in the humid-ass summer weather and decide to squirt some Dullcote, Krylon Matte, or other spray sealer, and you invariably end up with a model that looks like it has been covered in a sheet of ice. Now, if you WANT that effect for some sort of glacial snow monster, God bless you, but in most cases, you're spewing a stream of expletives that would make George Carlin blush.

The reason this happens is that when you seal the model, atomized micro-droplets of water will become trapped in the finish. If you try to seal a model in high humidity, you are an asshole for tempting fate, just as I have been so many times, living in the South. You should know better. But, alas, I have compiled the wisdom of my own lessons learned as well as those on the internet and have decided to provide you some sure-fire methods to sort that shit right out, restoring your model to its initial magnificence:

1. Rubbing the model with a cotton wad soaked in olive oil can remove the frost. This is particularly effective for scenery with flat surfaces. Not so much if you can't get into the nooks and crannies (TM). The oils drive out the surface water droplets, and then when you wash the model in soapy water, the oils wash away and your model should be restored. This doesn't always work, but it's a simple first line of attack.

2. Future Acrylic Floor Polish is the most underrated and unknown sealer on the planet. The shit is magical. If you brush on a coat over the model, or even airbrush it (thinned), it will put on a super-durable sealant, and then when winter comes and there's no humidity, you can spray dullkote over it to regain that matte finish. Now, if you DON'T have this in your stock already, it's clear you're an amateur, because as I noted, this shit is magical. Use 50/50 Future and Water and then add small amounts of color (read: paint) to create incredible washes and inks that seal as well as pigment your models. Incredible shit.

3. Use a hair dryer or heat lamp! You can SOMETIMES remove frost by using a hair dryer, heat lamp, or household small room heater. The frost is actually water micro-droplets that get trapped in the sealant, which causes that hazy effect. If you use a heat source and get the model up to high temperatures, you can steam off the water vapor and restore the model. I shouldn't have to say this, but I will: Don't do this on plastics unless you want it to turn into a pile of melted plastic. Also be aware that some paints have a very low smoke point and you can literally burn black marks onto your models if you're not careful.

4. Toss that bad boy in the oven, set for 225F, in order to achieve the same effect as using a hair dryer. The boiling point of water is 212F/100C and thus you can put a model in the oven for 10-15 minutes (preheat the oven!!) and drive off the water. The downside to this method is that plastic bases, flocking, and other wee bits can melt. This should be a last resort on a competition-quality model, and remove the base when you do it or you're probably going to melt it anyhow. Again, ONLY METAL MODELS, and be aware that you run the risk of blackening or charring the model's paint job.

5. SEAL THAT BITCH AGAIN! You can spray right over the model once it's dried for 24 hours, and it completely removes the frost effect. This is the obvious one, but people get scared that they'll seal on the frost and irrevocably fuck their shit up. Nope, just reseal and you're good. I shouldn't have to say this, but again, I will: Don't spray it again in humid weather or you'll just repeat the results and add more layers of frost. Either spray it outdoors and then bring it into a humidity controlled environment, or just wait for a good spray day. You can wait years to respray, too; it's not as if time somehow makes any difference in the impingement of water vapor under the sealant. Patience is absolutely your friend when it comes to the hobby of miniatures painting.

For me, I think the BEST POSSIBLE METHOD of sealing a model is to use brush on sealant, because you never over-spray, and you can control the thickness. Brush on sealants are also always a better protective coating because of the viscosity and the thixotropic nature of the varnishes on the market. An urban legend exists that says that matte sealants are inherently weaker than gloss, but allow me to dispel that myth in one word: BOLLOCKS. The best way to seal a model is with a brushed-on gloss coat of Liquitex Gloss Acrylic Sealant before getting sprayed with Dullcote or Krylon Matte. 

Brushed-on coats are thicker and provide a better seal, and on top of that, the gloss finish brings out some of the colors better, especially blacks and metallics. They're also  easier to spot if you miss an area, especially under bright light. The matte spray-coat over the top of that adds an extra layer of protection as well as removing the shine and making the model look more realistic. That, and the multiple layering of sealants cause rough handling and dude-drops to bounce off my models' paint like bullets off of Superman's balls.

Hope this helps you out, I know I struggled with this damned Kentucky humidity for YEARS and finally realized that you can't fight's simply better to wait until night when the humidity is lower.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Gunship! First Strike: I'll Blow You Up Just As Soon As I Can Figure Out How!

A couple weeks ago the folks at Escape Pod Games offered me a copy of Gunship! First Strike to review in anticipation of their latest Kickstarter, slated to start in a few days. I accepted as I've really wanted to play it after Michael Barnes mostly glowing review, plus, I haven't written as often as I'd liked in the last six months due to several issues revolving around some Circus members getting sick with cancer, among other things. The long and short is that the game has tons of great ideas, and it delivers on a whole lot of them, but in all the years of playing games, I've never found one that was so absolutely polarizing. The people that I played this with either loved it, or as one person said, "It's's what capital ship combat should be!", or as one person who hated it said, "I feel like this game just raped my mind. Is that even possible?"  In short, it really was that polarizing.

The game's initial incarnation is a two-player, head to head battle between two gunships, two space carriers, and some fighters. It allows you to put whatever weapons on your ship that you want, without restriction, and hockey fight until one side's carrier is obliterated. You can even head to the carrier to repair your ship or change weapons, which is really cool. In between rounds your big carriers shoot one another too, which acts as sort of a timer and adds some tension, which is also really cool. You can even deploy fighters to screen your attacks against the carrier, which is super cool. Like I said before, it's got a lot of great ideas.

A subsequent expansion to the base game added even more weapons and options to lock onto your ships in the form of upgrades, so you could really customize your ship to be in lock step with your strategies. These additions to the menu are really very cool, giving a lot more flexibility in how you build your gunship and adding a lot more to think about. 

Another expansion added two more sets of ships, allowing four players to go head-to-head in team games or all-out death matches. And yes, yet another expansion added terrain effects in the form of asteroids, and yet another expansion still added crew members, making it much more like Star Command in that you can assign and move crewmen to make your ship more effective. With all these expansions, the game really became much more a game system than a stand alone product. I love sandbox designs, and this really is sort of a dream come true in that regard, because it pushes all the right buttons in that respect.

The artwork is really nice, and while the cards are really kind of cheap in that they're flimsy and easily bend, and the chipboard ship boards are a little warped, the production value in the game is really very good. If I had to make one overwhelming complaint, it's that the gunship boards are truly huge, and if I had my way, the boards would've been half their size and the cards would've been the same half-size cards that are found in Arkham Horror and other FFG games. There's just no credible reason that the main boards had to be so large. In a four player game, my four by five foot table was almost entirely covered with stuff, which made the game feel cramped, even though the game is mostly played off of those boards. It's no disparagement of the game, though, it's just that it takes up a disproportionate amount of table space for such a simple game. My review copy also had the ship tokens upgrade, and of all the bits in the game, those were the real icing. I ADORED them because before those bits, you used cards to denote the location of your fighters and gunship. They just look pretty and they save some space, both of which kind of float my boat. I think they might even be better than if miniatures were included, which is high praise from a miniature nut like me.

One of my favorite things about the game's physical design, and my opinion was shared by everyone, not just the people who liked the game, was that the ship could have its wings and other parts blown clean off, and when they got blown off, they literally come off of the ship. No tokens, no "blast markers" or anything, you take those parts off and they're gone. That's just fucking cool. It's the difference between Hot Wheels and Hot Wheels Crack Ups, if you're old enough to remember them. 

Now, there's one tremendous blemish on the game that almost got me to the point of Toe to Toe reviewing the game, and "they shoulda betta known betta": the rulebook is utterly terrible in every conceivable way. All seven of us who played this game agreed on this point. It didn't come with a player aid, which totally sucked ass, but after some googling and BGG hunting, I found that they rectified the situation by making one that you could print. After printing, you could almost play the whole game off this thing. That said, the learning game was BRUTAL for all of us, and I had to do it twice because I played with two groups.

The fact is that there's a lot of rules questions that came up, and there was no easy way to figure out the answer. For instance, your ship gets hit with an Ionization effect that makes affected areas impossible to repair, and to make matters worse, the ionization travels around your ship board indefinitely, screwing up your plans. We wanted to know how to get rid of it in-flight, but we read and reread the rules over and over trying to find it. The only reference to getting rid of it is on the carrier, if you land, but that wasn't even in the section about ionization, but rather in the carrier section. So, we assumed (correctly) that the only way to get rid of it was on the carrier, but it would've been SO MUCH BETTER had they simply put one sentence in the Ionization Damage section, "The only way to remove ionization cards on your ship is by removing them on the carrier, or if X happens." With an over-long rulebook to begin with, really, would one sentence hurt? There's a lot of little things like this, and it made learning and teaching the game a truly painful experience.

All that said, the game is surprisingly quick and fun to play, and easy to understand once you get past the initial steep learning curve and go searching for answers. The FAQ on their site is also utterly devoid of half of the answers found on BGG, which kind of pissed me off, since it's their game and they shouldn't rely on BGG to host their answers, especially those that cover important aspects of the game. Anyhow, turns literally take under a minute in almost all cases, and combat is simple and easy to resolve, yet effective and fun. Combat is resolved with specialty dice in some cases, and gunship attacks are initiated by playing cards in your hand that match the weaponry on the ship. 

The trick to using your gunship is that you can either bet on catching lots of certain kinds of cards by loading your ship with one kind of weapon, which allows you to have devastating attacks, or you can mix it up a bit, loading many different types of guns on your ship to ensure that your odds of being able to attack at all are high. None of the players complained that the game was too random, even after I got ultra lucky and managed to tag an enemy gunship with three ionization cards, effectively fucking his shit up like there's no tomorrow. Incidentally, for him, there was no tomorrow after my teammate subsequently gutted his disabled ship on the following turn, destroying his sad, pathetic little gunship.

The base game is fine as is, but the upgrade packs really add a lot to the game for a reasonable price. I like that you can buy them a' la carte or can get the Arsenal bundle, but at a total of ninety bucks for the base game and the arsenal pack, I'm not sure the game commands such a high price. Like I said before, you're going to either love it or hate it, but I honestly think that the pain of the learning game takes the shine off of what would otherwise be a really killer game, and that tainted people's perception. A couple players refused to play again after the learning game, but those that played a second game really dug it a lot and once we got in the groove of understanding how everything worked, the game sped by and we were blowing smoking holes in one another. 

I like the game well enough to want to play again, once I figured it all out, and it reminded me a lot of another game I really liked, Zombie Survival in the fact that you can build your ship up the way you want and then you have to deal with the decisions because you can't control the card draws or the game state after the game's started. It also has a strong similarity to games like Battletech and Ogre because hit locations matter a lot. There's not many games that I've played with this sort of "hit locations matter" and it really adds a lot of tension to the game, especially when you have the "Bulls-eye" card which allows you to choose which location to apply damage to.

I think, in the final analysis, if you take the time to muddle through the poorly written rules and use the player aid, you'll end up with a really good time. I think the game has tons of merit, and aside from my complaints of having boards that are just too damned big for what they are and the game being hard to learn, it's a really fun, fast playing game. I think it shines the most with two players, as my daughter and I had a blast blowing each other into space junk, but it's still good with three players, although I think human nature kicks in and causes players to casually team up and beat on the most wounded guy mercilessly. That's not really a game flaw as much as taking advantage of a weak player. Four player team games are also really fun, so it's pretty good with four as well, although it can add some downtime. Some people don't like player elimination games, but I relish them as it forces a player to play smarter, knowing that he'll have to sit and watch if he is killed off.

Why I'd Name My Band "Jefferson Gunship" And Be A Rock Legend:

- Cool art and bits make this fun to look at on the table
- The fact that this is more a "game system" than a "game" gives huge replay value
- Fast and furious turns keep the players' attention on the game
- Hit locations and moving damage effects add huge tension
- Lots of expansion material and each adds something cool to the game

Why I Wouldn't Recommend This To Everyone, Even For A Klondike Bar:
- The boards and cards are too damned big and take up too much space
- It's a Kickstarter game, and "Kickstarter" translates from Gamese to "Fucking Expensive"
- This may be the worst rule book I've ever had to decipher in 20+ years of gaming
- You kind of HAVE to have an experienced player teach the game or it's brutal

This game isn't an autobuy for me, and it's expensive if you get the full monty, but if you have a hard on for space combat games that are part simulation and part action game, then this might very well be something you like a whole lot. I highly recommend that you play the game with someone who has played it before and can explain it well to alleviate some of the "first game blues" that we experienced. Further, if Universal Head made a rules summary or if Escape Pod Games rewrote the rules in a more streamlined, cross-referenced manner I think it would really garner the support and following I think it probably could garner.

3.5/5 Stars

Check it out here, at the Escape Pod Games site:

Check it out the rules, if you dare:

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Trick Or Treat - Tricks You With Its Youthful Look, Treats You With A Box Full Of Awesome

Patrick Leder, the designer of one of my favorite games, Five Fingered Severance, Kickstarted a game a while back called Trick or Treat (ToT), but it totally went under my radar because I'm not really keen on Kickstarter, in general, and I don't normally dig pure card games very much. Well, a couple weeks ago, Patrick contacted me about reviewing the game and because I loved FFS so much, I figured I'd give it a go, especially as one of my core goals for starting Superfly Circus was to tell people about games they might not have heard about. So, I got a review copy, and after a couple days of thinking about playing it, we got it to the table and were pleasantly surprised. After 9 plays in four days, I can tell you that not only did I absolutely love it, but every single person of the 7 other people that have played it loved it as well. 

Before I tell you about the specifics of ToT, I should probably tell you what it is: it's a two to five player card game that acts like a board game, and the theme is about a bunch of kids trick or treating. The booklet and the promotional stuff on Kickstarter call it a "Rummy-style" set collection game, but I find almost no resemblance to Rummy at all other than the fact that you score by collecting sets. It's not like any pairs or runs will score; you always have three goal cards that show specific sets that you're trying to complete, but if someone completes a goal set before you can, that goal comes off the board and you're screwed out of the points you were looking to collect. I guess there are some similarities to Rummy but only in that there's sets involved, and there's a sort of tableau system to take cards from, but that's about it. This is so much better than Rummy in a lot of ways, and I really love Rummy, so it's high praise indeed.

Before I go too far, I'd like to tell you about the production. It comes in a small deck box that is just the right size for the decks, and it has a rule sheet that looks to be one-third of an 11 by 17 sheet, lengthwise. The cards are all decent and thick, with cartoony art that would make you believe it's a game for kids; the art is reminiscent of the Wii game, Guilty Party. It's not bad art at all, but if I had to drill down to one descriptive word, that word would be "simple". All in all, I was pleased with everything, especially the very well written rule sheet, which can be read in one sitting on the pot. The card layout is really smart, with the key bits written right on the cards to remind everyone what's what. Even the icons make sense, which is a rarity.

The only single complaint we all had, which in my book is a big one, is that there are required components missing, a 'la Munchkin: the game requires tokens which you are told in the rule book to go and find, such as pennies or whatever. I hate that, and to be honest, I had to get about forty pennies to play a four player game because so many can be in play at once. In fact, I initially grabbed maybe 20 of them and we ran out and I had to go back to the piggy bank to get more. I'm sure that it would've been a stretch goal or something down the road, but in the end, they were missing, I was inconvenienced, and if you want to play this at a cafe or something, you'll need to use three tables' worth of sugar packets which may get you thrown out of the place. That, and I don't want to use pennies, which may be seen as an endorsement of the idea that Abe Lincoln really is a Vampire Hunter or some such bollocks.

Now, earlier, I said it was more like a board game, and this is because there's three main types of cards, one of which are location cards, and these are laid out on the table for the players to visit and perform actions on. Players each get a player card which they continually move to locations in order to collect cards or screw over opponents, and so it's really more of a poor man's board game in that respect. Because I didn't have a felt table and I've already committed to giving Superfly Circus reader Craig G. (who gets it because of a post on our Facebook page), I didn't want to jack up the card edges so we forewent using the player cards and dropped some horror-themed miniatures down. It made the game much quicker, and really, who wouldn't want to be represented by a werewolf who is tearing a man's legs off? It's not required, but it's just that my table is really slick.

ToT isn't just about running around the board and getting candy sets quicker than the next guy, though. I mean, that's the goal, but that's not all that you do. Each location card, of which there's never less than seven, has a special ability that you play. Some get you cards, sure, but others do nasty, nasty things. The Alley card allows you to move the Bully character, which is the ToT equivalent of the Grim Reaper in Talisman, and who allows you to not only block a location, but also allows you to steal a card from every player on the card that was affected. The Haunted House location allows you to discard up to three cards, and for each card, you put three "fear tokens" (the coins I talked about) on EACH opponent's card, robbing them of one point per token at the end of the game. The tokens can also be removed from your till at the Haunted House if you spend cards there in the same fashion, but only you get to discard the tokens, whereas everyone else still has them.

On top of the location and treat cards, there's also "trick cards" which spice up the game. Each is a rule-breaking card, and some help you while others hurt others. The "Move the Bully" card allows you to put the Bully on someone's space, knocking them off the board and taking one of their cards, while the "Sneak" card allows you to move onto a space with the Bully or that already has a player there, both of which are normally illegal. There's several more cards as well, with truly different effects, so it's not just a bunch of "take that" cards that are all alike. These cards really do change the game because you are always cognizant of the fact that someone can nail you with one, so you have to try to remember if someone took one off of one of the tableaus.

The game isn't as quick as I first assumed it would be, and in fact, the game took about an hour to play through with four of us playing. Turns are actually really quick, so the fact that it's an hour should indicate that there's a lot of stuff you'll be doing. You can truncate the game to your timetable by getting rid of the "set cards", because the game ends when you run out of them, essentially, so if you have a half an hour, dump half the cards and you're all set. It doesn't outlive its welcome, and one of the truest signs of a great game is that you run out of turns before you "feel done". I was always left wishing I had one or two more turns at the end, and I never got tired of playing it. In fact, I'm writing this right now, dead tired, because I was up until 2:30AM last night playing this game. We played two in a row, and they all demanded it, which is another sign that it's a great game.

The long and short is that this is a great little backstabbity, adversarial game, one that is a little more than a filler and a little less than a main event, but one that myself and every single person who played it wanted to play again and again. With it having only a few blemishes, the worst being the lack of tokens, this is one hell of a great value at around twenty duckets. I sure wish it had funded more because from the KS page, I see that the stretch goals would've been nice to have had.

Why Stealing Kids' Candy Was Never So Much Fun In Real Life:
- Fast, furious game play with little down time makes this exciting and engaging
- The backstabbery really rustles my jimmies and adds drama to the game
- It plays more like a board game than a card game
- Length of play is variable and is perfect for the game style
- This would be a cool asynch-play IOS game someday (hint, hint, Patrick)

Why I Want To Steal All Of Patrick's Shit:
- Not a huge fan of the art, although it's effective and isn't ugly or distracting
- Direct sales only for now, so no Coolstuff discounts

I really love this little game, and I've already contacted the designer to buy the game since I've committed to giving this copy up as I noted, per Circus policy, and if you want a copy, you have to get it direct from Patrick, whose website is here, or via BGG private mail; his user name is GreenM. The response was overwhelmingly positive from the Circus Freaks, which is not the norm, and this is the kind of game you can sit and play over and over, glass of spirits or beer in hand, and never really get sick of it. Many people gave this game a perfect 5 Star rating, but since I view it as incomplete due to the lack of a required component and was vocal about that, many people backed their score down to a 4.5 Star rating, which ended up being the average.

4.5/5 Stars

Find the Kickstarter page, complete with video, here:

Buy it here: