Monday, October 28, 2013

Thrash-Car KS Preview - Part Days Of Thunder, Part Special Olympics

When Dave Killingsworth, the owner of SolarFlare Games and designer of Thrash-Car, asked me to do a preview of this game, I was a little hesitant because I'm pretty much convinced that the "car racing with combat" style of game has reached its apex with Rush N' Crush, but I like racing games, so I figured I'd take a look. I warned Dave that if I get a review copy, it's getting reviewed regardless of whether I love it or hate it, and he is to be admired for his courage. Suffice it to say that while the game has some merit, like many Kickstarter games, it seems like the kind of game that could've used a little more development and perhaps more exposure to all kinds of different people so that they could get some feedback to make it more than it otherwise is. It's certainly not what I'd expect to find in a hobby game, and I think it would do well in a mass-market, Wal-Mart aisle instead of at the local FLGS. 

Thrash-Car is a card-driven car racing game where players speed around tracks by playing cards and rolling dice. It's very adversarial and exhibits what I would call "screw your neighbor" kind of play; the core of the game has you playing cards against your opponents to slow them down and mess with them. If you're in the same space as opponents, you can attack them with a "trading paint" attack, rolling dice and playing cards to gain the upper hand. It's very funny and has great artwork including some from one of my favorite artists, Jason "CupidsArt" Benningfield. On paper, it really sounds like a winner, but in practice it's an incredibly simple game that is very "beer and pretzels". We, at the Circus, all agree that it's too simple, but that said, I think it's fun for what it is. One of the Circus members now refers to it as "Days of Blunder", if that's any indication.

I'd talk about the components but, as noted, it's a preview of a Kickstarter campaign that's going live in a few days, so all I can tell you is that the board has two tracks, one with four spaces and another with six. The card art has been previewed and it's very nice looking, with cartoony characters that lampoon the NASCAR fanbase quite a bit, and it's all very humorous. I think that the game is really nice looking from what I've seen on their site, from some of the promo images I'm privy to, and from the nice prototype package I was sent. I think, from a production perspective, that this game will look very nice and really fit into the "satire game" genre very well. I was also sent a 3-D model of one of the cars and if it's representative of the final product, it will certainly be top quality.

Now, while most of us had some fun playing it, I stand by the assertion that it's just too simple. It's something that I would expect out of Gut Bustin' Games; a mass-market kind of game that is geared toward people who aren't used to playing Runebound or Rush N' Crush, where the rules are heavier and the experience deep. This isn't pejorative, either, because I think that this is what Dave wanted it to be. My major complaints about the game revolve around the lack of many spaces, and the fact that if you don't play the game a couple times to realize that the game is really a "gang up on the leader" kind of game, you'll have one guy getting out in front and staying there. Card management is a big mechanic in the game since cards can help you, hurt others, or do both, and so playing the right card at the right time is important. There's tons of cards, most unique, so if you like the game you'll have to play a lot of games to see every card in the deck. 

Speaking of the cards, though, there is one thing that really should be mentioned that we kind of analyzed and determined to be the number one problem with the game. During each turn, you draw cards back up to seven. What this means is that you start your turn with seven cards, but the other players still have a handful to attack you with, and what ends up happening is that the player who's turn it is gets nailed repeatedly. In some ways I'd think it would play like Kill Dr. Lucky where the last guy in line has to "stop" the leader and the other players conserve cards until their turn. The fact that you always draw a full hand of cards stops this from happening, and it ends up being a blood-soaked free-for-all.

That would be fine if there weren't so few spaces, or if you could easily advance to the next space on the track, but since everything in the game is a target-based die roll, with cards modifying the roll, it ends up being stagnant much of the time, with nobody really advancing much and cars being wrecked out. The upshot is that it takes what could've been a fast and furious 45 minute game and doubles the time involved. Unfortunately, it's a bit frustrating and there's so much luck needed in the die rolls and card draws that it feels like a much longer game than it actually is, and it's already too long for what it is. It's more about who can last longer than who can finish the race, which isn't really a racing game. For me, personally, it seems like so much emphasis was put upon the messing with other people that it's just doesn't even feel anything like racing, but rather like a six-space version of Talisman with nothing but PvP encounters.

One of the things I liked the most about the game, besides how it embraces the silliness of NASCAR and the hilljack poverty porn stereotypes that surround it, is that each racing team has its own theme and special abilities. Pairing that with the fact that there's a big upgrade deck that allows you to customize your car, there's a lot of variability in how the game is played by different teams. Still, it's very simple and it kind of feels to me that the game is an extension of one of my most hated racing games ever, Nitro Dice. It's almost like they took that craptastic mess of a game and built onto it, making it better, but still not great because the basic premise of Nitro Dice just didn't work. It does give you lots of laughs, though, but the laughs get a little thin after an hour and a quarter of playing. 

The Kickstarter project will launch in a couple of days, so check it out, watch the videos, and decide for yourself, but I have to tell you that this is not something I will back for the aforementioned reasons, although I do believe it has a place in the gaming world. It's for someone, just not us.

Why Dick Trickle Is Not A Bad Thing:
- Really great art and interesting flavor text make this both pretty and funny
- This has "take that" style of play in spades
- As a "beer and pretzels" game, it's pretty solid
- Pretty good as a "holiday with the folks game

Why The Only Thing Getting Thrashed Is The Time You Spent Playing:
- This does not exude racing, and as a racing game, it's pretty weak
- Drawing up to seven cards every causes pretty hectic play
- It's too long for what it is, even with the short races

Where Rush N' Crush would be a great racing game without the combat aspect, Thrash-Car is simply not much of a racing game that would be utterly boring and repetitive without the combat. Luckily, between the "take that" card play, the confrontational nature of the game, and the funny stereotypes elicited by the flavor text and artwork, it works pretty well. I wouldn't recommend it to many people, but if I did, it would be to people who like very simple and confrontational games to play over a couple beers. 

If you're looking for a game that is simple enough to play when the family comes into town for Christmas, but that isn't so dull and boring that you don't want to put it on the table, it's probably a really good fit. If you're a fan of Formula D(e), Rush N' Crush, or Formula Motor Racing and are looking for a solid racing game, this is not. 

Now, here's the part where you'd expect a score, and I'm not going to do this because this is a preview of a Kickstarter game, and therefore it may or may not be representative of the final product. I calculated the score based on the normal Circus methods, and it's probably a great thing for Dave because the score was not all that shit hot. I will say that one person scored the game higher than the rest of us and really enjoyed a lot about the game, while the rest of us found it middling at best.

Check out more on the game here:

This game rules? Maybe not, but they have rules online!

Superfly Circus Disclaimer:
This is a PREVIEW of a game, and therefore no score will be listed, and the final product may vary greatly from what I just wrote. We did our level best, in good faith, to tell you all what we RECEIVED, and if the game changes during the production or development cycle, take it up with the publisher if you bought it based on this preview. I can only write about what was received, and as far as I'm concerned, Kickstarter projects are vaporware until they are actually produced and delivered. Caveat muh-vuggin Emp-tity-tor. I, as of this writing, have backed only a very small handful of products, only one of which was a game, so let this be my two cents of advice: Be very careful with Kickstarter "backing" because you can be fucked stupid just as easily as you can get delivered the game of your dreams. Whatever you do, don't use the above preview as anything other than a review of a game BEING DEVELOPED AT THE TIME OF WRITING, and the game is just as likely to be completely different than was described as it is to be exactly as described.

Friday, October 11, 2013

"Why Do We Always Want More?" Or, "The Cart Before The Horse" - A Purchasing Habit Analysis

Hi, my name is Pete, and I'm a plastic and cardboard addict. ~ Pete

After going rounds with X-Wing and Attack Wing, I was considering the driving motivators which cause me to continually drop giant fistfuls of money down a white-hot money pit, knowingly and enthusiastically. I'm an educated guy, and I know that if I were to take the $400.00 that I've spent on the games, combined, and put it in a 8% yield IRA without any additional money added, in 30 years, it would be $4025.00. When I look at things like this, I sigh, and I laugh a little at the people who talk about buying a game as "an investment". Sorry, but there's very few games in history that can return 10x the amount paid, outside of collectible card games where one card may be worth a great deal in a short period of time. That said, you need to buy a lot of packs to get that one special card, and you need to know which cards will be valuable down the road for that to pan out. So, that whole "investment" argument is something that people do to make themselves feel a little less stupid about their actions, my own included.

So, then I considered what it would be like if I were to simply buy a "base set" game, and then never buy expansions. The cost of a base game is generally an order of magnitude less than the final price paid during the "active lifespan" of a game, and if the base game is good enough to buy every damned thing that ever becomes available for a game, then isn't it really about just trying to extend the useful life of a game? If the base set is so damned good, and so good that you're willing to spend several times its original cost to extend it, is it really all that good to begin with? If it's that good, why does it need a sea of new bits thrown at it perpetually when the bits don't really add anything new to the base, but rather, just add more of the same?

This is the "cart before the horse" conundrum, in my opinion. Either you need to accept that you're simply an addict who is justifying your need to collect things by the base game's intrinsic eminence, or that you're a lunatic. When you look to games that are in everyone's "top ten" lists and "game of the year lists", very few of them are games that have, or require, expansions. They stand on their own, and you can enjoy them for years without requiring any additional investment. Anyone can see this, so again, is it not putting the cart before the horse when you buy a base game that has expansions available? Is the game really that good if games that don't need expansions to support it are rated equally by "the masses"? Shouldn't games that offer expansions, or games that are immediately identifiable to have expansions available in short order, be rated lower than those that can stand on their own without needing any extra material?

I think that the punchline here for all of us is that we all know that a game is an "experience product" and we're paying for the experience of playing it. So, by extension, we're buying these expansions to either extend or enhance the experience, not have a new experience. I cannot really name a collectible game that was truly made better by buying another card or ship or character, really. They open up the options available to a player, but does that make it better, or does it simply make it more varied? I believe it's the latter, and then, extending that thought further, does it not imply that if we're looking for variety rather than improvement, that we should simply buy another stand-alone game instead of buying more deeply into a collectible game? If games are an "experience product", and buying games is, at its core, attempting to have new experiences, does it not stand to reason that extending an experience is less valuable than having another totally different experience? Should we be buying two additional X-Wings and two additional TIE fighters instead of simply buying Merchants and Marauders instead for the same price?

This isn't a new idea, I'm sure, but it's something that I've been personally debating for a very long time. At the end of the day, perhaps I'm just realizing that I'm an addict, having spent a small fortune on all manners of collectible game. Not long ago I calculated the amount of money I've spent on collectible games and was aghast at how much money I'd have had to spend in 2040, had I simply put it into a 5% yield mutual fund instead of buying collectible and expandable games. We're talking nearly a hundred of thousand dollars here. I literally could've put one of my kids through two years of school in 2023 had I not spent the money I did in 2005. Even if I had simply invested in generic miniatures that could be used for several different games and occasionally purchased new rule sets, I'd have still come out way ahead.

Back to the original point, though, it seems to me that unless an expansion truly delivers a different and unique experience, based on the idea that games are indeed "experience purchases", logically speaking, it's simply not worth buying. The temptation is incredibly difficult to resist, as I found while buying two of every ship in the Star Wars X-Wing line. I mean, with so many unique squad builds, the experience had to be totally different, right? No, no it wasn't. Playing against the Falcon with TIE Interceptors or playing against two TIE fighters with an X-Wing, both found in the base set, wasn't different; it was the exact same experience, it just happened to have different models and strategies to achieve the same basic goal, using the same basic rules. 

After realizing that, I started doing the math, and that scared the shit out of me. I had spent $90.00 on three base sets, and another $190.00 on the expansions. Just last week I picked up a couple more ships, in fact, adding more onto that tab. I found myself asking myself what these extra ships really offered in terms of "the experience", and sadly, I was forced to face the facts. They don't offer anything but diversity of models on the play field, and I had been sucked into yet another game with snazzy models for over $300.00 total. Playing with TIE fighters instead of TIE interceptors is just as much fun, and it's really not that much different. Again, if I put $300.00 into an IRA, and if I retire at 65, at a 5% return and adjusted for tax and inflation, I'd come out with just under $1000.00 cash at the end. What a fucking sucker. I mean, seriously, it is the acme of compulsive behavior.

To the end of changing my behavior, last week, I sold off the lion's share of my X-Wing stuff. I sold two base sets and almost all the expansions; I have one base set, one X-Wing expansion, one TIE fighter expansion, one Y-Wing expansion, one TIE interceptor expansion, the Moldy Crow expansion, and I just picked up a TIE bomber and a B-Wing. I did so at a loss, as one might expect. With the money, and with another hundred bucks sprinkled on the fire, I bought Star Trek: Attack Wing, and I mean all of it, including two each of the Dominion ships. Then, with Ebay proceeds from selling other things, I bought the "Dominion War OP Month 1 Participation Prize". That ran me another $30. It makes you wonder just what kind of fucking insanity has riddled my mind that I would do that, knowing that all of these collectible games add very little with each iteration, and knowing that I just did the same damned thing with X-Wing. 

Now, maybe you'd be surprised to know that I'm not the kind of guy who needs to be able to "talk about games" with my friends, or the kind of guy that feels some value in being able to talk with others about the merits of any one given game or expansion bit. I don't need to be "in the know", I don't need to be "smarter" than anyone else. I'm just me; plain old, flawed me. I don't post things much on Fortress: Ameritrash, and I virtually never do anything on BoardGameGeek. So, I'm wondering to myself, "wherein lies the value of these things if they don't indelibly change the game for the better in meaningful ways, but rather simply provide diversity, and incalculably less diversity than just buying several different games"? I don't know, and if I did, I probably wouldn't be having this "coming to Jesus" moment with myself about my predilection toward buying into collectible games balls deep without truly mastering the base game well enough to really need to extend it, if you can call that a need. The fact that I just called it a need indicates the pervasive nature of my addiction. Food, shelter, and water are needs. Buying metric fucktons of plastic for a game isn't a need.

I am an undeniable game addict, and as much as I'd like to not be, I am. It's part of me, it's always been a part of me, and that's that. If you go to the American Society of Addiction Medicine website and look up the definition of addiction, there you have it:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
 Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

Granted, I'm not going have any sort of disability or premature death, and the substances are plastic and cardboard, but the fact remains that buying shit you don't need that doesn't add much actual value to a game surely looks, smells, and feels like an addiction. What other possible explanation could there be? Buying lots and lots of expansions for a game, no matter how great that game is, makes no sense. If it doesn't change the experience in a dramatic and undeniable way, it makes no sense except that it's an addiction. 

I know a great many addicts: alcoholics, heroin addicts, meth addicts, pot addicts. They're not hard to find, no matter where you look: Church, work, neighbors, or just on the street, there's addicts of various things everywhere. Maybe we're all programmed that way, or at least programmed to be susceptible to it. I'm here to tell you: people don't buy hits of heroin because they're looking to have a different experience, they're buying it to have the same experience over and over again. They're looking to get the same "high" as they did the first time, which is both hopeless and increasingly more expensive a pursuit. Is this not the EXACT SAME THING? Are we who buy into collectible games not merely reaching for the same experience of awe and joy we had when we first played the game? The experience of learning a game for the first time, exploring it, mastering it? Is it not just taking more chrome onto the game to achieve that same mental "high", giving us more options to master? Really, are we not all buying these things with the action-reward impulse at its core?

I always find myself showing off the new models I buy to the wife or my daughter, talking in grand terms like, "Wow, can you believe how pretty this thing is" or "The paint on this thing is superb! Those little Chinese wage-slave kids sure can paint, baby". I cannot, in honesty, tell you if I have ever said, "Wow, this ship really changes the game in a substantial way. I mean, this ship will make it an entirely different, better game that without it, it would just not be as good." It's obvious to me, at this point, that it's about new and shiny, not better and different. That's troubling to me, because I've always considered myself to be the kind of person that evaluates purchases with deep skepticism and critical thinking. Honestly, I am, but not in the case of games, and especially not the case when it comes to collectible game expansions. In those cases, I am a blind addict, no more, no less. The sooner I accept it and start looking at what I do from that perspective, the sooner I'll be doing things smarter.

Luckily, board game addiction is, generally, relatively benign although I have seen guys I know overwhelmed with their addictions, and it destroyed them. One guy I know had so many models from a specific game that his wife ended up leaving him. He was dragging her to tournaments, essentially forcing her to take part in his addiction, and she had enough of it, packed her shit up, and got out of dodge while the getting was good. What truly scares the shit out of me is that this individual was a professor of Psychology, with a focus on pathological behaviors, at one of the nation's most prestigious universities. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. This could be any of us, if we're not careful.

I guess, at the end of the day, I'm not entirely sure that I'm comfortable with this hobby anymore. It not only allows for this kind of behavior, it actively encourages it. Instead of forums being support groups, they're enablers. I see myself buying insipid trinkets in the hope that I can reclaim the feeling that I had when the X-Wing box first arrived on my doorstep, punching and sorting chits with the joy of a kid opening presents on Christmas. Maybe that's the root cause of all of this: being trained by society that opening things is totally fucking awesome. Maybe it's the consumerist culture here in the United States. I'll probably never know, but the whole point of this exercise, and this article, is to tell everyone, or maybe just tell myself, that we need to be on our guard when it comes to game buying in general  but more specifically  collectible games. Each successive wave generally doesn't provide you with unique experiences, it simply extends the experience that the base game provided, and therefore buying these things isn't buying a new, totally different game, but rather attempts to cling onto the love you have for the base game by showering it with gifts. And worse, maybe we're doing it for its sake, but not for ours.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Star Trek: Attack Wing - "Use The Force, Kirk" ~ Eddie Rickenbacker

I've played pretty much every Star Trekity space combat simulator for at least a short while, so at this point, I'm not calling myself an expert by any means, but I am saying I know of which I speak from my own limited perspective, formed through decades of experience. Until this point, I was pretty much convinced that A Call To Arms: Star Fleet (ACTA) would go down in history as the game that made Star Trek games accessible; the game that simplified the genre sufficiently to allow the great unwashed masses the ability to just sit and play. It turns out that I was mostly right: ACTA still holds the trophy regarding making Star Fleet Battles simple enough to play by virtually anyone without removing the things that makes it truly more simulator than game, especially over something like Star Wars X-Wing (X-Wing) or, more closely, Battlefleet Gothic. That said, Star Trek: Attack Wing (Attack Wing) does almost everything right in almost every meaningful way when it comes to simplifying down capital ship combat while keeping it tense enough to be exciting, and deep enough to be more than just another dog-fighting game. In a word, engaging.

It is at this point I want to apologize up front, as I'm going to have to do the inevitable X-Wing vs. Attack Wing comparison because some of you might still think that they're directly competitive product lines of the same scope. These may share a basic system, but they are most assuredly not the same kind of game beyond the obvious. The real comparison should be between Attack Wing and ACTA, because where ACTA is a simpler, abstracted version of Star Fleet Battles, Attack Wing is a more accessible, more abstracted version of ACTA. The fact that Attack Wing just happens to share a lot of basic traits with X-Wing, or Wings of War, is in my opinion irrelevant and incidental at best. If Wings of War is the wise and clever grandfather, and X-Wing is the successful and handsome father, then Attack Wing is the physicist son who exceeded the grandfather in wit and exceeded the father in success, but isn't as handsome as either. That's really a great analogy; so much so that after saying it out loud, I literally was in awe of its sagacity. It really fits.

In continuing my comparison, for those who are still skeptical of my assertion, I should mention that while the basic movement and shooting mechanics are very similar to X-Wing, Attack Wing has so much more meat on its bones than X-Wing from a scope, replay, and depth perspective that they really shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath. Dice Tower, in their review video, said something to the tune of "if you know how to play X-Wing, you know how to play Attack Wing", but I think that is simplifying things. It's more precise to say, "if you know X-Wing, learning Attack Wing will be easier as the core movement and shooting rules are more similar than not". Attack Wing is a game about objectives and smart tactics, not just about trying to get behind the other guy and ram a proton torpedo up his backside. Where X-Wing is tactical, and slightly strategic, Attack Wing is far more strategic and slightly less tactical. They have a vastly different scope, although you can just hockey-fight if you really want to, and those who think they are essentially differently themed versions of the same game are not seeing the forest for the trees, with all due respect. I can't slight someone for thinking so, the marketing surely didn't indicate otherwise with any level of skill. 

There are more, and longer, rulers in Attack Wing
Anyhow, before I get into the real meat of the review, let me talk about the components for a while to give you an idea of what to expect. Let's begin by saying that the packaging for both the starter and the boosters is virtually indiscernible from X-Wing's. It comes with 3 models, a bunch of cards and bits, some rulers, some wheels, and stands for the ships. Sadly, the models in the game are not nearly as detailed or well painted as X-Wing, whose models are the no-bullshit gold standard for miniature space models, and further, are not even remotely as detailed as the ACTA models, although the ACTA models are sold unassembled and unpainted. I can allow that the sculpture isn't all that detailed, since scale does play a role in that. What I can't buy is that the paint can't be as it was with X-Wing. I shit you not, these ships are not in the same league, or even the same sport from the paint booth perspective. I guess it's the dividend of having to pay licensing for the "system" to Fantasy Flight Games, a cost that FFG didn't have to pay since it's their novel system (wink, wink).

Battle of the Corian Nebula
See, I get that quality costs money, but what inexorably hacks me off is that not only are these models' paint only marginally better than the Star Trek: Tactics, but the models are nearly identical as well. At $15.00 retail, each, you'd think they'd have converted the models a little bit and added a few new details or got a paint scheme that took more than 14 seconds to apply. Maybe hired younger little Chinese factory slaves, the ones with tiny hands, to really get in on the little paint details like ol' FFG must've done. Sadly, this is not so, and I'm sure that Christian Petersen has got to be laughing all the way to the bank on this deal. Now, this is not to say that the models are ugly, they're just not the pinnacle of this genre as X-Wing models are. If I had to use a single word to describe them, it would be "plain". Well, all but one, and not because it's simply plain, it's because it's embarrassingly terrible. To put it mildly, I was disappointed with the "Kirk" Enterprise, and please, humor me on this point because I have something to say about it, as well as how the game was marketed initially.

Click on this to zoom in. You gotta see this.
I don't want to belabor the point too much about this wee Enterprise, but it's my blog and I really need to rant about this a little bit. The Attack Wing version of the "Kirk" Enterprise, one of the single most iconic space ships of all time, is pathetic and a total fucking disgrace to the license. All of the sell sheets from Wizkids and the initial webstore images made the thing look cool as ice and twice as nice, but when I saw it at the store, I'm not even sure what I can describe my emotions as. As best I can put it, it's like seeing this great looking burger on TV, dripping steamy juices of yum, and then when you order it and unwrap it, it looks like gelled cat shit between two pieces of wonder bread. There was a lot of this web store bait-and-switching done, but the Enterprise is the one that not only fails to live up to the imagery, it really shouldn't even exist in the current form. It's just little, sad, pathetic, and all kinds of fucked up. Seriously, immediately cut it apart, toss everything but the mounting receptacle into the nearest skip, and then put the saved receptacle into the Heroclix Enterprise-A model after drilling it out. It took me one minute, no bullshit, to convert it, using a scalpel, a drill, and some dollar-store super glue. That minute is counting the walk up 13 stairs to get the glue. Ugh.

Finally, my only other complaint about Attack Wing, and this is very subjective, and likely a little bitchy on my part, is that the printing on the cards is very dark, with scant contrast. So much so that it's hard to see some of the art in a room that isn't very brightly lit. Many of the cards also have this queer "interpolated screen" look to them so they look like a old scan-line CRT monitor. I mean, the art appears to be 100% recycled from the various TV series', so it's not like I'm missing out on a Frank Frazetta original or something. Again, not distracting, but it's something I'd have appreciated a little bit more love being given to.

One of the best things about the game is that the base set and each expansion come with these wonderful little pairs of mission cards that expand the game far more than the ship in the box does. Each is an entirely new scenario, built to play with the ship you just purchased, and after playing several of them I have to say that it's way better than just trying to blow the other guys up as is the usual deal with most space games. Like I said, it's not just another dog-fighting game.

From a product price standpoint, the really great thing about Attack Wing is that I'm sure that I'd never have a desire to buy multiples of all of the ships to feel like I'm getting the most of the experience. What this really means is that you can buy into the game, balls deep, for less than both X-Wing and ACTA, which is a very good thing. Hell, I'm not even sure that you'd need to buy all the ships that come out, although they all do bring something to the table, or at least the ones that have been released at this point. I initially only wanted to get "The Original Series" ships, but after seeing the "Kirk" Enterprise model, I realized immediately that I'd have to reconsider that notion.

Anyhow, let's move on and try to shake off the shame from the sad little Enterprise. So far, I've gotten the base set and all eight expansions released in the launch, including two of each Dominion ship. I initially purchased the base set, which I feel is a month's supply of awesome weekends, and after realizing how good the game is, I went out and purchased all of the expansions. Only after playing the game 5 times did I realize that I'd really like to have more Dominion ships, solely to "fill out" that faction since the other factions all have at least three ships and the Dominion has only two. 

Again, I don't believe this is the kind of game where having a lot of one kind of ship buys you much, so unlike X-Wing, it shouldn't be a money pit. My biggest concern about the game's long-term costs are that there are many dozens of models available from Wizkids' stable, and Wizkids' policy on reusing models seems to be to beat a horse until it's jellied, so therefore I can envision them putting as many out in as rapid a time as possible. As it sits, wave one and two are already being scheduled for release, so we're talking about buying quite a few models if you want to "keep up" and collect them all. I encourage you to read the cards and see if you really need to have each model before buying, because I can guarantee there will be chaff.

All Your Scan Are Belong To Us
Back to the game itself, one of the great design ideas in this game is that the ship is just the base with which you build upon, but unlike a game like X-Wing or Battleship Galaxies, there's a little more to it than just tacking on weapons, or occasionally, a pilot. To build a ship, you first choose a model and a card that goes with it. For instance, you could choose the USS Enterprise, or you can choose it to be a random Galaxy Class ship, like the SFC Superfly, my personal flagship. Anyhow, if you choose the named ship over the generic, you get a bonus of some kind, although it costs slightly more in build points. Next, you must add a Captain, which gives the ship its initiative value, and the captain may have a slot for an elite trait which gives him a special ability. Then after that, you choose crewmen to accompany the stalwart Skipper, which again gives you more options and abilities. Finally, you can load the ship with weapons and technical upgrades. A key point in all of this is that every ship has the ability to field any faction's upgrade, not just those aligned with their faction, but if you use upgrades from a different faction, they cost more in build points. 

As noted, a new and recognizable scenario is packed into each expansion, so you will be hard-pressed to run out of "game" anytime soon. They are surprisingly varied, and the beauty of the system is that not only will you want to play each scenario, you'll want to do it with several different fleet builds and from both sides of the scenario. In addition, it's worth mentioning that there are scenarios for more than just two players, and they are amazingly well balanced, from what I can tell from playing four of them. Three player works really well with this game due to the objectives given, which very few games seem to be able to accomplish. Each faction seems to be better at certain things as well, which provides the impetus to want to try things differently for given scenarios. Sometimes you want to play Dominion ships, which are essentially big space battle wagons that fire from a drink straw, and sometimes you want to play the Romulans, who have powerful weapons but are limited in their deployment. It's simply a very well designed system, and you can tell that a lot of thought was put into making each scenario and faction very unique and worth playing.

Something that I was concerned with when I read the designer diary on was that Andrew Parks, the designer, was not a huge Star Trek fan, and due to the porting of the movement and attack system, I wasn't sure that the game was going to feel really "Trekky", so to speak. I am happy to admit that my fears were unwarranted, because the game is quite immersive from the "feel" standpoint. This game exudes capital ship combat, science, exploration, and most importantly, the Star Trek fiction. They embrace the license, and that's very telling to me that they are engaged with the fan base and want the game to be more about Star Trek than a generic space combat game as it could've been. The missions are straight out of different Star Trek eras, and best of all, they have an ongoing monthly campaign at local stores that re-enacts the Dominion War. Attendance at these tournaments are most assuredly prize-driven, but I have to admit that I'm drawn to the idea that the company is supporting tournaments with more than just a "Come play so you can blow other people's shit up" background. The one thing I've noticed, though, is that many stores aren't set up on the Wizkids event system, so finding a venue might be tough.

At the end of the day, this game is better in a lot of ways than X-Wing, but only if you're looking for a more scenario-driven or, really, deeper gaming experience. X-Wing certainly fills a niche and the remarkably detailed ships don't hurt, but it is, at its core, a shoot-em-up, albeit arguably the best ever made. Attack Wing is not a shoot-em-up, and it portrays its theme better than X-Wing did, and in the most meaningful of ways. Alas, the real test for this game isn't as, or should not have been expressed as, a competitor to X-Wing, but rather, as a much less rules-heavy version of Star Fleet Battles or ACTA. I think, to that end, it succeeds amazingly, and the only real complaint I have about the game as a whole is not derived from its design, but rather based upon the quality of the printing and models. 

If you're looking for a true capital ship combat game that embraces its theme and simulates, but in an abstract and simple way, the mechanics of large ships with complex subsystems engaged in various missions, this is a very, very good choice at a moderate price point. From the play perspective, it isn't as detailed as ACTA, but it isn't as simple as X-Wing, and I think it hits a very sweet spot betwixt simulation and shoot-em-up. It's a very fun game that isn't a brain burner, but isn't for burnouts either. I'm glad I dumped a shitload of money into it, and I will continue to do so, despite my wife's protestations.

Why Baron Von Picard and Geordi Bishop Both Approved This Message:
- Simple, accessible play paired with depth and scenario-driven play makes this a keeper
- The theme wasn't tacked on like so much cheap costume jewelry; it's integral
- They've done a great job expanding upon FlightPath's two predecessor games
- If you always wanted to try Star Fleet Battles, don't; try this instead
- You don't need to buy multiples of every ship to remain viable in tournament play

Why I Wipe Out Wizkids' Klingons With Quilted Northern Ultra Plush:
- Repainting old, mediocre models was not a smart play when they could've been brilliant
- Dark printing and CRT-style scan lines didn't help the production value shine
- Another expensive miniatures game right after X-Wing is a pox upon humanity
- The "Kirk Enterprise" model may be the single biggest misstep in IP licensing ever

Of all of the Star Trek licensed games, I suspect that I will eventually succumb and call this "my favorite", despite my adoration for the ACTA system. It does everything right in terms of play and does many things right in terms of production value. At $15.00 a pack, they should've come up with the cash to make new, far better models that are in line with the X-Wing models, although they aren't bad, aside from that one I mentioned. The rehashing of old models with subpar paint jobs is the single most disappointing thing about this game, but luckily, the game makes up for it in every meaningful way. 

Also, I'd argue that there's room for both X-Wing and Attack Wing, although I'd say that there's not enough room for Attack Wing and ACTA because they are similar in scope and purpose. In that regard, it comes down to the question of whether you prefer longer simulation games or if you want faster, more abstracted games. In the end, this is a truly wonderful offering that I will certainly be found playing often, and one of the very few games in my entire life that I'm considering playing competitively. The only reason this game isn't a 5 Star game, in the opinion of the Circus, is that the ships are just not up to the level of quality that a 5 Star game commands. That said, if you don't try it, you're missing out.


4.5/5 Stars

Check out the Wizkids site here:

Friday, October 4, 2013

Zoneplex - Only Don Coscarelli Could Come Up With A Wilder Game

What the? I don't even....??
The theme and setting is important to a game's greatness despite what some may have you believe;  a theme that isn't completely integrated into a game can remove the shine from a  solid game, whereas a great theme tacked onto a terrible game will still find some small semblance of love despite its flaws. Well, Zoneplex, from Mysterian Games, is very different as far as the mechanics and gameplay, but I am here to tell you: this game has the most outlandish, wild, B-movie theme of any game I've ever played. The story behind this game is so astonishingly unconventional and quirky that you can't help but kind of marvel at the oddity of it all. There were definitely some psychoactive substances being consumed when this game was first envisioned. 

The short version of the story is that the game takes place far into the future, with Earth just a distant memory and an age of human colonization well into its second century. Near a black hole, this giant pyramid called The Zoneplex, like a big ass space ship straight out of Stargate, is just chilling out. The human colonies sent their greatest mystic warrior monks in order to control the incalculable power found in the Zoneplex. Now, it's never actually explained what makes this Zoneplex so powerful, or even what it can do, just that it's bad ass, and you need your space monk to go and gain control of it. Now, I want you to be seated when I tell you this: the players have avatars in the shape of a robed person, and they are referred to as "monkles". Yes, you read that right, it wasn't a typo. When you pair the 70's album cover artwork, the crazy fiction, and the overall "style" of the game, the only thing you will find out of place is the fact that Marc Singer is not anywhere to be found. Hell, it really should have come with a vial of patchouli oil or incense to round out the experience.

The components for the game are all well-made, and the artwork is as colorful and odd as you'd expect based on the fiction. I have to admit, the little "monkles" really are cool looking, as far as wooden meeple variants go. There is no board, per se, as little triangular tiles make up the board and are placed as the first phase of the game progresses. There's also a neat little tracking board that keeps track of everyone's level, the baddie level, and other things. All in all, the production quality is quite good with the exception of the card backs, which display ridiculously laughable "8-bit retro" style artwork. The problem is that the art is abstract and vibrant in many places while being incomprehensibly out of place in others; the 8-bit retro look paired with the beautiful art in other places just seems like they ran out of money for the artist or something. That said, from a value-of-components perspective, for a relatively unknown game, they did a really great job and I think the game, on balance, looks really nice.

At its heart, it's actually a very clever design in a lot of ways, despite it being an unlikely mash-up of very different mechanics. It's got hand management, area control, tile laying, set collection, secret information that becomes open later in the game, and negotiation in a very Ameritrashy potpourri. You build the pyramid from the ground up by placing tiles, fighting enemies and collecting one of three colors to achieve one of the several victory conditions. Enemies, called "Fears" are drawn blind from a deck, and many enemies are supremely difficult, so in many cases you need to join forces with opponents to win. Just as in games like Dungeon Run or Munchkin, you can promise the spoils of victory or items you have in hand to them in order to lure them into battle. And like Cosmic Encounter, depending on the outcome, the involved players gain, or lose, a static bonus in addition to anything gained via the aforementioned promises to allies. It all works well together, perhaps in spite of itself, and while I don't think this will ever be a favorite game of the group, it was enjoyable in a lot of ways.

One thing you kind of have to accept is that it's very random on one hand, since a lot of the things that happen are controlled by a D4, and on the other hand, you can only mitigate that luck to beat the Fears in very limited ways. What this boils down to is that you're going to get your ass kicked a whole lot. The baddies have very high strengths, and your maximum rating is 4, so you're going to have to roll big to beat them, and even if you did roll big, it's never enough. You have to get rid of some stones in order to reduce the baddie's strength, but you do so via a roll, so if you get rid of a stone that you placed in order to roll another die and roll a zero, you feel like a total moron for doing so. It's not frustrating, really, but it does totally suck when that happens. What eases that pain is if another player tosses a stone into the mix, which is how they help you, and they roll a zero, because you cost them a stone and they lose just like you do, so it's a nice way to hose your neighbor. The downside is that getting rid of stones extends the game length, and you can expect a four player game to run about two hours, assuming that you're doing some serious horse trading during the pre-battle parlay.

A smartly designed tracking board!
A really unique aspect of the game is how it breaks up the game flow into two different sections; the first phase has hidden information and is devoted to building the Zoneplex board, and the second is essentially a race to get the three required Fears and be able to enter the "eye" tile with enough "influence" to win. In the first section, players place tiles and move about the cabin, so to speak, and the idea is to place your "sacred stone" markers on tiles that have the symbol that matches your secret symbol, which will give you extra strength during the second phase. This is arguably the weakest part of the game as it's pretty much drawing a card, laying the amount of tiles that the card indicates, and moving that same amount of tiles. It's just not that much fun, although there are a lot of different kinds of tiles that you can place, from teleporters that allow you to move to other teleporters,  to "reliquaries" where you can gain relic cards that provide you abilities, to icon-laden "sacred tiles" that give you a bonus if you're standing on one that matches your secret icon.

The second phase begins when the board is laid out, and it is more interesting because the game state at the end of the first phase really does impact how this phase goes for you. The secret information is gone at the beginning of this phase, with players revealing their symbols and for the first time revealing what their "influence" level is based on their played cards and how many stones they have laid on which tiles, among other things. At this point, the object is to simply have one of each of the three Fears, which are gained by beating them in battle, and in addition, getting to the "eye" while in possession of the Fears and having the most influence points. Just being in the "eye" provides the player a bonus, but it's a lot harder than one would think to have more influence than everyone else because there is absolutely a "beat up the leader" feel to the game, although there are very limited ways to do this.  

Klatuu, Verata, Cthulhu...
The main way to mess with opponents is to play cards that steal their relics and to refuse to help them when they're faced with a tough battle. With regard to the latter, it's a very calculated risk you must weigh when going in with another player because you have to remove one or more of your stones to help in battle as I noted, which generally hurts you more than it helps. Sure, you might get offered a card, but is that worth reducing your influence points, and potentially losing anyhow, which results in losing a strength point, which also reduces your influence? Generally, helping others is only useful if you planned on doing so from the first phase onward, and that's because if you put a sacred stone on a sacred tile that doesn't have your symbol, it's a -2 influence penalty, so in helping an opposing player, you can actually remove that stone, which removes the penalty. All in all, there's a lot of factors to think about, and if you didn't thoroughly read the rules before playing, you will find out late in the game that you totally screwed yourself over in the first phase. Now, you can place stones in the second phase too, but the fact that the information becomes open really kind of hoses your ability to be sneaky about it.

The major complaints fielded about this game were centered on two things that really kind of bothered the players. The first is that you continually need to remember to update your influence status, which is a little fiddly and very crucial. If you forget to update it, or forget about a card you've got, when a player enters the "eye" and their influence bumps up two points, they might win simply because you have poor memory. I, personally, don't feel it's a big deal. Now, what we all agreed upon was that the movement situation kind of sucked. When you draw a card, it tells you how many tiles to move, and this is kind of the Talisman situation where if you need to move one space, but draw a card with two on it, you can't opt to move one space and then stop. It doesn't add anything to the game and it really is just there to lengthen the game, whereas in Talisman, it makes sense to a degree. This just kind of pissed everyone off; where the rule book is unintentionally self-deprecating, the movement is self-defecating. Other than those two criticisms and some passing laughter about the absurdity of the setting, we all pretty much got along fine with the Zoneplex, and mostly enjoyed our adventures therein. 

The long and short of this game is that it is one of the weirder games I've ever played, not only due to the theme and setting, but in the game play. It's actually a little refreshing because it's not the same old stuff, which is saying quite a lot these days, but "different" is clearly not enough to make this game really rock the houseboat. Once you know how to play it well enough to make smart decisions in the first phase, I think the game really kind of becomes better than you'd think it would be the first time you play. I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that I liked the game a little more each time I played it rather than the usual, where I like games a little less each time I played. The mix of tile-laying, area control, and negotiation really worked pretty well, and I was kind of in awe, or perhaps better, in disbelief, that they managed to put ideas that don't seem to work that well together into one very solid package. Now, while I was not unique to the group in enjoying the game more with each play, there were a couple players whose scores steadily declined over several plays while their negative commentary increased. 

Now, I found out about this game via the designer emailing me and offering me a demo copy, and after some research, I really kind of had to review it. I don't normally accept review copies anymore, but seriously, the theme was just too wild and the rules just too compelling for me to refuse. This is a GameSalute-produced game, which was Kickstarted, and it is a testament to people who know what they're doing looking a game over. This could've been a total train wreck, but I suspect GameSalute had some input. I reviewed this because people should really know about this game, if for no other reason than to understand that games don't have to be about Renaissance-era courtesans, alien invasions, or worst of all, zombies. This review copy will be sent to whomever bugs me about it first, per my site policy, although if you want it, you're going to have to cover shipping. Star Trek: Attack Wing pretty much guaranteed that I'll have no money in the foreseeable future. 

Why The Beastmaster, Dar, Is Clearly Cut Out To Be A Warrior Monk:
- Zoneplex's theme puts most B-movies to shame with its ingenuity and oddity
- The rule book is really well organized and the game is relatively easy to learn
- When the art is good, it's very good
- While the theme is tremendously absurd, it's also really funny
- One word: Monkles

Why George Romero Will Unleash Zombie Hordes Upon Mysterian Games:
- The movement mechanics get in the way of the game rather than expand it
- When the art is bad, it's very bad
- "Contrived" does not begin to describe calling the fighting "facing your Fears"
- It lasts about a half an hour too long for what it is

If you like games like Munchkin, Dungeon Run, or Cosmic Encounter because of the alliance mechanic, you might want to check this out, because this really does a good job of taking those games' mechanics and making them its own. I'd argue that it's really the core of the game, along with area control. The upshot is that there were a lot of things we liked, but a few things we didn't, and the things we didn't kind of soured some of us on the whole game. I think there's certainly a place for this game on people's shelves, but the buyer has to really like a very finite set of things in order to really appreciate it. I've never played anything quite like this, and it's a refreshing change from the same old shit that has been churned out, ad nauseam, in the board game world.

3.25/5 Stars

Behold the mighty Zoneplex here, and tremble:
Company Website

Despite me telling Shelby, the designer, to put the rules on his site, you have to go to to read the rules: