Star Realms – Much better than Star Trek

Star Realms has been out for quite a while, but I hadn’t played it until very recently. Which is a shame since it’s possibly the best introduction to deckbuilding games I’ve seen.

The unifying theme of all deckbuilding games taking an initially bad deck and building it up to be more efficient. Typically this follows two paths, finding ways to make more money so you can continue to buy better cards, and pushing for the victory conditions. In every deckbuilding game there comes a point when you have to switch from building your money and card draw to spending money on your victory condition.

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You’ll start off with a deck of these losers, but build to something greater.

In Star Realms the route to victory is simple, reducing your opponent to zero life or ‘authority’. You’ll achieve this with your deck of ships and star bases. Which provide some combination of money, damage, and authority, as well as special abilities.
One unique feature of Star Realms is the distinction between ships and bases. In most deckbuilders you play out your hand, resolve any effects, then discard all cards and draw a new hand. While ships do work like this, bases stick around, meaning you get their effects every round, and some bases must be destroyed before your authority can be reduced. This gives star realms an element of board presence not seen in most other deckbuilders.

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The cards you can buy in Star Realms belong to one of four factions, each having things they tend to be good at. The Trade Federation restores your authority and draws lots of cards, the Star Empire messes with your opponents’ hands, the Blob make plenty of money and the Machine Cult are strong attackers and the best at scrapping cards from your deck. Scrapping cards is important because as the game goes on some cards will become ineffective, so them remaining in your deck is inefficient. Also, cards will have abilities that only trigger when another card of that faction has been played so specialising has advantages.

This synergy within factions plays into the way Star Realms organises its shop. typically in deckbuilders the cards available for purchase are already determined meaning you can plan out you purchases ahead of time. However in Star Realms the buyable cards are all shuffle together and five are dealt out for purchase. This means you need to think about what factions you start purchasing, sure there might be a good Blob ship available but there may be none for a while after that. This also makes setup much simpler, just give out the starter decks then shuffle a big pile of cards, so Star Realms manages to fit into my natural habitat, the pub.

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Just a handful of the cards available for Star Realms’ 4 factions

Star Realms also includes some excellent multiplayer modes to make it great for teaching, there are several team variants and a very cool boss battle mode where all players fight against one. This means you can pair up the more and less experienced players to help everyone have a good time, and spread teaching out across the whole game rather than having to front load all the rules and strategies. This feature is something I’ve seen few other games do and is the reason I would say it’s the best deckbuilding game for new players. And if you feel that way inclined the game has plenty of expansions to keep the card pool fresh.

I have almost nothing bad to say about the game, apart from its art which isn’t bad but doesn’t do anything great either. When you combine the excellent entry point to the really engaging gameplay and the fact that it is dirt cheap and very portable it should definitely have a place in your collection.

Quantum – The best game ever?

I’m often left wondering which game I would keep if i could only own one (OK I’m not but just roll with it). There are a lot of strong contenders. Battlestar Galactica has a great theme and combines deception with harsh resource management. Skull and Love letter can be played almost anywhere by anyone of any level of drunkenness. And Netrunner is a game of great depth with a huge community. However the game that has won is Quantum.

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Sorry buddy, just missed out.

Quantum is one of the first games I ever bought and as such carries a lot of sentimental value, but I think the game can also stand up on its own merits. Quantum represents everything I like to see in board games. It is a game about combat and map control which i definitely prefer to economic passive aggression, and at the same time visually appealing with its brightly coloured dice. Even though you can attack and destroy your enemy’s forces, getting back in the game is fairly easy so people don’t end up sitting out the majority of the game.

The main aim of Quantum it to put your quantum cubes down on planets and you achieve this through your ships. The ships are by far the best and most creative aspect of Quantum. Each ship is represented by a die, with the number on the die showing how fast a ship can move and how effective it is in combat, with combat favouring low numbers, and each ship class has it’s own special ability. If you aren’t happy with your fleet composition you can spend actions to randomly re-roll your ships, introducing a serious amount of risk/reward when you choose to do so. The two ways to place cubes are by increasing your dominance, a meter that increases when you destroy a ship and decreases when you lose one, or by placing them on placing them on planets which requires the total numbers of the ships around a planet to be equal to a certain value. This means you can either focus on small numbered ships for combat, or some higher numbered ships to place cubes on planets.

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For example, Green could now place a cube on the central planet because their ships surrounding the planet add up to a total of 10.

Being aggressive is heavily rewarded in Quantum, during combat the attacker can’t be destroyed, only the defender, making the risk of attacking much lower and encouraging less certain attacks for the chance to both build up dominance and remove and enemy ships. However the game balances the two styles of play very well, strong combat ships will be slow allowing opponents to flee and put their cubes onto another planet across the map, and the higher numbered ships needed to grab planets are vulnerable to attack. Even losing ships isn’t all that bad since they are simply re-rolled and placed back in your supply ready to redeploy. The game encourages early boldness in another way, cubes cannot be removed once placed so you don’t need to worry about defence as much, and each cube placed allows you to take one of the game’s upgrade cards for your faction.

Quantum’s upgrade cards allow the game to grow over time, either providing lasting bonuses which will change how your faction plays like improved defences or an ability to deploy ships anywhere on the map or one off effects that can alter the board state by giving you another ship or letting you re-roll and re position your entire fleet. Because different abilities are available for purchase each game how you develop your faction will be different every time, and the upgrades other players choose will impact your decisions. The upgrades also offer a nice way to catch up through the research action, if you have actions you don’t want to use on anything you can tick up the research die which will reward you with an upgrade when it reaches 6 before resetting.

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The black upgrade cards represent the one shot powers and immediately impact the board, whereas the white cards will change the way you play for the rest of the game.

The map Quantum is played over is also very varied, being made up of tiles which you can re-arrange many different ways. Unfortunately this is one area where i have a gripe with the game. The way some of the maps are shaped can lead to situations where one or more players are left on their own unchallenged while other butt heads, which ends up reducing the fun for everyone. But the map tiles are so flexible you could patch these problems out yourself with a little work, in fact I’ve been working on making and testing some maps that would allow me to expand the game to 5 or 6 players from its current cap at 4.

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The maps provided with the game are just the start.

All of these elements make Quantum a game with multiple routes to victory , whether you hang back and research while other players fight it out, rush to get your ships in perfect position or throw yourself into the thick of the fighting. I love Quantum because it manages to be a medium complexity game done in around an hour with plenty of strategic depth. It’s no beginner game like Condottiere or Love Letter, but it’s easy to break out without consuming a whole day like Twilight Imperium and a bit more action focused than something like Concordia. If you’re someone who plays board games regularly Quantum is a must own, and quite possibly my favourite board game.

 

 

Galaxy Trucker -An Insurance Nightmare.

Some games are so weird and unique that they defy genres and exist entirely unto themselves. Galaxy Trucker very much belongs in this category, an anarchic scramble to create something beautiful followed by watching your baby get smashed to pieces by space rocks. Somehow trying to turn a profit throughout this whole mess.

The first thing you will notice about Galaxy trucker is the ships, made up of dozens of different components, lasers, engines, crew modules, all connected by a confusing array of pipes and tubes. This is what makes all the ships in Galaxy Trucker unique. You are building in real time from a shared pool of modules so what you are able to grab each game will be random, especially so since these components are facedown. Then there is the problem of actually assembling your ship legally, you might box yourself out of half of your ship if you cant find a piece with the right connectors.

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See! Don’t those unused spaces burn you up inside.

By the time you get to the end of the building stage the dust will settle and you get to see the ship you’ll be flying in the encounter stage. Somehow there might be a ship which is just a giant engine block with no guns or cargo storage, or you could stock up on batteries with literally nothing that needs power. Almost every ship will have a horrifying weak point , a module that if destroyed will lead to a while half of the ship falling away into space.

And there is every chance that key component will be knocked out by Galaxy Trucker’s vicious encounter deck. The aim of the game in Galaxy trucker is to acquire money, and some of the encounter cards will help you do this, letting you pick up cargo or sending surplus crew to explore abandoned ships. However, the other part of the encounter deck will try to take your hard earned cash away from you, if you don’t have enough guns enemies might steal your hard earned cargo, enslave you crew, or send a few angry laser blasts your way. And meteor storms are always ready to knock off some exposed parts of your ship, maybe that fully loaded cargo hold stuck out on a limb because you had nowhere else to put it. On top of the deep emotional pain you feel at your ship falling apart, your wallet will burn as you also have to pay for each component lost as part of your space insurance, the most brutal insurance of them all.

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And there’s plenty more out there trying to blow you up.

Galaxy trucker has an amazing feeling of escalation, moving from your dinky round 1 ships with mildly damaging encounters, up to the massive round 3 ships being buffeted by meteor swarms as huge swathes of them are cut off, never to be seen again, and your one crew module with just an engine limps across the finish line. This increasing intensity also helps with teaching the game, as the first round can be a quick way for new players to realise rules they’ve got wrong and strategies that don’t work.

The game also has some excellent expansion content, adding new encounter cards, new components and new ship layouts. The ship layouts in particular are good because they add extra challenge to the building stage if you think you’re getting too good at the game, while newer players play with the standard ships. Additional components are very much a double edged sword; as even though they add new abilities like improved shields or recharges for your batteries you have to find room for them, and connect them properly when even in the base game you were already struggling to get enough stuff into your ship.

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For example, with this ship, roll 2 dice and do not build on the numbers rolled.

Galaxy Trucker is the game I own that is most unlike any other, while it seems byzantine and has an ungodly amount of components, it plays quick and can be done in under an hour. I would say at least the base game is something you need to own, you won’t be disappointed.

 

Coup – I know you are, but what am I?

So, games where you can bluff to your friends/enemies are pretty good right off the bat. Since every action is laced with an extra hidden meaning, these games mean you are always very interested in what your friends are doing rather than closing in on your own player area.

One such game that I’ve played a lot is Mascarade. A game of pretending to be different characters in order to accumulate money. While I’ve played it a lot and it has maybe the best art I’ve ever seen in a board game, I think I’ve found a game to surpass it. That game is Coup, a game of pretending to be different characters in order to accumulate money.

Coup is fantastically simple to teach and with a pretty straight forward objective, be the last player standing. Each player has two cards in front of them representing their lives, these cards will also have one of Coup’s cast of five characters on it. While nothing special the art here is ok and does the job. Coup also has the great quality of being cheap and portable, allowing it to come to my favourite location, the pub.

A player turn is nice and simple, only giving you one action per turn. You might take one of the generic actions, gaining a little money or spending 7 to launch a coup, eliminating one of a players cards. Another option is to claim you have a particular character to use their ability. At this point other players have an opportunity to call you out, asking you to prove that you are who you say you are, if you don’t then you sacrifice a card and move on step closer to being eliminated. But these accusations are also fraught with risk because if you falsely accuse someone, you will lose a card instead and the revealed character is shuffled in with the unused characters and replaced. This restores some secrecy to the accused player and allows them to continue bluffing away. You may also claim to be a character in order to counter another player’s actions and can be called out on this in a similar manner.

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Player aids: the actual best thing since sliced bread

The bluffing and accusations are extremely high risk but also high reward, which I think compares very favourably to Mascarade. Mascarade does have a much less severe penalty for being wrong this goes in with the fact that in mascarade you don’t even know who YOU are. As a consequence Mascarade definitely has more potential for silly accidents where you both get your characters wrong, but the game does come with its own series of drawbacks that I’ve seen from playing it a lot. As the game is about hidden information a player who can figure out who they are has a serious edge, as such you are often obliged to spend your one action for the turn swapping characters to re-introduce some confusion. While this does offer potentially devious planning, I find that the obligation to give up your actions to stop your opponents all the time quite annoying, especially when anything you plan can be undone by other players doing the same.

This is not to say that Coup is without fault. If you get some good combinations of characters you might never feel the need to lie, and the high price for an incorrect challenge can make you timid sometimes. Another downside is that players can be eliminated unlike Mascarade where everyone is in until the end however unlikely you are to win. Coup’s cast of characters is also much smaller than Mascarade so the variety is definitely lacking. This makes me very interested in checking out the expansion that is available especially as it bumps up the maximum player count.

Having played both games I can definitely say that they feel different even though they superficially seem similar so you can own and play both no problem. But Coup’s high stakes, very fast play (~10 mins) and relative freedom from having to sacrifice your fun options to block other people make it the game I’ll probably be playing most from now on.

Thanks to @Gardnerd_ on Twitter for providing the game.

Cash & Guns – Chat shit, get shot

I’m always on the lookout for a light, quick game that I can play in my natural environment of the pub. Games like this are good because they don’t require that much of a commitment from my friends, and I can get out of teaching mode as quickly as possible. Cash & Guns could be one such game.

The first impression upon opening the box is unfortunately quite disappointing, the art is just not good. I can understand having a cartoony aesthetic and imagining a more realistic art style doesn’t feel like an improvement, but this attempt really didn’t do it for me. This sadly makes Cash & Guns the only game I own that has art I actively dislike, which is a shame since good looking components really help me to sell a game to my friends.This is in sharp contrast to the fact that the foam guns might be the best board game components I’ve ever seen.

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Must try harder.

On the gameplay front however Cash & Guns shines, a mechanically light game with plenty of bluffing and betrayal, it manages to do the most important thing which is get everyone around the table talking. At the start of a round some loot will be laid out in front of everyone and all players will take their silly foam gun and load it with either a bullet or a blank, then everyone points their guns at each other and starts around 2 minutes of shouting and recrimination. At this point people who feel the heat is too high can get out of the kitchen and lay their character down, meaning they will not be eligible to share in the loot. Those who were brave enough to face down the guns now reveal what they loaded, blanks or bullets, with people getting shot if a real bullet was pointing at them. Needless to say people who get shot are also ineligible to take loot, and get themselves a wound for their trouble. Those who are still standing take turns grabbing cash, diamonds, rare art and even medkits and extra ammo from the central pile. The game is nicely timed, always lasting eight rounds and the person with the most money at the end without taking 3 wounds and dying will be the winner.

To improve your experiences I would highly recommend more chatting and deal making, it’s never binding so feel free to go back on your word, often. People are going to be annoyed by you shooting them, but what if they were going to shoot you anyway. Besides they might only have blanks left so put some bants into the mix. Playing games like this honest can work but i think at least a few of you should stir the pot to get the most out of it.

There are also a bunch of special role cards you can optionally play with to spice up the game, letting you aim after everyone else or making you tougher, or perhaps some benefit to ducking out of a round. But these definitely seem underwhelming to me, not actually adding much to the game, so I haven’t tried them out. If you end up playing this game a lot then they might be what you need to get some more life out of it.

If you can get past the terrible art then I think you’ll have a lot of fun arsing around with this game, it doesn’t ask for a large commitment and can usually be wrapped up in less than an hour. The game has one expansion out and another on the way which I am definitely considering, since it brings in new different guns like a giant revolver or a taser. but given the relatively high price of the base game for what you get (£30) this is definitely a tentative recommendation.

 

Fire in the Lake – Charlie was Everywhere

There are a fair few games that I hate to love. They could be devouring my life, wallet and happiness like Netrunner. It could be a game that I love to play but know in my heart is bad like Betrayal at the House on the Hill. Or it could be a game so mammoth that I never get to play it with anyone, and that is Fire in the Lake.

Fire in the Lake is the latest in the COIN, or counterinsurgency, series, these games are slightly abstracted large scale wargames set in a historical counterinsurgency. Past games have been set in Cuba or Columbia but Fire in the Lake takes on the Vietnam war. Players have the choice of four factions , the NVA and Viet Cong or the US and ARVN, these factions all play quite differently and actually have different win conditions too.

All the action in the game is driven by the massive event deck, this determines the turn order and the players can in turn decide whether to execute the event’s effect or take one of the many actions available. These events are incredibly thematic representing real historical events, personalities and equipment, and provide some nice simplification as well. Only two players can act each turn then sit the next one out so as a team there is some serious decision making to be done, if presented with the opportunity do you both act but give the enemy a free turn next and who of you should wait if not. You also play with the next turn’s event on display so you might want to forgo action to have first dibs at a powerful event.

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The insurgents and the counterinsurgents play totally differently, with the insurgents being much worse at direct combat but requiring the conventional armies to root them out before they can attack. So you end up feeling very much like General Westmoreland, watching tiny groups of guerillas pop up all over South Vietnam and not really wanting to put in the effort to clear them out, while the vast conventional armies of the north mass over the border. By contrast the insurgents’ task also seems daunting, your forces grow much more slowly and are significantly less good in a fight, but that’s usually not your goal, you might be happy sneaking in one guerilla unit to sow havoc in the enemy rear areas.

Even within the teams each faction has different objectives and means of achieving them. The US army is an efficient mincing machine in combat but it is small in number and only gets reinforcements rarely, this problem is compounded by their victory conditions since they win by bringing the boys home alive and not escalating the conflict. Also they want to build support for the South Vietnamese government among the populace so this compels them to maintain a presence in as much of the country as possible to stomp out VC agitators wherever they appear. By contract the ARVN faction couldn’t give a toss about being popular and just wants to control territory, which they can do with their large but comparatively ineffective army, another avenue for victory points is to divert US government aid to the personal pockets of the ruling class however this will infuriate the US player as it both decreases the money available to fight the war and reduces support that the US player has been building up.

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The insurgents get on a little better but still butt heads, both want to build bases to establish a supply line but the VC wants to spread discontent with the Saigon government whereas the NVA are interested in controlling land in the south, in a sense this means the NVA opposes ARVN and the VC opposes the US. I would say the NVA and ARVN are most evenly matched since the NVA use conventional troops as well as their guerillas.

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Since you only do one type of action a turn, albeit several times, it takes a while to put your strategy into action but don’t take too long or you’ll be caught out by one of the games fantastic coup rounds. The coup cards go into the event deck and provide mini resets to the game. Most importantly if players have enough of their type of victory points they can win the game immediately. If this not occur each side gains money, builds support or opposition in regions they control, then the counterinsurgents redeploy. ARVN must retreat back to the cities or bases as the monsoon comes in and the US has an opportunity to bring in reinforcements or draw back its military commitment in the south.

I love Fire in the Lake, but it’s so intimidating i could never bring it along to a board game evening, the level of rules learning being maybe on par with a miniatures game like Warhammer. However the game does include something rather interesting, an option for any number of the game’s factions to run on autopilot so I can play against the game, referencing the massive flowcharts to see what the non player factions can be a pain, but it is a great way to spend  lazy sunday with some baileys and a stack of war movies. Fire in the Lake is a long game and more than a little confusing, but there’s just nothing like moving a giant pile of those wooden troop cubes around the war map.

Samurai Spirit – Jolly co-operation

Enough about games where we’re either trying to blow each other up or monopolise tulip production in 16th century Holland, there’s a whole world of games where it’s you and your friends working together against a hellish opponent, the game itself. These are excellent games for someone like me who’s constantly trying to ruin other people’s productivity with board games. They are great gateways, unlike competitive games you don’t have to worry so much that the first games will be you pounding them into the floor for the first few games, and you can spread the teaching experience over the whole game rather having to front load it all. Most importantly, they encourage everyone to be chatty all the time.

Samurai spirit is one such game,  with up to seven samurai defending  a village from bandits in the style of the film Seven Samurai. Except the part the movie left out where the samurai occasionally turn into animals. Each of you will be one of the fantastic looking samurai as you work your way through a deck of bandit cards for three rounds, adding in slightly harder enemies at the end of each round.

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Each individual samurai will be playing essentially a game of blackjack, the bandit cards all have a number and you will be deciding to draw and fight a new bandit or pass, taking care to not go over your samurai’s particular ki limit. There are a couple of extra aspects to the game to help you out with this, the samurai all have a passive ability that makes drawing bandits less risky, passing cards off to other players or getting a peek at the bandit before you would draw. Also there are slots to the side of your combat track where you can put bandits without having their number count against your ki value, these slots need to be filled by the end of the round or some bad stuff will happen. Balanced against these helping hands drawing cards is still risky and a constant nag. At the start of your turn you apply a penalty based on the most recent bandit in your combat stack so you want to be drawing new bandits if the effect is particularly painful like dealing damage to your samurai, also remember the need to fill your slots on the side before the round ends.

With that said passing isn’t the worst thing in the world, you let one bandit get past and while these have a chance to do damage to your village it isn’t a guarantee, then you hand off your passive ability to another samurai to use on their turn. This choice to pass or not and who to give your ability to is a major part of the team decision making. It’s definitely a choice I need to take more rather than just rabidly drawing cards in pursuit of the coolest thing in Samurai Spirit, activating my ki ability.

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When your combat line hits exactly your ki limit you remove the top bandit from your line, allowing you more room to fight, and use your very powerful ki ability. This might be killing two bandits straight off the top of the deck or removing the bottom bandit from a player’s combat line. And I haven’t even mentioned the animal forms. When your samurai has taken two wounds you will flip over your board onto an incredibly cool looking animal samurai, your ki limit increasing so you can fight more enemies and also upgrading your ki ability. But you need to be careful since four wounds will see you dead.

Speaking of dead that is one of the ways for you to lose Samurai Spirit, if any one player dies you all lose. You will also lose if at the end of any round you have either no farms or no families left, these can be lost through bandits burning them down or if you fail to put bandits in your farm/family slots. Difficulty wise I have only beaten this once but it’s quick and light enough a game that I don’t mind losing and playing again. It’s certainly rough but not so bad I don’t get to the final round. I think over several games I’ve got my head around the balance of deliberately taking wounds to activate your animal form and accepting some barricades and farms getting burned down to avoid getting overwhelmed.

The main problem this kind of game can have, Samurai Spirit being no exception, is when a more knowledgeable player railroads the group into set decisions. This can take other players out of the action and in the worst cases have one player constantly passing because handing their special ability off is more efficient than them actually doing anything. This is a fault that is by no means unique to Samurai Spirit and somewhat inherent to the genre, but it is always worth trying to restrain yourself for the benefit of less experienced players, I for one should be doing this more.

So Samurai Spirit get a wholehearted thumbs up from me, its small-ish and quite cheap but will probably get you quite a bit of play time. The quick pace will see a game completed in less than an hour so it’s also good for play on a train or similar situation. It also goes into the small group of games I’ve managed to play while quite hammered, which always earns a game points from me.

 

Splendor – Splendid

I’ve never really enjoyed super hardcore euro games like Agricola and its ilk and this has always seemed to me like a serious character flaw as a board gamer. To not get on with some of the hobby’s sacred cows was largely due to my own idiocy, way too much maths which gets exponentially worse when considering turns after the current one and the actions of other players. I can respect these games as fantastic interlocking systems and I won’t lie and say it isn’t satisfying when a year ends and all my lovely sheep start having babies (and all my actual babies eat my goddamn food), but it doesn’t get my blood up as much as a game where I can use an army to crush people with my tactical brilliance.

However if there were any game in the genre that you could get me to play regularly it would be Splendor, because it takes the principles of the genre and removes 99% of the extra stuff. Splendor will see you and your friends trying to create fantastic renaissance artworks to build your reputation and impress European nobles (Wait, no! Come back!). And how do you do this? With victory points, obviously.

The game play of Splendor is excellent in its simplicity since on your turn you can do one of only four actions. Two of these actions are about collecting what may be the greatest board game currency I’ve ever played with. Five different coloured gems represented by weighted plastic poker chips, which are lovely to hold and make a fantastic sound when you are stacking them to intimidate your opponents. For your actions in game you can take either three different coloured gems, or take two of one colour if four of that colour remain in the supply. The supply has a quite limited supply of gems is just the start of the passive aggressive interaction of Splendor. Diversifying the gems you take is very important to both leave your options open and to disguise your plans from your opponents, or you could hoard one colour if an opponent desperately needs it for something, although this is thankfully limited by the cap of ten gems you can hold at any one time.

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Easily in my top 10 board game components.

Two more actions you can take relate to Splendor’s set of cards covered in amazing artwork. These cards have two key attributes, some victory points that inch you closer to winning, and they also reduce the cost of all future purchases by one of a particular colour. There are three tiers of cards, the first with few if any victory points, the second tier provides a few more points with the juiciest prizes reserved for the third tier. Each of these groups of cards is more expensive than the one before it and you will not be able to afford any but the first group by only amassing gems. This means you will spend some of the game building up an economy of tier one cards but at some point have to switch to grabbing tier two and three cards, whether you do that by buying more cards for discount or taking gems is a decision you will have to make. There are actually two ways to acquire these cards, either buying them with your gems and discounts, or you can reserve a card for purchase on a later turn. This has the excellent dual use of taking something you want and denying options to your opponents, with the added benefit that you can take a special gold gem which can be used as any colour you like.

Beyond the gems and the cards is one final element to the merciless economics of Splendor, the nobles. Yet more gorgeous art will see figures such as grumpy Henry VIII glaring down on you from the top of the marketplace. The nobles are tied in to the mechanic of the discounts on the cards you have purchased. When the collection of cards you have amassed matches the discounts shown on the nobles, one of them will wander over to join you and give you another sweet hit of victory points. Since only one of you can take each noble and they do not re-stock you end up faced with a dilemma, do you race with your opponents to cut them off from the nobles they’re aiming for, or save your efforts and pursue other nobles or none at all.

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So stern, makes you want his victory points all the more.

This limited set of actions that interact to form many possibilities, with the need to consider opponents moves but not direct confrontation, gives all the hallmarks of a solid euro game, one that i have found easiest of all to teach. This puzzle still has a serious flaw, it’s very hard. Never in a game have i seen so much silence, players staring at their cards and gems with gears visibly turning. I’ve played a fair few complex games, but there is usually a lot more action to chat about and threatening trash talk, in Splendor all your mental energy is thinking what will be a good move and maybe 5 seconds to actually take it. For this reason i feel Splendor is a game i can respect but not wholeheartedly recommend. I’ll definitely try out other games of this type, my eye is particularly drawn to Machi Koro, but for now I’ll stick to making pew pew noises as spaceships blow up over calm graceful economics.

Survive – Escape from Atlantis – The unofficial Jaws board game

A calm breeze wafts over a tropical paradise, but then the ground rubles and starts sinking into the ocean. People scramble for the insufficient rowing boats and ominous sea monsters can be spotted on the horizon. This is the opening to Survive – Escape from Atlantis, a veteran board game who’s 30 year anniversary edition is already a few years old. Survive will see up to 4 (or 6 with expansions) players trying to get their coloured meeples across the sea to the safe areas; a sea increasingly populated by sharks, whales and sea monsters.

Survive earns some points from me right off the bat by being simple, a game that works with my terrible teaching ability and probably 2+ pints is always good. The setup is excellent, getting the players engaged by asking them to build the island they’ll be fleeing as it slowly sinks into the sea. Then players set up their meeples, each one having a different number underneath representing how many victory points they are worth if they escape, but after setup they can never be checked. This means until scoring at the end of the game you aren’t sure if you saved an important scientist worth 6 points, or someone useless like Dom* worth 1 point.

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The turn order for Survive is also nice and easy too. First you spend 3 movement points, either moving one person or boat a lot or several people or boats a little bit. Next you remove a tile from the island starting with all sand tiles then all forest and finally mountains. These tiles are not only pretty to look at but give the island a bit of 3D character to it with each type of tile being much taller than the one before it. (well done Survive, more points for nice object design). Any people standing on the tiles when they are removed will have to get in the sea**, so make sure to pick people who you don’t really want to stay friends with. The tiles also have abilities on the back which you secretly look at and depending what they are, either reveal and resolve them or save them for later. Finally you roll the monster die and move one of the available sea creatures to ruin everyone’s day even more. Whales move the furthest and knock over boats, tipping the passengers into the sea like so many peanuts in a dodgy pub. Sharks move slightly slower and gobble up any people swimming in the water. Sea monsters are the last type and these move like treacle but also eat anything in their path so watch out.

 

However, I’m going to put it out there that I don’t like Survive all that much. The problem i have is that it feels like the difficulty switches from too easy to too hard after each player has had 2 or 3 turns. Early on there are no sea creatures except the monsters in the corners so the first boats have an ok chance of getting through, probably with your high scoring meeples. Later on there are so many whales about that no boat can realistically move, meaning most of your people will be swimmers, swimmers are dead people that just haven’t realised it yet. A problem is that swimmers can only move 1 space per turn so swimmers that fall off the island in the middle of the game will not have time to make it to the edges even without accounting for sharks. This makes the game feel very samey with an early rush and basically the game being decided by those point. I have thought one way around it is to make all the outer tiles be beach so that players can’t set up a guaranteed early pounce on a boat, but that seems to go against the fun of building a random island to look pretty.

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For the first time in this blog I’m going to talk about expansions, and I hate almost all of them, apart from the one with allows 5-6 players which I always like because I typically have more than 4 in my regular group. These expansions make the game even more murderous when i think it’s already too deadly. One expansion introduces the horrifying giant squid model, which appears whenever a whale appears but can be placed not just in the tile that was just removed, but anywhere and can kill people still on dry land or in boats. The other expansion adds dolphins which are supposed to help the players but in practice are a mixed bag, in the base game dolphins were a power that you gained from tiles, allowing you to move a swimmer up to 3 spaces but in the expansion these are replaced with some adorable dolphin miniatures that protect swimmers from sharks and sea monsters. This is fine but doesn’t help the unbelievably slow speed of swimmers. The dolphin expansion also comes with new monster dice, the addition of dolphins and other changes make moving any one specific monster type less likely. There is also another die which changes how fast the monster you rolled moved on average slowing down whales and speeding up sea monsters as well as letting your monster dive to any unoccupied space on the board. Slowing down whales does help boat survivability a bit but I wouldn’t say this expansion was worthwhile for that.

At the end of the day i can appreciate Survive as a unique piece of design, if you’re looking for a light game you could definitely do worse and it will remain part of my teaching arsenal. i just find after playing it a fair bit that games tend to develop very similarly and there isn’t a lot of chance for players to make skilled moves with so much death surrounding them, but if you can get past that then you might want to pick it up.

 

*Yes offence

**© @megaslippers (2015)

 

 

 

Condottiere – This map is so cute

I love Condottiere for two reasons, it is relatively simple to teach and comes in a lovely small box. So it fits into my favorite genre of board games, games you can play in the pub.

You and up to 5 of your friends will be mercenary captains, marauding your way across a tiny map of Italy that cuts off the best part, the toe kicking Sicily out into the Mediterranean. The aim of the game is to control regions via obligatory wooden cubes, many if they are spread out but fewer if you can make a connected kingdom.

Condottiere is fundamentally a game about hand management, carefully husbanding your resources to win only the important fights. While the game is also about map control and bluffing, these aspects are facilitated by your hand of cards. Each round a battle will be fought in a region and the winner will be the player with the most strength in their battle line at the end. Players take it in turns to either add a card to their battle line or pass, but once you pass you may not play further cards. It might seem good to put down one or two strong cards and then retire early, however you might see your lead either broken down or surpassed by other players willing to put in more cards. This means your hammer blows want to be delivered late so you have to decide what cards to sacrifice so you can stay in the round longer. The juggling act is made even harder by the fact that you do not draw cards unless all but one player has no cards, so in a 6 player game you could burn out quick then be unable to fight for quite a while.

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The intense brinksmanship is what makes Condottiere not just a game of playing all the cards in your hand. You could throw down some strong mercenaries to intimidate other players into giving up then pull them back to your hand with other cards, or you could drop some tiny dudes until other players feel secure enough to stop then power out some bigger cards unopposed, ultimately all your hard plans can be undone by a player making it winter and reducing your mercenaries all to 1 strength so beware over committing. The map control adds an extra element of strategy, picking fights in areas you don’t need to win but others will expend their cards on so that you will be fresh for the next battle.

Condottiere is a game you should definitely own, it’s super portable and games only last around an hour, leaving you wanting to go again almost immediately. It works just as well as a casual 6 player affair, with deals being made and broken almost in the same instant, as an intense one on one duel. And most importantly it can be enjoyed with a pint.