Wednesday, December 7, 2011

That's How I Roll - Part IV - "Gamers Log, Supplemental"

Greetings, Dice-Chuckers n' Card Floppaz!

Last year I wrote a three-part series about boardgames, summarized conveniently for your perusal below:

Part I - The Early Years       Part II - Revelations and Reminders      Part III - "GAME ON!"

Honestly, I really owe my beloved hobby an update.  Since my last segment posted in July 2010, I've played well over fifty new board games!  Some real gems have come to my attention, an example of a "Strategy Game" I referenced last time out has since blossomed into its own category and I even omitted an entire sub-genre.  BOOOOOO!   I know; I am teh suck.

But I'm here to make amends!  So, without any further ado, here's what's new in the exciting and dynamic realm of board-gamery...


Here's an entire classification that could arguably fall under the heading of "Party Games", but your physical interaction with them makes them distinct.  Basically, Dexterity Games are to Board Games like the Kinect is to X-Box.

I really don't know how I could have possibly neglected this, since one of the first games I ever played was Table Top Rod Hockey.    

Me and my Dad used to have epic matches of this, with Mom acting as official puck-dropper and the family dog as our sole spectator.  Our first dog, a Westie named Frosty, used to force an unconventional stoppage in play ever once and awhile by snatching  the puck off the ice and dashing away with it.

One day after pulling this little stunt of his, we caught up to him but noticed that there was no puck.  The next day, while Dad was cleaning up the back lawn, he asked me if I wanted my puck back.

Hmmmm, maybe that's why I blocked this category out of my mind.

Stiga, a company based in Sweden (where table top hockey isn't just a game, it's a way of life) makes a version that puts the press-board and enstickerfied flat plastic players of yesteryear to shame.  Thanks to Stiga, we're now spoiled with 3-D players, slick surfaces, official NHL teams, no dead spots, puck ejectors and smooth as silk gameplay.

For being a super-fun game that held my interest since childhood, Table Top Rod Hockey easily earns six pips outta six!             

A more recent Dexterity Game discovery for me is Tumblin-Dice.  Let me tell you, folks, no dyed-in-the-wool board gamer can resist the allure of tossin' some bones around, so this entry really takes that predisposition and runs with it!

Players get a set of four colored dice to roll down the board, which is marked with multipliers on the lower tiers.  The goal is to try and have the score of your four dice be higher then your opponent's.  This involves making sure each toss goes far enough to score but doesn't go off the board.

Here's another great example of a game that takes only about two seconds to set up, explain and get into.  Heck, even my parents, who can scarcely tolerate the same stuff I'm into, absolutely love this game.  And, hey, who the hell doesn't mind rollin' dice, Vegas-style, bay-bee!  Even the Rolling Stones do!  

Tumblin-Dice scores a solid five pips outta six!  

I gotta highlight one more from this category, if only to compensate for its shameful omission last year.  So here's another great pick:

Roadzters is a car-racing game in which players are invited to get their flick on (read that carefully, please!).  Players actually use their fingers to flick the unpredictable ZBall™ around an AFX-style race car track.  If you manage to keep the wonky little thing on the road, you can advance your little race car up to the point where the ball stopped moving.  Whoever crosses the finish line first wins!

This game is more fun then anything deserves to be.  It's also a helluva lot harder then it sounds, with half the track devoid of guard rails and rife with optional over-passes, tunnels and Dukes of Hazzard-style jumps.  Naturally, whenever you land an amazing shot, there's often much rejoicing and high-fiveage.

For pure, unadulterated, child-like whimsy, Roadzters rates a huge five pips outta six!

Here are two more suggestions from this mindlessly fun category:


For the record, some of the categories I presented in Part III were criminally broad.  For example, I chucked about a million different game mechanics all under the banner of STRATEGY GAMES.  Now, admittedly this kept things simple, but it also short-sold a lot of innovative distinctions.

For example, the game Dominion, which was first published only three short years ago, has since spawned an entire category known as DECK-BUILDING GAMES.
In the same way that role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons grew out of the war-gaming hobby, Dominion sprang from the collectible card gaming phenomenon, first popularized by Magic: The Gathering.  In Magic, players choose from over thirteen-thousand different types of cards (spells, monsters, conditions) in order to compose their own unique decks, which they then use to try and beat the tar out of similarly-armed opponents.  Deck-building games have actually created an experience centered around the in-game act of customizing a deck of cards!

Although Dominion was the prototype for this sort of game, the theme feels completely tacked on.  You're supposed to be a rich monarch who's attempting to construct your titular holdings, slowly drafting cards into your deck to help generate money and victory points more efficiently.      

Unfortunately, you never have anything laid out in front of you, so you never really feel as if you're building anything save a giant stack of cards.  Instead of displaying some grand new addition to your fiefdom on the table, every turn you just buy or upgrade a higher denomination of coin, pick a card that gives you more resources or snag a few more victory points.  Then you just shuffle these cards back into your deck as if nothing really happened.  Don't get me wrong; it's still an extremely fun and original concept and since your victory point count is always kept secret within your own deck, the final winner can often come as a total surprise.

For coming up with an entirely new game type and inspiring a host of pretenders, Dominion scores a respectable four pips outta five!  

Although Dominion was the innovator, I'm actually more predisposed to the MARK II Deck Building incarnations, notably Thunderstone

Although this is essentially the same game as Dominion, as soon as you add the dungeon exploration theme, suddenly I'm no longer distracted by the clunk of the engine under the hood.  Instead I'm left with the illusion of a true game experience.  I guess it's because Thunderstone does away with cards that abstractly improve your turn efficiency in lieu of things you can relate to: such as torches, swords, armor and goons..hired goons.  You then send your heavily-laden champions deep into the bowels of a dungeon to get them to fight creepy monsters and salvage victory points on your behalf.  Now doesn't that sound more fun?

For taking the original concept and making me love it more, Thunderstone rates five pips outta six!     

Also worth mentioning is Quarriors!, which substitutes dice for cards.  Once in play, these dice then fight for you just like the monsters from Magic: the Gathering

And there's also Rune Age, the scenario-based, potentially co-operative experience set in Fantasy Flight's fictional world of Terrinoth:  

I also did a bit of a disservice with the equally vague FAMILY GAME category.  Cripes, "FAMILY GAME"...what the hell was I thinking?  Sounds like I was on the verge of recommending that antiquated yawn-fest Monopoly!

Let's face it, "Family Games" don't even really exist.  It's a complete misnomer.  It's like calling something a "Tribal Game" or a "Workplace Game".     

My next recommendation is a perfect example.  Based on my previously-established definition of a "Family Game" ("quick n' easy...appeals to a broad audience...has a bit of theme to give people something to relate to...doesn't attempt to simulate anything") then this thing technically qualifies.  And what says "Family Game" more then taking on the persona of a ruthless Tarantino-esque bank robber, handing out foam handguns and then pointing them at your kid sister in a Mexican standoff bonding moment?  Well, that's exactly what you do in the hilarious Ca$h n' Gun$:

In Ca$h n' Gun$, you play one of several gang members who have just pulled off a daring bank heist.  Naturally a bit of a "debate" breaks out as to how the money should be split (why this wasn't determined  ahead of time escapes me).  Players secretly choose one card out a limited "rock/paper/scissors"-style hand and places it face down on the table.  Then everyone gets a chance to simultaneously point their gun at any one opponent.

Everyone being targeted can either back down (taking a penalty), fast-talk their way out of it or "stick to their guns".  The cards are then revealed to find out who was bluffing and who just got ventilated.  The spoils for that round are then divided amongst those crooks left standing.

Described in such a manner, Ca$h n' Gun$ sounds unconscionably violent, but it's really not!  Gérard Mathieu's whimsical artwork gives you goofy shades of Sergio Aragonés and Mad Magazine.  The tokens representing banknotes, wounds and "shame" are delightfully cheesy.  And last but not least the day-glo orange hand guns pardon you somewhat for holding one to your baby-momma's cranium gangsta-style, yo!

So, as you can see, Ca$h n' Gun$ is really a NEGOTIATION/BLUFFING game.  And for being a particularly clever one, it rates a solid four pips outta five!

Even my classification of  THEMATIC GAMES is a bit of a cock-up.  After all, describing something as "thematic" is like describing a sculpture as "dignified".  It's very nebulous and does nothing to quantify what rules mechanics are being used or what the game's focus is.

Here's an example of what I'm on about:

Yes, DungeonQuest is very "thematic" but it's better classified as a DUNGEON CRAWL.  Why?  Because, like Deck-Building, this is a category all untoward itself.

This particular game was first published back in the mid-Eighties.  At the time I was living in a small town and it was often nigh-impossible to hear about such things, let alone procure them.  Then, when I was around sixteen or so, I tragically concluded that I was "too cool" for board games and missed out on a lot of classic titles.  Mercifully, publishing giant Fantasy Flight acquired to right to this after it went out of print and republished it just last year.  As soon as I saw it on the shelf of my local FLGS ("Friendly Local Game Store", BTW!) I was all over it like David Hasselhoff on a floorburger.  

The Dungeon Crawl sub-genre of thematic adventure games was an attempt by designers to try and replicate a Dungeons & Dragons session without all the time and foundation work required of a Dungeon Master.  So, basically, DungeonQuest is a pre-fab, olde skool, 80's era D&D adventure in a box.  

And when I say olde skool 80's era D&D adventure, I'm also talking about the masochistic difficulty level.  It's kinda like a cardboard version of the video game Dark Souls.  Players chose from one of six archetypal fantasy characters and then send them into the equivalent of a burning house packed with explosives.  During this home invasion there's a constant threat of being attacked by escaped  mental patients as you try and make your way towards the bedroom where you intend to steal ten dollars from the wallet of a lightly-dozing Cain Velasquez.

You make your way through the dungeon by literally picking a direction and revealing a random tile.  That random tile could be an empty room, a bottomless pit filled with spikes, or a Demon's green room.  Your character's stats give you a chance to avoid these things, but I've also seen people killed outright on their very first turn!    

I've been told that the game's survival rate is approximately 14%, and I believe it.  In the three games I've played, I've only witnessed one character crawl out of the dungeon alive.

And that's really a part of the fun.  It's an excuse to sit around and laugh at the misfortune of your opponents.  Although DungeonQuest is so luck-based you could actually have a debate as to whether or not its even a game, the sado-masochistic fourteen year old D&D nerd in me is still totally in love with it.

Five irrational pips outta six!            

Realizing just how many time-strapped, nostalgic former orc-slayers there are out there, Wizards of the Coast produced three board games based on their Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons property.  So far, I've only played these two:

DungeonQuest is to Dark Souls like Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon are to Gauntlet.  Again, players pick a fantasy avatar and set them loose in an underground maze that you construct as you play.  All the while you're constantly being assailed by monsters, traps and other horrible threats that inexorably chip away at your mortality.

Although the components are gorgeous, the pre-programed monster A.I. is inspired and you can fly through a scenario in about an hour, these game desperately need more chrome.  It was as if Wizards didn't want to risk alienating the average knuckle-dragger and refused to make it even vaguely complicated.  Every turn is the same thing: you try and kill something, you move to an unexplored edge of the map, you put down a new tile and then you typically get auto-ganked by some new monster and/or threat.  It boils the once-rich experience of role-playing down to a bunch of stats on a card and constant random rolls.  There's really isn't any exploration or adventure to speak of.

For being a pallid, anemic version of my childhood memories, Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon rate a mere three pips out of six...

Descent has a lot more of the depth missing from the two previous entries.

Although it boasts a lot more character customization and advancement, but I'm just not a very big fan of Fantasy Flight's "Terrinoth" setting.  This is probably due to the fact that, in their quest to create "cool" characters, even their supposed heroes look like Sauron's cabana-boy:

The game also suffers from having to saddle one of the players as the evil Overlord (although this role is actually relished by one particularly sadistic member of our gaming group) and it can sometime take five or six hours to play through a complete scenario.  But it least it's not like Ravenloft or Ashardalon: the Dungeon Crawl equivalent of a Kardashian, I.E. pretty but hopelessly vapid.    

Five pips outta six!

Alright, I got just one more left before I take off.  This is another one I would have lumped into the amorphous catch-all description of Thematic Games, but in reality it's SPACE EXPLORATION/ADVENTURE.   Which is exactly what you'd expect from a game called Star Trek: Fleet Captains.

Now, I used to prefer Star Wars to Star Trek, but that way back before George Lucas irreparably f#@$ed-up his galaxy far, far away.  But even back when I was watching the Original Series with Kirk, Spock and Bones and the movies that followed, I was always intrigued by Gene Roddenberry's vision for space exploration.

I really dug the concept of different classes of ships, each one customized with refits and staffed by unique crew-members all with special talents.  I loved when these vessels moved into the unknown to encounter alien planets, binary suns, wormholes and nebulae.  I jazzed (?) over all the competing alien races who were vying for influence across the galaxy.  And I was thrilled by all the scary, weird and unexpected challenges that came part and parcel along with venturing out towards the limits of space.

I'd explain what it's like to play a game of Star Trek: Fleet Captains, but frankly, I've already described it by talking about the premise.  I was so interested in playing a game like this that I was willing to invent it.  Mercifully, the good folks at WizKids have come along and spared me a tremendous amount of work.

In Star Trek: Fleet Captains, one player takes the role of the noble, goody-two-shoes Federation and the second player assumes the role of the sneaky, battle-hungry Klingons.  At the start of the game, they conscript a small fleet of ships and set forth to explore a randomly-generated concealed area of space.  All the while they have to contend with random events (and each other) as they attempt to complete missions for Victory Points. Typically the player who gets to ten Veeps first is the winner.

Although confusion and debate can occasionally arise from creative card plays and some of the components are totally clown-shoes (like the paper coaster location tiles), the game succeeds admirably in bringing the Star Trek universe to light.  The awesome miniatures included in the game all represent "famous" ships of the line, so you could conceivably get Sisko's U.S.S. Defiant from Deep Space Nine tangling with the I.K.S. Gr'oth.  
Although the Star Trek theme is pretty much incidental for me, the game itself tells a compelling narrative, evokes memories from the show and scratches my itch for a space exploration game.  It easily deserves five pips outta six!


On the next episode of "That's How I Roll!":
  • Games that give you a God complex as you put your minions to work.
  • The dice keep a-rollin'! 
  • The grade-school card game War gets a makeover.
  • Y'Arrrrr: The Boardgame
  • Finally!  A socially acceptable excuse to randomly scream "RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!"
  • Finally!  A socially acceptable excuse to randomly scream "DIE, YOU STINKIN' TOASTER!!!"
EPIC:  So impressed was I with Star Trek Fleet Captains, that I composed the following video love letter to the game:

FAIL: Hey, let's face it folks, they can't all be diamonds.  Here's my review of Camelot:

"Tonight we tried playing the truly execrable 'Camelot'.  Thank God Andrew didn’t spend much money on this piece of poo.  The 'Lightning System'™ might be good for people with attention deficit disorder who want the board game equivalent of  paint-brushing each other while sitting around table, but for a old school war gamer like myself who’s a bit  of a rules lawyer, this can't even be considered a real game. 

How the f#@% do you keep your opponents honest when everyone is simultaneously moving s#!^ around and  attacking stuff?  This is complete and total anarchy, and this is coming from someone who likes 'RoboRally', so it’s not that I don’t dig chaos in a board game.

It was so bad we didn’t even continue past the first few 'turns'.   

Seriously, this game is a total joke.  If Andrew forces me to play it again I’m totally gonna punch him in the dick-hole." 

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