Posts Tagged ‘Advent Reviews’

Advent reviews: Shadow Hunters

I love secret identity games. In a game that does secret identities well, the air above the table will be crackling with meaningful indications, suspicious gazes and innocent looks. Werewolf does it well, as does Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica. A Study in Emerald too, in its own peculiar way. And so does the game I’m looking at today: Shadow Hunters.

What kind of game is this?

In Shadow Hunters, the Shadows and the Hunters are trying to eliminate each others, while a number of other characters are in the middle, trying to achieve their own ends that may take them into alignment or opposition with one or both of the opposing factions.

At the start of the game, everybody receives a colour and a secret identity card. Your identity card will tell you your hit points, special power, allegiance and victory condition. The two latter are connected: Hunters win when all Shadows are dead, Shadows win when  all Hunters or three neutral characters are dead, and neutral characters each have their own unique victory condition, which can be anything from being alive at the end of the game over killing the third character to being the first character to die.

The basic mechanics of the game are pretty simple. The board has two tracks. The first is a health track that starts at 0 damage and goes upwards. Everybody starts at zero, and dies if they reach their health level – so if you have a health of 7, you die if you get to the 7th space on the damage track. The track is marked with the health levels of the different characters, so you can deduce which characters somebody plays by seeing them pass certain characters on the health track. The other track is the location track. This is organized with three pairs of spaces. On each space you will put a location card at the beginning of the game, meaning the pairs will be different each game.

You will be moving on both tracks. Each turn, you will roll the dice (the game uses a d6 and a d4) and move to the card specified. On a seven, you get to choose. Then you carry out the action of the card, then you may any other player on the same pair of locations by rolling the dice and dealing damage equal to the difference.

The card actions are pretty simple as well: heal damage, deal damage, steal items, or draw a card from one of three stacks. Of these, one is interesting: the stack of Hermit cards. Hermit cards contain an instruction like “I bet you are a hunter or a neutral character. If so, take one damage.” When you take one of these cards, you look at it, then give it to another player. They then read it, carry out the instruction, then hand it back to you to allow you to read it again before discarding it face down. This allows you to get an idea of who your opponents are (except, of course, that one of the Shadows may pretend he is something he’s not when being faced with a hermit card).

The game ends whenever somebody declares victory. If this is the Shadows or the Hunters, it will be obvious that they’ve won, but the Neutrals may win at any moment. This also means that several people may have won at the same time – for instance the Shadows may win because the last Hunter has died, while one neutral also wins because he killed the third character and a second neutral because she managed to stay alive for the entire game.

How many people should you play this with?

Many players is good. You can play with four, I believe, but five is really the lowest number I would like to play with. The maximum is eight, as far as I recall, and that can be a lot of fun to play, but I think the best number is five or six.

What do I think of this game?

I really like the game. The design is relatively minimalist, and only shows you what you need to see, and so doesn’t confuse you. There are two things to watch on the board: Where people are and how much damage people have. And all the mechanics are quite simple, but still give you a number of interesting choices.

That leaves you to ponder untangling people’s identities. What beginners often miss in this game is that the most important pile in the game is the one that doesn’t give you any mechanical advantage: the “hermit” deck. The hermit deck is a great mechanic, because something happens between two people that everyone can see, but only two of them know the significance of what is going on. That means that everybody else is involved as they will be second guessing what is going on.

Adding the “neutral” characters is a great way to mix is up. It means you can’t be sure who people are, because you won’t always be told that somebody is a hunter, but that they are a hunter or a neutral. It also means you can’t always predict when the game is going to end, as somebody might have a victory condition you don’t know about.

The game is a bit tough to wrap your head around, and  it is easy to be left in the dark if somebody else quickly find each other. But I’ve enjoyed the game every time I’ve played it. It is also a hidden identity game that can be played with not too many players, and I like that as well.

A few interesting things to note

  • A constant debate when playing the game is whether it is a good idea to hit someone at random when you don’t know who they are. Statistically, you are much more likely to hit someone not on your team – but you don’t KNOW.

Advent reviews: Quarriors

Dominion brought the deckbuilding genre into the world of card games. Well, the inventers of Quarriors thought dice games should get in on the action. The result is a game that is light and silly where Dominion is deep and lean. Too bad the inventors had a fetish for the letter Q.

What kind of game is this?

In Quarriors, you’re building a pool of dice. Each turn, you draw six dice from your dice bag and roll them. All the dice are special Quarriors dice, of which there is 13 different kinds in any given game of Quarriors: Three representing spells, seven creatures and three basic dice.

Each side of a die gives a certain effect. A creature might have sides that allow you to summon a level 1, 2 or 3 version of the creature, two that give you “quiddity” (magical energy), and one that gives you some other effect.

You use quiddity to “capture” (buy) dice from the the “wild” (the common display), and to “summon” creatures in order to activate them, let them deal damage to other players’ creatures and stay in front of you in the hopes of scoring points next time it’s your turn.

If a creature survives until it’s your turn again, you can score it, earning points according to what it kind of creature it is, and you may “cull” a die – that is, remove it from your pile of dice. An “advanced” version that I would recommend playing with changes this rule, so that you must cull a die to score it.

The first player to a certain number of points wins.

How many people should you play this with?

Good question. I have most often played this game two people, but particularly with the “Quartifacts” expansion, I think it might be even more fun with more people.

What do I think of this game?

So, first things first. Quarriors, quiddity, quartifacts, quarmageddon – do I need to go on? The people who made this game have an obsession with making everything start with “qu”. All, right, fair enough, that’s their call. I personally get sick of it after a while. It doesn’t break an otherwise enjoyable game, but it annoys me when I’m looking at the game – it strikes me as a kind of “noise” that I have to ignore in order to enjoy the game.

And I do enjoy this game. It plays quickly, and it has a very whimsical, wild feeling to it. I compared it to Dominion earlier, but while certain core mechanics are modelled off what Dominion does, this plays nothing like that game. Where dominion can  be a very thinky and strategic game, this game is just about getting out there, rolling some dice and doing the best with whatever you rolled.

That can also be seen as a weakness in the game: most of the time, it is pretty obvious what your best move is. This is alleviated a bit with the two advanced rules that are presented in the expansion rules, as this adds a few more strategic decisions.

But all in all, this is a game for quick, fast paced fun, and not for engine building and strategising. As a matter of fact, engine building is alsmost completely impossible – not only must you draw the right dice together, you must also roll the right faces. This means that you can’t really rely on chaining specific effects on specific dice.

One gripe I have is with the cards. Each type of die comes with three or four different cards. This means that you can play with one of three different versions of the same creature, getting the most out of the most expensive part of the game: the dice. Unfortunately, the cards have the same piece of artwork, and the names are almost identical. This means that it’s almost impossible to remember which of the different versions of the card you played with before.

All in all, a good game that we have played many a time here when we haven’t had the mental energy for a game of Dominion.

A few interesting things to note

  • Just as trashing is an important aspect of Dominion, culling is a very important aspect of this game. The difference between being allowed to cull any kind of die (say, a basic quiddity die) and being required to cull the die you score has a huge impact on game scoring. Being able to cull weak dice when you score means the person who scores will be more likely to good dice in the future, creating a snowball effect that allows a player to widen their lead once they have it. Being forced to cull your good dice when you want to score points for them makes it a strategic decision whether to keep it and use it later or cull it and get the points, plus it means that scoring points will slow you down.
  • The Quartifacts expansion adds quests, which are an alternative way to earn points. I would really recommend this expansion, as it adds yet another strategic element to the game that I really like.

Advent reviews: Now Boarding

Now Boarding is a causal computer game about running an airport and an  airline.

What kind of game is this?

In Now Boarding, you are cast as the administrator of an airport. You will have access to the waiting area and the take-off lane of your own airport, and you will see a number of other airports on a map. The game takes place in a series of “months”. Each month, a number of passengers will appear in your airports and the airports you have unlocked. You will need to load the passengers in your airport unto your airplanes, then fly them out to their destinations while at the same time picking up passengers at remote airports and flying them to their destinations.

Delivered passengers earns you money that can be spent on better ships, more destinations and equipment for your waiting area that will keep people happy. You can also hire people to carry out certain tasks for you: group passengers according to destination, keep them happy while they wait, load them onto airplanes and drag airplanes from terminal to landing strip and from landing strip to terminal. All things you could do, but as you get more destinations, more passengers and more planes, help becomes necessary.

The game takes place on a series of maps. Each map has a set of objectives, after which you can move on to the next, more complicated, map.

How many people should you play this with?

Well, one. It’s a single player game.

What do I think of this game?

This game was enjoyable for a few hours while I played through the maps. It is not, however, a very complicated game. The difficulty of the game mostly comes from overwhelming you with huge numbers of passengers, rather than from making forcing you to make hard strategic decisions. This is fine, but can’t keep me interested for long. The game is cheap, so if you want a few hours of intense, logistical pastime, you could do far worse.

A few interesting things to note

  • During a level, you will gradually change what you are doing. In the beginning, you will be mostly be manually loading passengers and sending off planes, but you will gradually be spending more and more of your attention to planning routes, letting employees take care of the dirty work. This is fine, except that it makes it difficult to start a new map, as you start with no employees. Suddenly, you must remember to do all of the manual labour yourself once more. I can’t decide if I think that counts as poor game design or not.
  • The more airports you fly to, the more difficult it gets to go everywhere in a timely fashion. I found myself often buying access to the last airports needed to win me the game in a big heap. I would term that somewhat poor design, as it means I have an incentive to not “finish” a level, but instead take a shortcut.

Advent reviews: Snowdonia

I used to live in Wales. So last year, when I heard that Snowdonia was about to come out at Essen, I asked a friend to buy it for me. It’s not the greatest worker placement game of all times, but I like it.

What kind of game is this?

In Snowdonia, you play contractors building a railroad up the Snowdon Mountain in Wales. You need to clear rubble, lay track and build stations in order to create the railroad.

At the beginning of the game, you lay out station cards around the edge of the board, and put cards between them, representing the amount of track that needs to be laid to get from one station to the next. As you lay track and build station, you will place cubes on the parts you have built, earning you points at the end of the game.

As in all worker placement games, the main focus of the game is placing the workers on spaces on the board to carry out certain actions: Collect resources, clear rubble, lay track, build stations or trains, take contract cards and a few others. Each round, you will place first one worker, then another, on the board. Once you have a train, you can pay a coal resource in order to place a third worker. When all workers have been placed, the workers will be taken off again, going from the first action space and continuing onwards. As each worker is taken off the track, the player may perform the action connected to that spot. This means that actions are always performed in a certain order, making it possible to gather resources, convert those resources into track and then lay that track on a space that was just cleared – all in the same round.

There is a finite supply of resources that are drawn from a bag each round. The bag also contains white cubes are laid along a track. This will make certain actions occur – spaces will be dug out, track will be laid and stations will be built (representing, I believe, other contractors). All of this will have the effect of progressing the game towards its end – particularly if players are stockpiling resources.

One important way of scoring is by way of contract cards. Each contract card gives you points for having achieved certain goals at the end of the game: digging a certain amount of rubble, laying so much track or building so much station. Each contract also gives you a special prover that you can use once in the game.

The contract cards also determine the weather – which affects the amount of digging track-laying you can do each action (rainy, muddy ground means you can’t work as fast, while fog prevents you from digging or laying track). There are three possible kinds of weather: sunny, rainy or foggy. You will have three discs out, showing the “weather forecast” for the next three turns. Each round, you will move  the discs up the track, then fill the lowest space on the track with a disc corresponding to an icon on the back of the top card in the contract pile.

The game ends when you have built track all the way to the last station. Points are earned from contracts, track laid and station built, and from certain train cards.

How many people should you play this with?

The game box says 1-5. I have tried with 3, 4, and I believe I’ve played it with 5. I think 4 is the sweet spot. 3 is fine, and I think 5 was fine as well. I’m a bit hesitant to recommend playing it with 2. The solitaire game is a game unto its own; I don’t think I would play that at all – mostly because I’m not much of one for solitaire games.

What do I think of this game?

The game is not perfect, but it has a charm that I like. The mechanics are pretty simple, but it forces you to gamble on whether someone else will remove the rubble you need to lay track, and whether the game will build that track you are saving up to build next round.

Another thing I like about it is its pacing and rhythm. The rhythm of placing and removing workers almost feels like a train in motion. The way the game completes sections of the board can be very frustrating, but it paces the game and drives it through a conclusion. Not least, it means the end of the game is not ultimately controlled by any player – if players try to stall, the game will force the game to end. This limits the number of points you can gain in the end, and makes for a very tense last couple of rounds.

The game comes with two different sets of stations. There are two expansions out, featuring a total of three different train lines to build, each with their own special rules. The Daffodil Line has you fill canals and gather daffodils, while Jungfraubahn and Mt. Washington has you set off dynamite. I haven’t played with either, but it sounds like fun ways to mix it up.

Snowdonia is probably not the smoothest and most ingenious worker placement game, but it is a nice and enjoyable game.

A few interesting things to note

  • This is a game about building a train line – but it is not a train game the way that Ticket to Ride or Trains and Stations may be a train game. It is a construction game, and you just happen to be building a train line.
  • This game has a lot of interesting ways of forcing players to act. Hoarding resources will make the game bring out more random actions, reducing the potential points each player may gain.
  • One worker placement particularly distinguishes from all others by the specific ways of placing and removing workers. In Snowdonia, you are putting your workers in a particular order – you know what will happen before and after, and that makes removing them both  very quick, but also interesting, as you depend on the decisions of the people before  you.

Advent reviews: Revolution!

I am no big fan of Munchkin. Sure, the images are nice and the game has loads of funny references, but I am not overly fond of the gameplay, which will often fail to end when you think it will, and end only when someone tries to gain their tenth level after everybody has exhausted their means of stopping them on the previous two or three people to try to win the game.

There’s another game, also made by Steve Jackson Games, that I much prefer, even though this game might also not end when you think it will: Revolution! (and yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title).

What kind of game is this?

In Revolution! you play agitators in a colony on the brink of revolution. Throughout the game, you use certain… assets… with certain members of society to gain what you need: support in the general public; influence in powerful institutions such a the church, the plantations and the army; and resources to gain more …assets… with which to exert more pressure.

Mechanically, this is a double area control game. On the board are representations of several powerful groups within the colony – a plantation, a tavern, a fortress, the market. Each has a number of spaces for cubes and an associated point value. Whoever has the most influence cubes on a group at the end of the game takes the points.

Influence cubes are placed using a secret bidding mechanic, the second kind of area control I mentioned above. At the beginning of a round, all players reveal how many of each of the three different kinds of resources they have: money, blackmail and force. They will then place a screen in front of their player board, and secretly put their tokens out on the board to bid on the different characters. When everybody is done, all players lift their screens, and you determine control of each character in order from top left to bottom right. Control is determined first by resource quality, then by quantity: one force beats any amount of blackmail, while one blackmail beats any amount of gold. At the same time, one force and one blackmail beats one force. Some characters, however, are not susceptible to susceptible to certain assets. The general, for instance, ignores force (but not blackmail), while the innkeeper cannot be blackmailed, though he bows to force.

The characters will each gain the player who wins them some combination of support (victory points), influence and tokens for next round. A few has special effects, like switching two cubes or replacing any cube with one of your own.

At the end of the round, you take stock of all your tokens. If you have less than five, your “secret benefactors” give you gold so that you have at least five tokens to use to bid with. The game ends when all influence spaces have been filled.

How many people should you play this with?

This is a game about getting in each other’s way. It is fun with three, and probably easier to strategize, but the real game, in which you get in each other’s way all the time, doesn’t start till you’re four players.

What do I think of this game?

This game hurts my brain – but I really like it. It’s very stimulating, trying to figure out where you can bid, and how not to be outbid, but also not to bid too much. I’m not always very good at the game, as it varies a lot, depending on the people involved. This also makes it a game that beginners win surprisingly often, as they don’t always play how you expect them to, throwing you off course.

I like this game, not just for its core mechanics, but also for its pacing. I feel like interesting things are going on, right up till the end. A clever play can swing a 4-3 lead in one area and 3-2 in another into a 2-5 loss in the first and a 7-0 lead in the other. And because the end of the game is very dependent on player actions, you may think the game will end, but because of people tripping each other up, it goes on for a few more rounds – just in time for the board to shift decisively.

The game has a great game design, and good components to boot. I would probably recommend getting the expansion, adding another area, more characters and two more player – but it isn’t really necessary. The game is good on its own terms.

A few interesting things to note

  • You might think that allowing players to keep resources from characters they bid for but didn’t get would could serve as a catch-up mechanic. I thought so. But when we tried it (it’s a variant rule) I quickly discovered that I was wrong. In fact, the result was that the people who won some characters would gain resources while at the same time not losing anything from characters they bid on – while people who got little would at most keep what they had but would never gain more.
  • This game relies a lot on psychology. One player gets an early lead on an area? It is quite possible that nobody ever challenges him, just because “Oh, he’s going to get it anyway!”
  • It is very easy to get too focused on winning areas. I’ve seen people win by almost only using the “printer” character, giving them ten points they can’t  ever loose – as opposed to the fortress, which gives them 55 points that they can loose, and which requires around 10 cubes to close.

Advent reviews: Ca$h’n Gun$

Today, I’m gonna tell you about one of the silliest games in my collection, and one that comes with some rather useful props: Ca$h’n Gun$

What kind of game is this?

In this game, you play a bunch of stereotypical gangsters. The gang has just pulled of a heist, and are now back at the base, splitting the loot… but you know, Lotus didn’t really pull her weight, and El Toro is a bit of a jerk – plus, fewer people to split the loot with means more for you… hey look, I’ve got this gun, here. Hmm… are there any more bullets in this gun?

Ca$h’n Gun$ is all about Mexican standoffs. At the beginning of the game, you get a character stand, a foam gun and eight cards: five “clicks” (meaning your gun’s  not loaded), two “bangs” (meaning you’re going to shoot) and one “bang bang bang” (meaning you’ll shoot fast). Each round, a stack of money cards are revealed and put on the table. The cards come in $5,000, $10,000 and $20,000 denominations. At the end of the round, you split the money the best way you can between the people still in the round, leaving over anything that can’t be evenly distributed between that number of players. So if three people have to divide 3 $5,000 dollar bills and 2 $20,000 dollar bills, they $5,000 each and leave the remaining $40,000 for the next round.

When the money has been revealed and examined, everybody selects a bullet card and puts it face down in front of them. When everybody has selected a card, somebody counts down from three, then everybody points their gun at one of the other players. When everybody has had a moment to survey the situation, there’s another countdown, after which everybody can decide to “chicken out”, take a “chicken out” token and withdraw from the round.

The people still pointing at somebody will then “pull their trigger”. First, anybody with a “bang bang bang” card turns over their card, and shoots whoever they were pointing at. Then everybody else reveal their cards and shoot. Anybody who got shot takes a wound token for each wound and are out of the round. Finally, the remaining players split the loot.

The game continues for eight rounds. A player who receives their third wound is dead and out of the game; otherwise, the winner is the player with the most money at the end of the game.

There are two advanced components that you can play with in the game. The first is a secret power: each player will draw a card showing a special power they have this game. Some are revealed immediately, while others can be revealed during the game when the player wants to use it, or it can be saved for endgame scoring.

The second is a traitor mechanic: one person is a police informer, who must secretly contact the police three times before the sixth round, then survive till the end of the game. If they pull it off, they win, otherwise, they lose – even if they had the most money and were still alive at the end. Trouble is, they can only inform if they are part of loot division.

How many people should you play this with?

The box says four to six players. It works with four, but I would prefer five or six, just for that tense, chaotic, everybody’s-pointing-at-everybody feeling.

What do I think of this game?

This is a fun, short game. It’s not super strategic, but can be very tense, and is full of second guessing each other – trying to figure out who you should point at, and whether the people pointing at you put one of their precious bullets in their gun this turn. It is a great filler, and also one to play with non-gamers.

The game can be a bit bland in the long run, though. The special powers help, and they are a great addition, that I would wholeheartedly recommend playing with – maybe not if it’s the first play-through for a significant section of the people playing, but otherwise.

The police informer variant is ok, but no more than that. It seems extremely difficult for the informant to pull it off without revealing himself, and staying alive after calling the police for the final time is exceedingly difficult. It’s also rather unrewarding that the money you assemble is useless. It’s a fine variant, but I won’t be making it a stable of the game. If I wanted a traitor game, I’d be playing The Resistance, Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisitor, or one of the many other games that does that far better.

A few interesting things to note

  • The guns are great to use as props for other things. Unfortunately, most versions have orange pistols, instead of the black ones that were in the first version of the game. Such a shame.
  • There is usually a very particular progression in the game. At the beginning, everybody is pointing more or less at random, but as things progress and some people get loads of cash while others get grudges, patterns definitely start to evolve.
  • The patterns that evolve are of course obvious to both parties. This means you will have to start double guessing each other, not least concerning the loading of guns. “Well, he probably knows I’ll load my gun and chicken out, so I shouldn’t load it and waste a bullet. But wait – is he going to think I wouldn’t load, and so not chicken out, in which case I should definitely load my gun? Hmm…”

Advent reviews: Geiger Counter

Today, we look at the first roleplaying game of the advent reviews. It’s been a while since I played this, but I have had loads of fun with this, so I remember it fondly.

What kind of game is this?

In Geiger Counter, you play through a survival horror film – the kind of film where you start out with a big cast of characters that are slowly killed off by some horrific thing that haunts them – an alien monster, a creature from beyond, a zombie horde, fate or maybe a maniac killer with a mask. You do this is one sitting of about four hours.

You start off brainstorming a rough concept for the film and the threat – the game calls it the “menace”. At this point, the concept for both should be vague, but you should have an idea of the setting, and what the monster is and isn’t – “it’s got inhuman intelligence, but no overtly supernatural powers”, for instance. Then you brainstorm some character concepts and some secret agendas, then you make your characters by pairing a concept and an agenda.

The game comes with an integrated warm-up exercise: making a trailer for the film. Going round the table, everybody narrates a shot from the trailer, until it fades to the title of the film – which you will then agree upon.

Then you start the film from the beginning, playing scene by scene. Each scene has one player as the director for that scene, framing the scene by telling us where we are, who’s there and what is going on. In the beginning, the game tells players to avoid framing a scene with themselves in it. The other players will play their own characters as well as any supporting characters necessary. When the director calls “cut”, the scene is over and the player to his left directs the next scene.

An important part of the game is the building of the Menace. Each scene featuring the menace adds one die to it, until it reaches the maximum, eight dice. When it reaches eight, the fight against it begins in earnest – from then till the game is over, the players can reduce the menace by one die by defeating it in a showdown.

Speaking of dice, there is a very simple conflict system in the game. If I recall correctly, you roll all of your dice, then use the two highest dice, and compare them to your opponent. The first two times you lose, you gain a condition – the third time (as far as I recall) you die. You have two dice to begin with, but can pick up more on the map.

The map, I say? Yes, an important part of the game is keeping track of the map. Everybody should have a token to represent them. In the middle of the table, you should have a big piece of paper, on which to draw a map of the location. Whenever you set a scene, you move the tokens of the involved players, so that you can always see where somebody was last seen. On the map are also some dice – a few single dice, a couple of pairs and one group of three. When you draw a location onto the map, you may put one of these groups of dice in that locale. Later on, players in that locale can define what those dice represent – something that will help them against the Menace.

Elimination of player characters is an important part of the game. To get the “survival horror” feel, you need quite a few players dying. This is not as important in this game as in many others, though, as an important part of your experience as a player is framing scenes and helping scenes along. Whenever someone dies, one of their two dice goes to another character, making that character stronger against the Menace.

The game ends when either all the players are dead, or when the Menace is defeated. At this point, there will usually only be one or two characters left alive.

How many people should you play this with?

I would say five to seven. You need five to have the ensemble feeling, but at eight, it’ll be a while before you are on the screen again.

What do I think of this game?

This game is a favorite of mine. It’s easy to play, even with beginners, and it usually rewards you with a great story with very little fuss, and in a limited amount of time. It’s also good, because it makes everybody be both player and GM. It teaches framing, and it gives you some very simple yet efficient story telling tools.

The dice mechanics are very simple, and that can sometimes make them feel a bit clunky – but they are simple and fast, and that’s what they are there for. The map is a great visual aid, and it helps everybody get on the same page.

In short, Geiger Counter is a go-to game for me when I am going to play for one session with a group of people with limited or mixed experience with story games and indie games.

A few interesting things to note

  • This is a good game to teach scene setting. Everybody has to do it, but it’s not so dramatic to do it. In general, it’s a good game to teach story gaming.
  • The game instructs players to make a cutting motion with their fingers when they want to signal to the director to cut the scene. A simple, efficient way to give the director cutting power, but also let the others have a say.

Advent reviews: A Study In Emerald

I recently received a game that I Kickstarted called A Study in Emerald. The game is derived from a short story by Neil Gaiman, which in turn is based on the Sherlock Holmes story called A Study in Scarlet, but with elements of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The story is great – but what about the game? Well, lemme tell you my opinion after two games.

What kind of game is this?

A Study in Emerald has you play major actors in the underground world of politics, conspiracies and assassinations in a fin de siecle Europe ruled by Great Old Ones from the Cthulhu Mythos. Mechanically, the game is a mix of deck building and Area Control, with some hidden identities thrown in for good measure.

The game is played on a board with fields representing major cities in Europe (plus North Africa and Washington). The cities are connected by transport lines, and will have a small pile of cards connected to them. Each player starts the game with one agent, named after a weekday, six influence cubes and a deck of ten basic cards.

You will also receive a secret identity card, telling you whether you are a Loyalist or a Restorationist – in other words, for or against the Great Old Ones. Now, your identity will tell you what you should do to gain points. At the same time, it is also important to find out who is on your team. At the end of the game, you count out all the points – and then the player with the lowest number of points AND EVERYONE ON THEIR FACTION (unless everyone belongs to the same faction) will be eliminated. The remaining player with the most points will then win. This means you won’t want to close the game until you know the player with the lowest number of points is not on your faction.

Each turn, you can play two actions per turn, spending actions to put influence cubes on a card or city field (there are cards associated with each city), claim cards, move agents, play special actions from cards and a few other types of actions. You can only claim a card with your first action, and only if you have more influence on that card than anybody else – influence meaning cubes plus agents in the city. You must also have at least one cube on the agent. This means you must stake a claim to a card, then wait a round to claim it. In that time, all the other players can counter your stake – if it’s important enough for them. Whenever you claim a card, you add it to your discard pile.

Most actions are carried out by playing a number of cards from your hand. Almost all cards have a couple of symbols that can count as resources when played as part of an action. For instance, when you want to assassinate another agent or a Royal Person (Great Old One), you must play a certain number of bombs from your hand.

Now, what you want to achieve depends on your allegiance. Restorationists are the simplest. They want to control cities, they want to kill Royal Persons, they want to incite rebellion and they want to control certain key agents. The Loyalists, meanwhile, want to control cities, protect the Royal Persons, cause a World War, put zombies or vampires on the map and kill Restorationist Agents. Some of the Loyalist scoring options are depend on certain cards, and won’t be available in every game.

The game ends when one player gains a certain number of points, when the players cause a War or a Revolution, or when a Restorationist player is eliminated.

How many people should you play this with?

I have tried this with four and five players, so I don’t know how it plays with two or three players. It might work fine at low numbers, particularly with three – but I’ll have to try it out. Both four and five are fine – though I like the idea that a four player game might be four of one faction and one of another.

What do I think of this game?

This game suffers terribly from having a bad rulebook. A lot of things is not very well described, and that has made my first two play-throughs less fun than they could have been. This is compounded by the fact that the game is rather complicated with loads of interlocking systems, so it can be difficult to make a snap judgement on how to interpret an ambiguous rule.

Despite that, I’ve mostly enjoyed the game both times. It seems like a rich game with a whole lot of variety and loads of options. The mix of area control and deck building (plus more) is very interesting, and I like how you will have to fight for the good cards when they come up. It’s a good halfway point  between Dominion, in which you have several stacks of the same card, and something like Ascension, in which you just have to grab the best card available. Plus, even in the rare occasion when there’s no interesting card out, there is usually something else you can do – like get more cubes or maybe assassinate someone.

It is also a game with a rich opportunity for storytelling. Sherlock Holmes tried to assassinate He Who Presides in the New World, but Ravachol was a double agent, and spoiled the plan. It is more difficult to assassinate someone in Berlin than in Madrid, which obviously means that the security of the Spanish is more lax than that of the Prussians. Many of the actions you can take will have those possibilities for telling a story through the game, something certain other games do less well – a frequent criticism against Dominion is its lack of theme and storytelling.

A major element of the game – and a controversial one – is the way the secret identities work. In my first game, I was ahead, and the other player on my side, who had the lowest number of points, plainly stated that he felt no need to try to gain points, as that would permit me to close the game and win. This meant that I had to force him to gain points in order for me to be able to close the game and win it. In the second game, meanwhile, I was last, and the guy in the lead worked with me to prevent the Loyalist scum from winning. This provided a very different play experience. I think that if you want to get the best experience from this game, you must go into the game thinking that it is more important for one of your side to win than for you to be high on the score  list.

All in all, I enjoy the game a lot. It is very different, and it feels very meaty – there is a lot going on in this game, and each game will most definitely be different. If I could just get an errataed rulebook, I would be  very satisfied.

A few interesting things to note

  • The origin of the story of this game goes through Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft and Neil Gaiman – quite a providence!
  • The way the loyalty deck is set up, you might have everybody in a two or three game on the same side. In that case, the losing faction won’s be eliminated, as that would eliminate all players. If you have one person belonging to a different faction than everybody else, though, the dynamics of the game changes. That player will win if he can just make sure to score more points than any one of the opponents, meaning that it might actually be easier for a lone wolf.

Advent reviews: Bausack

A lot of games are boring to watch. People pushing little cubes about? Yawn! Bausack (or Bandu, as I think it’s also called) is different. In this game, you are creating towers of sculptural beauty. And often, you can cut the tension with a knife.

What kind of game is this?

In Bausack, you have a bag of wooden pieces in different shapes. Some rectangular, some squares, an egg, an egg-cup, a lime wedge – all sorts different shapes. Apart from those, you have some little crystal pieces that represent currency.

The rulebook comes with at least four different games to play. The most basic game is this:

All the pieces are put in a pile in the middle of the table, and each player takes ten beads. Each turn, the current player selects a piece from the pile. He will then auction it off by saying either: “I want this, and I will pay [number] beads for it”, or “I don’t want this, and I’ll pay [number] not to have it.” The first bid can be zero, something that will be necessary as the game goes on. Then he passes the piece to the person on his left. In the first kind of auction, each player can increase the bid, or pass. The piece will go to the player who made the highest bid when everybody else is out of the round. That player will pay the beads he bid. In the second type of auction, the piece will be passed around until someone passes. Everybody else will then pay their last bid, and the passing player will have to take the piece.

In any case, the player who took the piece in the end will now have to add it to his or her construction. Each construction can have no more than one piece touch the table. All other pieces will have to be built onto that foundation piece. This will make the constructions more and more elaborate, and more and more unstable, until they crash. The last player with a tower still standing wins.

Two of the other versions:

In Pile’em High, the player with the tallest tower wins. The current player can either auction off pieces to have for himself, or to give to another player. In the second kind of auction, the affected person can request that the person who gave them the piece put it in their tower – if they fail, their own tower is considered out.

In the Tower of Bable, all players are building the same construction. Each round, you take a piece and add it to the construction. The player just before the player who makes the tower fall gets a point. The first player to five points wins.

How many people should you play this with?

3-6. You can play it with two, I think, but you won’t have very good auctions. I would probably prefer 4-5, as you will have players enough for interaction, but not enough to drag it out long.

What do I think of this game?

I love Bausack, though I’m not very good at it. There’s a lot of tension in the game as you try to add another piece to your rickety tower. Also, the towers you can make are just incredible – you learn things about friction you never knew!

One trap I always falls into is building a boring tower. You can play this game to win, but it’s not nearly as satisfying as is taking some chances and building a crazy tower. One of the advantages of the Pile’em High-version is that it requires you to build a crazy tower.

The pieces are really nice, and they are nicely varied. The beads are ok, but to be honest, they could be anything. They are just there as counters.The important thing is the many very different building blocks. And they are just perfect!

A few interesting things to note

  • How ten tokens are actually a good amount. It means you can secure the pieces you need or avoid the ones you don’t want, but the game doesn’t turn into an auction game. It is a building game with an auction component, not the other way around.
  • How you can be forced to take whatever your neighbour gives you – and that can be a really interesting challenge.
  • How the two parts of the game means there is something for the more creatively, steady handed person, as well as for the more strategic player.

Advent Reviews: Article 27

Article 27 is a game about the UN Security Council. I bought it on a whim last year – I’m interested in the whole international systems thing, but the name and theme of the game sounded like it might be a heavy, dusty game. It turned out to be pretty much the opposite.’

What is this game?

In Article 27, you play one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Now, the name of the game refers to the part of the UN code that says that a resolution must have a majority for it in order to pass, and that it cannot pass if any of the permanent members vote against it. This means that permanent members vote “no” by abstaining, while a “no” vote is a veto. Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that the game is all about negotiating a resolution, and trying to get people to vote for your proposition, or at least not to veto it.

During the game, the players take turns being the Secretary General. In a 4-6 player game, each player will be Secretary General once, in a 3 player game, each player will be Secretary General twice. The Secretary General has five minutes to try to put together a resolution that will be able to pass – that is, a majority must get enough out of it to vote for it, while no one can dislike it enough to veto it.

So, what do players get out of a resolution? Three things: Players will receive or lose points for which of five issues are part of a resolution. At the beginning of the round, each player will draw five tokens from a bag, placing them on fields that mark out the points the player will gain if that issue is passed this turn: +5, +3, +1, -2, -4. You can draw several tokens with the same issue. This means that you could theoretically have five identical tokens, though you will most often, you will get a variety of tokens with one or two copies. You might still get both plus and minus points for the same issue though.

There are a few more points available. The Secretary General gets five points if they can pass a resolution. Also, each player has a hidden agenda that they want passed throughout the game. Each issue token will carry one of these hidden agenda tokens, meaning that you might have an interest in passing an issue, even if it doesn’t get you any points.

Finally, there are bribes. Players can use their points to bribe each other to do certain things: Put a certain issue in the resolution, vote for a resolution,  even veto a resolution (which is a way of splitting the cost of vetoing). Bribes are offered by putting coins together with a token representing your country on the other player’s playing board. This board has spaces for all the different kinds of bribes you are likely to be making throughout the game. Then, after voting, players get any bribes they honoured, while they return any they didn’t live up to.

The game continues until all players have been Secretary General, then you score the secret agendas, and count your points.

How many would I play this with?

The more the better. I would say that five is probably optimal, but six is great too. Three is ok, but you don’t really get enough negotiation around the table. You need a few more players to spice it up.

What do I think of the game?

I really like this game. It’s a real “me” type of game: hidden agendas, negotiation, silly voices – what’s not to like? The game is pretty simple, but I feel there is plenty to negotiate. The artwork is very silly, but in a way that evokes roleplaying your country.

In general, the component quality is really good. The boards and the tokens are great, the sand timer is good, and the gavel that the Secretary General has is frankly just amazing. There is a problem with the contrast on the yellow tokens – you simply cannot see which secret agenda is on a token. I’m frankly a little surprised why they haven’t caught that and given the yellow tokens a black outline. For a high quality game, that’s a stupid mistake to make.

The game can be very cut-throat. Very often, the louder, more insistent player will gain more than the quieter players. This can lead to some surprising votes, when one player suddenly decides to veto or vote against a resolution.

And the game is not at all fair. You depend a lot on the way the tokens come up on the board – if you’re unlucky, there won’t be anything that will really give you points in a given round. This doesn’t bother me so much – to me, the game is about getting the best deals I can – but I can certainly see it as a drawback to many players.

All in all, Article 27 is a bit of a different game, and one I’m really fond of. It’s also a rather light game, and I would feel fairly comfortable introducing new players to it. And if someone doesn’t like it? Well, the game takes a maximum of five minutes per player, plus a bit of bookkeeping – so it’s not the biggest waste of time if someone turns out not to like it.

A few interesting things to note

  • That the designers added Germany as a sixth “permanent member”. This bothers me a bit, as it is highly unlikely that another European country would become a permanent member of the Security Council. It’s much more likely that any additional permanent members would be a BRICS country, or at least an African/Asian country, rather than a European country.
  • How you will most often not use all five minutes – but the consciousness of the time constraint will make you move the negotiating process along.
  • How the addition of a leader of the negotiating really moves it along. In some negotiation games where there is no leader, people can sit on their hands a little bit at the beginning, waiting for somebody else to make the first move. Here, the Secretary General will start out with a suggestion, moving the thing along.