French publisher Iello (say “yellow) stomped into the hobby game world a couple of years ago with King of Tokyo, one of the best light games ever published. Although that game was a Richard Garfield design, many of Iello’s titles are coming from new or unheard of designers and I find that very exciting. I picked out a couple of their most recent titles to review that looked the most interesting to me- a sci-fi card game and a light skirmish wargame. Both games are from French designers and both have what Bruno Faidutti would call a sense of the “baroque”- there’s definitely big theme and big action as well as some cool mechanics. Let’s have a look at Titanium Wars and Mythic Battles.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Titanium Wars, a Frederic Guerard design, when I set it up for play. On the table, it looks like another deckbuilder with a display of 18 different stacks of cards representing spacecraft, upgrades, and buildings. But it read like a tableau builder, with each player purchasing cards from the display (the “Arsenal” in the game’s nomenclature). It also looked quite complicated with a number of different familiar but re-contextualized mechanics in the mix.
It has a system similar to Cosmic Encounter’s edicts that tell the players where they’re going to be fighting, and that’s tied to the event card mechanic. There’s an initiative process that plays out something like Citadels, specifically when you play the very recommended advanced mode wherein you go through the 0-7 numerical sequence of tactics and call for players to reveal when it’s their time. But then there are also elements of games like Naval Battles or Mag*Blast, and ultimately the game turns out to be a very, very jumped-up take-that space opera-themed shoot ‘em up with plenty of take-that action, economic management, tech development, special leader abilities, and a healthy dose of diplomacy. All in about 75 minutes with three, 90 with four.
On a turn, the previous turn’s event card is flipped over to reveal a planet that will act as the theatre of war. Each planet provides income, has slots to build buildings, and may increase a player’s base fleet size, tactics card draw, or provide other special abilities. Most importantly, planets have titanium deposits and those will win you the game. After the planet comes into view, players collect income from their planets and any Refineries they’ve built and then spend that money on those 18 cards, purchases being limited by technology level, building slots, fleet size, and upgrade slots on the ship cards. You can build tech labs to get access to the more advanced cards, fighter squadrons tooled up with armor cards to increase their survivability, or a massive destroyer with a self-destruct system and a bank of laser cannons. There are minefields, interstellar rockets, planetary support cannons, command centers, and all kinds of fun things with which to blow up spaceships.
Blowing up spaceships really is the heart of the game despite the sense that there’s more going on in it. Once everyone has settled up with their purchases, all decide whether or not to participate in the conquest of the targeted planet. Everyone has a hand of three Tactics cards which activate a class or classes of ships and allow those ships to damage ship types listed on the card. Each has an initiative number as well, so low-valued cards go off and deal damage first but they tend to be more limited than the higher value cards such as the 7-ranked “Massive Attack”.
Combat is a matter of totaling up the attack value of all of your activated ships and then dealing damage to any of the participating ships at your discretion until they reach their armor value in hit tokens, thus exploding. This continues until everyone drops out either due to total annihilation or winding up with a hand of tactics cards that do not activate any ships still on the table. There’s an interesting economic consideration in that you can discard and redraw one tactics card each round, but you can pay $100 per additional discard. And you’ll definitely need to do this often to stay in the fights over the course of the game.
The conquests are where a lot of the game’s more interesting strategy- and table talk- come into play. The Tactics cards you have in hand paired with your available ships limit your ability to attack and stay in the running so it becomes crucial to attack with mixed forces while also leveraging some of the non-ship military units like the interstellar missiles, minefields, and planetary support cannons. Because damage is assigned by the attacking player, it’s not uncommon for alliances of convenience to develop where players agree to focus their guns on a leading player. Retaliatory strikes in response to betrayals flare up and develop into game-long vendettas develop.
It can be a harsh, brutal game for players who are approaching the winning number of Titanium deposits. If you’re in the lead, you can pretty much expect to have your entire fleet wiped out every round unless you get the upper hand in initiative. You’ll have to spend a turn or two out of battle to rebuild, likely while another player gains a planet or two. It usually only takes two or three to win the game, so being out of commission while on the mend can be devastating. Strangely, the dynamics of competition seem to work best with three players, so that two can beat on one, but with a full four the conflicts get a little murkier, slower, and cumbersome. And it’s oddly a much longer playtime with a full table. Yet it feels like the kind of game where you want to be able to play with five or six players. A two player game isn’t supported because you’ve got to have at least one swing vote/spoiler player
I have an issue with how some of the conflicts unfold, regardless if you’re playing a three or four player game. It’s exciting and awesome to obliterate two or three players’ fleets- or to talk your way out of taking damage and play the “let’s you and him fight” game. But it’s not so exciting and awesome to win a planet because you’re the only player left after everyone drops out because they don’t have the right tactics cards matched with their fleet to hang in there. Being able to buy extra discards/redraws helps and experienced players will definitely plan for this eventuality. But it’s still going to happen, and it will inevitably happen to you.
Despite this, I really like this game a lot- it’s fresh, doesn’t feel like anything else on the market yet it’s vaguely familiar, and the illustrations are terrific. It plays fast and furious, but it’s got some meat on its bones that elevates it over the usual take that fare. It’s important to note that the game isn’t as heavy as it first looks, and it’s best to approach it as a light card game with slightly more detail.
Benoit Vogt’s Mythic Battles is a great-looking two or four player skirmish game that at first blush doesn’t offer much new, but dig a little deeper and there are some novel mechanical ideas. The setting is a dark fantasy take on Greek mythology with Toxotes and Hoplites devoted to the goddess Athena squaring off in grid-based combat with Hades’ Legions of the Damned and assorted fell minions. It’s not exactly a high concept or original framework but the outstanding production design gives the game big curb appeal and it’s definitely one of those games that catches the eye while triggering the “this is gonna be cool” response. It’s a $50 retail title which makes it inexpensive in its class- particularly since it is complete in the box despite an expansion available and more presumably in the pipeline. The trade-off for its relatively low price is that units are represented by pogs instead of miniatures or stand-ups.
Fundamentally, Mythic Battles is a game very much descended from Borg’s Commands and Colours titles as well as simpler wargames such as Manoeuvre. Despite the lack of pewter or plastic, there is also an influence derived from more traditional, free-form miniatures games wherein players build point-based squads, leveraging special unit abilities to gain the upper hand. Unit statistics are provided off-board on cards, which also function as step-loss indicators. When a unit takes damage, it steps down to the next lower card which may change statistics or even add or remove special abilities. It’s a simple bookkeeping system that also imparts some detail without rules burden. When a unit is out of cards, it’s dead.
Activation is handled through individual decks for each general. These contain maneuver cards for each unit that when played gives the corresponding piece a chance to move and attack. The general’s deck also includes a number of “Art of War” cards that can be discarded to activate additional units during a turn, earn power points which can be used to pay for special abilities or to pump certain stats, or to fish another activation card out of the deck for an unexpected counterattack or desperate activation. There’s no reshuffle until both players are out of cards, so it’s very much a game of timing offenses and defenses with an eye toward cards in hand and still in the deck. The cardplay imparts a sense of “fog of war” that makes for some compelling drama.
Combat resolution is somewhat complicated, probably more than it ought to be. The system is based on D6s numbered zero through five. A unit rolls dice based on its close combat or melee range against the target’s defense value. Any roll of one to four can be discarded to increase another die’s roll by one and then all fives are re-rolled and added to the existing fives- the Warhammer “exploding dice” mechanic that everyone loves. Once the dust settles and the player is done tossing dice for +1s and exploding their fives, every result over the target’s defense value scores a hit and incurs a step loss. If the targeted player has a maneuver card for the unit, it can counter-attack.
It’s fussy but definitely more considered than rolling to match colored flags or whatever, but along with the squad-building, terrain effects, the fog-of-war effect of the card activations, and power-point management the game feels appreciably heartier than these kinds of games usually do. Once you figure in factors like flying units, keyword abilities, and any kind of special scenario rules Mythic Battles turns into a fairly robust yet manageable system.
The game is packed with a nine scenario storyline campaign that also serves as a way to gradually introduce the game’s rules to players, but I ditched it halfway through and found that I enjoyed it more playing with all of the rules and with open squad-building. Yet this is definitely one of those reviews where I’m going to tell you once again that what we’ve got on the table is a very good game that is definitely worth some attention, but it’s also one of those games that have a tough time making a case for itself over similar games. I don’t like it quite as much as Dungeon Command, but I might like it a touch more than Manoeuvre if only because it feels somewhat tighter and more violent. I also like that it sets up far more quickly than a Commands and Colours game, even with squad building. Whether or not Mythic Battles earns its shelf space comes down to personal preferences and if those preferences include more detail and slightly heavier gameplay then it could be a good choice.