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Cracked LCD- Sun Tzu in Review

SunTzuIN

Almost ten years ago, I got a little game published by Jolly Roger in stock at my brick and mortar store, Atlanta Game Factory. It was called Dynasties, designed by Al Newman, and it was a crackerjack little two player Dudes on a Map game that played in less than 30 minutes plus whatever overage that the inevitable rematches incurred. Among my employees and a few of our regulars, it was very much a go-to game, a pick-up-and-play title that was damn easy to teach and with ample depth- and drama- to maintain interest. It is also possessed of a critical quality that defines a great two player design- the parallel curves of game knowledge and skill. Once players know the cards and understand the importance of bluffing against that knowledge, it becomes very much a tense game of nerves, daring and the occasional surprise round that sweeps the board and makes for an exciting finish.

But I had this game figured as one of those more obscure minor releases that would have its time, fade out and be remembered fondly despite a European release in 2010. I never expected to see a new US edition of it, let alone a very nice new issue out by Matagot (the folks that do Kemet and Cyclades) and published in the US by Asmodee. The new edition is called Sun Tzu, and it maintains the original game’s Imperial China setting. Sun Tzu and King Chu are the rivals in a blue versus red struggle for five provinces in the Chinese empire. Everything about this edition is bigger and bolder. It now feels like a natural fit for the Matagot line and fans of modern, innovative Dudes on a Map games will find much to enjoy here. Continue Reading…

Cracked LCD- Sheriff of Nottingham in Review

sheriff

I played Hart an der Grenze some years ago with a friend who has since become something of a mover and a shaker in the games business. He kept raving about this “Mexican suitcase game” that was about smuggling goods across the border in tin suitcases. It was also, effectively, a game about customs declarations. It was cute, definitely one of those one-shot “stunt” productions that winds up going out of print and vanishing into obscurity- while going up in value. I didn’t really like the game all that much. At the time, I felt like it was one of those games that had both too much and too little game onto which it was trying to pin its friction and fiction. But it just didn’t engage me. It was back in 2006, so we hadn’t even gotten to Battlestar Galactica and the countless other games that have followed in its wake where straight-faced lying is an impetus.

And now the game is back in a new edition from Arcane Wonders, the folks that do Mage Wars. It’s part of a “Dice Tower Essentials” line vetted by the most popular pundit of modern hobby gaming, Tom Vasel. The new edition is obviously recast with a new setting, handsomely produced with velvety envelopes (with snap closures and screen-printed game logos, no less) instead of the suitcases and the concept is changed so that players are merchants attempting to get illegal goods past the titular lawman of Robin Hood lore. Apples, chickens, cheese and bread make up the legal sandwich. But crossbows, mead, pepper and silk are the items that the corrupt sheriff is looking to confiscate. Continue Reading…

Cracked LCD- Claustrophobia in Retro-View (including Furor Sanguinis!)

claustrophobia

Over the past decade of writing regular columns and reviews about board games, there are a few games that in retrospect I likely over-rated, games that in time have lost luster or simply receded from my attention. But there are even fewer games that I’ve felt that I under-rated at release and have come to appreciate more over time. Claustrophobia, a dungeon-crawler from the French designer Croc, was released way back in 2009 and it is quite possibly the single game that I have most dramatically missed the mark on as a critic. And with a rather unexpected new expansion, Furor Sanguinus, out from Asmodee it’s a great time to revisit this stunning, singular title while also taking a look at the new addition.

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Cracked LCD- Galaxy Defenders in Review

gd

Imagine if you will a rock band. Let’s postulate that this rock band- who are pretty good but not particularly groundbreaking- got signed on to be the closing act for a festival where the penultimate acts scheduled before their set time were Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Galaxy Defenders, from Italian publishing house Ares Games, would be analogous to this band.

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Cracked LCD- Deus in Review

 

deusdeus-board

Let’s get the ugly part of this review out of the way up front. Deus, the new game from Troyes designer Sebastien DuJardin, is the least attractive game I have seen in quite some time- at least since the original edition of Glory to Rome insulted aesthetic sensibilities and assaulted good taste some years ago. The game, coming to the US courtesy Asmodee, is packaged in a box mostly the color of tapioca pudding with badly chosen fonts (dropshadows and lensflare, really?) and drab, muted artwork of stern figures from mythology, who really don’t have much to do with the game. Nothing about it says “fun”. Especially not the title, which isn’t very descriptive of the action at all.

Once you’ve gotten it open, you find these awful-looking blobby terrain tiles with irregular spaces. Which would be fine, but someone thought that putting red, blue and yellow terrain on them was a good idea. Beyond that clash of colors, there are inconsistencies in the color scheme throughout. Wood is produced by green tiles and is indicated by a green icon but the tokens for the resource are brown. Speaking of brown, you’ll find references to brown buildings throughout the rules and cards, but there aren’t any. They’re orange. Even the coins are mis-colored, coming in denominations of gold, silver and…green. The victory point chips look like wrestling belts with a crappy, plain black system font slapped on them. Other than the badly executed custom bits, this title is stocked with stock pieces- you’ve seen all of these bits before in other games. It almost looks like a prototype someone put together with generic bits, apart from the cards and tiles.

The good news, despite a failure in the visuals department, is that Deus is actually a very good game.

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Cracked LCD- Battle at Kemble’s Cascade in Review

kembles

The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade- despite its unwieldy title-stuns at the box level. Z-Man games pulled out all of the stops, graphically. Featuring an illustration straight off of an arcade cabinet circa 1987 with fine detail such as simulated wear, stripes and a just-right font choice, the epic “shoot the core” battle scene twixt spaceship and giant boss tells you right up front that this game is inspired by and pays tribute to classic scrolling shooters like Gradius, R-Type and Raiden If that elevator pitch is enough to get you into the cockpit, ready to dodge a million bullets, then you might be in for a surprise.

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Cracked LCD- Lords of Xidit in Review

xidit

Asmodee/Liebellud’s Lords of Xidit is a wonderfully colorful game with a distinctly French fantasy style. Set in the same game world as last year’s card battler Seasons and with a loose (mostly titular) connection to the popular Dixit line of storytelling games, the narrative puts the players in the role of “Idrakys”, noble heirs in a kingdom whose cites are quickly becoming overrun by creatures corrupted by an encroaching darkness. It is up to the Idrakys to travel along the kingdom’s roads and recruit fighters to turn the tide against the monsters. But it’s not a co-op game. Each Idrakys seeks treasure, favor with the powerful Sorcerer’s Guild and glory as proclaimed by the land’s bards. There can be only one and all of that. It’s a reprint of a fairly obscure Eurogame from a few years back called Himalaya. Continue Reading…

Cracked LCD- Hyperborea in Review

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The first time I played Hyperborea, the new big box release from Asmodee designed by Andrea Chiarvesio and Pierluca Zizzi, I thought about a couple of other games. Those games were Eclipse, Runewars, Cyclades, Kemet and Nexus Ops. Over the course of the 90 minutes or so that it took to play, I went from furrowing my brow at it, wondering if the rulebook was making the game seem much more complicated than it actually was, to absolutely loving it. By the end, my knee-jerk one-game opinion was that it was better than the first game I had in mind, tighter than the second, as good as the Matagot titles, but obviously not a time-honored classic like the last. After a few more games logged with it, I think it’s one of 2014’s best releases and I’m still anxious to get this streamlined, cunningly designed fantasy 4x game to the table again. Continue Reading…

Cracked LCD- Heroes Wanted in Review

heroes

Heroes Wanted, designed by Travis Chance with Nick Little, may be the last best hope for the superhero genre on the gaming table. It is not an elegantly designed game. It lacks polish and the kind of refinement that often delineates good from great games. There are a couple of design elements that I think will likely be terminal issues for some players. It’s not that Heroes Wanted isn’t a fun game- I think it is- and it’s also not that it’s a bad game because it most certainly isn’t. But it is alternately raw, naïve, clumsy and tentative in a kind of garage rock-y way and your mileage with the game may depend on how tolerant you are of a design that takes a lot of risks but doesn’t always hit paydirt. Regardless, I’m quite taken by a few aspects of Heroes Wanted that I think are quite unique. Continue Reading…

Cracked LCD- Firefly: Blue Sun expansion in Review

blue sun expansion

Alright, so by now I’m sounding like a broken record regarding Gale Force 9. So far, this company is batting a thousand and bowling a 300 game. They have yet to release a less-than-great board game product. They’re all good, but it seems that Firefly is likely to remain their premiere release for some time to come. And for good reason. Whether you’re a Browncoat or not, Firefly is a great game with tremendous appeal for fans of the license and great gameplay for everybody. There have already been two expansions for Firefly, the small “Breakin’ Atmo” add-on that beefed up the available jobs and the PVP-focused Pirates and Bounty Hunters. Now, they’re giving us more map to play with in the new Blue Sun expansion that adds a Rim Space region that bolts on to the left side of the existing board. Fans of the show will be excited to see Mr. Universe and Lord Harrow setting up shop in the ‘Verse. New gear, new jobs, a new supply planet, three new scenarios, two new captains and some new rules to explain it all add up to a stuffed-to-the-gills expansion that works seamlessly with or without the previous additions.

Oh, and there are more Reavers skulking about.

Above all of what Blue Sun has to offer a stronger sense of danger from the Reavers (and the Alliance) are is my favorite feature. There are now three Reaver Cutters, and they all start in Rim Space. When the Reavers move, they leave behind “alert” tokens, which means that players entering regions where there has been activity noticed by these space-faring psycho-cannibals take a die-roll based risk of encountering them- even if the actual Cutter figures are sectors away. Surprise!

As the game progresses and the Reavers roam around, this makes the board much riskier, and players may have to weigh out the decision to take a chance on the Reaver roll to complete a job or avoid running out of fuel. Players can also now mosey into Reaver spaces, and just like in the show there’s a “Reaver-flage” card that allows players to dress their ship up like a Cutter to avoid detection. With three ships to move and lasting on-board effects of their movement, the Reavers are much more of a threat than ever before. This is fun. There are also Alliance alert tokens that impact how the Alliance Cruiser operates in a similar fashion. New Nav deck cards accommodate the new Reaver rules and there is a separate deck for flying through Rim Space.

I’m also particularly fond of how Mr. Universe functions in the game. He doesn’t give jobs, he sets up riders for existing jobs so if you can meet the requirements, you get his knock-on bonuses. Plus, if you are solid with him, you can take on his “Big Damn Challenges” from anywhere on the map- thus enhancing any job you take on from any contact. Lord Harrow, the other new contact, offers some questionable shipping contracts and sells you cargo when you’re solid with him.

The scenarios are good (I particularly like The Great Recession, that drastically limits the number of available jobs in the game), but be warned that there is a continuation of the trend established in Pirates and Bounty Hunters that saw that expansion move away from solo-friendly play. With the additional Reavers, for example, there’s now a greater chance to directly impact other players and unless you jimmy up some triaging rules for their movement.  You’re going to lose that opportunity to use the cutters as an offensive weapon when playing alone, and Lord Harrow’s cargo-heavy jobs are just cryin’ out for some piratical misbehavior.

It’s kind of a shame  that the new features aren’t really compatible with solo play. I really enjoy solo Firefly and I’m sure others do as well, but it’s understandable that direct conflict simple requires live people to get the most out of it. The upshot of it all is that Firefly has, over the course of the past two expansions, become an even better multiplayer game than it was in it is initial release. Previously, I would have said that Firefly was one of those games that’s “best with three” because there wasn’t a whole lot of interaction or direct conflict. Now, with Blue Sun and Pirates and Bounty Hunters bolted on to the hull, I’m finding that four and five player games are much more interesting- albeit longer.

I’m also starting to get a bit leary about further expansion. With a small card add-on and two big expansions, Firefly is already starting to feel rather sprawl-y. One of the things I really liked about the game from the beginning was that it was really quite clean- decks of jobs, decks of stuff, player boards and just a couple of miniatures on the map. Now, there’s more of everything, more tokens, more “stuff” going on. We’re not at Arkham Horror levels of bloat, but right now I’m feeling like the game is at a comfortable level of mostly optional complexity. I like playing with everything, but I can see where some folks may want to avoid adding anything on to the game.

Regardless, we’ll likely see more Firefly in the years to come, the game has already had a longer run than the show did. Despite my reservations about it approaching bloat, I can’t say that I won’t want to check out what’s next because I love this game. But what I would really like to see is GF9 leveraging the success of the Firefly line- as well as its other licensed titles- to bring us a completely proprietary creation. They’ve conquered the licensed game market in just a couple of short years, now all they need to enter an “Imperial” phase is to show us something that is 100% GF9.

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