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D&D 5e Player’s Handbook Review

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It’s rare that the first thing to strike you about a book is a noise. But here, it was. After being so excited by the Starter Set, I couldn’t wait to get into this. So I ignored the cover and opened the book to a loud crack as the spine flexed for the first time. It was like the sound of the lock falling away from my teenage memories.

Back then, no-one ever read the Player’s Handbook from cover to cover, and I doubt anyone does now. It’s skimmed, flipped, relished. So first impressions count.

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Cracked LCD- Firefly: Blue Sun expansion in Review

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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.

Cracked LCD: Five Tribes in Review

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Bruno Cathala’s Five Tribes: The Djinns of Naqala is the newest issue from Days of Wonder and it is looking like a smash hit. But I wouldn’t call it a return to form for the French publisher, that has long specialized in great-looking, accessible family games. Don’t get me wrong, Five Tribes is definitely a great-looking, accessible family game but it also stands apart from the rest of the company’s catalog as something potentially more complex and intricate, straddling the line between the anybody-can-play simplicity of 1990s-style “German game” fare and more recent hobbyist designs that favor multilayered mechanics and density. I’ve been completely fascinated by how well this game accommodates two very distinctive styles of play without shortchanging either the casual or hardcore player or requiring any kind of rules modification. Continue Reading…

Five days with Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons

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At age eight I was rummaging through a book stall at an agricultural fair, and I found a book that would change my life. It was “What is Dungeons & Dragons” and it stood out like a monstrous thumb among the worthy tomes on seed rotation. If I hadn’t bought it, it’s unlikely you’d be reading this column right now.

I haven’t played D&D in 20 years. I gave up at the advent of third edition, deciding it wasn’t worth re-learning the rules all over again.

Now, fifth edition is out. And my eldest daughter is eight, the age I was when I discovered the game. The co-incidence felt like a sign: it was time to teach the game to my kids, and rediscover it myself, too.

So I picked up a copy of the Starter Set.

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Cracked LCD- Impulse in Review

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Five words sum up Impulse, a new card game from Carl Chudyk and Asmadi Game: deconstructed, minimalist, innovative, stark and idiosyncratic. All of these words could also be used to describe Mr. Chudyk’s previous game Innovation, a cleanly filed-down civ-building design that reduced the genre to little more than the effects of technologies over the course of time. With Impulse, the designer is compressing another sprawl-prone game type into a shockingly compact, lean card game and the results are sometimes baffling, sometimes stunning. Impulse is a 4x (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) space empires game in the vein of Twilight Imperium or Eclipse but divested of a metric ton of fat, fluff and filler. Continue Reading…

Hold Fast: Russia 1941-1942 Review

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I’d wager that the Eastern Front of World War 2 is the most common setting for board games, ever. More so than the far future, or a Tolkienesque fantasy or even satisfying the whims of Renaissance nobles. So why do Worthington Games think we need another?

The answer is that there isn’t another Eastern Front game quite like this, at least not in the modern canon. It’s a block game, like Eastfront, but that’s a far less approachable title. It’s low unit density like No Retreat, but that’s a far more complex title. It’s easy for any gamer to pick up like Conflict of Heroes, but that’s a far less realistic title.

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Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game Review

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There have been many, many attempts at blending role-playing games and strategy games. Until recently, almost all fell foul of the fundamental mismatch between playing co-operatively in the imagination and competing on a board.

The latest iteration is Pathfinder: the Adventure Card Game. Based on the famous role-playing game of the same name it may be the purest distillation of the adventure game concept yet. It’s smart, simple and packed with potential variety. But for all the benefits it boasts it trips on perhaps the most basic hurdle in game design: it just isn’t terribly interesting to play.

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Cracked LCD- Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem in Review

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Gale Force Nine’s crack in-house team of Dill, Kovaleski and Sweigart turned out Spartacus in 2012, Firefly in 2013 and now in 2014 they’ve hit paydirt again with yet another TV show-based title. Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem is going to cement this publisher and these designers among the absolute best working in the business today. The GF9 gang has turned in what is quite likely the best crime-themed board game published to date. It doesn’t matter if your experience with Sons of Anarchy is that you’ve followed it since its debut in 2008, if you binge-watched the entire series on Netflix last week, or if you have no idea what SAMCRO stands for. The universal themes of intimidation, exploitation, gang rivalry, illegal enterprise and explosive violence should appeal to anyone interested in the entertainment value of bad people doing bad things.

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Cracked LCD- Korean Dexterity Games (Click Clack Lumberjack, Coconuts) in Review

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One of the things that having small children makes you realize is that simple games where the fun is easy to get to without a bunch of hobby-work. You start to value games that don’t require a significant investment of time or effort beyond the reach of your young ones. My children are four and a half and two weeks shy of three so they are not exactly anywhere in age range of playing Robinson Crusoe or Mage Knight with dad. I try to find them games that I think will immediately grab them, entertain them for 15 to 20 minutes, and leave us all smiling. But I also want games that I can appreciate as an adult game player. Dexterity games- at least some of the simpler, action-oriented ones are often a good common ground. Recently I picked up a couple of Korean action titles published in the US by Mayday Games, best known for producing card sleeves in non-standard sizes, questionable Kickstarters and Crokinole boards of reportedly table-damaging low quality. Continue Reading…

Cracked LCD- Eurogames Reclamation Project #2: Modern Art

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Inevitably, the player new to Reiner Knizia’s 1992 masterpiece Modern Art will look at the card on the auction block depicting an intentionally ugly painting and ask “how much should I bid?” I love this moment because it is an opportunity for the theme in one of the most strongly themed games ever designed to come through. This is a game- almost a satire, in fact- about speculative markets, phony hype and artificially inflating the value of worthless things. True, there are a couple of data points on which to hang an estimated possible return on investment, but ultimately the genius of Modern Art is that the players, representing gallery owners, determine what initially valueless bad art is actually worth.

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