AEG has certainly come a long way from Tomb, a game I mercilessly panned back in 2008 which remains one of my barometers for modern game design gone…well, just bad. They’ve positioned themselves well with a couple of strong product lines and brand names beyond their tentpole Legend of the Five the Rings, and I’m always curious to see what they’re doing next. Last week, I reviewed (and mostly liked) their US release of the Japanese deckbuilder Trains but I’ve also been sitting on a small pile of recent card game releases from the company and I figure it’s about time to round ‘em up in a Review Rodeo.
First up is a new entry in one of AEG’s longest running product lines, Thunderstone. Thunderstone was the first major deckbuilding game out of the gate in the post-Dominion world and its tagline was “deckbuilding with a purpose”, signifying that the game had a stronger thematic context than its esteemed competition. It’s a dungeon crawl, of sorts, with some unusual (for the genre) fiddliness about light sources, weight limits, and leveling up character cards. Overall I like the game and I think that last year’s Thunderstone Advance was a general improvement to a game that already, at that point, had something like five or six expansions including one major big-box one. The Thunderstone Starter Set is the newest release, and I think it’s a pretty interesting idea- strip out all of the more complicated cards and effects and do a very basic, 259 card “entry level” set at a low cost and a low commitment level.
The Starter is completely compatible with all previous Thunderstone sets, which is really nice, so that means it’s effectively a new expansion but with some built-in redundancies in terms of the seed deck cards. Veteran players might not be too impressed with the simpler cards, but I think this is a pretty nice assortment of cards with which to check out the mechanics to see if it’s something you want to dig into deeper. I also think it’s a good set to try the game with younger players who might be new to more complex card games.
I like that AEG does a lot of expansions that are also standalone games, and Guildhall: Job Faire is another one of those. I never played the original Guildhall (thrillingly subtitled “Old World Economy” because it looked tragically boring and had god awful artwork. So when I got the review copy of Job Faire, I sort of shrugged at it. I took it to the Hellfire Club, my usual game night, and one of my friends said “we’re not actually going to play that are we?” So it’s kind of a tough sell based on looks and concept, but it’s a pretty decent and accessible card game that’s better than it appears.
It’s a rather traditional-feeling kind of card game, with a set-melding mechanic. The idea is that you play cards of matching medieval occupations but differing colors into groups (“chapters”), and as you play more into a set you activate progressively more effective special abilities. There’s a little take-that so it’s hardly a frictionless tableaux builder, and there are some head-nodding card management decision points. But overall, the game lacks an element of excitement. It’s a 30-45 minute title so it’s hardly an offensive three hour slog, but unless your group just finds itself hooked into the mechanics it definitely feels like a game with a short table life.
A game that has a short table life of a different kind is Love Letter, another Japanese game released earlier this year by AEG as part of their Tempest line. AEG rethemed the game to match up with its Venetian atmosphere and artwork and packaged the game in a delightful red velvet bag embroidered with the title. It’s a 15-20 minute game played with a very small number of cards (16) and a handful of tokens. It’s also brilliant, a tremendously compelling exercise in design minimalism.
AEG has just released a special limited edition of the game called the “Kanai Factory Limited Edition” in tribute the game’s original publisher. They’ve returned all of the original artwork and packaged the game in a curt little black box. It’s very striking, and the visuals are quite distinctive. There are two promo cards included that are purely cosmetic- a second Princess card with glasses and a Prince card that replaces the Princess. There are slight differences to the Countess and Minister cards that make them a bit more dangerous. But overall, it’s the same great game with its original artwork. I like this edition better than the Tempest version. Apparently AEG is making a L5R version of the game as well, which might have some different rules itself.
They’ve also stuck some L5R artwork into Maximum Throwdown, a ridiculously fun and frankly quite stupid card-throwing game that is kind of like a Smash Bros. concept- at least visually. Recycling artwork from other AEG properties, the game pits up to six players against each other, each with decks depicting characters, factions, and images from Thunderstone, Nightfall, Smash-Up, and so forth. Process is simple. Draw a card, throw it on the table.
There’s a little more to it than that. There are location cards (again, more AEG artwork re-use) that your card has to touch if it’s not touching another card. After you throw, you get to activate visible icons on your in-play cards that do things like steal cards from other players, throw again, or most importantly score points. It’s similar to Carl Chudyk’s Flowerfall, but with more bite to it. Don’t confuse this title with a Serious Gamer’s Game. It’s played best with rowdy, slightly drunk, and potty-mouthed players. Churchmice and Age of Steam players should probably go to another table. This is fun stuff- simple, direct, and belligerent.
Last year’s Smash-Up should be simple, direct, and belligerent but it’s oddly math-y for a game that should be nothing more than a punch-up between mix-and-match combatants. The concept is that you take two half-decks, each representing something like robots or dinosaurs, and smash them together. Then you play those cards at bases, attempting to numerically best everybody else there while activating special functions. It’s really an area majority game but with some up-front aggression. At least once you’re done adding up all the numbers.
The new add-on is the Awesome Level 9000 set, which functions as a stand-alone two player game. But don’t do that, you really need four and you’ll wish the game supported six. The expansion adds ghosts, killer plants, WTF Russian bear cavalry, and (regretfully) steampunk. All have their own particular flavor that works in varying degrees of synergy with other decks. I actually found that I liked Smash-Up more than I remembered from back when I reviewed it last year, and the new cards add more variety which is always good in a game like this. But it still has this awkward layer of calculation that keeps the game from being the kind of dumb fun I really want it to be- like Maximum Throwdown.