Here’s a little “inside baseball” about the games review racket. Most publishers, especially the smaller guys, you need to email or call and ask for press copies. It’s somewhat humiliating in a way, going out with hat in hand to ask for a free game but the game makers benefit from the press more than a reviewer benefits from a free game. But some of the companies have bona fide press lists, and they send out press packages and unsolicited promos. Sometimes, this is a great thing because you get to see games ahead of release and it gives you lots of material for the next several articles. But sometimes, it feels like this huge obligation- particularly if you’re being sent games that you don’t want to cover.
Fortunately, AEG does good press packages and even though I’m pledged to impartiality and I’m not swayed by swag I appreciate their generosity. It shows that they respect reviewers and understand their part in the marketing process. There’s a new AEG box with their summer releases packed in it that I got a couple of weeks ago so I thought I’d just review the whole damn thing in one swing.
They didn’t send me Istanbul, which is ironic since I’m going through this Eurogames rediscovery. But that’s fine, I’m not a big Rudiger Dorn fan to begin with. One of the big ticket items was the new Thunderstone Advance expansion, Worlds Collide. I swear they have sent me Thunderstone ten times. I like Thunderstone and I’m actually always interested to see what’s new and the last round, the Numenera set, was the best release in the franchise to date. This new one is a great idea, it is effectively a “greatest hits” compilation of cards- and promos- from the Thunderstone sets before the Advance reboot. Everything is made current, and it is also a standalone so it’s also an entry point for newcomers as well as an expansion. I’d like to see this “best of” concept applied to other games with tons of expansions, a single package that hits the high points for folks that don’t want to collect or clutter.
At some point, I’d like to see AEG do something similar with Smash Up, which is already four or five expansions deep. The new one is Science Fiction Double Feature, which adds four new groups to the crazy mix-and-match base battles. Cyber-Apes, secret agents, time-travelers, and shapeshifters add lots of fun combinations on their own and more when mixed with a couple of other Smash Up releases. Smash Up is actually kind of funny and this set is no exception. The Bond references are eye-rolling but fun and I love that the time travelers are all done up in a late 1970s style- and they’re led by “Doctor When”. Smash Up doesn’t hit the tables much with my gang, but I have an abiding fondness for this simple, stupid game. I still think there’s a little too much simple addition.
The new Romance of the Nine Kingdoms expansion set Arcane Fire was in the box, but I didn’t play it. I didn’t like the base game, which is effectively a redevelopment of the old Legend of the Burning Sands CCG. It’s this odd concept where it’s supposedly this fictional long-running CCG from an indie picture called “The Gamers”. It’s sort of a “multiverse” set up with vaguely connected mythology, terminology and characters. I just could not get into it, and I didn’t get the joke.
Valley of the Kings is much more serious, what with its subject matter being Egyptian mortuary customs. I didn’t know what to expect from this microgame-class title and even though it’s a deckbuilder, it’s very different. From a starting deck of 10 cards depicting Egyptian funerary artifiacts that can be used as money, a special effect or “entombed” for points in a set collection scheme at the end of the game, you’ve got to purchase cards from a pyramid of six cards to construct your deck. But you can only buy off the bottom row of three cards, and then those above “crumble” down. Of course, there are cards that let you poach artifacts early and perform other rule-breaking or interfering actions but the catch is that you have to balance the three strategic uses for each card in your hand. Entombing a powerful card to complete a set of artifacts may net you points, but it’s out of the game and no longer available for use. It’s an interesting variation on “trashing” or deck pruning because you do so for points- not just to thin the deck. I enjoyed this little game and I think that it carries its theme quite well despite abstracted mechanics. I think it could be a sleeper hit- it definitely feels quite a bit different than most deckbuilders and it kind of touches back to card game concepts not common in the genre, such as the whole set collection goal.
One of the best things that AEG has been doing lately is their “Big in Japan” line, which makes sense after the smash success of Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter and the mostly good notices for Hisahi Hayashi’s Trains. The floodgates are open. They shipped me two copies of Love Letter, which should have been a Spiel Des Jahres finalist but was still one of Barnes’ Best for 2013. One is the Legend of the Five Rings edition, the other is the white box “wedding” edition that apparently you can only buy direct from them and only if you submit evidence that you’re getting married. I still prefer the lovely Kanai Factory edition with the original art, but these are still fine versions of an outstanding game. I am worried, however, that Munchkin Love Letter may be in the works.
I was pleased to find Kanai-san’s Mai-Star in the stack, a Geisha card game that has turned out to be somewhat better than I thought it was at the outset. The idea is that you take on a proprietorship role at a geisha house represented by a card showing your Geisha, her special ability and her ratings in three different qualities- performance, service and intelligence. You’ve got to attract customers, who have different requirements for each of these ratings, to make the most money by the end of the third round of cardplay. It’s a “run out” game, so each round ends when a player is out of cards and negative points are assigned to anyone still holding.
But your ratings won’t be enough to attract the various doctors, sumo wrestlers, actors and generals. In order to increase your reputation and skills, you can choose to play a character card as an advertiser. Your ratings will increase, but you won’t get any income as you would for using the card as a customer. So there’s a balance between playing cards that improve your Geisha and using the cards as clientele. And of course, there are also special effects that each card provides- they may help you or hurt the other Geishas.
I liked this game mainly because it turned out to be a nastier than I expected. It’s more take-that than I expected, and there are some pretty vicious swings thanks to a few fairly powerful cards. It’s accessible enough, but it is more complex than Love Letter and it isn’t anywhere nearly as clean or minimalist. I like that it plays to six, and it is one that plays better with more, preferably over a little Sake or plum wine.
Another of the Big In Japan titles, Hisashi Hayashi’s Sail to India has been earning some advance praise via its imported edition, and for good reason. This is a very smart, very streamlined post-Eurogame that packs a lot of gameplay into 24 large cards and a pile of wooden cubes. It’s another microgame, and it’s one that gets small by literally editing out everything out of a traditional pick up and deliver/nautical commerce concept except what is absolutely important to conveying the subject matter. Players represent shipping companies tasked with setting out to trade goods, establish churches or fortresses and develop technologies to increase their ability to travel and turn a profit. This is all played out on a line of cards that represent ports of call, culminating with one player reaching India to end the game.
The neat thing is that Hayashi has taken the worker placement concept, in some sense, back to Carcassonne. In that game, a meeple could represent a knight, a robber, a monk or a farmer. In Sail to India, each cube might represent a banker, a scientist, a boat or a historian. And you have a limited pool of cubes, so doing things like making money or earning VPs (recorded by your historians) takes resources from the pool. You’ve got to balance having ships to sail out to distant lands to conduct trade with having someone to count the money.
I really like this little game. It’s definitely heavier than you’d think from something that looks and sounds like a filler. There are a lot of dynamics represented from the simple tech tree to improving your ships. And it’s shot through with tough one-or-the-other choices. I want to see more microgames of this caliber- and at this level of thoughtful, highly editorial design.
And finally, the AEG Summer Blow-Out wraps up with the headliner- the much-anticipated Doomtown Reloaded. It is AEG’s first foray into reviving dead CCGs, and following the Fantasy Flight LCG model it’s another title that offers a bulk purchase core set with additional “Saddle Bag” expansions on the way. Doomtown was one of those late 1990s CCGs that came along long after the format exploded and while the big shakedown of also-rans was going on. I never got to play it, but I’ve had some friends over the years that totally were in love with it, keeping decks ready on hand and playing it off and on long after it had left shelves.
The concept is great. Players represent weird western “outfits” including lawmen, outlaws, big business and even a travelling circus. These factions are represented by decks loaded up with “dudes”, gear and hexes and the cards are also traditionally suited to handle certain resolutions such as shootouts and initiatives with Poker hands- an inspired touch. These outfits are all out to control a town called Gomorra (there’s a Spaghetti Western title) and its locations. There’s a much stronger sense of geography and setting than is typical in the CCG field, with dudes moving around from location to location, exercising control to earn influence and develop a Ghost Rock-based economy that funds your purchases of people and pistols.
Here’s the deal about Doomtown, at least from my perspective after a couple of games of it. This is a very, very compelling and complex game that requires players to seriously dig in and invest. Richard Garfield once said that a successful CCG is one that devours a player’s time, and that may be this game’s biggest draw- and its biggest liability. I have no doubt that Doomtown is a good game and I’ve definitely been interested in it, but I don’t know if I’m up for investing the kind of time I think this game deserves. The deckbuilding looks quite intriguing- decks cycle fairly quickly, and in addition to taking into consideration what dudes and equipment you want, what actions you need, you’ve also got to consider how your deck is going to draw to get these Poker hands. So some great cards might not be a good choice for your deck just because you need some other suits to try to get better draws. Learning to put together a quality deck seems like a tall order for those with a casual interest in the game.
As Doomtown Reloaded stands today, the new box does a great job of trying to get players right into the action with four preset decks, two big “player aid” boards and a full tutorial game that walks you literally step by step through the game. If you’ve never played it before, do not skip this offering. I thought I would be Mr. Smartypants veteran game player and do so, and when I read through the rules I was totally lost. I had to call up one of my old CCG friends that was one of those Doomtown acolytes from way back to help me play through a couple of games with some of the other cards. He was thrilled by the new set, so long-time fans might be enjoying a Netrunner-like renaissance over the coming months.