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Cracked LCD- Drakon in Review @ the Review Corner

Review-Drakon-_4th-Edition_-micheal_05

Yikes, two stars! Well, that’s one less time than the number of times I’ve owned this game, now in its fourth edition. It’s just not very good- it’s dated in a bad way and there’s not a whole lot that’s engaging about it. Especially when you could play current editions of Wiz-War or DungeonQuest instead and get a similarly quick, fun and nasty dungeoncrawl experience. The best way to look at Drakon is as kind of a fantasied-up design in line with something like Tsuro. Which isn’t really much of a complement. Review @ The Review Corner over at Miniaturemarket.com.

Cracked LCD- Gale Force Nine’s Latest Expansions in Review

GF9 expansions
By now it should be understood that Gale Force Nine is the leading publisher of licensed games, at least in terms of quality. They’ve more or less carved out a specific niche for themselves doing games that are based on television shows rather than movies or video games and they’ve literally hit paydirt on every release to date. Even if you don’t like or haven’t seen Homeland, Sons of Anarchy, Firefly or Spartacus the games leverage their settings to explore the larger, more universal themes of these programs. And they’re all really fun to play games that fans of these properties should especially love given the attention to detail.

GF9 has also acquitted themselves well in terms of expansions. Their add-ons have run the gamut from simple “more cards” style additions to more substantial ones adding new playing areas and major mechanics. Two new ones have just hit the market, the Shadow of Death expansion for their first hit Spartacus and the Calaveras club expansion for the rather under-appreciated Sons of Anarchy.

Shadow of Death is a must-buy out of the gate for fans of Spartacus. I still think that it is the best design to come from GF9’s crack team of Dill, Sweigert and Kovaleski, and the new addition will give longtime fans plenty to cheer about – especially if you have several hours to spare and seven players on hand. A new house (Calavius) is added with a very cool Special Rule to neutralize another house’s Special Rule (effectively a Cosmic Zap) and they also gain influence when a Dominus hosting an event loses influence. How rude! But Spartacus isn’t a polite game, as evidence by the included “Cock Block” Intrigue cards.

The Intrigue deck also gains new Festival cards which enable players to effectively push for more multi-gladiator Primus events. The Primus was introduced in The Serpent and the Wolf expansion and some felt that it was an under-used concept. Previously, a Primus required a player to have ten influence to call one, but you can expect to see more as these cards go so far as to force a Host to call one. I really like the Primus and I’m glad to see more of them despite the fact that they can seriously impact the game’s length. I especially like the special events some of these festivals represent by stipulating, for example, that only Slaves can be used. It’s true that the Primus now feels like a more common, less exceptional event, but they are still an expensive affair in terms of influence (4-8) and you cannot use the support of other players so it isn’t like they are going to happen every turn.

You get three new gladiator cards and figures- Crixus, Theokoles and Spartacus himself. The cool thing about these new replacements is that each have special Primus-only abilities. Spartacus gets an extra wound on doubles and if his team wins the Primus, wager payouts are doubled. Crixus also has a double knock-on, getting an auto block and he can jump out and block in lieu of an adjacent team-mate. Theokoles isn’t allowed teammates in a Primus and he effectively gets to regenerate all of his dice during the event. They don’t call him the Shadow of Death for nothing. These are also great additions and the value they add to the Primus makes them appealing choices for the aspiring Dominus.

So if you’ve got one of these bad asses in your stable, you’ll likely want to let everybody know. New Boast tokens, mostly assigned by Intrigue cards, are applied to specific gladiator cards. Boasting tends to give you gold, influence or favor but if your much-ballyhooed fighter falls in the arena, you lose two influence to reflect your house’s embarrassment. This is a really fun mechanic. That Cock Block card mentioned previously? You use it to foil another player’s scheme and then you put a Boast on one of your guys. You figure that one out.

Shadow of Death works really well as an extension of the Serpent and The Wolf expansion and is probably best suited for those who have experience with that addition. That said, GF9 kindly provided the full Primus rules in this set so if you don’t have the earlier release you can still bolt this one right on to your base game. Good form. All said, I think this is a terrific release and it’s gotten one of the best games of the past several years back onto my group’s table lately. There still isn’t anything else quite like Spartacus on the market.

Sons of Anarchy was one of my favorite games of last year and although it isn’t as singular as Spartacus, it’s still a really well-done crime game with some compelling worker placement-derived mechanics, plenty of direct combat and loads of cock-sure intimidation. Also, tiny plastic 9mm handguns and duffle bags of porn and dope. I found myself on several occasions wishing that the design supported more than four players because it is simply the kind of game that cries out for a tableful of lightly intoxicated, potty-mouthed game players and the more the merrier at that. They did a Grim Bastards expansion that added orange dudes and a pretty fun club, increasing player count to five.

The Calaveras club expansion follows suit and brings in another gang that I know nothing about because I’ve never seen the show, but from what I gather based on their stats and abilities, this is a ruthless drug-peddling organization with lots of upstart prospects that the gang churns through for favor per their Gang Rule. They’ve got a pretty mean-spirited Club Order that enables them to spend an extra order token to prevent other combatants from calling in aid during a throwdown. The expansion is more or less just the materials (club card, miniatures, dice and some extra tokens) to play with this new gang either in a standard two to four player game or the extended five or six player game.

With that said, this expansion is hardly as impactful as Shadow of Death or other GF9 additions – it should be viewed strictly as a way to add another player to the game. I like the new club and I piloted them to victory the last time I played SoA but this isn’t otherwise an essential purchase. If you’re playing the game just fine with the base game, I would be inclined to recommend a pass on this (and the Grim Bastards) unless you’re a fan of the show and want a particular club in the game.

I’ve not played a six player game, but even with five that whole “more the merrier” thing I mentioned seems a little shaky. I think the core design is really at its best, come to find out, with four. It just gets a little messy and a little too long with more. Not that messy and long can’t be fun, but I’ve been less satisfied with expanded games of SoA at least so far. The box advises that it adds 30 minutes to playtime and I think that’s on the high side of an estimate, depending on who that extra player is.

Cracked LCD- Lift-Off in Review

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I went into Pencil First Games’ Lift-Off: Get Me Off of this Planet expecting – and wanting – a Survive! style family game with some mildly cutthroat action to spice up situational cooperation . Featuring a roughly similar high-level concept wherein each player is tasked with evacuating an imminent disaster site, this title delivers all of the above but it is a somewhat more complicated design. The box suggests that it is for ages 13 and up, which puts it more squarely in the hobby zone rather than the family zone, and as such the design comes across as something like an “advanced” casual game that may be especially appealing for those wanting Parker Brothers accessibility with more gamer-facing elements.

I was instantly drawn to the colorful, fun illustrations and the overall high visual quality of its circular, modular board and its charming alien pawns. And after reading the rulebook I felt like I had a good handle on how to play because the concepts were familiar. You get two movement points to move your alien from out of the core of a planet that is about to explode. They head to the surface via four tunnels and they are trying to reach four escape points. These four sites vary each game, and they are all completely different. There’s a rocket ship, a jet pack, a trampoline, a bonfire and a star gate as well as a few others available. Your little aliens can also hop up on a platform and wait for a miracle. There’s some fun stuff here.

The catch is that each of these can accommodate a set number of aliens and each requires that players discard resource cards (gasoline or screws) to the site in order to mount the platform. And then there is a second cost, paid by the cards discarded to the escape method, that is required for lift-off. Anyone on the platform can add to the pool to pay for it to activate if there isn’t enough there from the entry fees. Some of the means of escape also require a die roll to be successful. A number of rounds equal to players are run-through before the planet blows up, and the winner is of course the player with the most escaped aliens.

So right there, I think there’s an appealing and accessible game at a base level. Especially because it creates situations where players are kind-of-sort-of working together, promising to move on to a communal platform and help pay the cost if another player pitches in elsewhere. But then there is the jetpack, which one player at a time can pay to go to the platform and immediately leave. It can pay to be completely selfish, or you may get ahead by working with others to get off the planet at a “You and Me+1” rate.

However, there are a couple of points where Lift-Off sort of loses me. One is that the game is filled with Euroglyphics, those language-independent rebuses that tell you what something does in lieu of text. I haven’t yet played a game where I haven’t had to go back to the rulebook to sort out what they are. It isn’t that they are particularly confusing, it’s that every escape area sort of has its own rules and they really need the text provided in the manual to make sense of them. It makes the game come across as more complicated than it actually is, and it more or less cuts younger children out of the game altogether.

Likewise, there are some additional elements that I think bog down the design, in particular this moon phase concept. Each turn, a moon token advances counter-clockwise around the board. When it is shining over a segment, it’s a “full moon” and when it is opposite a segment it is a “new moon”. The position of the moon affects the cost to lift off on some platforms and on others it completely forbids it if it is in the wrong phase. I’ve not felt like this part of the game has added any kind of strategic depth to the game, which is what I suspect was the intention. It just makes it somewhat frustrating and it steers the design away from its best qualities- that whole “let’s you and me pay to get off this rock…oops, left you behind” thing.

I’m also not particularly sold on the action cards. The game offers a really big stack of cards which are either screws, gasoline or action cards. There has to be a lot of cards because discards go onto these launch platforms, not into a discard pile so there’s a lower rate of recycling. But this also means that far too often you wind up with these action cards that aren’t even particularly much fun because they are too common. There’s one that gives you an extra move, there’s one that moves Gargalore the monster out of the core and blocks a launch pad, a tornado that wipes out everyone’s hand and so forth. That’s all usually fun stuff, but the mix feels off, particular in games with lower player counts.

I do like the game despite the complaining but I have one more grievance about it. The Stargate. Not every game will feature this lift-off point and you can toss it into the trash altogether if you want. But I think the game both needs and does not need it, paradoxically. The rules explicitly state that it is the most powerful of the platforms and for good reason – because it fundamentally alters the game process. When the moon comes around to its starting position, you roll a die that can give all players cards, cause all players to lose all of their cards or activate the Stargate, sending everything on it to safety. Or you can roll a result that causes the entire Stargate segment to break off and be replaced with another piece.

On one hand, it’s wildly unbalanced and unstable. On the other, it’s fun and dramatic. But it also requires that moon phase thing that I don’t care for to work. And I don’t like that it changes the game so much, increasing card draws and having such a major impact on the game. It also affects those action cards, because it essentially becomes a dumping ground for unwanted ones- that’s how you pay to put your aliens on it. I find myself alternately wishing that it was mandatory and then thinking that it’s a patch-up design element that just didn’t get tested enough. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were made optional to head off criticism of its volatility.

There are variants included in the rules so you can change up the platforms and action cards for different flavors of game. You can toss out the platforms you don’t like, pare down the action cards and work out whatever fixes you like. But to be honest when I see those kinds of “play it however you want” missives I feel like it is evidence that there is not a firm sense of direction or intent in the design. I think there is some good, fun gameplay in Lift-Off, but in the end it is a family-style game made for gamers despite being billed as a “gateway” game. There’s just a little too much going on to get close to that kind of simple, easy to reach fun that made games like Survive! such enduring classics.

Cracked LCD- Soulfall in Review

soulfall

It’s been quite some time since I’ve covered a John Clowdus game. For those uninformed, Mr. Clowdus runs a small, DIY-level company called Small Box Games. His best known, most widely played and critically successful game was Omen: A Reign of War. It’s an exceptional Schotten-Totten/Battline descended two player card game with a sort of classical fantasy setting. Testament to that game’s ongoing popularity, there’s a new “Omega” edition of it, coming along after a few expansions and enhanced editions but this is a smaller box, somewhat scaled back release- which kind of gets the game back to its roots with just a couple of optional additions. But there’s also a new Small Box Game out and if you’re a fan of Mr. Clowdus’ past work then Soulfall is going to be one you’ll want to check out.

There’s no doubt who made this game as soon as you see it. The marks of authorship are all over the art, production and rules. Playing it I had that same “WTF is this” feeling that his games often give me, which then gave way to compelling but simple gameplay with some unusual mechanics. It’s familiar territory for fans, but it’s also quite a strange little card game.

The artwork reminds me of the PS2 classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, with giant god-like entities, cloaked nomads and dusty, forlorn landscapes. It’s all very evocative without being specific. There is a vague story regarding these nomads, who venerate those gods, and their struggle to survive and settle in the aforementioned landscapes. And there are moments where threads of narrative emerge. Devotees of a destruction god pilfer another player’s tribe at the cost of some of their own population to gain a Shard. Worshippers of an wind-being travel quickly across the land to settle in remote corners.

Soulfall is primarily a card game but there is a plain, small board where you’ll place nomad tokens and eventually flip them over to indicate where your tribe has settled. It’s almost irrelevant in terms of actually representing any kind of geography, but there are opportunities for some blocking placements as the limited spaces fill up. On your turn, you get three action cards that plainly spell out what your choices are from a larger-than-usual menu. You can only do an action one time per turn, so plan accordingly. Once you’ve used all three action cards, you pass them on to the next player. You also have a hand of cards that each depict the various gods of this particular world.

The Draw action is a “draw two, keep one” scheme. Populate means you take a nomad token of your color and place it next to another one of yours, expanding your territory. If you choose to Prosper, you take a crystal shard that abstractly represents the wealth of your people. Destroying means exactly that- you wipe out another player’s nomad token. But you can also build, which means that you flip over a nomad token provided that you have more nomads than settlements, indicating that your tribe is settling down. This locks them in and keeps them from getting destroyed.

That’s all standard stuff, but once the strange, alien gods come into play it starts to get more compelling. There are six cards off to the side, and each enhances one of the core actions corresponding to their ethereal domains if you are devoted to them. Devotion is another available action, whereby you discard a card from hand and take the corresponding god card either from the display or another player. But wait, there’s more. You can also play a card from your hand, which has an “always on” effect that duplicates one of the main actions and a conditional one usually keyed to whether you or other players are or are not currently devoted to a god. Or they may have a special effect only if the current dominant deity (the card on top of the discard pile) matches the played card.

That last bit, along with the conditional card actions, creates some very interesting opportunities for combinations within those three actions. You’ve got these guaranteed, stock actions but then that “play a card” one lets you double up on one (or more, if it allows it). But you’ve also got to take into consideration which players a knock-on effect will impact based on the current devotions. And then there is the possibility to manipulate the current god through discards gained by the draw action. It’s a subtle point that opens up some compelling cardplay opportunities.

So the goal of all of this is four-fold. You need to get your nomads on the board, they’re worth a point a piece and so are any gods that you are devoted to when the end game is triggered by a player building a fourth settlement, earning an eighth shard or having all but two nomads on the board. The kicker is that the sum of your nomads and gods is multiplied by the sum of your shards and settlements, so they are effectively score multipliers. It feels a little complicated and calculatory, but also satisfying because it encourages development along each metric.

This is a pretty quick game, too. Ten minutes per player seems reasonable, and the scaling works to ensure a quality game for two to four players. And it is definitely one that you will play and immediately want to try again, if only because you didn’t understand it until the last round of the previous game.

It’s a strange one – not immediately accessible, not immediately apparent. It’s tough to compare it to other games, but maybe there’s a hint of Puerto Rico in there with the devotions reflecting the role selection of that seminal design. There’s maybe some simpler tile-laying DNA in there somewhere. But the whole thing is definitely a John Clowdus game, and if you’ve played some of his other work you’ll know exactly what to expect.

But if you haven’t, what you can expect is a singular experience. This is a very unique game. It’s artful and unexpected in ways that most card games never even attempt to approach. The rules are easy enough to teach the uninitiated, but the finer points of play may be elusive for the first couple of games.

Cracked LCD- Imperial Assault Villain/Ally Packs in Review

imperial assault packs

Well, I didn’t like Imperial Assault that much but here I am still playing it. Thanks, friends! Since I’m forced into servitude, running this game for them, I thought I’d take a look at the villain and ally packs. I think they’re a pretty crap way to expand the game, basically just serving like day one DLC to complete your purchase of an already expensive base set. The value is negligible, but at least some new options for skirmish are available now. The review this week is at the Review Corner over on Miniaturemarket.com.