I love me some Vlaada Chvatil. I delight in his imagination and skill in welding together unlikely elements to create brilliant games. He likes pushing dexterity into unlikely place. Or adding depth of strategy to genres and mechanics that have not, traditionally, had much. So it came as something of a surprise to find that his latest game, Codenames, is a simple party game.
Except, of course, this is Vlaada Chvatil. And that means appearances can be deceptive.
The little box is full of double-sided cards printed with single words. Lay twenty five of them out in a five by five grid and divide the players into two teams, each one of which has a spymaster. He knows which eight of those cards will score his team points if they can find them, but he can’t just say which they are. Instead he can only give a one word clue. One word to bring them all. One word to bind them. One word to hopefully indicate as many cards as he can in one go.
It’s easiest to explain with an example. In one game, where I was the spymaster, among the cards my team had to guess were “vet”, “teacher”, “agent”, “spy” and “fireman”. So I said “jobs, five”, with the number indicating how many cards my clue pertains to. Otherwise, had my spies gone over and started guessing the wrong names they’d be handing points to the other team. Or, worse, picking out the hidden assassin card for an instant loss.
One word, five cards. Easy, right? Well, you’d think so. But I’ve given you a poor example in the interests of quickly illustrating what the game is about. Because the reality is that the game is often fiendishly hard. Fiendishly, brow-sweatingly, terrifyingly hard. In my experience finding a single word to tie two cards together is a tough ask. Three is a minor miracle. That five was a one-off, and we won.
What makes it all the more difficult is that if your team picks a word belonging to the opposing crew, you’re hit with a double whammy. Your turn ends and the opposition gets a bonus point. So you must never, ever give a clue that might indicate one of their cards or, worse, the assassin. Easy enough in theory. In practice this is almost impossible.
Say you’ve got “apple”, “sink” and “cook” down. Great, that’s three food-related cards in one go. But there’s also “oil” down there, tagged as an enemy agent. How on earth can you come up with something to link there first three without also risking your team picking the latter too?
These conundrums drive the game. It doesn’t help that your team will instantly turn into dunderheads when you’re the spymaster. Suddenly unable to pick up on even the easiest of your subtle lexical allusions. It can also be slow to try and think of the best clues. There’s an egg timer in the box for good reason.
It’s rare that you can really learn something from a game, let alone one this simple. Yet Codenames illustrates with dreadful ease the vast chasms that exist between the words we speak to one another. The huge gulfs of misunderstanding and confusion into which we often stumble at great cost to our relationships and our jobs. Playing Codenames will make you a better, clearer communicator. That’s a great reason to play it.
Another great reason is that it has vast appeal across groups of gamers and non-gamers alike. That’s because it relies on concepts of language that everyone understands, yet is a real struggle to play well, . It doesn’t even have to be played competitively. With less than four players there’s a co-op variant where you play against the clock, but it upscales to more players perfectly well. You can take it anywhere, play it with anyone, which is a brilliant trait in a party game likely to be owned by gaming geeks.
The one problem that you might find with it goes back to my original example. Remember how I said the four was a one-off? I got that because I was lucky enough to have four cards with a very clear association between them. When I’ve managed to get threes, it’s been the same: down as much to luck and skill. So the difficulty level in the game is very unpredictable. That in itself wouldn’t be an issue except, depending on how the cards fall, it might be that one team has a much easier grid of clues than the other.
It happens more often than you’d want. But on the other hand games only last about fifteen minutes so if you get a one-sided game you just flip the double-sided cards cards and try again. You’ll want to, and so will all the other players too.
Who knows. Maybe it’s just lack of skill that stops me from getting two cards to a clue without a lot of luck. Perhaps I’d better play another game to practice and find out. Perhaps I’d better play another ten.
It’s been a while since I steered anyone toward my series on tabletop versions of video games over at Gamerati. But since I did one on the StarCraft board game to coincide with the final digital game in that series, Legacy of the Void, I figured it was time for a reminder.
However great the StarCraft board game was, I think it would have been better with looser ties to the source material. It would almost certainly have resulted in a similar game but one which was a lot less complex to digest. In that respect it’s almost the opposite of the Civilization board game which, as I argued in another column, is a quite brilliant reduction of the digital essentials to tabletop format.
The other thing I wanted to talk about this week is lasers. I was playing X-Wing a couple of weeks ago when my opponent pulled out a laser line for checking up on some the firing arcs. It’s a brilliant idea: X-Wing models are so top-heavy, it’s hard to get a ruler in to measure the angles properly without knocking them all over. The laser is more accurate, less clumsy and, best of all, looks awesome in the middle of what’s supposed to be a laser dogfight.
I was so impressed that I wrote a piece about using the device in X-Wing and Armada for the manufacturer. It’s called a Target Lock and, while they’re made in Denmark, you can get them from specialist shops all over the place. So stick one on your Christmas list. I can see it being useful in pretty much any and every miniatures gaming system.
Speaking of Christmas, what I’d like most in the whole world is some more Patreon supporters. But it’s not something I can really put on my Christmas list so I’m putting it here instead.
My video game time recently has been all about Hard West. This has been trailered around as being a “cowboy XCOM”, which it kind of is. But the essential mechanics of XCOM remain easily good enough to power a game. And on top of that, what makes Hard West special is the excellent and imaginative atmosphere and storytelling.
It’s more weird west than wild west, but the supernatural elements are done with subtlety and flair. You do get to flat-out demons in the end, but the narrative along the way is excellent. There are eight campaigns, each of which, in a neat twist, ties in with events or characters from one of the previous stories to make a satisfying whole.
It hasn’t got massive critical acclaim, but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve played this year. Worth the entry price for the experience alone.
I’m also contributing to Pocket Tactics now, which is great as I can’t think of a much better place to explore my crossover of interests. My first piece there was a review of Steam: Rails to Riches, a title I wholly recommend to deep strategy masochists who don’t want to deal with other human beings, even over the internet.
The other big event in gaming is that I finally got to play Journey. It was worth the wait. I feel like I could write essay upon essay about this game. About all the tiny clever design choices that go in conveying emotion to the player. About how you naturally find ways of communicating with your fellow players using only musical notes. About how freedom of movement, or lack thereof, is central to the game’s message and appeal.
But I won’t. I’ll just settle for saying if you haven’t played it, play it. It’s one of the best games of the last decade.
The original Fury of Dracula was a seminal game of my childhood. Whisked off the shelf as a curio on a trip to get some gaming miniatures, it quickly became a staple. Van Helsing and his pupils spent hours sweeping Europe, seeking for the Count. Instead they often found feral wolves and savage gypsies as the vampire secretly spun his wicked web of intrigue across the continent.
That copy is tattered now, worn down by love. The chits are soft at the edges, the box battered and the figure of Dr. Seward snapped off at the knees. He still struggled manfully after his quarry, those paired feet creeping into my adult years like the memory of childhood sins. Yet a little of the magic had gone. The game could be frustratingly random, and it needed an aggressive Dracula player to make it work.
A second edition fixed those problems at the cost of bloated rules and play time. It wasn’t a worthy trade off. Worse, the balance had shifted toward the hunters. Dracula was constrained by bizarre rules that made it hard for him to double back on himself, so the hunters had an easier time to box him in. He didn’t seem much of a Prince of Darkness when he couldn’t even cross his own trail to escape.
Here, now, is a third edition. The box cover might a laughable vampire Liberace but I had such hopes for the contents. Somewhere in the fog between the those two flawed editions was an incredible game. A game that smoothly wove deduction and strategy with thrills and theme. I knew that game existed, but I wasn’t sure there was a designer on the planet who could tease it out.
Inside the box, disappointment. There was still a location deck. There was still a six-card trail. Yet promise gleamed at the bottom of the card stack in the form of special power cards. There are several ways now for the Count to confuse his pursuers by moving twice or not moving at all. The best is Misdirect, a new card that not only lets Dracula double back but removes a link in the trail. Many unsuspecting hunters can stumble in the resulting hole in the chain of clues.
This is just the start. It seems that the developers thought the best way to get the best of both previous editions was to re-arm Dracula. Not with greater strength or fangs but with the powers of lies and obfuscation. At each place he visits, Dracula can place an encounter. Some of these are there to hurt the hunters but others exist to thwart or bamboozle them. They can lose turns, get moved away, prevented from searching the town for vampires. One, if allowed to “mature” by spending six turns on the board, even clears out half the card trail, leaving the hunters chasing after ghosts.
I would never have thought that adding misinformation was the way forward for this game. But it works. It works brilliantly. The hunters are grasping at endless tendrils of data with a variety of tools and cards to help them get more. Everything they need is there, but piecing it together demands method and skill. So much so that having one player run all four hunters can be too much to handle, remembering who found what, where. The Count meanwhile is doing everything in his diabolical power to muddy the waters.
Combat has had a major overhaul. Hunters now only fight vampires and Dracula himself. This allows the combat system to be boiled down to simple icon matching with a few special effects. It’s crude but effective, allowing a balance of luck, bluff and skill without slowing down the game. Facing a vampire at night is a stream of hot terror, cards flashing past and damage accumulating at lightning speed.
Dracula felt too weak in the previous edition. Initially, it felt like he’d gone too far the other way in this one. With his newfound combat prowess and slippery box of tricks he ruled our first games like the dark prince he ought to be. It seemed unbalanced, frustrating for the hunters. But it’s a testament to the skill of this design that we wanted to keep searching. Not just for Dracula, but for a way to beat him.
When we found some, it revealed yet more layers of excellence to the game. Dracula can coast against unskilled hunters. They, in turn, have the harder time of it, and never get an easy win. They have to learn to behave like pawns in a chess game. As a group, they can triumph, but only by making individual sacrifices when needed.
When they learn this, games become agonisingly tight. By the end Dracula will have been lost and found repeatedly and Europe will be awash in the blood of hunters. Although the focus seems to have moved away from action to deduction, this edition might actually be the most brutal of the three.
The production evokes a fine sense of gothic grandeur. Yet the real period feel comes from the way that the mechanics evoke the characters of hunters and Dracula alike. The former are puritans, calculating efficiencies, working through probabilities, forming plans to ensnare their quarry. The latter is the very devil. A terrible, charismatic liar who must use all their powers of cunning, bluff and misdirection to put his pursuers off the scent.
This version of the Fury of Dracula is a triumph. It’s become something greater than the sum of its previous editions. Where one was short and the other long, this walks a satisfying line between. Where one was cast as a hunt and the other a chase this can be both. Where one was seen as a combat game and the other a deduction title this can be both. And as the game captures your imagination like the mesmeric eye of the vampire, you can be sure of enough repeat plays to see it in every one of its many guises.
I was very, very skeptical of Cthulhu Wars to say the least. I’m not a big supporter of the current trend toward crowdfunding in the hobby games market and I’m not entirely on board with the concept of these “Cadillac” games with astronomical presale prices. But there were three things that drove me to ask the publishers if they would send me a press copy. One is that I had heard great things about it from folks whose opinions I trust. The second is that I wanted to see what one of these luxury class games- in this case one retailing for $199- had to offer in comparison with more traditionally priced designs on the marketplace. The third is that Mr. Petersen is certainly not some upstart, armchair game designer selling their product with a flashy video and lots of promises. This is the guy that created Call of Cthulhu, still my favorite RPG of all time. And he also had a hand in designing games like Doom, Quake and other seminal, hugely influential computer games.
So “the Great Old One” himself responded, issuing a command to one of his Servitors to send a copy to me. A few days later I got this 11 pound box in the mail and opened it up to find a big, black box with good illustrations and luxurious embossing. It looked deluxe, sure. Opening it up, I was a little underwhelmed at first. It’s hard to not expect to be completely blown away, but the reality of it is that Cthulhu Wars is still a physical product, not a life-changing experience. But then I dug through the layer of punchboards and the map and saw IT. It wasn’t Cthulhu that caught my eye, it was Hastur. A huge, bright yellow monstrosity that put me in mind more of old fashioned plastic dinosaur figures more than gaming miniatures. I picked it up and just kind of laughed at it. Was it the taint of madness?
Also packed into the hard shell plastic tray were a huge Cthulhu that could be a replica of the statue in the story. There were Dark Young, tentacles frozen in mid-writhing along with their mother, Shub-Niggurath. Nyarlathotep, looking indeed like a Crawling Chaos. And the majestic yet abominable King in Yellow, of course rendered in yellow plastic. It’s been a very, very long time since I have been impressed with miniatures. These impressed me not just with their size, but also their detail and the implication that these were toys meant to be played with. In addition to these incredible pieces, the game is also packed with scads of great-looking monsters and cultists for each of the four included factions. Nightgaunts, Byahkees, Hunting Horrors, Deep Ones, Fungi from Yuggoth- if you know these names, you’ll be thrilled to hold these pieces in your hands.
After the initial sanity check, the reality set in that some of the components simply aren’t as impressive. The cardboard is pretty standard stuff and I’ve seen better in less expensive games. The gate markers in particular could have been and should have been more visually striking. The player mats and tracks are cardstock when they should have been thick punchboard. It’s hard to avoid being disappointed in the bag of plain old black 6mm D6s- games a fraction of the cost of Cthulhu Wars have custom dice. The maps are decent, but the visual design lacks the impact of the plastics.
I don’t usually spend a lot of column inches discussing the physical product in my reviews, but Cthulhu Wars definitely deserves it because of the consumer cost and also because it is such a wild mix of incredible and mundane. The effect is something like driving a Cadillac and realizing that it is just a car after all. It’s still a Cadillac and that matters, but it is important to keep expectations in check. This is still a small press, crowdfunded board game. And it is worth noting that the current “Onslaught 2” Kickstarter campaign offers both free and paid upgrades to several components. You pay extra for the seat heaters and deluxe floormats.
Out of all of the things I expected out of Cthulhu Wars, the last thing I expected to be quite honest was to encounter an incredibly streamlined, highly refined “Dudes on a Map” design that I think is the best in its class since 2005’s Nexus Ops. This is a spectacular piece of development work that showcases Mr. Petersen’s experience and expertise in creating game systems, mechanics and concepts. This is absolutely a “fun first” design built to put players into a very specific setting, give them the insane powers of an alien god, and then get out of the way as much as possible to let players play. It is highly accessible, approachable and easy to learn. Administration is at a minimum- there are very few tokens to fuss with, no decks of cards to learn and manage, and the bookkeeping is as simple as it gets. In a way, it’s very old fashioned, but it also cuts through a lot of the clutter and bloat that have plagued “conquest” style games over the past decade or so.
The concept is cool and anyone that loves Lovecraft- from the original stories up through recent games such as Eldritch Horror- will immediately appreciate it. What if all of those gate-closing, cult-thwarting, Cthulhu-shooting exploits in other Mythos-inspired games was for naught and the Great Old Ones won? The core game’s map depicts an Earth upon which mankind no longer holds sway, the Great Old Ones along with their minions and monsters struggle for dominance. Cultists spread their abhorrent practices across the post-apocalyptic wastes, establishing gates through which they can summon monsters and even the Great Old Ones themselves. The overall goal of the game is for your faction to earn 30 Doom points. This only takes 60-90 minutes once your group has a handle on the game.
Fundamentally, Cthulhu Wars hews close to the Dudes on a Map tradition that goes back to Risk. Moving pieces and fighting with them is the prime directive. Combat is a matter of rolling dice equal to the combat value of everything in a space with sixes killing any unit (even a Great Old one) and fours or fives resulting in “Pain”, effectively a rout or forced retreat. There are also some other cool concepts at work. For example, if you put a monster in a space with an enemy’s Cultist that does not have a monster of their faction then you can abduct them to earn extra power. So a Nightgaunt can fly in and snatch up a guy left alone holding down a gate.
Each turn, all of the Cultists you have on the board generate a Power Point and you get two for each gate you control. The meager, misguided worshippers are also expendable, so you can sacrifice them for more power. These points are used to pay for movement, battle, gate construction, summoning, kidnapping Cultists and paying to use your faction’s Spellbook powers. These abilities- each player has six- are earned when you complete a specific goal keyed to your faction’s agenda and overall strategic direction. Shub-Niggurath has “achievements” keyed to spreading her “Thousand Young” across the map. Nyarlathotep is focused on control of gates and gaining power. Hastur’s Yellow Sign gang benefits from The King in Yellow spreading desecration into territories, the Undead springing up to serve his majesty. The followers of Cthulhu earn Spellbooks from controlling the oceans and devouring other players’ pieces.
The Spellbooks are outrageously overpowered and unfair. Some of them are at Cosmic Encounter levels of rules bending or breaking. Cthulhu can submerge with a couple of Shuggoths and Star Spawn and spend just one power point later on to pop up anywhere on the map. Nyarlathotep has a Madness ability that allows his player to choose for everyone else where “pained” (routed) figures are moved to after combat. Hastur can move to a Cultist that accidentally spoke his name and then abduct them. The Black Goat faction can turn their congregation into one die combat units.
The point is that all of these appropriately godlike powers are extremely powerful and desirable, while also giving each faction both a unique flavor and a variable, situational strategic direction each game. Some Spellbooks interact with a faction’s units to augment their abilities in movement or combat. They are all well balanced and well written, but it is imperative that new players understand what each faction’s special ability is along with all of their Spellbooks. Unaware players may miss the importance of not allowing the Black Goat’s monsters to run rampant or of keeping the Crawling Chaos player out of gate territories.
Scoring all of the above is quite interesting. In each round, each player get Doom points for each gate they control. Each player also has the option to perform a Ritual of Annihilation wherein power points are spent in exchange to effectively double the points earned from gates and give the annihilating player a secret Elder Sign mark worth one to three points for each Great Old One they control. But it is also at the expense of resources available during the turn. The Ritual becomes more expensive each time it is performed and there is a terminal point at which so many of them ends the game whether someone has reached 30 Doom or not.
This scoring method has a knock-on effect- it keeps the game moving forward, continually escalating the stakes but without creating the kind of “steamroller” effect that often occurs in this type of game. There are a couple of checks and balances in place. If you manage to get two more gates than everybody else on just one turn, you can do the Ritual to get a four point jump in addition to a possible three point boost from an Elder Sign, which also serves to baffle the “beat up the leader” impetus. And then there is a charity provision that enables a player that gets just completely devastated on a turn to earn power points equal to half the leader- which can be a big boon.
This is a very aggressive, very fluid game so fortunes and territorial control can change dramatically over the course of the action. There is no turtling, the close quarters map with few territories simply doesn’t allow it. Rebounding from losses is fairly easy, and “Pain” results are more common than kills. The feeling this generates is one of struggle between equivalent powers punctuated by dramatic shifts in game state.
The immediacy of this game- coupled with its easy play and approachability- makes this one of my favorite designs in this genre space. I love that it is a game that someone can come to my house, see on the shelf, get curious about and I can have them up and running with it in about ten minutes. Setup and commitment are minimized. Impact and engagement are maximized.
Brilliantly editorial in its design yet over-the-top in production, the final question in regarding Cthulhu Wars is one that has likely been on the minds of any reader who has not yet either bought the game from the previous Kickstarter campaign or pledged on the recent one. “Is it worth it”? It’s a harder question to answer than it seems because in comparison to other products on the market it’s difficult to argue for it when you can easily buy three or even four very high quality, comparable titles for this game’s selling price. And that is before you figure in the expansion material, which is also premium priced with a full set of add-ons costing $600 before shipping.
But here it is. The answer might be regarded as something of a cop-out, but I’m going to tell you, reader, that it is simply up to you. Take a look at what is online, take a look at what is offered in the current Kickstarter, think about what your tastes are and what your group likes to play. Consider if a luxury-class Dudes on a Map game is something you want as a centerpiece in your collection. If you are interested in the Cthulhu Mythos, factor in how much you think that playing with these awesome figures and powers would be fun. Play someone else’s copy- if you dare to tempt yourself.
For my part, I think it is worth it because it is a masterful design that evokes an old fashioned sensibility while presenting itself in a very modern and very innovative set of rules that feels outside of the usual set of influences and antecedents. The miniatures, if you can call them that, do actually impart a sense of grandiose, cyclopean theater to the game and I would not want them to be reduced or replaced by less extravagant components. I appreciate the heart and soul of this game, I value that Mr. Petersen in some sense regards it as a culmination of his life’s work in games. The expansion content lingers in my thoughts like some kind of malignant corruption, the sound of a mystical unseen flute summoning my wallet.
I love this game and I think it is one of the absolute best games released this year and in time it could become one of my favorite games of all time. It is the best crowdfunded board game released to date. Like most of the games I cover, I was given it to review so take from that fact what you will. But if not for Mr. Petersen’s generosity, I would have been on my phone ordering a copy immediately after my first play.
If you know your dungeon crawl games, I can give you the shortest review ever of Dungeon Saga. It’s a cross between Descent and HeroQuest. It has the aesthetics and design philosophy of the latter, but incorporates the overlord versus players setup of the former. Job done.
Still here? Okay then. Dungeon Saga has one standout hallmark. It’s full of smart design decisions which offer a little extra depth, a little extra theme, while keeping things as approachable as it can. That’s impressive. The question is whether it’s enough to make this title stand out in one of the most crowded genres in board gaming.
Let me give you an example. Fighting borrows a combat mechanic from, of all places, Risk. Each player rolls dice and compares the values sequentially, highest dice winning each pair. No great interest there. But if there’s more than one model attacking you, you lose one dice for both attack and defence. If one’s in your rear three squares you lose another dice for that combat.
Anyone can grasp both the rules and the logic of this. Yet this swift stroke brings a sudden element of tactical positioning to your play. In the tight corridors and irregular rooms of the dwarf king’s hold it’s easy to get outnumbered if you’re not careful. So, players must jostle for position, watch each other’s backs, consider leaving good positions to stop someone getting surrounded. A simple combat mechanic with a tiny tweak to give you something to think about.
Here’s another. In this base set, the overlord player represents a Necromancer. He has a limited number of actions every turn. Each of these can either move and attack with a minion on the board, or turn a pile of bones marker into a fresh monster which can’t act that turn. Again: a simple, logical concept. Again, it creates some fun complexity. Do you trade off attacking now for the chance to get better position next turn?
There are a few other things in the bag: ranged combat and spells, doors and chests. But on the whole it’s a simple package well suited for family play. However much care went in to getting maximum bang from the mechanics, there’s too few rules to build major depth. Certainly nothing that can compare with the rich tactical smorgasbord of Descent.
There’s no better example of this than the campaign system, or lack thereof. Heroes start each scenario with pre-determined equipment which gets better as you run through the campaign. Like everything else in the game it keeps things clean and functional, ensuring you can pick individual adventures and find them balanced. Yet it can’t recreate the magic of slowly scaling the ladder of power. You already know how you’ll have improved by the next scenario.
Instead all we have is a setup where adventures get 15 attempts to beat the eight adventures in the book and can earn the occasional extra dice. Yet again it’s wonderfully sparse design, achieving just enough flavour from very little. But again, it offers a limited sense of continuity and may be a barrier to replay value.
Interestingly, the components follow the same pattern of making compromises to maximize value. It’s got little plastic furniture pieces like doors and chests, which are magnificent. Many of the sculpts are excellent too, especially the larger zombie troll figures. The plastic they’re made from isn’t great, though. And the dungeons tiles themselves are thin with generic art. They don’t have jigsaw ends so you can either clip them together and risk damage or lay them out and risk players knocking them askew in the excitement.
Although this is an easy game to pick up and play, it’s part of a wider series. There’s lot more expansions to come and a bigger, thicker set of rules. Kickstarter backers already have some of this material but I’ve not seen it. Part of the charm of this game is its accessibility, but it’s good to know it’s already got plenty of extra material for those as want it.
I like Dungeon Saga. It’s such a smart, compact package, crammed with equal parts invention and nostalgia. So it’s unfortunate that part of what makes it fun is also its greatest weakness. In trying to combine the best bits of other dungeon crawls it had, bizarrely, left itself short of markers to make it stand out in a crowded field.
Descent offers a more crunchy experience for hardcore gamers. The co-operative nature of the D&D Adventure System games make them better for family play. Claustrophobia has richer theme and Dungeonquest is more exciting. But Dungeon Saga is there if you feel the need to add another box of cool dungeon toys to your collection. I kind of hope you do.