Skip to main content

Cracked LCD- Xia: Legends of a Drift System in Review

xia ships

At first glance, Xia: Legends of a Drift System sort of looks like another entry in the 4x space empires sweepstakes. But it’s really closer to something like Merchant of Venus or Gale Force 9’s Firefly game. Like those titles, it’s a pick-up-and-deliver game with both mercantile and adventure gaming elements It features a strong “open world”-style emphasis on allowing the player to chart their own course through options that include good honest work as well as criminal enterprise, exploration as well as material advancement. The goal of the game is to set out in a starter spacecraft and earn the most fame points by the end of the game. And how you get them is really up to you.

Far Off Games and designer Cody Miller have already earned a couple of these fame points because Xia is a very nicely produced game with some fun components. The game ships with 21 fully painted (hooray) spaceship miniatures, each one a unique sculpt. They look great on their stands and add a nice touch of character to the game. The money in the game is custom, triangular coins made of metal in two colors. They are certainly a luxury-class addition that has absolutely zero impact on gameplay, but it’s a nice touch. It’s a somewhat expensive title but the quality overall is high, especially for a Kickstarter title.

And she does got it where it counts, because the game is exciting, fun and much more accessible than I expected after reading through the rules. At first I thought it was going to be quite complex, but the reality of it is that the design is pitched at the lower end of rules weight despite the level of detail. There are three tiers of upgradable ships with upgradable components. Concerns include cargo portage, energy management, asteroid/debris fields, nebulas, planetary shields, resource mining opportunities, blind space jumps, multiple types of goods, warp gates and bounties for lawbreakers. There are NPC ships including a pirate, a cop and a travelling merchant. To top it off, there is also plenty of PVP. There’s a lot going on in Xia, and it creates a sense of world-building as the game plays out and the narrative develops through player choices and a few random turns of event.

But it’s a simple, focused design that actually has an admirable degree of restraint despite the open-ended, sandbox approach. It’s definitely not one of those dreadful kitchen sink designs that plague Kickstarter these days. It’s all about piloting a unique ship through this developing environment and looking for opportunity while improving your ability to complete tasks. Each ship, in addition to a couple of special abilities and some variance in capabilities, has a grid depicting its available space. When you buy components, you fit them in Tetris-like. Each component- including engines- corresponds to a polyhedral die. The lowest grade engines let you roll a D6 to move and the upgraded ones a D8 but at the cost of requiring more space. This system runs through all of the ship components- the combat suite of guns, missiles and shields included.

Everything runs on an energy management system. Your ship has a couple of energy cylinders that must be “armed” and then placed on components to activate them. So to make those D6-powered engines go or those low-power peashooter lasers, you have to have the energy to do so. And if you run out of power, you might find yourself running on backup impulse power, limping back to a planet to refuel.

Expect to tool around the modular, hex-based map tiles looking for planets at which you can pick up or drop off cargo (provided you have room) while also taking your chances to navigate hazardous areas or mine them for resources to sell at a profit. If you go to a sort of “quest dispenser” spot on most of the tiles, you can draw from a job deck to take on a task that will yield fame points or credits. You might also find exploration tokens that give a little fame or financial bonus. Maybe you’ll run afoul of that NPC pirate ship that pops out to shoot at you and then runs away. Or maybe you will BE the pirate, taking on a job to steal from another player, and you wind up on the run from the authorities after sacking the merchant ship, looking for somewhere to ditch stolen goods. If another player doesn’t hunt you down first to claim the bounty on your ship!

Most significant actions in the game yield fame points, including destroying or upgrading ships and delivering cargo. I especially like that a player can get a point for “rescuing” an out-of-energy ship by going out to the stranded player and giving some energy. I accepted this charity from a fellow spacefarer in my second game, only to find that he had a job to rob me. Once a player moves his marker up to certain break points on the fame track, Title cards are drawn from a deck and these are achievement-like objectives that anyone can claim when eligible. So the game doles out additional opportunities as it plays out, and it’s up to you to determine if they are worth pursuing.

The game plays out to a sort of customizable length, which is good because if you play to higher fame point values it can drag out beyond its welcome. It, like some of its predecessors, plays best with three and worst with five. There is a sense of repetitiveness that starts to creep in after the 90 minute mark that I’ve found makes a good case for an expansion adding content by way of the job deck, ship components and the available space tiles. It isn’t that the game feels limited; it’s that it feels like it could take on more variety and a broader scope without suffering from bloat.

But even at two hours, I really like Xia a lot and I think among the games in its class, it’s actually more fun to play. Some of this, inevitably, is because it’s just so easy to set up, play and enjoy. It has a very unique sense of featuring a lot of specificity but hewing closer, mechanically, to lighter, more family oriented fare despite its length. I don’t have a fancy, brainy reason for liking this game so much- I don’t think it changes the way we play games and it doesn’t offer a sweeping case for games-as-art, nothing like that. It’s just plain fun to set out in a junky little ship and work out ways both fair and foul to get famous, get rich and get into better craft.

Cracked LCD- Darkest Night Expansions in Review

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Victory Point Games’ Darkest Night. Despite the appearance of it being another one of those dime-a-dozen co-op fantasy adventure games, it turns out that this is actually one of the best. It does a couple of things quite differently than its peers, not the least of which is that it creates a bold narrative wherein stealth and avoidance can be as significant to victory as choosing when to “go loud” and attack. Darkest Night is also a very well supported game with multiple expansions available, and since I like playing with all of them it’s only fair to follow-up on that very positive review with a look at the additional content that is available- some of which dramatically changes (and improves) an already great game. The first two expansions, the ones not called From the Abyss and In Tales of Old, are available as part of the “Necromancer Bundle” that Victory Point sells. The last two are, as of this writing, only sold separately.

The first expansion, With an Inner Light, kind of sets the pace for what you can expect from designer Jeremy Lennert fleshing out the system. At first blush, these are definitely “more cards” kinds of expansions but the thing about it is that “more cards” in Darkest Night tends to me “completely new ways to play the game. There are new Blights and more cards for every deck that aren’t so impactful, but you also get four new characters with a loosely religious flavor. There’s a Shaman that specializes in a sort of ritualistic, totemic magic. A Paragon is sort of a paladin that works great as a support character, using auras to buff himself or anyone in his area. A Monk brings a little “Oriental Adventures” flavor (for you D&D veterans) and packs a mighty wallop with some neat chaining abilities. The Crusader promotes a more aggressive approach to dealing with Blights.

But the big value-add is a new questing system. Without this expansion, the game lacks a wider sense of player activity and agendas. These are cards that turn up in the Event deck that place crises in locations that require specific actions to resolve. And these are usually on a timer, so there is a new sense of urgency injected into the game as it creates a more dynamic game world. Some quests even help you get those all-important keys to unlock the Holy Relics you need to beat the Necromancer. I can’t imagine playing this game without the quests at this point, and that makes this expansion essential.

The second expansion released was On Shifting Winds. It isn’t as impactful and to some degree it feels much less important. But with that said, there’s another four characters that are all unique and have virtually no redundancy with those that have come before. The new gang has a sort of nature theme- a Wind Dancer that has some capriciously unreliable abilities, a utilitarian Scout that does pretty much just that, a Wayfarer that specializes in exploration, and a Ranger packed with survival specialties. In addition to these interesting characters, you get even more new Blights and other new cards to increase the variety as well as a couple of new treasure tokens (consumables) to give you a much-needed edge.. I’d give On Shifting Winds a recommendation just on the characters alone since this game excels in distinguishing the differences between classes by literally completely changing everything about how each plays. If you’re getting the Necromancer Bundle, you’re getting it anyway.

Expansion #3 gets you out of the Bundle and into the wild beyond. From the Abyss continues the four-character/more cards/more blights trend with some of the more compelling characters available to date. These folks are in it to win it against the Necromancer by leveraging some really interesting magic and some more in-your face methods. The Channeler and the Mesmer are definitely not your typical fireball/lightning bolt/ice blast spellslingers, focusing on mental control abilities and astral transformations, respectively. The winged Valkyrie has retaliatory abilities and the Exorcist can receive holy boons (blessings) to combat evil.

And they’ll need all the help they can get because another new mechanic comes into play with this set, and it’s not on the good guys’ side of the Manichean equation. From the Abyss dramatically changes the base game’s Darkness track so that predetermined negative effects happen as the land falls under the Necromancer’s sway. Now, when you hit certain Darkness thresholds, you draw a card that you will likely not be too happy about because they’re all pretty ugly. I like the Darkness cards and it’s another mechanic that as far as I’m concerned is now permanently bolted onto the base game, but they also feel like another “event” type of card in a game that already has enough. With that said, one of the strengths of these cards is that you usually won’t see more than a couple in a game so they have a rarity that makes them more interesting from game to game. Flipping the positive back over to the negative, this is already a game that can beat you down so giving it another tool with which to do so feels almost like overkill. That, along with the more complicated (but interesting) characters make this ideal as an “advanced” expansion for players who have done the Necromancer in a few times.

In Tales of Old is expansion #4. It has been recently released and it’s another good one- and it has another “this changes everything” mechanic on board along with the new cards, new blights, new characters, et cetera. I think fans of this game will want to own In Tales of Old, despite the fact that what used to be a fairly compact game is now getting dangerously close to bloat. We’re still a ways out from Arkham Horror “expansion for the expansions” levels of madness, but after five releases –and I’m not counting a couple of promo items – this is getting to be a more cumbersome game.

But fortunately, the additions earn their place in the game but they introduce a looming question about this design, which we’ll get around to shortly. The big update is an all-new Mystery system which completely discards the old key-hunting of the game up to this point. That’s right, forget all of that stuff about finding three keys to open those chests containing the Holy Relics. Now, the players are tasked with resolving Mystery cards that pop up (like quests) in various locations. Solving Mysteries gets you Clue tokens (shades of Arkham) and when you have ten, you can “buy” a Holy Relic. Those that lamented that the original game felt like endless, random searching for keys will be relieved and I think that overall it is an improvement that adds more narrative and strategic options.

The characters are, again, an interesting bunch. Mr. Lennert has let the entertainers in on the battle against the Necromancer. The Bard can activate helpful melodies, making him definitely more of a support character. The Conjurer brings another interesting set of magical abilities to the table with a focus on materializing magical forces. I’m particularly fond of the Tamer, her powers include the ability to tame a boar, a nightingale, a unicorn or a sylph to help her out on the quest. The Alchemist focuses on artifacts and items as well as brewing up special tinctures- consider him the bartender of this motley crew.

Now, the problem that In Tales of Old begins to set up is that it does not feel seamless with the remainder of the product line. Throwing out the keys means that all the cards that reference keys still need to do something and there are still key tokens floating around in the game. It feels almost like the Quests from With an Inner Light are made obsolete by the even better Mysteries, yet you can play with both. It almost feels, to some degree, like the game has sort of developed into a “2nd edition” on the fly with improvements and evolutions sort of applied to it with each release. So it’s hard not to look at some of the material in expansion #4 as second takes at material that was in expansion #1- material that really should have been in the base game to begin with, because it really needed those quests to build out the world and give the gameplay more dimension.

Be that as it may, the game totally works with everything piled in there and there aren’t any side boards, complicated sub-systems, special trackers or other administrative overhead other than managing more active cards on the table at any given time. But I can’t help but feel that this game, at this stage, really needs that official second edition more than it needs a FIFTH expansion, which is apparently on its way. I love this game, I think it’s a top notch example of the genre and I definitely want Mr. Lennert and Victory Point Games to give me more but I’m worried about what a reboot might mean for a product line going on six releases deep.

Cracked LCD- Argent: The Consortium (and expansion) in Review


I should be writing a negative review of Argent: The Consortium because it completely flies in the face of everything I want out of board gaming in 2015. The title of the game is terrible; it speaks nothing to the Harry Potter-like “wizard’s school” setting or the themes expressed in the game. It’s a worker placement game, a tired and overplayed genre if ever there were one and it’s one of those really complicated ones at that. The game is way long and overstuffed with multiple resource types, piles of cards everywhere and built-in redundancies. The rulebook overcomplicates the mechanics and there are Euroglyphics everywhere It’s all topped off with an anime-influenced illustration style that I don’t particularly favor. The whole thing teeters on the brink of bloated inaccessibility, and you might – like I did – question if it’s worth the effort.

But it turns out that Argent: The Consortium is also one of the best worker placement games published to date. It’s a brilliant, sometimes brutal but always magical game full of dynamic interaction, thoughtful gameplay and wonderful narrative beats. There isn’t really anything else quite as bold on the market, especially in this particular genre.

Trey Chambers’ design, published by Level 99 Games is the impossible game. It should be a screaming mess appealing strictly to the kinds of folks for whom Agricola or Caverna is too streamlined. It’s a sprawling piece of work with a tremendous, almost terrifying degree of modular variety and content spilling forth everywhere. The key to its success is that everything is held together with a precise narrative logic and a direct connection between mechanic, player action and representation. It’s scary to behold at first and the first few games should definitely be regarded as “learning” ones, but once players acclimate themselves to Argent’s way of conducting business they’ll find a stunningly crafted, elaborate game that completely earns the rights to be long, complex and overflowing with components.

The setup is that each player takes on the role of a candidate aspiring to be elected to the chancellorship of Argent University, a sort of ersatz Hogwarts where the curriculum includes Planar Studies, Sorcery and other forms of magic. There are twelve voters (the titular consortium) that will each cast a vote for the candidate that matches their criteria and the player that gets the most votes, obviously, wins the game. But the catch is that apart from two electors present in every game, the voters’ criteria are kept secret and part of the game is discovering what each is looking for in their ideal chancellor. Depending on the character, they may vote for the candidate with the most gold, the most assets of a particular type of magic, or the most artifacts. These secret voters, when discovered by the players, act almost like secret objective cards in other games. They provide the player with clear strategic goals and serve to shape the possible paths to victory.

Process is actually quite simple. It’s just that it’s one of those designs where there are a hundred things to consider at once. On your turn, you either place one of your Mages- each color-coded to one of the schools of magic- into a room tile where there is an available space or you take a Bell Tower card, which typically gives you some kind of a benefit such as taking the first player token for initiative. Once the Bell Tower cards are depleted, the University tiles are resolved in order and players collect whatever resources or assets they gain from their position in the room- fairly standard worker placement stuff.

But it’s when you place a Mage that this game really starts to distinguish itself from its peers. Each Mage has a function based on its color. Sorcerous red Mages get to zap another player’s Mage to the infirmary, knocking them out of their position and sidelining them for the turn, barring another effect that heals them up. Green Mages might have enhanced fortitude, rendering them immune to other players’ attacks. And the Planar Studies Mages might get to use a special “shadow” slot next to an occupied place in a room. You draft these mages at the beginning of the game so that you always have two of your candidates color and three of any other colors, so who you pick to be in your coterie has a huge effect on what you can do during the game.

So the worker placement element has more teeth than many might expect, and in fact it takes some adjustment to get used to the fact that anyone can pull a wand on another Mage and shoot them into traction. You’re not guaranteed that your placement is going to come to fruition unless you have some kind of protection, and it can even happen that all of your Mages wind up nursing wounds and you spend the turn collecting a consolation prize. What’s more, there is a finer detail in placing your Mages because even though the top slot tends to have the best reward, you might actually want something lower- maybe a Research or Wisdom token, mana or gold, or a combination of the above.

But the most important aspect of this mechanic is that when you place Mages, it makes narrative sense. When they go Adventuring, it’s easy to connect the rewards to the action. Likewise, going to the Council Chamber to sway supporters to your cause is definitely more concrete than getting a colored cube representing a resource that you will eventually use to make another cube of another resource. Of course you get magic items, potions and other treasures on a trip down to the vault. Even in an eight room, three player game it always feels like there is tons to do, and all of it contributes to the story this game is telling.

It’s almost overwhelming at first. You’re constantly concerned with obtaining Marks, which you use to discover an elector’s criteria. But then you’ve got to concern yourself with researching spells from a big, fat stack of cards. Each requires Wisdom and Research resources, and each one has its own upgrade path with stronger effects. But then you need mana to power those spells, so some workers need to do things that generate that. Maybe you know that an elector will give a vote to the player with the most supporters (which are themselves action cards with a variety of effects), so that means spending time in the Council Chamber. And then you need to worry about accruing Influence points, which are a measure of your overall popularity at the school. Don’t forget earning Merit Badges, which grant you the ability to use special, privileged spots in the rooms.

Every game is just packed full of these elements. Each game offers a different set of electors, which is just one of the ways this game completely embraces the “different each time” mantra. The university is also different every game with 8 to 12 room tiles randomly selected and placed based on the number of players. Some games may have the Archmage’s Study but not the Vault, for example, and the effects on available actions are tremendous. And then each of the room tiles has two sides with different functions, an “A” side that is a little more straightforward and a more advanced “B” side. In addition, each candidate has two sides that correspond to two different starting spells. Beyond that (whew), each Mage power has an A and a B side as well, so their placement powers vary each game.

All of the above results in games where there is tons of mana but no gold. Or ones where everyone has a ton of artifacts but nobody is really researching spells. And then there are games where everyone is just spell-slinging and playing a vicious take-that style strategy and others where there is gentler skullduggery and intrigue. It’s a wild ride no matter what mix of variables are in play, but this kind of variety means that there is a lot of repetition in the game. There’s multiple ways to make money, lots of cards duplicate certain effects between spells, potions and magic abilities. Some rooms feel redundant. I was bothered by it at first, but it became apparent that the repetition is really a design necessity to prevent games from crapping out or locking down when there’s a resource all but excluded from the available options.

The bottom line is that this sprawling, table-consuming masterpiece works and it’s spectacularly entertaining and thoughtfully composed. I haven’t run into a situation that I thought was out of balance or screwy. Beneath all of the narrative gloss and chromed-out setting, it’s a pretty finely tuned machine that pulls off the neat trick of running like clockwork while never foreclosing on player agency, interaction or possibility.

But wait, there’s more. There has been one major expansion released as of this writing, the ‘Mancers of the University. At first, I was reticent to add more content to a game already packed to the gills with it, but after using it I’m convinced that anyone interested in this game should look toward implementing it after the first four or five games. The expansion adds a new magic school (Technomancy) that augments and supports the research component of the game along with several fun, modular add-ons that I wouldn’t want to do without at this point. There are scenario cards that replace the standard five round cards in the base game that give the entire affair a different flavor- there’s even one where players can assassinate the voters. The Bell Tower cards get a huge boost, increasing their attractiveness and utility for players who opt to choose one instead of placing a Mage. More rooms, more spells and more of everything good. The modular add-ons are a la carte, completely optional and all great. It very much feels like content that “belongs” in the base game, but may have been extracted because there was already so much there.

With a Harry Potter license, this game would be one of my all-time favorites. I’ll take Severus Snape over “Larimore Burman” every time. But that’s wishful thinking, and what we have is Argent: The Consortium. The title sounds like a grim, cyberpunk business game and not the colorful, magical campus life fantasy presented here. Regardless of what they called it, Argent is a compelling, vibrant game that even those who have sworn off the worker placement genre should have a look at. Best in class, indeed.




Cracked LCD- Reviews Catch-up! (Arena of the Planeswalkers, WWE Superstar Showdown, Forbidden Stars)

magic wwe

I’ve got a small pile to hand in this week- been extra busy over at The Review Corner with some of today’s most popular titles:

Magic: Arena of the Planeswalkers is, in fact, Heroscape meets Magic. It is also a great mass-market game that has tons of potential, if Hasbro will let it come to full fruition. It’s also probably the best value in gaming at only $29.99 retail. Five star review is here!

WWE Superstar Showdown is Gale Force 9’s latest, and as is par for course it’s not only really good, it’s really good even for non-fans of the license. It is an officially licensed WWE product (hologram and all) so if you know who Daniel Bryant and Roman Reigns are, have I got a game for you. If you don’t, it’s still a great fighting game that is super easy to pick up and play. I wish it had more wrestlers, especially ones I know from like, WrestleMania III. Four star review is here!

Forbidden Stars is FFG’s latest Warhammer 40k Dudes on a Map game, which fortunately avoids the debacle that was Horus Heresy altogether and is instead inspired by their woefully underappreciated StarCraft board game. But it isn’t as good, and for all of its streamlining and refinement they stuck a tacky, overwrought combat system in there that plays out like a full card battling game crammed into an otherwise smooth-running system. This also makes the game too long. We did a special thing with this, a Head to Head review with myself and my lead writer Charlie Theel. He liked it more than me, so there’s some good debate here in my three star (his four star) review!

Cracked LCD- Broom Service in Review

Last week was an 11th hour vacation ending literally hours before back to school for the kids, this week I’m back on the broom for a review of the GREAT Broom Service over at Miniature Market’s Review Corner. This is an outstanding game (based on the earlier Witches’ Brew, which I never played) with a brilliant action selection/trumping mechanic that requires players to announce whether they are going to be brave or cowardly every turn. The setting is a wonderfully whimsical witchy thing, which I have a terrible weakness for (witness the Kiki’s Delivery Service tattoo) and it turns out that this is a design that strikes an almost perfect medium spot between the classical German-style family games and the more complex modern hobby games. It’s easy and fun, but it bites pretty deep. And it won this year’s Kennerspiel prize at the Spiel Des Jahres, well deserved. Check it out here!