Dominic Crapuchette’s Evolution is one of my favorite card games of recent years. Working from a design originally developed by a pair of Russian scientists, Mr. Crapuchettes has created a compelling, highly interactive game that creates a unique biosphere of competing or synergistic animals every time you play it. The themes of adaptation, survival and the co-existence of species are writ in bold face across the entire game. The mechanics are simple and accessible but the combinations of traits that your animals can take on results in an appealing sense of complexity and depth. But it is also the kind of game where it is easy to want more. Specifically, I found myself desiring more traits, more cards, to expand the possibilities of the game. It’s not that Evolution isn’t a complete experience out of the box, it’s that it’s the kind of game that feels open-ended in its potential.
Flight is the first and hopefully not last expansion for Evolution, and as you are likely to suspect it adds flying animals into the mix. And with wings come some new considerations that give players more options and slightly increase the strategic complexity. But more importantly, flying animals serve to expand the core themes of the game and allow for even more diverse species.
The expansion includes new, blue species boards for flying species. To start one, you’ve just got to discard two cards instead of the standard one required to pay for a new animal. Flyers come with the Flying trait card built-in, which limits them to just two other traits instead of the usual three. But staying aloft ain’t easy, and each flying species you control has to pay an upkeep cost in food based on their body size so they effectively need to eat more than land-based animals. Here’s the kicker- the extra food that they consume doesn’t go into your victory point bag.
Flying species can eat plant- or meat- based food like all others, and for the vegetarian varieties there is a new Cliff tile where they can grab a bite to eat. It refills each turn based on the number of players. More aggressive players will be happy to hear that flying carnivores are now a thing, and in addition to the usual parameters involved with eating someone else’s animals these winged terrors can also discard a card from hand to counter traditional anti-carnivore measures such as Symbiosis, Warning Call or Climbing. They’ll swoop down and snatch that climber right off the branch.
There are a few new trait cards that work with the Flight trait as well as with any other species you care to create. Brood Parasite encourages players to have multiple Avians and Nesting provides some meat food every time a flyer increases in population. There is Good Eyesight for the early bird seeking the proverbial worm and it is a requirement for a bird-of-prey to attack a species with the Camoflauge trait.
There is one new element, but it is fairly limited at this stage. There are two event cards- Dive Bomb and Seed Dispersal- that are played out of hand during the cardplay phase. The former allows an Avian to eat early, including another species if it’s a carnivore. The latter puts food in the watering hole equal to the number of birds in play.
As is the case with the base game, the card effects all connect right back to those core themes. Everything makes logical sense, and as a result the story the game generates is not only of your particular species but also how this particular biome you create functions. Some animals thrive, some carry on strong and steady, some falter and some never make it past a flying carnivore’s dinnertime. And when you look at the cards played, the effects that happened and the choices that were made a rich narrative line emerges that deftly illustrates the principles of evolution and adaptation.
This is a very nice expansion and it is one of those add-ons that has more or less obsoleted base game-only play for me. The additions are seamlessly implemented and are consistent. The same great illustrations and production design follows through. It is definitely better for seasoned players as the flying species introduce another couple of factors to consider, and the upkeep mechanic changes the dynamic (and priority) of food distribution. But I think that most players will want to shift to permanently adding Flight after a few games of the core title.
In the rulebook for Flight, it is stated that Evolution is “evolving into the Evolution Game System” and that NorthStar Games plans to support it for the next ten years and according to the press release I just read they are also putting ten million dollars into the product line. I certainly hope this is the case because I want to see where this game can go. It would be natural to expect an aquatic expansion next, but in the future I can imagine expansions with specific terrain, weather and other factors. More, please.
Uh oh. It’s the angry mob picture. That means that I’m about to issue forth with an unpopular opinion.
When I was in second grade, I had an Empire Strikes Back lunchbox. One of the right and proper ones made of metal with embossed images and a plastic thermos. On one side it Yoda and Luke. On the other it had Han, Chewbacca and C-3PO in the Falcon. Around the edges there were scenes from the film- Imperial Walkers, Vader, a Star Destroyer and even an image showing both Boba Fett and Bossk. Yet, contrary to the kind of logic that marketers use to sling licensed products, it never seemed to bring the magic and excitement of Star Wars to my PB&J and chips. There was no magical transmogrification that occurred that made the contained foodstuffs more Star Wars-ish. In the end, as cool as the pictures on it were and as much as they stirred my Star Wars loving heart, it was still just a lunchbox.
And so we come to Fantasy Flight Games’ latest big box release, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, by way of the school cafeteria. I’ll say this up front. This review is absolutely futile on a “pissing in the wind” level. It will not change your mind about this game, and it likely will not make a difference beyond possibly adding a lone, critical voice to the swelling triumph of this game over the hobby marketplace and mindset. The game is already a smash hit and gamers everywhere are lining up to either post the “take my money” Fry meme or to post fawningly on Boardgamegeek.com about how much they love it. I’m writing this by my front window, wondering if I should go outside and lock the front gate to keep the inevitable angry mob out.
Because quite frankly- and I am saying this not only as someone that pretty much fails their saving throw any time “game” and “Star Wars” occurs in the same product description but also as someone who desperately wants to love this game- Imperial Assault is a tremendous disappointment. Now, those of you who have followed this game’s announcements and marketing material will likely say “what did you expect” because it was plainly stated from the get-go that this was effectively a reskin of FFG’s second edition of Descent. The disappointment is that despite all of the great illustration, the obvious time and effort put into content and that plastic AT-ST miniature that had tongues wagging from the first images, this game never really feels like Star Wars. It’s a $100 Star Wars lunchbox containing a PB&J and chips that taste just like Descent.
I, somewhat famously, do not care for Descent. An article I wrote a couple of years ago called “The Descent of Descent” about how I had come to realize how much of a drag I thought it was got noticed by top brass at FFG and I was dropped from their press list. I never played the revised second edition, which by all accounts was a very streamlined and improved experience overall. Wait, I take that back. I have played the revised second edition- the one with the drawings of Luke and Han on it instead of Red Scorpion and Mad Carthag. I also played the game when it was called Doom and wasn’t saddled with a bunch of clutter, filler and a turgid pace.
So out of the gate, if you liked Descent or Descent 2.0, you’re halfway home. If you liked Doom, you’re about a quarter of the way home. If you liked none of the above, then you are at that point relying strictly on the Star Wars livery and that plastic AT-ST miiniature to sell this game to you. The multi-function dice used for combat resolution in Doom and Descent are here, as is the Overlord concept where one player controls the bad guy forces and the players control individual heroes. It is a standard move-and-or-shoot dungeoncrawler, with the map laid out at the beginning of a scenario and then populated by the Imperial player with enemies and surprises as the heroes fight through it.
The on-board action never captures the cavalier, swashbuckling attitude toward action that have made the films so popular. Just like Descent, it feels like a kludgy space-counting affair with a two-corners line of sight system that is way more cumbersome than it ought to be. The maps tend to be small, resulting in battles that feel way too much like close quarters melee even if you are blasting Stormtroopers with a DL44. There is a movement penalty to move through enemies, but no zone of control rules. So it feels a lot of times like everyone is kind of shuffling around tight spaces.
Also brought over from the Descent experience is the kind of card-creep where both the Rebel and Imperial players wind up with a bunch of cards in front of them with various powers, buffs and advantages. There are class cards, items that can be looted from supply crates and things you can buy between missions with whatever credits you earned. Fortunately, it doesn’t bog down nearly as much as Descent did, mainly due to some much cleaner rules for the Imperial player to spawn new units and generate the threat points to do so. It doesn’t take two hours to clear a room, and for that I’m grateful. Most missions can be completed in 60-90 minutes it seems, which is important since this is intended to be played as a campaign.
The campaign game isn’t just emphasized, it’s practically mandatory. There are no one-off scenarios in the rather generous assortment provided in the box and there is a really quite smart system of outcomes paired up with cards to give the players a choice of story missions or side missions to pursue. But there is nothing in the box that says “here’s how you play one mission without devoting your next four game nights to Imperial Assault”. That said, without playing the campaign and having the interstitial phase between missions where everybody levels up and acquires new stuff, you’re kind of missing on this game’s more innovative and interesting aspect.
Oh wait, there is. There is a tacked-on, card-driven “skirmish” mode for two players that was, to be honest, the main reason I wanted the game. I liked what I read from the rules early on, but I was disappointed that- just like with the campaign game- the Descent mechanics struggle to tell a Star Wars story. It isn’t seamlessly incorporated into the package, using some of the same components with some keywords and abilities ruled out and some other components that have no function in the campaign game. It feels like a dry,very ordinary tactical miniatures game but nowhere near as interesting or fun as the old Wizards of the Coast Star Wars miniature game was, or any of the other PVP-focused “dudes in a hall” games out on the market today including some of which that are published by Fantasy Flight Games. I played the skirmish game with two different people who- without prior collusion- both said that they’d rather play Star Wars: Epic Duels than the Imperial Assault skirmish. It says a lot that a mass market, silly kid’s game where you can have Mace Windu fight Darth Vader somehow captures more of the Star Wars magic than this labored, propped up hobby game.
It isn’t so much that the game isn’t specifically about canonical Star Wars events or characters. I think it’s smart that the player characters are “new”, and you’re not just playing Han, Luke, or Leia. I actually really like that they pop in the campaign in supporting roles, and I really like that when Vader shows up in a mission it’s an EVENT of the magnitude that his appearance warrants. But if you changed all the names and left the missions as-is- maybe it’s just some kind of combat mech instead of specifically an AT-ST and maybe that Chewbacca stand-in is just some kind of gorilla alien- and you’re left with the exact same game with no loss. And that game is a traditional dungeoncrawler with melee-focused combat and an emphasis on clearing rooms, completing perfunctory switch-flipping objectives and picking up some loot.
What I keep coming back to with this game- having played skirmishes and ? of a full campaign as the Imperial player and then some puttering around solo- is that the whole thing is just deceptive and lazy. It’s the kind of game founded on the notion that “theme” is the pictures and proper names, not the meaning of the actions or the narrative concepts they generate. It’s all a fa?ade, and it is clear that any time spent on developing this product was focused mainly on the missions and making it look like Star Wars. From a product design level, it succeeds. On the table, it does only if you are very forgiving about some of the dissonant points when it feels like that medieval dungeoncrawl that is this game’s chassis. Or if you get confused as to the difference between “theme” and “setting”. A plastic AT-ST and a card that has a lightsaber on it does not make a game thematic. Nor do they by default generate a sense of setting.
It’s disappointing that Fantasy Flight, having one of the most sought-after licenses in gaming, couldn’t do something more innovative, groundbreaking or compelling than slap the Star Wars logo on Descent. What a letdown this game is after the great work they’ve done with X-Wing (which was itself functionally a redevelopment of Wings of War) and the Star Wars LCG. Even the Star Wars microgame re-theme of Cold War: CIA vs. KGB feels more thematic and appropriate to the setting. However, there are apparently some restrictions regarding their license and how it intersects with Hasbro’s right to publish Star Wars board games, so it could very well be that this “adventure game” and “miniatures skirmish game” skirts around certain prohibitions- it being an existing design, and with the expansions sold in individual miniatures packs to coyly emphasis that this is miniatures game and not a board game.
I find myself almost wishing that Fantasy Flight had just done this game without the license, maybe even set in the Twilight Imperium setting or something. Or that they had chosen the excellent (and much more innovative) Gears of War to festoon with the Star Wars stickers. Hell, I think they could have made a more Star Wars-feeling game out of Nexus Ops, if they still have the license for it. At the end of the day, this game feels a whole lot like jerry-rigging the Game of Thrones license onto an existing light wargame design that does not capture any of the intrigue, melodrama or interpersonal affairs that have made that property so successful. But they’ve already done that, too.
Despite all of the above, I have to admit that I’m still playing Imperial Assault and I’m not looking to trade or sell it any time soon. It doesn’t feel like Star Wars which is the most important function of a Star Wars game, but it does have a kind of PB&J-and-chips appeal. It’s fairly bland, but anyone can digest it and fill up on it. It gets the job done if you want to play a vaguely sci-fi dungeoncrawler with decent mechanics (the Doom dice system is still great, regardless), and the campaign mechanics do help to increase the stakes of each mission even when the handful of paragraphs the Imperial player reads at key points don’t really add any tension or drama. And you won’t have trouble finding someone to play because everybody but me apparently loves this game.
The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade- despite its unwieldy title-stuns at the box level. Z-Man games pulled out all of the stops, graphically. Featuring an illustration straight off of an arcade cabinet circa 1987 with fine detail such as simulated wear, stripes and a just-right font choice, the epic “shoot the core” battle scene twixt spaceship and giant boss tells you right up front that this game is inspired by and pays tribute to classic scrolling shooters like Gradius, R-Type and Raiden If that elevator pitch is enough to get you into the cockpit, ready to dodge a million bullets, then you might be in for a surprise.
Kemble’s Cascade isn’t nearly the twitchy, pew-pew “shmup” you might rightly be expecting given the concept and the absolutely smashing visual presentation aimed straight at the heart of anyone who’s ever played and loved any of these kinds of games- myself included. It’s slower, more puzzle-y and rules laden than I thought it would be. The process is simple enough. On your go, you move one, shoot one and then pay energy to move or shoot more. But you’ve got to move at least as many times as you have Threat built up from your last turn, incurred by getting shot at by enemy ships or other players. If you can’t you lose energy from the hits. Run out of energy and you blow up. The threat/movement equation is one of this game’s more brilliant ideas as it abstracts that whole dodging thing without having you literally move all over the “screen”.
The “screen” is made of rows of cards, each with two spaces on them, laid out in these ultra-chintzy card trays. Some spaces have bad guy ships, some have asteroids, some have other obstacles. When an enemy ship is destroyed, you cover it up with a space card. When the round is over, the bottom row of cards is cleared, the tray goes to the top and is refilled with more cards, which are staged to represent different areas of the game. Player ships still on the bottom? Scroll pushed into whatever asteroid or enemy ship is in front of them. Kaboom!
Anyone who has ever played the classic kid’s game Up the River (most recently released as Race Through Space) will immediately recognize the scrolling mechanic. It’s neat, visual and it keeps the game on a forever forward trajectory- at least until the way to the massive screen-wide boss at the end of each game. It takes anywhere from 75-90 minutes and some change to play through a game, during which time you could possibly complete every level in a Cave shooter on your iPhone five or six times. This game shouldn’t feel draggy, but it sometimes does.
The issue is that there is actually a lot of game here, so much so that I feel like Kemble’s Cascade is overdesigned and somewhat overwrought. There is no randomness, no reflex actions or sense of speed. Instead, there are terribly gamey elements that sometimes speak to the shooter concept, sometimes not so much. There’s a lot going on beyond the appealingly raw move/shoot/dodge/power up/explode conceit of these kinds of games.
There are power-up cards that give your ship a special ability. Then there is a shop action, where you can effectively shop in-flight (huh?) for a range of engine, shield and weapon upgrades that, sadly, do not include some kind of spread shot. Each of those can upgrade as well. You spend money earned from shooting enemies and sometimes just for certain cards showing up on the screen. I find myself thinking the power-up spaces would have been enough without the need for currency and a market.
Then there is the somewhat weird conceit that every ship starts with a rotary cage, a device that lets you spend an energy to shoot in any direction. It’s a cool idea and not without precedent in arcade shooters, but it feels like a bandage applied to a unique issue created by moving a scrolling shooter to a tabletop environment- the enemies do not move, so lining up shots without the rotary cage can be really difficult. You can choose to play the game without it, but then it feels like you really need to have it because the enemies do not actually move- they just scroll down. So you can’t strafe a formation or anything like that. And since PVP is a concern (like it was in no shooter, ever), you also have other players shooting at you and they don’t tend to want to politely stop with your guns up their afterburners. So the game really kind of needs that four-way shooting to work right.
But by far my least favorite aspect of this design are the goals- top to bottom. I do not like the Achievement cards at all. Sure, it’s a modern video gaming concept, but why am I being rewarded for doing ridiculous, anti-success things like crashing X number of times or getting scroll pushed Y number of times? There’s an array of public Achievements that anyone can strive for to earn victory points, and on top of those every player also has a secret mission card. That may give you points for buying things or ending your turn in the top row of cards so many times.
The end goal of beating the boss just gives you VPs for destroying sections of it, but the endgame is really quite dreadful. Rows of cards start dropping off, and the player ships just kind of get pushed up into the boss. Then you count VPs. It feels like there isn’t really so much of an ending as there is a slow-motion crash into a brick wall. It doesn’t feel like a desperate, all-or-nothing battle against an impossible foe. It’s anticlimcatic to say the least.
Here’s the problem at the root of all of the above. I don’t think that the designers of Kemble’s Cascade really have the conviction to make this whole “arcade shooter board game” thing work. It probably should have been that pew-pew spaceship game that you expect from the artwork and box copy, but instead there’s all of this clutter that tries to make it a somehow more legitimate “game”. Why shouldn’t the goal of the game to be just simply SURVIVE the gauntlet and blow up the boss? Why am I counting victory points in a game that is simulating another kind of game where second-to-second survival is the goal? Sure, these kinds of games are all about scoring. But those high scores come from exploiting bonus mechanics and keeping alive long enough to maximize them.
But no, Kemble’s Cascade has you spending all of your energy to get two points for ending your turn with only one energy for four turns. You’re fussing about whether or not to spend an extra energy to move or shoot one more space or to take that rest action (whuzzah!?) to recharge and browse the store. I appreciate that the design is solid, completely works and is actually a pretty good game despite my misgivings and thwarted expectations, but these guys had a tremendous idea and it feels bogged down in appeals to the modern hobby gamer mindset.
There are so many great ideas in this game- the threat mechanic is brilliant. Even though the PVP element is totally out of place, I love that when you shoot somebody you put markers of your color on their card that effectively cash out in VPs for you if they get destroyed. The scrolling mechanic works really well, and I like how the game is staged by the cards. I love the attention to detail- the little plastic ships look just right and I love that one pilot is a Falco-like bird man and another’s name pays tribute to Captain Harlock. And the atmosphere can’t be beat- it does not at any point come across like any other kind of space game, it is very clearly intended to be this particular kind of space game.
But this particular kind of space game on the tabletop is sort of awkward in the final equation. Kemble’s Cascade is a game attempting to simulate another kind of game that isn’t really compatible at all with the qualities of tabletop design. That it works at all is kind of a small miracle, and even though I think this is a shaky, uncertain design that lacks confidence and tries too hard to be a modern hobby game I can’t help but admire the attempt and I remain completely fascinated with how the designers approached the problems of making a scrolling shooter work as a turn-based, multiplayer tabletop game. I love that this game exists in a swelling tide of mediocrity and repetition rippling through the games industry. There just should have been a more editorial eye toward streamlining the game and teasing out the kind of seat-of-the-pants, moment-to-moment action that you’d expect from the concept, and less attention paid on initiative cards, energy budgeting and other fussy boardgamer concerns.
The first time I played Hyperborea, the new big box release from Asmodee designed by Andrea Chiarvesio and Pierluca Zizzi, I thought about a couple of other games. Those games were Eclipse, Runewars, Cyclades, Kemet and Nexus Ops. Over the course of the 90 minutes or so that it took to play, I went from furrowing my brow at it, wondering if the rulebook was making the game seem much more complicated than it actually was, to absolutely loving it. By the end, my knee-jerk one-game opinion was that it was better than the first game I had in mind, tighter than the second, as good as the Matagot titles, but obviously not a time-honored classic like the last. After a few more games logged with it, I think it’s one of 2014’s best releases and I’m still anxious to get this streamlined, cunningly designed fantasy 4x game to the table again.
There’s another game that Hyperborea will remind you of, but I’m almost reluctant to mention it because of the expectations (or baggage) that comes with it. You see, the core activation mechanic in the game involves drawing colored cubes out of a personal bag and placing them on your race’s console display in various combinations to activate core technologies. Throughout the course of the game, you gain more cubes by moving a marker up six different meters representing vectors of civilization development like wealth, warfare, and science. Or you might find these “civilization cubes” by searching ruins- after you beat the ghosts guarding these lost secrets. When you use your cubes to activate research abilities, you get to pick from a display of new technology cards which improve on existing functions and provide new powers. Each one you take also throws a “waste” cube into your bag that can not be used to activate anything except for a few techs that weed them out of your pool.
In case you didn’t sort it out, the game I don’t want to mention is Dominion. I really don’t want to cast Hyperborea as a deckbuilding game. The designers call it a “bag building” game, which just puts me in mind of Quarriors or Dicemasters. This is really selling it short because the designers of Hyperborea have taken some of the key ideas of Dominion and other deckbuilding games- the resource generation, the cycling, the chaining of effects- and have made what I think is one of the more evolved and best integrated example of putting those concepts into a board game design.
The setup is familiar. Two to six players (yes, it supports six- a rarity these days) take on one of the game’s fantasy races color-coded to match up with one of the development categories. All are represented by miniatures, since this is essentially a Dudes on a Map (DoaM) game. There is a very recommended option to allow each player to choose one of two special race powers to give each side a touch of flavor. The red guys are geared toward combat. The yellow guys are merchants, so they are keyed to wealth. Green is traditionally the color of rangers and elves, so their impetus is mobility.
Each side gets a three-hex tile that represents their homelands and these are placed around a ring of “borderland” hexes surrounding a central, capital city. All but the homeland tiles are face down, so there is an early game exploration period that ends briefly. There are simple swamp, mountain and forest terrain effects that impact movement. Some hexes have cities, which can be occupied to generate an effect or resource as long as you have a man in there, while others have ruins. These spaces let you send units in to fight a ghost unit (worth points at the end of the game) and uncover beneficial relics. Quarters are close, and the game wastes no time in throwing you into battle. Turtling is not a viable option.
On your turn, draw three cubes. You put those cubes in boxes of the appropriate color on your race console or on the technology cards you have acquired, and if you fill the corresponding boxes you generate resources or actions based on the depicted icons. There are icons for movement, combat, gaining victory points, drawing extra cubes, ranged attacks, moving markers along the development tracks to gain cubes, and other effects. You can place cubes in anticipation of completing sets on your next turn or you may wait to see what happens when you search a ruin.
Everything is tightly systematized. All functions- technologies, relics and cities- generate the same icons. So like the money and actions in Dominion, an effective turn is one that leverages multiple sources to produce combinations. Where this game gets really interesting is when you realize how open-ended your turn is. Options are plentiful- if you play smart and don’t blow strategic opportunities. It may be a good idea to pile all three cubes into a tech to get some extra units on the board, or it may be wiser to bank one in three different techs, hoping for a draw next turn to let you activate two or even all of them. Moving units to claim territory is important, but so is committing them to activate city actions and explore ruins.
But here’s the catch. Like in any deckbuilding game, eventually you’ve got to reshuffle. In Hyperborea, this means that when your bag is empty, you take everything off of your technologies as well as any new cubes you’ve earned and toss them back in the bag. And those guys you sent to do city actions and dig up relics? They’re completely locked down until that reshuffle. So you might wind up wishing you had waited instead of committing everybody on the board. Or you might have done so at the right time to gain a significant advantage.
Combat is very much like it is in most deckbuilding games where you generate attack points. Units of various factions can co-exist in each hex, although it has to be solely held to use the cities or ruins therein. If you generate attack points, each one you make kills one enemy unit or ghost. There is no defence, unless the victim of your aggression used a technology in the previous turn to place fortress tokens. Each of these absorb one hit, but they are also removed from the board at the beginning of the owner’s turn. It gets pretty bloody even though unit density on the board is quite low, and there’s a smart system that encourages players to attack each other player at least once to maximize points.
This is a victory point game, and you’ll get them by using cubes or card effects to generate them, fighting, acquiring technologies and accomplishing three achievements- have all of your figures on the board, have five techs or have a number of VP gems on your card. When two of these are claimed, the game ends and you total it all up on a scorepad.
I think there’s going to be a lot of grousing from the dogmatic Ameritrash crowd that this game is “dry” or “restrained” because there’s very little fine detail and it is very mechanical. There’s no dice rolling, which is somehow regarded as more “thematic” than generating sword icons. But who cares what they think, this is a brilliantly constructed modern Eurogame hybrid that is just an absolute blast to play.
The engine is fun. I especially like how getting the development cubes works. Filling up those meters hits those same psychological triggers that watching an XP meter rise in Diablo III or whatever does, and I love that you can cash it in early for one cube or wait just a little longer to complete the track and take two. The open-ended turns offer a lot of variety, and the wide range of technologies offer players the ability to strategically evolve their race to suit the game state. You’re never railroaded into a certain tech tree or path and there’s always a sense that you are pushing toward something, be it a tactical play on the next turn or working toward one of the achievements.
The only knock against this outstanding game is that it is very expensive. At $100 retail, it’s undoubtedly going to put off a lot of potential players. But in its defense say that it is a great-looking game with some very nice production quality and clean visual design. And the box is pretty packed with high quality components including lots of plastic. In a day and age when people are paying three, four and five times this game’s street price for sloppy crowdfunded junk, I have to admit that it’s almost refreshing to play a $100 game that feels like it may actually be worth the price.
Spurs: A Tale in the Old West, new from Mr. B Games, is a fairly light adventure game with an all-too-rare American West setting and a structure that is pulled straight from Red Dead Redemption and other open-world video games. Each player takes on the role of a western archetype (Lawman, Gunslinger, Bandit and so forth) and travels around a small map to reach quest markers. You might find yourself hunting animals to sell their pelts back in town, tracking down gangs of desperadoes or bringing fellow players to justice that have done bad things like robbing the bank or victimizing local ranchers. Mine for gold, and you’ll be drawing plastic nuggets out of a bag. Try to corral cattle or break a horse and you’ll do so in a die-rolling minigame. You might get bit by a rattlesnake, involved in a brawl with a drunk down at the saloon or get hired to escort a stagecoach from one town to another.
All of the above has likely set many gamers’ mouths to “salivate” because there simply aren’t enough games with this kind of setting, and it’s quite fitting that the game is designed by Ole Steinness (with Mr. B. Games’ Sean Brown). Mr. Steinness was responsible for one of last year’s big surprises, the modern cop co-op Police Precinct. The two designs don’t really have much in common except in one key aspect. They are both fun, unique games with under-represented settings that unfortunately fall short of pushing into “must-play” territory due to some bland design choices and a lack of polish.
The games of Spurs I’ve played of it with anywhere from two to six players (using the Gambler expansion) have been full of laughs, groans, bad language and worse accents alongside the occasional brow-furrowing and grimacing at certain mechanical aspects. Despite the terribly written and organized (?) rulebook, it’s fairly easy to play and unlike many other adventure games there’s not a lot of process or administration to fuss over. It’s really kind of a roll-and-move game in disguise. You roll your riding dice and can move that many spaces across a fairly small map. If there’s a challenge token in the space you wind up, you can attempt it and if you pass, an event card is drawn and a new challenge is placed on the board. Some challenges are mandatory and require you to attempt them. If you’re in town, you can visit any of the buildings you want to turn in outlaws, buy a round of drinks at the saloon or purchase items from a store. Next player.
The goal is to get ten fame points in the shorter (and recommended) game, 15 points in the longer (and more repetitive) game. Most of the challenges, which are analogous to the “side quest” markers in an open world video game like Red Dead Redemption, require you to return to one of the three towns to cash in the reward but on the way you might get ambushed by another player- who can, of course, steal things from you. And if you’ve done criminal things and received wanted posters, then there’s an extra incentive for some PVP because each one you have is worth $20 to the player that guns you down. That’s a particularly nice thematic touch.
Player versus player battles are fun but sloppy affairs. Each player has a bag of bullets, seeded at the beginning with brown rifle rounds, grey revolver rounds and black “miss” bullets. You can upgrade your guns in town, adding bullets to your bag or changing black bullets to rifle or revolver rounds. When a duel occurs, each player squares off by drawing bullets as fast as possible (and within certain strictures) to try to be the first to pull two hits on the other player. It’s cool at first, but after the first couple of duels the novelty wears off. There is also an option provided to just do a simultaneous draw. I think this works better, even if it’s a little less rootin’ tootin’.
Combat against animals, desperados and outlaws involves pulling three bullet chits out of the bag. Some enemies require specific types of bullets- for example, a bear needs two rifle shots- while others just need two of anything that hits. If you take an injury under any circumstances, you toss a red bullet in the bag which counts as a miss until you can get the doctor to fish ‘em out.
There are a few things in this game that I really love, aside from the Old West setting. I think the “side quest” format works well on the tabletop- really quite better than it does in video games where it is usually a way to pad a 10 hour game into a 100 hour one- and I like that there is definitely an open world sensibility about the design. Player agency is very high. Your character does give some incentive or guidance as to what path you may take (for example, the Hunter has an advantage plying his trade, the Gambler gets a gold mining bonus) but it’s really up to the player as to how to proceed. You might take a chance on going after a tough outlaw worth three fame as a Hail Mary play to catch up to other players or you might make a career out of breaking horses and selling them in town- particularly lucrative if there’s an event that increases demand. Or you might just be a menace, pursuing other players to hijack their valuable challenge markers or to steal their money. There are three end of game bonuses awarding additional fame for having the most money, most wanted posters or the most bullets so there are also strategic incentives for scoring there. Not quite sure how having the most bullets makes you famous, but there it is.
Thematic oddities aside (you mean I can sell my gold to a bank, rob it, and then hang out at the town’s saloon?) there is a lot I do not like about Spurs as well. My number one complaint against the game is that despite its ambition to include many different aspects of the Western setting, it feels limited in scope at best, repetitive at worst. Once you’ve shot one outlaw token, you’ve shot them all. The Desperado cards at least have names on them, but even then there’s a pervading sense of dullness that creeps into the game. There’s a kind of design tension going on in Spurs. It’s trying to be an epic, comprehensive exploration of the setting across a couple of different vectors but it is also attempting to keep everything manageable and simplified. I don’t know that it needs to go all Arkham Horror, into exaggerated realms of variability and potential, but it does feel like it needs more than a couple of event cards to give it variety. The geography is fixed and really pretty negligible, so there really isn’t any variety there either.
The minigame idea is cool, and everybody gets excited the first time they do the cattle herding or horse breaking. But it’s just not really any fun and rather half-assed. Nobody really enjoys watching someone else do some simple task like this after the third or fourth time. I’ve found that I’ve actually avoided doing either of those types of challenges in some games just because I’ve gotten bored with the process. It doesn’t help that the “rodeo dice”, as my gang has dubbed them, are absolute garbage. You can barely see the icons, they don’t make any intuitive sense, and some joker must have thought it would be funny to print them in black ink on dark blue plastic.
The component quality, despite some very nice character illustrations, is generally pretty bad. I love paper money, but I don’t love almost illegible paper money printed on what appears to be glossy magazine paper stock. The cowboy miniatures are dull and across the entire game the cheap-looking iconography imparts the feeling of an unfinished product. Why am I looking at a card for “Slaughter Steve” that has a fully painted background but with an all-black silhouette for the character? Why do the “miss” tokens show a black bullet instead of just saying “miss” on them?
“Unfinished” is a word I keep coming back to when I think about Spurs, despite the fact that I do genuinely like the game and would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the Western setting or a simpler, lighter adventure title. This is a Kickstarter game, and it shows from floor to ceiling. It’s another example of how the games coming from crowdsourcing tend to lack the kind of polish and precision that you might find in a Z-Man, Fantasy Flight or Asmodee title. For example, Desperadoes and Outlaws are thematically the same thing. So why are there both, and both with different rules regarding how they behave or are introduced into the game? That’s something development should have ironed out. Characters with three riding dice rarely find themselves coming up short on a move, and can often travel anywhere on a given turn. It would have made more sense to have set movement ratings- not die rolls- with bonuses provided by horses. The Spurs mechanic is another example of how the game lacks the kind of focus that polish can impart. If you have Spur tokens, you can spend them before your turn to get an extra draw or pull on most actions. But the rules don’t apply for PVP, and they’re different for the minigames where you can use them to reroll a die. It’s a needlessly complicated element in need of refinement.
Overall, the design is more tentative than Police Precinct was and I think it’s a somewhat lesser game overall. Spurs often comes across like a hodge-podge of half-baked ideas strung together with strong contextual linkage but somehow it never really finding its center. Going back to that “side quest” concept, I don’t think it helps the game that there is no overall storyline or overarching goal other than “be a famous guy in the Old West”. Imagine playing Red Dead Redemption but without the story parts, and that’s kind of how the entire game feels. With that said, there is a strong sense of emergent story that many players will enjoy creating with friends and family. Despite the rough edges Spurs mostly lives up to its subtitle- “A Tale in the Old West”- but it’s still nowhere near challenging Richard Hamblen’s Gunslinger for the Best Game in the West crown. It’s more Silverado than Once Upon a Time in the West.