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Merchant of Venus Review

Merchant of Venus box shot

In this glorious age of reprints, there are very few remaining classic titles from the eighties that haven’t seen a rebirth in some form or other. Of those left stranded in the past most of any consequence were by designer Richard Hamblen. Known for his intricate and fiendishly detailed designs, one game in his oeuvre was relatively simple and short and cherished fondly for those exact reasons. And now Fantasy Flight Games has brought it to join the ranks of the resurrected.

Thanks to an amicably resolved licensing dispute between Fantasy Flight and another publisher, Stronghold, Merchant of Venus actually offers two games in one box. One is the original version, re-skinned with lovely new components and some minor rules tweaks and the other has been worked over by Fantasy Flight’s design team. The differences are not minor. While they share the same theme and inspiration the bulk of the components used are distinct even down to providing a double sided board.

In both versions players take the role of intergalactic traders seeking to explore the newly-opened galactic cluster 5632 and look for opportunities to turn a profit. Although the routes for movement around the board are fixed, each game sees a new random distribution of cultures across the planets, each of which buys and sells different types of goods and technology. The setup not only gives the game a fun exploration element, but also means that optimal trade routes will vary between games preventing tried and tested strategies from becoming stale.

The other significant common element between the versions is that movement around the board is dice-based and strewn with hazards. Roll-and-move has been abused sufficiently in other designs to make some gamers immediately suspicious of it, but the version here is full of added choices and subtle nuance and works extremely well, adding variety and uncertainty while leaving players largely in charge of their own destiny. The encounters on your way largely take the form of cash penalties in the classic version, or skill-based dice checks in the new version but both feature some other random variety mixed in.

The original is one of the few feted older games that I had never played, and I what I discovered about it surprised me. It’s a pick-up and deliver game, a well-worn genre that has stubbornly resisted most attempts at injecting theme and excitement into the mix in spite of the obvious possibilities for doing so that it offers. But Merchant of Venus is not only richly varied and exciting but strikes a wonderful balance between advance planning and terrifying entropy. Much like the economics it strives to emulate. And that path down between the two extremes is an electrifying ride.

Merchant of Venus in play

The two rule sets use wildly different mechanisms to achieve a similar end result of market variability. So not only does the random setup mean that profitable trade routes will be unique to each game but during play the value of any one shipment will fluctuate up and down. The game can quite suddenly turn from pick up and deliver to what’s basically a nail-biting race, as players compete to be the first to fulfil demand which then, governed by the iron laws of economics, vanishes into the vacuum as quickly as it came leaving the winner gloating over his credits and the loser with a cargo hold full of junk.

Sadly that’s about the only point of player interaction in the game. The newer version features events that allow players to hit one another with “infamy” points which detract from their end score, and a variant is provided to maximise opportunities to do this but it doesn’t add a whole lot. Mostly you’ll be navigating the vast reaches of outer space alone, which seems appropriate in a thematic way but prevents the spice of player interaction from being injected to enliven the occasionally plodding pace of play.

But those dull moments are the exception. The meat of both games is a tapestry of agonising risk versus reward decisions cloaked cunningly in a narrative of high adventure amongst the stars. And mostly it works like a charm, bewildering would-be profiteers with an array of ways to make and spend money. Buying and selling goods is the bulk of it, but you’re constantly challenged to evaluate whether ship upgrades, passenger charters or buying spaceports for a cut of the profits could be valid ways to recoup your investments while the same mechanics add seamlessly to the unfolding tale.

Merchant of Venus setup

The story and theme are where the considerable changes Fantasy Flight made to the original game engine really show through. Fans of the original have recounted the differences in excruciating detail elsewhere but they boil down to the addition of a great deal of variety. No longer are you constrained to be just a trader. Now you can mine asteroids, fight pirates and complete missions for fame and profit. This does create a lot more choice and flexibility for the player, but mechanically this is offset by a hugely increased reliance on random dice and cards. What’s left is not unlike a translation into board games of the long lineage of space trading video games stemming from Elite.

But there’s a cost, which is considerable extra play time, rules and administrative overhead. And there are aspects of the Fantasy Flight game that reek of insufficient playtesting. The much wider range of new alien technologies you can plug into your ship doesn’t seem to have consistent cost benefit ratios. Amongst these are the Fuzzy Dice which give a considerable score boost based entirely on a dice roll right at the end of the game, a mechanic so obviously atrocious it makes you wonder if it was dwelt on at all. There’s a challenge-based solo variant which is fun but some of the challenges are so random as to be pointless.

Both versions offer considerable charm. I think I prefer the classic rules but it’s a close thing, and those of you who are not time-poor parents may well find the considerable richness added by Fantasy Flight is worth the extra effort and the occasional badly-balanced session. I’m certainly pleased to have both in the box. And I’m even more pleased to have had the opportunity to play this excellent game which, old as it is, doesn’t feel out of place amongst modern hybrids of demanding strategy and exciting randomness. Lack of interaction is unfortunate, but it’s often the first casualty when thinking and thrills are squashed into the same box. And it’s a price I’m happy to pay for another bite at this delicious Venusian cherry.

Last Night on Earth Review

Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game from Flying Frog

I don’t believe there’s a meme in all of geekdom that’s been used and abused quite as much as the good old zombie. It’s been in films, books, comics and videogames that span the chasm between sublime art to complete trash. And speaking of trash, you’ll find a hundred of them in Zombies!!! which is perhaps the worst hobby board game ever committed to card and plastic. But game-playing zombie fans need not despair, because there are many better zombie games to try. One of them is Last Night on Earth, and the question is: how much better?

Well for starters, compare the box of Last Night on Earth with that of “generic zombie game #346”. Notice anything different? GZG #346 will certainly have some low-grade pop art on the front. Last Night on Earth, by contrast, features photo-based art of actors and actresses in costumes and special effects makeup. It’s a striking and realistic look (realistic enough to terrify my children) which is carried on throughout the card art. There’s also plenty of well-sculpted plastic miniatures of heroes and zombies inside the box and a pleasingly gloomy modular board. The photo art isn’t to everyone’s tastes: some people think it looks tacky. Personally, I love it and with the other high quality components I felt compelled to list this as one of the five best looking games ever made.

There’s also a CD in the box which is allegedly filled with “atmospheric” synthesizer music. A most unusual gimmick, but the less we say about this the better.

So we’ll move swiftly on to the game play. The rules are pretty simple. Usually one player is the zombie master and four heroes are distributed amongst the remaining players. Zombies move one space per turn and spawn continually at the board edges. Heroes can choose either to move or, if they’re in a building, to search for items. They roll a dice to determine movement, a mechanic that seems to be frowned on nowadays but which works perfectly well here since they can still choose to move any amount up to the dice roll, and get to see the dice before they decide to move or search. So there’s enough choice to keep things interesting. Combat is highest dice wins. Heroes roll more dice but need doubles to actually kill a zombie, otherwise simply fending off the ravenous undead and leaving it to fight another day. That’s the essence.

Last Night on Earth in play
Given the rules are so simple then, you might be surprised to find the internet littered with extensive FAQ’s about the game. The reason for this is that each side gets a substantial deck of cards with varied and colorful effects to put into play that modify the core concepts of the game in various ways. There are weapon cards for the heroes, and they’ll need them if they hope to kill zombies rather than just survive their attacks, and lots of event cards for both sides. Most add appropriate narrative and are exciting to use, such as an effect that suddenly traps a hero in a dark building full of zombies, or another that boards up windows and doors to limit zombie movement. A few are also silly such as the titular “Last Night on Earth” card that causes a pair of mixed-gender heroes to lose a turn. Mix in these card effects with a unique power for each hero in the game, and it appears to be a recipe for confusion.

So if the rules and cards and powers together end up as a chaotic mess, that makes it a bad game, right? Well, frankly if you’re stopping this game every few minutes to look up an official ruling for a card effect, then you’re playing it wrong. This isn’t a game where you should be examining rules minutiae to gain the upper hand. It tells a wild and thrilling narrative arc, and tells it well. It’s about throwing dice, slapping down cards, making zombie noises whilst exulting at the highs and complaining at the lows. Given that it usually plays in 60-90 minutes, the time frame fits the mechanics pretty well. If you can relax, play from the hip and just go where the ride takes you then most of the time it’ll take you on an exciting session of horror themed board gaming.

That probably makes it sound like a zero strategy game. And while it’s pretty lightweight, there’s a little more going on here than some people seem to give it credit for. Oddly this has very little to do with card play and management as is often the case in these sorts of games. Mostly you’ll play cards as you get them, or engineer situations where you can use them. No, the strategy is all positional. One of the more unusual and interesting mechanics is that the central outdoor squares are bigger than the indoor ones at the board edges, so you can cover more ground in open areas. Moving across the central area thus become a rather fraught exercise for the heroes. The zombie player has to try and distribute his undead to catch heroes dashing from cover to cover in a hideous parody of tag whilst being mindful of a rule that forces his pieces to attack adjacent heroes. It’s not too difficult, but it’s not entirely brainless either.

Last Night on Earth - some zombie cards

To improve both replayability and the storytelling angle of the game, it offers a variety of scenarios. The basic one just sees the heroes needing to rack up a certain number of zombie kills before a turn limit expires but it’s tense and fun for all that. Another sees the open center of the board replaced with a manor house which the heroes must defend for as long as possible, and that makes the most of the tactical side of the game. The rest are problematic because they all depend on the heroes drawing certain cards from the deck to win, so sometimes they’ll do it easily and sometimes it’s impossible depending on how the shuffle goes. Thankfully there are several very good scenarios you can download from the publishers website to replace those annoying search based ones and retain the replay value and variety offered by a scenario based game.

Genuine scares aren’t something that a board game can offer. You need to be too much in control of your fate and in possession of too much information when boardgaming to make fear a realistic possibility. Last Night on Earth therefore wisely aims at the tackier end of the zombie market and pulls it off extremely well indeed. From the shlock-horror artwork to the twist and turn game play and the B-movie narrative of the scenarios there’s a ton of fun to be had with this. It doesn’t always work: games occasionally run long and exhaust the value of the strategically lightweight gameplay, and sometimes the cards and dice don’t work their random magic and the game falls flat and lifeless. But mostly it does work, and the cheap afternoon horror matinee unfolding on the table before you will, like cheap features everywhere, suck you into its box of bad taste delights.

Olympos Review

Boardgamers, as a rule, have “go to” games. These are the games that can be slapped on the table on almost any game night without objection. My list of “go to” games isn’t terribly long and it can take a while to break into the coveted spot of, “I will never sell or trade this game, ever.”

Railroad Tycoon/Railways of Europe, Shogun, Blood Bowl 3rd Edition, Fire & Axe, Age of Empires III, Cosmic Encounter, Chaos in the Old World, Cyclades, King of Tokyo, Brief History of the World, Battlestar Galactica, The World Cup Game, and maybe a few two-player games like Twilight Struggle, Hannibal, and Warriors of God round out the list but that’s about it.

Of the over 200 games I have in my basement (and this is after the Great Selling Purge of 2012 that went down a few months back) the above games comprise my “do not touch” list. I play, and enjoy, a lot of games but the above list make up my core even if I don’t get to play them as often as I’d like. (I really need to play some Hannibal come to think of it…)

Neuroshima Hex was removed from the list due to the iPad app. I doubt I ever play the actual boardgame again because of it. I suspect the same will happen to the C&C games Matt’s been reviewing here lately. I own them all…and they sit and collect dust. The thought of playing Nightfall or Ascension on the table …never again.

The best thing I can say about Olympos is that it’s teetering on gaining entrance to this exclusive club.

Olympos is really, really good.

It combines some of the things I like about Eurogames but adds that all important direct conflict element, is far from being a multiplayer solitaire game, adds a factor of randomness that ensures a slightly different game every time you play it, and an easy and smooth playtime that fits snuggly in less than two hours after you are familiar with how it all works. It also clicks with three players, which can be the number of death for a lot of games.

In Olympos, you play a fledgling civilization attempting to settle the Greek mainland and its islands – and if you continue south the famed areas of Atlantis. By acquiring various technologies such as mapmaking, hoplites, medicine, and so on, and possibility even building a Wonder, you grab land, gather up various resources, and collect the ever popular victory point. (There is no VP track here so you never really know who is winning.)

There is a track, though. In fact is it the Time Track that drives the game. Unlike most games, Olympos allows for a non-specific number of actions per turn and each action you perform costs a specific amount of “time”. Slapping down one of your settler discs north of Greece in preparation to move inland costs two units of time; kicking out a rival settler costs time; discovering a new technology costs a lot of time. (Seven units in most cases.) Each unit of time you use on a turn moves your time marker further along the Time Track. Most importantly, there is no set turn order – everything is based on your position on the track so you can take as many turns as you like as long as your marker is behind everyone else’s. Conversely, if you do too much on a turn it’s going to be a while before you get to go again and by the time that happens the landscape of the game may have changed significantly.

Also scattered along the Time Track are the Greek God triggers. The first marker to pass or land on a trigger summons one of the Greek Gods to either punish those you haven’t researched religious techs or reward those who have. So there is a strategy involved in racing to the God triggers while also not getting too far ahead lest you sit and watch everyone else perform actions for 15 minutes. There is a juggling act in how to manipulate that Time Track and until you learn how to use it you are likely to lose a lot of games of Olympos.

Olympos is all about timing.

Everything in the game centers on time – even combat. Attacking a rival settlement (ie. a colored disc of a rival player) is simple. The attacker always wins. Period. It’s just a question of how long it takes. If both civs have an equal number of military techs researched it takes two time units. Weaker civs will burn three time units to take a settlement. On the other hand if my civ has researched the phalanx for instance, and my opponent has no military techs then it just takes one time unit to conquer his land, thus giving me the resource of that land as well as the territory itself (which earns VPs at the end of the game).

It took me a while to wrap my head around the fact that the attacker will always root out the defender but retaking land is as easy as walking right back and snatching it – it all depends on how long it takes as to whether or not it’s worth it. Plus, the defender earns as a token reward for getting kicked out, a “pause time” token which allows you to perform actions for less time. It’s a wonderful mechanic.

The techs you research do all sorts of interesting things – much of it devoted to the Time Track. Military techs save you time when conquering; techs like cavalry and mapmaking allow for quicker land and sea movement, medicine allows new settler placement at the cost of one time unit rather than two. Other techs earn you victory points at game’s end such as poetry and philosophy. Other discoveries such as Hellenism and art reward you with religious symbols that protect you from the wrath of the gods.

The techs/discoveries are placed on a separate board at the start of the game. They are randomly placed along various sections so that each game the resource demand to discover them changes. So one game astronomy might require two marble units and the next it might require gold. This is key because the map itself changes from game to game as one player will, at the start of each game, “cross out” a handful of lands making them uninhabitable. So what was prime real estate in your first game might be unusable in your next. In my last game of Olympos the start player basically crossed out all of Atlantis which made boat travel almost unnecessary thus making mapmaking and astronomy weak discoveries.

What makes Olympos such a wonderful game is that while at its heart it’s a straight Euro, there is enough direct conflict from the screwage that can occur on the time track to the swooping in and stealing of precious resources that you are likely to end a game of Olympos downright mad at someone at the table. I have yet to play a game of Olympos that did not result in at least one player saying to another, “That was a real dick move.”

The sign of a great game.

There are a few barriers to entry though. While mechanically this is a very simple game, there are a lot of moving parts and its use of symbols is everywhere and it can be needlessly confusing to learn. Also, with the number of techs/discoveries it’s a daunting task to figure out how to play the game effectively. It’s easy enough to move, research, etc. but to be good at Olympos will require multiple plays in order to understand not only how best to use the time track but also how which items to discover – and when.

This is also a game that can slow down if you have someone prone to analysis paralysis. When you get down to it this is a game not about building a civilization but about land grabbing and using as little time to do it. I have seen players study the boards (the main board and the tech board) for a long time trying to find the “best” move.

Designer Philippe Keyaerts is best known for the Days of Wonder hit Small World, but I would, without question, rather play Olympos. It hits that sweet spot of being a Euro/Wargamre hybrid with enough of a random element to avoid getting stale.

Dungeon Twister to Hit PSN!

Whoa, I didn’t see this coming and it will be a reason for me to use my PS3 for something besides my Netflix box.

While most boardgame ports are hitting iOS devices, this sucker is going the console route, and while I would prefer XBLA, PSN will have to do. Dungeon Twister is a damn good 2-player game of turning rooms, confusing layouts and escaping with loot. I own the Asmodee edition and it’s a perfect 30-45 minute game, which makes it an ideal port to the console or iOS realm.

According top Joystiq this will drop over the summer. I’m in.

The digital boardgame Renaissance continues.

Road to Enlightenment: Kickstarter Alert

This definitely one of those “full disclosure” circumstances.

Road to Enlightenment is a boardgame from Dirk Knemeyer and Conquistador Games. I have playtested this game multiple times, I enjoy it a great deal and I want to see it succeed because not only is RtE a really slick boardgame but Dirk Knemeyer is a personal friend of mine. And not one of those “I know him on the Internet” type of friends but a real life flesh and bone I play games with him twice a month friend. Dirk lives about 20 minutes from my house.

Road to Enlightenment has evolved a great deal from the first time I played it. I had a lot of conversations with him about adding a board (the first prototype I saw was almost strictly a card game) and Dirk would go home and whip up a new prototype in like a day. He’s a terribly bright man.

Although that image up top makes RtE look like a hardcore wargame I can assure you it is not that at all. The game combines elements of deckbuilding, card drafting, above table negotiation, wargame grand strategy, and money management. You can read the rules here in PDF format. (37 megs)

Anyway, RtE is coming out regardless of this Kickstarter project. You are not backing a promise with this — this game exists and will cone out regardless of Kickstarter.

I can’t wait to see the finished game. I did see those swanky coins the other day. Production value is not an issue. I’m so happy to see Dirk’s vision come full circle. I hope he knocks it out of the park.