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Cracked LCD- Inside AEG’s Summer Releases Box (Doomtown, Sail to India, Mai-Star, Valley of the Kings, etc.)

aeg box

Here’s a little “inside baseball” about the games review racket. Most publishers, especially the smaller guys, you need to email or call and ask for press copies. It’s somewhat humiliating in a way, going out with hat in hand to ask for a free game but the game makers benefit from the press more than a reviewer benefits from a free game. But some of the companies have bona fide press lists, and they send out press packages and unsolicited promos. Sometimes, this is a great thing because you get to see games ahead of release and it gives you lots of material for the next several articles. But sometimes, it feels like this huge obligation- particularly if you’re being sent games that you don’t want to cover.

Fortunately, AEG does good press packages and even though I’m pledged to impartiality and I’m not swayed by swag I appreciate their generosity. It shows that they respect reviewers and understand their part in the marketing process. There’s a new AEG box with their summer releases packed in it that I got a couple of weeks ago so I thought I’d just review the whole damn thing in one swing.

thunderstone advance

They didn’t send me Istanbul, which is ironic since I’m going through this Eurogames rediscovery. But that’s fine, I’m not a big Rudiger Dorn fan to begin with. One of the big ticket items was the new Thunderstone Advance expansion, Worlds Collide. I swear they have sent me Thunderstone ten times. I like Thunderstone and I’m actually always interested to see what’s new and the last round, the Numenera set, was the best release in the franchise to date. This new one is a great idea, it is effectively a “greatest hits” compilation of cards- and promos- from the Thunderstone sets before the Advance reboot. Everything is made current, and it is also a standalone so it’s also an entry point for newcomers as well as an expansion. I’d like to see this “best of” concept applied to other games with tons of expansions, a single package that hits the high points for folks that don’t want to collect or clutter.

smash up

At some point, I’d like to see AEG do something similar with Smash Up, which is already four or five expansions deep. The new one is Science Fiction Double Feature, which adds four new groups to the crazy mix-and-match base battles. Cyber-Apes, secret agents, time-travelers, and shapeshifters add lots of fun combinations on their own and more when mixed with a couple of other Smash Up releases. Smash Up is actually kind of funny and this set is no exception. The Bond references are eye-rolling but fun and I love that the time travelers are all done up in a late 1970s style- and they’re led by “Doctor When”. Smash Up doesn’t hit the tables much with my gang, but I have an abiding fondness for this simple, stupid game. I still think there’s a little too much simple addition.

arcane fire

The new Romance of the Nine Kingdoms expansion set Arcane Fire was in the box, but I didn’t play it. I didn’t like the base game, which is effectively a redevelopment of the old Legend of the Burning Sands CCG. It’s this odd concept where it’s supposedly this fictional long-running CCG from an indie picture called “The Gamers”. It’s sort of a “multiverse” set up with vaguely connected mythology, terminology and characters. I just could not get into it, and I didn’t get the joke.


Valley of the Kings is much more serious, what with its subject matter being Egyptian mortuary customs. I didn’t know what to expect from this microgame-class title and even though it’s a deckbuilder, it’s very different. From a starting deck of 10 cards depicting Egyptian funerary artifiacts that can be used as money, a special effect or “entombed” for points in a set collection scheme at the end of the game, you’ve got to purchase cards from a pyramid of six cards to construct your deck. But you can only buy off the bottom row of three cards, and then those above “crumble” down. Of course, there are cards that let you poach artifacts early and perform other rule-breaking or interfering actions but the catch is that you have to balance the three strategic uses for each card in your hand. Entombing a powerful card to complete a set of artifacts may net you points, but it’s out of the game and no longer available for use. It’s an interesting variation on “trashing” or deck pruning because you do so for points- not just to thin the deck. I enjoyed this little game and I think that it carries its theme quite well despite abstracted mechanics. I think it could be a sleeper hit- it definitely feels quite a bit different than most deckbuilders and it kind of touches back to card game concepts not common in the genre, such as the whole set collection goal.


One of the best things that AEG has been doing lately is their “Big in Japan” line, which makes sense after the smash success of Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter and the mostly good notices for Hisahi Hayashi’s Trains. The floodgates are open. They shipped me two copies of Love Letter, which should have been a Spiel Des Jahres finalist but was still one of Barnes’ Best for 2013. One is the Legend of the Five Rings edition, the other is the white box “wedding” edition that apparently you can only buy direct from them and only if you submit evidence that you’re getting married. I still prefer the lovely Kanai Factory edition with the original art, but these are still fine versions of an outstanding game. I am worried, however, that Munchkin Love Letter may be in the works.

maistarI was pleased to find Kanai-san’s Mai-Star in the stack, a Geisha card game that has turned out to be somewhat better than I thought it was at the outset. The idea is that you take on a proprietorship role at a geisha house represented by a card showing your Geisha, her special ability and her ratings in three different qualities- performance, service and intelligence. You’ve got to attract customers, who have different requirements for each of these ratings, to make the most money by the end of the third round of cardplay. It’s a “run out” game, so each round ends when a player is out of cards and negative points are assigned to anyone still holding.

But your ratings won’t be enough to attract the various doctors, sumo wrestlers, actors and generals. In order to increase your reputation and skills, you can choose to play a character card as an advertiser. Your ratings will increase, but you won’t get any income as you would for using the card as a customer. So there’s a balance between playing cards that improve your Geisha and using the cards as clientele. And of course, there are also special effects that each card provides- they may help you or hurt the other Geishas.

I liked this game mainly because it turned out to be a nastier than I expected. It’s more take-that than I expected, and there are some pretty vicious swings thanks to a few fairly powerful cards. It’s accessible enough, but it is more complex than Love Letter and it isn’t anywhere nearly as clean or minimalist. I like that it plays to six, and it is one that plays better with more, preferably over a little Sake or plum wine.

sail to india

Another of the Big In Japan titles, Hisashi Hayashi’s Sail to India has been earning some advance praise via its imported edition, and for good reason. This is a very smart, very streamlined post-Eurogame that packs a lot of gameplay into 24 large cards and a pile of wooden cubes. It’s another microgame, and it’s one that gets small by literally editing out everything out of a traditional pick up and deliver/nautical commerce concept except what is absolutely important to conveying the subject matter. Players represent shipping companies tasked with setting out to trade goods, establish churches or fortresses and develop technologies to increase their ability to travel and turn a profit. This is all played out on a line of cards that represent ports of call, culminating with one player reaching India to end the game.

The neat thing is that Hayashi has taken the worker placement concept, in some sense, back to Carcassonne. In that game, a meeple could represent a knight, a robber, a monk or a farmer. In Sail to India, each cube might represent a banker, a scientist, a boat or a historian. And you have a limited pool of cubes, so doing things like making money or earning VPs (recorded by your historians) takes resources from the pool. You’ve got to balance having ships to sail out to distant lands to conduct trade with having someone to count the money.

I really like this little game. It’s definitely heavier than you’d think from something that looks and sounds like a filler. There are a lot of dynamics represented from the simple tech tree to improving your ships. And it’s shot through with tough one-or-the-other choices. I want to see more microgames of this caliber- and at this level of thoughtful, highly editorial design.


And finally, the AEG Summer Blow-Out wraps up with the headliner- the much-anticipated Doomtown Reloaded. It is AEG’s first foray into reviving dead CCGs, and following the Fantasy Flight LCG model it’s another title that offers a bulk purchase core set with additional “Saddle Bag” expansions on the way. Doomtown was one of those late 1990s CCGs that came along long after the format exploded and while the big shakedown of also-rans was going on. I never got to play it, but I’ve had some friends over the years that totally were in love with it, keeping decks ready on hand and playing it off and on long after it had left shelves.

The concept is great. Players represent weird western “outfits” including lawmen, outlaws, big business and even a travelling circus. These factions are represented by decks loaded up with “dudes”, gear and hexes and the cards are also traditionally suited to handle certain resolutions such as shootouts and initiatives with Poker hands- an inspired touch. These outfits are all out to control a town called Gomorra (there’s a Spaghetti Western title) and its locations. There’s a much stronger sense of geography and setting than is typical in the CCG field, with dudes moving around from location to location, exercising control to earn influence and develop a Ghost Rock-based economy that funds your purchases of people and pistols.

Here’s the deal about Doomtown, at least from my perspective after a couple of games of it. This is a very, very compelling and complex game that requires players to seriously dig in and invest. Richard Garfield once said that a successful CCG is one that devours a player’s time, and that may be this game’s biggest draw- and its biggest liability. I have no doubt that Doomtown is a good game and I’ve definitely been interested in it, but I don’t know if I’m up for investing the kind of time I think this game deserves. The deckbuilding looks quite intriguing- decks cycle fairly quickly, and in addition to taking into consideration what dudes and equipment you want, what actions you need, you’ve also got to consider how your deck is going to draw to get these Poker hands. So some great cards might not be a good choice for your deck just because you need some other suits to try to get better draws. Learning to put together a quality deck seems like a tall order for those with a casual interest in the game.

As Doomtown Reloaded stands today, the new box does a great job of trying to get players right into the action with four preset decks, two big “player aid” boards and a full tutorial game that walks you literally step by step through the game. If you’ve never played it before, do not skip this offering. I thought I would be Mr. Smartypants veteran game player and do so, and when I read through the rules I was totally lost. I had to call up one of my old CCG friends that was one of those Doomtown acolytes from way back to help me play through a couple of games with some of the other cards. He was thrilled by the new set, so long-time fans might be enjoying a Netrunner-like renaissance over the coming months.


Cracked LCD- Star Realms in Review

star realms

When talk of Star Realms, a new deckbuilding game from a Magic Hall of Famer (Darwin Kastle) and one of the guys behind Ascension (Robert Doughtery) started making the internet rounds, I can’t say that I was profoundly interested. We’re now in Year 6 A.D.- that’s After Dominion- and it takes a lot to get me interested enough in a deckbuilder to pursue it. Ascension is pretty much my go-to deckbuilder, but I strictly play it on IOS. I like Dominion and I just traded my way into a pretty large set, but it’s never requested by my gang these days. I had a torrid fling with Legendary, but it was ultimately just too flawed (and ugly) to hold my interest. Most of the others on the market have momentarily held my attention at some point, but these games always tend to leave me wanting more- and not just another expansion.

But the word on the street was that Star Realms was good and the price on the street was even better- this is a game you can pick up for $15 at a FLGS or for about $10 from an online discounter. I’ve been very interested lately in games that deliver big bang for the buck and that come in small packages, especially now that it is quite clear that the “Coffin box” era has passed and some publishers and designers are smartly looking at ways to do more with less. I didn’t feel like $15 was a big enough risk to keep me away from trying a potentially good new card game, so I picked up a copy.

I’m glad that I did, because Star Realms is now my favorite deckbuilding game. Star Realms is what a highly refined, carefully studied and smartly developed game working in a specific mechanical space looks like. More than that, it is by far the deckbuilding game that most feels like playing a classic CCG. As in most games in this genre, the general idea is to build a deck during the course of the game that produces incrementally escalating resources. But you’re not buying VP cards or scoring arbitrary points for your success- you are pointing spaceships at the other player with malicious intent.

Star Realms brings direct combat to the deckbuilding table in a smashingly successful way. Starting with a typical seed deck of eight Scout ships and two Viper fighters, you’ll draw five and play what you’ve got to generate resource points or attack points in a space battle between two or more players. The resources you’ll spend to buy cards from a five-card mutual market or an always-available, low-cost Explorer ship that generates resources and can kamikaze for an attack value. The attack points you’ll use to lay into your opponent to chip away at his 50 “authority” points. In the old days, we called ‘em “life” points.

Nomenclature aside, what happens that is so exciting in Star Realms is that there is a pronounced sense of escalation and rising stakes. It’s much more thrilling to be in a race to generate more damage to the other guy than it is to subtly make an extra VP per turn. If you want to win, you’ve got to beat the curve the other player is generating as damage values get higher and higher each round. Tension is high, and there is no other victory condition. Kill or be killed.

There are some other genius pieces of design gracing Star Realms. There are Base cards, similar to Ascension’s Constructs, that are semi-permanents that you can play and they give you resources, attack points, authority or card draws each turn. Some are labeled Outposts, which means that your attacker must assign damage to it before they can get to you. In Hearthstone language, they are effectively minions with Taunt. The catch is that you’ve got to blow these up in one hand to destroy them- damage doesn’t carry over.

There is also a great concept regarding that now time-honored tradition of deck-culling. There are the usual cards that let you trash others to pare the deck down, but there are also optional scrap abilities on some of the cards and bases that you can use once played. So it may be a strategic decision to scrap a base to get an extra two resources to draft a powerful ship that meshes well with your build. Or you might scrap a ship to get the extra damage you need to destroy a troublesome Outpost and win the game.

Combos and deck synergy are hard-coded into the game. There are four factions, and each has different strengths or weakness. Many faction ships have a bonus effect that occurs if your play for the turn includes another ship of the same faction, which means that there is a greater impetus to focus on one or two factions to get the most out of your deck. The Trade Federation is good for developing an economy and recovering authority. The Blob eats cards from the trade row and have some strong attack capabilities. The Machine Cult is big on bases and the Star Empire is all about cycling cards. Ascension had a similar concept of factional specialization, but Star Realms does a far better job of making the distinctions feel meaningful and complementary. It feels tighter than Ascension in general, but like Ascension it seems to play best head-to-head and it clocks in around 20 minutes once you get going. You’ll want a rematch or three.

One box of Star Realms is all you need for two players and every one you buy beyond that can add two more players to the mix. I appreciate the economy in marketing and packaging this game- just two or three years ago, Star Realms would have come in a large box with superfluous counters and a board, retailing for $40 or more in a box full of air. This little pocket-sized package literally has everything you need to play. You don’t even need a pencil and paper or a die to track authority because it comes with a set of cards to handle that for you.

I liked the game enough to buy another set for four player games and also the “Gambit” mini-expansion that is available through the publisher via It’s a comparatively overpriced $10 set of cards that adds a neat Gambit mechanic, whereby each player can draw an agreed-upon number of Gambits before the game begins. These are secret one-time or persistent effects that can change the flow considerably. The set also includes a couple of solo challenges which are fun but a touch too easy once you’ve cut your teeth playing against a life opponent. I’m definitely looking forward to more expansions, but I do wonder if when the inevitable IOS game hits if I’ll ever pick up the cards again. Even if not, it’s a game I’m happy to have on my shelf.

The illustrations are great, the conflict-oriented gameplay is hot and the price is right. It’s written on a single page of rules with very little ambiguity or confusion. Star Realms succeeds at doing more with less. It’s a leaner, better deckbuilder than anything else out there right now.


Cracked LCD- AEG Card Games Review Rodeo

aeg rodeo

AEG has certainly come a long way from Tomb, a game I mercilessly panned back in 2008 which remains one of my barometers for modern game design gone…well, just bad. They’ve positioned themselves well with a couple of strong product lines and brand names beyond their tentpole Legend of the Five the Rings, and I’m always curious to see what they’re doing next. Last week, I reviewed (and mostly liked) their US release of the Japanese deckbuilder Trains but I’ve also been sitting on a small pile of recent card game releases from the company and I figure it’s about time to round ‘em up in a Review Rodeo.


First up is a new entry in one of AEG’s longest running product lines, Thunderstone. Thunderstone was the first major deckbuilding game out of the gate in the post-Dominion world and its tagline was “deckbuilding with a purpose”, signifying that the game had a stronger thematic context than its esteemed competition. It’s a dungeon crawl, of sorts, with some unusual (for the genre) fiddliness about light sources, weight limits, and leveling up character cards. Overall I like the game and I think that last year’s Thunderstone Advance was a general improvement to a game that already, at that point, had something like five or six expansions including one major big-box one. The Thunderstone Starter Set is the newest release, and I think it’s a pretty interesting idea- strip out all of the more complicated cards and effects and do a very basic, 259 card “entry level” set at a low cost and a low commitment level.

The Starter is completely compatible with all previous Thunderstone sets, which is really nice, so that means it’s effectively a new expansion but with some built-in redundancies in terms of the seed deck cards. Veteran players might not be too impressed with the simpler cards, but I think this is a pretty nice assortment of cards with which to check out the mechanics to see if it’s something you want to dig into deeper. I also think it’s a good set to try the game with younger players who might be new to more complex card games.


I like that AEG does a lot of expansions that are also standalone games, and Guildhall: Job Faire is another one of those. I never played the original Guildhall (thrillingly subtitled “Old World Economy” because it looked tragically boring and had god awful artwork. So when I got the review copy of Job Faire, I sort of shrugged at it. I took it to the Hellfire Club, my usual game night, and one of my friends said “we’re not actually going to play that are we?” So it’s kind of a tough sell based on looks and concept, but it’s a pretty decent and accessible card game that’s better than it appears.

It’s a rather traditional-feeling kind of card game, with a set-melding mechanic. The idea is that you play cards of matching medieval occupations but differing colors into groups (“chapters”), and as you play more into a set you activate progressively more effective special abilities. There’s a little take-that so it’s hardly a frictionless tableaux builder, and there are some head-nodding card management decision points. But overall, the game lacks an element of excitement. It’s a 30-45 minute title so it’s hardly an offensive three hour slog, but unless your group just finds itself hooked into the mechanics it definitely feels like a game with a short table life.

love letter

A game that has a short table life of a different kind is Love Letter, another Japanese game released earlier this year by AEG as part of their Tempest line. AEG rethemed the game to match up with its Venetian atmosphere and artwork and packaged the game in a delightful red velvet bag embroidered with the title. It’s a 15-20 minute game played with a very small number of cards (16) and a handful of tokens. It’s also brilliant, a tremendously compelling exercise in design minimalism.

AEG has just released a special limited edition of the game called the “Kanai Factory Limited Edition” in tribute the game’s original publisher. They’ve returned all of the original artwork and packaged the game in a curt little black box. It’s very striking, and the visuals are quite distinctive. There are two promo cards included that are purely cosmetic- a second Princess card with glasses and a Prince card that replaces the Princess. There are slight differences to the Countess and Minister cards that make them a bit more dangerous. But overall, it’s the same great game with its original artwork. I like this edition better than the Tempest version. Apparently AEG is making a L5R version of the game as well, which might have some different rules itself.


They’ve also stuck some L5R artwork into Maximum Throwdown, a ridiculously fun and frankly quite stupid card-throwing game that is kind of like a Smash Bros. concept- at least visually. Recycling artwork from other AEG properties, the game pits up to six players against each other, each with decks depicting characters, factions, and images from Thunderstone, Nightfall, Smash-Up, and so forth. Process is simple. Draw a card, throw it on the table.

There’s a little more to it than that. There are location cards (again, more AEG artwork re-use) that your card has to touch if it’s not touching another card. After you throw, you get to activate visible icons on your in-play cards that do things like steal cards from other players, throw again, or most importantly score points. It’s similar to Carl Chudyk’s Flowerfall, but with more bite to it. Don’t confuse this title with a Serious Gamer’s Game. It’s played best with rowdy, slightly drunk, and potty-mouthed players. Churchmice and Age of Steam players should probably go to another table. This is fun stuff- simple, direct, and belligerent.

smashup expansion

Last year’s Smash-Up should be simple, direct, and belligerent but it’s oddly math-y for a game that should be nothing more than a punch-up between mix-and-match combatants. The concept is that you take two half-decks, each representing something like robots or dinosaurs, and smash them together. Then you play those cards at bases, attempting to numerically best everybody else there while activating special functions. It’s really an area majority game but with some up-front aggression. At least once you’re done adding up all the numbers.

The new add-on is the Awesome Level 9000 set, which functions as a stand-alone two player game. But don’t do that, you really need four and you’ll wish the game supported six. The expansion adds ghosts, killer plants, WTF Russian bear cavalry, and (regretfully) steampunk. All have their own particular flavor that works in varying degrees of synergy with other decks. I actually found that I liked Smash-Up more than I remembered from back when I reviewed it last year, and the new cards add more variety which is always good in a game like this. But it still has this awkward layer of calculation that keeps the game from being the kind of dumb fun I really want it to be- like Maximum Throwdown.

Infiltration Review

infilatration box

Gaming is littered with quirky little titles that play bait and switch with gamers, masquerading as a style of game they don’t actually provide. It’s not a problem, as long as the game is fun. Indeed it adds to the novelty and charm of the title for the open minded. Dungeonquest, for example, looks like a role-play mimic but is in fact a push-your-luck title and a wonderfully brutal one at that.

Infiltration is equally deceptive. At first glance you would expect this to be a fairly straightforward cyberpunk adventure, where the players take the place of criminals attempting to loot a research facility for information before the police arrive based on a partly-random timer. Collect the most data, and get out before time is up, and you win.

And in a sense, that’s what it is. The game is furnished with quality thematic art and the requisite background quotes and flavour text to add a fake air of authenticity. It also offers plenty of opportunity for the players to interact with people and things in the research facility and to do what criminals in botched heists do best: royally screw one another over for a profit.

However, played with these expectations the game is bound to disappoint to some extent. While the card decks that are dealt from to create a new set of rooms for the facility on each play through are richly varied, thematic and interesting, the same can’t be said of most of the other components of the game.

Players, for instance, have no special abilities. They can take only four actions – move forward or backward through the room cards, interact with the room’s function or loot some of its data. To supplement this they also start with four items which are mostly one-shot variations on the basic actions. But the items deck is pretty small. As a thematic exploration, it works moderately well. As a heist game it lacks the variety and tension required to support repeat plays and has a weak strategic framework against which to make interesting decisions.

infilatration CARDS

It is, therefore, a damn good job that Infiltration isn’t really either of those things. Sure it’d be nice to see some greater variety in actions and items, but it’s not necessary. Those elements are present but rather than make the game, they just add pleasing extra dimensions to Infiltration’s primary purpose. Which is to be a bluffing game.

The first clue is the way that so much of the game starts face down. Rooms cards can’t be seen until explored or examined via technology. The data files they contain are face-down chips of varying value, and it’s the value you score at game end, not the number of counters themselves. Players hands, and stacks of data files, are hidden from one another. Each turn they select an action individually, play it face down, and only resolve the effects once everyone has chosen.

All this hidden information is absolutely crucial to making the game fun. Many of the card effects add to the sleight and confusion, such as the “Blackmail” item which permits a player to cash in some of his hoarded data files to escape the facility with sublime ease. But its clearest in the action that allow players to steal data in the first place. There’s two variants for this (use “Extract”, trust me) but both mean that players get the most if they’re the first to resolve that action, and less if someone else got there first.

That one point of critical uncertainty alone injects massive tension and psychological manipulation into the game. Everyone has to grab as much data as possible in order to win, so if there’s some left where you are, stealing it has to be a prime consideration. But the same rule applies to everyone. So unless you’re first in turn sequence this round, dare you risk it? Action selection is suddenly transformed into a sweat-soaked frenzy of second guessing and double bluff as you try and work out what everyone else is holding and planning.

That’s just when it comes to downloading data. There is, of course, plenty more. Items can allow you to make sudden jumps back and forth through the facility. Others allow you to break tech-locks or murder employees in certain rooms, releasing more data. There are room effects and non-player characters which will hurt or hinder players encountering them. But you only have one action per turn. It’s all about dare, wondering whether you can waste a valuable action to set a trap for another player, or whether you may become an unwitting victim of your own schemes. It’s all down to those cards held and selected by your opponents in utmost secrecy.

infilatration in play

But of course making your decisions in an information vacuum means there’s little mechanical strategy. That’s the source of the common whine about it being excessively light and lacking replay value. The important decisions are all about bluffing and reading your opponents intentions correctly. The replay value is in interacting psychologically with the other players, not with the game itself. It’s a kind of strategy, but not the strategy some gamers might be looking for. Especially not from the same designer as the mechanically stripped down and low-interaction favourite Dominion.

So Infiltration turns out to be a bluffing game in disguise. In this category it stacks up against an impressive number of popular semi-abstract games like Poker which arguably do the whole psychological angle rather more impressively. What makes Infiltration special are the other strings to its bow. The simplistic maneuver and hand management aspects. The beguiling cyberpunk theme sitting on top the the mechanics like a graphical overlay on a pool of data. The direct and often rather nasty player interaction. The push you luck aspect of balancing the data grab with the need to escape alive. None alone may be done particularly impressively, but as props to the core bluff, they function brilliantly.

It’s that blending of relatively common elements into an unusual combination that makes Infiltration. It’s a fast playing and easily learned game that offers you a gripping hour of cyberpunk plot twists, tension and backstabbing and doesn’t let up until the final score tallies are made at the end. Single unexpected plays and events can totally change the course of the game and you have to be able to take that in your stride, while recognising that the skill comes in doing your best to anticipate and ensure things aren’t quite so unexpected. Manage that, and you’re in for a treat.

Cracked LCD- Hooyah: The Navy SEALS Card Game in Review

A couple of years ago, I played a prototype of an as-yet unpublished game that was essentially a scenario-based dudes-in-a-hall game with a modern, Special Forces theme. The game needed lots of work, but it really made me aware of how underused modern military conflict is as subject matter- at least on the tabletop. You’d think that with the popularity of such themes in video games that there’d be more crossover, but with a few rare exceptions there isn’t anything resembling a tabletop Modern Warfare. When I saw that US Games Systems was releasing a title called Hooyah: The Navy SEALS Card Game, I thought there might be a breakthrough. Unfortunately, the gameplay is closer to Ticket to Ride than Zero Dark Thirty.

Designed by Mike Fitzgerald, who did a couple of great Rummy-based mystery games and the underrated Wyatt Earp over a decade ago, Hooyah follows on by being a mostly abstract, unthematic game with solid mechanics. This is definitely a disappointment out of the gate because almost nothing most folks would want out of anything that claims to be Navy SEALS-related is represented. Conflict is represented literally by colored, numbered cards and unspecific skill checks. There are no “tangos”, and almost no sense of meaningful opposition. Gameplay actions and decisions are completely divorced from any sense of integration between theme and mechanic. Operation Neptune Spear- the raid that ended with a SEAL putting two bullets into Osama Bin Laden- boils down to cooperatively playing enough of those colored cards to match a couple of target numbers.

Mr. Fitzgerald’s strength is in designing traditional card games with a light dusting of subject matter, and that’s definitely the case here. It’s worked in the past, but not so much in Hooyah. He really does try to sell the Navy SEALS concept- in each description of the game’s included missions he at least tries to explain why you’re using particular colors to overcome obstacles since each coordinates at least in name to a SEAL skill. But it just doesn’t provide enough of a transitive layer to put the player in the situation and communicate the danger of the kinds of operations that SEALS take on or the almost superhuman skill with which they execute them. Character cards with negligible special abilities don’t equate to immersion or engagement.

It’s a cooperative game, and most of what goes on consists of drafting cards either from a display or a blind draw from a deck. There are some equipment cards that generally let you pair them up with other cards to make another color or provide a special function such as resetting the display. There’s a really quite cool timer mechanic whereby players only get a certain number of drafts before they start losing health, which adds a nice and rather unexpected degree of tension to a mundane game process.

One player is a Lieutenant Commander, and at any point he can make a Roll Call- this is a smart way that the game gets around the “what cards do you have” groupthink that can spoil card-based co-ops. If the LC feels like the players have a good shot at making it through the current of five Ops (really just a pair of colored, numbered cards that indicate how many and what kind of cards the team will need to discard), it can be executed following a round of Events. It’s almost laughable to call them events, because they’re really just unexpected penalties and discards. Make it through, and if there was any time left on the clock from the preparation round there’s a bonus. It all ends if any player loses all of their health from failing skill checks or random events.

If you haven’t already sorted it out, I’m not very impressed by a game that calls itself the “Navy SEALS Card Game” that boils down to lots of card drawing and discards, occasionally showing you a picture of an assault rifle on a card. I really admire Mr. Fitzgerald’s attempt at bringing in historical missions with included descriptions and as a highly abstract, family card game it might be successful with some groups look for a low friction, low commitment card game. That said I’m not quite sure why it needs 40 pages of rules, even if it is a small format book.

It’s also a fairly easy game although there a couple of ways to increase the difficulty. But they’re silly- take one less health at the beginning or whatever. The missions are all more or less the same, just requiring different discards. One or two have some minor alterations, like an Insertion card that comes up or that handicaps one of the team members since they’re protecting a hostage.

The moral of the story here is to keep in mind that this a US Games System game designed by Mike Fitzgerald. That means it’s simple, abstract, traditional card game with pictures on the cards. It fits that description to a T, but Mr. Fitzgerald has done better designs and frankly there are better co-op games in this class that offer more value and more compelling gameplay. Whatever you do, don’t go into Hooyah expecting to come out feeling like you were a member of SEAL Team Six.