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Wiz-War: Bestial Forces expansion review

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I noticed long ago that when people who tend to run role-playing games choose to play instead, they always pick wizard characters. Why? It’s all about power. If you’re used to having the ability to dictate reality on a whim, you want a character that can do it too. Power is a key part of wizarding’s appeal.

And there’s no greater demonstration of power than being able to summon fantastic creatures and bend them to your whim. It’s what’s always been missing from Wiz-War, and now it’s here with the Bestial Forces expansion. And while there’s no extra player figure and board in the box, there are an awful lot of other interesting spells and variants too.

The central draw here in the monsters, each with their own plastic figure. These beasties operate quite differently from their counterparts in previous editions. Rather than weak creations that tottered round older mazes, Bestial Forces monsters are flexible and powerful. You’ll pay for that power, though. Summoning demands not just a card but a cost in life, too, and activating a creature requires the controller to sacrifice 2 movement points.

Just like the previous Malefic Curses expansion, there are three new schools of magic in the box. The Legendary school has the most monsters. There’s the powerful minotaur which has an odd sort of automatic overwatch attack. The genie who’s an attack spell conduit, allowing you to play an extra offensive card each turn from the genie’s square. Finally there’s the Boggart, the only creature who can carry items and Grendel, who’s a melee powerhouse.

It also a adds a fun new component called relics. These spells create very powerful objects that will be a huge boon in the game. But the catch is they also take up a treasure slot. So it’s a toss up whether to steal the chest or leave the valuable relic lying round where anyone could find it.

Another way in which monsters are different from previous versions of Wiz-War is the addition of creature attack spells. These can be used as standard attack spells by a wizard. But instead, you can employ them to supplement your creature’s attack instead. They belong in the second of the new schools, the Draconic school. As well as creature attacks, there’s a good mix of typical defensive and utilitarian spells. There’s a creature, too, the Drake, who will guard your treasure with fierce determination.

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Oddest of all is the Totem school. These spells create on-board objects which buff their summoner so long as she’s in the same board sector as the totem. They can’t be carried, but can be destroyed so they give rise to a lot of interesting tactics around placement. Do you sit and use your totem, or follow targets to a new sector? Do you destroy enemy totems or lure their owner into a trap on another board? There’s also a Totem Spirit creature which can move though walls, and inflicts damage equal to the number of totems in play. So it’s potentially very powerful.

There’s only one downside to Bestial Forces, which is that you’ll have to adopt a specific mix of optional rules to get the most out of it. Sadly, that includes not using the Giant Book of Spells like you did in previous editions, which is so beloved of many fans. The reason is simple: most of the cards in this expansion are tightly connected. To get the most out of the Totem Monster you needs lots of totems in play. With most of the creatures in the mythical school and most of the creature attacks in the draconic school, they work well played together. Diluting them in a big stack lessens their impact.

Fortunately there’s another optional rule in this expansion to compensate. You make a core draw deck with three schools plus cantrips, then give each player their own draw deck of a specific school. They can then choose which to pick cards from. So if you make the core deck all the schools in this expansion, you can enjoy the way their effects interlock. While individual player decks ensure there’s still plenty of variety and chaos.

Most of the other options you’ll want, like uncluttered minds and permanent creations are common choices anyway. So they’ll have less impact on your games. These are good to use with the expansion just because it leaves more monsters and artifacts and totems in play. Relics, in particular, are a double-edged sword if you can’t get rid of them. Especially so if you use the treasure hunters option. And the more stuff on the board, the better Wiz-War gets.

A part of me misses the classical monsters of wizarding lore. It might have been nice to imagine stiff-limbed skeletons and their ilk stalking through the labyrinth and being felled by the first Zot they come across. But in their place we’ve got a bold and well-designed expansion which adds to both the chaos and strategy of the game. I’ll take that trade, and I’ll wager almost every fan of the base game will be happy if they follow suite.

Wiz-War: Malefic Curses Review

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Wiz-War makes me angry. I get angry when I have the wrong cards, when the dice fall wrong, when the wrong people gang up on me. But that’s good anger. The bad anger is all the years I spent not playing this great game while it was out of print, until Fantasy Flight picked up the license for an eight edition. Now, in true Fantasy Flight style, there’s an expansion: Malefic Curses.

The box contains a board and pieces for a fifth player and three new schools of magic. A lot of people have been waiting for this largely for that fifth participant, but I’m not one of them. Wiz-War is a pretty chaotic game, and works best when clipping along at a premium pace. Five, I think, is too many. The additional interaction is fun, of course, but it’s not enough to compensate for the extra downtime.

Still, the fact that the new board is purple is a bonus since it now means no-one has to play the urine yellow mage from the base game when you’re playing with four. So it’s not all bad.

I was waiting for this mainly for the three new schools of magic: Hexcraft, Chaos and Necromancy. Because what I want most of all in Wiz-War is what every other Wiz-War fan wants. I want creatures. Minions. Foul magical constructs I can summon and send forth to do my bidding. The creatures promised in future expansions by the rules in the base game.

Because seriously, if you’re not going to get minions in Necromancy, where are you going to get them?

Sadly Fantasy Flight didn’t get the memo. Because there are no minions. Not even in Necromancy which is an opportunity so wasted as to be borderline criminal in my opinion.

So if there’s no minions, what is there in the Necromancy school? A surprising amount of attack spells, that’s what. More attack spells is obviously a good thing to keep the game flowing, as well as helping players like me who don’t prefer to use one big card stack to tailor hyper-aggressive decks to their liking.

However these Necromantic attacks, in common with the more defensive cards in the school, tend to also offer the caster a bit of life in return. That offers some quite superb gloating opportunities but it also prolongs proceedings by making it that little bit harder to kill players off. There are some nice flavourful utility cards too, such as the skull servant that acts as a line of sight beacon and the trap-like Boneyard. So it’s a fun school, if a slightly mixed bag.

Speaking of traps, the next new school in the expansion is Hexcraft which, in spite of the fancy-sounding name, is effectively all about traps. On paper, having a bunch of cards that leave dangerous markers all over the board sounds a bit dull. In practice, however, it’s probably the single best thing in this box.

Most hexes have a new range icon that mean they can be cast into any square on the same board as the caster, which makes them very flexible. And given the number of narrow turns and dead ends in Wiz-War, this adaptability makes it incredibly easy to trap enemy wizards into positions where they have to risk crossing the hex and triggering whatever delightfully devious attack it holds for them. It’s like sealing someone behind a wall, only more flexible and more fun. Hexcraft will be going into my decks a lot.

Both the preceding schools bring another new innovation to the game, called Flash Energy. These are in place of normal energy cards and serve an identical function, except they can only be used to power spells and not movement. While this reduces your tactical options, which is bad, it does mean more energy gets used for spells, which is good. Without Flash Energy, most Energy tends to go to movement and the many timer-based spells tend to get neglected. Flash Energy gives them a new lease of life.

The third and final new school is Chaos. As if there wasn’t enough chaos in Wiz-War already. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the cards in the chaos school are dice dependent. The less obvious candidates include things like defence cards that then teleport the caster away in a random direction. At the other end of the spectrum are attack and utility cards where the effect is determined entirely by a dice roll, often including one result that backfires on the caster.

Like the Necromancy cards, this cuts both ways but with an even more evident negative swing. Player interaction and card draw are already quite enough madness and unpredictability without adding more. But on the flip side, madness and unpredictability are half the appeal of Wiz-War.

The problem arises when you cram all these random spells into a relatively small deck. Even the energy cards in the Chaos school are based on the value of a dice roll, so it becomes slightly overwhelming when it’s fully a third of the cards you’re drawing out. Chaos works well when it’s used with the full deck variant, but less so with the original rules as written.

Surprisingly, none of the cards in the expansion are from previous editions of the game, although apparently Tom Joly had an editorial hand in deciding which made the cut. Makes you wonder what else FFG has planned.

And that’s your lot. Nothing game-changing that will win this divisive title new fans, but plenty for the existing fanbase to enjoy. It’s just a shame about the creatures. If I were at once to be cynical yet hopeful, I might suggest FFG is planning a creature-based expansion last, adding monsters to all the schools to try and get players to collect the whole set of expansions. But for now, we’ll have to make do with the dubious joys of Hexcraft.

Mage Knight: The Lost Legion Review

Mage Knight Lost Legion figures and box

Mage Knight Goldyx felt old and tired. He’d been to Atlantea several times, with comrades and without, but the effort of preparation, the length of the journey and the interminable waiting around for other Mage Knights once there had dulled his taste for adventure. Now he preferred to spend his days playing his magical game-tablet while toasting his feet before a fire.

One day, there was a knock on the door. Unused to company, and with legs stiff from long hours of inactivity, Goldyx irritably called for the visitor to enter. He was unsurprised to see Wolfhawk, newest of his order and about to set forth on her first Atlantean expedition.

Silently he gestured for her to sit on his magnificent copy of the Mage Knight’s collected law and lore, bound in dragon leather, embossed in gold and wrapped about with intricately wrought bronze clasps. Three feet thick and solid as a rock, he now used it for nothing more than a visitors chair.

She took off her full-face helmet and exhaled a sigh of relief. “Gets hot in there” she complained.

Goldyx nodded. “And yet it seems that the armourers have seen fit to leave all the vital organs in your midriff totally exposed” he observed.

“Yes” replied Wolfhawk, frowning slightly. “They said they had nothing else that fitted. But Tovak always seems to walk out with a full suit.”

Goldyx silently recalled that all the minions in the armourer’s department were men and rolled his eyes. “You’ve come for advice, then?” he rumbled. “It’s been a long time since I went to Atlantea.”

“Yes” replied Wolfhawk. “Things have changed, Goldyx, since you last went. Some new and powerful foe of legend, one General Volkare, has returned and is battling the mage knights.. We’ve explored much in the meantime and found new sites, new monsters, followers and treasure too. Atlantea is a much more varied place than it once was.”

Goldyx made the sort of acidly dismissive noise that only a dragon-kin can. “But” he said, gesturing vaguely toward the colossal book on which Wolfhawk perched uncomfortably, “no doubt our lords and masters have added to the law and lore that govern our conduct to cover these new situations?”

Wolfhawk nodded miserably. “Yes. I had to learn it all by heart before they would let me out of the academy. Chapters were added to deal with Volkare and some of the new allies and monsters. It took weeks.”

He whistled in sympathy. The lore and law was long enough without new material. “Don’t worry” he strove for words of comfort. “I know you, and your training. You move swiftly, and easily. It’s what you do best. There won’t be so much waiting around for you when you get to Atlantea like there was for me. Your time will come soon.”

Mage Knights need no sleep. They sat and talked long into the night, while the fire burned low in the grate and bathed the room in the dull orange of its dying embers. Wolfhawk shifted uncomfortably, partly due to her makeshift chair, and partly because in spite of the old Draconum’s obvious apathy, she itched with desire to get away on her first adventure.

Mage Knight lost legion in play

On a similar evening, about a month later, Goldyx was roused from his game-tablet by a frantic pounding on his cottage door. Alarmed that someone might damage the woodwork he leapt up from his easy chair and flung the portal open.

There stood Wolfhawk. But not the shy, slight woman he remembered from her last visit. This Wolfhawk was at once battered and bruised yet possessed of an extraordinary power and vitality. She almost pushed past her massive host in her impatience to reach his uncomfortable visitors chair. And then sat upon it with the air of someone who’s become used to sitting on cold, hard stone, if at all.

Startled, Goldyx remained standing at his open door as her tale came tumbling forth, almost as if a dam of silence had been finally breached, unable to contain the force of the story behind it. She told of the new troops of the Orc Khans, from gangs of snivelling goblins that could fell you with multiple weak attacks to massive catapults that hit hard but which could be dodged with movement instead of blocked.

She spoke of finding a horrific golem at the bottom of a dungeon, a fearsome foe that was immune to magic attacks, and yet could fling enormous balls of enchanted fire and ice when roused to fury. And if you could not block these and counter attack in turn, it was almost impossible to kill: missiles were next to useless against it.

The old tricks of combat that Goldyx had taught her that night, seemingly so long ago, were nigh-on useless now, it seemed. Everything needed to be more considered, more cunning. There were so many more options to consider before each action, and yet more things had become uncertain, unpredictable. New plans would have to be made, and some of them would have to deal with building yourself back up after ignominious defeat.

She whispered of new troops, skills and buildings. Of how she had clambered across walls and got lost in labyrinths never before seen or charted. Of how she’d learned from an ancient monk, alone in the library of an isolated monastery, a dreadful ritual of blood that would leave her wounded but with new and undreamed of powers. Of powerful familiars that needed a constant supply of mana to survive, and would otherwise collapse into dust.

But mostly she spoke of Volkare. Mighty, mysterious Volkare. Of how his rampages across Atlantea, either in search of cities to conquer and control before the Mage Knights got there, or in search of the very portal the Knights used to get to the continent, made solo or co-operative missions much more interesting, challenging and exciting. She stated flatly that the extra law and lore she’d had to slave over for so many long, dark nights, was a worthwhile tradeoff for reducing the tedious burden of overseeing a fake Mage Knight to help cover your tracks.

Goldyx looked doubtful. But Wolfhawk would not be swayed from her subject. When she mentioned Volkare a baleful light blazed in the wide, shining eyes beneath the helm. He was a dreadful enemy, surrounded by an army of his own, quite capable of levelling a city. Or an experienced Mage Knight. Each time she had challenged him and failed. In spite of her newfound power and hard-won wisdom about this new and wonderful world of Atlantea, she had failed. And the failure burned in her like a canker.

“Goldyx” she said, breathlessly, “I want to beat him. I need to beat him. And to do it, I must have your help.” She looked at him imploringly.

Goldyx stood a long while, it seemed. He first met Wolfhawks’ beseeching gaze, then turned to look out the open door. Soft hills rolled off into the gathering dusk, a distant one crowned in fire and smoke. Far away on the horizon there was twinkle that might have been the first star, or the gateway to Atlantea. It had been a long, long time.

“No.” He said finally. “No, I will not go with you. Companionship was never my style.”

Wolfhawk looked momentarily furious, then her shoulders slumped in defeat. She stood, and left without another word, visibly trembling with anger and disappointment.

Goldyx closed the door behind her. He would not help her defeat Volkare. The Law and Lore was still a pain in his scaly behind. It still took so much time to prepare, to journey, to explore that he would hate to share the glory. But maybe, just maybe, it was worth all that effort if he could go alongside her, and defeat Volkare first, before she got there.

Lords of Middle Earth : War of the Ring Extraveganza

War of the RingLicensed games based on well-known films or books are nothing new, and while of variable quality. generally rather better than their digital counterparts. But since its publication, the love for War of the Ring has been little short of astonishing.

It’s not hard to see why. The biggest achievement of the game is to allow players to re-tell a plausible version of The Lord of the Rings on each play through whilst still enabling plenty of strategy and freedom of choice while doing so. When you consider how difficult that balance is to maintain, and how venerated the source material is, the astonishing scale of that achievement becomes clear.

But the game is not without its detractors. It’s fiddly to set up and time-consuming to play. It was clear to even neophyte players that the original edition was tilted in favour of the Sauron player, an imbalance that actually got worse as players became more familiar with the tactics. There was also a degree of railroading, scripted strategies that could be followed to improve the chances of victory.

An expansion helped those issues but in a heavy-handed way. Handed the opportunity to re-release the game in a new edition, the design team sought lighter routes to the same goal. Aside from some minor rules tweaks, their answer lay in the characters and card deck. There were significant changes, making it harder for Sauron to bring powerful pieces into play and work the scripted strategies. The Free People in turn were given attractive alternatives to their common tactics, offering more choice, and some of their best cards were made easier to play.

War of the Ring cards

For the most part it worked like a charm. But for first edition owners to benefit they needed to invest in an upgrade kit, a nicely produced tin holding copies of the new card deck and a pack of custom card sleeves. The new cards are lovely things, their larger size used to display quality art as well as improving the horribly cramped text of the originals. But the sleeves are a bit pointless and the price for this kit, even allowing for the design work that went into it, seemed excessive, being higher than many stand-alone card games.

Now there is a small expansion to the basic game available. Lords of Middle Earth focusses, as its name suggests, on characters from Tolkien’s world, adding minor but significant players like Elrond, Galadriel and The Balrog while introducing alternative versions of almost all the characters from the basic game which can be used to replace the originals if you so wish.

The new material can be divided into two groups. We’ll deal with the more minor change first, the Council of Elrond option which allows the Free People’s player to tinker with the makeup of the fellowship, sending altered versions of some companions back to their homelands as part of setup, even allowing Strider to lead the fellowship, at the cost of some free actions for the Shadow player.

War of the Ring Lords of Middle Earth close up

I get the feeling this isn’t going to get used very often, simply because it adds to the overburdened setup time and will confuse everyone’s tried and tested strategies. Which is a shame, because it’s a flavourful addition that addresses one of my key irritations with the base game, namely the tendency for companions to be used as Nazgul-fodder, protecting the ring-bearer at all costs rather than leaving the fellowship for adventures elsewhere.

The bigger change is the addition of Shadow minions and Free People’s keepers of the elven rings. Each of these adds a weaker version of the action dice that provide the engine underpinning the base game, a player’s’ potential choices each round being determined by rolls of these dice. They also offer unique powers for the use of each ring rather than the generic re-roll of the base game.

For the free people’s player, the keepers and their dice represent a choice over whether or not to use the powerful elven rings to further their cause. In the novel, this was discussed but set aside as likely to attract the attention of the Dark Lord and therefore too risky. Mechanically this is represented in a delightfully simple manner: keeper dice can backfire, sometimes being removed from the game and others being added to Sauron’s “Hunt” tally, which is used to find the ringbearer.

The Shadow equivalents work similarly, except that while their dice can be removed from play, they never backfire. Gothmog adds a military-themed dice while the Balrog is more capricious, sometimes enabling extra actions, others the opportunity to leave Moria and go stamping round the countryside thereabouts. I was pleased to see that he goes on foot, being correctly classified as a non-flying minion.

What this brings to the game is a wealth of subtle and nuanced strategic choices for both sides without either adding much in the way of additional rules overhead or breaking the basic theme of the game.

War of the Ring Lords of Middle Earth

Every possibility that’s enabled by the expansion is something that’s been kicked around in Tolkien fan circles for years. What if the Balrog was under Sauron’s command? Or one of the elf-lords had used their ring? Or Gollum had been tamed by Frodo’s kindness and not rebuked by Faramir? All these are delicately explored by the expansion, without invalidating older possibilities. Characters and situations leap off into life, the expansion fleshing out the bare-bones narrative of the base game with colour and detail.

It’s arguable that the exploration is almost too nuanced. The price for the rules-light way in which the new elements are introduced is that nothing, with the possible exception of the Balrog, feel substantially different to the base game. The new dice are still basically action dice. Making sensible choices as to when to use alternative characters rather than the originals requires a considerable appreciation of the strategic options in the game.

It’s also a gambler’s delight. Pretty much everything on offer outside the Council of Elrond option has a heavy random element. Dice can be very useful – or backfire badly. Smeagol can come into play if the right hunt tiles get drawn, and then might be useful depending on what cards come out. Whether this detracts from strategy is debatable, since each option needs to be chosen before being brought into play, and is therefore a calculated risk. But once picked the consequences can vary wildly on factors beyond the player’s control.

In many ways Lords of Middle Earth is the sort of expansion I’d want every game to have. It adds interesting new possibilities for experienced players without substantially altering the rules or the feel of the base game. But in being so delicately balanced it renders itself largely inessential for casual players. There are many hours of excitement and interest in the base game before you’re likely to become jaded by its possibilities, and familiar enough with its intricacies, to require this.

Where it scores though is with players who’ve done just that with the first edition game. The second edition isn’t different enough to warrant new attention from those people, but this expansion makes it so. Unfortunately to do that, they’re going to be pitching in for both the upgrade kit and the expansion, both of which look overpriced for the contents. War of the Ring is an exceptionally good and wonderfully creative game, but elements of its publishing are beginning to smell a little like a cash cow.

Frozen Synapse Goes Red

Rightfully deemed one of the best turn-based tactics games in years, Frozen Synapse is back with Red, the first paid expansion pack.

Some of the new features include 15 new missions, 10 challenges, full co-op through the main campaign, and some free music for your collection. Important to note is that expansion owners and non-owners will still be able to play together online. Read the full list of details and additions at the Mode 7 blog. Additionally, the core game of Frozen Synapse has been updated with a Hotseat mode, timed turns, and non-randomized maps for competitive play.

Check out the launch trailer after the break.

YouTube video