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Cracked LCD- Thunder Alley in Review

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Thunder Alley is the new NASCAR-style stock car racing game from GMT and in the blink of an eye this 250 MPH masterpiece has become one of the best racing games that I’ve ever played. It’s a brilliant piece of design that nails down the most important elements drivers at Talledega or Daytona experience while also creating compelling spaces for tactical movement decisions and coordinated, team-focused gameplay. It is a design clearly descended from Wolfgang Kramer’s card-driven race designs, wherein cardplay often demands that players weigh the decision to move cars that are not their own in order to gain ground themselves.

This kind of gameplay based around mutual movement also creates an important sense of pace and forward velocity that sometimes feels like you’re right on the edge of losing control. It’s exhilarating, as far as board games can possibly be, to pull off that perfect play where you pull out of the pack with a couple of drafting teammates and put your cars into the lead with tires burning and transmissions screaming in denial. But then on the next turn someone else nudges you out of the way and you fall back. Indeed, rubbin’ is racing in Thunder Alley.

The genius of Jeff and Carla Horger’s design lies in smart decisions to effectively abstract the subject matter down to a couple of core elements that completely sell the stock car racing concept without bogging down in detail or the kinds of cold calculation that slows other racing games down. I tend to generally feel that racing games should be fast-paced and focused on track action, and this game manages that quite well although with more than five players (it plays up to seven) it can run a little long. But even with seven players, the turn-to-turn gameplay is so accessible and consistently exciting that the longer-than-expected playtime isn’t much of a liability.

Unlike almost any other racing game out there, this one actually scales down to two players without losing much. With more players, the game feels wilder and woolier because there are up to 21 cars on the track at a time. One of the most important concepts in Thunder Alley is that you’re not controlling a single competitor as is the case in just about every other racing game out there with the notable exception of Um Reifenbreite, a Spiel Des Jahres-winning team cycling game that may have been something of an influence on the Horgers’ design. You’re in charge of up to six cars on the track at a given time, and learning to coordinate their movement, manage your hand of cards, and time each car’s activation are core competencies.

Despite there being so many cars on the track and an ever-changing board state this is, rules-wise, a simple game where all you do on your turn is play a card, move a car or cars, and flip it over to show that it has been moved. Each card offers one of four different types of movement and a number of movement points, sometimes with a knock-on special effect that might cause you to drift or allow for a diagonal move, for example. Solo movement means that you move a single car with no drafters- ideal for charging forward at a crucial moment. Drafting moves an entire line of cars- you can be the next to last car in a line and a draft move will move everyone in the line with you. Pursuit movement is similar to drafting, but you leave anyone behind the moving car in the dust. Lead movement lets you pull cars out of a pack and they’ll follow your racing line. Lateral movement (lane-changing) is fairly free, and there are no kinds of rules to meter speed through corners. It’s just not about those kinds of things, so along with the enormous lap counts of NASCAR races elements such as those are wisely abstracted.

But it wouldn’t be a game with that NASCAR atmosphere if there weren’t a healthy dose of paint-trading so there are significant rules for displacing cars both laterally and in front of you. Displacement can knock a rival out of a pack or there are some cards that let you effectively push your way through a line. It costs extra movement points, but it’s a critical strategy considering that the tracks have four lanes at most and some narrow down to two in tight banks.

Endurance and wear is another critical element that the Horgers smartly preserve without overdoing it. Most movement cards cause the car to incur wear on the tires or suspension, reduce fuel or cause some kind of permanent damage that can’t be repaired. As cars take on three or more wear chits, they suffer a penalty to any movement points provided by a card- although they can still be pushed and pulled by other cars, which is again where teamwork among your cars is crucial. Six damage chits puts your car out of the race, but at the end of each round of play there is an option to pit- a simple procedure where you move the pitting car down to the apron and back five spaces, remove non-permanent damage chits and then play a reduced movement card in the next round to get back in the race. Each type of damage is functionally the same- until an event card tells you otherwise.

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The event cards cover a lot of specific details simply and effectively. One is drawn at the end of each round, and their effects can be dramatic. Some events will cause the car with the most of a specific type of damage to convert a regular wear chit into a permanent one. Or they may take a car completely out of the race. Some events cause a yellow-flag restart, which can be a tremendous field-leveler if someone is running away with the race- or about to get lapped. Drawing two Rain event cards after at least one lap is completed ends the whole thing right there. And of course, there’s always a chance of a massive pile-up.

Four tracks are generously included and each offers a different experience. Each is completed in two or three laps (which, again, abstract far more than that) and there are points at the end assigned to each finishing position as well as bonus points for the cars that hold the most lap leader chits, indicating rounds in which the car was in the lead. That’s a smart incentive to gun for the lead each round. When the checkered flag is waved, you can win first place and still have your team lose the race if your other cars didn’t finish well or if your overall performance was subpar.

Win or lose, I love playing this game. Some will undoubtedly bemoan that the situation changes each time a player moves in such a way that advance planning of cardplay is pretty much impossible, especially with many players. But I like the seat-of-the-pants approach and I think it reflects really well the kinds of second-to-second decisions race drivers have to make. This is a wholly tactical game, but with that said the strategic angle is definitely there. Deciding whether or not to pit a leading car with two wear tokens or let it go to the next round can be agonizing. Playing a high-value movement card that’s going to put a second tire wear chit on a car could give you an advantage or it could destroy you if the wrong event card comes up. You’ve got to make long-term decisions about what cars you’re going to push to the limit and which you’re going let slip. And there are always opportunities for your cars to piggyback movement and wind up in better positions for the next round.

If there’s one area where Thunder Alley disappoints, it’s in one that has nothing to do with the top-notch gameplay, production or overall value of this product. It may not even be anything that GMT can do anything about. But given GMT’s track record of really great historical notes and background material, I’m a little disappointed that the game doesn’t do much to explain the history of stock car racing, NASCAR, facts about real-world tracks or anything like that. But in order to accomplish that, I’m sure a NASCAR license would be necessary and I’m I’m guessing that would likely be very expensive and out of reach for an fundamentally small publisher of hobby games to approach. So the tracks have ersatz names and the teams are all full of made-up drivers in cars with phony liveries. This is a shame, because this is the definitive NASCAR/stock car racing game and it deserves the prestige- and attention- that would come with the license.


Cracked LCD- Firefly: Pirates and Bounty Hunters in Review


Gale Force Nine’s Firefly board game was last year’s surprise hit- for me, at least, because I wasn’t much of a Firefly fan before playing the game. I’m still not exactly what you’d call a “Browncoat”, but I loved the game’s rigorously fan-pleasing attention to bringing forward the show’s space cowboy/pirate concept to the table. I also especially liked that it was very much a game about commerce and crew. “Find a crew, get a job, keep flying” is what it says right on the box and that’s exactly what you do for more or less all of the games two or three hour duration. The Breakin’ Atmo expansion, which was a small box that added some new jobs and supply cards, was a nice low-cost but slight addition. I definitely recommend it for fans, but for those looking for something that substantially changes the game, look no further than the new Pirates and Bounty Hunters expansion. It’s out in stores now for $30 or less and it is money well spent if you find yourself wishing that Firefly had more, well, disagreeable behavior in it.

I was a little apprehensive about the expansion because I liked Firefly’s simplicity and straightforwardness. I didn’t want a complicated set of PVP rules or something that would increase the game’s length, which can already run a little too long with max players. And I definitely didn’t want to see the game turn into all-out space battles, because that just ain’t Firefly.

After Spartacus and Firefly, I should have known to just shut up and trust the Sweigart, Dill and Kovaleski team. These guys know what to do with an established setting and I think they completely aced the expansion here. Pirates and Bounty Hunters is a terrific add-on that evolves the core game into something even better- provided that you want the extra friction and nastiness that comes with sidling up next to an opponent’s ship, boarding it (through a Tech or Negotiation test- you build the story there) and killing or apprehending a crew member that has a bounty on their head. I sure as hell do.

Materially, two new ships are brought into the game that are on opposite ends of the Firefly-class freighter. The commerce-geared Walden has a greater cargo capacity but it’s slower. The Interceptor has almost no cargo capacity and only carries four crew but it is custom-made for running down other ships and doing a little bounty hunting. There are a few new captains, including the nefarious Jubal Early. There are a host of new supply cards, some new Lawman-class character cards (that obviously don’t want anything to do with your illegal activities) and of course new jobs that include piracy-minded goals. A couple of new story cards offer some direct incentives to partake of the game’s new features.

Rules-wise, the procedures for boarding and fighting rival crew fit right in the game’s core systems without many seams. Some aspects of the core game are enhanced, such as the “stash” on the Firefly-class ships- stuff stowed there can’t be stolen. The new bounty hunting mechanic is terrific- three “wanted poster” cards showing crew or types of crew cards literally put a price on the heads of character cards not only on crewed ships but also in the discard piles of supply planets. Collar a fugitive from justice and you’ll have to take them to a designated location to collect the reward. If you can make it, and someone doesn’t jump your bounty. Oh, and if you’ve got a wanted fugitive in your crew…you can be a real jerk and turn them in for the reward.

The net result of all of the above is that Firefly has now become a much more competitive, much more dangerous game. The base game is at heart a pick-up-and-deliver race to earn money with only the Alliance and the Reavers to worry about, apart from the occasional disgruntled crew member jumping ship to join another crew. With Pirates and Bounty Hunters, you’ve always got to be suspicious of why another player is moving toward you. If you’ve got a wanted fugitive on board or a fat cargo hold, you might be a target for a player who can now do a hell of a lot more to you than move one of the mutual antagonist pieces toward your location.

I’m also pleased that the new content doesn’t upset the rest of the game. Aside from playing with the new story cards focused on them, I haven’t felt like the new piracy and bounty hunting actions have necessarily taken prominence over the existing PU&D gameplay. Those jobs generally seem to pay better with lower risks- let alone the possibility of sparking a vendetta with another player. It’s entirely possible to play a five player game and have four players just doing business as usual and one running around in the interceptor poaching fugitives. I love that the expansion gives you options- you never have to take on a piracy job, but it feels like a sometimes situational, sometimes necessary possibility. Holding one sometimes feels like a nasty temptation, and that’s a very fun sensation in this game.

I’m reminded somewhat of Merchants and Marauders, the great Christian Marcussen pirate game that more or less shut the book on that particular genre. One of that game’s greatest strengths was that it felt effectively like an “open world” design where players could choose to play fair or foul. Firefly always had morality and immorality, legal and illegal enterprises. But now the choice to be bad directly impacts other players, and the PVP generated by the decision to take the opportunity to rob another ship or haul in a wanted man makes a profound impact on the game. Crew composition is more important than ever, especially since an opponent might be eying crew members onboard your ship to determine your weaknesses. Solo Firefly players take note- find some people to play with before you buy. The new additions still work with the base game played solitaire, but the piracy jobs and the more PVP-oriented elements will be of limited utility.

That’s hardly a complaint, because I think the expansion makes Firefly a better multiplayer game than it was out of the base box. It does seem to run longer, but the additional friction and jeopardy are enough to excuse another 30 minutes or so to run a five player session. It just feels more fleshed out.

And it still feels right for Firefly, which I think is very important no matter if you are a Whedon acolyte or have a more casual interest in the IP. It is still a game about commerce and crew. It still has that space cowboy/pirate flavor. There is still plenty of fan service both overt and subtle, hinted at in card effects and narrative hooks.. Like I said in my review of Firefly, the most important thing about this design is that the guys that made this game know pretty much exactly what its players are going to want to do in a given setting, and they respectfully give us the tools to do so without throwing a ton of rules or complexity at us. I think this is an indispensable expansion- much like the Spartacus one- that does exactly what an expansion ought to do. It builds on what already worked while optionally extending the game space to include new concepts and content. Firefly was one of my picks for the top games of 2013, and in 2014 it’s gotten even better.

Cracked LCD- Kemet in Review


The first thing you’re going to want to do with Kemet is to compare it Cyclades, the brilliant hybrid Dudes on a Map (DoaM) game from a couple of years ago that impressed many gamers including myself with its stunningly economical yet baroque and flavorful design. Like its predecessor, Kemet is a big box Matagot/Asmodee release and it’s of French origin. Both games are well-illustrated and packed with great-looking miniatures and ultra-tight rules that play fast and loose with DoaM conventions of geography, resource management, and process. Both games are completely reasonable in terms of playtime, even with full tables. But whereas Cyclades was about the men, gods, and monsters of the ancient Mediterranean, Kemet goes south and presents us with a surprisingly unique mythic Egyptian setting.

To cut right to what matters most, this is a game where dudes riding scorpions fight dudes riding snakes. You might see your city’s pyramids captured by an army led by a mummy that teleported into your neighborhood and charged straight through your walls. It has a sort of Warrior Knights-derived combat system whereby you can win a battle but lose all of your soldiers trying to wipe out the other side. It’s a tremendously aggressive, fast-paced game where you’re never safe and every turn from the first one on to the dramatic finish will see the sands stained with blood. Sometimes mummy blood. I’ll just stop here for a moment and let you finish that online order that you should be placing right now.

Hopefully, you did actually go and buy this game because it is sensational, one of the best games of the year released to date and one of the most compellingly intricate yet simply executed designs on the market today. Although the Cyclades comparison has a certain utility, Kemet isn’t really quite like anything else out there although it falls into that sort of middleweight class of DoaM games that Nexus Ops pioneered. It’s intensely focused on conflict, but the strategic and development components of the design impart a fascinating but very accessible depth.

You’re an Egyptian god, and in order to exercise your dominion over the Nile delta area you’ve got to send your worshippers out to do your bidding. This usually means claiming temples, a chief source of victory points. Controlling one gives you a temporary VP that can be lost if someone else marches (or beams) in. Controlling two at the end of a turn gives you permanent VP. There are also a couple of special temples that let you sacrifice troops stationed there for permanent VPs or prayer points, the game’s currency used to buy soldiers, abilities, or to upgrade your city’s three pyramids. By the way- yes, I did mean to imply that this game features human sacrifice.

In Kemet’s parlance, pyramids are huge D4s in three different colors. Increasing the value of a pyramid gives you access to purchase the “technologies” of that level and color. So there’s a simple tech tree mechanic that provides a strong sense of Civilization-like advantage development. Deciding which economic, offensive, or defensive advantages you want is a major strategic element, usually resulting in an arms race between players. Since there’s no turtling possible and proximities are close, the drive to outperform your opponents is intense.

The game’s geography is almost negligible. Groups of soldiers can pay two prayer points to teleport from a home base pyramid to an obelisk, strategically placed within two space of each city and there’s one on each temple. No need to marshal soldiers and march them around the map, especially when you have special abilities or units that increase the basic one-territory movement limitation. Taking control of rival gods’ pyramids gives you victory points, as does increasing them to level 4. There’s also an incentive to attack cities because a pyramid seized by another player no longer provides its benefits to the original owner.

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Combat is also intensely incentivized because winning a battle gives you permanent victory points. Units are cheap and expendable in the game, and it should be played as such. In battle, each player plays one of a fixed, common set of combat cards that provide a battle value, casualties, and a shield value. Totals include the battle value, number of units, and any bonuses from cards or abilities. Highest wins the fight, but then casualties are inflicted by comparing that number against shields. So the Pyrrhic victory is possible, as are strategic fights where the goal is simple to force a losing army to retreat out of a temple space without necessarily wiping them out. The combat cards are smartly balanced and offer a number of tactical outcomes in any given conflict. Don’t bemoan the lack of dice- this system is really cool.

Also really cool is the action selection mechanic. Each player’s card has a triangular diagram of available actions arranged in three tiers. At the end of the turn, you’ve got to have placed one of your five action selection markers in every tier. Moving, recruiting buying upgrades, praying for more prayer points, and upgrades are the choices and you only get to do one thing per activation. This keeps the game moving at a sometimes breakneck pace, with players sometimes making dramatic all-or-nothing plays to squeeze out three or four victory points (out of the eight required) in a single late-game turn to shut it down in their favor.

Every single turn is an all-out scrap to earn points with limited objectives but multiple ways to earn them. There is literally no point in waiting to attack. There are no strategic chokepoints, advantageous terrain, or really any value in not playing aggressively. The designers were very smart in creating systems and incentives that support this kind of play, and as a result the game feels tense and dramatic throughout its duration whether you’re playing a two player game or a five player one. The game scales exceptionally well and plays great with the entire range of configurations.

Vicious, beautiful, accessible, and compelling, Kemet is a grand slam. It’s a brilliant design that carries on the French tradition of out-Ameritrashing many beloved Ameritrash titles, cutting through the bullshit and offering a crowd-pleasing dose of thematic excitement and very direct conflict. It feels like both an instant classic and a completely out-of-nowhere design with more great ideas than anyone might have anticipated.


Cracked LCD- Mage Wars in Review

When I first opened the Mage Wars box, I thought I was in for it. The signs were bad. It’s a game from a first time publisher and a first time designer. Worrisomely generic, Magic card-style artwork and terrible fonts didn’t endear me to the product at all. The rulebook was filled to bursting with esoteric keywords, extensive descriptions of multiple turn phases, complicated examples of play, and callout boxes galore explaining exceptions, situations, and subsystem mechanics. It looked like a hot mess, a kitchen sink kind of game. It felt like the kind of game that in the past I’ve found myself regretting that I requested a review copy.

The first session- well, at least the first half- was a slow motion disaster of hesitant cardplay and shot-in-the-dark tactical board play. But before all of that, I had to sort out the 322 spell cards and make two decks for two of the game’s dueling mages, putting all of the cards into these adorable binders that represent the players’ spellbooks. With the prep work done- and a head full of rules and a quarter-remembered glossary of status effects and special abilities- we stumbled. Lots of “can I do this?” and “I don’t think that’s right”. Rulebook consultations precluded by “hang on, let me check”. All of those speedbumps weren’t nearly the chokepoint that flipping through the spellbooks during play was. This is a card game where you get to look at your entire deck- no hoping for a topdeck draw. Hope you remembered what every card does!

But when it all starts to come together and the opacity of words like quickcasting and magebinding fades away, Mage Wars eventually reveals itself as one of the top games of 2012.

Bryan Pope’s first-time design is, in some ways, this year’s Mage Knight- a complex, detailed design that demonstrates the value of tasking the player with putting in the due dilligence to learn and master a game. Like many classic hobby games of eras past, it’s not one to buy and expect to play the same night in an hourlong session. With deckbuilding more or less required and many possible combinations of creatures, conjurations, incantations, and equipment to consider. And that’s before you get into weighing out in-game strategies such as flooding the 4×3 board with cheap creatures or buffing out your mage with powerful magic items to take on all comers.

There’s a lot of material to digest, and it’s not hard to feel a sense of information overload at first glance. But reading through the exceptionally well-written rules and brief walkthrough reveals a game that isn’t nearly as structurally complex as it seems, and any CCG veteran will likely pick right up on the process and flow of the game. Card knowledge is an important factor, and that makes multiple plays essential to get the most out of what this outstanding game has to offer for those willing to put in the time to learn its finer points.

Effectively, Mage Wars is sort of an ur-game that draws on the major forms of hobby gaming from role-playing to board games to CCGs to tabletop miniatures. It’s not dissimilar to Summoner Wars in some regards, but it’s a much deeper, richer game owing to its denser mechanical structure and greater range of tactical and strategic possibilities. I would stop short of calling it a refinement or a culmination of hobby game strains since there is a sort of reckless, slightly unpolished aura about it- something I find actually kind of exciting and compelling. That means it feels new, even if my initial kitchen sink impression wasn’t far off the mark.

The syncretic design is smart, and as with Mage Knight there is a lot of complexity deftly managed by the rule set. One thing I really like is that Mr. Pope very effectively uses restrictions to contain the decision matrix, keeping it from getting out of control. For example, on each turn both players have to select just two cards from their binder. Those will be the only two spells they can cast during their turn, barring special effects such as wands that let you store spells for later use.

On each turn, both mages get to activate every card they’ve summoned to the board, with each getting to either move and take a “quick action” or to make a full attack or cast a full spell. Some creatures, for example, have a weaker quick attack but a stronger full one. And then there are elemental effects, buffs, curses, area-of-effect spells, and tons of other considerations to weigh. One touch that I absolutely love is that enchantments- whether they’re helpful or hurtful- are cast face down on a creature. There’s a second cost to reveal them. So they can be used to bluff or to spring a nasty surprise.

On top of the cardplay, managing mana production and expenditure, mitigating lasting status effects, and coordinating on-board maneuver there’s also dice-based combat. Even the combat is more detailed than it seems at first with its simple hit-or-miss results. The rules also account for armor, guarding actions, counterattacks, and other factors. We’re still going to pull up short from Magic Realm on this trip, but there are definitely more specifics than other recent games like this.

There’s a lot to consider, and that’s kind of the sum of it- this is a content-rich game with much to explore and plenty of avenues for it to develop in future expansions. Mage Wars is a big, burly design that bucks the trend toward smaller and shorter but it offers committed players plenty in trade. I’m very interested in seeing more from these folks and seeing how this game develops as a product line.