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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- 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.

Cracked LCD- AEG’s Tempest Games in Review


It’s certainly not unheard of for publishers to concoct settings and “worlds” that connect disparate games along lines of theme or setting but rarely is this approach applied to Eurogame-styled titles. Eurogames, barring expansions, tend to exist in their own universes with no narrative connectivity or resonance between them. AEG, who came up with this crazy idea of creating a “living” game world that would change as a result of organized play and other events in their long-running Legend of the Five Rings CCG, has come forward with a concept that attempts to do exactly that. The product line is called Tempest and the setting is a kind of ersatz Venice circa the Renaissance, with nominal historical trappings shunted aside in favor of in-game fiction, recurring characters and groups, and generalized themes of control, deceit, treachery, and politics.

Out of the gate, this idea runs into some issues because the games- Love Letter, Dominaire, Courtier, and Mercante- fall in line with the typical thematic expectations of the Eurogame genre, which is to say that narrative and specificity are de-emphasized in favor of mechanics and process. The Tempest idea emerges unfortunately as little more than fluff text and artwork justification, and the overwhelming sense I get from these titles is that none were specifically designed to be Tempest games.

This isn’t necessarily a blanket damnation of the line, because what we’re getting out of it are two solid if not particularly innovative Eurogame designs, one workmanlike clunker, and one absolutely brilliant out-of-the-park smash. But the question remains if the Tempest idea and the great artwork are enough to differentiate these titles from other Euros on the market or to persuade Eurogame fans to move on from old favorites or flavor-of-the-month titles to these not particularly extraordinary examples of area control, worker placement, and auction mechanics.


Courtier, designed by Philip DuBarry, is a two to four player influence game with shades of Ticket to Ride’s card drafting and goal cards that require players to control different courtiers and factions within social circles close to the royal family of Tempest. In game terms, this translates to using cards to place or dislodge wooden cubes from influence tracks to determine control while attempting to fulfill petitions by getting these people under your sway. Additionally, controlling a coterie grants you a special power.

It’s definitely a workable, not at all unappealing game. There are a couple of compelling ideas that elevate the game. I particularly like that there are two card decks to choose from when it’s time to draw or draft, one of which is focused on placing cubes and the other more on manipulation and “take that” effects. It adds an unusual strategic layer while also letting in a little welcome nastiness. It’s a little gamey, but there is kind of a neat thing with neutral influence and how you automatically control all neutral markers on your turn. This makes the demands on the petitions way easier to meet, but the rulebook declares the rule “cheese” in a variant that eliminates it. Don’t do that.

I’m also fond of the game’s timing mechanic. There’s a deck of “Fashion” cards that describe what’s going on at court culminating with the Queen’s arrest (read the story if you really want to know why). These cards add just a touch of narrative life. Maybe the Queen wore her hair down that day or something, breaking with tradition. These impart global gameplay effects but more importantly it makes the game feel at least a little less like a rank-and-file, soulless cube pusher. At 45-60 minutes and with a $35 retail, It’s a game that knows its place in terms of longevity and value.


Mercante, as the title would suggest, is the economic game of the lot. Designed by Jeff Tidball, I think I’d say it’s the second best of the games if only because I like buy low, sell high games and also because it’s something like an extrapolated version of Reiner Knizia’s classic Medici. Three to five players represent powerful merchant houses in Tempest, with each of course having a unique ability. The game action is chiefly purchasing individual goods or lots of goods at auction, selling said goods at fluctuating market prices, and using your profits to improve operations by buying additional dockworkers or agents (yes, this is a worker placement game) or warehouses to increase your storage capacity. There are also some nice direct conflict elements. You can steal from other players’ warehouses, play cards on each other, and artificially inflate prices at auction.

It’s a neat looking game even though it’s text- and numbers- heavy. It all looks like ledger sheets, shipping manifests, and so forth. It feels fairly thematic at least as far as business games go and the economic play is mostly appealing, as players take on contracts for delivery and attempt to meet orders. But there is one piece of this game that I absolutely despise because it is so artificial and unnecessary. It’s a victory point game.

It boggles my mind that the designer of this game couldn’t see that this is one where victory should be measured in dollars, not in VPs. It’s such a terrible design decision to have players buying and auctioning VPs over the course of the game with an end-of-game VP purchase. The value of completing a contract ought to be income, not VPs. It’s completely needless, and I honestly cannot come up with a reasonable explanation why the game was designed this way. I like the game, I like the way it plays and I think it’s a good buying and selling game but the reliance on VPs is definitely a big mark against it at a design level.


Dominaire is designer Jim Pinto’s entry and it follows on from the arrest of the Queen in Courtier. This is the “big” game of the lineup, and it is ostensibly the most complex one. It’s also the least interesting, a somewhat unoriginal game that repeats some of the area control and influence mechanics of Courtier but in a much larger scale with elements of geography. In it, two to six (yes, six) players attempt to exert clandestine influence over the city districts of Tempest, expanding and developing a conspiratorial cabal while attempting to limit exposure and the negative VP effects of dirty deeds brought to light. The more powerful and influential your people are, the more exposure your conspiracy faces.

Sounds great on paper, but in reality it’s another card-driven influence game with a couple of frills. I do like certain aspects of it like the conspiracy element, but it’s also one of those Eurogames that is extremely regimented and metered with very little room for the players to move outside of the rules. It’s a seven turn, 15 action game so everything you do is crucial. But it’s also a seven turn, 15 action game that takes anywhere from two to three hours to play. Event cards add some variety, but by and large this is a very dated-feeling game that reminds me of some of the Euros that were coming out in the early to mid 2000s. This is not a compliment.

Honestly, the ho-hum core mechanics didn’t hold my interest beyond a pair of test games. I can definitely see that it’s a game that needs a couple of plays and experienced players, I think, to really get the most out of it since there is a lot of information, positioning strategy, and card effects to consider. There is definitely depth, but it’s of a dry and particularly dispassionate kind and I’m frankly not sure if it’s worth putting in the effort to get at it. Play El Grande instead.

love letterFinally, we come to the best game of the set and the best game of 2013. At less than three weeks in, at least. Seiji Kani’s Love Letter is a mini-masterpiece of refined, minimalist design. This is a game that comes in an embroidered velvet pouch, its components being only 16 cards and a handful of cubes. The rules are appropriately slight- this is a game about playing, not about rules. The concept is that the Princess of Tempest is receiving love letters from a variety of suitors and you want to get yours into her hands.

You’ve got a two-card hand. You play one card and simply resolve its effect, consulting the player aid card to see what it does if need be. Draw back up to two at the beginning of your hand. Whoever has the highest ranking card at the end of the deck wins the round. You are now ready to play.

But you see, there are eight ranks of cards depicting a Guard, a Priest, a Baron, a Handmaid, a Prince, The King, and The Countess. And of course the Princess, distraught over her mother’s arrest, is the last card. Her only effect is that if you discard or are forced to discard her, you are out of the round. Each of the others have effects that let you look at, swap, or discard other players’ cards. The lowest-ranking Guard lets you call out a card and if a player has it, they’re out of the round immediately. If you have the Countess and either the King or the Prince in your hand, they’re caught in a tryst and she has to be thrown out- a shame, since she’s only outranked by the Princess.

The idea is that you use limited card knowledge, observation, and these effects to try to come out at the end of the very short (like, less than ten minute) rounds with the top-ranked card still in play. There’s a little deduction element involved, and the need to play cards carefully and with the right timing is crucial. It’s a small, slight game so it’s not the most strategic or rich game on tables these days but it’s among the best “micro” games that you can buy right now. It’s accessible, appealing to a wide range of tastes, and almost completely without any kind of the usual rules overhead that attends hobby games. Groups that enjoy games like Citadels or even Werewolf will enjoy it, but do be aware that it is really intended to be a four player game, despite supporting two or three.

So there’s at least one absolute gem out of the Tempest bunch but even it wasn’t designed with this setting in mind. The Tempest concept is ambitious, but unfortunately not even the best game set there really supports its themes, narratives, or settings. I hope that AEG continues to explore Tempest. I find a quasi-historical, decidedly non-fantasy fictional game world far more appealing than, say, Terrinoth. I wouldn’t mind seeing something like a non-fantasy adventure game or a large scale wargame waged by whatever Tempest’s Condotierre are called. Regardless of genre direction, this setting really needs custom designed games specifically exploring Tempest- not tired Eurogame mechanics.