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Cracked LCD- Darkest Night in Review (Part 1- The Base Game)


Darkest Night, designed by Jeremy Lennert and published by lovable underdogs Victory Point Games, doesn’t sound terribly interesting at first pass. I’m almost reticent to lay out the objective facts about the game regarding its process and mechanics out of fear that they’ll put you to sleep. But stick with me. It’s worth it.

Darkest Night is a one to four player co-op adventure game that draws inspiration from Arkham Horror and similar titles. Players represent various fantasy character types with special powers that they will have to employ to combat various monsters, events and other threats that pop up on the board by rolling dice. The storyline is that there is an Evil Necromancer up to some necromancer-ly hijinks, represented in the game by a simple automation process whereby he moves from location to location on the board and spawns Blights – both physical enemies and more abstract adversarial forces representing themes such as despair, confusion and presences.

The goal is to find Holy Relics. Each requires that the heroes search for and locate three keys. Each one makes the Necromancer easier to battle, but if the good guys find four of the Holy Relics they win the game automatically. But the heroes lose if the Monastery, their base of operations and the last bastion of all that is good and sacred in the world, becomes overrun with Blights.

Bored yet? Sleepy? Wondering why I’m bothering with this game? Hang in there, we’re getting to the good stuff.

With all that is hackneyed about the game out of the way, I’ll tell you that Darkest Night is one of the best games in its class even though it isn’t nearly as novel or compelling in terms of setting as VPG’s classic Nemo’s War or as maverick as something like Shadows of Malice. There a couple of things that this game does that are novel and compelling and really quite unique, even though you might be lead to believe otherwise at a first impression. I’ve come to love this scrappy little game- especially as a solitaire outing where I can really dig into it at my own pace.

First and foremost, the way this game handles characters- and there are a TON of them across the base game and four expansions as of this writing- is bold, brilliant and their diversity generates a wildly different strategic matrix for players every game. There is more to the characters than the usual D&D-derived character classes thanks to unique Power card decks that drive the actions each player can take. Coming from games such as Talisman, these classes are well beyond what you might expect in terms of delineating the difference between a Rogue and a Druid. Because each one plays very differently and due to the random nature of how the Necromancer spawns blights, this results in a tremendously variable game where characters may or may not have certain utility based on these powers.

I love it the crazy variety in how these all play out, and even in a game with the same character you played last time you might wind up with different powers, resulting in a fresh experience. I think it’s thrilling to sit down with four random characters and see what happens in terms of how their powers interact with the game. More than that, I love that some classes are literally useless in some aspects (which means you’ve sometimes got to be creative) while others serve functions that are very unique (which means that you’ve got to work out how to use them effectively). The Prince for example, is really kind of a lousy fighter. He’s much better at hiding, inspiring your other characters and operating almost like a monarch in exile. The magic users all vary greatly, most have specific rules and card types unique to their practice. Some characters are great at supporting others, some are your go-to members when battle calls, some are best suited to searching for treasures and others do crazy things like teleport other characters around, summon beast companions and sing songs.

There is quite a lot of satisfying complexity that comes with all of these characters, but the basic process of the game is super simple. If you’re not at the Monastery and the Necromancer isn’t in your space, you draw an event card. These are usually bad, and many have a die roll check to determine their effect. If the Necromancer is in your space, it could be worse as he may find and fight you. And then you take just one action, barring any free actions afforded by your powers or other assets. You can travel, hide, attack a blight, search the area or use a power. At the Monastery, you can pray. If you have three keys, you can take a Holy Relic.

There are some interesting things going on here with the strictures. Moving to another location (there are only six) is exclusive from attacking, which is how you get rid of the Blights. And most Blights have either an area effect that impacts the location or they automatically attack your character at the end of your turn, and it’s a defensive kind of battle. You don’t clear them off the board if you win. You have to choose an attack action to vanquish them. This creates some tough choices in terms of movement, staying in safer areas or marshaling a Knight or a Paragon over there to take care of the problem. And, interestingly, there are situations where some characters actually do better by staying put for virtually the entire game. For example, a character with powers that affect searches might contribute the most by staying in areas where keys are more likely to turn up when the Map cards indicating search results are drawn.

Avoiding Blights altogether is also an unexpected element. Players may just completely stay away from battles at all, opting to move in the shadows and not directly confront the creeping evil. And it turns out that this is actually indicative of the game’s biggest concept both in terms of theme and in its fiction- you aren’t fighting the Necromancer head on, you’re waging a kind of guerilla war from hiding. It’s obviously inspired by Lord of the Rings, where the Fellowship spends much of the journey trying to stay out of Sauron’s sight, and it works very effectively in Darkest Night. Almost every encounter allows you to choose combat or evasion, and it’s often better to just run away.

Players have two trackers on their character sheets- Grace and Secrecy. You lose Secrecy by doing things like choosing to fight Blights, encountering Spies and carrying Holy Relics- all things that attract attention. But they can gain it by traveling, hiding and generally staying on the down-low. Secrecy is how the Necromancer’s awareness of each character is tracked, and maintaining this secrecy is critical to winning the game. This is also how the Necromancer’s movement is triaged. A die roll over a character’s Secrecy means that he comes that way, and all players that start their turn in the Necromancer’s area lose a Secrecy. If player has zero, the Necromancer fights him in a battle pretty much unwinnable without at least one Holy Relic. The game has a way of creating a sense that characters with low Secrecy are being tracked down, hunted and overcome.

And eventually, you will be overcome because this can be a pretty tough game. There’s a lovely little bit of unexpected nomenclature in the game. There are no hit points or lives. Instead, players have Grace. The rulebook describes this as being an almost mysterious ability for heroes to preserve in life-or-death situations, to be given another chance. Lose a battle, you are defeated. But you may have the Grace to carry on. It’s a minor thing, but I like the tone it generates.

I appreciate how the game strikes a favorable balance between mechanical economy and a multilayered, compellingly diverse range of powers and effects. These, in conjunction with the stealth concept and some unexpected mechanics, make for a great narrative line every game. The last time I played, I had a Scholar posted up in the castle, doing research to learn new powers and find artifacts that he could share with the other three heroes. But his secrecy gradually ran out, because the Necromancer moved that way and posted up some of his spies there. Eventually, the Scholar had to flee to get his Secrecy back because he was exposed. I’ve had characters partner up because of synergies in their powers. I’ve had games where the party did best sticking together and groups that were just doomed from the start.

Some games have been naturally harder than others that were almost too easy. Some have been anticlimactic, and others have been down-to-the-wire nailbiters that ended with do-or-die turns. Some will not appreciate the volatility. There is a lot of die-rolling, card-flipping and general randomness on top of the variety introduced by the characters. And it is possible for a player to wind up feeling like there’s nothing effective that they can do given a particular game state. But frankly, after playing this game with two groups of three and four, I’ve found that the solo game is really the best experience here.

I wanted this game for a long time before finally capitulating to an irresistible sale of the Necromancer Bundle, which includes the first three expansions. I was interested mainly because I like Victory Point Games and I wanted to see their take on the big, epic fantasy co-op. But I did kind of feel put off by the ho-hum setting and concept. It turns out, as is often the case with VPG titles, that there’s more here than you might expect. It says so right on their box- “The gameplay’s the thing” and that’s what distinguishes this fine game from its peers. The gameplay is top notch, driven by a uniquely diversified range of player characters and subtle twists on the usual formulas.

And the expansions just improve it. (To be continued)

Cracked LCD- Broom Service in Review

Last week was an 11th hour vacation ending literally hours before back to school for the kids, this week I’m back on the broom for a review of the GREAT Broom Service over at Miniature Market’s Review Corner. This is an outstanding game (based on the earlier Witches’ Brew, which I never played) with a brilliant action selection/trumping mechanic that requires players to announce whether they are going to be brave or cowardly every turn. The setting is a wonderfully whimsical witchy thing, which I have a terrible weakness for (witness the Kiki’s Delivery Service tattoo) and it turns out that this is a design that strikes an almost perfect medium spot between the classical German-style family games and the more complex modern hobby games. It’s easy and fun, but it bites pretty deep. And it won this year’s Kennerspiel prize at the Spiel Des Jahres, well deserved. Check it out here!

Skull Review


It’s often not the rules or the components that make a game. With Skull, it’s the little noises. The tut of tongue against teeth. A soft sigh. A full-throated chuckle. Ambigous sounds uttered before a card gets flipped over and all hell breaks loose.

Skull is a bluffing game. Everyone starts with four cards , three showing flowers and one a skull. You place one face down, maybe more. Then you start wagering with other players to see how many flowers you think you can flip.

The devil is in the fact that whoever wins the wager has to show their own cards first. So if you put down a skull yet placed a bet, others can catch you out with your own cleverness. After that it’s up to you whose cards you want to turn over.

And then the noises begin.

What do they mean? Is that low whistle a warning or an appreciation of a cunning pick? Do you read that intake of breath as one of shock or anticipation? As the tension unspools like razor wire, each sound ramps it up until it becomes unbearable. What can you turn over? What do you need to leave?

No matter how bad it gets, the choice is yours. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from playing Skull, it’s this: it’s amazing how often good people make bad choices.

The reason it’s so scary is because if you find a skull you don’t just lose the round, you lose a card. Lose all four and you’re out of the game. But the stakes are higher than that because if you manage to get all flowers you win that hand. And it only takes two winning hands to take the whole game.

You won’t want to bet. Once someone’s taken a hand, though, you’ll have to bet. Just to keep them one step away from winning the whole thing. Just to make sure you get another chance to bet when you don’t really want to.


The astute will have spotted that Skull has a lot in common with Liar’s Dice and its commercial variants like Perudo. And so it does. Yet there are no dice here, and no card draw. There is no randomness. There is nothing at all but the bluffing and the revealing and the tiny sounds of terror.

Because you choose other people’s cards to reveal rather than just calling them out on a lie, that terror goes on and on. Like a chase sequence from a horror film. Except sometimes there’s a happy ending. Not as often as you might like, though.

A curious thing about Skull is that the opening rounds are the most chaotic yet the most fun. Early on, lots of people lay skulls and bluff just for the hell of it. Early on, lots of people get the crazy notion to make ridiculous bids. It’s like all that power, that power of deception, goes to their heads.

It’s fun, but I’m not convinced how much the results have to do with determining the winner. As people start to drop out the game becomes leaner and meaner. The rules say inexperienced players should not start with just three playing. They say that’s when Skull is at its most difficult. Yet if you play a game, and you’re left with just three after elimination, that’s also when it gets the most interesting.

You remember whether people bid. You remember what they bid. You start wondering what that means about what they’ve got in their hands. You start to pick up little clues and details that suggest who might have nothing but flowers left to play.

And as all the information comes in, things just get worse. Each wager carries behind it a mortal weight of doubt and half-truths. The noises get a bit louder.

Eventually someone will win. And the fear deflates like a balloon, the gust of air blowing away the uncertainty and making room for relief, even smiles.

Then someone who didn’t win will say “let’s do that again!” And everyone will see that barely twenty minutes have passed, even if they felt like a lifetime, and make little noises of agreement. Then you’re hooked.

Unless you’re part of the perfect logic play brigade that is. If you want to game this game, you can. You can deliberately place a skull and then a silly bid to sacrifice one of your cards to stop someone else winning, for instance. Most gamers will rightly recoil from the mere idea of throwing away an advantage to stop another player.

There really isn’t much more to Skull than I have told. A couple of extra rules for people with just one card left. Small but important distinctions, like the fact that if you flip someone else’s skull you lose a random card but if you flip your own you get to choose. Anyone can play this. Almost no-one can play it well.

There’s not much in the box, either. Just four beermat-like tiles bearing the skull and flower symbols for each player and some rules. The “play mat” which allows you to keep “score” by flipping it over the first time you win a hand is almost an insult. It feels overpriced, although the art is lovely. There’s another edition called Skull & Roses, which looks even nicer.

It’s not all roses: some of it is skull, too. The game feels like it sits on an uneasy line between gamer-fodder and mass-market. It’s perhaps a bit too Spartan for the former, a bit too exotic for the latter. Yet people talk about how deep strategy from simple rules is the hallmark of a great game. Skull has deep fun from simple rules, and it’s just as good a benchmark to judge a game.

Cracked LCD- Evolution: Flight expansion in Review


Dominic Crapuchette’s Evolution is one of my favorite card games of recent years. Working from a design originally developed by a pair of Russian scientists, Mr. Crapuchettes has created a compelling, highly interactive game that creates a unique biosphere of competing or synergistic animals every time you play it. The themes of adaptation, survival and the co-existence of species are writ in bold face across the entire game. The mechanics are simple and accessible but the combinations of traits that your animals can take on results in an appealing sense of complexity and depth. But it is also the kind of game where it is easy to want more. Specifically, I found myself desiring more traits, more cards, to expand the possibilities of the game. It’s not that Evolution isn’t a complete experience out of the box, it’s that it’s the kind of game that feels open-ended in its potential.

Flight is the first and hopefully not last expansion for Evolution, and as you are likely to suspect it adds flying animals into the mix. And with wings come some new considerations that give players more options and slightly increase the strategic complexity. But more importantly, flying animals serve to expand the core themes of the game and allow for even more diverse species.

The expansion includes new, blue species boards for flying species. To start one, you’ve just got to discard two cards instead of the standard one required to pay for a new animal. Flyers come with the Flying trait card built-in, which limits them to just two other traits instead of the usual three. But staying aloft ain’t easy, and each flying species you control has to pay an upkeep cost in food based on their body size so they effectively need to eat more than land-based animals. Here’s the kicker- the extra food that they consume doesn’t go into your victory point bag.

Flying species can eat plant- or meat- based food like all others, and for the vegetarian varieties there is a new Cliff tile where they can grab a bite to eat. It refills each turn based on the number of players. More aggressive players will be happy to hear that flying carnivores are now a thing, and in addition to the usual parameters involved with eating someone else’s animals these winged terrors can also discard a card from hand to counter traditional anti-carnivore measures such as Symbiosis, Warning Call or Climbing. They’ll swoop down and snatch that climber right off the branch.

There are a few new trait cards that work with the Flight trait as well as with any other species you care to create. Brood Parasite encourages players to have multiple Avians and Nesting provides some meat food every time a flyer increases in population. There is Good Eyesight for the early bird seeking the proverbial worm and it is a requirement for a bird-of-prey to attack a species with the Camoflauge trait.

There is one new element, but it is fairly limited at this stage. There are two event cards- Dive Bomb and Seed Dispersal- that are played out of hand during the cardplay phase. The former allows an Avian to eat early, including another species if it’s a carnivore. The latter puts food in the watering hole equal to the number of birds in play.

As is the case with the base game, the card effects all connect right back to those core themes. Everything makes logical sense, and as a result the story the game generates is not only of your particular species but also how this particular biome you create functions. Some animals thrive, some carry on strong and steady, some falter and some never make it past a flying carnivore’s dinnertime. And when you look at the cards played, the effects that happened and the choices that were made a rich narrative line emerges that deftly illustrates the principles of evolution and adaptation.

This is a very nice expansion and it is one of those add-ons that has more or less obsoleted base game-only play for me. The additions are seamlessly implemented and are consistent. The same great illustrations and production design follows through. It is definitely better for seasoned players as the flying species introduce another couple of factors to consider, and the upkeep mechanic changes the dynamic (and priority) of food distribution. But I think that most players will want to shift to permanently adding Flight after a few games of the core title.

In the rulebook for Flight, it is stated that Evolution is “evolving into the Evolution Game System” and that NorthStar Games plans to support it for the next ten years and according to the press release I just read they are also putting ten million dollars into the product line. I certainly hope this is the case because I want to see where this game can go. It would be natural to expect an aquatic expansion next, but in the future I can imagine expansions with specific terrain, weather and other factors. More, please.

Cracked LCD- Seekers of a Hidden Light (Shadows of Malice Expansion) In Review

seekers 2Jim Felli’s Shadows of Malice, which I reviewed just a couple of months ago, is one of the best games of 2015. It’s a fresh, almost “outsider” design that pretty much throws away the handful of fantasy board game design templates and does a couple of very unique things. With its random creature generation, a paradoxically vague but concrete sense of narrative worldbuilding and mechanics that support a tangible sense of actual cooperation beyond the usual whack-a-amole style of gameplay, Shadows of Malice is a maverick and even experimental design. If that’s all we ever got from Mr. Felli, we’d already have something of a treasure – even if it is, like fine art, not exactly for all audiences.

But there is more, and Mr. Felli is preparing to release Seekers of a Hidden Light, an expansion to Shadows of Malice. He was kind enough to forward me an early copy of it and I’m glad he did. I would regard Seekers as a must-have expansion for those already converted, but those new to the game may want to come to grips with the base game first.

I sort of raised my eyebrow at an expansion coming along so soon. And my suspicion about it was completely correct- the small box add-on contains material that could have been included in the base game. One of the complaints I’ve heard about the base game is that there isn’t much dimension to what players can do – you walk around and either visit Mystics/Cities or fight things. There’s no side-questing or anything like that other than the overarching goal to get strong enough to take down the Guardians at the Light Wells and to combat both Xul’Thul and his Shadows. This expansion completely addresses that lack by focusing on quests that the Avatars may optionally take on at the request of the Mystics.

And it demonstrates that the new material shouldn’t have been in the base game. With Seekers’ quest rules, the game almost becomes something of an “Advanced Shadows of Malice”. It doesn’t add much in the way of new processes, although it does expand the world-building quite a bit with all of this business about Lux potion-brewing Alchemes and Lux rune-inscribing Lumeres. This is not a suite of mix-and-match additions, nor does it supplement any of the card decks already in the game. No new masteries for the Avatars, no new treasures, no new Fate cards and no new potions. No new creature traits either.

Some may view that as a disappointment but considering the small number of all of the above that may feature in a given game it steers the expansion clear of being one of those bulk-adding cards that adds pointless variety rather than substantial material. What’s here matters much more than adding height to card decks. But it’s also still very open-ended, nothing fundamentally changes the course of the game or its primary objective. You don’t even have to pursue any of the quests if you don’t want to, and the decision to do so is one that you’ve got to weigh against the current situation on the board, what other players are doing and if there is even time to risk getting involved in one to try to reap the benefit of some very nice rewards.

There are four quest types, and all are issued by visiting a Mystic and spending an action. You get to pick which kind of quest you will pursue- Gathering, Harvesting, Hunting and Seeking. A Each type is progressively more difficult to accomplish because the specifics escalate. When you Gather, you simply have to go to a certain terrain type and make a Luck roll. Failed? Don’t worry, it gets easier each time you attempt it. But if you Harvest, you have to go fight a specific type of creature to harvest some part of its body. Hunt, and you’ve to fight a specific monster on a specific type of terrain. But if you really want to go for it, you can Seek, which means you’re looking for a specific monster, terrain AND ability color.

I read this in the rules and I thought “no way” because of how the random creature generation works. But then I read on and learned that all of the hexagonal, yellow counters with terrain types on them were bait that you could buy from Cities or Mystics. If you take on a quest, you’d better get some bait because these invaluable markers let you bump the creature generation roll around so that you can get what you need. They’re also helpful for treasures that affect certain kinds of creatures. This is a cool addition that in concert with the quests reminds me somewhat of the Monster Hunter video games.

Complete a quest and you can earn a couple of different rewards and not just stock Soulshards and potions. You also earn Lux, which becomes something of a shared currency within the group stored in the “Solux”. You use Lux to buy potions or runes from the aforementioned Alchemes and Lumeres. The potions are particularly powerful and offer very different kinds of effects from the standard drafts available throughout Aetheros. The Lux runes are expensive but attach to treasures, augmenting their power. Are the rewards worth it? It’s up to you decide. There are no timers, doom tracks or any other artificial methods of increasing tension to tell you one way or another. Talk it over with your band, see how the Lightwells are doing, and create your own trajectory.

The open-ended gameplay and compelling lack of ham-handed fantasy game tropes is completely unaltered. As a whole, Seekers fits right into the Shadows system with very little effort and it does not appreciably affect game length- and can even accelerate it somewhat since successful questing can lead to stronger Avatars. But I would still recommend that those new to the game cut their teeth on the system before applying the quest, bait and Lux. That said, I won’t play without them from this point forward.

I can’t stress enough how impactful this game has been on the way I view the whole fantasy/RPG-style board game. It isn’t really anything like all of those other ones over there (I’m pointing at your game shelf) and now it isn’t even really expanding in the same ways that those all have. Do I want more from Mr. Felli? Of course I do. But I also want any further expansions to be this casually meaningful, well-considered and indispensable. An excellent encore to a masterful performance.