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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- Rogue Agent in Review


If Panic Station was Belgian designer David Ausloos’ homage to films like Alien and The Thing, then his new game Rogue Agent (just out from Stronghold Game in a special limited edition) is clearly his love letter to Blade Runner and 1980s-era cyberpunk noir. Complete with miniature agents that looks unashamedly like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard character and an “android” gameplay mode that aims to create some of the “is he or isn’t he” suspicion from the film, it’s really mostly a cops-and-robbers game where you gather resources, track criminals and bring them in for bounties back at the Rain City police HQ. And speaking as someone who once owned one of the only 100 copies of it ever made, it is a far better representation of the theme than the legendary Blade Runner game was.

Like Panic Station, the game has been met with mixed reviews, including one from Lord Tom Vasel and a general “kiss of death” sub-seven aggregate user score at I have to admit- again, like Panic Station- that I did not like this game the first time I played it. In fact, it crashed and burned so hard with my group that it almost got the ultimate penalty for an ill-favored game- to be swept back into the box without sorting for storage. I felt like the theme was muddled, with this odd bomb defusing thing going on and lots of dice-rolling to find gas or bullets, which basically means to bump a cube up one of your agent’s resource tracks. I really do not like “roll to find” mechanics in general, so this game was sticking it to me from the get-go. The rulebook, while not as messy as Panic Station’s, still baffled us and I’m not sure anyone defused a bomb correctly in that maiden outing.

So I started to think “oh man, I’m going to have to throw this one under the bus too”. But something about the game stuck with me and I found that I wanted to go back to it. For one thing, I wanted to try it with the android rules, which are effectively a variation on the Cylon/hidden traitor mechanic. But for another, I wanted to look at the game from a different perspective. Because Rogue Agent is not, come to find out, quite the highly detailed adventure game that you might think it is.

With measured expectations (and a couple of different players), I came to realize what Mr. Ausloos was aiming to do with Rogue Agent. Despite the very clear nods to Blade Runner and similar antecedents, Rogue Agent is really pitched more as a medium-weight Eurogame where resource management is balanced with some risk-taking, a little dice rolling, and some surprisingly nasty opportunities to interfere with other players. What’s more, I actually found that the higher degree of abstraction and lack of reliance on flavor text and background fluff actually made the overall setting feel more successful in some ways than Kevin Wilson’s Android. You have to work out on your own why your guy got busted up searching Rico’s Gas Station or why he completely flopped an attempt to bring in Eyon Six or Lola Bruise.

This is a much leaner and more direct game than Android. Your character’s only story is what he has to do his job, what criminals he brings in, and his record at defusing those bombs. You’ve got a resource tracking card that shows how much ammo, gas, information and so forth you have as well as what upgrades to your weapon and armor you’ve achieved. There are some simple mechanics that create a sense of environment. Precinct tiles have skull icons, indicating the degree of low-level thug activity. Unless the Police Squad miniature is there, you either take damage or you can spend bullets to shoot your way out of the bad neighborhoods. Or maybe you’ve got an informant on the streets there that gets you through safely. Criminals make the bombs tick down faster, and assassins will actually break out of their proscribed movement pattern to attack you or your hapless informants you’ve stationed in a precinct.

There is no overarching mystery to solve, all opposition comes from the “datastream”, a bag from which you draw tokens representing criminals and assassins that move automatically through the city and bombs that count down until they explode unless someone manages to get to them and disarm them. Over the course of the game, you’ll move through square tiles representing Rain City to accomplish “Justice” actions. These might be revealing and attempting to subdue a criminal, arresting a subdued criminal to take them in, searching the area (and rolling those search dice that I really don’t like), using information to look at an unrevealed criminal’s card, fighting an Assassin token or hijacking another player’s collar so that you can take him/her/it in for the bounty.

The goal of the game is to be the agent with the most influence (a really rather poor nomenclature for victory points) at the end, based on how many of the game’s diverse bad guys you busted, assassins you thwarted and bombs you deactivated. There really is not much of a cooperative angle here, apart from in the android mode where the android players are working at cross purposes with the agent players.

I really liked playing the basic game with more aggressive players that realized that intercepting bounties was a good way to get other players to do the heavy lifting before effectively stealing their collar. With more passive players, the game does feel less interesting and the shifting of cubes up and down the resource tracks feels more grinding. But the android mode is, I suspect, the way that most folks will want to play it and a couple of extra rules pay off nicely. The thing I like the most about the android rules is that you’re not given an identity at the outset. The android tokens you get only increase the possibility that you will be revealed as an android. So true to the Blade Runner theme, you’re not really sure what you are when the game starts. This is brilliant.

As an android mode game progresses, you might be forced due to game effects to show one of your identity tokens to other players and you can choose which to show. If at any point you’ve reveal two android tokens, you’re a dirty skinjob and your role is to attack agents and damage city locations. You might also have to reveal identity tokens if you are cornered by another agent and subjected to a scan action to reveal identity tokens. Blade Runner fans will recognize that as a Voight-Kampf Test. “Whaddya mean I’m not helping?”

So it took a good three games for me to come around to Rogue Agent. The first was a disaster, the second I had adjusted expectations plus a more aggressive group of three other players and in the third we did the android mode game and had a really good time with it. But I still feel there are some rough spots and over-complications that I really wish had been ironed out in development. The bomb defusing sub-game is an interesting concept, somewhat similar to the kinds of mini-games that were in Mansions of Madness, but it comes down to good or bad luck on big die rolls too often. The end game scoring is needlessly complicated, with players getting bonus points for having multiple members of one of the game’s syndicates. Some criminals have effects that trigger if they have been investigated by a player, others have effects if they have not been investigated. But neither state really adds to the story or gameplay.

I keep coming back to a Panic Station comparison, which was also a compelling mix of thematic mechanics that were near-brilliant and overcomplicated elements that were counterintuitive. But I think that, after just three published games, it’s pretty clear that this is very much the Ausloos style and it’s apparent that the Ausloos style can be pretty divisive. What it comes down to for me is that what I really like about this Ausloos style that is on full display in Rogue Agent is that he completely commits to a thematic vision and tries to make mechanics work with it, logic and sense be damned. Sometimes that’s awkward, sometimes it’s overly complex and kind of just makes you confused. But other times- when his games are really working, you kind of just give into his directorial concept and let it just work in the context of his rules and the environment he creates.

Cracked LCD- Kings of Air and Steam in Review

kings of air

Kings of Air and Steam, new from Tasty Minstrel Games, had two major strikes against it before it landed on my table. One is that it has a Steampunk theme, which I almost categorically despise, and the other is that it is another Kickstarter title which at this point tends in that particular “movement” to mean an underdeveloped product. I’m very particular about what review copies I request from publishers and I won’t request games that I don’t think have a decent shot at earning a favorable notice, but I gave this game a chance because I love simple rail/transportation games and this one had an interesting combination of a traditional trains-and-tracks scheme paired with a programmed movement airship thing. It sounded kind of crazy and pretty unique.

The game is both of those, but there is a pretty nasty thematic disconnect in the fiction that creates an unusual dissonance. The idea is that you’re tasked with transporting goods from production facilities to cities that demand them (a classic train game mechanic), but the catch is that you’ve got to move the goods from these facilities by zeppelin to your rail depots and from there take them into the cities. There’s some nonsense about how the blimps aren’t permitted to land in the cities, but it’s impossible to play this game without asking the five dollar question “why wouldn’t they just skip the trains and deliver the goods themselves?”

If you can get over that- which is oddly difficult because the entire game is predicated on this concept- what you’re putting on the table is a very nicely done simple rail/transportation game just like I like with some novel gameplay elements, a fluctuating economy, upgrade paths, and occasional airship piloting blunders. The goal over the course of the five round game is making money by dropping off these products and earning current market price for them, and the game has some damn fine paper money to track this- something this paper money lover appreciates.

On a turn everybody locks in four cards from their movement deck to determine where their airships are going to move. There is a mobility limitation keyed to upgrades that controls how many cards with a diamond on them that you can play and upgrades also control cargo capacity. You flip your movement card, move your dirigible, and then take an action. Actions let you claim rail routes with train depots, upgrade your airships or trains to increase their ability to travel over more links, or move goods from your depots to cities. Or, if you’re broke, you can solicit the bank for funds. I like the movement card/one action structure because it keeps the game moving- at least once everyone has their airship movement planned. Be warned that players prone to analysis paralysis may labor far, far too long over picking those four movement cards. Put ‘em on a sand timer if you have to.

The game supports two to seven players thanks to a modular board, but the two player game feels thin and the seven player game runs too long. I really like for this game to be a 90 minute, four or five player game because that length fits the depth and development curve just right. With that said, I appreciate the support for more players because it gives groups like mine that often wind up with six or seven people another choice. Competition is meaningful in the game, with players racing to pick up valuable goods before each other and getting them to market before city demand dries up or changes.

With optional (and very recommended) variable player powers and factional differences along with the dual transportation mechanic, there’s a little more going on in Kings of Air and Steam than in something like Railways of the World, although the turnaround is that it is slightly more complicated to explain- and strategies may seem more elusive for the first few games. It’s not quite as straightforward. The more sci-fi oriented theming and artwork might lure those who aren’t very interested in 19th century transportation into playing what is at its core a well-made and easy to play train game that has nothing to do with tickets or riding.

This leads to a question I’m asking more and more of the games that I play- “what is this game’s argument for itself.” I’ve got to put this game on my shelf next to Railways of the World, which is my all-time favorite train game, as well as Merchant of Venus- my all-time favorite pick-up-and-deliver game. I’ve also got to compare this game to outliers with similar arcs or processes like Fire & Axe, and I also need to consider it in regard to games that I don’t currently own like Chicago Express, Age of Steam, and others that are more squarely comparable in terms of gameplay. In sum, why should you play Kings of Age and Steam over those games?

The answer is, I think, is that this design is one of those that comes dangerously close to packing too much into its box. If you took out the airship movement or the train element and left one of them behind, you’d likely still have a pretty solid and more economically designed transportation game. Without the airships, it would feel almost like a very stripped down Martin Wallace title. Without the trains, it would feel almost like Roborally repurposed as a pick-up-and-deliver game. Yet the game needs both of them to tell its wonky, frankly nonsensical story, and I think the differentiator is that the design pulls of a pretty neat stunt by making these incongruous elements work. It’s one of the better, more complete-feeling Kickstarter games I’ve played.

But more significantly, I think, is that disparate elements in the design work well and without bowling players over with tons of process, rules, or subsystems. It’s the kind of “just right” porridge I like the best, editorial in its design sense and cutting it close in the balance between abstraction, narrative, and context. It’s also worth noting that Kings of Air and Steam is a good-looking, inexpensive game (around $40) with decent curb appeal. But I am going to have to ask you to take the brass goggles off if you’re going to be at my table.

Good is the new Average


I don’t like rating games, video or board. A good review should manage to encapsulate how you feel about a game without stamping a score at the bottom. Numeric ratings attract attention away from the writing, and have neither the subtlety or nuance to express wider ideas about the value of the game beyond its play, or the reviewer’s tilt.

But I don’t always have the pleasure of writing just as I’d like to, and many of the editors I’ve worked for want scores. Out of five, ten or, worst of all, a hundred. So I dutifully assign a number and try to move on. But I remain haunted by past scores. Is game X really two stars better than game Y? Was I really right to give game Z that score out of a sense of quality, even though I, personally, disliked it?

Because people put store by those numbers, and therefore so must I. In spite of my misgivings I try to get it right, and end up in ludicrous situations like giving a game a higher rating than I feel it entirely deserves just because it’s marginally better than another game I previously scored slightly generously.

The most corrosive effect of scores, though, is what we’ve come to know as the weak seven effect. You play a game, enjoy it, but aren’t blown away by it’s quality. Perhaps you frequent one of the many online communities which allow you to rate your collection, and decide to give it a score. What do you go for? Seven.

It’s a weasley number, is seven. The people who wrote disquieting thriller se7en clearly knew it, as did the antediluvians who came up with the seven deadly sins that inspired it. When it comes to rating games, eight looks like a solid score for a quality game, while six feels fairly negative. Seven sits in the middle like a spare part, uselessly indicating that the game is fun, but not quite fun enough.

It’s particularly pernicious when those ratings are compiled into an average. Averaging out forces down the score, because you’ll never get an average of ten and even nines are extremely rare. But because it’s still a rating out of ten, you don’t see that, you just compare the compiled rating with the maximum, ten, to get a sense of the game’s quality. Then all those sevens, which aren’t actually that high as individual ratings, suddenly add up to a much more appealing average.

And average is the right word. Because that’s really what we’re saying with those sevens. Fun, but not quite fun enough. That’s average, really. But of course out of ten, seven isn’t the average. The average should actually be five or six. And so we end up with over-inflated ratings for games and punters end up spending good money on games they rarely, if ever, play and the world economy keep on going round.

The problem is that games are supposed to be fun. They’re supposed to be exciting, give pleasure to the gamer. So you end up feeling overly positive about a game that’s actually fairly run of the mill, because it’s partially fulfilled its purpose. Think about it. Finding a game I actually dislike it pretty rare. Finding one I really hate is almost unheard of. I don’t think I’ve ever played one in which I can’t see a single redeeming feature that might appeal to another gamer.

As the design industry has got better, this problem has got worse. Designers learned from the awful train wrecks of the board gaming 70s and video gaming 80s not to repeat those mistakes. It’s pretty unusual nowadays to see something as dreadful as SimCity or Colonial Marines – indeed this column was partially inspired by the rarity of having two bad big-studio games back to back.

But although the quality of the majority of games has increased overall, to the point where unfun games have become a thankfully hunted breed, the top notes haven’t changed at all. In any given year there are still as many stellar titles, games that thrill you, demand repeat plays, stay in your head for months afterwards, as there were in the 70s and 80s.

Those are the games you want to pick out. Ideally as soon as they come out. But to get the proper perspective on their quality takes long hindsight, by which time you may have wasted your money on those horrible, bland, average sevens that have been pushing the baseline up and making themselves look better than they really are.

This is my fault. And I’m sorry.

Not mine alone, of course, but I must shoulder the blame. Along with every other critic who forgot that seven isn’t really the average out of ten. Along with every other reviewer who neglected to realise that good is the new average. Along with all the other journalists who needlessly pushed up a game’s score just for the sake of consistency.

The solution is relatively simple. If I have to rate games I like a five point scale the best. It gives you the chance to differentiate the good from the average, and make sure your readers properly understand what you thought about a game in case you botched your review a little and failed to make that subtle distinction.

When I first started using social media book-tracking site Goodreads, I was therefore pleased to see it used a five-point scale. But I was momentarily puzzled by the names. Three, the middle point, was “liked it” which seems distinctly above average. Two, which looks below par, is “it was ok”. Confusing, until you remember that books are like games. Generally only decent books make it through the publishing process. Really bad books are rare. Therefore, the media is actually good..

So from now on when I rate games, that’s the scale I’m going to use. I’ll just double it or quintuple it for higher ceilings. May I humbly suggest you try and do the same. Good is the new average. Long may it remain so.

Cracked LCD- GOTY 2012 Expansions in Review


3-21-2013 9-52-59 AM

Among last year’s best games were Arcane Wonder’s first release Mage Wars, a complex CCG-on-a-board dueling game and Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing, the best miniatures game I’ve ever played. Naturally, great games that sell well (and some terrible games that sell well) tend to be the start of product lines, particularly when the titles in question have modular or customizable elements and “open” architecture. And so it has come to pass that both of these outstanding titles have received their first expansions, effectively giving us a first taste of how these games might open up and create new play spaces and options for those willing and able to stick beyond the core set.

Mage Wars has already had a couple of smart add-on purchases like a couple of “Core Tome” sets that give you the option to add more cards from the base game to your set and a package that gives you enough action markers in two new colors to table three or four players. But Forcemaster Vs. Warlord is the first actual content expansion, and it’s going for about $30 online. The set adds two new mages to the existing four, and provides a wealth of new spells, creatures, and equipment to use either with the included deck lists or custom spellbooks of your own creation. Two more of the fun vinyl spellbook binders are included, and it’s greatly appreciated since assembling them for play is one of the more labor-intensive parts of the game.

This is a fine expansion in particular because it further develops the Mind and War schools of magic as presented in the Core Set- and that means that these mages tend to play very differently than the four original characters. In Magic: The Gathering terms, the Forcemaster is a “blue” deck with lots of deflection, control, resistance, and trickery- not to mention the ability to pretty much jerk the other player’s creatures around the board at will. The Warlord is definitely a “red” deck focused on martial strength by way of lots of goblin soldiers, siege engines, and military outposts that can spawn units deep in the field. I’ve been playing mostly with the recommended spellbook lists and really enjoying both of these characters. Together, they make for an interesting match-up since the Forcemaster is almost alone on the battlefield all the time and the Warlord has tons of creatures and effects that benefit them.

If there’s a downside, it’s that this is already a pretty complicated, multi-faceted game with lots of information for a player to digest- particularly since it’s a game where you play with your entire deck open and there are tons of status effects, special abilities, combinations, and other intricacies. And this set gives you about half again what the Core offers, so if you’ve not fully digested what’s in that box then the expansion might be a bit too much. At least until later on, when you’ve got a better handle on the game and the wide variety of options that spellbook construction affords. Alternately, if you’re a red or blue Magic player then you might want to just start learning the game with one of these characters.

X-Wing’s new expansions, on the other hand, feel indispensible right out of the dock if only because they bring to the table more iconic ships to fuel your Star Wars (OT only, thank you) fantasies. If you’re playing this game or even remotely invested in it, I don’t see how you could not want the YT-1300 Millennium Falcon, the Firespray-class Slave-1, and a flight or two of TIE Interceptors and A-Wings. Each ship comes with a couple of new pilots and a small pile of upgrade cards but the sting of expensiveness is still felt. The new large ships are $30 a piece (but they look fantastic) and the fighters continue to retail at $15 each. Only the obsessives will likely want to field more than one of the big ships, but of course the sky is the limit with the small ships. I’m happy with three of each to allow for a player to take either a lead and a wingman or a lead and two wingmen.

A few new concepts are introduced among the new ships, chief among them is a new “Boost” action that gives the A-Wings and TIE Interceptors a surprising increase in agility by simply allowing the player to add a 1-straight or 1-bank to their move. The Firespray can load seismic charges or proximity mines and the YT-1300 has a killer 360 degree firing arc with its main guns. Needless to say, Boba Fett and Han Solo are among the featured pilot cards as are Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca. A new upgrade card allows ships to be “titled”, so that YT-1300 can be dubbed the Falcon for the sake of your scenario.

There’s a pair of much-needed scenarios included between the big ship packages. I’m really fond of the Bounty Hunter mission where the Firespray and an Imperial escort are in pursuit of a couple of Rebel ships- one of which is marked with a bounty. The Rebels- all under stress tokens- have to turn to fight and the Bounty Hunters win if they destroy the ship with the bounty token. It’s a fun, fast scenario with a touch of narrative. It’s also a natural fit for a Solo versus Fett showdown. It’s worth mentioning that with a Piloting skill of 9, Han almost always shoots first. This is Star Wars done right, as you remember it and as you love it.

Naturally, there will be more of both of these games coming in 2013 and beyond. I’d like to see both games expand laterally rather than vertically in the future. It’s great to have more units to play with, but I’d like to see other concepts developed to make these games more comprehensive and rich. I want to see Mage Wars develop terrain effects and maybe different arenas with unique layouts or effects. I’d like to see neutral creatures or other elements that create a larger sense of a game world. For X-Wing, it seems that a B-Wing and TIE Bomber are inevitable and very much wanted, but beyond that the core Star Wars ships in this scale class are few. Scenarios, campaigns, and card-based expansions would be greatly appreciated. And please, for Vader’s sake, can we get an official X-Wing playing mat with a Death Star surface on one side and a star field on the other?