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Cracked LCD- Mice & Mystics in Review


I’m not particular impressed by any aspect of the rules or mechanics that govern Jerry Hawthorne’s Mice & Mystics, a game that has proven over the past couple of months to be quite a blockbuster in terms of sales for Plaid Hat Games. Strip away the unique setting inspired by Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels, The Secret of NIMH and the comic books Mouse Guard and Mice Templar and what we’re left with is a fairly pedestrian light RPG adventure game descended from HeroQuest. It’s simplistic and like the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure System titles, it’s geared toward accessibility and loose rules in order to make for an easy and quick-playing dungeoncrawl that doesn’t get bogged down in tactical detail. There are few unique mechanics beyond the typical move-and-strike fare, I actively dislike one of the key systems and others like a card-based initiative system aren’t interesting. There’s also the usual raft of +1 swords and other typical fantasy equipment and events, although everything is mouse-sized and whimsically rustic.

So it’s a good thing that games are more than the sums of their rules, otherwise Mice & Mystics wouldn’t have much to offer in comparison to games like the D&D titles, Claustrophobia or Descent. This is not a game about the rules. This is a game about the story, and to that end this is one of the best-written and framed adventure games I’ve ever played.

During the first few turns of my first game, I was really disappointed in it. After being very excited to see that Plaid Hat was doing a fantasy game with mice and cats instead of dwarves and orcs and then months of hype and praise, I felt let down and bored despite the great illustrations and excellent production values. The scenario book seemed cool and far more detailed than most, but the first chapter- a more appropriate nomenclature than scenario- just didn’t seem interesting. But this game had something better than a cool set-up. It had a Moment.

The party of mice wound up in a sewer, with a rushing current dragging us all away. We had to try to reach the edge to pull ourselves out, which in game terms meant rolling a star on one of the custom dice. One mouse, Maginos the mage, didn’t make it. But once Prince Collin got his footing, he was able to add a die to the next mouse’s attempt. With Nez and Collin safe, they both reached out to pull in Tilda, who got to roll three dice.

This moment was such a perfect union of simple gameplay mechanics and storytelling that I found it almost touching that it really kind cements the notion of the adventuring party, friendship, and cooperation in a way that few games do. It wasn’t just a “all players must meet X target number” kind of thing, it was a life or death (well, capture- you don’t die in this game) situation and the mice have to help each other. It was vivid, felt very real, and since it occurs so early in the 11-chapter story that compromises the “Sorrow and Rembrance” scenario book it cements the characters’ relationship in a subtle, unique way.

I’ve never spoken of a game like the D&D Adventure System games or HeroQuest in quite that way before, particularly in regard to the characters. I think that’s quite significant. There is a far, far greater sense of continuity and actual character development between the chapters than in almost any other game of this type I’ve played, and it doesn’t require anything like the complex contrivances of Descent’s campaign system to work. It’s not even really appropriate, I think, to call the suite of scenarios a campaign- it is most definitely a story, and it is a story that players tell.

Maybe you didn’t help Miss Maggie early on, so in a later chapter you might have a slightly different situation occur in the kitchen. If you didn’t find the rat disguises, you might not get to trick a group of gambling rats into playing a dice game with you rather than fighting. Some characters, equipment, and abilities aren’t available until events in the story occur- one character can’t be played until you free her from a mousetrap in a particularly exciting scene where she’s immobile, desperately shooting her bow at adversaries until the other mice can rescue her. But my favorite scene is still racing across a courtyard to a tree while being attacked by rats and a rather indiscriminate crow that delights in picking off friend and foe alike- all while the cheese wheel timer had just two slots left before the game ended in defeat. Thrilling.

After playing through half the Sorrow and Remembrance storyline, I was surprised at how the mice felt like fully realized characters- not just an array of stats on a card and a display of accrued ability and equipment cards. I think this is an impressive stride in terms of delivering a board game that is a true narrative experience. You really want to play through the chapters in order and with the same group if you can. Played out of order, some of the branching and variations aren’t as meaningful. The demand for sequentially experiencing the story as written, along with the relative simplicity of the game, makes this an ideal game for families look for something to play with children.

Returning to the ho-hum mechanics, they definitely work even if they’re workmanlike and not particularly impressive. My chief complaint is this whole “cheese system” keyed to die rolls that affect the timing of the game and respawning bad guys. It’s also the function by which players get new skill cards. It doesn’t feel quite right at times, but it’s definitely not worth hemming and hawing about when the concept and execution of the game’s themes are so well defined. There are a lot of gray areas and vagaries in the rules which may irk some, but if you’re playing this game that seriously and with that much attention to the rules- you may be doing it wrong. If you’re not engaging with the story, reading the event text from each chapter, and thinking more about what the game is representing than how then this may not be a game for you.

But for a lot of folks, it seems to be working with sell-out print runs and promo cards escalating in aftermarket value. It’s important to note that Mice & Mystics is going to be supported by expansions and new storybooks that continue the tale. Not to say that what you get in the box isn’t replayable because it definitely is, but because of the way the story is integrated you’re going to want to see more of it not for new mechanics and adversaries, but to see where the game goes in terms of scenario and character development.

All it took was a single moment for me to see why Mice & Mystics is something really quite special and unique in its genre. It’s not the most mechanically compelling game of its type, but it’s by far the most charming and interesting to play through. It’s another feather in the Plaid Hat cap, and it will likely cement them as one of the top publishers of genre games in 2013.



Cracked LCD- City of Remnants in Review


The new Plaid Hat Games title is City of Remnants, designed by Colby Dauch (Summoner Wars) and Isaac Vega (the upcoming Bioshock Infinite board game). I’ll cut right to it, this game is bad ass. Especially if you’re looking for a game that somehow magically combines a plot development/harvesting mechanic with a light dudes-on-a-map conflict game featuring massive die rolls and plenty of battle incentives across tight quarters. Call it Aggro-cola if you must, but this is an easier and far bloodier design. Oh, and to top off this delightful layer cake of a design, there’s also simple deckbuilding element with multi-function cards that have different values for each player. There are a couple of unclear rules mostly owing more to its dynamism than a substandard rulebook, but on balance City of Remnants is poised to be one of the top games of the year.

There’s a bit of necessary fiction to prop up the concept of rival gangs vying for economic and territorial control of what is essentially a city turned into a prison camp for survivors of an alien invasion. It doesn’t get in the way, but it does feel a touch forced when a more sensible them would have been a contemporary organized crime narrative. Get past it, and the idea is that you start your nascent gang with a seed deck of a few faction-specific cards that sort of define your crew’s specializations. Each round, you get four actions to conduct your gangly business. You might recruit a new gang member via auction into your deck because you want his card’s special ability or he may have a high combat value for your side. Or you may just need to get another of your figures on the board. You can also buy black market equipment, some of which are permanent effects and some of which go into your deck. If you’re already in position on the board, you can buy building tiles that provide special functions and/or produce goods that can be sold for profit. Money is measured in ARCs, victory in renown cumulatively earned each turn for your possessions and through other gameplay functions.

Development isn’t just a matter of material holdings or building a tough deck that gives you an advantage in the auctions, discounts for buying buildings, or raw combat power. Influence is an important factor in the game, serving as a limiter for functions such as hand size, how many units you can move, and how many goods you can sell. Increasing influence is achieved through a neat achievement-like system. Roll 18 dice in combat, pay 12,000 ARCs, and so on. It’s a great short-term goal system, and I particularly appreciate the subtle influence of modern video gaming “unlocks” on the design idea.

The combat mechanic is a combination of a dice pool mechanic and cardplay. Players tally up how many units are in a contested space (stack limit of two, mind) and in adjacent spaces. Cards can be played for their combat value, and the sum of it all is the number of battle dice thrown. Whoever gets the most hits wins, and the loser not only has to remove a figure from the spot but they also have to remove from one of the cards they played in the fight from the game. It’s simple, brutal, and the cardplay makes for some compelling decisions- especially since there is no built-in reshuffle/redraw during the turn, and players have to use one of their four actions in a round to do so. Pick your battles, or you may wind up without cards to play.

The close quarters paired up with per-turn renown point income help to ensure that players play aggressively, fighting for control of valuable development tiles and the prime real estate in the center of the board. If players decide to unadvisedly turtle up, there is an end-of-round incursion by the Yugai Control Units- the cops. Coordinate cards are drawn, chits are drawn from a bag, and the alien police crack down. Even the most dug-in player might have to fight battles in inconvenient locations. Beating a Yugai chit results a die roll which can net the player rewards but can also spawn more Yugai. The aliens are also corrupt bastards. You can choose to pay an ARC cost to get them to take a hike.

City of Remnants is a surprising design because there is a lot going on it, yet the rules set is fairly simple and easy to share with others. It’s one of those games that has just enough of everything, and doesn’t go overboard on anything. The length is right (90-120 minutes with four, and you should play it with four), the procedural density and overhead are right on the mark. In more than just one or two ways, the game puts me very much in mind of Nexus Ops, but skewing more toward a modern hybrid concept with some distinctly Eurogame ideas regarding development, resources, and long-term goals.

It’s a total package. Smart, well-considered and editorial design ideas paired up with a subtly complex combination of classical and innovative mechanics. The ass-kicking, dice-rolling genre fare works surprisingly well with the more austere Euro elements. It’s not quite the orchestral, elaborate balance that Chaos in the Old World was as this feels like more of a plebian game tuned for simple thrills, high interaction, and easily satisfying strategy. The product is on the right end of the scale with nice graphics and a distinct sense of character that drives home the sci-fi concept.

Between the smash successes of Summoner Wars and Mice & Mystics – not to mention the potential of the upcoming Bioshock game- this is a company that’s doing some outstanding in-house design. Plaid Hat is clearly engaging the development of a brand and style. Mr. Dauch and company continue to impress me with their products and I think City of Remnants fits right in line with their oeuvre. Fans will be pleased, and newcomers might be surprised at this game’s unique feel.


Playdek on sale this weekend

Playdek interview part one playdek logo

You’ve probably noticed that we here at NoHighScores are big fans of PlayDek’s card and board game to iOS conversions. Well, if you’ve yet to purchase some of their smooth, usable and generally excellent games or are short of a few in-app purchases keep an eye on the app store this weekend when everything PlayDek will be priced at 69p ($0.99 in barbarous foreign currencies). Summoner Wars is particularly good if you’ve yet to take it for a spin, with deck-builders Ascension and Penny Arcade following close behind.

Thrower’s Tally: Board & iOS Games of 2012

It’s the time of year for lists. Lists of things from the year that’s about to end. Most especially of things that you’ve found to be of surpassing excellence. I am no dissenter, no maverick, not strong enough to resist the pull of seasonal traditions. So here is mine.

Thanks to my slot at Gamezebo I feel, for the first time ever, qualified to make not one list but two. Both in the same article, o lucky reader! First there will be my favourite iOS games of the year, and then my favoured board games. With so much to write there is no longer time for seasonal waffle and chit-chat. On with the picks.

5. Blood of the Zombies

The Fighting Fantasy franchise was something I remember fondly from my childhood 25 years ago, so it’s astonishing that author Ian Livingstone and studio Tin Man Games have managed to ensure it remains relevant and thrilling today. It turns out that Blood of the Zombies makes a superb candidate for the app treatment, having a stripped down combat system and more inherent challenge and replay value than the bulk of the series. And Tin Man didn’t disappoint with their implementation. It’s all spelled out in detail in my Gamezbo review plus more. I’ve enjoyed previous iOS gamebooks but this is the first that was truly special, and made me excited about more Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery adaptations coming next year.

4. Punch Quest

Endless runner games are, in my opinion, a showcase for everything that’s wrong with mobile gaming. Shallow and repetitive, they offer little but the pavlovian rewards obtained from completing arbitrary goals and leaderboard positions. It is therefore a bit of a shock that Punch Quest turned out to be so brilliant. What makes it so is simply depth: there is tremendous variability and enormous skill in this. With a cavalcade of different enemies, items, terrain, bosses and branching paths and the ability to buy and recombine power ups to suit your play style, I’ll quite possibly be running this one endlessly.

3. Summoner Wars

Playdek rarely disappoint in terms of their apps, but I still think this game redefined the bar for board adaptations to mobile. The underlying game is a superb candidate for the treatment in any case being short and having perfectly encapsulated player turns to reduce to-ing and fro-ing. But the app built over it is flawless, looking good, playing smoothly, offering all the functionality you could possibly want. We might have had to wait post-release to actually get a copy but boy, was it ever worth it.

2. Battle of the Bulge

I’ve really said everything I can about this in my Gamezebo review, so go read that. I will add that what makes it better than Summoner Wars is just that Shenandoah Studios didn’t adapt a board game to iOS: they took board game mechanics and created something amazing that actually worked better on a tablet than it would in real life. Can you imagine fiddling with all those ever-changing VP combinations and goals in a real-life game? No, and that’s just the thin end of the wedge in terms of how this app does all the heavy lifting, leaving the gamers totally absorbed in the experience.

The awesome battle academy from Slithering software - a massive, meaty game on a mobile device

1. Battle Academy.

I reviewed this one too, on F:AT. There was never going to be another choice for number one slot: I’ve played this game regularly, as in several times a week, since it was released in late spring. No other game on any platform has managed that feat. It might be expensive, but it’s so, so worth it.

What’s the overarching theme here? Strategy. The strategy genre might be (XCOM excepted) pretty much a dead duck on other platforms but its undergoing a massive renaissance on mobile. That’s not surprising: touch screen interfaces are actually pretty clumsy for most twitch games but they’re perfectly suited to strategy. I suspect there’s going to be some more stellar work in this area in 2013 from the studios behind my top three picks, plus Games Workshop finally entering the mobile market with Space Hulk and Warhammer Quest. Going to be an exciting year.

So, on to the board game picks.

5. Lords of Waterdeep

I’ll probably get some stick for this, but I don’t care. It’s not the cleverest, most innovative game on the block but it made a sterling demonstration of how building on previous designs in a genre, looking at what words and what doesn’t then skimming the cream off the top and recombining it into a single game can create a brilliant thing. Balancing accessibility and fun with some solid strategy, and bringing dreadfully needed interaction into the staid, dull worker placement mechanic, it’s easily the best European-style game I played this year. More details in my review.

4. Android: Netrunner

This earned its slot on the strength of its emergent theme. When you’ve got games like City of Horror that can stick some zombie pictures on top of a generic negotiation mechanic and calling it a theme, Netrunner offers a primal lesson in communicating a sense of place and being through mechanics alone. Playing this you’re no longer a gamer, but for 60 minutes are transfigured into a global corporation or sly hacker. The other stuff, the clever intermarriage of strategy and bluff, the customisation and deckbuilding, is just gravy as discussed in my full review.

Star Wars X-wing miniatures game in action

3. X-Wing

And from one game with wonderful emergent theme to another. It’s much more of an ephemeral thing here, but it’s odd how this game simply *feels* just as it should. Pitch perfect in terms of weight, production, theme and ship handling. Opponents have remarked how they suddenly find themselves humming the Star Wars theme or imagining green and red laser bursts as they play. Personally, every time those little plastic ships come out I’m a child again, even if only for a moment. The game might be a money pit, but how do you put a value on that? If you like, you can put a value on my review instead.

2. Merchant of Venus

I’m still kind of reeling from the fact that thirty years ago someone managed to design an interesting pick up and deliver game and yet virtually everything that followed in its wake was dull as arse. Thus, old as it was, this game came as something of a revelation and a breath of fresh air. That’s why I’ve enjoyed it so much. That and the wonderful manner in which it offers a variable setup that ensures both rich narrative and keeps repeat strategies at bay. Every game re-engages both your logical centers and your imagination anew. Amazingly, here is my review.

Wiz-War Eighth Edition by Fantasy Flight Games game in progress with wizard figures

1. Wiz-War

Remember this, from back close to the turn of last year? I do. It’s so easy to forget early release games when compiling these yearly lists but this has stayed with me, popping out again and again with different groups and in different places, the only game I’ve probably collected a physical dime of plays this year. And every time it’s been ridiculous fun. Hilarious, enthralling, varied, entertaining. Every single time. It’s ticks all the boxes I could want for a short, light game, even offering just enough strategy in the card and position combinations s to keep your brain engaged. An absolute joy: itching to see an expansion. You will be unsurprised by now if I link to my full review of the base game.

The overview on the board game front is a little more troubling. Three out of the top five are reprints. They’re nicely modernised with streamlined rules and high production values, but they’re still reprints. So while it’s great that Fantasy Flight are getting their act together as regards their updating of classic games, and its great to see old material back in the limelight, it’s a bit alarming that so many of the best games I’ve played this year have been reprints rather than fresh designs.

I’ve never been one much for the hype machine. But what I’d like to see in 2013 is some more quality new designs. A deep, interactive deck-builder would be a nice start, something that really makes good on the achingly unfulfilled promise of that genre. In terms of actual titles, the only ones I’ve got earmarked at the moment are story-telling game Story Realms which looks fresh and interesting, Bowen Simmons’ long awaited Guns of Gettysburg, the world war 2 tactical block game Courage from Columbia and the multi-player card driven game Cuba Libre from the designer of Labyrinth. Seeing as it’s felt like a relatively lean year for wargames this year, that’s a nice slice of history for the near future.

Cracked LCD- Mage Wars in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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