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Cracked LCD: Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men in Review


dice masters

Wizkids’ new Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers versus X-men is a sensation. The starter sets are sold out everywhere because demand simply outstripped supply. There is already a healthy aftermarket with players and collectors shelling out $40 or more for “super rare” cards. Tournaments and organized play supported by Wizkids are waiting in the wings and the buzz over the game is overwhelmingly positive. It looks like it’s primed to be one of the most significant hobby game releases of 2014. Building on their design work with Quarriors and the Lord of the Rings “dicebuilding” game, Mike Elliot and Eric Lang have produced a hybrid that exists somewhere at the crossroads of those games, Dominion and Magic: the Gathering. All coated with a billion dollar Marvel Comics paint job.

Up front, the game is good. It’s a solid design that makes Quarriors look like it was the underdeveloped Kickstarter version of the idea Mr. Elliot and Mr. Lang had in mind. Conceptually it’s very similar but it’s a head-to-head game with players attacking each other to reduce life points rather than trying to score creature dice. Instead of players purchasing dice from a mutual tableaux with which to fill their dice bags, they bring their own cards and dice depicting Marvel heroes and villains to the table that form their roster along with two basic action cards that either player may buy. Each card may have three to five dice on it, and part of the construction process is determining how many of the 20 total dice allowed you want to put on each of your cards.

Each card has a different cost and special abilities that correspond to its dice. Starting with a pool of eight “sidekick” dice that provide either one of four resource types or a weak (but free) 1/1 unit. The idea is to use the resources those generate to buy the more powerful character dice. As those get cycled into the dice bag, they may produce resources themselves or be “fielded” if you roll their character icon face to attack or block the other player. Combat is very Magic influenced- a simple comparison of attack and defense numbers between dice, KO’d dice are shifted to a “roll again on your next turn” status. If your attacking dice aren’t blocked and do damage to the other player, they are moved to a used pile and must wait to cycle back into the bag. Of course, there are plenty of abilities that break the rules, provide benefits and alter process.

Strategically, there is actually quite a lot to consider and this complexity extends well beyond rather to bring Spider-Man or Deadpool to combat Magneto and the Green Goblin. After you roll, you have to choose which if any dice you want to roll again for keeps. You might want to field all the sidekicks you rolled to have some blockers or to ding your opponent if he doesn’t have anything to stop you. Or you may want to chance a re-roll to try to get resources to buy more expensive dice. A character die might have given you two resources, but you might really want to roll again to get a character face and take advantage of a “when fielded” result or try again for a special “boost” action if you get the side with an asterisk. And keeping resources while your opponent acts might be necessary to activate certain abilities or to use a global effect if there is one present in the card tableaux.

The global effects are one of the areas where the rough edges of the design start to show, and they feel like an unnecessary complication to what should be a very simple, quick-playing game. Some cards have these, and they are abilities that either player can pay for to use. So I might have a card that lets you pay two resources to do one damage to a die. The cards you bring can actually be a minor liability. The problem is that if you’ve got 20 cards on the table between two players and there are ten global abilities, it can be tricky to keep track of them. It’s just something else to keep track of. There is no hidden information in this game, so it also tends to result in a bit of analysis paralysis when players are bogged down in “if I do this, and then you do that…” dickering.

The lack of hidden information is also something of a problem because there never really is any kind of surprise in the game. There’s no sudden game-changing counter or a scramble to adjust a strategy due to an unexpected challenge. It’s all very transparent, and it never really seems very exciting to roll an extra resource or to realize that you can afford one of your 6-cost characters. Everything is right up front, apart from what dice you draw on a turn.

The pacing seems to follow a particular curve, at least in the games I’ve played. There tends to be a buildup period, where players are either focusing on getting inexpensive characters into their pools or buying basic actions to increase their production potential while also planning on leveraging those cards’ abilities. By the third turn, character dice are likely to be in the game after the initial eight die seed is recycled into the bag. Between that third turn and what I would consider to be the endgame stage, it feels like one player almost always starts to drop off while scrambling to get units to the field to stem the flow of blood, so to speak.

It’s early in the game’s lifespan and it’s hard to really say that this is how it will always be despite increasing skill levels, team builds and the overall volatility of a collectible game but so far I’ve been disappointed that steamroller victories have been so common. At higher levels of play, once players become more acclimated to its intricacies and better teambuilding emerges, this may prove to be just a growing pain.

For now, I have some chin-scratching issues with the design, no doubt. But there are also some really smart design choices that keep the flow of the game compelling, provided you’re not on the ropes for over half of the 20-25 minutes it takes to play a match.. I love how the concept of “culling” dice has been replaced by simply forcing a player to put a dice that has “scored” (i.e. caused direct damage to a player) into the used pile. So you can’t sit there battering your opponent with Hulk every turn while he struggles to mount a defense with weaker characters. I like that dice that are KO’d in combat or due to effects are put into a status where they are re-rolled on your next turn along with your standard four die pull from the bag. This gives you an incentive to actually use your dice and be aggressive, and it also allows you to adjust your strategy to get defenders back into the mix for more resources. You have to get these rerolls if you’re ever going to put your heavy hitters like Colossus into play.

I’m giving MDMAVX the nod for now because I do really like the game, but more than the design I really like the product. I think Wizkids made a very ballsy move by packaging this game as a very much not-in-vogue collectible game, but even moreso for pricing it on par with the App Store. Boosters are less than a dollar a piece, and if you buy a “gravity feed” display box they’re like 70 cents apiece. Each pack contains two cards (with four degrees of rarity) and two dice that match those characters. The starter, which is actually quite generous and contains some very useful cards, is only $15- if you can find one anywhere selling it for retail. Sure, you might wind up spending $300 trying to get the complete set of Green Goblin, Mr. Fantastic, Wolverine and Black Widow super rares, but the whales don’t matter here. What matters is that a kid can walk into Target and spend less than a dollar to buy a hobby game product.

And there is huge mainstream appeal here, despite the surprising complexity of the game. Beyond fussing over dice in various states and complicated timing issues, the Avengers and the X-Men are household names and they are headlining a cool-looking game (with better illustrations than Legendary, by the way). The dice are really neat- the icons are immediately identifiable and the color schemes match up with the characters. It’s a fun product from opening the inexpensive booster packs to putting together a team of favorite characters to figuring out how to put down your buddies. I think this could really catch on with kids, at least once the gamers and speculators have gotten done picking over everything.

Trains and Stations Review


I’ve always loved interaction in games. I’d bet that most gamers do, really, it’s just that those who’ve chosen to embrace the bloodless, over-balanced mechanical model that runs screaming as far from zero-sum games as it possibly can think that logic is more important than interaction. But there is, thankfully, an alternative. Instead of having players taking chunks out of each other, you can instead encourage them to co-operate for mutual gain.

My suspicion is that this what Trains and Stations sets out to do for the light family gaming crowd. Clearly influenced by age-old classic Poker Dice, the game sees you roll a handful of beautifully marbled custom dice, picking what they want to keep and rolling the others again. Except that, in a nod to modern sensibilities of choice and strategy you can actually keep certain dice from turn to turn if you find you didn’t roll the combination you were looking for and you have to pay for each re-roll.

The aim is to build mines, ranches and the like across an abstract map of America, and to fill in the interconnecting routes with trains. To build a building you need three matching dice of the same type. Train dice can be used alone: you take all your train results and place the dice on the map in the spaces between the cities. The final dice face is more coins that you can spend on re-rolls.

But here’s the kicker: each player is supposed to roll five dice from a pool of eight. But as train results come up and the dice go on the map, the pool shrinks until you have less than five and can’t roll them all. To reclaim your dice from the board requires the route to be completed and scored, whereupon all of the dice in the scored route go back to their owners, who get some points.

But all the routes are at least three spaces long, making even the smallest ones tough to score on your own without impacting your dice pool. Ideally, you’ll need help from other interested parties. This is the carrot the game hangs before you as a nudge to co-operate with one another and, of course, as soon as your start favouring some parties over others with your deals, you get all the fun of interaction in an otherwise tame game.

As further incentive each player has certain route cards which score bonus points for connecting more distant cities. It doesn’t matter who actually completes the route, as long as the connection is made the person with the card scores the points. Which can lead to some delightfully mean moments where you manipulate third parties into doing your dirty work for you, before beaming like a Cheshire cat and flipping your bonus card.


At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. And sometimes that’s how it does work. The problem with games of this nature, where the need to get down and dirty with the other players is implied rather than being spelled out mechanically, is that some players get it and some don’t. The poster child for this style, Cosmic Encounter, goes to considerable lengths to push players toward negotiating with one another, to the point of have specific roles and rewards in every combat for attacker, defender and allies of each. But even then I’ve played it with numerous groups of gamers who failed to spark even that lengthy touchpaper, because either all the players pitch in or it doesn’t work. A single refusenik can derail the whole game.

Trains and Stations doesn’t go to such lengths, instead gently nudging the player with possibilities and a typical rules paragraph about negotiation which spells out, rather forlornly, that deals don’t have to be binding. It’s pathetic that some gamers need reminding, but they clearly do. And without clear guidance from the mechanics, more players won’t quite grasp the delicate intricacies of dealmaking that go into the game, and more sessions fall flat.

That might be okay if the game was mechanically tight, if there was lots of excitement of strategy to fall back on if the hive mind around the board fails to gel, but there isn’t. Rolling the dice is fun, but the excitement is tempered in one direction by the ever-present specter of choice about re-rolls and keeping dice between turns, and in the other by the hellish ghost of punishment should you be unlucky enough to roll three locked trains, resulting in both a victory point penalty and no further re-rolls. It seems unnecessarily severe.

Yet there’s still too much randomness in the game to satisfy those looking for a properly strategic experience. Then there’s the fact the rules around the buildings and the resources they generate seem overly complex. Get triples to build a building on a city, grab a matching resource for each route that passes through. But then halfway through the game the resources each building makes change, with what generating which depending on the order that old ones run out, and you can then trade in old cards for new if you want. It’s not really hard to understand, but it’s a lot of work for what amount to a few paltry bonus points for having a majority in a particular resource. Sometimes they can determine a winner, and those times are exciting. But mostly they’re just extra overhead.

Set against this is the fact that the game as a whole is quite easy to learn and play, not to mention quick. The hour play time listed on the box seems pretty accurate once you’ve got a sense of how it all flows. And it’s got some inventive concepts in it too. But while you can forgive a game a lot of flaws if it’s fast and fun, that’s rapidly becoming a crowded niche, and I don’t think Trains and Stations does enough to stand out from the crowd.

It’s not so much that it’s a bad game as one with a very limited audience. Ideally, I guess, you’d want a family group who game regularly and aren’t afraid to get stuck in to quick and dirty dealmaking. My Mum, it just so happens, fits that profile very well and she really enjoyed the game. If that sounds like it could be you, it’s probably worth your time to check this out. If not, you should probably go back to King of Tokyo.

Cracked LCD- Batman: The Gotham City Strategy Game in Review


Regardless of the quality of the gameplay and design, Wizkids’ new Batman: The Gotham City Strategy game fails to meet expectations on a fundamental level. As the first-ever serious attempt at a Batman-themed hobby title and as an example of the typically problematic superhero theme, expectations were high- especially from this lifelong Batman fanatic. When I opened the box and saw that the illustrations were the exact same ones that you see on coloring books, party favors, or lunchboxes at the dollar store and not anything based on the actual comics, my heart sank. Looking past the high quality Heroclix figures of Batman, Joker, Penguin, Killer Croc and Two Face, I was profoundly disappointed to see a card titled “Harley Quinn” that had…a picture of Joker on it- the same picture that is on all of his upgrade cards. I mean, seriously. Couldn’t they get somebody to draw a picture of a laughing gas canister?

One of the results of the cheap, repetitive party favor artwork used in lieu of authentic comic book penciling is that the game falls well short of being the tabletop analog to the licensing grand slams that were Rocksteady’s Batman video games. Unlike those brilliant games, which dug deep into the Batman canon and presented a mature, fan friendly but mainstream-accessible version of the classic characters and setting, the Batman board game feels like a very, very high level take on it with almost no connection to any bona fide comics material. This is Batman as a bland, corporate mascot concept with the only buy-in being the notion of classic Batman villains committing crimes in Gotham City while Batman runs around thwarting their madcap schemes. Further, the game acts like the Christopher Nolan films never happened, and I think that is a mistake if it’s gunning for a wider audience.

I’m hitting the artwork and production design hard because this is a comic book game and simply having bad drawings of characters drawn much better elsewhere and slapping a comics lettering font on the components doesn’t hack it when you’re trying to make a convincing attempt at putting superheroes in a tabletop game. This is a ground floor, foundational failure and it’s especially disappointing that Wizkids, with their long and successful history of licensing comic book characters, couldn’t do better with visually presenting the property.

With that bit of ugliness out of the way, the nuts and bolts of the game are actually pretty decent. It’s a light, very easy to play hybrid that melds area control Eurogame mechanics with a distinct “dudes on a map” feel, paired up with some fun PVP and a mutually controlled Batman that acts as a spoiler. That’s right, there’s no arguing about who gets to be Batman. Everybody gets to be Batman. Smart move.

I’m especially pleased that designer Paolo Mori made another smart move and eschewed the usual superhero game pattern established by Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd (1982) and carried on through Marvel Heroes and others. Instead of having villains commit crimes on a city map and tasking the players with resolving them, this game puts the players in control of the villains. I like this idea, especially for a Batman game since his rogues’ gallery is the best in the business, bar none. I’m not quite sure why Mr. Mori (or the Wizkids suits) would pick Killer Croc over Catwoman, who doesn’t bother to show up at all. But neither do Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, or any of the other members of the Bat-family.

The idea is that the players use their villain’s figure and a small handful of way-out-of-scale henchmen figures and some “threat” markers to control areas of Gotham City. Each turn, a player plays an action card that provides one of two different income types (money and information) to whoever controls a specific part of town. Control is based on whoever has the most henchmen and threats or whoever has their figure there. The second part of the card is an action which may feature prerequisites such as controlling a pair of areas or a certain number of pieces in one.

The kicker is that some cards also have the Bat signal which heralds a mandatory action by the Caped Crusader, which means that the players have some control over when Batman decides to make the rounds. It’s not total control, because he may decide to pop up in one of your own areas to fight your villain figure or clean out the threat tokens present. Batman has his own click base and can level up over the course of the game, increasing his crime-fighting capabilities. He’s a real threat to the bad guys, and I think the game really captures the idea of Batman watching over the city, striking out of nowhere, and returning to the Batcave.

The villains also level up, and that is the ultimate goal of the game. Each villain’s click dial has a series of goals that include things like controlling a number of areas or having a specified amount of money. When the villain upgrades, he may unlock a special ability card thematically tied to the villain like Penguin’s trick umbrellas or Two-Face’s coin. The goal of the game is for a player to level their villain all the way up the dial to level ten, giving the game an interesting development curve and sense of escalation.

I like how it all works together, in general. The dice combat is fun. The resource management is a little convoluted but working out when to spend your information to move in on a territory and invade it or save it for an upgrade make for some simple but significant decisions. The upgrades increase the thematic feel as the villains become more detailed, and the presence- not just the activity- of Batman feels right.

This is a game with just a couple of pages of rules, which usually means two things. One is that the game is very easy to learn and approachable. The other is that there are invariably rules clarifications, uncertainties, and vagaries. I haven’t seen anything particularly egregious, but there have been a few times when I wished the rules were actually a little more thorough. It doesn’t help that there is a touch of sloppiness to the design, with its multi-tiered area control triage and multiple resources.

With four potential players, it’s also troubling that the game doesn’t feel quite right with a full table and not just because it’s 30 minutes a player. It runs long, with players struggling to get into position to hit the upgrade checkpoints against three other players doing the same, knocking each other down at every opportunity. I like the three player game quite a bit more, but the two player game feels like it is missing friction. So it may be best to regard Batman as a three player game, which puts it into a certain niche that may make it a more valuable proposition for some players.

I’m looking at the box sitting next to me and although I like the game, I think it’s fun and it does have a measurable amount of Batman flavor, I can’t help but feel that this is a case where so much potential was squandered. This could have been THE Batman game. It needed to be that ultimate expression, not a good but not great game that doesn’t leave a particular mark other than it’s slightly better than most other superhero titles that we’ve seen over recent years. I don’t think it would be hard for even a casual fan to look over the game and notice missed opportunities or to furrow their brow over the presentation that doesn’t speak to the current interpretations of Batman- or any of the most popular ones over the past 70 years that the character has been around. The inspiration seems not to be in the Batman of Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Timm/Dini, or even Bob Kane. It seems to be coming from the notion of Batman as a party favor mascot rather than as a cultural icon and I think that is terribly unfortunate.

Mage Knight: The Lost Legion Review

Mage Knight Lost Legion figures and box

Mage Knight Goldyx felt old and tired. He’d been to Atlantea several times, with comrades and without, but the effort of preparation, the length of the journey and the interminable waiting around for other Mage Knights once there had dulled his taste for adventure. Now he preferred to spend his days playing his magical game-tablet while toasting his feet before a fire.

One day, there was a knock on the door. Unused to company, and with legs stiff from long hours of inactivity, Goldyx irritably called for the visitor to enter. He was unsurprised to see Wolfhawk, newest of his order and about to set forth on her first Atlantean expedition.

Silently he gestured for her to sit on his magnificent copy of the Mage Knight’s collected law and lore, bound in dragon leather, embossed in gold and wrapped about with intricately wrought bronze clasps. Three feet thick and solid as a rock, he now used it for nothing more than a visitors chair.

She took off her full-face helmet and exhaled a sigh of relief. “Gets hot in there” she complained.

Goldyx nodded. “And yet it seems that the armourers have seen fit to leave all the vital organs in your midriff totally exposed” he observed.

“Yes” replied Wolfhawk, frowning slightly. “They said they had nothing else that fitted. But Tovak always seems to walk out with a full suit.”

Goldyx silently recalled that all the minions in the armourer’s department were men and rolled his eyes. “You’ve come for advice, then?” he rumbled. “It’s been a long time since I went to Atlantea.”

“Yes” replied Wolfhawk. “Things have changed, Goldyx, since you last went. Some new and powerful foe of legend, one General Volkare, has returned and is battling the mage knights.. We’ve explored much in the meantime and found new sites, new monsters, followers and treasure too. Atlantea is a much more varied place than it once was.”

Goldyx made the sort of acidly dismissive noise that only a dragon-kin can. “But” he said, gesturing vaguely toward the colossal book on which Wolfhawk perched uncomfortably, “no doubt our lords and masters have added to the law and lore that govern our conduct to cover these new situations?”

Wolfhawk nodded miserably. “Yes. I had to learn it all by heart before they would let me out of the academy. Chapters were added to deal with Volkare and some of the new allies and monsters. It took weeks.”

He whistled in sympathy. The lore and law was long enough without new material. “Don’t worry” he strove for words of comfort. “I know you, and your training. You move swiftly, and easily. It’s what you do best. There won’t be so much waiting around for you when you get to Atlantea like there was for me. Your time will come soon.”

Mage Knights need no sleep. They sat and talked long into the night, while the fire burned low in the grate and bathed the room in the dull orange of its dying embers. Wolfhawk shifted uncomfortably, partly due to her makeshift chair, and partly because in spite of the old Draconum’s obvious apathy, she itched with desire to get away on her first adventure.

Mage Knight lost legion in play

On a similar evening, about a month later, Goldyx was roused from his game-tablet by a frantic pounding on his cottage door. Alarmed that someone might damage the woodwork he leapt up from his easy chair and flung the portal open.

There stood Wolfhawk. But not the shy, slight woman he remembered from her last visit. This Wolfhawk was at once battered and bruised yet possessed of an extraordinary power and vitality. She almost pushed past her massive host in her impatience to reach his uncomfortable visitors chair. And then sat upon it with the air of someone who’s become used to sitting on cold, hard stone, if at all.

Startled, Goldyx remained standing at his open door as her tale came tumbling forth, almost as if a dam of silence had been finally breached, unable to contain the force of the story behind it. She told of the new troops of the Orc Khans, from gangs of snivelling goblins that could fell you with multiple weak attacks to massive catapults that hit hard but which could be dodged with movement instead of blocked.

She spoke of finding a horrific golem at the bottom of a dungeon, a fearsome foe that was immune to magic attacks, and yet could fling enormous balls of enchanted fire and ice when roused to fury. And if you could not block these and counter attack in turn, it was almost impossible to kill: missiles were next to useless against it.

The old tricks of combat that Goldyx had taught her that night, seemingly so long ago, were nigh-on useless now, it seemed. Everything needed to be more considered, more cunning. There were so many more options to consider before each action, and yet more things had become uncertain, unpredictable. New plans would have to be made, and some of them would have to deal with building yourself back up after ignominious defeat.

She whispered of new troops, skills and buildings. Of how she had clambered across walls and got lost in labyrinths never before seen or charted. Of how she’d learned from an ancient monk, alone in the library of an isolated monastery, a dreadful ritual of blood that would leave her wounded but with new and undreamed of powers. Of powerful familiars that needed a constant supply of mana to survive, and would otherwise collapse into dust.

But mostly she spoke of Volkare. Mighty, mysterious Volkare. Of how his rampages across Atlantea, either in search of cities to conquer and control before the Mage Knights got there, or in search of the very portal the Knights used to get to the continent, made solo or co-operative missions much more interesting, challenging and exciting. She stated flatly that the extra law and lore she’d had to slave over for so many long, dark nights, was a worthwhile tradeoff for reducing the tedious burden of overseeing a fake Mage Knight to help cover your tracks.

Goldyx looked doubtful. But Wolfhawk would not be swayed from her subject. When she mentioned Volkare a baleful light blazed in the wide, shining eyes beneath the helm. He was a dreadful enemy, surrounded by an army of his own, quite capable of levelling a city. Or an experienced Mage Knight. Each time she had challenged him and failed. In spite of her newfound power and hard-won wisdom about this new and wonderful world of Atlantea, she had failed. And the failure burned in her like a canker.

“Goldyx” she said, breathlessly, “I want to beat him. I need to beat him. And to do it, I must have your help.” She looked at him imploringly.

Goldyx stood a long while, it seemed. He first met Wolfhawks’ beseeching gaze, then turned to look out the open door. Soft hills rolled off into the gathering dusk, a distant one crowned in fire and smoke. Far away on the horizon there was twinkle that might have been the first star, or the gateway to Atlantea. It had been a long, long time.

“No.” He said finally. “No, I will not go with you. Companionship was never my style.”

Wolfhawk looked momentarily furious, then her shoulders slumped in defeat. She stood, and left without another word, visibly trembling with anger and disappointment.

Goldyx closed the door behind her. He would not help her defeat Volkare. The Law and Lore was still a pain in his scaly behind. It still took so much time to prepare, to journey, to explore that he would hate to share the glory. But maybe, just maybe, it was worth all that effort if he could go alongside her, and defeat Volkare first, before she got there.