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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.

Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game Review

Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures game box shot

It is Christmas day, 1980, and I am six years old. I go running through the house, rich with the smells of festive cooking, past beaming adults, trailing behind me a full stocking, to sit on my Gran’s bed and open my presents. Tearing feverishly at the brightly coloured paper, I hope against hope that my hearts desire is nestled inside. And it is: Luke, Han and Leia come tumbling out onto the duvet in all their plastic glory and I am filled with the glee that only a child on Christmas morning can know.

In years since I have lost interest in Star Wars. Long before the prequels, without fanfare or particular reason I simply started to find Tolkien and Star Trek more interesting. As an adult, I left behind my childish things. Even the nostalgia worn thin: when I sat and watched A New Hope with my daughter recently, I consumed it like any other fun family action film. But when I opened a box and found the detailed, hand painted X-Wing miniatures inside for one moment, one brief flicker in time, I was back on that bed again, surrounded by the garish confetti of Christmas paper, trying to still my beating heart.

For some of you, that will be a siren call. If it is, you should stop reading, now, and go to buy this game. Those that remain will probably want to know a bit about the mechanics. It uses a points based system to allow each side to select a variety of starfighters and upgrades for them, and pilots picked from a roster of children’s dreams to fly them. Biggs Darklighter and Luke Skywalker in the base game. Wedge Antilles and Darth Vader amongst the expansions.

Each craft has a unique maneuver dial allowing the player to secretly pick a movement path, and once everyone has chosen these are revealed and the ships moved. Each fighter gets to pick an action from a roster individual to the type and then those in range and firing arc can attack. You roll attack dice and defence dice based on the ships stat line then compare hit results against evade results to see how much damage is inflicted. There’s a deck of damage cards, and critical hits provide unique disabling effects. Accumulate too much damage and a ship is destroyed. Last man standing wins.

Star Wars X-wing miniatures game in action

It’s a simple, streamlined game and makes for a smooth, fast play experience that feels the way it should, filled with tension as you try and predict where enemy ships might go and excitement as the dice spill over the table. The individual movement, action choice and statistics for each craft are spot on from the nimble but fragile TIE fighter to the bloated gun platform that is the Y-Wing, wallowing in the vacuum. Planning your own movement and trying to anticipate the enemy provides a tactical base into which action choices insert a solid extra peg. Dice and cards make a heavy contribution toward success. There seems a good balance of these two elements in determining a winner, the game rewarding both skill and luck.

But for gamers used to all the decision making happening as the game plays out, X-Wing may provide a surprise. Like most points-based squad building games there’s a significant amount of strategic pleasures to be gained from looking at ship, pilot and upgrade combinations and building the most effective force you can with your points allowance. But again, like most points-based squad building games that means there are so many possible combinations that they can’t all be balanced, and there’s a risk of one-sided games and petty squabbling over one faction being “better” than another. Ignore it. There’s strategy here, but what the game is really about is playing the Star Wars theme in the background, and pushing primal buttons in the collective geek brain.

The base game comes with one X-Wing and two TIE fighters, each with four pilots and a small collection of upgrades. It’s not enough. With only three craft there’s no synergy, no outflanking, little interest in squad building. To try and wring maximum value from just three ships the game provides scenarios to build on the basic dogfight. One heavily favours the rebels, another the imperials, but they do offer variety and they do work with custom-picked forces and they illustrate how much mileage there is for fans to do their own thing with the game. The box also has some tactics-free quick play rules which are of no interest to hobbyists but are simple enough to parents play the game with young children, and three ships will suffice for that.

Y-Wing miniature expansion

Ideally though, you need more. Doubling-down on base game sets is the best value option but also the least interesting. Far better to pick from the expansion miniatures. The Y-Wing is my personal favourite as it feels qualitatively different to everything else available right now, with its ship-disabling turret weapon and ability to suck up punishment. Two expansions, one for each faction, is enough. More is better if you can afford it. Just be aware that it’s the sort of expandable game that can rapidly become a money pit. There are more and bigger ships coming in the near future, including the Millenium Falcon. You know you’ll want one. Budget for it in advance.

You’ll want one because when the ships are on the table and the dice are flying alongside them, you can’t help but get sucked into the slipstream. The painted figures look fantastic as they close to combat range, jockeying for position. The endless variety gained from open movement, squad combinations and different scenarios ensures a vast mine of narrative potential, each game, each thrilling ride inscribing its own little legends on the collective consciousness of your group.  The only barrier keeping you anchored in tedious reality is the lack of a star field background to play on. Make one.

X-Wing seems to be the realisation of something that I thought would never exist, but have often wished for: a miniatures game tailored for the board game hobbyist. You get all the value of customised army building and the joys of open, distance-based maneuver and combat on a tabletop, unconstrained by the confines of the board. You have none of the grind of assembling or painting figures, and clever design tweaks ensure measurement dispute over things like positioning and firing arcs are minimal. But if you’re prone to arguing about rules trivia, you’re playing it wrong. It’s a game about tension, excitement and reliving your childhood dreams. It’s an expensive game about priceless things. Play it.

X-Wing Miniatures Game in Review

The highest praise that I can give to Fantasy Flight Games’ new X-Wing miniatures game is that it makes Star Wars awesome again. It sloughs off decades of garbage with the Star Wars brand slapped on it. This is a game where Jar-Jar Binks never existed and the Clone Wars are just a cryptic reference. X-Wing, as the title suggests, gets back specifically to the really awesome faux-World War II fighter jockey stuff that I particularly loved when I was a kid. It is the spaceship dogfight game that I have wanted my whole life, writ in a modern, masterfully streamlined set of rules that all but step politely out of the way of the fun and cinematic action.

It is not a Wings of War ripoff. It uses some of the great design from that game along with ideas from the old Crimson Skies game, an obscure Euro called Techno Witches, and other games in its genre as a jump-off point to arrive at one of the least fussy, least messy tabletop miniatures games that I’ve ever played. The commitment level is low, requiring no paint, no assembly, and only a couple of ships to get going. Anyone can jump right in and pilot a flight of TIEs, barrel-rolling and blasting through asteroid fields and trying to get an angle on an enemy Y-Wing.

Any reviewer of X-Wing that attempts to rewrite the rulebook to explain the game is missing the point. This isn’t a game about which rules simulate which aspects of a subject matter that is essentially farcical to begin with. It’s not about how accurately it models or represents anything, and it’s not about the kinds of minutiae and millimeters that bog down other miniatures games. It’s a game about feeling. As soft-headed as that may sound, what works about this game above all else is how it feels to play- and how it captures the essence of the timeless, Manichean duel between X-Wing and TIE fighter, Rebel and Empire.

You don’t get to premeasure your programmed, dial-selected movement, so the maneuver you pick may cause you to bank right into an asteroid or wind up going over or under another craft in a very subtle abstraction of 3D space. There is a sense of movement and momentum. You have to be able to anticipate, know your ship’s limitations, and know when to risk making a difficult maneuver that incurs a stress token, thereby cancelling your ability to do a barrel roll or acquire a target lock-on for that turn until you recover. You’ve got to use the Force.

Combat is a straight-up shoot-out. I love a contested die roll. Red attack number indicates how many dice you throw, green is what the defender rolls. In one roll you’ve got concussion missiles streaming toward a target while it desperately tries to evade. Pick a focus action for the round and you can use the special eye icon as an extra hit or evasion. If a hit is scored, either shields are reduced or the damaged ship takes a card to count against its hull. Critical hits require that the damage card be played face-up, providing a sense of narrative told by ammo explosions, blinded pilots, or other impairments.

As in most miniatures games, building a force is part of the game. It’s point-based, with 100 point games representing a tournament-class battle. By using a system that puts the pilots and ship stats on cards and identifying tokens separate from the miniatures, each miniatures can represent anything from a Rookie X-wing jock to Wedge Antilles. Ships can also take on secondary weapons and skill cards including proton torpedoes, droids, and special tactics that modify actions or provide unique abilities.

The miniatures are awesome. One of the important things about this game to me is that it crosses that gap between game and toy and speaks to that part of me that still wants to play with toy X-Wings and TIE fighters. The implementation across the board is fantastic, with ship-specific dials for selecting movement and standardized information presentation throughout the game. The rules take about five minutes to explain to a new player before a first game and they’re memorized by the second. One odd component note- there are no pictures of any characters in the game barring one close-up of Darth Vader. FFG’s licensing arrangement with Lucasfilm may not allow them to show Biggs, Luke, and other characters, but at least it’s an opportunity for the publisher to showcase some exciting, all-new Star Wars artwork that’s exclusive to the game. No movie stills, not really a problem.

There is, unfortunately, a two ton Hutt in the room and that is the cost of the game. The core set ships with two TIEs, an X-Wing and all of the maneuver templates, dice, and markers you need and it retails at $40. I think this is a ludicrous price point for a starter, especially since it doesn’t even contain a paper map to use as a play surface. Online it can be had for $25, which is much more reasonable but it makes me question whether or not FFG is setting its retail prices intentionally higher than they should be to accommodate the deep discounters. Expansion ships retail at $15 each and come with a dial, tokens, pilot cards, and a base. These can be had for $10 online.

The game is completely playable for two out of a core set, but anyone that gets into the game should expect to immediately want to spend $100 or more on expansion ships or additional core sets. This isn’t entirely out of line with common market prices for miniatures games- but there is definitely a sense of sticker shock in the board gaming community. With more ships already inbound including the first medium-sized ones, this is a game where the sky is the limit as to how much you can spend on it.

But it’s also one where the sky’s the limit on where it can go. Scenario design, further development, fan add-ons, and competitive play are going to happen and are happening right now. It has the makings of a blockbuster, and between the FFG and Star Wars brands it’s definitely finding a player base regardless of the price. This is a Cadillac game and you can really get what you pay for out of it. I can attest that I’ve already played it more than any other game I’ve purchased this year, and I’m already certain that it will be played frequently on my tables for some time to come.

It’s the game to beat in 2012, the best thing I’ve played all year.