Monday, July 25, 2011

Board Game Review: Anima

A friend picked up the game Anima: Shadow of Omega recently, and I was able to try it out with him. It reminds me a bit of Arcadia: the Wyld Hunt, if you combine it with team-based RPG video games like Chrono Trigger. But I get ahead of myself. Let's start with the ratings:

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 4
Humour: None.
Attractiveness: Pretty.
Expected Length of Game Play: An hour.

The Anima game (which is actually a card game rather than a board game) consists of several types of cards: Character, Mission, Advantage, Encounter, and Area. In a nutshell, you have a team of up to four characters, trying to complete mission cards by moving to specific areas and using your advantages to defeat the encounter cards.

Turns work in phases: each player goes through the reset phase (resetting your party from the previous turn, but there are certain effects that can occur at this time) in order of their party's Speed rating, then each player goes through the movement phase (choosing which area to visit) in the same order, then the encounter phase (fighting or trading with other players, or facing monsters) in that order, then the explore phase (reap the benefits of your encounter; if you weren't defeated by the monsters in the encounter phase, you get to choose one of the rewards listed on the card. The most common rewards are recruiting a new character to your team, drawing one or more advantage cards, or attempting one of your missions).

Once you've completed at least one of your missions, you can attempt the 'Final Mission.' Whichever player first completes the Final Mission wins the game. However, there is a time limit: if no one completes the Final Mission within a specified number of rounds, then the 'Crisis' occurs. Everyone must roll to try to survive the mission, the first one to succeed wins. If no one succeeds, then the game ends without a winner.

My biggest complaint with this game is that it favour strong characters over fast ones. I had a party of characters with high speed scores, but low strength scores. Despite the fact that I drew the one Final Mission card that requires a Speed test instead of a Strength test, I was obligated to remain in a specific area for at least two turns. I was completely unable to do that because each turn I attempted the mission, another player came in with his low speed/high strength party, attacked my team, and evicted them from the area. We've since discovered a house rule that allows you to add the difference in the parties' Speed scores to your combat value, rending Speed as a more worthwhile trait to have.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Board Game Review: Hive

Here's a review of a really interesting and innovative board game. Part of the innovation is that there is no board. It's called Hive, and if you're interested, you can play it online. And let's not forget the ratings:

Strategy: 6
Randomness: 0
Complexity: 2
Humour: None.
Attractiveness: Pretty.
Expected Length of Game Play: 30 minutes.

The basic Hive set consists of twenty-two hexagonal tiles, eleven each in black and white. Each tile is embossed with a representation of an insect (technically, with an arthropod, as spiders aren't insects): one bee, three ants, three grasshoppers, two beetles, and two spiders. There are two expansions: one adds two ladybug pieces to each side, and the other adds two mosquito pieces to each side.

The game is, at its most basic, sort of like chess on LSD. Each piece moves in a specific way, and although you can't capture enemy pieces, the goal is still to 'checkmate' your opponent's king (or in this case, queen: the 'queen' bee). This is done by causing the opponent's queen piece to be completely surrounded (it doesn't have to be surrounded by your pieces; as long as there's a piece of either colour on all six sides of the bee, it counts). Each piece moves in a specific way.

The game starts out with each player taking turns placing pieces on the playing field. You must place your queen on the field within the first four turns. Other than that, on any turn, you can either put one of your pieces into play, or move one of the pieces already in play. When placing a new piece, it cannot touch an enemy piece. When moving, you cannot move a piece that would cause the hive to be split into two separate parts; all pieces must be connected to all other pieces at all times.

Queen Bees move one space in any direction around the outside of the hive. Ants can move any number of spaces around the outside of the hive. Spiders move exactly three spaces around the outside of the hive. Beetles move exactly one space around the outside of the hive, or climb onto an adjacent piece. Grasshoppers jump in a straight line over any intervening pieces to the first empty space across the hive. If using one of the expansions: Ladybugs move like the grasshopper, but are limited to moving exactly three spaces (jumping over exactly two pieces), however they do not have to move in a straight line like the grasshopper does. The mosquitos move as any piece that they are touching at the beginning of the turn.

And that's pretty much it. If you'd like to know more, you can check out their US or UK website or just go straight to the tutorial video. But I think it's a neat idea, a fun little strategy game that's easily portable, challenging, and imaginative.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

3 Player Chess

Some years ago, I saw an advert in a catalogue for a 3 Player Chess Set. I thought it looked really nice, but I didn't want to spend the money to buy one. Instead, I came home and made my own. It looks a little like this:

I didn't bother with the labels on the edge, and the pieces don't look exactly like that, but otherwise, it's a pretty good comparison. However, the disadvantage to making my own board was that I didn't have the instructions for it. I tried a few times to get people to work out the details with me, but it never really quite happened.

Until recently.

I had a couple of friends volunteer to try it with me. We started discussing the permutations. For one, how do you handle diagonal moves through the centre point? What happens when one player finds himself in checkmate? Do his pieces remain on the board as obstacles, or are they removed? How do you win? Do you need to checkmate both your opponents, or only one?

At their urging, I googled 'three player chess.' It wasn't the first time I'd done it, but we decided to try again anyway. As before, I found no rules for a board of this set-up, but we decided to borrow the rules from a version that had this arrangement:

The short version is: Each player is attacking the opponent to his right, and defending against the player to his left. To enforce this, if one of your pieces is in the 'kingdom' of the player to your left, that player gets (within certain limits) two moves per turn until the offending piece is removed. As such, moving on a diagonal through the centre point always takes you into the kingdom to your right. The game is won by the first player to capture a king (checkmate isn't enough; because of the dynamics of a three-player game, you must actually capture the king), regardless of which king he captures.

The game we played was very bloody, in part because none of us were chess masters to begin with, and adding the three-player rules made us all a bit more unsure, plus the unusual geometry of the board... and it didn't help that we were all sleepy, as it was pretty late when we decided to play.

In all, though, I think it worked very well, and I'd love to try it again sometime.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Board Game Review: Citadels

Here we go with another board game review. This time, I tackle the game 'Citadels.' Once more, we start with the ratings:

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 1
Humour: None.
Attractiveness: Average.
Expected Length of Game Play: 1 hour.

In this game, you are competing to build your city by playing district cards. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

At the beginning of each round, each player chooses a character. Characters are important for two reasons: they determine the order of play for that round, and also grant special abilities. One player takes the stack of eight character cards, discards one or two at random depending on the number of players, and selects one from what's left. He then passes the stack to the next player, who chooses one and passes them on again, until everyone has a character.

Then each player takes it in turn to take up to three actions:
  1. Take either two gold from the bank OR take a district card from the deck (in a draw-two-choose-one fashion).
  2. Build a single district; that is, pay the cost in gold of a card in his hand and place it into play in front of him.
  3. Use his character's special ability.
The first action is the only mandatory action. The third action can be done at any point in his turn, before his other two actions, between them, or after them. Actions 1 and 2 must be done in that order, however.

As mentioned previously, the character cards determine the play order for the round. The order is marked on the card, so you don't have to remember. The characters are, in play order:
  1. Assassin. Special ability: Choose another character (not player). The player with that character loses his turn.
  2. Thief. Special ability: Choose another character (not player), aside from the Assassin or the Assassin's victim. At the start of that character's turn, he must give the Thief all his gold.
  3. Magician. Special ability: You may discard your hand and draw an equal number of new cards, or you may trade your hand with another player, even if you don't have the same number of cards.
  4. King. Special ability: You gain an extra gold piece for each 'royal' district (marked with a yellow icon) you have in play. Also, you choose the first character card on the next round.
  5. Bishop. Special ability: You gain an extra gold piece for each 'religious' district (marked with a blue icon) you have in play. Also, you are immune to the Warlord's special ability.
  6. Merchant. Special ability: You gain an extra gold piece for each 'trade' district (marked with a green icon) you have in play. Also, you receive an extra gold coin on your turn.
  7. Architect. Special ability: You draw two extra district cards at the start of your turn. Also, your per-turn limit on building districts is raised to 3.
  8. Warlord. Special ability: You gain an extra gold piece for each 'military' district (marked with a red icon) you have in play. Also, you can pay x-1 gold to destroy any district in play (except those owned by the Bishop), where x is the cost to build that district.
Once a player has eight district cards in play, you finish the current round and then total your points. The point value of your cards in play is equal to the cost to build them. You get three bonus points if you have all five district types in play (royal, religious, trade, military, and 'special'). You get four bonus points if you were the first to have eight cards in play, though all other players with eight cards at the end of the game get two bonus points.

The strategy for this game is fluid and somewhat chancy. Do you go for a character with a powerful ability, and hope that the Thief or Assassin don't target you? Do you go with the Thief or Assassin and hope you can target a dangerous opponent? Do you go with a lower number character in hopes of playing first, or do you delay your turn in exchange for the chance at using a more powerful special ability?

As if this wasn't enough excitement for you, the basic set comes with an expansion set; there are nine additional characters that can be used to replace the ones in the basic game. With the alternate rules provided to choose from, you can customise this game in a variety of ways. Even playing the basic version can provide a lot of fun for hours on end.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Board Game Review: Princess Bride 'Storming the Castle'

Today, I will be reviewing the board game based on the film The Princess Bride. This game is called 'Storming the Castle,' and the players in this game are attempting to storm the castle. The winner is the first to reach the castle.

Here's how it works. The ratings:

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 2
Humour: Derivative.
Attractiveness: Average.
Expected Length of Game Play: 30 minutes.

Play starts with each player selecting a character token. There are four from which to choose: Wesley, Buttercup, Fezzik, and Inigo. Each player also draws a number of terrain tiles (the number varies). These are arranged in a row leading from the player to the Castle tile in the centre of the table. Thus, the board is a cross (if there are four players; 3 players means the board is a T shape and 2 players means the board is just a straight line). They place their character on the terrain tile furthest from the castle. Finally, they draw a hand of five action cards.

Turns consist of a player taking four actions. An action may be used to move one terrain tile forward, or to play an action card. However, most terrain tiles require a certain card to be discarded in order to enter it (for example, you must play the 'Climbing Gear' or 'Dagger' card in order to enter the 'Cliff Top' terrain tile). Playing this card counts as part of the move, so even though you're playing a card to enter a new terrain tile, it only counts as one action (moving), not two (moving and playing a card).

In addition to being used to enter new terrain tiles, most cards can also be used for a specific effect. Many cards don't allow movement at all; they just have an effect.

The winner is the first player to reach the castle at the centre.

The cards and tiles are very durable, made of a high quality plastic-like paper, each printed with an image from the film. However, the durable nature of the card makes it somewhat unattractive, as well as unpleasant to hold because of its rough texture. The character tokens aren't well constructed either; the bases did not fit securely to the tokens themselves, and we ended up having to lay the tokens flat instead of trying to stand them up.

More annoying than this, however, is the annoying nature of gameplay. Many of the card combinations made no sense (for example, why does the '65 Silver' card allow you to bypass terrain tiles occupied by an 'R.O.U.S.' card?), and some were just confusing (the 'Ravine Floor' terrain can only be entered by a few very difficult methods, but the text on the card is misleading AND conflicts with the description in the rules).

In searching for the errata, I discovered that the game had originally been called 'Temple of the Monkey.' It was the same sort of thing; terrain tiles must be navigated using cards to get to the temple at the centre. However, the game was ham-fistedly translated to a Princess Bride knock-off with no concern for logic or setting. The producers simply took the game, gave everything a different name, and called it a day. Just as one example, the 'Parachute' card was renamed the 'Dagger' card. So it makes sense how, in the original game, you could use the 'Parachute' to jump off the 'Cliff' to move two tiles ahead. But how does it make sense for the 'Dagger' card to allow you to move two tiles ahead from the 'Cliff Top?'

Anyway. If you're just looking for pretty pictures from a really good film, this game does deliver. If you want game play, however, you might want to look elsewhere.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Board Game Review: Dominion

This isn't strictly a board game review, because it's not really a board game. It's a card game, but the cards are arranged in a very novel fashion, so it's more like a board game than most.

We'll start with the ratings:

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 3
Humour: None.
Attractiveness: Useful
Expected Length of Game Play: 30 minutes to an hour

The idea behind this game is that you're a lord of a medieval or fantasy kingdom, trying to build up your influence and power such that you have a greater realm than the other players. All of this is accomplished through the various cards.

Before I describe the cards, I want to point out what I thought was an ingenious reversal of the normal arrangement of game play. With most card games of this type, you start with all the cards shuffled together into one or two decks, possibly three or four, but from these decks, the players draw their cards and sort them into the various types. Dominion is the opposite.

Game starts with each card in its own stack (so, for example, all the 'workshop' cards are in one stack whilst all the 'militia' cards are in another stack, and so forth). Through the course of the game, players purchase these cards and shuffle them together to create their own deck.

Here's what happens. There are three categories of cards: action, treasure, and victory points. You start the game with seven bronze treasure cards (each worth one treasure point) and three estate cards (each worth one victory point). These ten cards form your deck, from which you draw five cards to form your hand. The victory points don't do much for you at the beginning of the game, but you'll want to start buying them eventually.

In the meantime, the treasure cards are used to purchase action cards, larger treasure cards, or victory points cards. On your turn, you get to play one action card (certain cards allow you to gain extra actions in a turn). Then you get to purchase a single card (some action cards increase the amount of cards you can purchase in that turn) of any type. Then you discard all the cards remaining in your hand and draw five new cards.

Now before you think, 'That's a waste of cards,' you must realise that when you exhaust your deck, you reshuffle your discard pile and start drawing from this new deck. So when you're spending a treasure card to buy, for example, a larger treasure card, you're only discarding that treasure card for the time it takes to get through your deck again. Thus, what starts out as a small deck of only ten cards is actually allowing you to slowly increase the number and variety of cards in that deck. So the game basically boils down to using the cards in the deck to add more cards to that deck in the most efficient manner possible.

Once three different stacks of cards are exhausted, or the 'province' cards (the victory point cards worth 6 victory points) are exhausted, the game ends, and whichever player has the most victory points in his deck is declared the winner.

The game is fun, in a planning-for-the-future sort of way. In my opinion, the only problem with the game is that there's not a lot of interaction between the players. In the basic game (which is the version I played), the only time the actions of one player affect any other player is if someone plays a militia card, which forces all other players to discard two cards. This means that when it's not your turn, there's not much reason to pay attention to what other players are doing. But that can be an advantage; the game is great for playing whilst the telly is on, for example. The player who's turn it is can do his thing whilst everyone else watches TV, and when he's done, he indicates to the next player that it's his turn. The other player needn't worry about having missed anything.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Board Game Review: The Three Musketeers

I know it's been ages again. Life has been so amazingly busy and stressful. Hopefully, in a month or two more, things will settle down and I can resume my usual every-week-or-two posting schedule.

In the meantime, I would like to review for you the board game 'The Three Musketeers: The Queen's Pendants.' I stumbled across this game in my local game shop and decided it would make a perfect birthday present for my wife. She is, after all, a major fan of Alexander Dumas. So, without further ado: the system.

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 3
Humour: None.
Attractiveness: Average
Expected Length of Game Play: 30 minutes to an hour

This game reminds me a bit of a cross between the Lord of the Rings board game by Reiner Knizia and Scotland Yard from Milton Bradley. It accommodates between two and five players, one of whom plays the Cardinal Richelieu. The remaining player(s) take on the roles of the musketeers (D'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis). The fewer the players, the more musketeers each player controls.

At the start of the game, each musketeer character is given a pendants token; one of these tokens represents the Queen's pendants, whilst the other three are decoys. All the musketeers are placed on the edge of the board that represents the Quai d' Louvre. The board itself represents the palace of the Louvre, with the Queen in the ballroom at the other end. The object for the musketeers is to get the real pendants to the Queen before she meets with the King.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal is using his minions (palace guards, Rochefort, and Milady d'Winter) to delay the musketeers until the Queen meets with the King, or else to capture the real pendants.

One of the most innovative things about this game is the turn system. Rather than players taking turns in the same order every round, there is a stack of cards which describes the order in which the players go. You draw a new one each round, so it's harder to prepare for upcoming events because you don't know who's going when.

On a musketeer's turn, he can move up to two rooms, pick up and use equipment, trade equipment or pendant tokens with other musketeers in the same room, or attack the Cardinal's minions. The Cardinal, on the other hand, receives a certain number of 'action points' (determined by the current turn card) to use. These action points can be spent to summon minions, move those minions through the palace, or play his special cards.

There are a lot of little details, such as the portcullis and the musketeer's individual special abilities, but for the most part, they're not really important for this review. What is important is: duelling.

Duels are the main way that the Cardinal has of attempting to defeat the musketeers. Each time Rochefort or any Palace Guards are in the same room as one or more musketeers (Milady cannot duel at all), all present characters engage in duel. Richelieu's minions roll a collective pool of dice and distribute all successful hits evenly between the musketeers present in the duel. When a musketeer has lost all three life points (four, in the case of Porthos), he is stunned and must wait for his next turn to recover. The musketeers roll their dice separately, with each successful hit eliminating a guard (or, if no guards are present, Rochefort). If all the musketeers in a duel are stunned and there are any of the Cardinal's henchmen (including Milady) still present, they can look at those musketeers' pendant tokens. If any of them are the real pendants, the Cardinal wins.

Now here's where things get interesting: the guards each roll one die, while Rochefort rolls two. Rochefort also gets to fire a single shot from his pistol before the start of the battle. In any case, a roll of 5 or 6 is a successful hit. The Musketeers, on the other hand, roll two dice each (D'Artagnan's special ability is that he rolls a number of dice equal to the number of minions he's fighting, with 2 dice a minimum). They score successful hits on a 4 or higher. So it's obvious that the musketeers are are more likely to win in any given duel. The only real chance the Cardinal has of winning a duel is by seriously outnumbering the musketeers. This can often be hard to do, especially if he has a small number of action points in a round.

That's where Milady comes in. She cannot engage in a duel, nor be attacked. What she can do, however, is to seduce the musketeers. Whenever she's in a room with one or more musketeers, she can roll a die to attempt to seduce one of them. On a roll of 4 or more, she gets to look at that musketeer's pendants token. If she finds the real one, it doesn't end the game, but the Cardinal now knows who has the real pendants, and can focus his forces accordingly. At least, until the musketeers exchange pendants tokens...

All in all, I thought it was a very fun game. If you like suspense and intrigue, with players trying to outwit their opponents through bluffing and trickery, then you'll likely enjoy this game.