Saturday, April 25, 2015

Board Game Review: Clans

I normally try to follow a pattern of two-weeks-of-random-topics-then-a-board-game-review, but I'm going to change it up a little bit this week and next; I'm going to do two board game reviews in a row.

This week, I'm going to review Clans. Next week, I'm going to review Asphodel. This is a game that a very good friend of mine has created, and last night, I got to playtest it for the first time. He gave me a protoype copy for myself, and I'm going to take this to the board game club I attend on Tuesdays to get other people to playtest it as well. After I've had a few good playtest sessions with it, I will write a review here.

But I want to wait until I've had a few chances to play through it before I do that, so I'm going to stick to my normal schedule for this week. That means that I'm going to review one of my favourite board games (and honestly, I can't believe I haven't reviewed it here before): Clans.

First, the numbers:

Strategy: 5
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Useful
Expected Length of Gameplay: 30 - 45 minutes

Clans takes place in the late Pleistocene era, when early humans were beginning to settle together in villages. Each player represents a tribe, and is trying to score the most points by ensuring that their tribal people are involved in forming the most prosperous villages.

The board represents a series of terrain spaces, with a few small lakes scattered throughout. The game begins with each space occupied by a hut in one of five colours: blue, red, black, green, and yellow. The colours are relatively evenly spread across the board, but not always completely uniformly (this is accomplished by dividing the board into sections of five spaces each, with each section having exactly one of each colour within it, but placement within the sections is random. After setup, once gameplay begins, the divisions between sections no longer affects the game in any way).
the board for Clans: a series of terrain types (yellow steppes, green forests, light green grasslands, and grey mountains, along with blue lakes). and the scoring track/epoch track on the right side of the board. Each terrain has one small wooden hut in one of five colours: red, green, yellow, black, and blue. There is a small wooden disk for each of these five colours sitting at the beginning of the scoring track, and each of the five spaces on the epoch track has a yellow wooden token. Around the board are the coloured hut tiles, with the green and yellow ones face up and the others face down. Behind the board is the box, showing the attractive and colourful design on the cover.

Each player draws one of the coloured hut tiles to randomly determine which colour they are playing. This information is kept secret; as there are five colours but a maximum of four players, there will always be at least one colour that is not being played. Thus, you are trying to score as many points for you colour as you can, whilst trying to prevent the other players from knowing which colour you have, so that they are less likely to work against you directly. If you can succeed in getting the players to think that your colour is (one of) the unplayed one(s), they may let you score that colour more points than they would otherwise.

Each player's turn consists of moving all of the huts from one space to an adjacent space. The huts do not need to be in your colour, especially since often, the huts in a space will be of many different colours. It doesn't matter how many huts are in the space you move from, as long as:

  1. There are fewer than 7 huts in the space you're moving from, and
  2. There is at least one hut in the space you're moving to. You cannot move into a vacant space.
This means that once a group of huts (or sometimes, a single hut) is completely surrounded by empty spaces, it can no longer move. This is a village.

Once a village has been formed, by having a single occupied space completely surrounded by empty spaces, the colours represented in that village score points. Scoring may sound complicated at first, but it really boils down to two steps:
  1. The player who formed the village takes the next token from the epoch track on the right edge of the board.
  2. The scoring track tokens for the colours represented in the village are moved the appropriate number of spaces along the scoring track, which is also on the right edge of the board.
Whoever forms the village gets a token from the epoch track (more on the epoch track in a moment): at the end of the game, after everyone has revealed their colours, each token is worth an additional point. Even if every hut in the village is destroyed (by strife or unfavoured terrain; more on this soon), the player that formed the village still gets the point.

Then the village is scored. The village is worth a base value equal to the number of huts in that village. A village with five huts is worth five points. Every colour in that village gets that many points, regardless of how many huts that colour has in the village. So, for example, if a village is made up of five black huts, two yellow huts, and a blue hut, then black, yellow, and blue each get eight points. It doesn't matter that black has twice as many huts in the village as yellow, or five times as many as blue; they all get the same number of points.

There are three additional factors involved in scoring: favoured terrain, unfavoured terrain, and strife.

Favoured terrain: I mentioned the epoch track previously. You can see it in the photo above, along the right edge of the board. It's the strip surrounded by the dark reddish-brown dots, with numbers running down the right side. This is where the village tokens are arranged at the beginning of the game. The next token is always taken from the top of the track, so that they indicate which epoch is current. The first four villages formed (represented by the four highest tokens on the track) are the first epoch. The next three villages to be formed are created in the second epoch, followed by two villages in the third and fourth epochs, and the twelfth and final village of the game is the fifth epoch.

Each epoch has a favoured terrain, indicated by the terrain texture on the left side of the epoch track, which has a number on it. Whenever a village is formed in the favoured terrain for the current epoch, it is worth a number of bonus points equal to the number of the current epoch. Thus, the villages in the first epoch (whose favoured terrain is forests) are worth one bonus point if formed in the forest, and villages formed in the mountains are worth two bonus points if they are created in the second epoch, and so on. Add the bonus points to to the total value of the village before scoring each represented colour.

In other words, using our sample village from above (five black, two yellow, one blue), it would normally be worth eight points, but it would be worth nine points if formed in the forests in the first epoch, ten points if formed in the mountains during the second epoch, eleven points if formed in the steppes in the third epoch, and twelve points if formed in the grasslands during the fourth epoch. All colours which have at least one hut in this village get the same number of points.

The fifth epoch is wild: all terrain types are favoured. Thus, the twelfth and final village of the game is always worth five bonus point.

Unfavoured terrain: You may have noticed that the epoch track has a second terrain type shown on the right side of the tokens, along with a crumbling hut. This represents the unfavoured terrain. If a village is formed in the unfavoured terrain for the current epoch, then all huts are removed and no colours score any points for that village (although the player who formed the village still takes the next village token, moving the game one step further along the epoch track).

Strife: Obviously, if all five colours are represented in a village, then everyone in the game (even the colour that's not being played) is getting the same number of points. Since this kind of defeats the purpose, they have created the mechanic known as Strife. This says that whenever a village is formed that has all five colours in it (and only if all five colours are present in a village), that village undergoes Strife. When strife occurs, all the colours represented by a single hut are removed. So if someone forms a village made up of three blue, two black, two yellow, one red, and one green, then the resulting Strife would remove the red and green huts, because there are only one of each of those two colours. The blue, black, and yellow are not affected, because there are at least two of each of those colours. 

Afterwards, you continue to score normally: this sample village would be worth seven points (plus the favoured terrain bonus, if applicable) for blue, black, and yellow.

After scoring the twelfth village, players reveal their colours, all colours not being played are removed from the scoring track (the series of dark reddish-brown dots around the epoch track), points are awarded for village tokens, and the winner is the player whose colour has the most points.

I love this game. It's very much a strategy game, with the only randomness being the slight variation in the placement of colours within a section at the beginning of the game. Not only are you looking for ways to score points for your colour, but trying to find out which colours the other players have so you can try to avoid scoring points for their colours, whilst simultaneously trying to prevent the other players from discerning which colour is yours. I kind of like to describe this game as packing all the strategy from a game of chess into about half an hour. If strategy is your thing, then you will probably love this game. I know I do.

So that's it for this week. Remember to check back next week when I tell you all about the playtests of Asphodel. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Your input needed for the direction of this blog

As I mentioned last week, I've been getting a fair amount of traffic from around the world. But one thing I've noticed is that, by far, the posts that are getting the most views are the Board Game Reviews. I've published 85 entries in this blog so far (this entry is number 86).

Entries Number of entries Percentage of total entries Number of views Percentage of views
Total Entries 85 100% 2201 100%
Board Game Reviews 19 22.4% 1647 74.8%
Other entries 66 77.6% 554 25.2%

Anyone can see that there is clearly a massive disparity there. Obviously, people are coming to my blog for the board game reviews (interesting note: so far, my review of Storming the Castle has the most views, with 358, followed by Anima: Shadow of Omega with 340, then Three Musketeers: The Queen's Pendants at 221). Not many people seem to care about my other entries (the largest page views on the non-Board Game Review entries are the ones I wrote about new GURPS divination spells (part 1 had 38 views, and part 2 had 121).

So my question for you good people is this: Should I stick to writing only board game reviews? Or do you think I should keep doing what I'm doing and let the traffic go where it will regardless of what I'm writing?

Please leave your response in the comment section below. I'm really looking forward to hearing what you lovely people have to say!

Until next week,

Game on!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Mature themes

Don't be fooled by the title of this post. I'm not referring specifically to sexual topics. I'm going to be talking about anything that might be considered 'adult-oriented,' including violence, advanced social issues, and the like.

Before I go on, I want to mention something very quickly: I have noticed a continuation in the trend. My Board Game Review entries are still getting, by far, the most traffic. This week, the majority of my traffic seems to be coming from Russia. Fascinating...

Anyway, I'm going to talk about that more next week, but this week, I wanted to talk about something that I noticed whilst watching the latest episode of Wil Wheaton's Tabletop. The latest episode is about the game Five Tribes. The game is set in the world of 1,001 Arabian Nights, and so contains viziers, camels, palaces, assassins, djinns, and slaves.

Mr Wheaton started out the episode with a little speech, in which he points out that some people have an ethical objection to the concept of slavery being included in the game, and that the publishers chose to include it because, moral or not, it was part of the culture being depicted in the game, and they felt it was important to portray the setting accurately. But as Wil Wheaton personally objects to the concept of owning another human being, he was going to refer to the slave cards as 'assistants' throughout the game.

What I find interesting about this is that they did not have a problem with the assassin in the game, and cheerfully joked about murdering repeatedly in the episode. In fact, Jenna Busch acquired a card early on in the game that allowed her to earn money any time a meeple was assassinated. It became a recurring joke that she was constantly hoping for assassinations so that she could get 'murder money.'

I am just as opposed to the concept of slavery as Mr Wheaton, but I find that the idea of taking a human life is equally repugnant to me. In both cases, you are robbing a human being of the ability to live a fulfilled and self-directed life.  As such, I thought it was interesting that they were unwilling to refer to the slavery cards by their actual name, but cheerily engaged in pretending to slaughter people. If you dislike the idea of pretending to own slaves in the course of a game, shouldn't you also be bothered by the idea of pretending to kill people?

This reminded me of a common critique of roleplaying games: that it glorifies immoral behaviour. I remember in particular a segment in the excellent documentary Über Goober in which a pair of Christian activists discuss how they had once been avid gamers, but eventually felt called to campaign (no pun intended) against the hobby because of its immoral excesses. They speak of their experiences in fantasy adventure gaming, casually killing and raping scores of NPCs.

I will avoid commenting on the nature of the individuals interviewed in this portion of the documentary. But I will say that it is true that otherwise normal, well-adjusted people (yes, yes, I know, stereotypes about gamers and the nature of the atrocious 'Gamergate' fiasco notwithstanding, most people who game are, for the most part, well-adjusted, even if they don't always fit in with so-called 'normal' society) can be seen to indulge in such anti-social tendencies like casual killing.

But isn't that part of the appeal of gaming? To indulge the darker recesses of the human psyche in a controlled, safe, and non-real environment?

Whatever you may think of the human condition, it's true that we all have these impulses. How they get there is irrelevant. Whether it's conditioned by cultural surroundings, or is inherent in our genetic makeup, is not important. What's important is that we all have a latent desire, at least to a small degree on occasion, to inflict harm on other people. Some of us may repress those urges, and others may have found a means to control them without suppression, but they're definitely there.

One of the greatest essays concerning gaming that I've ever read was in regards to the original Vampire: the Masquerade. It's been years since I read it, and I no longer have any of my Vampire books, so I can't tell you who wrote it or in which book it appeared, but the gist of the article was that it can be cathartic, if not therapeutic, to indulge those darker impulses from time to time. By playing out the darker side of our humanity, by playing a blood-sucking monster (or a bloodthirsty sword-wielding warrior, or a heartless soldier deep in enemy territory, or a calloused starfighter pilot, etc etc), we can 'let the beast out on a leash,' to coin a phrase, and then go back to our normal 9 to 5 lives ready to face the crushing mundanity of running the rat race with our fellow drones until the next time we need that release.

I've mentioned The Crimson Menagerie here before. The group would often use that campaign to blow off steam after a hard day. One of us would come home and say, 'It's been a tough day dealing with my idiot co-workers. I need to kill something.' Then we'd slip into our alternate personas, engage in a little vicarious fantasy mayhem (of both the violent and sexual varieties), and feel refreshed for the next day of dealing with idiot co-workers.

And at the end of the day, we'd understand that none of the things we did in that game were real. So it didn't matter how horrible or reprehensible were our in-character actions. It was a release. A safety valve.

Sure, there are people who have trouble differentiating between fantasy and reality, and tend to let their escapist hobby bleed over into the real world. But those people are the minority. And besides, isn't it better to have that release, that occasional escape from the 'real world,' to make it easier to deal with that real world?

Anyway, that was what I was thinking about after watching that episode. Thoughts? Opinions? Share them with me in the comment section! And until next week,

Game On!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Board Game Review: Dominant Species

I recently got to play Dominant Species for the first time. I was introduced to this game by an old friend. As he said about it, 'This is a game I love to lose.' This game is very much intended for people whose idea of a good time is to think really really hard. So, of course, I loved it.

Let's see what we have in store for us, by starting first with the ratings (and of course my rating system):

Strategy: 5
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 4
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Ideal
Expected Length of Game Play: 2 to 3 hours

In Dominant Species, players take the role of a taxonomic class of animals: insects, arachnids, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Each category has a unique advantage: insects speciate more plentifully than the others, arachnids get a bonus to attack, reptiles are more resistant to regression, amphibians have a bonus to their setup, birds can move further than the other classes, and mammals are more resistant to extinction. This will make more sense in a moment. But the object of the game is to earn victory points by having your animals dominate the available terrain.

The board is made up of a series of hexagonal spaces, with a turn phase chart along one side, and a victory point track along the outer edge. There are a few other spaces on the board, with a place for available terrain tiles and dominance cards, and charts to help you in scoring. But the hexagons and the turn phase chart are perhaps the most important parts.

You start with seven terrain tiles in the centre, one tundra surrounded by one each of the other types (wetlands, savannah, jungle, forest, mountain, and desert - there are also sea tiles which are not part of the initial setup). At the vertices of these hexagonal tiles are elements: water, sun, grain, grubs, meat, and grass. Each player starts with a pile of small cubes: each one represents a different species within his class. They also start with some cones, which are used to denote which class is dominant in a specific terrain tile. Players also have five cylinders, which are Action Pawns (APs for short). Finally, they have a card which describes the mechanics involved in each phase of the round, but more importantly, has that class's starting elements (elements are those factors that allows a class to thrive; they survive more easily in terrain that has their elements). Elements can be added to or lost from your animal type.

The main action of the game revolves around the turn order, which can be complicated, so I will provide you a photograph of the turn phase chart:

Game play involves taking turns, in turn order as denoted in the row labelled 'Initiative' at the top, placing your APs on one of the eyes in this chart. Placing your AP in this manner indicates that you've chosen to take that action in this round. As it is possible to gain and lose APs in the course of the game, some players might get to take more actions in a round. Once all players have placed all their APs, you go down the chart taking actions from top to bottom. Note that it's possible to place more than one of your own APs on a single phase, so that you (for example) take two Speciation actions in a single round.

First is Initiative: if you take this action, you get to move your marker forward in the initiative order.

Then comes Adaptation. Up to three APs can be placed on this action. There are four element tokens placed here, and a player who takes this action gets to take one of these tokens and add it to his animal card. This represents your class's growing ability to use additional elements to survive (arachnids adapting to survive on meat in addition to grubs, for example). Any element tokens left here at the end of the round move down to Regression.

During the Regression phase, all players lose one element token of each type that is represented on this line (if you have it), unless you've placed an AP here; each AP prevents the loss of one token (reptiles avoid one regression for free).

Abundance allows you to take one of the four (or fewer, if other players have already taken one or more of them) available element tokens and place it onto the board. This means that resources are becoming more abundant, allowing more species to survive in more places. Any tokens still here at the end of the round are moved down to the Wasteland line.

Using an AP on the Wasteland action allows you to remove an element token from the Wasteland line. Any elements still here at the end of this phase destroy all matching elements from all tundra tiles. At the end of the round, all tiles here move down to the Depletion line.

If you put an AP on the Depletion line, you may choose one element from this line to remove from the board.

In the Glaciation phase, you convert one non-Tundra terrain tile to Tundra. You gain points based on how many Tundra tiles are adjacent to the one you place. This kills off most of the species on that tile, and any element markers at the vertex of three Tundra tiles are destroyed.

In Speciation, you place species cubes on all tiles adjacent to a single element tile of the chosen type. The number you place is determined by the terrain onto which you are placing your cubes. Insects get a bonus cube in this phase.

Next is Wanderlust. Placing an AP here allows you to choose one of the three available terrain tiles to place onto the board, along with one of the four available element markers. You gain points based on how many terrain tiles are adjacent to the new tile. Any player with species on adjacent tiles are permitted to move any number of their cubes onto the new tile.

Migration is next. Players taking a Migration action can move some of their species cubes onto adjacent tiles (birds get to move their cubes up to two tiles in this phase).

We're nearly done: now we move on to Competition. Taking a Competition action allows you kill off some of your opponent's cubes (arachnids get to kill one enemy cube for free).

Finally, you can choose the Domination action. Each time you take a Domination action, you choose a terrain tile that has not been scored yet this round. Every player who has species on that tile earns points based on dominance (which is determined not by how many species he has on the tile, but by how able you are to survive there, based on the availability of elements that you can consume). The more dominant you are, the more points you get. Points also vary based on which terrain you score; the sea scores more than the desert, for example.

At the end of the round, you kill off all species that are on terrain which provide them none of the elements they consume (if your animal type consumes grass and grain, but you have some cubes on a tile that offers only meat and grubs, then all your cubes on that tile are removed). Mammals have the advantage here: they can save one cube from being killed in this manner. Then, whichever player has the most surviving species in the Tundra terrain tiles gets bonus points. Finally, you reset the pieces for the next round.

This sounds very abstract, and it really is until you've played the game at least once. But what I will say for this game is that every turn, you are faced with massive choices: you must decide where to place your Action Pawns, and this is almost always a very difficult decision. Not only must you decide on which phase to place your AP, judging that that phase might no longer be available when you get a chance to place the next AP, but also deciding that sometimes it might be more prudent to block an opponent from playing on a phase even if placing your AP on that phase may not be beneficial to you directly.

It's a very meaty game, with careful consideration going into nearly every act of setting down an AP. It's especially enjoyable because often, you'll select an action that seems like a really good idea at first, until another phase robs you of your ability to make full use of that action before it gets to your turn. If only you'd noticed that you were going to lose your sun element token before you placed your AP on the Speciation phase!

Seriously, this is a great game. I've only played it once, and I so very much enjoyed the process of making heavy decisions at every turn that I cannot wait to play it again. Unless games that make you think aren't your cup of tea, in which case, you might want to steer clear of this one. So until next time,

Game on!