Wednesday, May 2, 2012

There's no such thing as a bad pizza

Everyone likes pizza.  Maybe not everyone likes traditional pizza, but there's definitely a pizza for everyone.  Thin crust, deep dish, everything, pepperoni....There's something for everyone.  My personal choice is a New York-style but I like a good Sicilian now and again.  I like it hot or cold, even for breakfast sometimes!  I can only imagine that Pizza Theory was first conceived over a nice slice and a beer or two.  I can't imagine how anyone could have come up with this idea any other way.  It's a really unique idea that is clearly was inspired by one of the worlds most universal foods.  So is Pizza Theory a deep-dish delight or is it amongst the anchovies of the gaming world?

Rules

Pizza Theory is a game for 3 players that has 2-player rules as well.  Each player has 16 topping pieces and starts with 2 pieces on the board in their area of the pie.  On each game round, each player adds one of their toppings to the pie in any non-adjacent space to their existing toppings.  Next, each player secretly selects one of the 6 lines on their side using a die and simultaneously reveals their choice.  Pizza cutter sticks are placed on each player's line, dividing the pizza into multiple slices.  Each slice is checked and if any player has more toppings in that slice than any other player, he removes all other players' pieces and replaces them with his own.  If you end the round with all 16 of your pieces on your board, you win!

There's a special rule called the Safety Rule to keep players from being eliminated.  If there are no slices with 2 or more of a player's pieces then those pieces can't be removed.

Unfortunately, the full rules aren't available online so I can't provide you with a link.

The rules do a pretty good job of explaining the game including some FAQ's that came up in testing.  The one area that it fails in is explaining the Safety Rule.  I was left really scratching my head on this but luckily there's a thread providing an explanation from one of the designers over at BoardgameGeek.com.

Based on that one key rule being explained poorly, I have to deduct a point from the rules score.  Final score - 4 points.

Components

Sometimes a game comes along that goes far above and beyond the expectations of games.  Pizza Theory is clearly this kind of game.

First, the game comes in a box that looks just like a regular pizza box.  The shelf presence this creates is awesome so they get big props from a marketing standpoint.  It's really a great way to sell the game.  

When you open the box up, you'll see the awesome board and the dice in a great insert.  Underneath the board you'll find nice compartments the topping pieces which are covered by a shallow compartment for the cutter sticks.

The board itself is incredibly awesome.  It looks just like a pizza pie!  The board is about 12 inches across providing a nice presentation on the table.  To do one better, the spaces where the toppings go are recessed so the toppings won't slide out when you rotate the pizza from turn to turn.  This is an awesome touch that really shows the thought that went into the functionality of the board and the company's attention to detail.

Speaking of the toppings, these things are THICK, probably about the same thickness as 2 quarters, maybe more.  They're nicely illustrated and really compliment the look of the game.  When you combine these with the amazing board you get a truly awesome looking finished product.  Also, they're double sided so if you find the art confusing (which I don't think is possible) you can flip them over and just use the solid-colored back.

Lastly, you've got the cutters and the dice.  The cutters are long, thin wooden rods and are color coordinated with the toppings and the dice.  The dice are huge!  I love the oversized wooden dice.  They don't do a whole lot but boy do they look cool.

I wish I could give this game more than 5 points for components because this game truly deserves it.  Final Score - 5 points.

Gameplay

Placing your pieces - What sounds like a fairly innocuous part of the game is actually really important because it drives the game.  Placing your pieces is the only time you get to control exactly where your pieces go.  This allows you to setup for the turn by allowing you to create situations that will help you win slices.  Only being able to place one piece per turn may not sound like much, but over the course of a few turns this can really sway the outcome of the game.  The rule preventing you from placing new pieces adjacent to existing ones is brilliant and completely necessary as it basically forces a piece exchange at some point.  You'll have pieces marooned that you just can't protect and that will let other players get into the game.  This really propels the game forward.

Choosing the slices - This is the heart of the game.  Carefully choosing where to place your pizza cutter will determine where you win and lose.  The board is big so there's an awful lot to consider.  You need to be careful to not let too many of your pieces get away from you, but if you get spread out this can be hard to do.  Not only do you have to consider your choice, but you also have to consider that of your opponents as well.  What are they trying to accomplish and how might that affect your choice?  I like this because it's not pure double-think, but more of an educated guess.  You'll know what 1/3rd of the equation will look like based on your choice but you'll have to try and figure out what they're going to do to maximize your options.

The Safety Rule - This rule is brilliant and keeps people in the game.  It's not impossible to be eliminated, but this rule make it much less likely.  In addition, you can play this rule to your advantage by denying the leader from gaining more ground.  I can almost imagine this coming into existence during testing when they found people were getting basically eliminated.  The game is short so it's not a big deal, but I'd hate to be the guy just feeding pieces to the other two.  The Safety rule is a stroke of genius.

Dominant Strategy - Pizza Theory is not a game of multiple strategies.  There's really only one way to go about this and that's to create a big clump of your own pieces.  As mentioned earlier, you'll have stragglers due to the placement rules, but ideally you'll end up with a big chunk of pieces that you'll manipulate the edges of.  I just don't see any way around this due to the way majorities in slices work.  It's not a bad thing, it's just very straightforward and means there's not much to discover.  This isn't a game you'll spend 2 hours playing so enjoy the battle for that big chunk and relish it when you get there.

Tipping point - Pizza Theory is the kind of game that has a tipping point.  All three players will be in the game and in one turn one of the players will hit optimal slices and jump out to a lead.  I've had this happen in every single game I played.  Again, this isn't a bad thing per se but I'm not crazy about it.  The game is fun and challenging up to that point and there's still a chance for the second and third place players to come back, but it's definitely an uphill battle.  I personally like the challenge of fighting odds stacked against you, especially in a short, light game.  

Coming from behind - In my experience coming from behind is very tough in this game and that's okay.  The other players just need to minimize the gains made by the player in the lead and not let him get too much in one turn.  If they can do that then there's an opportunity for a comeback.  If those players get too greedy the leader will just run away.  I'm not saying it's broken by any stretch, just that it will require some cooperation to catch the guy in the front.  Then you'll have to time it just right to break your semi-alliance and seize your opportunity.

3 players - There aren't a heck of a lot of games designed specifically for 3 players but you can add Pizza Theory to that list.  It's a strange number for any game but it works really well here.  The way the game plays just wouldn't accommodate more.  Even the 2-player variant requires a dummy player.  This gives Pizza Theory a nice niche in the market because there's plenty of times when 3 people need something quick to play and not a lot of games designed to be optimal at that player count.

Accessibility - If you play this game someplace where people are walking by you will surely catch the attention of onlookers.  The presentation is awesome and the gameplay is simple enough that you can teach it to almost anyone.  I think this is an ideal game to play with kids because it requires some thought but is light in rules and in play time.  Speaking of play time....

Game Length - Pizza Theory will clock in at 15 minutes or less with the occasional game reaching 20.  That means you can play several games in an hour, including teaching.  This, combined with the unique player count, makes Pizza Theory an ideal filler.  It's fast and fun and can be played several times in a short time frame.  I've used it as an opener or closer and it's worked well in those situations.

Final Score - 8.  I'm going to deduct 2 points for the game being hard to come from behind and win.  I know I said it's not a big deal, and it's not, but I wish it was a bit easier to catch up.  I've seen this happen only 1 time in my 10+ plays and that was due to a player error.  It's good to know it can happen, but it's rare enough that I find it slightly bothersome.  Still, it's a 10-15 minute game so just deal with it and play again, right?  That's usually what we end up doing.

Overall - Pizza Theory scores 17 out of 20 points possible.  I've knocked off one point for the poor explanation of the Safety Rule in the rulebook and 2 points for the game being tough to come from behind and win.  I can deal with the lack of ability to come from behind because the game is short, but that rule bothered me significantly.

On the BGG scale I rate this game a 7.  It's definitely a good game that I'm usually willing to play.  My wife likes it which is a huge plus for me.

Conclusion

We all run into situations where we've got some time to kill while waiting for our friends to finish another game which is why fillers were invented.  Pizza Theory fits nicely into that genre.  The game offers interesting gameplay in a really unique setting.  Couple that with amazing production values and you've got a game that not only looks awesome but is fun to play and doesn't outstay it's welcome.  It's got a bit of difficulty in having players catch up but it's a short game so just start over and play again to get your revenge.  The 3-player only situation is both a blessing and a curse, but in the times that you have 3 people wanting to play something quick this game will deliver and look great doing it.

One thing I'll warn people of is don't buy this as a 2-player game.  The 2-player variant works, but it's nothing compared to a game with 3.  My wife likes it with 2 and I'll play it, but I'd much rather play with a 3rd person.  The game is so much richer that way.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

SHOWDOWN - Lords of Waterdeep vs. The Manhattan Project - Summary

Thanks for reading our Showdown pitting The Manhattan Project against Lords of Waterdeep.We thought it would be a good idea to have one post showing all the parts  so that readers could find them a bit easier.  Here's where you can find each part:


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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

SHOWDOWN - Lords of Waterdeep vs. The Manhattan Project - The Finale

If you've been following us through Parts 1, 2 and 3 of the Showdown between Lords of Waterdeep (LOW) and The Manhattan Project (TMP) you've gotten a very detailed look at what makes each game tick.  We focused a lot on the various aspects of gameplay and how they tie into the overall package.  We're going to wrap this up by taking a look at the components and finally picking a winner.

Components

When you look at the LOW box you're greeted with a very unusal presentation.  This is definitely not your average game box.  In fact, it's a really different take on boxes in general.  The lid comes off, but it doesn't close like a normal box as it only sits part-way down over the bottom.  This is clearly designed to keep you from standing it up and that's good because this game has an awesome insert.

The board is nice and thick as expect and features a map of the city of Waterdeep.  I really like the illustration on the board and find it to be functional as well as nice to look at.  The layout of the board and the spaces for cards and buildings works perfectly.  Everything is clearly labeled which makes it easy to play on. 

Each person gets a player mat and several workers in their color.  The workers are cut to look like an abstract human and are made of wood.  They're actually pretty big which is nice as it makes them easy to pickup and move or to see on the board.  There are also ownership tokens for each player and personalized victory point chits. 

The coins are neat because they're not your usual coins.  The 1-value coins are square and have a hole in the middle while the 5-value coins are crescent-shaped with the same hole.  Both are made of a thick cardboard and look pretty cool.  The choice to use odd shapes was a good one as it adds some personality to the game.

The "Adventurers" you hire are just wooden cubes in 4 colors.  These are your standard wooden Eurogame cubes.  Nothing special here.

Lastly, you've got 121 cards broken down to 11 Lords, 50 Intrigue cards, and 60 Quests.  That's some pretty good variety as you'll likely not go through more than half of the Intrigue or Quest cards in any given game.  The cards are a bit thinner than I'd like them to be, but they're not terrible.  They've got a nice matte finish on them which makes for nice shuffling and ease of handling.  The size is equivalent to Magic cards so you'll have no problem sleeving them if you choose to do so.  The cards have nice illustrations on them and more importantly are laid out in a very user-friendly way.

TMP offers a lot of the same things as LOW.  The coins are cardboard, but this time they're pretty standard. 

There's a central board, but this one is different.  Instead of map it's basically just a bunch of action spaces with cool artwork.  Everything is very clear and easy to read on the board.  It's also not nearly as big as the LOW board, but there's plenty of space.  In addition to that, each player has their own player mat.  This is basically a stiff paper with an eggshell finish.  Nothing fancy, but definitely functional.

Unlike LOW, TMP's workers are not made of wood. Here they are made of really think cardboard and have a nice illustration to show which type of worker it is.  These things are thick!  They're not 3D like the wooden workers from LOW, but they're pretty awesome and definitely different.

You get a lot of cards, but not as may as LOW.  TMP gives you 80, with 50 being buildings and 30 being bombs.  The cards are small, but not quite as small as the original Ticket to Ride cards.  Also, they're done in a semi-gloss finish with nice cardstock.  The graphics on these cards are really awesome providing some really cool art and terrific iconography.

Both games offer a really nice presentation and deliver good component quality.  Overall, I'd have to say that LOW is slightly nicer, but it's splitting hairs.  The differences are minute, but I like the way everything is presented in LOW just a bit more.  That's certainly not taking anything away from TMP which does a fine job of components.  I actually like the cardboard workers in TMP better.  I also prefer the cards due to the artwork and iconography.  That said, I appreciate the overall presentation of LOW a bit more.  I like how everything happens on the central board.  I also love the board itself with the cool map.  It's really about a 55/45 split, but LOW gets the edge.

Winner of Round 3 - Lords of Waterdeep

Showdown Results

If you're still with us after all this time, you've probably already guessed the outcome of the Showdown.  While both games offer something good, I still think you only need to own one of them and that game is.....

The Manhattan Project

While I like the components and presentation of LOW, TMP blows it away in terms of incorporating the theme and the actual gameplay.  TMP is so much deeper and has many more interesting decisions than LOW.  I like that the game is more of a race than just maximizing points across rounds. I enjoy the improved player interaction and the opportunity to really mess up someone else's plans.  Both games are low on the luck scale, but TMP does an even better job of eliminating that luck, especially in terms of player interaction.  Sure, you may occassionally get an awesome Intrigue card in LOW but TMP gives you the ability to know that you can devestate your opponents.  I think the theme of LOW is great, but TMP does a much better job of actually incorporating it's theme into the gameplay.  It feels better when you play it while LOW presents it better but fails to deliver.

I only own one of these titles and that's The Manhattan Project.  Having played both I can firmly say that I made the right decision.  That's not to say that Lords of Waterdeep is a bad game.  It's definitely not.  I have more fun and enjoy the experience of The Manhattan Project much more than with Lords of Waterdeep.

Minion Games has a real hit on their hands here.  If you're a fan of worker placement games then you need to try this one out.  It delivers in every way without being clunky or messy.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

SHOWDOWN - Lords of Waterdeep vs. The Manhattan Project - Part 3

In Part 2 of the Showdown pitting Lords of Waterdeep (LOD) against The Manhattan Project (TMP) we took a look at some of the things that make the gameplay work in these 2 hot new titles.  Part 3 is going to dig into that a bit further.

The Buildings - Both games have players constructing different types of buildings.  In TMP, you're basically just building them for your own use.  Other players can only use them when they use the Espionage action.  However, they're still really intriguing because some buildings can only be used by certain types of workers.  They all have different benefits based on what kind and how many workers you place on them.  For example, there are several Mine cards that vary in production capacity.  The bigger ones require more and more workers.  Want to run an Encrichment Plant?  You'll need Scientists because nobody else can run them.  Additionally, there's a building track at the top of the board where players buy buildings from.  The two lowest places are very cheap and can even be free if you send an Engineer out to build them.  Then the prices go up and they go pretty high.  There's a game of chicken being played here because you want certain buildings but you can never know what someone is willing to pay so they might just take it from you before you get the chance to buy what you want.  On the other hand, there's a chance that something even better may pop out and then you'll be on the hunt to get that card.

LOD is very different.  There's a track of 3 buildings available to purchase and only one person can do so on each round.  When you build a building, you put it on the central board and mark it with one of your control markers.  Anyone can use their worker to go there and get the benefit.  The bonus for you is that you also get a reward when they do, albeit a bit less.  I like this because it gives you something for nothing basically.  The ownership rewards are not as powerful as the building effects themselves, but over the course of the game it can really add up.

Both games entice you to buy certain buildings.  In TMP, you can get the cheap buildings for free.  In addition to that, the game has a bribery mechanic where money goes into the Bribery pool.  Anyone taking the two cheapest buildings gets the money from the Bribery pool.  This does 2 things: 1) it inject money into the game which is good because it's scarce and 2) it keeps the buildings moving along.  LOD does it slightly different.  At the start of each round (including the first), 1 victory point is placed on each of the three available buildings.  Just like TMP, this creates quite the incentive for people to take a building, even if it's less than spectacular.  Once a building gets a couple victory points on it that creates a golden opportunity for a quick points gain.  Plus, you then get the Ownership bonus if someone uses the building.

Scoring points - Both games have you working towards completing scoring cards.  In LOD these are the Quests while in TMP you're building bombs.  In both games, you can complete a scoring card any time on your turn.  Both games also require you to have a certain number of resources of different kinds to complete the goal.  That's where the similarity ends.

In TMP, the bomb cards come in 2 varieties, Plutonium and Uranium.  These resource are different and force players to decide to either specialize in one or the other or to play the middle ground and go after both.  The Plutonium bombs are much cheaper and easier to get, but they're worth less points.  However, you can sacrifice one of your Plutonium bombs as a "bomb test" which raises all your other Plutonium bombs to higher point values.  When you test a bomb, you discard it and then get a point card to make up for some of your losses.  I like the decision this presents to you as it feels like you're sacrificing a lot for bigger future gains.  It balances very well in the gameplay because while it may put you behind early, you'll catch up easier.  Also, the point cards that you get for the bomb test diminish in value so it pays to either do it early or take a bigger hit.  The Uranium bombs are worth more points, but Uranium can be hard to get in big quantities so it's a slower process but the bang for the buck is potentially better.

The other great thing about these bombs is that building them requires the use of specific workers.  In Part 2 we spoke about how crucial it was to allocate your different worker types properly.  This throws another wrench in the works by costing you actions.  It's all part of the timing and allocation that makes the game work so well.  Maybe there are some great board opportunities available to you, but you have to decide to go for them or to drop the big points.

Bombs also give you the ability to earn bonus points.  If you deplete one bomber on the bomber track and pay a certain amount of money, you can load the bomb onto your bomber and score an extra 5 points.  This can cause some great victories because someone can come from out of nowhere and load several small bombs and score a big amount of points.

LOD, on the other hand, is much more vanilla.  To complete your quests you need to get gold and different people to complete the quest.  You simply cash in your cubes and drop your completed quest down.  The cubes are supposed to represent different character types from D&D, but ultimately it fails badly.  When I played, people where just saying "I'll trade in 3 orange cubes and 2 black cubes to complete my quest."  It should be "I'll trade in 3 Fighters and 2 Rogues to complete this dangerous quest!" but it doesn't work out that way.  You simply cash in whatever you've got and put the card in front of you.  In my opinion, this kills the rich theme of the game and turns it into something incredibly average.  There was a golden opportunity here to use some plastic or even some nicely designed tokens to give you a sense of sending adventurers out.  Instead you're left literally pushing cubes.

In Part 1 we talked a lot about the theme of the 2 games and I gave the initial victory to Lords of Waterdeep.  Based on the paragraphs above, I'm reversing that decision.  The way you score points in TMP is so much richer and ties into the theme so much better.  LOD really fails to convey the sense of theme based on the use of boring cubes.  I understand that plastic would have cost a small fortune for all the minis it would have required but it would have been so much more enjoyable that way. Upon further review, Round 1 goes to The Manhattan Project!

Between Parts 2 and 3, you should now know plenty about the gameplay of both games.  If you haven't figured it out by now, The Manhattan Project is far and away the winner of Round 2.  Lords of Waterdeep works prefectly and the gameplay is by no means bad.  I like it quite a bit, actually.  However, The Manhattan Project offers a much deeper and more fulfilling gameplay choices.

Part 3 will come early next week.  We'll talk about the components and then give the final wrap-up.  As always, you can follow us on Twitter @bgamereviewer to get updates and news bits as they happen.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

SHOWDOWN - Lords of Waterdeep vs. The Manhattan Project - Part 2

In Part 1 of the Showdown between Lords of Waterdeep (LOD) and The Manhattan Project (TMP), we looked a bit at the rules of the games and then compared the theme.  LOD edged TMP by a little bit due to the overall presentation.  In this installment, we're going to start digging in to some of the actual content of the gameplay.  We'll divide this across two articles to break it into more manageable chunks.  Let's get started!

Gameplay

The workers - LOD and TMP are both worker placement games so naturally you'll be placing your workers on different locations to get some benefit.  LOD gives each player a set number of workers.  Players will get one more at a certain point in the game and can also gain temporary workers from some of the board locations or buildings.  All of these workers are the same and have no special abilities.  TMP also gives players a set number of starting workers.  Throughout the game, players will have the ability to recruit up to 8 more permanent workers and can also gain temporary workers.  What sets TMP apart from LOD is that there are 3 different kinds of workers and some locations on the board or buildings in your tableau can only be activated by certain kinds of workers.  This creates a huge amount of decisions in the game because not only do you need to figure out where to put your workers, but you also need to make sure you allocate enough of them to accomplish all the tasks that only certain types can complete.  It will also shape your decisions on which buildings to acquire so that you can make sure you are able to recruit enough of the types of units you need.  In my opinion, this helps drive home the theme of this game a bit better. 

Game Rounds - LOD works in the manner of most other worker placement games.  You place your worker on a space, do the activity for that space, and then the next player goes.  There's a space that alters who the start player is as well which is really important because going last in games like this can be a killer, especially at 5 players.  
TMP takes a different approach to placing workers.  Yes, the play still goes around the table, but there are no rounds here.  On your turn, you do 1 of 2 things:  1) Place a worker on the center board and then place as many others on your buildings, carrying out all activities in the order they're placed or 2) Take all your workers from anywhere on the board, your buildings or your opponents' buildings and place them in your reserve.  Depending on how many workers players have, the timing on pulling back workers will vary.  This creates a great ebb and flow of actions and it does one other great thing.  It forces players to really consider how they use their workers.  If you go slow, you can leave your workers on the board for a long time denying other players keep opportunities.  I personally love this so much more than the standard worker placement method used by LOD as it creates so many more options on given turns. It forces you to not just wait for your turn but to try to anticipate the timing your opponents are using to place and pull workers.  It's a twist on the normal tension in these kinds of games and I think it's truly great.

Player interaction - A lot of attention is given to LOD due to the player interaction.  In LOD, you play Intrigue cards which have the ability to put some hurt on one or more opponents at a time.  There's nothing you can do about it as the person being affected which is not that great.  You're basically just dropping a roadblock in front of them with Mandatory Quests or taking resources from them.  It works fine and it does spice up the game, but I think the approach taken by TMP is much better.  
In TMP, you have 2 types of player interaction.  First, you have the Espionage action.  Every time you use this, you move up the Espionage track which allows you to place one or more of your workers and put them on other players' buildings.  Once you build a building, it's yours.  You've effectively stopped others from getting the benefit of whatever it is. With Espionage, your buildings are no longer safe.  This allows players to get benefits that might otherwise be shutout to them and it adds a lot of strategy to the game.  Earlier, we talked about pulling your workers back.  Espionage causes you to also consider that option more critically because if you open a building or the Espionage track, you create opportunities for your opponents to pounce on your buildings.  Also, every time you use Espionage, you can use an additional worker with a cap on 6.  You can spread them out and use them however you see fit.
The second area of player interaction is the ability to bomb other players!  Each player has a bomber track and a fighter plane track.  There are 2 Air Strike spaces on the board and when you place any worker there you can launch a strike at one or more opponents.  The fighters are used to either kill fighters or bombers. When you attack another player, you reduce your fighters by the amount of their planes you want to kill so they don't stay with you. Bombers can only attack when a player has no fighters, but when they do, they wreak havoc.  For every bomber point you spend, you can damage an opponents' building.  If a building is damaged, it can't be used until it's repaired.  Buildings can take unlimited damage which means it may never be useable again.  What I like about this whole concept is that you have the chance to defend yourself.  If one of the other players is building up their bombers then you can stock up on fighters to keep them honest.  The other side is that if you spend fighters to kill someone another player's planes, you've just left yourself wide open.  It's a great bit of tension that makes the game much better.
As if that wasn't great enough, TMP also encourages negotiation on attacking.  You're allowed to negotiate on who and what to attack and any agreements made MUST be honored, but these only last until your next turn.  I've had this come into play several times and it really adds a great layer to the game.  It's almost like you step out of Eurogame mode and step into Ameritrash, then go back when the carnage is over.

Variable player powers - In LOD, each player gets a unique Lord card.  This card doesn't really give you any powers during the game, but it does give you slightly different goals from other players.  The card gives you bonus points at the end of the game for doing certain things such as completing certain types of quests or owning buildings.  What this does is drives each player in a slightly different direction, but it doesn't separate them to the point of non-interaction.  I like this because it makes me think twice about completing certain quests or what buildings I build.  Nothing here shakes the game up that much but it does encourage certain actions and gives players some extra choices.
TMP dropped the ball here.  Out of the box, there's nothing to differentiate each player.  Nothing.  I'm red, you're blue.  Wow.  What they did do, is create a small expansion of 7 cards called The Nations.  Each player gets one at the start of the game.  This is essentially another building they can place workers on and it gives them a very unique ability which is historically flavored.  Once you play with these cards you'll never play without them because they turn a great game into an awesome one.  I still feel that this is a failure of sorts because there's no reason these shouldn't have just been in the base game.  To make me pay $5 for this is almost insulting, but it's definitely worth it and highly recommended. If you're buying TMP, just buy this.  You'll want it.

That will do it for this installation.  Come back on Saturday when we post the next Showdown installment.  Make sure you follow us on Twitter @bgamereviewer for all the latest news and updates.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

SHOWDOWN - Lords of Waterdeep vs. The Manhattan Project - Part 1

I'm a big fan of worker placement games.  I really enjoy trying to find out the best way to utilize the limited resources available to me on each turn.  I suppose you could say that I really enjoy tactical games, but I also like strategy, especially when the two are mixed 65%-35% respectively.  I enjoy making tactical decisions that affect the long-term goal, even if that goal is just victory points.  Some people don't find the tension in worker placement games to be strong enough but I enjoy the angst of waiting for your turn while seeing if someone else will undo your carefully laid out plans.  Agricola is a perfect example of this genre.  It combines worker placement with an incredibly tight resource system while forcing you to do as many different things as possible.  That kind of idea checks every box on a list of what I enjoy in games. 

Right now, gamers have their choice of two new games which take a unique approach to worker placement:  The Manhattan Project (Minion Games) and Lords of Waterdeep (Wizards of the Coast).  I think both of these games each offer their own twist on this genre, but I also feel that they're similar enough to not warrant needing both of them so we're going to pit them against each other in a showdown across several articles highlighting a few key aspects.  Without any further ado, let's get started with a brief introduction of each.

The Contenders

Lords of Waterdeep is designed for 2-5 players and should take you an hour to play with the full number.  The main goal of the game is to complete Quests which give you victory points. Each person is given a face-down Lord card which will reward them bonus points at the end of the game for completing certain types of Quests or other agendas.  The game is played over 8 rounds so you have a finite amount of time to do what you need to do.

The Manhattan Project is also a 2-5 player game, but the playtime listed on this one is 2 hours.  In my 3 and 5 player games, that seems spot on.  The goal here is also to gain victory points, but you do it by creating bombs instead of quests.  The game is played to a certain number of victory points dependent on player count.  In the base game, everyone starts off with the same setup, but each player after the first gets a bonus to level the start-player advantage.  There is no set number of turns so the game will go as long as it takes for someone to meet the victory condition.

Rules

The rules for both games are available for your perusal online.  The rules for Lords of Waterdeep can be found here while The Manhattan Project rules are located here.  Both rulebooks are laid out very nicely and are incredibly clear on how the game plays.  You get plenty of illustrations and examples to help you out.  Normally at this point I go over a rules breakdown but that's going to be skipped because we've got way more important things to discuss.  Let's get started!

Round 1 - Theme

One of the great things that both these games bring is theme.  Lords of Waterdeep gives us the old familiar D&D theme, but it's really the first time we've seen it in a Euro.  Additionally, they dug deep and went to the Forgotten Realms lore to bring us a new setting that hasn't even been touched in the D&D adventure games like Castle Ravenloft or Wrath of Ashardalon.  This is a whole new setting to boardgames which seems familiar thanks to the Dungeons & Dragons tag, yet is largely unexplored territory.  They stuck to the theme and went so far as to make the Lord cards based on the historical Lords of Waterdeep.  The entire layout of the board is a map of Waterdeep so you really get the feeling that you're in that world.  Even most of the buildings on the board are actual places from the Waterdeep mythos which really ties it all together.  For anyone familiar with Forgotten Realms, this is a homerun because it brings all the flavor of Waterdeep right to the table top.  Those unfamiliar with the setting won't care as much because it's all new to them and lacks the historical background of the Waterdeep.  I fall into the second camp, but a light reading of the history of Waterdeep ties it all together and gives you great insight as to why the particular buildings do what they do in the game.

The Manhattan Project offers us something completely different.  This time, instead of working your way through a mythical city, you're here on Earth and you're trying to harness the power of nuclear weapons.  Your goal is to build nuclear bombs and win the Cold War.  You don't get to drop these nukes which is a bummer, but you still get to build them and flex your nuclear might.  The board is fairly ordinary with different locations for each action.  Most of those have some kind of corresponding design work, but it's nowhere near as impressive as Lords is.  I do love that the art on all the cards and board spaces is done in the early-40's style.  While the board isn't as unique as Lords, it does have great artwork which evokes the feel of the era.

Both games have cool themes and are quite different.  While I love the idea of building bombs in the 1940s, The Manhattan Project doesn't quite pull it off as well as Lords of Waterdeep does.  With Lords, the entire package is built around making you feel like you're in Waterdeep and are conspiring to rule the city.  Even if you don't necessarily know the lore, the map and the overall design of the board helps you feel like you're actually sending your minions around the town to accomplish goals.  Like I said, I like the bomb-building theme more, but Lords does far more to integrate the theme into the presentation.

Winner of Round 1: Lords of Waterdeep

Check back in a few days when we dig further into the battle between these two great games.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Vlaada's underappreciated gem - Sneaks & Snitches

If you know me (and by now I hope you're starting to), you know that I don't really like long complex games.  I prefer something short sweet and to the point.  It's not that I don't appreciate big complex game engines, it's more that I'd rather play a few short games and get a couple different experiences in when I game.  Give me 4 1-hour games over a 4-hour epic anytime.  For me, that's just much more fulfilling.  Vlaada Chvatil has made his mark with the epic Through the Ages and more recently Mage Knight which are clearly not my bag.  However, Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert prove that he can also master shorter, lighter fare as well.  On that side of his ludography lies Sneaks & Snitches which plays in 20-30 minutes and has a very simple ruleset.  This game has received very little press and I'm not sure why.  Based on his successes, you'd think any game he put out would get serious attention.  Let's see if Sneaks & Snitches will steal the limelight or get put away for hard time.

Rules

The concept is pretty simple.   There's a central row of locations with letters on them.  Under that is a row of treasures with one treasure assigned to a location.  These cards come from a deck that is made up of 2 parts: 1 for the first half of the game and 1 for the second.  Each player has a set of cards which are all of one color.  Each of these cards corresponds to the letters on the locations.  In each round, players choose 2 locations, one to steal from and one to protect.  They each do this and then all player's cards are revealed at the same time.  If a player goes to a location to steal and there are no other players stealing or protecting, they take the loot card and get the subsequent reward.  If more than one person steals and nobody protects, each player get's a Secret Stash card which is worth some gems at the end of the game.  If anyone protects a location, any player going there gets nothing.  After the round, all the cards are removed and new loot cards are laid out.  The game is over after the loot cards are all used up which is 7 rounds.

Most of the Loot cards show icons in a color.  When you take a Loot card showing those symbols, you cash it in and take the corresponding number of gems.  At the end of the game, points are awarded in each of the 4 colors of gems based on player count.  Those points are added to the points from Special Item cards with the highest total being the winner.

If you'd like to read the complete rules, you may do so at Czech Games website for the game.

This is a really nicely done ruleset with plenty of examples and illustrations.  It's all done very clearly and should leave you with no question after reading.

Final score - 5 points.

Components

Most of the components here are cards.  There's a set of regular sized cards comprised of 8 Location cards, 9 cards per player (45 total), 24 Secret Stash Cards and 4 Scoring cards.  There's also a set of smaller cards which contains 8 Location cards and 42 Loot cards (20 for Phase 1 and 22 for Phase 2). The stock on the cards is almost perfect.  The cards have a semi-gloss finish which is fine since you don't do a whole lot of shuffling or holding cards.  The artwork on the cards is good and does a nice job of conveying the theme.

In addition, you get 112 gems with 28 in each of 4 colors.  The gems are cubes that looks great and are easily distinguished in color.  They're big enough to easily count across the table which is very helpful.

There's really not much in the box, but there doesn't need to be.  What you've got is plenty for a good game.  There's also nothing special about it so I'll give it a final score of 4 points.  I'm not sure what they could have done, given the game, to add or improve, but its certainly not going to WOW anyone.

Gameplay

"Clearly, I cannot choose the wine in front of me." - Yup, it's one of those kinds of games.  The kind of game where you're trying to out-think everyone else at the table and usually just end up out-thinking yourself. Just when you've figured out which card to go for, you begin to think that everyone else must have reasoned the same thing so obviously you can't choose that option, or can you?  Every time I play, I waffle several times on each decisions.  It's so tough to try to out-think one person let alone several.  That's one of the beautiful things about this game.  It's so stunningly simple and yet so incredibly hard to make a decision you're actually happy with.

Special Loot cards - The game would still work just fine if you were only taking cards worth gems, but it would be a bit stale.  Instead, S&S spices it up with some special Loot cards.  For starters, you have the antiques which are worth 1 or 2 victory points each.  That may not seem like much until you realize the game is usually won with 10-12 points.  Getting a free victory point without fighting for gem majority is pretty huge.  The Blank Check lets you take any 3 gems you want which can either give you a lot of one color or spread you out to fight for them all.  The intrigues allow you to make the 1 for 1 trades with other players that they can't refuse so you can seriously tilt the majorities.  Lastly, you've got the Safe Cracker cards which leads me to my next point....

Safecracker Cards - Any time more than one person loots an unprotected location, they don't get the loot.  Instead, each player gets one Safecracker card.  Each of these cards is worth 1 gem of it's color at the end of the game, but the best part is that you keep them secret up to that point.  This is actually great because nobody knows what you've got in there so you may very sneakily have the majority in a color.  This creates a lot of unknown information which causes people to change their play styles.  And speaking of changing their play styles....

Compromising Documents - If you take this loot card, all players except you discard half of their gems of the color on the card, rounded up.  This obviously can create huge shifts in power during the game and I've found that these are almost always protected barring the odd setup where amazing cards come up.  You could suddenly have a majority with only 3 or 4 gems and be winning the game.  This puts even more emphasis on the Safecracker Cards as they're immune to this and can really give you the edge.  If you've got a lot of Safecracker cards of a particular color you may be less inclined to protect the Documents.  If other people are counting on you to do so and you don't then wild things can happen.

Scoring the colors - At the end of the game, each color of gem is evaluated and points are awarded depending upon the player count.  Sometimes it's just first place, sometimes more.  This forces you to really think about what loot cards you're going for and when to stop others.  Are you positive you can't win yellow?  Fine, let someone else take it and put your resources elsewhere.  At some point you'll also need to focus on one or two colors to make sure you can get enough which then changes the dynamics yet again.

Changing dynamics - S&S is a game in a constant state of flux.  There are so many factors to take into account that you can see huge changes right in the middle of a game.  Just look at the Compromising Documents cards.  Those throw the whole game into a state of panic.  If there's more than one on the table then forget it.  ANYTHING can happen and usually does in those situations.  Even the Intrigue cards can have that effect as the player holding a majority suddenly shifts and everyone is left trying to scramble, reevaluating their positions and thinking about what they should do next.

Strategy vs. Tactics - You'd think that this game might be 100% tactical.  There's clearly a lot of tactics each round as you have a whole set of new Loot cards.  However, there's also a lot of strategy and most of this comes from the gems.  The color majorities are typically where you score most of your points.  This forces you to try and plan long-term while trying to make short-term plays as well.  I like how the two are nicely integrated and work together to give a greater feel to the game.  If you just went round by round without thinking about the long-term, you'd get bored very quickly.  S&S does a nice job of mixing the two styles into something more.

The epitome of simple -This is truly a simple game.  You play one person to steal loot and the other to protect it.  It really couldn't be much easier than that.  You can teach anyone to play and have them be competitive right away.  This is definitely a great gateway game, but it's fun enough that I still enjoy playing it.  To say it's simple is not to belittle the depth of choice the game has in anyway.  While the rules are clean and straight-forward, the decision making very rarely is and that's the kind of game I truly love.

Player count - I've played plenty of games with 3, 4, or 5 players and all those numbers work really well.  With 3 you have more control, but with 5 it's more fun because random things can happen which will change your fortunes.  It's easier to play with 3 because you're only reading 2 other people as opposed to 3 or 4 others.  The game works perfect at any number mentioned above and is one I will readily reach for with those player counts.  I've never played it with 2 because it didn't sound nearly as fun as the multiplayer, but it may actually work just fine.  If I ever play with 2 I'll update this section.

Game length - This game should take you 20-30 minutes, tops.  Any game taking longer than that is caused by someone with serious AP issues.  I encourage players to think about their moves, but don't try to solve every scenario because it's just not possible.  This game is best when played quickly and without too much analysis.  Play from your gut and move along.  Like all lighter games this one could be killed very quickly by a very slow player.

I'll give this game a score of 8 points on the Gameplay scale. It works incredibly well for being such a light game.  I'm going to subtract a point for the player numbers.  Five is pretty chaotic and I'm not sure it's good for 2.  I'll also take 1 point of for the fact that I think the game goes too quickly.  Seven rounds doesn't always feel like enough time to formulate a coherent plan.  I'd love to have a chance later on to get some of the Loot that got discarded.  In fact, we've come up with a variant to solve that problem which makes this game go up to 9 points.

Overall

Sneaks and Snitches scores a 17 out of 20.  As stated above, I took off a couple points for Gameplay and 1 point for the perfectly functional yet not very inspiring components.  Those negative points are a stretch, but it does matter a bit, especially in terms of the game length and the player count.  I hate to nitpick on a game I like so much but I have to be tough and call them as I see them.

On the BGG scale, S&S scores 7.5 out of 10.  I like to play it and will suggest it sometimes.  I'll likely not turn down a game as this one is pretty good for most situations.  I take this game with me a lot because I know I can teach it easily and everyone will have a good time.  This is a game even my mom can play and that's worth having in the bag.

Conclusion

I really don't understand why such a fun game got glossed over so quickly.  This game had almost no buzz when it came out and it's still not rated very highly.  I find that to be a total shame because S&S is great.  It's simple yet very challenging.  The game is short enough that you can play a couple in a row.  It's best with 4, but really good with 3 and still lots of chaotic fun with 5 so it's versatile in player count.  The cards look great on the table along with the gems.  Overall, this is a fine game at a pretty good price point. You can get it for under $20 at most online game stores.

I really think that people had false expectations based on Vlaada's name and that's a shame.  This is a superb filler game that offers a ton of fun choices and angst in a compact playing time.  If you like games with double-think or blind bidding then you really need to look at this woefully underrated design.  It's not going to blow you away with some mind-bending new mechanic but it will drive you mad as you guess yourself in circles.  There's a lot of fun to be had in this box and I think it deserves a home on most shelves.

Bonus - A variant that makes the game more strategic

The first time we played, we played wrong.  We missed the rule about clearing out any uncollected Loot cards at the end of the turn.  We played that only cards that got stolen were removed.  This added a great new twist because some cards would stay out there for a while until they became less desirable for whatever reason.  This created a nice tension as well because you then had to constantly reevaluate cards and decide when to go for them.  This adds about 15-20 minutes to the game, but I honestly believe it creates a much more fulfilling experience while still maintaining all the fun of the rules as written.  If you pick the game up by all means play the rules as written, but give our variant a chance if you want to try something a bit more strategic.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A gateway game for burgeoning wargamers

When I first heard about Manoeuvre I was really intrigued. The game was described as a light wargame that was playable in less than 2 hours with easy rules. This struck my fancy because I've always been quite intimidated by the rulebooks I've seen for wargames. A lot of the games in the wargame genre have massive rulebooks and really lengthy playing times. I put my faith in the good words I read on BGG and placed the order. What I was hoping to get was an accessible wargame that used a simple ruleset with realistic playing time. Did I get what I wanted or did I get out Manoeuvred by BGG hype?


Rules

Manoeuvre is graced by an incredibly simple ruleset that lays out the game in a very readable way. The rules are available to read here on BGG, The one downside of such a simple ruleset is that you will often have ambiguities in the interpretation of the rules and Manoeuvre is no exception. There is a lengthy FAQ here on BGG which will help you with most of the major questions.

Altogether the rules are solid and the FAQ irons out any wrinkles. Even new gamers should have no problem getting through the rules.  Final score - 4.5 points.


Components

Manoeuvre is heavy in one particular component: cards. For each of the 8 armies in the game there is a deck of 100 cards. The cards are approximately the size of the original TTR cards, but they're much thicker and coated with a gloss finish as opposed to satin. The small size, thick stock, and sheer number makes it a bit difficult to shuffle them, but it’s definitely manageable. I feel like these cards are built to last a long time which is nice, especially when you consider the price tag of this game which is really inexpensive compared to many other games in the genre.

Each of the 8 armies has 8 square counters. Each counter is double sided with one side being the full strength side and the other being the weakened side. The counters are pretty large and have very readable text. It’s very easy to decipher which piece is which.

Also in the box are 32 battlefield squares. Each of the squares is a 4X4 grid with each having a unique mix of terrain. This creates an enormous amount of board variety so you can be assured that you'll never be fighting on the same board twice.

Lastly there are 4 each of d6, d8, and d10.

In most online stores you can buy this game for under $30 which is a terrific price for the amount of components you get in this box. When you add in the gameplay, the price gets even better.  Final score - 5 points.


Gameplay

Card Driven
Manoeuvre is card driven, but not as much as other games in the genre. The cards are only used for attacking or defending whereas other games such as Hannibal use cards for a wider variety of actions. There are no special event cards like in Hannibal or 1960 instead you have a small number of cards which directly affect battle. One of the biggest differences is that one piece gets to move each turn without the use of a card. Again, most CDG require a card for movement, but that’s not the case in Manoeuvre.

Maneuvering in Manoeuvre
Manoeuvre is well named because positioning your army is key to victory. The game is all about gaining strong terrain and positioning your pieces for optimal attacks. Hills are incredibly advantageous because they provide a bonus when attacking off of them. If a board has only a few hills, players will be racing and fighting to capture them.

Additionally, if a piece is forced to retreat and cannot, it is eliminated. This puts extra emphasis on positioning you pieces to prevent your opponent from retreating. It’s hard to pull off, but if you manage to position your pieces to block in a unit you're in a great position to eliminate the unit. This is really useful when you need to eliminate a strong piece but lack the straight firepower to do so.

I like the fact that this game places a premium on how you position your units. This creates an environment in which tactical choices play equal part with a solid overall strategy.

Choose your battles wisely
A big part of playing the game is the decisions you make when choosing which pieces to battle. One of the victory conditions is to eliminate 5 of your opponent’s pieces. This can only really be done through battle so you need to fight to win. However choosing which pieces to engage is key. For example, you may have a good opportunity to attack a unit off a hill thus getting an attack bonus. Also, if you can position your pieces so that more than one is adjacent to an enemy piece you may be able to take advantage of a Commander card which will allow more than 1 of your units to attack at the same time.

One of the main reasons not to attack is that when you force an enemy unit to retreat, you're generally forced to take the vacated space with one of the attacking units. This can be a bad thing if your unit is on a hill and you're forced to move off of it.

Luck of the draw
As with any card based game, there will be luck of the draw. Manoeuvre is no exception and with a deck of 100 cards luck may play a bigger factor than many people would like. As units are eliminated, you will draw more and more dead cards and it’s not uncommon to have a hand of mostly useless cards late in the game. To help mitigate some luck, players can discard as many cards as they want at the start of their turns and may then draw back to a hand of 5. This is really helpful when you're trying to make a specific attack but lack the cards. It’s no guarantee you'll get what you need, but it’s a decent way of helping players control the randomness.

As if that’s not enough luck, combat is resolved with dice. A target number is calculated and dice are rolled based on the attack type and unit. Hits are based off of this formula and the only real way to improve your odds is by playing more cards and rolling more dice. Sometimes no matter how many you roll, you'll still not get the numbers you need. Wargamers are no stranger to dice rolling so this shouldn't pose much of a problem to fans of the genre.

Overall this is a pretty luck heavy game. Fans of pure strategy will be put off by this but I think people looking for a light wargame experience won't have a problem with the luck.

Downtime
A player's turn is pretty short. First they discard and draw then they move a piece. After movement is the battle phase in which both players participate. This creates a turn in which there is very little downtime for the non-active player. Turns shouldn't take more than a few minutes so there's not a lot of idle time. This is a pretty big contrast to traditional wargaming in which one player's turn can last 15 minutes or more.

Variety in the armies
There wouldn’t be much point in having 8 armies if they were all the same. To that end, each army has slightly different characteristics which are shown through unit type and unit strengths. In addition each army has its own unique deck with some armies having completely unique cards. The armies are intentionally unbalanced to reflect the historical period. For example, the English and the French are allegedly the two strongest armies in the game while Austria is generally acknowledged as the weakest. This allows a handicapping system of sorts in which a more experienced player could use a weaker army against a new player to help level the playing field. Also, the different army personalities allow players to have different play experiences based on which country the field. For example, the US army requires a more guerilla approach while the French can simply outmuscle their opponents.

What about the non-wargamers?
If you’re not interested in wargames, then you probably think Manoeuvre has nothing to offer you. This is not true at all. While Manoeuvre is definitely wargame based, the gameplay revolves largely around managing your hand. If you like balancing acts of attack and defense then this is a game you should look into. Also, one of the endgame conditions results in victory point scoring. If you play well you can win without having the most kills. This brings a different thought process into the game, one in which position is more important than battles.

All games are basically abstracts with a theme pasted on, but Manoeuvre may be more so than any other wargame. This doesn’t feel like a wargame, it feels more like a Euro/wargame hybrid along the lines of Warcraft: The Boardgame or Nexus Ops.

The final score on the gameplay is 8 points.  I have to deduct one point for the luck factor.  I know it's inherent to card games but sometimes you just really want to go for the throat and you simply can't.  I also wish there were some scenarios so I'm taking a point for that as well.  It would have been incredible to have even a couple simple scenarios to run different armies through.

Overall
Manoeuvre scores 17.5 out of 20 points.  The slight rules ambiguities costs the game half a point.  I also deducted 1 point for the luck of the card draw and also 1 point for the lack of scenarios.  I can deal with the cards and the slight presence of rules holes, but the scenarios would have taken an amazing game and made it a true classic.

On the BGG scale, I rate Manoeuvre a solid 8/10. I really like to play it and I'm likely to suggest it.  I don't always want to play wargames, but when I do this is near the very top of the list.  It's one my wife will play which is great and adds to the opportunities to play it.

Conclusion
When I found out about Manoeuvre I thought it was going to be a light wargame that had a lot of accessibility and that’s exactly what it is. A simple ruleset and reasonable playtime makes this game easy to learn and quick to play. There's a lot of luck to be sure, but there's also a lot of decisions to be made in playing the game. The overall presentation is great and there is a lot of variety in the game to keep things fresh.

So if you’re looking for a gateway into the world of wargaming, Manoeuvre is what you’re looking for. It offers engaging gameplay with a simple ruleset and manageable play times. The game will introduce you to some wargame concepts like line of sight, terrain modifiers, and weakened units. The amount of luck in here is more than in most wargames, but you’ll quickly learn how much the dice affect games of this genre. Ultimately the experience is fun and rewarding without being too complex. Manoeuvre is a solid game for any collection, especially those looking to test the wargame waters.

This review originally appeared on BGG and has been slightly updated and modified.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

2 monks walk into an ancient library....

One of my greatest pleasures in gaming is finding an unknown title that turns out to be spectacular.  It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does I get really happy.  It's like listening to a completely random band that you just fall in love with or that out-of-the-way restaurant you wander into that turns out to have amazing food.  It's a magical experience and it's rare, so you have to savor every moment.  The downside to looking for these diamonds in the rough is that you get let down more often than not.  Way more often than not, actually.  This makes the awesome finds even more awesome.  Way back in early 2009, I saw a post on BGG from a user named "drfinn".  The good doctor was selling 50 copies of his newly made self-published design.  I was lucky enough to get a copy of this game.  I usually save my verdict for the end, but I'll give it to you now:  It's my all-time favorite and a true masterpiece of design.  Since then, the game that started out as Scriptorium and later Scripts & Scribes has found a publisher in Iello and they've done this game justice.  For this review, we'll be reviewing the newest Iello version.


Rules

Biblios is played in 2 phases.  In phase one you're going to be taking cards, giving some to your opponents, and putting some in the auction pile.  In phase two you'll be bidding on cards in the auction pile.  There are 5 different suits (for lack of a better term) and the goal is to win these suits by having a majority in the value of those suits.  Each card has a point value which is used to determine the winner of each suit.  Each suit starts off being worth 3 victory points, but that can change up or down through the use of Bishop cards in the game.  At the end of the game, each suit is evaluated and the player having the highest value wins that suit.  There are letters on the cards for tiebreakers so you'll always have a winner.  The player scoring the most victory points wins.  If there's a tie, the winner is based on a hierarchy of the suits.  There's no ties in Biblios which is quite refreshing.

The Iello rulebook is put together very nicely and very clearly illustrates all the rules.  It's well organized and very straightforward.  There should be no questions about how to play and if there are, you'll have an easy time finding the due to the great layout of the rules.  If you'd like to see the full rules, you can do so here.

The rules get a perfect score of 5 points.


Components

There's not a whole lot of components in this package.  You get a deck of 87 cards, 5 different colored dice, and a Scriptorium which is used to keep the dice organized. 

One of the first things you notice when you pick up the box is that it looks like a book.  It's a great presentation.  It's actually a magnetic box which closes up tightly and looks awesome on the bookshelf.  It's also nice and compact which is always a good thing.

The cards are really solid and actually maybe a bit too stiff.  I usually complain about cards being too flimsy, but these are much thicker and stiffer than Magic or similar CCGs.  If you've collected sports cards then you've got a good comparison for these.  They have a similar semi-gloss finish to sports cards as well.  The art on the backs is full-bleed style with border on the front.  The dark color on the back pared with the finish and the stiffness means the cards are slightly prone to chipping with repeated use.  It's minor, but I'd sleeve these cards if you really like the game.  This sounds like a lot of complaints but it's ultimately pretty minor.

You also get a nicely illustrated "Scriptorium" which is basically just a placeholder for the color-coded dice.  It's a nice touch and makes the game look nice on the table by adding a centerpiece.

The final score for the components is 4.5 points.


Gameplay

It's not pure card counting - If all the cards were in every game you'd have a pretty straightforward counting game.  You'd be able to easily count the cards in your hand and make an estimate on the rest of the cards.  At the start of Biblios you randomly remove a certain number of cards from the game before you start.  You'll never know what's been pulled out so you can't be sure of anything.  Was it gold?  Was it most of the cards from a certain color?  It adds a huge amount of uncertainty and doubt into the game and transforms it into something really awesome.

The Donation phase - The first phase of the game is the Donation Phase.  In this phase you get to look at 1 more card than the number of players in the game.  You get to keep one, you put one in the auction phase for the 2nd phase, and you put out 1 card for each other player face up.  The trick is that you have to look at the cards one at a time.  This creates a huge amount of tension because you have to make a decision on every card. Do you take it?  If you do, you can't take another one.  Do you put it in the auction pile in hopes of getting it later?  If you put it out in the donation pile, which opponent are you helping?  It's full of tension which makes every decision tough.

The Auction phase - In the second part of the game, any cards put in the auction pile are auctioned off.  If it's a non-Gold card you bid with Gold.  If it's a Gold, you bid by discarding non-Gold cards to pay for it.  This phase gives you lots of opportunities to get cards that you put aside earlier.  You also have the opportunity to take cards that would help your opponents.  The real key rule is that you can bid more Gold than you have in those auctions.  If you win the auction, you don't actually win and each of your opponents takes a card from your hand.  This is disastrous when it happens, but it gives you so many more options in bidding.  Do you bluff to try to make your opponents pay more or do you play it safe?  It's such a fine line because bluffs that work usually tilt the odds in your favor, but slip up and you're in bad shape.

It's not pure card counting - If all the cards were in every game you'd have a pretty straightforward counting game.  You'd be able to easily count the cards in your hand and make an estimate on the rest of the cards.  At the start of Biblios you randomly remove a certain number of cards from the game before you start.  You'll never know what's been pulled out so you can't be sure of anything.  Was it gold?  Was it most of the cards from a certain color?  It adds a huge amount of uncertainty and doubt into the game and transforms it into something really awesome.


Every card matters - The 2 types of auctions  is fantastic because it means there's no such thing as a dead card.  You need Gold to buy cards, and you need cards to get more Gold.  Since you're trying to get majorities in certain colors, you'll likely have cards that aren't in colors you think you can win.  Those are naturally the cards to get rid of when Gold comes up for auction.  Odds are you'll run out of those cards pretty quickly so you'll need to start digging in to the cards you want to keep and that's when things get really tough....

Playing the majority
As mentioned above, you're trying to get a majority in a color to score it's points.  Also, some cards are removed you can't be sure all the cards in that color are even in the game.  This forces you to try to make a good estimate of how many points will be required to win the color.  When you combine that with needing to ditch cards to get more Gold you've got the recipe for some serious decision making.  How many points do I need to win the color?  What if the cards are evenly distributed amongst all the players?  What if I've actually got no competition in this color?  How many cards do I need to keep? 

The tie-breaker letters
Nobody likes ties.  It's anticlimactic and just not fun.  Give me an honest loss over a tie any day.  Each card in a suit has a letter on it for tiebreaker use.  If the suit is tied, the person who has A or the closest letter alphabetically wins the suit.  This adds some extra weight to the lower value cards because those have the better letters.  You'll have situations where you'll take a lesser card just because it gives you the tie-breaker advantage.  This also plays into the Gold auctions because you'll bid differently based on what you've got in terms of letters.  You can play the majority a bit closer when you know you've got the tie-breaker.

The Bishop cards - This game would be fairly boring if each suit was worth a fixed value.  It would play fine that way, but the Bishops really spice things up.  Some of the cards increase the values of suits while others decrease them.  One of the cards even gives you a choice of increasing or decreasing one suit.  If you don't win any of these cards you're going to have a hard time winning because manipulating the values is really important.  Is someone obviously dominant in a suit?  Grab the Bishop to decrease the value of their suit and gain the upper hand in victory points.  Another great thing is that you don't know how many of these will even be in the game so you need to figure out how aggressive to be when bidding. 

Player numbers - Biblios truly plays perfectly with 2, 3, or 4.  Each player count is slightly different in terms of feel, but the game is excellent at all numbers.  The play length is relatively similar and should clock in around 20-30 minutes.  This game flows very nicely and you won't have any slowness even with 4.  Every time I play with 2 I'm amazed at how well it works at that number.  You'd think that you'd lose something with less players but you don't.  The game still feels tight and you've still got tons of choices.  The experience is a bit different, but it's just as good as with 3 or 4.  I think 3 is the best number but it's just as good with 2 or 4.

Gateway game - Okay, maybe it's not a gateway game, but it's a perfect choice for a 2nd level of complexity.  I like to use For Sale to introduce people to my hobby.  This is a natural progression of that game and it's been very successful for me.

I could go on and on here, but I'll stop there because I think I've given you plenty of reasons why the gameplay is awesome.  Obviously it scores a perfect 10 points.


Overall

Biblios scores an awesome 19.5 out of 20 points.  I have to take off a tiny bit because the cards aren't perfect.  They're actually too good for practical purposes so the game loses half a point.  The gameplay is so good though that it should score a perfect 20, but nothing is perfect even as good as Biblios is.

On the "I want to play it" scale, Biblios is a perfect 10.  It's a truly perfect blend of mechanics which are so much more than the sum of their parts.  I love this game and always want to play it.  It will always have a home in my collection and is one that I'll suggest and never turn down.  I'm honored to have this in my game and can't imagine a time that I wouldn't want to play it.

Compare it to...

In my mind, it really feels like a meatier For Sale.  The two phases feel similar in both games, but Biblios offers so many more choices that its almost not comparable.  If you like For Sale and want something similar but more robust, check out Biblios.

Conclusion

I'll be honest....I love this game. I have since the first time I played it.  For me, it's the perfect blend of meat and time.  You can't cram any more decisions into a game than what you've got here.  It's easily teachable but rewards shrewd gameplay.  You'll be faced with constant agony as you try to navigate choice after choice, but it's the awesome kind of pain that you really appreciate when you're done.  It won't burn your brain, but it sure will make you think.  It's actually my favorite game of all time, replacing the mighty Carcassonne as my #1 game.

Biblios is the very definition of a super-filler.  It packs a ton of game in a small window and delivers a very satisfying experience.  You can play a couple games in just over an hour and get the same feeling as a medium weight/length Euro or you can start or end your evening with it.  It's a perfect game to ramp up your brain or cool down from something really tough.  The bar for fillers has been raised incredibly high.

If you're looking for a meaty filler that's got a ton of game in a small package, look no further.  This game is a winner in every possible way.  I can't possibly recommend this game enough.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of the original game and also of the new Iello version from the designer for review purposes.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Round 1.....FIGHT! A review of BattleCON

I was around 11 or so when Street Fighter 2 came out. I remember going down to the bowling alley and pumping quarter after quarter into that machine. We got really good at it and eventually we were able to beat the game. Not long after that came Mortal Kombat and a bevy of fighting games after that. I always loved the fact that each character was different and yet they all had a chance to win. Even more, I loved the ability to smash on my buddies relentlessly. We had mini tournaments after our bowling league was over and rejoiced in the 16-bit carnage.

When I first heard about BattleCON: War of Indines I was hopeful that it would offer some of that same fun in a card game form. I wanted something quick and simple yet with some real depth and strategy. Does BattleCON deliver a knockout or is it just another pretender and not a contender?


Rules

BattleCON is a fighting game which can be played by 2 to 4 players at a time, depending on if you want to run 1-0n-1, 2 vs. 1, or 2 vs. 2. The basic idea is that each player is a certain character. Each character has some very unique abilities which gives each character a very unique feel of which we'll talk more later. The characters fight on a series of spaces so range is important. On each "beat" both players will play a pair of cards consisting of a base and a style. Priorities are compared to determine who gets to act first and then attacks are dealt. Damages is assigned where appropriate and then the next beat begins

If you'd like to read the complete rules, they're available on the rules page of thepublisher's website. They've done them as a conversation between two of the characters which makes them very easy to read. It looks like a lot but it's pretty smooth reading.

I found the rules to be solid and generally smooth. I love that the rulebook has a big section describing each of the characters and telling you a bit about what they do. It's really well put together. I had one gripe about the Clashes as I feel they could have done just a bit more explaining. Also, the conversational nature doesn't really make it easy to find key words.

Final Score: 4.50 points


Components
BattleCON comes in a nicely compacted box, but that box is full of cards and cardboard. I like the small size which makes it easy to carry around.  It nicely stores all the cards but I wish there were dividers.  I know I'm asking a lot, but the sheer amount of cards provided can get a little overwhelming.  Dividers would have been a superb touch.

Here's Hirakau Sorayama's cards
Speaking of the sheer amount of cards, each of the 18 (!) characters comes with their own unique set of cards.  As you can see, each character has his own character card which outlines that characters special abilities including his Finishing move. What fighting game would be complete without a killer way to finish off your opponent?  Each character also has a set of 5 style cards which are tied to how that character plays.  There's also one base card per character to switch things up from the standard bases.  The character cards alone count for 126 cards in the box.
In addition to all these character cards, there are 4 sets of bases, special cards and turn summaries.  This is enough for you to have up to 4 players in one game or two separate 2 player games.  You also get a set of location cards which put special rules into effect for the duel, one set each of Almighty and Ex bases which increase the amount of damage a character can do, and even a set of blank cards for you to make your own character.  I really wish there were 2 each of Ex and Almighty so you could just play with those right out of the box, but alas there's only one of each.

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the superb quality of the cards.  The stock is perfect and the semi-gloss coating is nice.  The edges are prone to a bit of flaking but I'm okay with that as this isn't a game that can get ruined by marked cards.  In addition, since you never need to really shuffle in this game you can sleeve everything with penny sleeves and save a fortune.

You also get a bunch of tokens, a nice double-sided board and great cardboard stand-ups for each character.  Unfortunately, the plastic pieces that hold the stand-ups aren't very good, but they're mostly functional.



There's a LOT in this box and for the price you get a very good bang for your buck.  Final score: 4.5


Gameplay

The Characters - The fact that you get 18 characters in the box is pretty awesome.  Even if they just had one or two little differences then it would still be cool to try different match-ups.  The fact that every single character here is wildly different is insane.  You couldn't ask for more variety in a group of fighters.  You've got everything from a guy who controls time to a woman who has her pet panda bear fighting beside her.  There are monsters, there are robots, and there are even guys with guns.  Some are easier to play than others and some match-ups will be more even.  The beauty of this amount of choice is that you'll have so much to explore.  When you feel like you've really got a handle on how a single character plays you can ditch him for another and try again.  Then you can explore different match-ups to see what you really know. The possibilities are endless.

4 of the playable character in BattleCON

 Range - One of my favorite features in this game is the use of the board to show range.  In any fighting game range is superbly important because some characters want to get in tight while others want to stay back.  BattleCON does a superb job of this with such a simple board.  I also like the movement rules and how they apply to range as that can really mix up fights.  I think this is one feature that really makes BattleCON stand apart from other games in this genre.

Modes of play - I'm a big fan of the fan of having a few ways to play a game and BattleCON delivers.  You have the standard 1 vs. 1 match played on the regular board.  Then you have the opposite side of the board which supports multi-player battles such as a tag match, 2 vs. 2, 2 vs.1, and even 3 vs.1.  In addition to that, you've got the Ex cards which ramp up the damage or the Almighty cards which are damage machines.  These cards can be used in the many vs. 1 matches above or as a handicap in a 1 vs. 1 match.  In addition, they've included a bunch of location cards which are used to spice up the battle.  At the start of the fight, you randomly draw one and apply those effects to the battle.  There's some great stuff in there which throws a monkey wrench into some proven strategies. Lookout for the Pit!

Expandability - This system is completely open-ended which means we could constantly have a new influx of characters and/or scenarios.  I love the fact that the game even comes with blank cards to make your own character complete with his own abilities.  The possibilities are endless.

Game Length - This falls under both the positive and negative.  Once you figure out the game, you can breeze right through it.  Matches will last 20-30 minutes, maybe less if you're really cranking through it.  That means you can play a bunch of duels in 2 hours which is great for sampling the different fighters.  However the first matches are going to take a LONG time.  While the mechanics and turn order are fairly simple, it takes a while to come to grips with all the different cards, especially when you consider that you have to play them in a pair.  It's not too frustrated, but beware that your first games are going to be slow.  Unfortunately this may turn a lot of people off.

The Mind Game - While your characters may be duking it out on the board, you're not only playing the cards, you're also playing your opponent.  The game revolves around trying to figure out what your opponent is going to do.  The combination of the two aspects is great because in this game there's no bluffing.  You've only got so many cards.  Some are on the table waiting to come back in your hand and the rest are yours to choose from.  That gives you some idea of what's coming, but you can never be sure.  I think this is an area where BattleCON really ties into fighting games because you know with absolute certainty that when you're far from Scorpion in Mortal Kombat you can expect a spear coming your way....or can you?  I love the combination of the cards and double-think and feel that it really makes the game very tense.

No luck, all skill - BattleCON is a zero-luck card game.  You'll always see all your cards.  It will be up to you how to cycle them through your hand.  It will be up to you how you want to pair up styles and bases.  All of those decisions will be made without the random draw of cards which is very nice.  If you were playing Street Fighter IV and wanted to do a Shuryuken with Ryu you wouldn't want it to come down to luck whether you could or not, right?  In BattleCON it's all up to you.

A little bit of clunk -  Sometimes, no matter what you do, some turns just feel clunky.  You'll have occassional turns where a lot of different actions happen and that can bog some turns down a bit.  It's not frequent but when it happens it grinds that turn to a halt.  This can kill tempo some times but the game usually picks right back up afterwards.  This usually goes away with a bit more familiarity but it's another one of those things that can turn new players off.

Final Score - 7.5 out of 10 with an exception.  Once you've gotten several games under your belt then it jumps to an 9 out of 10.  There's a learning curve that may really put some people off.

Overall

The total score for BattleCon is 16.5 for new players with a bump to 18 once you've gotten the hang of it.  I took off some minor points for the rulebook which could have been just a bit better, a bit for the bad stands and and some points for the barrier to entry.  Once you're familiar with the game, it jumps up considerably in my opinion which is why I'm giving it 2 scores. 
 
I'll rate the game an 8 out of 10 on the BGG scale.  That means it's a very good game that I like to play.  I'll likely suggest to play and wouldn't turn down the opportunity to do so.
 
Conclusion

In case you can't tell, I'm pretty enamored with this game.  I love how well it simulates my favorite fighting games.  BattleCON truly captures the essence and the spirit of those games.  I remember spending hours learning how to use Guile in Street Fighter II and this game gives me that same feeling.  It's a game that rewards you for really learning a character and brings back the nostalgia of pumping quarters into the machine to do so.  You get a huge amount of high-quality cards in the box with near limitless replayability.  They've packed a lot of quality in a small package and for the price it's tough to beat.

I hate to harp on it, but this game does have a bit of a barrier to entry.  Your first games will be slow and I'm afraid that's going to put a lot of people off.  Stick with and give it 10 games.  Trust me, it's worth it.  I liken this game to a red wine. Lots of reds are very strong and almost off-putting at first until you learn to find the subtle flavors.  Then it all comes together and you "get it".  That's exactly how I'd describe BattleCON.  Stick with it and you'll find something truly awesome and very rewarding.

Want to try out BattleCON before you shell out your hard-earned money?  You can download a PnP copy from Level 99's website and test the game out.

Disclaimer - I received a review copy of BattleCON from the game's designer.