June 2021 – Staggering over the half-way line

Another month has been and gone, Covid restrictions are still here (at least in part) and 2021 is half-way done already!

I spent a noticeable chunk of June ill (several days off work too unwell to work, a separate stint of whole-family-self-isolation are my son coughed his way to a Covid test, and the particularly enjoyable “alive enough to work, but too shattered by evening to continue functioning”) but thanks to a strong start, it was still a solid month for gaming.

Keeping it Marvellous

Love the card titles – it’s the simple things that amuse me

The Card Game Cooperative got to sit down this month with Michael Boggs, one of the developers of Marvel Champions, and the lead on the most recent Galaxy’s Most Wanted box. Knowing that this was coming up (and having just received the Drax the Destroyer hero pack), there was lots of Champions going on – Drax has a really good fun aggro approach (whoever would have guessed that aggro protection would be a thing?) and feels a lot like what Hulk wanted to be/should have been.

I also kept playing a fair amount of Marvel United. I’ve been doing a fair bit of painting of this, getting the various characters who appear as Heroes and/or Villains in Marvel Champions done as a priority, just so that I can add a bit of extra presence and colour to those games.

I’ve also been trying some of the challenges – sticking to the core set for the moment, but removing the Single and/or Double Wild Icon cards certainly ups the difficulty, especially for heroes who don’t have a particularly balanced icon distribution.

There was even time for a bit of Legendary this month – long-gone are the days when this was the undisputed king of the Marvel titles in our house, and a top 5 game in general (in fact this was the month where Champions overtook it in the all-time-most-sessions stakes, pushing it down to 7th), but it’s still fun, even allowing for the rather cumbersome set-up, and the myriad unforeseen awkward interactions caused by so many expansions being combined together. This month it was a mostly Avengers and X-Men team up against Morgan Le Fay and the anonymous “god-Emperor of Battleworld” – a few unsuccessful attempts, but we got there after a little bit of tweaking the hero line-up.

Return of the Rings

Do not let the enemy set foot beyond the patio!

It had been a fair while since I’d gotten Lord of the Rings the Card Game to the table, but that changed in a big way in the final weekend of June. With our son staying at his grandparents for a few nights, we turned our house into Annuminas for a 6-person Epic Multiplayer run-through of Siege of Annuminas, the Fellowship scenario from 2016 that I last played when my son was less than a month old and still lived in hospital. This is definitely a challenging one, and we hadn’t particularly teched for it, leaving some of the stages really struggling for the right kind of answers to the various challenges that the game threw at them. I was in the innermost area, and whilst I had a very strong defender in One-Ring-Inner-Strength-Beregond (deck is shamelessly derived from Electron Jon’s Ain’t No Ash Mountain High Enough build with slight modifications to allow it to function in the wild), 3 attacks of anywhere between 5 and 9 each round tore through our allies faster than we could replace them, seriously undermining our ability to quest. We made it through to Stage 3, thanks to Gandalf Guy killing all 5 of the approaching Hosts, but we’d been late starting, meaning that the Gandalf guy had to go, taking with him our chances of victory.

After a spot of food, our next challenge was the Voyage of the Dreadnaught. Again, this was an “epic multiplayer” game, insofar as one table of 3 and one table of 2 can be considered epic multiplayer, and we played it on Easy mode, somewhat surprised to find that it actually lived up to the name – a relatively comfortable win all-told, thanks to some gigantic dwarf-swarms, and bunch of Hobbits on a pleasure cruise (as far as I could tell from the Dwarf table, they were mostly just doing side-quests and trying to keep their threat in single figures whilst the dwarves did all the real work).

In case Saturday’s pair of epic scenarios weren’t enough, we kept up the theme on Sunday, finally venturing into the ALEP content. Once again, I net-decked, putting together an Ingold Gondor swarm deck for my wife and Beorn’s Last Alliance of Bears and Rohhirrim. Our first attempt was scuppered by a couple of nasty treacheries and shadows, but we beat Ambush at Erelas at the second attempt, with several of the new cards doing sterling work, and then triumphed in Battle for the Beacon a couple of days later. 1 more scenario to go, but I’m feeling a lot more positive about things, having finally taken the first step into this new world of content.

The Right Amount of Bones

Too Many Bones saw a fair amount of table time again, as we made our way through the next couple of Tyrants in the box. We needed a couple of attempts at these, given a slightly higher degree of complexity, and a rules error on my part that had us making life a lot harder for ourselves than it needed to be (just in case anyone else has difficulty reading rulebooks properly, Baddies with the Hardy keyword can only take one damage per turn, not per round!). There’s 2 or 3 still to face in the box, at which point we’ll probably switch up the characters and/or try a harder difficulty setting. (I discovered recently that when teaching the game to a new player, it’s not a great idea to try playing a brand new character that you’ve never looked at before…)

Half-Time Challenges

June was a much better month than May for my various gameplay challenges, particularly the Multiplayer Hardcore 10×10.

Xenocide became the 5th title to hit 10 plays, whilst 3 sessions of Marvel Legendary and 5 of Lord of the Rings brought them to 6 and 8 plays respectively. 75/100 sessions so far, and under previous years’ rules it would be 83, including solo sessions – Journeys in Middle Earth continues to lag a little behind, but it’s still Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle that looks like the real mistake in the games chosen here – still only 1 play in 6 months (and I still haven’t gotten around to making the custom insert that it needs to fit both expansions into the box with the main game), this is going to need some serious table time soon, possibly in July when we go on holiday with my Mother-in-Law.

I’m up to more than a dozen new games for 2021 now – Flash Point and Cartographers were only the 3rd and 4th to make 10 plays, but there are another couple on 9 sessions, plus KeyForge on 6 before I have to start scrabbling around for the final 3.

As noted before, I seem to play a lot of different solo games a little bit, rather than having an obvious 10, but Kingdomino & Cartographers became the 4th and 5th games to reach 10 sessions this month, with Aeon’s End just behind on 9 – 80/100 all told.

Stepping back from the challenges specifically, I’m at over 500 games played in the first half of the year, which feels like a lot when you consider that last year’s 827 games played was already a record. That’s largely down to a shift towards more sessions played, but of shorter games – the first 6 months of 2020 actually saw 10 hours more of gaming, and the second half of 2020 was another 12 on top of that – so this doesn’t necessarily represent a surge in gaming. Still, I’ll be interested to see how the pattern continues in the second half of the year.

Money

I spent a decent amount on games in June, the biggest chunk of which was pre-ordering the new Arkham LCG Cycle – however, as this will be replacing monthly Mythos packs, it probably means a reduced spend in the long-term. I sold a few bits and pieces this month as well: TIME Stories, The 7th Continent, and some Carcassonne Expansions. I’m a big Carcassonne fan, and play loads of the solo version, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that it works best as a fairly streamlined, fairly quick game – I’d rather play it twice than make it a slog with too many tiles, so parting with some hard-to-get expansions whose mechanisms I wasn’t over-fond of, for more than I originally paid for them (probably, it’s been years, so I don’t actually have the figures) seemed like a fairly sensible move.

July will see the closing of a few pledge managers, so more costs to come.

Next

As mentioned, July will (Covid regs permitting) see us go on our family holiday for the summer with my in-laws. My mother-in-law is generally a fairly willing gamer, so hopefully get a fair few sessions in there of family-friendly staples: Hogwarts Battle, probably a Pandemic of some description.

I also want to get Paladins of the West Kingdom and Sword & Sorcery back to the table – both are not-actually-that-new-anymore games that I’ve only managed to play once, and I could definitely do with another opportunity to master the rules before trying to introduce them to others.

If the end of June was anything to go by, the biggest limiting factor for July is likely to be my health – I’ve also got my second Covid jab coming up, and the first one knocked me sideways for a day or two, so hopefully I won’t lose too much time overall to my sickbed.

At least the 2nd jab will come before what will (hopefully) be a long-overdue return to face-to-face game cons with UK Games Expo. With no idea whether Insomnia is even going to be running, and a Delta-shaped cloud hanging over the long-awaited return to Essen this autumn, this could well be my only con of the year, and I’m hoping to try and probably return with a few new games – although it’ll be August before I actually make it home again.

I’m not expecting a great deal in terms of new stuff in July. There’s the Return to the Circle Undone for Arkham LCG which arrived a few days ago and has yet to hit the table, plus probably the Venom hero pack for Marvel Champions, but that’s probably about it.

Lord of the Rings – A Large English Printing

Today I’m going to take a bit of a look back at the game that first saw me start blogging about games all those years ago, Lord of the Rings LCG.

Culling at the Barrow Downs by “Feonix”

Although the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game had its final official release towards the end of 2020, there have been no shortage of fan-led projects eager to keep that steady drip of new content coming. As an early adopter of this game, I already have a fair amount of custom stuff sitting in boxes in various places, everything from extra quests cards from way back when the only encounter cards we had were those from the core set, up through complete scenarios, player cards, and even a complete re-porting of the game to the First Age of Middle Earth. Design credits on these come from all sorts of folks – a fair few of player cards are my own work, and on the encounter side, I’ve got stuff from prominent BGG luminaries NinjaDorg and Feonix (better know today as Tristan “Gloom of Kilforth” Hall and MJ “now makes FFG card games for a living” Newman) as well as the brain behind the First Age expansion Ian “Escape from Khazad Dum” Martin.

Despite all that, I’ve been increasingly reluctant to invest the time/effort/money into custom content in recent years. LotR is competing for time with a lot more games in my collection than it was 10 years ago, and the sheer volume of official content has grown to the point where there are whole sections that I’ve barely scratched the surface of.

The Lure of new Rings

2021 saw me give in to the lure of custom content for the first time in a long while, specifically the Children of Eorl ‘deluxe expansion’ from the project calling itself A Long Extended Party (or ALEP for short). You can find out more about them from their website, but there are a few reasons I decided to follow this one a bit more closely – for one thing, this project has a huge team, and it looks like an incredible number of man-hours have gone into this: design, play-testing, attempting to keep templating consistent with official cards and soforth – I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the benefits of having many, many pairs of eyes on a custom content project to make sure that the cards produced end up actually doing what they were intended to, not just what the creator had in their head. It’s also being run by Seastan, one of the hosts of Cardboard of the Rings, which gives it a lot of visibility and, by extension, a far higher number of people playing and collecting stuff than any of the other fan-made content out there, which means that there are actually likely to be meaningful discussions going on about how best to use the cards/tackle the quests etc. Lastly, the fact that their stated aim for the first release was to flesh out the Rohan trait offered the promise of a power-up for a deck that’s always felt slightly underwhelming to me.

The problem however, was likely to be cost. An estimated 29 Euro for the pack, up to another 16 Euro for delivery, and the Brexit-shaped spectre of an unknown amount of customs-charges, as the nearest recommended printer was in Poland. It looked very likely that this could end up costing somewhere between £40 and £50 for the deluxe. (At just under 200 cards, this is slightly more than an official Deluxe, but still noticeably less than a Deluxe and an AP). A glimmer of hope was offered by the prospect of getting some discount (plus sharing the burden of shipping) if we could get a group of us together – specifically we needed 10 to hit the threshold. I messaged the various people I knew who might be interested… and we were 1 or 2 short. I guess we could have done an 8-9 copy order, and hopefully still saved a bit on shipping, but a 5-Euro-per-copy discount is not something to be sniffed at, so I was keen to get more.

After a bit of thinking, I made the fateful decision to stick a post on Facebook to gauge people’s interest – I have to admit to being slightly overwhelmed by the responses.

Despite various issues with Facebook messenger sending DMs to spam folders, I ultimately ended up ordering 38 copies, having worked out that I could (probably?) do it for £27 a copy / £30 for the ones I was going to end up having to post onwards. I collected people’s money and after briefly pause whilst my PayPal account was frozen (apparently it looks a bit suspect if you collect £30 from a variety of strangers, then authorise an 800 Euro payment to a company in Poland with only the reference “ALEP”…) and the order was placed. As suspected, the customs charges ended up being the best part of £200, but I soon had the cards in hand.

The print quality was really nice – we’d gone for the 250g card-stock, which was fractionally lighter than official FFG cards, but I wasn’t too worried about the difference once I’d sleeved them up. (they’ve actually added a 300g option, which should be pretty-much identical to official cards, but this only became available when I was already half-way through taking people’s money and details, so would have been a nightmare to start changing the specs mid-way through…). The biggest issue for me, was that I now had 2 very large boxes of cards that I needed to get to people all over the UK.

I spent quite a lot of time checking through the boxes – I couldn’t individually look at all 200ish cards in each of the 38 orders, but I could make sure that everyone had a box 1 and a box 2 (rather than getting half the set twice) and that there were no obvious gaps/all the heroes were included etc, then set to posting them off. Ultimately, posting stuff out to people turned out to be noticeably more expensive than I anticipated, and it was only thanks to the fact that I’m a terrible hoarder, and had loads of old jiffy bags that I could use which stopped me from spending a sizeable chunk of my own money above-and-beyond the £27 for my own copy.

It was definitely an undertaking. I’m sure I earned myself a few enemies at the local post-office (it turns out that posting 20 parcels at a time can cause a bit of a queue!) and I basically used up the whole afternoon of my day off, plus having to take a few hours of leave later in the week to get them all sent, but I got there in the end.

The Cards

The finished product was impressive – ALEP have clearly put a lot of time into art and templating, and MB print have done a decent job with the printing. A Hero plus 4 new player cards in each sphere is a healthy injection of cards, and 3 new quests are nothing to be sniffed at either. Unfortunately, given a fairly busy couple of months in general (I’ve had more time off sick in the past 3 weeks than the previous 18 months combined), and the large amount of time I had to sink into the ordering/printing/posting side of things, I haven’t actually gotten any of the new content to the table yet – the heroes are sleeved, but not the quest/encounter cards, and the other player-cards have yet to be integrated into my storage system.

Next?

So, would I do it again? Is ALEP a good use of my time and money? Well, that probably depends on whether I get to play it!

In terms of future printings, there’s now a question of card-stock. The 300g is a better match for FFG cards, but it would mean a slight discrepancy with the ‘deluxe’ cards – not the biggest issue for me, but it might bother some of the non-encounter-sleevers out there.

In terms of making the mega-bulk order, it’s probably a saving of £20 vs putting in a solo order, but a batch of 4 split with a few friends locally would be somewhere in the middle for a lot less leg-work. Doing a big bulk order with strangers would mean having to do another round of guesstimating (given postage, customs etc, I don’t really know costs until it’s happened, final costs will depend on numbers, but numbers will depend on costs). I’d also have to charge a bit extra next-time round to cover the fact that I’d be buying all my envelopes from scratch. Obviously for everyone else, it’s a much better deal to have me doing the leg-work, and I’d be lying if I said that the thought hadn’t crossed my mind to just charge everyone a quid extra so that I at least got my own copy at a discount rate – that said, I decided fairly quickly that it really wouldn’t be on to start charging for prints out a fan-made project that’s being made available for free.

Only time will tell whether I end up getting more ALEP stuff, but I’ll be sure to post here about it as soon as there’s anything to report.

The New Way Forward for Arkham Horror The Card Game

In case you missed it, the last few weeks have seen some pretty big news for Arkham Horror the Card Game.

With the most recent cycle, The Innsmouth Conspiracy, reaching a conclusion with the release of Into the Maelstrom last month (or in April in the UK), there was only a single announced product that had yet to make its way into the hands of the general public, Return to The Circle Undone, which we were all expecting sometime in the next couple of weeks. Fans of the game had been primed to expect a slight delay, to make up for the impact that Covid had on design/testing last year, but everyone was expecting confirmation of the new cycle to land sometime soon.

I’m not sure that anyone was expecting what we got.

Before I go into the announcement, here’s a quick bit of background for context.

As it has always been – a brief history of LCGs

In a lot of ways, the LCG – Living Card Game – is Fantasy Flight’s flagship model for games. Designed as a corrective to CCGs (collectible card games), they offer regular instalments of content, with a fixed distribution: when you buy a product, you know exactly which cards are going to be inside.

Arkham Horror was a long way from being the first LCG, but since its initial release in 2016, it has followed a pattern that’s very familiar for this game type.

Firstly, there was a core box, which is needed to play anything that follows. In theory, a single core box is enough to play the game, but you only get a single copy of a lot of key player cards, so if you’re planning on committing to the game (or just want to play with 3-4 players without buying all the expansions), a second core is highly recommended, if not quite a “must-have.”

From thereon, the game releases in cycles. The exact shape of a cycle has always varied by game, but it tends to be focused around a set of 6 “monthly” packs of 60 cards (Mythos packs in Arkham, previously Adventure, Chapter, Dynasty, Data, etc in other LCGs). Competitive LCGs have often had models where each cycle was just the 6x monthly packs (possibly supplemented by bigger boxes that tended to stand apart). But for Arkham, like Lord of the Rings before it, each cycle has been kicked off by a larger “deluxe expansion,” and the 6 smaller, monthly packs typically require the preceding deluxe to be playable.

We’ve been told at various points in the past that new cards are all tested together, effectively created as a single design, which is then broken down into 6 or 7 products at a later stage (this has been known to create unusual kinks in the meta of tournament/competitive games, where a card is extremely powerful in the first part of a cycle before another card releases a month or 2 later which balances it out).

There have been attempts to break away from this model. When Fantasy Flight launched Legend of the Five Rings as an LCG, they gave us the core box, then immediately followed it with 6 Dynasty Packs in 6 weeks, as part of an attempt to front-load the card-pool and get people deck-building from the outset. It was … a mixed success, at best. The arrival of the second 6 in 6 was definitely the trigger for me to stop buying the game, and I think it proved problematic for others too, as it didn’t last much longer before they reverted to a more traditional monthly model. Lots of people have suggested alternatives for various LCGs, but it had never looked incredibly likely to happen.

Until now.

The Edge of the Earth

So, as mentioned above, at the beginning of June, we got our announcement of the new campaign. However, the big twist was that, instead of a deluxe (And presumably 6 monthly packs to follow), this would be 2 big boxes, and that would be it!

Box 1 is 5 new investigators and a load of player cards, and Box 2 is an entire campaign of secnario/encounter cards – so (roughly) the same content as you previously had in 7 different purchases now in 2.

There was also information on what the new campaign was going to be (Antarctica), and who the new investigators would be (Lily, Norman, Daniela, Bob and Monterey Jack), but that got a little buried under the distribution format bombshell.

Overall, the reaction to the change seems to be very strongly positive, but I just wanted to take a few minutes today to think a little bit more about the pros and cons of the new model.

A Man Walks into a Board Game Shop…

This is already quite out-of-date – we’ve had 1.5 more cycles than are shown here, plus this display doesn’t seem to include the Core Game or any Return To boxes…

Occasionally, people still go into shops. I know that seems like a long-forgotten concept after nearly 18 months of Covid, but I believe it’s still true. Nearly 5 years into the life of the game, any shop that wants to carry a full range of Arkham products needs to devote a large chunk of space to it. The Core box, 6 deluxe expansions. 36 Mythos packs. 4 “Return to…” boxes (soon to be 5) 8(ish) stand-alone or event scenarios, that’s already well over 50 different products, and an expectation of another 8-10 per year on a game that’s showing no signs of stopping.

In reality, very few shops are in a position to devote that much space to a single game (unless it’s Magic the Gathering), and instead, what tends to happen, is that shops will stock a random hodgepodge of different Arkham products. I believe that MJ has confirmed in the past that sales figures always dwindle as you go through a cycle, but the interaction between how many copies actually get printed/ordered/sold is a level of arcane knowledge that I don’t have access to.

With FFG continuing to print/release very conservative numbers of copies of each pack, it has increasingly been the case that, unless you have a clear plan for where you’re getting your Arkham Mythos pack in place ahead of time, there’s a very real chance that you miss out upon release, and it can take months, sometimes years for the replacements to all line up. I know plenty of people who own the start of a cycle but haven’t played the campaign, because they can’t source the end (or sometimes the middle!) and they don’t want to get stuck mid-way through. In this respect, Arkham is even worse off than its ancestor, Lord of the Rings, as LotR only had a fairly loose overarching story, and generally you could play pack 5 without having played pack 4 relatively easily. Arkham’s “campaign by default” approach makes that more-or-less impossible if you want to experience the game “as intended”.

Notionally, then, from a buying-and-selling perspective, the new model is better all-round: fewer products for shops to stock, leading to a greater likelihood of them having everything available. No more players stuck with half a cycle that they can’t play.

From a financial perspective, obviously the equations change. I put in a pre-order for the 2 boxes for £89.99 shipped, compared with £23.99 + 6x£11.99 plus however many lots of shipping. If you wanted to wait and managed to grab a whole cycle at once, the new model probably saves you about £5 per cycle (there’s generally a small discount to be had when buying bulk) but if you bought everything as it came out and don’t have a bricks-and-mortar shop to go to, the shipping is probably pushing it up £20 or so more expensive over the course of the cycle.

The big difference however, is when the money gets spent. The bottom line says that £90 is less than £95+, but £95 at once feels like a lot more than never more than £25-30 in a month (and most months more like £15) – from the perspective of my own spreadsheets, I’m glad that this announcement/pre-order came at a point in the year where we’d already clocked up nearly 50 hours of Arkham LCG!

Talking Arkham 1: What happens next?

In the age of box-sets and bingeing, I’ve been really enjoying the Marvel Disney+ series this year. Wandavision in particular, was a very unusual programme that became a whole lot more interesting because of the rampant speculation. Every week the internet was absolutely teeming with theories, most of which turned out to be wrong, but there was a definite sense of being part of an event as well as simply watching something.

What do you think? can we trust them?

Whilst Arkham isn’t generally as crazy as the most extreme bits of Wandavision, it still has a very strong narrative element, and the speculation on how things are going to play out is still a significant part of the online chatter that keeps the community ticking over. There is genuine uncertainty within the community: what exactly is the mystery behind X? is NPC Y going to betray us? Is Mephisto really behind it all?

When the Edge of the Earth campaign box releases, there will be some people (probably those without small children) who will complete the campaign that weekend. Others might take a few weeks, whereas others still will take months over it. I’d imagine that people will be far less likely to go online to create “I wonder what will happen next…” posts when they know full well that the answers are in a box on their table. When those posts do happen, they are far more likely to be met with “ah yeah, that’s a good one, you’ll have to wait and see” (or just someone ruining the fun by straight-up answering) rather than people weighing in with their own competing guesswork.

Talking Arkham 2: Are we all on the same page?

Beyond that shared, gradual discovery aspect, the pack-by-pack release model has generally meant that when I go to an Arkham discord server/Facebook group etc, there’s generally a core mass of players who are all within a scenario or two of each other in the current campaign, meaning that beyond the narrative speculation, you’ll generally find people puzzling over the best ways to use the same new cards, struggling with the same new challenges, or just generally wanting to talk about the current thing.

By contrast, I own all the “Return to…” boxes and, whilst I’ve seen periodic discussions of changes that people did/didn’t like, I’ve never felt like I saw any real sense of progression as the public collectively moved through the campaign, it’s just a case that “a while” after a “Return to…” box comes out, someone will say “so, what about that campaign, eh?” and a few people will weigh in with thoughts – the ones who have actually played the whole thing, as few as they may be.

In one sense, this is a very small issue – none of it changes the actual gameplay. That said, I do still think that I’ll miss this element, and I hope that lack of incentive to keep pace with the general conversation doesn’t lead to a dwindling of impetus to keep people playing the game.

Talking Arkham 3: Keeping the Conversation Going

other Podcasts are available

Tied to this idea of the conversation, is the question of “Content Creators,” the folk who spend their free time Blogging, Podcasting, making YouTube videos, or whatever else it is the kids do these days. Whilst I’m not trying to suggest that Arkham is up there with a tournament game like Magic the Gathering, I can’t think of another cooperative game which has so many and such prolific fans creating things for the game.

Again, this certainly isn’t something that’s necessary to play the game, but knowing that there’s going to be a review of this month’s scenario on Mythos Busters in a few months’ time is going to make a fair few people make sure that they’re keeping up to date. Knowing that Frank will be doing a “First Look” at the new player cards on the next episode of Drawn to the Flame is enough reason for plenty of people to ensure that they have their pack on release day, and crack it open as they listen live – is that still going to be part of the wider ritual of the game when it’s an annual wade in to 265 cards followed by 11 months of silence? (Fortunately, at the Card Game Cooperative, we’re too slow to remain that topical, so we’ll hopefully survive the shake-up unscathed!)

What about the box?

It might seem an absurd thing to be concerned about, but it’s also worth giving some thought to storage. Right now, I have 4 (imminently 5) “Return to…” boxes, which will hold a fully-sleeved campaign, along with 1 or 2 standalones that came out around the same time, and which all sit next to each other very neatly on my shelves. I also have 3 plain cardboard boxes which hold the most recent campaigns, until they get their Return To.

Struggling to tell what size these boxes are – Marvel Champions campaign box? Arkham Core set? all will be revealed, I guess…

Part of this, is because the original packaging for both deluxes and mythos packs is so awful: the flimsy card of a deluxe will bend and collapse if you stare at it too hard, and the plastic “clam-shells” of the mythos packs are ideally for retail display, poor for storing unsleeved cards, and literally useless for storing them sleeved.

By the sounds of things, Edge of the Earth and its successors will come already in a relatively sturdy, ‘proper’ box – so what does this mean for Return Tos? It could be that these were already on their way out (my understanding is that LotR’s Nightmare packs were cancelled due to low sales figures), but I’ve heard many enthuse about the storage benefits of a Return To box, and spoken with plenty of folks who probably wouldn’t have bothered with the extra cards, if it weren’t for the box. Have FFG left extra space inside the original for Return To cards? Will we still get what we’re used to later? Or will Return to The Innsmouth Conspiracy be the last of its kind?

Ditching those clam-shells is almost certainly good for the environment, but if the Return to boxes are a casualty of this shake-up, there are going to be some sad folk out there.

The Play’s the Thing

For a change that I’m actually relatively positive about, I know that I’ve posted a fair few “negatives” here. That’s mostly just my sleep-deprived inner miserable old git talking: not that I don’t think they’re all valid concerns, simply in how prominent I’ve let them become.

Ultimately though, the true determinant of whether the switch in model will be a success (at least in my eyes, although I’d hope of others too) is the question of “will the distribution change lead to better, worse, or unchanged quality of scenarios?” MJ has spoken recently on Drawn to the Flame about how Essex County Express, essentially came about because of the need to keep the campaign 8 scenarios long, and ended up being a really distinctive, memorable scenario, so there have definitely been positives to this “restriction” up until now. Even so, personally, I’m really intrigued to see what will MJ come up with now that she’s free of the “8 scenarios pretty-much in a fixed order” constraint? Again, in a recent interview (I think it was with Mythos Busters), she said that Edge of the Earth will potentially have a variable number of scenarios, depending on decisions you make, and I’m sure that this is just the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended) for what we might see later.

Positives

  • Always able to get whole cycles
  • Fewer products for Retailers to stock
  • Lower overall cost
  • Environmentally friendly (less plastic packaging)
  • More creative freedom for developers

Negatives

  • Bigger up-front buy-in
  • Feast or Famine rather than steady trickle of releases
  • Community discussion likely to be more fragmented
  • Inconsistent storage / what happens to “Return To…”

I’ve played Arkham Horror LCG at least once a month for 48 [sic!] months in a row, and obviously that’s because I enjoy playing the game. I hope that this change will mean even more interesting new content for the game and more things to explore.

Overall, I think that FFG have done the most sensible thing here. From a business/logistics position it’s a no-brainer, and whilst I do have some concerns about the changes that will happen to community content and the general discussion around the game, I’m optimistic that the long-term benefits will be big enough to more than balance it all out.

Too Many Fools

Just before Easter weekend 2021 (April 1st to be precise) I was scrolling through the posts on various Board Game Groups on Facebook, as I tend to do at times, and I came across someone enthusing over the components of Too Many Bones. Long-time readers will have heard me lament in the past the production decisions made by Chip Theory Games – not necessarily by the components per se, but more by the impact on overall game-price that their production decisions have made. High-price components = high-price games (and, by extension, no retail release).

Slightly truncated, the last line is “Swimming Pool”

A bit of a back-and-forth discussion ensued. I said that it was pointless, the author replied that it saved him from having to sleeve the cards (for anyone not aware, their “cards” are all plastic), and a third poster noted that it was great, as you could play in your swimming pool!

I conceded that this was a fair point, as anyone who could afford to buy in heavily to Too Many Bones could also afford a swimming pool.

So far, so normal, a typically pointless back-and-forth on a Facebook group. But then something a little odd happened.

A guy named Josh appeared, and made the following comment:

“Hey James, shoot me a PM. We (Chip Theory Games) would like to send you a copy of TMB on the house. Totally serious, not April Fool’s. Send me a PM and I’ll create a coupon for you!”

–  he also clarified that he could not afford a swimming pool…

Now, this definitely wouldn’t be the first time I’d seen CTG make this kind of comment on social media, but I certainly hadn’t been expecting this: the comment was definitely just “grumpy old man being a grumpy old man” rather than trying to fish for free stuff.

Still, I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I PM-ed the guy, we exchanged a few messages in which we confirmed which continent I was living on and – because you are definitely allowed to do a little bit of trolling when giving someone a load of free stuff – he duly advised me that the coupon “TOOMANYPOOLS” would get me a free copy of Too Many Bones with free shipping. (I had a panic as I was about to post this article, that I was on the verge of accidentally giving anyone who reads this blog a free copy, which would seem like a mean way to repay TCG’s kindness, but I double-checked, and the code just shows up as “already used” so we’re safe there!)

He assured me that there were no strings attached, other than a general encouragement to “pay it forward when you get the chance” and that I shouldn’t feel any guilt about selling the games on later if I decided I didn’t like them. Final comment was a warning that their European distributor was a bit backed up, so it might take a couple of weeks.

The Waiting Game

Fast-forward to early May 2021. I still had my order confirmation. I still did not have a shipping notification. If I clicked the link to take me through to their website, it still showed as “order not processed.”

I found myself asking the question – “I know how over-produced their games are: do they do similarly over-produced trolling? Is this an entire fake website? Or maybe the coupon code converts the order into a fake order that just sits there, leaving the “customer” waiting for a game that’s never coming?” if you think this sounds paranoid, you’re not wrong, but the internet is a crazy place.

Leave it a bit longer I guess?

This is 8.17am. This is NOT a parcel shop that opens at 8am (despite what the DPD website claimed…)

Whilst this was slowly unfolding, a friend was ordering Cloudspire from Chip Theory (and was also the only person I’d mentioned my pending free copy to) and he messaged me to let me know that Spiral Galaxy had finished fulfilling the most recent Cloudspire Kickstarter, and were about to start shipping Cloudspire and TMB pre-orders.

I eventually got an email on May 20th saying that my parcel would be arriving the following day. This proved to be the start of a 4-5 day farce in which DPD did everything in their power to not deliver my parcel.

This culminated in me being sat outside a newsagent that was supposed to 1) be open and 2) have my game, but instead was clearly shut (I worried that it might even have shut down, but apparently that’s just standard anti-theft tech for an urban newsagent). At that point, not only had I convinced myself that the free game was a joke, I was expecting the ghost of Jeremy Beadle and a TV camera crew to appear suddenly and laugh at me.

In the end though, I got my parcel. Despite my suspicions, I had not been trolled, and was now in possession of a sizeable amount of Too Many Bones content – namely the original game and the Undertow expansion.

Not Entirely New

Long-time readers will know that I had managed to get my hands on a copy of Undertow in the past, but it has been a very long time since it hit the table – the expansion whilst mechanically playable as a standalone game is a fairly awkward entry point to the world, thematically and mechanically. The characters are a bit more complex than in the base game, there are extra baddie types to contend with, and the lore/characters are a bit jumbled as you’re essentially joining a story half-way through.

How then, did original Too Many Bones compare? Well, for one thing the rulebook feels more intuitive – how much that’s down to it being v2.1 and how much that’s down to me already having a bit of a sense of the game, I’m still not sure. Beyond that, there’s just a lot more variety – 4 Gearlocks (playable characters) instead of 2 and, crucially, this means a choice of options at the low end of the difficulty spectrum. My wife generally prefers to play female characters, but there’s not too much variation here 2/4 Gearlocks in the base box are female, 2/2 in Undertow – I think the bigger differential is difficulty, as Tantrum looks like one of the harder characters to play, but she was able to pick up Boomer and get the basic idea of how she plays pretty quickly.

Whatever the reason, Too Many Bones has really hit the sweet spot – I finally got my hands on it on the Tuesday, we played it for the first time on the Saturday. Then twice on the Sunday. And again on Monday. And on Tuesday. With each game running over an hour (even with the shorter-length Tyrants), this amount of table-time is fairly unprecedented, particularly given that my wife was requesting it come back out again each time. In 4 days it went from un-played to top-13 by hours for the year!

I’ve no doubt that the guys at Chip Theory Games are genuinely nice people – you really don’t have to look very far in board game groups, especially solo-focused ones, to find stories of great customer service, and friendly interaction. Still, I can’t completely switch my cynicism off as I muse “it can’t be a coincidence that the guy who reached out to give me a free game is also their marketing guy…”

Well, Josh, if you’re reading, it worked – I’ve probably spent more time looking at the shop pages on your website in the last week and a half than I have in years: as soon as 40 Days in Daelore comes back into stop, I think I’ll be grabbing a copy, just to ensure a bit more encounter variety (and regular readers will know that once that starts, it’s only a matter of time before I’m starting to wonder whether my wife will notice that we’ve suddenly acquired a Trove Chest and a copy of Cloudspire. Did you know that Cloudspire has Steampunk Pirates)

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been thinking about getting Too Many Bones for a while, I’d say “give it a go” – it’s an expensive game, but I think it justifies the price-tag from a gameplay perspective. I still don’t get excited by the chunky poker chips like others do, the plastic “cards” continue to baffle me, and I don’t ever see myself shelling out for custom health chips, but the mats and the custom dice do add to the play experience and, crucially, there’s enough hours of gaming in the box to ultimately negate that excess component cost.

If you’ve been on the fence about the size of the investment needed, and are considering Undertow as an entry point to the world of Too Many Bones, then I think my advice would be “don’t” – wait a bit longer until you can afford TMB original, it’s just a better experience overall, and these games hold their value well enough that you’re bound to be able to sell it for a good chunk of what you paid if you don’t like it. It’s a good expansion, but I don’t think it’s that much fun as an entry point.

The moral of the story? Well perhaps it’s best not to dwell on that one too much: whilst I still feel mostly the same about TMB etc – “nice mechanics, would prefer it cheaper instead of having the ‘premium’ components,” and I don’t think that people should be afraid to share opinions like that. HOWEVER, I can also see that I was definitely guilty here of allowing the remoteness of the Internet to shape my thinking, and generally of being more confrontational about things than I would have been face-to-face. That’s on me, and is definitely something to reflect on rather than stop at the superficial “lesson” of “if you insult people on the internet, eventually one of them will give you some cool free stuff.” Hopefully I’ve repaid CTG’s kindness with a few words here (note, this was definitely not a condition of the game, I don’t think that Josh even knew that I had a blog when he offered me the game), and I’ll definitely be mindful of their conduct as just a generally nice bunch of people when it comes to weighing in on game-materials discussions in the future. Still, it’s not a healthy habit to get into, is it…

… well, I guess it can’t hurt to try…

“Oi, Succubus Publishing! Middara is over-produced and too expensive to be accessible to normal gamers, prove me wrong!” 😛

5000 Games and the Taste of Freedom – May 2021

May has been and gone. We were allowed into other people’s houses again and, once that happened, the sun even decided to start shining for the  last few days of the month. Perhaps due to this new-found ability to socialise, there were fewer gaming sessions than the extremely high level that had become the new norm over the past 6 months or so, but it certainly wasn’t a drought. There was nothing brand new that got played, but we dusted off a few titles: some classics like Pandemic and Ticket to Ride getting their first sessions for the year, along with Flags of the World, and Firefly Legendary. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.

5000!

Marvel United: Now in glorious technicolour…

On Saturday 15th May, I sat down with my wife for a quick game of Marvel United. Nothing particularly remarkable here, until I noticed later that day, that this was the 5000th game I’d played since Christmas 2014. For a bit of context, that’s 2684 days, so just under 2 games a day. I thought this might be a good moment to take a look back at some of the big headlines.

Those 5000 plays are spread across 253 games, so averaging just under 20 sessions per game, although the spread is actually a fair bit broader: 65 games played once, 72 played twice. At the other extreme, that’s 20 games played 50+ times and 8 played 100+. My H-Index for that whole period is 32.

The big 4 are Lord of the Rings LCG, Pathfinder ACG, Arkham LCG and Zombicide – Arkham is still going strong as a most-played game, and Zombicide and Lord of the Rings still get a decent amount of table-time, but Pathfinder has largely fallen by the wayside, just 3 sessions in the past 4 years.

any “most” list of my games will generally come down to this A-Z

Counting play by hours instead is a similar picture: Zombicide and Arkham LCG are joined by Dungeons and Dragons as the 3 games to have spent more than 300 hours on the table.

The most played game overall that’s no longer even in my possession is Game of Thrones LCG (2nd edition) which got played 60 times / roughly 45 hours before I sold up.

In terms of smaller milestones, Aeon’s End hit 100 sessions this month (20 for 2021), no other big totals to note.

Not-A-Living-Card-Game

As I mentioned last month, when it was first announced a couple of years ago, Keyforge was a game that greatly intrigued me. However, it was also an exclusively 2-player duelling card game, which was never going to go down well with my wife, and I’d never actually picked it up.

In my not-particularly-knowledgeable opinion, the Pickpocket is a noticeably better deck

May was when I finally got my teeth into some proper Keyforge Adventures play, going up against the Keyraken both solo and 2-player, using the pair of decks that came in my Dark Tidings core box. The AI on the Keyraken probably isn’t as sophisticated as a proper co-op/solo LCG, and the difference in power level between player decks can mean that some match-ups are a lot easier than others, but overall it’s definitely been an experience that I’ve enjoyed. There’s now a second Adventure available to play, Abyssal Conspiracy (as was the case with Keyraken a month ago, current status is “printed: unplayed”) and I’m also hoping for a few more decks soon to try them out with (2 decks for a fiver seemed hard to argue with, even if they are – apparently – not especially powerful). I’m going to be watching Keyforge fairly carefully to see whether Keyforge Adventures ultimately mutates into a fully-fledged, printed, product line, but for now I’m having plenty of fun with what I have.

Arkham – Endings

3-player Lair of Dagon – just BEFORE we were allowed people inside our houses.

May was a month of campaign endings in Arkham Horror LCG, both of our Innsmouth Conspiracy play-throughs reaching their climax, as Lair of Dagon arrived, and we were able to take Amanda and Parallel Skids for the 2-player game, and Silas, Mary and Trish for the 3-player through the final 2 scenarios. Our first impression of Lair of Dagon was that it was pretty horrible, but this turned out to be (at least in part) due to having the scenario reference card upside down and accidentally playing on Hard! For our second attempt we managed to correct this, which smoothed a lot of the edges off, but we still got screwed over fairly hard by a random interaction that made the game essentially unwinnable. Into the Maelstrom felt like the opposite extreme – when we first advanced into stage 2, the challenge before us felt impossible – to the extent that I was re-reading the rulebook, assuming that we must have made a mistake. Once we got into it though, we were able to make progress surprisingly quickly and made it out fairly comfortably.

In neither play-through did we get the big mid-scenario twist. I wasn’t too bothered about this (we’ve still never hit Turn Back Time, which is the locked/hidden scenario from a previous campaign), as the campaign seems very deliberately designed to ensure that the narrative is fragmented, and every play-through will probably see a slightly different set of Flashbacks gained.

it may only be a suggestion, but things can get really confusing in remote-play if you don’t follow the campaign guide

Overall, I think Innsmouth was a decent campaign. I do feel that, as the complexity of the stories continues to increase, each new Arkham campaign becomes a little harder to follow on the blind play-through, and better-suited to the we-no-longer-have-to-wait-for-pack-releases, we basically know what we’re doing now, later play-throughs.

We’ve got one game left of our 4-player The Circle Undone, which has been entirely online up-until-now, but should be face to face for the finale, now that we’ve all had vaccine jab 1. Our next big Arkham project will be just me and George again, a run-through of Return to The Forgotten Age, where we’ll see just how bad an idea Curse Jim with Stella is as a run-through.

Challenges

It was a very slow month for the multiplayer 10×10 Hardcore challenge – just a couple of sessions of Death May Die being counted, making it the 4th game to hit 10 plays. Overall, 66/100 with less than half the year gone isn’t too bad, but there are several games that are starting to lag behind: still only 1 session of Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle in 2021, and only 3 multiplayer sessions of Marvel Legendary or LotR LCG.

For the non-hardcore challenge, Death May Die saw the challenge completed: 100/100 in five months!

The New Games challenge continues to move along, having reached 6×6. There are also a couple of new arrivals still sat un-played, although they’d need to make it to 4+ sessions to dislodge any of the 10 games already listed. On the subject of un-played, I do have 17 games currently sitting on the 2021 Pile of Shame – 2 new, and 1 old ones. It’s still only the first half of the year, so nothing to get too worried about yet, but I’ll be keeping an eye on that.

Solo play continues to be fairly broad rather than high: 13 games played 3+times, but only 7 played 7 or more times, I’m trying to make a point of not just playing games for the sake of the challenge, and this is an area that I haven’t really paid much attention to in the past, so it’s as much about actually noticing what/how I play solo as “completing” a challenge.

Numbers

Money-wise it was a fairly pricey month with the Marvel United X-Men Kickstarter, and HEXplore It on Gamefound both inspiring me to get the Credit Card out. I made a bit of headway on my short-fallers with a few games of Call to Adventure, but Mutant Insurrection has now been around long enough to start counting, and is still a fiver short of break-even. Hopefully June will see a brief improvement before July comes and Marvel United starts counting!

Next?

coming soon to a table near me…

For the second year in a row, June will not mean UK Games Expo (this year it should at least be happening, it’ll just be happening in July). I’ve got a bit of time off work, but it’s all ended up syncing quite badly with days when my son is in Nursery, and we’re finally in a position to visit my parents for the first time in about a year, so who knows whether I’ll manage any actual extra gaming.

Sword & Sorcery arrived this month, but I didn’t make it through the hefty rulebook – getting this played in June will be a definite priority.

Legends Long Forgotten

Back in a dim and distant time, known only as the early summer of 2016, one brave gamer/blogger journeyed into a mysterious land known as Birmingham. There, amidst a gathering of like-minded adventurers, he embarked upon a game of skill and chance, a game of Legends Untold. As quick as a card game, as deep as an RPG” it had just won an award for new game designers, and the 10-minute prototype play was intriguing.

Some 6 months later, the same game appeared on Kickstarter and I backed it. It was a surprise success, funding rapidly, and eventually hitting 10 times the funding goal! (final total 3,238 backers,  £129,748 pledged).

Scope Creep

I feel like it’s increasingly the case that Kickstarters launch with a highly polished product, a finished game where the only real need for your backer dollars is to cast miniatures, maybe commission a few more pieces of art, and then unleash the production machine. There are still a few projects out there though, which follow the more traditional model: one man with a shed full of dreams that he can only make a reality if you invest.

Specifically in these situations, there is a question of what happens when you give a new, independent creator 10 times as much money as they were expecting? Well, it turns out that there’s a good chance that they’ll decide to start working on more of those dreams than initially planned!

That was definitely the case with Legends Untold, which quickly doubled in sized and scope! The original campaign had been for the “Weeping Caves Novice Box” – an entry-level start-point for your foray into the world of Mor Nadar. They had been very clear that, someday, there would be Apprentice Boxes, and even levels beyond that but the change for now, was the creation of a second Novice Box, “The Sewers.”

I’m always wary of scope-creep, having seen it backfire enough times in my day-job to be dubious of it almost everywhere.  It felt to me like playtesting, balancing, and producing two boxes was likely to be more than simply double the work, and probably take at least twice as long (if not longer).

Money was also an issue. Having met the designers briefly at Expo, and being fairly confident that these guys where what they seemed – enthusiastic gamers who had an idea they wanted to make a reality, I was happy to risk £24 to make that happen. £48 felt a lot more, but I’m a terrible completionist (or at least I was, I’ve got a bit better since then) and I didn’t want to find myself in a position with half a game. I spent a fair amount of time trying (via KS comments) to get them to commit on whether or not this would make it to retail and, when they wouldn’t/couldn’t, took a deep breath and pledged. Backed just before Christmas 2016, and due to deliver the following year, Spring/Summer 2017.

The Waiting Game

After a super-successful campaign, the time after funding went rather less smoothly. Early on, there was quite a fracas between the creator and an artist who had produced some of the early art pieces used in the campaign. The artist’s side of the story was only posted on Facebook, so has been lost to the mists of time, but you can probably figure out the gist of it based on this BGG thread and the Creators’ response here on Kickstarter. (just for added confusion, the BGG thread gets a bit bogged down in whether or not is was a good idea to use the verb “Trump” to describe supposed foul-play…)

an example of the new, upgraded art

From the creator’s description of things, it boiled down to “this guy doesn’t want to work for us any more, but hey, we got you an art upgrade!” – personally, I’d never been particularly wowed by the visuals, and certainly wasn’t backing this for primarily aesthetic reasons, so the change didn’t bother me too much, although the airing of the dirty laundry in public was less-than-thrilling.

The biggest problem came with the delays. And delays. And delays.

It increasingly became clear that whilst the creators had a lot of ideas about the game they were creating and the world it was part of, they really didn’t know the inner-workings of the gaming industry – everything seemed to take longer than they expected. Obviously this is somewhat frustrating, but when someone appears as a brand-new designer on Kickstarter it’s very-much to be expected. They kept up a decent level of communication, which helped keep me bored and forgetful rather than angry and resentful as the wait-time grew and grew.

Losing Track

So, what was this game again?

The core thematic strands of the game have seemed fairly constant throughout the campaign and through fulfilment – gritty, low fantasy: “a sword? You peasants can’t afford a sword.” Combat being harsh and punishing, careful exploration where the details matter.

It was also clear from the word go that this was just a stepping off point (well, 2 stepping-off points) into a much bigger world that they had far more extensive plans for.

By the time it arrived, the game was pretty icon-heavy

Mechanically though, the game seemed in a constant state of flux, and by 2018, I felt like I’d long-since lost track of a lot the details. Exactly how it played out seemed to have changed, and changed, and changed again. Unlike a lot of projects that make you wonder whether the creators have changed their names and absconded with your money, Legends Untold seemed to lean towards information overload. There was a lot of detail in a lot of the updates, some of it way beyond what I felt I could usefully process this far removed from the campaign. Honestly, the whole project felt like it was spiralling out of control and I started to worry that the end product would be “as deep as a card game, as quick as an RPG!”

Eventually, as 2019 drew near, it seemed like the game was also coming our way, although not without a final raised eyebrow as the folks at Inspiring Games announced that they’d take the rather unusual decision not to hire a fulfilment company for UK copies of the game, just to post it out themselves. Presumably a cost-saver, possibly a necessary one, but it also felt (reality or not) like just another reason that we’d need to wait even longer for the game.

Numbers

As noted above, I paid £48 total for this. They estimated 6 months for delivery, which ultimately turned into 28 months, which is long enough for me to grumpily round it up to £50, to account for hypothetical interest.

For that price, I got the 2 core boxes and a few “boosters” of extra content. I also won a backers-only contest on a KS update, which secured me a set of custom dice to go along with it. (Credit to Inspiring Games, I was almost certain I’d have to contact them with a reminder to actually get sent these, but they showed up with my original pledge, no action required on my part).

There were some promo cards in the box but, as far as I can make out, these weren’t “exclusives,” but something that was included in all first-printing copies of the game, whether acquired through KS or through Retail.

Speaking of retail – the 2 medium boxes, the various boosters and the custom dice would have cost somewhere between £50 & £60 – it was available at retail (all of it), I’d guess it was a month or 2 after I received mine, but I didn’t actually keep track. Either way, it all sold out pretty quickly (particularly in Europe, which is where I am, I think American stock may have lasted a bit longer).

At the end of the day, I probably saved about a fiver, notionally. However, it’s very unlikely that I would have bought everything if I’d encountered it at retail – probably just a single core box. At £20-£25. It was several months before I got round to opening the boosters and [spoilers!] I never actually cracked the cellophane on the Sewers box.

So, how does it play?

The long-dormant embers of interest in this game started to be stirred as other folk (mainly in the US) started receiving their games and posting glowing reviews. This game had a small, but remarkably prolific group of hardcore fans.

My initial impressions were a bit underwhelming. There were 2 separate rulebooks, which seemed to contain all the information you needed between them, but rarely in an easy place to find. The index was poor, and the logic of what information could be found where was generally lacking.

Leaving aside the constant need to read and re-read the rules, there was also the issue of how to actually play the game. Broadly speaking, you’d pick where you were going, decide whether to go stealthily or quickly, and roll 3d6.

Then you’d encounter some sort of card, and roll 3d6.

You’d probably end up fighting things at various points – guess what, roll 3d6. In fact, roll them over and over until you lose consciousness.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is Legends Untold, everything looks like 3d6.

Although it’s definitely faded from the Hotness since 2016, the big question that the designers of Legends Untold seemed to be focused on when they first launched was “why play this rather than Pathfinder?” I’ve only played Pathfinder a couple of times in the past few years, but we played a truly enormous amount of it in 2014-2017 and – whilst it involved a bucketload of dice to roll – there were always decisions to make. You could target characters who were good at combat towards monster-heavy locations, send the wizard to the Arcane Library, the Druid to the woods. Even when tests came along that were a bad match-up for your character, there were often things you could do – admittedly at high-cost, to mitigate the risk.

Legends Untold has very little of that. Most of the time you are just rolling those dice and hoping for the best. The characters do have skills that give them boosts to certain types of test, but they are generally static boosts with a range of 1-3, meaning that even your ever-so-charming Nobleman is only 2 points better at base Charm than the ugliest blacksmith. (as opposed to Pathfinder, where he would be rolling d10s for charisma-type checks, instead of d6s)

Your characters also have some Talents. The standard load-out is 2 skill talents and a weapon talent. However, these are rarely passive boosts, and most require exhausting to add their bonus: couple this with the fact that the bonuses are rarely enough to make a big difference – unlikely to cancel the effects of a bad roll, possibly enough to give a marginal boost to a success, but that’s about it. Loads of luck, little power to mitigate.

The types of test you have to perform in Legends Untold are also remarkably convoluted – there’s just a lot more different variants than there seems to be any real need for.

I played the Weeping Caves box a lot when I got it – not binged by any means, but a steady plugging away at it. There were definitely some elements that could be mastered (“Mastery” for example is major thing you want to have, and you do get some decisions that will help in this regard), but by-and-large it remainder the same: very random, and most of the decisions you had to make not really being decisions at all: do I go quickly and die because I get ambushed? Or go slowly and die because I ran out of time?

After 6 months or so, I lost the motivation to keep going with this, and pit it back on the shelf, where it sat for a while. I could have got it out again – maybe pressed on with the “campaign” that I’d started, but whilst I don’t think it would have been actively unpleasant, I can’t imagine it would actively have been fun. In all likelihood, I would have rolled badly on a check of some kind, and that would have screwed me over for the rest of the game. Maybe the dice would have been my friends and I would have won, but not with any real sense of accomplishment.

Eventually, in early 2020 I decided to sell it.

Stats:

Backed: December 2016

Due: June 2017

Received April 2019 (22 months late)

Paid: £48

Played: 12 times over 7 months. 10 ¼ hours

£4.68/hour (just within my £5/hour target).

Sold: £50 (thanks to the dice I won and the game being largely out-of-stock during first lockdown of 2020)

Final Thoughts

Most of the time, when I back a Kickstarter, I’m backing it for my own sake – to get a game that I hope to enjoy, and get it in a cheaper/expanded/earlier fashion than I might otherwise. The Legends Untold Kickstarter felt more like what are increasingly the minority, the Kickstarters that we want to see succeed for the good of the industry, because ultimately I think it’s good for tabletop gaming if independent creators can produce games without having to have a million dollar IP and a ton of plastic.

Whilst I ultimately found their game a bit dull, the guys at Inspiring Games were always upfront with backers, and whilst it’s a bit of a cliché at this point, I honestly believe that when they delayed and delayed, it was because they believed they were making the game the best it could be. I do still think that it would have been in everyone’s interests if they’d just stuck with the Caves box, got it out sooner, and taken the public feedback for that as a basis for the Sewers (this seems to be essentially what they’ve ended up doing for the upcoming Illumination of Deepsorrow box, which is a third Novice box, coming to Kickstarter sometime this year.) I certainly won’t be backing the new campaign, as the game just didn’t appeal that much, but equally, I wouldn’t do anything to discourage anyone who thinks they would enjoy it from trusting them with your money.

Before and After

It’s an interesting (if somewhat obvious) phenomenon that any time I spend writing about games is time that I’m not spending playing those games.

I run this blog (and my other blogs, and a Podcast…) because I enjoy doing it – but there are definitely times when it feels like work, or times when I’ve had to choose between the games I wanted to play and the blogging that I felt I ought to be doing.

In practice, a lot of it comes down to rhythms of life: I can usually get the laptop out for a ten-minute type when my son is playing with his train-track, which is why I have folders full of incomplete drafts of articles. On the other hand, if it’s an evening when my wife i) has finished work, and ii) is functionally awake (both less common than you might think unless you too are married to a teacher), then playing a game is more appealing as we can do that together. Actually finishing and publishing articles tends to need to wait until neither are around: If I’ve got a day off and it’s brilliantly sunny (assuming I’m not doing the laundry/the garden/etc/etc), I’m more likely to be taking advantage of the natural daylight to get some painting done for one of my many minis games. The only real positive in the face of all the obstacles is that – unlike when I’ve done reviewing in the past – I don’t have an editor to answer to, and it’s not the end of the world if things (invariably) take longer to get done than I’d originally intended.

Knowing what you’re writing about…

An interesting wrinkle on all of this, is the question of when I write about things – not in terms of the time of day or day of the week, but when in my own journey of exploration and discovery of a particular game/series/mechanic etc.

I had a thought here that quickly turned into a rant, and eventually grew into something that needs to either be its own article, or simply kept quiet but – to simplify – I get a bit annoyed by the whole trend where everything needs to be bleeding edge all the time. Whether it’s a podcast trying to pass judgement on half a card visible in a promo article for an ongoing game, or a vlogger doing a “what we know video” where they somehow take 10 minutes to paraphrase a 2-paragraph announcement article, I’m generally opposed to people saying things about new games/expansions for games for the sake of saying something, rather than actually waiting until they’ve taken the time to play them. That’s not to say that “here’s why I’m excited about X” doesn’t have its place, but when it tries to pass itself of as a meaningful review, that crosses a line for me.

I’m a big fan of the way Rahdo always makes it clear when he’s doing a paid preview, although that’s probably a whole other topic…

Obviously, pre-release copies being sent to reviewers is a major part of the industry these days, but unless you were lucky enough to get your hands on something early, I spend a lot of time wanting to shout “Just *%$”ing wait!”

This dislike of people jumping the gun provides a question for me with my own timings: Do I offer a hot-take once something is announced? A forensic investigation of a soon-to-be-released product, constructed from various sources over the internet? A first impression the day after it makes it out of the box? Or a thorough review, based on hours of play, and experimenting with various combinations?

Whilst I’ve definitely done the odd “woah, crazy new announcement everyone!” piece, I think my natural tendency is towards the latter – slow and steady. Making sure that I’ve got a reliable body of experience before I say anything too strong. Partly, this is just wanting to acknowledge the amount of work that goes into creating anything – even a bad board game has taken someone a lot of time and effort, so before criticising it, let’s check that it really is bad. Hopefully, some of this is the fruit of being a bit older and wiser than when I’ve offered some ill-considered hot takes in the past.

Before you know it…

There are a couple of issues with that though. For one thing, as noted above, this blog isn’t the main way I fill my week, if I don’t publish my thoughts now, I don’t know when I’ll get back to it.

The bigger problem, though, is that it’s hard to know when I’ve got to the point where I’m ‘ready’ to publish an in-depth piece, or a review. Unlike when I was blogging for someone else (who provided the games and – quite reasonably – would only give me new ones once my previous reviews were done), reviews I post here tend to be of things I’ve bought because I was interested in, and then played a varying amount. How much play is “enough” for a review?

Most of the time, when we play a game, the immediate thought is “we should play that more often” at that point, if I’m expecting it to hit the table again soon, I’m unlikely to pen a review, as I’m expecting to have more thoughts on it very soon.

Why yes, I can tell you how long it is since I last played that game…

The trouble is – as my spreadsheets tell me – that even with the games that I think “I’m playing those a lot at the moment” I’ll often look and see that it’s already been over a month. A brief pause for breath after playing a game “a lot” and next thing I know, it’s been 3 months! If there’s a game where I think “oh, I’ve not played that in a while, it’s often the case that I’ll look and realise it’s been nearly a year!”

Often I’ll think “I should play that again before I write [negative opinion] about it, just to make sure I’m giving it a fair chance – and then by the time that next play comes around, I’ve forgotten about the article draft sitting on the computer!

Getting to the point?

All of this is a fairly long-winded way of trying to explain a bit about what I hope is coming up in the future. It’s my intention to increase the rate at which I publish actual board-and-card-game content, after a year that’s been heavily disrupted by Covid, an autumn that got a bit overwhelmed by book reviews, and a spring where I’ve not managed much at all.

in a less-than-inspired move, I waited 18 months to post a review of Journeys in Middle Earth, then finally did it about 2 weeks before getting the stylish play-mat

But with this (intended) increase in prolificity, there’s going to be some stuff that will feel weirdly dislocated in time: reviews for games that aren’t that new anymore, either because the original review I did for Games Quest has vanished as part of their website reboot, or simply because after putting it off for too long, I’m finally happy that I’m ready to offer a judgement, hopefully a more measured reflection that you might have got after I played it once or twice.

 In the end, I’m intending to leave stuff up on this site for a while, and as I slowly attempt to impose a comprehensible structure onto the page, the plan is for things to be here and accessible for as long as is possible (given the transitory nature of the interwebs). In the end, it’s my hope that these reviews and other musings will hopefully be useful resource for someone, somewhere down the line who is considering a new purchase.

April 2021

I didn’t manage to publish anything besides the March run-down in April, as I spent a fair amount of time tinkering behind the scenes, restructuring, trying to make things a bit easier to find / removing some out-of-date content, and generally trying to combat Web Architecture that looks like it was designed by MC Escher. I made decent progress, so hopefully will have a bit more time for the shinier/more visible stuff this month. Fortunately, there was still time for gaming!

More Marvels

April was another Marvel-heavy month, with the arrival of Galaxy’s Most Wanted for Champions, and more Marvel United content still being explored.

It’s a close-run thing between the Shark and the Ghost for “most irritating new minion” right now.

Galaxy’s Most Wanted has generated a lot of chatter on the various discussion sites, as it marks a significant change in tone compared with some of the earlier boxes, including at least one scenario (scenario #2 no less) which feels more-or-less impossible with one of the pre-constructed decks that comes with the box, even on standard, and the final boss-battle is nigh-on impossible regardless of how you approach it.

Champions has always had to tread a fine line between a stated aim of being more accessible to non-gamers/casual gamers, drawn in by probably the biggest IP in the world right now, whilst providing enough challenge to sustain the interest of the “buy everything” hardcore bunch, and this box feels like the strain of that is starting to show. Despite the lurch towards “Hard,” it’s still enjoyable, and despite some serious frustrations, we’ve slowly been making our way through it, with a reasonable amount of success (eventually)

Marvel United continues to be good fun, with the only major disappointment being the relatively large amount of table it takes up, meaning that it’s a challenge to play anywhere that isn’t a completely cleared dining room table (we managed one outdoor game before it got too dark…)

I like how quickly others can pick the game up, with only the briefest of explanations, and it’s quick enough to play multiple games back-to-back. We’ve tried at least some characters from most of the expansions by now, although very few of the additional game-mechanic challenges, so still hours of play left.

Campaigns?

forgot to take a photo whilst it was out, so here’s a reminder of Gloomhaven hiding behind the Christmas Lights..

Gloomhaven and Folklore both got dusted off for the first time this year (quite literally in Gloomhaven’s case, as the over-sized shelving requirements mean that it gets pretty dusty, especially when it goes 3-4 months without being played). We made a little more progress with the main narrative, complete a scenario and unlocking a few more. I’m very close to being able to retire my second character, and will probably do so as soon as I can, just for boost of those cumulative Perk ticks. Ultimately, the fact that your hand size never increases still feels excessively punishing on this, and the general level of grind, combined with the excessive set-up/tear-down time will keep this one from ever becoming too regular. Once again, I wonder what might have been if Jaws of the Lion had come first (at least in this house).

Folklore saw us starting a whole new party, as the last lot had levelled up basically as far as the game could go. We’d forgotten how punishing the lower levels can be, but managed to make it through the first story with only 1 out of the 4 of us dying! As before, I needed to put together custom character sheets almost immediately, as the instant you start levelling up, the basic character cards become essentially useless: progressing on into the second story, we manage to avoid any more in-party fatalities, despite some atrocious dice-rolls that saw a second weapon break (which only happens when you roll a 1 on a d100, and has come up twice already for this group!) and finds us all desperately low on cash that we could use to heal up with. Despite the difficulties I think I’m enjoying it a lot more than when we started the original campaign, and could see myself taking a serious look at Fall of the Spire, the most recent expansion once this arc reaches its conclusion (the other option would be to sell-up as it’s a bit too story-heavy to re-play a campaign), which isn’t something I’d have expected to be saying a year ago. 3 games in April, more to follow.

I’m still waiting on our next big narrative game, Sword & Sorcery: having got stuck behind the Evergiven (like so many others), this one has been delayed even further, but it’s taken me so long to get this article out that I believe it may now have arrived in the country (although probably not cleared customs yet).

Challenges and Milestones

There were a few notable milestones this month: Marvel Champions became the 7th title to hit 200 plays since I started keeping track at the end of 2014, joining Lord of the Rings, Pathfinder, Arkham LCG, Zombicide, Dice Masters and Marvel Legendary. Slightly smaller thresholds saw Kingdomino reaching 50 plays, whilst Folklore and The 7th Continent broke 20 (as did Marvel United with smashed through this barrier, hitting 26 plays in 2 months).

it’s a shame there wasn’t more Journeys, as it looks gorgeous on the new play-mat

There wasn’t a huge amount of movement on my Multiplayer Hardcore 10×10 challenge: Marvel Champions became the third game to hit 10 non-solo sessions. Death May Die, Shadows of Brimstone, and Xenocide all got a couple more plays, but for Hogwarts Battle, Journeys in Middle Earth, Lord of the Rings and Legendary it was solo play or none at all.

Solo Plays only

Speaking of solo play, this 10×10 challenge continues to chug along, and it’s looking reasonably likely that this will get completed by the end of the year. Whilst there are quite a lot of games in the 2-3 solo sessions area, 3 (Champions, Carcassonne, Marvel United) have already hit 10, and another 4 are on 5+.

Money

April was even more expensive than March, with the closure of the Shadows of Brimstone Adventures Pledge Manager, and the (foolish?) decision to upgrade to Warlord level. This will be a truly monstrous undertaking, due to arrive over the course of the next several years, but I’m optimistic that it will get played enough to justify the purchase price, and reasonably reassured that their KS-exclusives seem to hold their value pretty well if regret does lead me to change my mind and sell some or all of it later. 3 more games of Brimstone this month saw it up to 5th-most-played game by hours of 2021, so hopefully this isn’t a decision I’ll regret…

On top of that, there was the Aeon’s End: Legacy of Gravehold Pledge Manager, which also closed this month. Aeon’s End is the game that’s edging out Brimstone for 4th place, so again, it felt like a strong choice to add to. In the end, I opted for the base game and a reset pack – I’m still less-than-thrilled about the decision to make this legacy/not sell removable sticker packs, but I’ve ultimately decided to follow the suggestions that putting the stickers onto card and using them as tokens, whilst tracking changes on paper somewhere, will be a lot easier on a second run-through than a first. I decided against adding extra dividers to make it easier to sort the collection, along with some promo cards, and then regretted it, but the Pledge Manager had already closed…

A bit of a lull for the LCGs at least meant that there wasn’t too much in the way of ‘regular’ expenses to go with the big one-offs, which was a relief. All-in-all the “Shortfalls” bit of the spreadsheet is looking pretty healthy right now, with just a few pounds each for Tainted Grail and Vadoran Gardens. Call to Adventure is the only one that’s really looking like poor value right now.

Something New?

Always looking for the next interesting thing, my attention was caught and pulled in multiple directions this month by a couple of big games. First up was HEXplore It. This is a game that I’d noticed on a couple of prior occasions, but never truly dug into, until their latest wave of content made its way onto Gamefound this month. It’s an open-world Fantasy adventure game, which generally involves wandering around, powering up, and eventually taking on a big boss. It’s a decidedly hefty game (in terms of box size, session length and rules density), but has some stunning art, and plenty of dice to chuck. I was torn between their upcoming Domain of Mirza Noctis (Vampire/Ravenloft-y box), the second-wave Forest of Adrmion (Fey/Elves/Woods) setting, and the original, just because it has the core races and classes, when a friend happened to mention that he had a copy of the original – Valley of the Dead King that he and his fiancée had not really got on with, and was willing to pass my way. Where a sensible man might have been scared off by this revelation, I leapt at the chance, and added another new title to my gaming for 2021. I’ve managed 3 solo sessions so far, as I’m wanting to make sure I’ve got a pretty solid grasp of the rules before I introduce it to George. The first was just an incomplete “let’s get a basic idea of what’s going on…” whereas the second was a proper attempt, albeit one that ended in ignominious defeat as I just about prevailed over boss 1 of 10 before getting punched in the face by the overall Villain, but session 3 (playing on the easy/introductory setting) saw me victorious! Hopefully not too long until we can try it out 2-player, although I’ll need to make at least a preliminary decision on the Gamefound campaign before I can do that, due to the inconsiderate nature of linear time.

The other game which I’m not really sure how I’d previously missed, is The Isofarian Guard. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but it’s a narrative-heavy cooperative fantasy adventure game from Kickstarter. Aside from high-quality components and many hours of branching story, this has some of the bag-building/token-drawing that first drew me to Trudvang, plus the USP of an app to give you the narrative via a full cast of voice actors and grand instrumentation. This is another that doesn’t look like it will be coming to retail, but is available as a late-back, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.

Shiny new Keyforge, and less-shiny print-and-play Kraken

April also saw the arrival of Keyforge, a belated birthday present (delay caused by Asmodee, not the friend who gave it) – we managed 1 head-to-head game on the patio before it got dark (bit of a recurring theme here), in which I got thoroughly trounced. My main reason for suddenly taking an interest in this is Keyforge Adventures – a new co-op/solo twist to the game. Currently print-and-play, with one scenario available, and another coming soon, I’ve printed and sleeved the Rise of the Keyraken, but didn’t actually play it until May.

Marvel United: X-Men was also a big KS campaign for April, although it only concluded in the first week of May. It takes all the fun, accessible gameplay of the original game, and re-packages it with loads of cool X-Men minis. It started well, with fun additions like anti-heroes (1 figure, usable as Hero or Villain), but lost me a bit with several characters being repeated 2 or 3 times (having original Namor be playable as both Hero and Villain is a bit underwhelming when they then try to sell me Villain Namor separately!) As before, I’ll probably back this fairly heavily, at least as much for the minis as the gameplay.

May?

For May, I really need to do some catching up. I have a couple of things that I haven’t really got my teeth into yet: Keyforge and Paladins of the West Kingdom most notably. Not sure if any big new arrivals will be coming (Sword & Sorcery?) but I’m definitely hoping to see Star-Lord and Gamora for Champions. I’m also hoping to get some more blogging done that I managed in April.

Marvel-ous March (2021)

March was a heck of a month, the end of lockdown (sort of), some new games, and loads of playing. Let’s dive straight in with the huge pile of Marvel gaming that got done.

United

The Marvel United Kickstarter arrived. As mentioned before, it was a big one, and it’s going to need a lot of playtime to justify the amount of cash spent on it, but early signs are good – we’ve already played it more than a dozen times, and even with a short playtime (around 15-20 minutes), it’s starting to add up. The miniatures are, as suspected a little superfluous – they’re essentially just there to mark which location the heroes and the villain are at – but having a huge collection of Marvel minis was a definite part of the appeal, and I fully intend to paint these in due course.

Core Locations (Bottom) and Spider-Verse Locations (Top)

I haven’t really got into most of the expansions yet, but I’m impressed with the job they’ve done of making the heroes feel distinct despite a very limited set of things that they can toggle. The villains have a bit more scope, and they seem to be using it well. The only area that feels a little limited in the core box is the locations – there are 8 and you use 6 every time. Of the expansions, not all of them would really make much sense thematically (I’ll just move from Avengers Mansion to the Wakandan Royal Palace, and then onto Knowhere…) but the Spider-verse box makes a lot more sense (Brooklyn Bridge, Queens etc), so I can’t imagine un-mixing this.

X marks the spot

The end of March also finally saw the arrival of X-Men: Mutant Insurrection, delayed from February: this game has been described as a re-make of the Elder Sign mechanics, updated and re-applied to the X-Men setting, and there’s definitely some shared DNA between the games which is quite apparent. It only arrived late on in March, but we still managed 5 play-throughs, which is good going for a 40-minute+ game.

Overall I’m impressed with the job they’ve done on this one: it’s suffered from a few hatchet-job reviews (most notoriously the Dice Tower one), and has been criticised for some truly bizarre “failings” but it definitely deserves its play-time, and I hope that FFG explore what they can do with the system. Elder Sign fans will recognise the basic dice-matching, but there is a lot more going on, both in terms of a little added complexity from things like having 3 different colours of dice instead of just the standard 1 in Elder Sign, to various additional types of cards that can add extra decision-points and challenges. I’d definitely recommend playing with more than 2 characters (right now, I’m thinking 3 for true-solo, or 2×2 for multiplayer), but otherwise, it feels like a really positive experience. Full review to follow once I’m happy that I’ve properly got to grips with all the characters and missions (don’t hold your breaths…)

Marvel Champions also got plenty of time on the table, as I tried to cross off a few more of the un-played hero/aspect/villain combinations for the end of Wave 2 before Galaxy’s Most Wanted bring the Guardians to the game, hopefully early next month (in fact it arrived on April 1st). I finished off a 2-player Rise of Red Skull campaign with Wanda and Pietro, who both feel nicely thematic, as well as being pretty powerful. There was also table time for Marvel Legendary and even Thanos Rising.

New Solos?

With a solo challenge in the back of my mind, I also took a few games on solo runs that I hadn’t before/in a while. For Aeon’s End, I’ve taken the expedition mechanics brought in in Wave 4 (The New Age) back to the original base game, and have been taking Jian (chosen at random) through a solo expedition – the first game against Rageborne went well, but she struggled badly against the Blight Lord, and I had to take repeat attempts at that one.

I also found some interesting solo rules for Kingdomino, against the “Princess Dorothy” AI. I’ve won a few games, and lost a couple, which suggests that the difficulty is pitched about right.

A brand new (to me) game which arrived on my birthday is Cartographers. Although not exclusively a solo game, the fact that it’s so well-regarded for solo play was definitely a major factor in requesting it – only 1 game so far, in which I clocked up a less-than-stellar score of Minus 5! Definitely some work still to do there…

Challenges

Marvel United is done, whether I’m looking at 5×5 or 10×10!

March was a month of good progress for my various 2021 Gaming Challenges. The arrival of Marvel United and Mutant Insurrection meant that my Brand New 5×5 Challenge has already been completed! However, as I noted in February, there’s a suspiciously strong flavour of “games for small children” alongside the new Marvel titles, so I’m going to keep this running, looking either to get that Brand-New-H-Index a bit higher, or at least to get to 5×5 with ‘proper’ games.

Multiplayer only

For the Hardcore 10×10 challenge, it was also a positive month: every game bar 1 got played, with Aeon’s End becoming the second of the 10 to hit 10 plays, whilst a Maximov-twins playthrough of Marvel Champions saw that get very close too. With a quarter of the year gone, only Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle is lagging behind at all, and I’m pretty confident that this is another challenge that will be successfully completed this year.

If I take the non-hardcore version of the challenge, then I’m at 94/100, with 6 games already on 10 plays, and 4 more on 8 or 9. Shouldn’t be too long before this one fades into the background and the challenge is just “how high can I get the H-Index this year?”

Undead or Alive? – Mostly Undead

As I mentioned last week, I was looking fairly closely at the Undead or Alive Kickstarter for Zombicide, and ended up backing this at the Steampunk level: ‘standard’ Wild West for the Base Game, plus a steampunk themed big-box campaign expansion. I’m going to wait until the arrival of the Pledge Manager before deciding on the rest of the add-ons: I think the skeleton enemies and the Mounted Survivors definitely seem worth getting, but I’m less sure about the various Abomination and extra survivor add-ons: some of the Abomination theming is a bit weird (neither King Kong nor a giant Crocodile really scream “Wild West” at me) and whilst the survivors look nice, I’m going to have so many already, including all the obligatory pop-culture references.

L-R: Freddy Mercury, Lemmy, Ziggy Stardust (i.e. David Bowie), [the artist (formerly?) known as] Prince. (WIP)

With a good year or so to wait for Undead or Alive to arrive, our existing versions of Zombicide saw a good amount of play this month: 6 sessions for Green Horde as we continue to work through the Friends and Foes scenarios, and a few more sessions for Dark Side – both of these campaigns are getting fairly near their end, so I’m hoping to finish some painting for a new Black-Plague-with-Dead-Musicians-and-Unicorns run through, as well as finally getting into the original Invader box (Survivors and Abominations will be painted, but not the basic zombies, as I have some definite walker-fatigue after doing this whole box for a friend last year.

Money

March was a brutally expensive month: I backed Zombicide Undead or Alive on Kickstarter, completed the Pledge Manager for Massive Darkness 2 (having scaled my plans back slightly from my intended ‘gameplay all in’), bought Mutant Insurrection, and paid for 3 Arkham LCG packs as well as the new Marvel Champions campaign box. Fortunately, I’ve managed to sell a few bits and pieces recently, which has kept me in the black for the year: a very old/hard-to-find Lord of the Rings playmat that I never used because I wasn’t a huge fan of the art, plus some Arkham LCG full-art promos which were very nice, but were also worth the best part of £150 to a guy on eBay – whilst I will go to significant lengths to track down gameplay-altering exclusives for favourite games, it’s hard to justify keeping hold of a purely cosmetic element when someone’s offering 3 figures.

The shortfallers tab on the spreadsheet didn’t change a whole lot this month, with neither Call to Adventure nor Tainted Grail getting played. I did manage a single game of Vadoran Gardens, although that was mostly notable for being played on a friend’s patio last Tuesday night, aka the first game of 2021 to be played in-person with someone who doesn’t live in my house! hopefully with the Easter Holidays coming up, the others will start to catch up, at least Mutant Insurrection seems to be going fast enough that it’s unlikely to ever register as a shortfall.

Next?

For April I want to get my teeth really stuck into Galaxy’s Most Wanted for Marvel Champions, and start exploring the various expansions for Marvel United. As if our wallets hadn’t suffered enough there’s another Kickstarter launching for Marvel United in a week or so, as they add the X-Men. Whilst this will no doubt be another big stack of cash, having got this far into a Marvel Chibi Miniatures collection, it would feel wrong to miss the Mutants out, and the inclusion of anti-heroes (figures playable as both hero or villain) seems like an interesting enough gimmick to return for.

How much for a Kick?

As regular readers of the blog will know, I try to make sure that all the games I own get played enough to justify the purchase cost. “Enough” is generally defined as £5/hour spent (or less, ideally).

There are blips, and big new arrivals tend to look like bad value for a while, but in the long-term, it generally works out ok. Right now, I have 3 games that are “bad” value for money – 1 is still very new, and the others I’m confident will get there eventually, even if they’re taking their sweet time about it.

What I don’t generally tend to do is think about the value of my gaming collection as a whole. There are a few reasons for this, but it boils down to “if the individual games are good value, then of course the overall collection is”

The one exception to this is Kickstarter. Due to the size of Kickstarter campaigns, it’s often a much bigger outlay all at once than is typically for games I own, and the product that I receive in the end can vary wildly: some turn out to be great value, presenting huge savings, whilst with others I would have been wealthier overall if I’d just waited for retail. Equally, some of the final games are brilliant, whilst others are fairly poor.

I’d like to think that I’m gradually getting better at spotting which Kickstarters are going to make a real impact on my gaming habits, versus the ones that just look shiny in advance, but don’t land properly once received.

That said, any new Kickstarter is always a little bit of a shot in the dark, so for a few years now, I’ve been trying to keep track overall of how much I’m spending on Kickstarters as a group.

My first KS arrival of modern times, back before fancy art boxes were the norm.

The first time I started doing this was in the Summer of 2017 – at that point I’d spent a total of around £650 on Kickstarters, spread over 7 different games. Of those games, only 1 had arrived, and whilst I’d wracked up a respectable 16 hours, that was still a rather whopping £41/hour!! By the end of the year, I’d spent about another £50 on a couple more projects, but had also clocked up 50-more hours, leaving me with a less terrifying, if still rather excessive £10.77 hourly rate.

Since then, the long-term trends generally look good. After the first quarter, the remainder of 2018 was spent with an hourly average of £6-something, which dipped into the £5-somethings in February 2019, and hasn’t gone back above that threshold since. Whilst £5 per hour remains my target, knowing that Kickstarter games as a whole haven’t gone about £5.50 per hour since June 2019 is relatively reassuring overall.

There have even been some brief points in time where “Kickstarter” overall has been past that magic figure, firstly in December 2019, then again in Feb-Mar 2020, and for the last time (so far) in July 2020. Each time, another spend comes along to nudge things back, and the second half of 2020 was pretty bad for this, with a huge delay to any inbound projects. Earlier this week, I came within an hour of the break-even point, only to complete a Pledge Manager and see another campaign finish, and knock things back a step.

Lost in the Crowd?

The two little boxes were for the KS exclusive survivors that you got when you bought the expansions

Of course, the issue with counting all the games together, is that there will always be outliers at either end, which skew the figures. For example, the Massive Darkness and Zombicide Green Horde Kickstarters have been played for over 220 hours between them, which means that they’re currently contributing the best part of £800 to that overall total – that figure is only going to grow with time, which means that there is potential for the grand total to cover up some more concerning individual figures. Should that be a concern?

So far, opened for just long enough to establish that running 2 parallel campaigns would be extremely fiddly

Looking at Kickstarters that I’ve actually received, there are only 2 or 3 that currently fall short of the mark. Tainted Grail has just under 16 of the 19 hours it will ultimately need, which feels like the target being slowly, yet steadily reached. Aeon’s End waves 4 & 5 don’t look too shabby, having managed 17+ hours in a little under 6 months, but they still need nearly another 11 hours before they “break even” (outside of the KS microbubble, Aeon’s End as a whole is still looking good, because of all the hours logged on the earlier/cheaper waves). The 7th Continent is arguably a little way short of good value – £4.85 per hour doesn’t sound bad, but this is one of those rare occasions where I feel like I overpaid due to Kickstarter: there is now the “Classic” edition for roughly £20 less than I paid, and if you factor that in, it leaves a deficit [KS edition does have additional content compared to Classic, but I’m far from convinced that it’s additional content that I’ve particularly benefitted from, at least so far].

4 Instalments of 1 game, from 2 Kickstarters, currently stored in 3 boxes!

Aeon’s End brings up another interesting wrinkle to consider, in the question of what is truly a “new” game. Right now, I’m tracking it on 2 separate spreadsheets, with 2 very different outputs: on my general “Costs” sheet, Aeon’s End is one game, and it looks like pretty good value (roughly £180 spent, just under 80 hours of play, and an hourly rate of £2.35). In Kickstarter, by contrast, I’ve got the War Eternal Kickstarter from a few years ago as one entry (looking very healthy), and last year’s as a separate entry which (as noted above) still has some catching up to do.

I think that separating them like this is the best way to take it, because otherwise, it leaves the system open to abuse – Massive Darkness 2 was a huge Kickstarter, one of the most expensive I’ve backed, but if I were to lump it in with original Massive Darkness as all one game (MD1 Minis can be used in MD2, I don’t believe there’s any backwards compatibility), then it’s already “good value” 6-or-so months before I even have it in hand! Likewise the recent Zombicide Undead or Alive could comfortably get swallowed by its Medieval cousin and entirely escape scrutiny.

The Unplayable

when things actually arrived

Of course, the real reason that the overall value of “Kickstarter” as a somewhat nebulous source of games is in doubt, is the 11 games where I’ve already paid up enough money for at least a basic pledge (not counting any $1 backs at this point), but currently have nothing in hand. Partly that’s because I’ve got a few projects that are massively delayed, partly it’s because 2020 happened – both in terms of delays to shipping and production, and in terms of me spending more on Kickstarters than was perhaps wise, due to lockdown-induced cabin-fever.

Given the tendency for Kickstarters to get bigger and bigger, not to mention the simple fact of inflation, when these future Kickstarters do eventually reach me, most will require a lot of hours before they count as good value: anywhere between 12 hours for one of the cheapest, to almost 50 for the gargantuan Massive Darkness 2! (I had been planning on adding even more stuff to this, but the VAT ambush forced me to scale things back) In this light, the fact that the ‘surplus’ value of early projects like Green Horde and Massive Darkness continues to grow feels like a reasonable balancing measure.

Value when?

Realistically, with a games collection that requires fairly aggressive monitoring and pruning to keep hovering around 80 titles, plus a full time job and a small child, I can’t just do a 12-hour binge of a new game the weekend it arrives like I probably did with a few things back in 2016. With this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to give a bit of consideration to how quickly games hit the break-ever point after arriving in my possession

I didn’t really find as much of a pattern here as I’d though I might. The quickest games to hit break-even was Massive Darkness, at a mere 3 months (and not because it was a cheap KS either, that was a whopping £42 worth of play per month over that period!) CMON was clearly the winner in these stakes, with Green Horde and Death May Die being the other games with double-digit monthly totals, although they took a bit longer to break even: 6 months for Zombicide, and 13 for Death May Die.

The games that progressed more slowly were much more of a mixed bag. Gloom of Kilforth was the slowest in terms of monthly progression, but it was also only a small-pack expansion which didn’t really change that much about the base game. The 9th World feels like a game I’ve played a lot more (nearly 40 times, including every single month in 2019), but it still took over a year to break even, because I almost-exclusively play it solo, and each individual game tends to be over in less than half an hour.

So far, the games which have taken the longest time to break even were Folklore (20 months) Gloomhaven (18 months) and The 7th Continent (also 18 months), although they will probably be joined pretty soon by Tainted Grail (16 months, and still looking for another 3 hours play-time). In each case, there was something specific about the gameplay itself (player-count scaling in Folklore, missing some key rules about loot in Gloomhaven, and the general grindy-ness of 7th Continent) which meant that it took so long to make up the time needed. Whilst the “general busy-ness / tighter collection” factor might be key in Death May Die taking 13 months rather than 7 or 8, it generally feels like a Kickstarter project that is 1) a good game and 2) is accessible from the off, will still get there quickly. It’s the more opaque games, the ones with the higher barriers to entry, that seem to struggle.

The Future

I’m pretty sure that this picture is a much higher pledge level than I’m expecting, but it’s been too long for me to actually remember, and I haven’t received anything to take photos of myself…

Looking ahead, there are some BIG games due in, which will need similarly big amounts of play-time to justify the purchase price. Sword and Sorcery is hopefully only another month or 2 away, and Marvel United has just arrived: I can see them both struggling to find the required 35ish hours any time quickly for very contrasting sets of reasons. Sword & Sorcery is all crunch, a mechanic-heavy narrative Dungeon-Crawler that will clearly take a fair bit of time to master, and is unlikely to be the thing my wife wants to play when tired after a long day teaching. I hope it won’t get quite as extreme as Tainted Grail which can only be played in hours of daylight, but introducing it will certainly require some careful handling.

Marvel United – which arrived the day before yesterday! – is the other extreme – it’s light, quick, and has chibi miniatures of all your favourite Marvel characters. To be honest, I’m hoping that Ned will be playing this one with me in a year or 2 (he’s actually starting to get the hang of Rhino Hero, so hope springs eternal) the trouble is, if this averages out around the 20-minute mark, that means I’d need to play it well over 100 times to break even! Admittedly, Marvel Champions managed that pretty handily last year, but I don’t foresee United having quite that kind of impact.

Marvel United is also a funny one because of the aforementioned massive number of miniatures it comes with. Part of my decision to go all-in, was the appeal of having the Marvel Minis – whether I want to bring them out for Champions, generally use them to catch the attention of my 4 year-old, or just paint the things, I see value here above and beyond what I’m going to get simply by playing the board-game that they come with. CMON have already announced that their next big KS will be bringing the X-Men to Marvel United, so if I want to keep that minis collection complete, I’m going to be ponying up more cash soon.

Taking Everything into Consideration

Overall, I’m happy with Kickstarter as a platform/way to get my games. I’ve had some real bargains off there, including some hard-to-get bits for absolute gems of games that can be incredibly difficult/expensive to pick up after market. I’ve had a couple of duds too, but only one game that was bad enough that it didn’t hit value-for-money until I sold it.

I managed to pick up a few extras without shelling out mega-bucks: but it does mean that they don’t come with a proper box…

There have also been a few Kickstarters that I’ve decided against backing and regretted it later. Zombicide Invader is the biggest one of those, although I’ve definitely doubted my decision on Zombicide 2.0 at times (I think the arrival of “Campaign Mode” in Undead or Alive has finally put my doubts to rest on that one), and there’s always a momentary flash of “hmm, I wonder…” when I get an update from a project I backed for $1 and decided not to go with.

Overall, whilst the overall hours/expenditure rate is currently over the magic £5, I know that if I stopped spending money on Kickstarter right now, it wouldn’t take that long at all for things to even out, and there’s a very small proportion of the stuff which I’ve actually received that hasn’t made good, both from an entertainment and an economic perspective.

Right now, there are plenty of new Kickstarters which have my interest – I backed Zombicide Undead or Alive last week, and have chucked in $1 for Aeon’s End: Legacy of Gravehold. Coming up, Sentinels of the Multiverse Definitive Edition is a game that I definitely want to get, but I‘ll be looking carefully to see whether there’s actually any benefit in backing the Kickstarter (as a UK backer, I get the impression that I could easily end up paying a noticeable chunk more, just for some foil cards and having the game in hand a week or 2 earlier than retail).

I do need to keep in mind that games aren’t leaving my collection nearly as readily as they were a couple of years ago: I’ve done some fairly deep cuts to purge things, and there’s just not that much left that I’d want rid of and would be likely to fetch a sale price worth bothering with the postage (my latest sales post drew a complete series of blanks at the first pass, and I’m increasingly finding that I need to list things multiple times before they go). The most optimistic delivery schedule for this year (11ish games already backed, and 2 upcoming ones that have 2021 Delivery estimates) looks like a lot more game than there is an obvious space to slot into – taken at their most extreme, I just don’t have 300 hours of time in the next 12 months to give them! (especially if life starts to return to normal and I have to go back to spending 4-5 hours a week commuting to work etc). On the plus side, if I am thinking of sales, then aside from the real lemons, Kickstarter games seem to keep their value pretty well, and having access to those hard-to-get expansions has definitely made it easier for me to sell the few that I have parted with at somewhere decently close to what I paid.

Leaving aside the whole question of what Kickstarter is “for” – indie concepts / vs basically-finished things that just need a production run, I’d love to know how other s view it. Do you consider your outstanding Kickstarters or the games you’ve received previously but haven’t really played that much when making a decision on the next one?