Legendary Experiences

One of the downsides of reviewing games for another company (and it is a pretty small downside when weighed against “free games”), is that it limits what I can write here – it feels both pointless and a bit like cheating to just re-post the review I’ve already written. As a result, some games (like the Civil War Dice Masters set) will miss out on the standard Fistful of Meeples Treatment.

CivilWarA week or two ago, Upper Deck released the latest expansion for Marvel Legendary. As there hadn’t been any call for a review of the last Legendary expansion, I assumed that this wasn’t something that Games Quest were all that interested in, so I bought myself a copy the weekend it came out, for the FLGS’s 10% new release discount.

Of course, in typical fashion, about 2 days later, it appeared on the “Up for Review” sheet. It didn’t really seem like cricket to ask for that copy just to sell on, so I let it slide (someone else picked it up a few days later). What it did mean though, was a renewed determination to make sure I was getting my money’s worth out of Legendary, as well as a new-found freedom to talk about Legendary on here.

I’m going to do a full review of the Civil War box in a week or two (hopefully by then, I’ll have been able to get my hands on enough sleeves to actually use most of the cards). For today though, I thought I’d just offer a few assorted thoughts on the state of Legendary overall. If you’re already familiar with Legendary, then you can dive straight in to the article below. If not, you’ll probably want to check out the Game Summary or the Full Review of the base game that I wrote.

 

Solo

As regular readers will know, I’ve done a fair bit of solo gaming over the summer, and Legendary was one of the games which racked up the most solo sessions.

Twist Ratios
The Ratio of Scheme Twists to “Not Scheme Twists” in a 2-player (top) and solo (bottom) game.

Low player-counts change the opening turns of a game of Legendary significantly. For one thing, when you play your third turn (typically the first chance you get to play cards you’ve purchased) there should only have been 3 cards revealed off the Villain Deck. This means that the early-game disintegration where everything overruns to catastrophic effect is much less likely.

That said, there are difficulties that the solo mode adds. For one thing, you’ve only got a single Villain group (8 villains) and only a partial group of Henchmen (3). Given that the number of Scheme twists tends not to change, they come much more often, making some schemes near-impossible to complete, if they punish players for not ‘clearing up’ one twist before the next hits.

Always Leading?

In a normal game of Legendary, facing a given Mastermind always guarantees the presence of a specific villain-group in the game, who are tied thematically, and often mechanically to the Mastermind (So Loki always leads the Enemies of Asgard, Magneto brings the Brotherhood, and Red Skull brings HYDRA).

SHIELDWhen you play the game Solo, you are told to ignore this “Always leads” text, and simply choose random villains. Being a theme junkie, I brushed over this relaxation of the rules, and swiftly came to regret it. I was facing the comparatively puny Maria Hill (only 7 fight, although you do have to also discard 2 SHIELD-heroes to fight her). Maria “always leads” the SHIELD elite, and cannot be fought whilst there are any SHIELD villains in the city. In a normal 2-player game, where this elite make up 8 of the 26 villains, this isn’t too bad (and the ratios get even better with more players), but in a solo game, where they make up 8 of 11, she becomes nearly invulnerable – you essentially need to muster 7 fight for her, between 1 and 8 fight for the elite, AND have 3 SHIELD heroes left over to discard for “SHIELD clearance”. In the end, it was with more than a little sadness that I started running games where the Mastermind and the Villains were unrelated – but it did allow me to actually win a game or two.

Overall, I like Legendary as a Solo game – it definitely still works, which is not something I felt I could say of all the games I solo-ed this August. Not having to compete with other players for the Heroes you want to recruit allows you to be more precise with deck-building strategy although (as noted above) there are some schemes which just become impossible straightaway.

I had frustrations in the games I played (pesky Maria Hill), last-gasp wins (in one game, I defeated the Mastermind on 3 of the last 4 turns, winning the game at the last possible moment), and crushing defeats. I still think that my overall preference is to play this multi-player, but solo is a perfectly enjoyable alternative.

 

Critical Card-Pool size

BoxesI own all the Marvel Legendary expansions currently available (so everything released so far, minus Fantastic Four, which appears to be terminally out-of-print). This means that Legendary has now fallen in to a category with games like Dominion, some living card games, and to a lesser extent Carcassonne, where it starts to be the victim of its own success.

On a purely logistical level, I now have the Core box holding all the generic cards (SHIELD Agents, Officers, Wounds, Bindings, Sidekicks, Bystanders, Schemes etc), the Dark City box holding the Villains and Henchmen, and both Secret Wars boxes holding heroes. This means it’s no longer a game that leaves the house.

Beyond a little bit of box-lifting, there’s the question of gameplay combinations. I’m already well beyond the point where I’ll ever come close to using all the different possible combinations of Heroes, Villains, Schemes and Masterminds. In fact, it’s probably far more likely that a particular card set misses out on being used at all, than on being used in all combinations.

Eventually, this can cause problems: Carcassonne got (functionally) retired because we’d got so many expansions that the tile-count had more than doubled, and the game-time with it. Beyond a certain point, deck-building in an LCG becomes an activity that leads to analysis paralysis, as there are just too many possibilities to critically evaluate them all.

For the deck-builders, the difficulty is slightly different: once the game has begun, your choices are fairly clear, and no more or less than in any game. However, choosing the right set-up can be problematic.

Personally, I take a varied approach to this. Most of the time, I’ll use a randomiser app to generate a set-up. For Legendary, that increasingly means getting hideously smashed by the Mastermind, as we fail to generate any kind of synergy.

Fortunately though, this provides a good starting point to develop. If we get smashed once or twice by a particular Mastermind/Scheme/Villains combo, then I’ll look at the Heroes, pick the one who seemed to be the least use, and look for someone else to sub in. Sometimes this will be about having a Team affiliation or hero class needed to mitigate an effect coming off of the Villain deck, other times it will be just a case of getting another affiliation or class that a particular hero needs to trigger their ability. Sometimes we’ll get it at the first iteration, other times (I think it was Madeline Pryor, plus a scheme that gave her LOTS of Bystanders), it’ll take many attempts, or even a complete re-building to ensure complete synergy.

Fortunately, I think that Legendary is enough fun when you lose that it’s ok to go through the steps like this. Comparing it with Dominion, it’s easy to get into situations where the set-up is too disparate to be enjoyable, and you need to pre-empt the tweaking.

Strange Customs

Any game that has characters and is popular enough will eventually develop custom content, and given the overwhelming volume of source material available for a game with so broad a theme as “Marvel Superheroes and Villains” it is hardly surprising that Legendary has such a wealth of custom content available.

For those who care to look, there is an incredible amount of content available – entire sets which reapply the game’s basic concepts to Middle Earth, Hogwart’s, the Star Wars universe, or the world of DC Comics are all available on Board Game Geek.

Customs
It’s probably easier to think of a Fandom that DOESN’T have a fan-made Legendary expansion

Personally, I’ve never wanted to take on a project of the scale of printing something like this, but I have added a few cards to my collection that I saw online, and thought offered a better option than what we had from the official publications.

The base game of Legendary comes with an improbably large number of SHIELD Officers, comparatively few of which ever get bought. In an attempt to make them more interesting (and somewhat foreshadowing the changes to the Sidekick pile in the Civil War expansion), one user created unique SHIELD officers, based on the characters from the Agents of SHIELD TV series.

In terms of full-blown heroes, whilst each new set generally finds space for a new version of Captain America, there are other characters whose absence has been lamented for so long that you have to suspect that Upper Deck are just trolling people at this point.

She Hulk and Psylocke have traditionally been amongst the first names on a lot of lists of characters unfairly denied their place in the sun, but you can find a fan-made version of almost any long-standing character you’d care to name (I may have been pushing my luck when I started trying to dig up versions of the Stepford Cuckoos, Eva Bell, Hijack and Goldballs….)

CustomArt
Custom art ranges from the sublime to the fuzzy…

I’ve added print versions of a few of these characters to my collection. Some because the creators had done such a good job, like the She-Hulk set, others because I simply couldn’t square the Legendary character with my vision of the comic-book character (in my head, Hawkeye will always be the battered, bruised scrapper from Brooklyn that Matt Fraction and David Aya brought us, and I wanted a set that reflected that, even if the image quality was poor).

In some cases, I was baffled by the gap in the existing set: we have classic Jean Grey with the silly headdress who rescues Bystanders, and Time-Travelling young Jean Grey, but no Phoenix Jean Grey (if Sansa Stark can become the Phoenix in less than 2 hours, there’s no reason for Legendary fans to still be waiting 4 years later). In some cases, it’s just Nostalgia, pure and simple (I’m probably showing my age when I admit that I want Jubilee [non-vampire] to be a central character, and remain in denial when she continues to be peripheral or useless.)

The fact that this is a cooperative game makes it a lot easier to bring in the Homebrewed folks, and as I’ve sleeved my entire collection (both an expensive and a space-consuming thing to do, but those cards get A LOT of shuffling) makes it that bit easier to include these cards seamlessly in the set.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I think Legendary is a great game – I’d definitely rank it as my discovery of the year for 2015 and, whilst it’s not been quite so prominent this year (down from an average of  nearly 8 games per month last year to just over 5 per month this year), it still remains popular. I think the fact that it can be played solo or with up to five, following randomly generated scenarios, or carefully selected teams (thematic or hand-picked) all help with this, and keep it active.

Check back next time as I do a full review of the latest Legendary Expansion: Civil War

Dice Masters: It Takes Two

I said a little while ago, that Dice Masters is a game which poses quite a few challenges for me.

I’ve never been the world’s most competitive gamer. I don’t set out to win at all costs – obviously it’s nice to have at least a sense of being in the game, but the overall outcome isn’t a big deal.

IronFistHowever, what I do like, are promo cards – there are a lot of promos out there that offer interesting new takes on characters, or make certain builds that bit more viable. Given that WizKids OP kits generally involve a participation card (or 2) and a prize card, I don’t want to do so badly that I miss out on some of the cards.

As I’ve lamented on here in the past, our local Dice Masters community was reduced to near-extinction this spring, and for a while, there was no play happening at all. Right now, we’re back to monthly tournaments, with an average turn-out of 3 or 4, which means I can experiment a bit, and still (hopefully) take home the promos, as the turnout is low enough to finish last and still get the prizes.

The Team

When trying to build a competitive, constructed team, there are a few characters that tend to appear early on, which cost 2. This led me to wonder something: was it possible to build an entire team of 2-cost characters? (obviously, it’s possible, but would it be any good). I’ve been playing the game long enough, and have made it to enough OP events that I had a fairly good set of dice available to me (Civil War is the only Superhero set where I’m missing multiple commons and uncommons), and I eventually went for the following

Beast: Genetic Expert (AvX)
Black Widow: Tsarina (AvX)

Constantine: Hellblazer (JL)

Pepper Potts: Personal Secretary of Tony Stark (AoU)

Guy Gardener: Blinding Rage (WoL)

Iron Fist: (Rainbow Draft 20015)

Mary Jane: MJ (AS)

Rocket Raccoon: Not a Raccoon (CW)

Basic Actions: Big Entrance and Villainous Pact

Team

The opening for this team is fairly straightforward: turn 1, you want 4 energy including a mask: you buy a Big Entrance, stick it straight in the dice-bag, then use the global on Villainous Pact to draw a dice. With any luck, this means 4 character dice going straight into the bag on turn 2.

To get an idea of how fast this team can be, a perfect roll turn 2 (Action for Big Entrance, and Fists or Question Marks on the 4 sidekicks) can put 4 Guy Gardeners in the bag – as 2 of his character faces have a 0 field-cost, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to be swinging for 20+ damage on turn 3.

Even though the perfect storm of an opening won’t go off very often, this team still covers a lot of bases. Guy Gardener and Tsarina are both really good attacking characters – they hit hard and Tsarina’s spin down/take damage effect can really eat away at your opponent’s life.

MJ adds overcrush, in case your opponent manages to get a wall of sidekicks in the way of Guy, and if you can manage to get a decent lead in the life stakes, Rocket deals a damage to each player when he attacks, which speeds the game up, hopefully in your favour.

On the control side, Beast is still my favourite blocker in the game: gaining life for being KO-ed whilst blocking is always a good start, and being able to damage the opponent as well on the burst level, is even better. Constantine’s protection against “When Fielded” effects can completely nullify some teams, and Iron Fist’s ability to reduce damage from character abilities also neutralises a lot of the death-by-a-thousand-cuts tactics out there.

Pepper Potts is probably the dice that fits here least well: gaining extra defence when blocking is generally a good thing, and certainly helps against bit-hitters with Overcrush, but it runs slightly in the opposite direction to Beast (who wants to be KO-ed), and was a bit tricky to balance.

 The Tournament

DM2I played two matches in the tournament. The first was against a fairly inexperienced player, who was using a Civil War team – Having Iron fist on hand to nullify Black Widow, Venom and Moonstone left him with no really option besides wearing me down with combat damage, and my team was much too fast for that. A fairly comfortable 2-0 victory.

The second match was against a slightly more experienced player, with a more diverse team. He had lots of dice acceleration – I was able to control the Gambit “When Fielded” with Constantine, but the Beast who draws dice when he blocks did help him keep rolling lots of dice turn-by-turn.

The first game in the second match, I got a quick-ish start, and was able to get him down to a lowish life-total. From there, the game bogged down, but I had enough of a lead to grind out a win.

AllDice In the second game, I just couldn’t get going: the main problem was that I completed failed to roll characters with Guy and Tsarina. I let some attacks go through in the hope of having a clearer field to attack into, and when I failed to get the characters to attack with, I found myself a bit behind. Despite having masses of dice acceleration, he didn’t really have a killer character (something like a Hulk or a Thanos would have destroyed me, and done it quickly), and this game got really slow in the middle. Looking back, I should have stocked up on Beasts and a Pepper or two, and I could have ground out a draw. As it was, I stayed fairly aggressive, and was eventually overwhelmed with sheer weight of numbers. 1-1 for the match, and with only a minute left, we called it a draw.

Stargirl The third match finished 0-0 after the hour had elapsed, meaning I won the tournament overall.

We were using the DC Bombshells OP kit which, aside from having art that I really like, contained some cards that look really useful. The Stargirl will definitely find a place in my Justice League team, and the Lois Lane who gives Superman Overcrush could be useful too.

The alt-art version of Mera is unlikely to get much use, as I don’t like the high variance of the global ability, but still a nice card to have in the collection.

 

Aside: Songbird

Songbird One thing which I did find quite surprising on Sunday, was the fact that both my opponents were running Songbird. Obviously having 2-cost characters is useful in teams that aren’t based entirely around low-cost, but I never saw her ability get triggered. The fact that she is a villain meant that I couldn’t use the Villainous Pact action dice to force through attacks, and she’s big enough for a 2 coster, that she was part of what eventually wore me down in the one game I lost. Still, I feel like there are better options out there (if you go up to 3-cost, the Uncommon is a virtually indestructible blocker).

 

Reflections on the team of 2

Ultimately, I was pretty pleased with the performance of this team. It can do a lot, and can be played aggressively (smash with Guy before they get set-up) or defensively, (getting Iron Fist and Constantine out first). With a turnout of 3, we all got the promos, so an overall win was definitely just a bonus. That said, I’ve encountered a lot of stronger builds in the past that this would have struggled against.

Maria In terms of changing this team, there are a few possibilities. The bolt characters seem like the obvious place to make the cuts – Pepper in particular felt surplus much of the time. If I was sticking with the “Everything costs 2” theme, I’d probably go for the Civil War Maria Hill who can block any number of sidekicks, as this makes life easier when an opponent tries to swarm you (I considered her this time, but only have 1 die for her, and everywhere locally is out of Civil War boosters).

If I were to stray a little from the starting concept, I think there are definitely some higher-cost cards that could make this team really sing. The rare Lantern Ring from War of Light would have won me the game I lost, as all those characters I failed to roll would have been converted to direct damage from sitting on the energy.

NataliaFailing that, the sheer number of cheap dice this team accumulates, along with a little draw from the global means that you often have energy you just can’t spend. Possibly, I might consider a really high-cost basic action, although this would limit the early-game rush.
Overall, I think the best bet would be a massive character – Hulk is the obvious option with all those fists, but I’m still itching to actually get Natalya Romanova unleashed in a game situation – I don’t think I’d use both, as I’d have to cut Pepper and Rocket to fit them in, and that would mean no Bolt characters, making it that bit harder to hit 7 AND a Bolt/? On the same turn. Unblockable Thanos would also be a good finisher for this team.

 

Hopefully with play at the FLGS resuming, I’ll be able to post more on Dicemasters in the coming weeks and months. We’re going to be doing a Rainbow draft of Flash/Green Arrow when it comes out, and our FLGS has been confirmed as one of the 4 venues in the UK to get a WizKids Regional (finally some reward for the never-ending string of Heroclix posts on the Facebook group, as I think it’s the success of Heroclix OP that has secured it). Keep checking back here for updates.

Going Solo

 

August was always going to be a slightly unusual month for gaming. On the one hand, the summer holidays offer the potential for more hours free to game, with regular weekday evening distractions taking a break. However, it also means actual “holidays” – in my wife’s case, 10 days (including 2 weekends) in California visiting relatives. This mean a very limited amount of time available for epic 3-hour sessions of multi-player games, but – at least in theory – A LOT of time available for solo games.

Game in Progress
I guess you COULD play all the roles if you wanted…

It’s always difficult to answer the question of just how many games I have that can be played Solo. Essentially, any cooperative game that doesn’t require hidden information can be played two-handed-solo: in a lot of co-op games (Pathfinder, B-Sieged, Zombicide), we regularly have each player controlling multiple characters anyway, which just adds to the confusion (of counting the “soloable” games – not necessarily of actually playing it). In the end, it can be hard to tell which games have a “true” solo variant, which games can enjoyably be played multi-hand-solo, and which games might technically look solo-able, but would be rubbish if you did.

 

 

Real solo

Working through my collection, I was able to count at least 9 games that could be played “true solo” either because the player count just goes that low naturally (100 Swords, Elder Sign, Shadows Over Camelot the Card Game, Yggdrasil) with a single character/team (Lord of the Rings LCG, Marvel Legendary, Pathfinder, Side Quest), or with an official Solo Variant that automates part of the process (Race for the Galaxy, Firefly). Some of these (particularly Pathfinder) probably work better if I control multiple characters, but it isn’t a requirement.

There were also a handful of games which did have a higher minimum-character-count, but which could feasibly be managed by a single player (B-Sieged, Super Dungeon Explore, Zombicide).

However the final count falls, that’s ten or more different games that I could play by myself, which should be more than enough to fill the same number of days, especially considering the amount of other stuff I had to do in that time (work, eat, sleep, paint, tidy, read, write etc…)

 

Why play?

I think solo gaming asks an important question – namely what the point of playing games is? I hope that we only play games that are fun, but that doesn’t mean that every time we sit down to game it will be equally enjoyable. Some sessions will always be better than others: some will be a hard, exhausting slog, (hopefully ending with a sense of accomplishment) others will be a laugh. Some will end too soon, others may feel like they have gone on forever. Much of the time, the enjoyment comes from the group of people you play with, and the “perfect” session, if there is such a thing, comes when the right group are all enjoying the same thing at once.

Obviously, that social aspect isn’t going to be a part of any solo gaming session. Instead you might expect either a sense of victory from defeating a game, or cracking a puzzle. Or, maybe, you can hope for “fun.” But how do you measure fun?

Some of the games listed above I’ve played Solo quite a bit – Lord of the Rings LCG is the clear leader in that regard, but I’ve also played a fair bit of solo Pathfinder (in its digital incarnation). For others, such as Race for the Galaxy and Firefly, solo was going to be an entirely new experience and I was keen to try this different approach to games that are good, but never get large amounts of table-time.

Not surprisingly, I’d already eliminated any solo-able games from the “un-played altogether” (i.e. not at all in 2015 or 2016) list, but thinking about a week or so of solo sessions did allow me to put a dent in the list of games that were played last year, but hadn’t hit the table this year yet.

 

Blow-by-blow

In the end, it worked out at 13 days of playing solo (i.e. no wife in town). This is how the gaming breakdown ended up:

  • Wed 10th –Straight from work to a Dice Masters event. No solo gaming
  • Thu 11th – difficult day at work followed by Suicide Squad at the cinema. No solo gaming
  • Fri 12th – Intro game of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective      (1)
  • Sat 13th – Trial game of Race for the Galaxy          (1)
  • Sun 14th – 2 more games of Race for the Galaxy, 3 of LotR LCG, 2 of Marvel Legendary    (7)
  • Mon 15th – 3 games of Marvel Legendary (lost them all)                 (3)
  • Tue 16th – a decidedly unproductive day, just a single game of Legendary.            (1)
  • Wed 17th – refresher game of Shadows Over Camelot the Card Game.   (1)
  • Thu 18th – another solitary game of Shadows      (1)
  • Fri 19th – Friends over. No solo gaming
  • Sat 20th First 2 attempts at Mansions of Madness (2nd Ed), as well as a solo run-through of Firefly.              (3)
  • Sun 21st – Dice Masters tournament and lots of tidying. No solo gaming
  • Mon 22nd – a final game of Legendary       (1)

As already noted, some of these were games I’d played solo a lot before, others weren’t. Here are a few thoughts on some of the ones which stood out.

Race for the Galaxy

Race has been referred to many times (including on this blog) as “San Juan in space” and in my head that’s exactly what it is – I regularly forget just how much additional complexity there is.

The main difference between San Juan and Race for the Galaxy, comes in what happens to the things you make. In San Juan, as so as you produce stuff, you can profit from it, and the trick is to maximise the amount you can sell, and the money you make.

Race is much more complex – You can sell one good, using the “trade: $” action, but to actually convert into cards and victory points, you need specific Phase IV powers on planets or constructions in your tableau. The end result is a game that takes much longer to properly get up-and-running.

Having not played Race in a while, it took me a while to get going, especially as the Solo rules are an adapted form of the “advanced” 2-player variant of the game, which we have never really used.

RaceRobot

The solo version is definitely more complex than an all-human game: there is a board which represents your actions, and the ways in which the robot responds to them – there are also dice which control the actions that the robot takes.

The system which the designers have put in place to make this game playable solo is certainly a clever one, and it still feels quite a bit like playing Race ‘properly.’ That said, it is impossible to predict what the robot will do, in the way that you sometimes can with a human opponent, and the robot’s ability to trigger benefits in the trade phase earlier than the human player can properly get set-up can give it a real advantage – I got lucky on my first game, and won, but was then soundly beaten on the next two attempts, even at the easiest difficulty. Part of me didn’t want to get into a Vendetta with a cardboard computer controlled by a dice. Another part of me just really wanted to win a game…

Shadows Over Camelot: The Card Game

ShadowDeck
It’s mostly just remembering the numbers for each type of card (“?” is worth X, where X is the number of ? in the pile), but the special cards (left pile) make life more complicated

Shadows Over Camelot is a big co-operative board game from Days of Wonder, in which players act as Arthur and his Knights, trying to stave off the forces of evil, and complete various quests, hindered by the fact that one (or more) of them may secretly be a traitor.

As is so often the way, the successful board game was revamped as a card-game: highly portable, and with a more flexible player-count. At its most basic, on a player’s turn, they can either play the top card of the “rumours” deck, typically revealing a card with a quest logo and a number on it, or they can go on a quest – picking up the pile of rumours that have been played, and counting the totals for each quest: the aim is to get a total of 11, 12, or 13 – if they manage this, they get white swords equal to the quest’s value, if not then black swords will be placed – first side to 7 swords wins.

ShadowLoyal
Can you guess which one the traitor is?

There’s slightly more to it than that – there are cards with variable values, Morgan cards which makes things harder, Merlin cards which are supposed to help, but generally just add to the confusion, but this is what it really boils down to.

Both last year and this, Shadows the Card Game has only made it out for a solo game. I play it a few times, decide that it’s basically just a memory game; generally quite easy, but capable of putting you into an impossible position via dumb luck. Even though this won’t have been on the “un-played” list for 2015 or 2016, it’s actually not that interesting or fun as a solo game, and I really need to either give this a big-group run-out, or move it along.

Legendary

Marvel Legendary is a game which had seen a little bit of solo play in the past, and which got a big boost this past week or two. Given how big this article has got, I’ve decided to split up my thoughts on playing Legendary Solo and put them in a separate article (link to follow once it’s written).

Firefly

FireCrew It’s entirely possible that I had the first copy of Firefly the board game in England – at the time I knew a guy who worked for the distributors, and convinced him to sell me the spare copy they had in the office to give to my wife, whose birthday was a week or two ahead of the official release date.

Firefly is a game that does a great job of capturing the flavour of the cult TV show of the same name, as you fly your Firefly class ship around the ‘verse, taking jobs where you can, avoiding Alliance and Reapers, and generally just trying to keep flying.

On the downside, it has a large footprint, a long play-time (certainly MUCH longer than the various scenarios are advertised at), a less-than-brilliant rulebook, and it slows down a lot with players who aren’t familiar with the game / don’t plan ahead on other people’s turns. There’s also not all that much player interaction, meaning you can often get a strange end-game experience, where it’s clear that someone is going to win, but everyone needs to keep going through the motions for 4 more rounds before you actually get there.

I’m not sure which of those assorted factors are to blame, but this one hadn’t been out since January 2015, and giving it a whirl solo seemed like a good opportunity to refresh on the rules, ahead of encouraging others to play (whilst it’s often sadly necessary, it’s never good for general group enthusiasm when I spend a significant portion of the game leafing through the rulebook).

I played one game of this, towards the end of my week-and-a-half. The solo game changes the set-up, allowing you to pick upto 4 crew, and as well as having Mal captaining the ship, I took Wash, Kayley, Simon and River. Pilot and Mechanic are always useful to have, and the Simon+ River combination is one of the most powerful in the game, as it means that 50% of the time, you can have 3 icons of your choice for any skill test.

Yo-Saf-Bridg
No need to worry about these ladies in solo

Solo play puts a time-limit of twenty turns on the game, with a choice between 3 objectives: “the good” (become solid with 5 contacts), “the bad” (make lots of money) and “the ugly” (misbehave successfully 20 times).

Fairly quickly, I ran in to some obvious issues with solo Firefly. For one thing, the Reavers and the Alliance Cruiser are almost irrelevant – there’s never any compelling reason to have them anywhere near you. Being able to start with a powerful crew really changes the early turns, and I got lucky pulling the “no fuel needed for full burn” drive on about turn 2 or 3 (this does reduce your maximum range by one, but having Wash cancels this out).

FireFinish In the end I won fairly easily – after 10 turns out of 20, with an absolute stack of cash.

I thought about another game the following day. In the end, I ended up doing some tidying, and getting into a losing battle with Photoshop, but even if I had stuck to gaming, I’m not sure I would have been that enthused about playing this again – there just wasn’t that much to drive things.

Interestingly, an issue we have with Firefly in general, is that there isn’t much interaction, so it often feels like everyone is playing a solo game. I’m assured that there are fixes in the expansions, but as it is, the game doesn’t get enough play to justify an expansion…

 

Overall thoughts

On balance, I think I managed to get a fair amount of gaming done during this week-and-a-half. I probably over-estimated the time I had available (I forgot that, although my wife was away, I still had work, and various other commitments), and there were other things I wanted to do that got pushed aside by excess gaming.

Some of the games I played work well solo, whether that’s something like Legendary, which I knew already, or Race for the Galaxy, which was a pleasant surprise. Others were a bit of a let-down. The Shadows card game, and Firefly both felt like they didn’t really repay the time investment as a solo game.

It’s going to be a while (I’d imagine) before I do this much solo gaming in such a short period, but when I do, it’s nice to know that there are games out there worth the effort.

Review: Game of Thrones LCG – Called to Arms

Another chapter pack is upon us, and it’s time for a card-review

Kings

They may not be the first cards you see when you open the pack, but surely the most game-changing cards from this pack will be the two new agendas: Kings of Summer and Kings of Winter. However, I think they are deserving of an article of their own, so I’m going to leave these for now.

 

Baratheon

StoneDrumBaratheon get a new character and a new location this pack. Maester Pylos is a 3-cost, 3-strength, Power character, with Stealth. It’s hard to get excited about a character so mundane, and Cressen is still Baratheon’s best bet for a Maester, but this does give you other options if you’re running Here To Serve, or if you’re relying on kneel to win unopposed challenges. Feels solid if uninspiring.

The Stone Drum is a bit more intriguing. As a non-limited zero-cost location, it certainly doesn’t ask much of you, but you’ll need to be running a fair number of “Kingdom” plots to actually get a meaningful gold boost out of this. Given how many other locations Baratheon already has, this feels like it will struggle for deck-space, but it’s definitely a card worth thinking about when you consider how many Kingdom plots there are which you’re likely to already be running, some of which (Summons, Building Orders, Counting Coppers) have challengingly low income

 

Greyjoy

As you might expect during the war of the five kings, Greyjoy get a new version of their king, Balon. The new Balon is more expensive than his core-set counterpart at 7, with the same strength and icons. He has a little extra flexibility, being able to participate in multiple challenges (provided your opponent doesn’t control a king) and being able to convert locations into a multi-character strength boost, but for me this can’t compete with his core set version who does such a great job of smashing through those unopposed challenges.

Ours is the Old Way” is a whopping 4-cost event that gives all your Greyjoy characters stealth, or takes stealth away from all non-Greyjoys. Stealth is good, but 4-cost in Greyjoy just seems way too steep.

 

Lannister

Shae Shae is a 3-cost, 2-strength Intrigue/Power character for Lannister, who can be re-stood for the cost of 1 gold. Obviously she’s in the right house to have the gold to spend, but she just feels a bit week to be of much use to me. She seems most likely to find a place in a deck that’s relying on pushing through multiple intrigue challenges, and will have knelt out enough of your opponent’s board to not worry about the character’s strength. That said, she is small enough to be vulnerable to burn and to First Snow.

The Boy King is a unique attachment that captures the sadistic pleasure of Joffrey as he preys on the weak. Until we see Valar Morghulis later in this cycle, keeping power on characters is still a lot easier than it was in first edition, and being able to profit from the demise of claim-soak (your own or your opponents) feels like a good deal for 1-cost. The attachment also bestows the “King” trait, which seems to be an advantage in this cycle (unless your opponent has Viserys!)

 

Martell

Starfall Cavalry are a remarkably expensive character at 6-cost, and they provide a decent-sized body, without being anything that’s going to transform the game. They continue Martell’s theme of wanting to play the long game as, from turn 4 onwards, you can draw 3 cards when you play them. Whilst they feel too expensive to run many of, the power of the draw effect (particularly given how ineffectual Doran tends to be) is probably enough to make you include 1.

Venomous Blade is another Martell card with a big ambush option. I’m still cooking up an article on Ambush, and will deal with this more there.

 

Night’s Watch

Edd We’ve seen a rise in negative attachments in recent times, and the Night’s Watch one definitely plays to their strengths. If you’re running a wall defence deck, you want to avoid letting challenges through, and a 1-cost attachment that stops someone from attacking seems like a good deal. Their new attachment, Craven, is both terminal and a condition, so it’s fairly vulnerable as attachments go, but such a cheap way to neutralise someone like Balon or Robert make it worth a look.

Dolorous Edd has come to second edition, and he’s not happy about it. As you’d expect from a steward, he has an intrigue icon, and you can also ambush him in as a defender, for the cost of kneeling your house-card. Once again, this is stopping those unopposed challenges from getting through (as he can’t be stealthed in your hand), the cost is reasonable, and you have the option to return him to hand after winning the challenge, to save you from board resets.

 

Stark

A character and an event for Stark this time round: Donella Hornwood costs 4 for 3 strength, Intrigue and Power icons, which is acceptable, but hardly exciting. Her value lies in reducing the cost of the first loyal card you marshal each round: if you’re running a lot of loyal cards, especially in a fealty deck, she could give you some fairly powerful resource acceleration over time, and definitely seems worth a look. Without that critical mass of loyal cards, she seems a bit bland to bother with.

One such loyal card you might consider is Fear Cuts Deeper Than Swords. A 2-cost loyal event that cancels the effects of an ability that chooses a Stark character as its only target, and stands the character instead.

From what I’ve been able to glean from the Internet, this card is only going to help you out when an opponent triggers a card that says “Choose a character” and they choose one of your Starks. This means that it works on Mirri, Put to the Sword, Raiding Longship etc, but it doesn’t work on Tears of Lys or Tyene. Stark do have options for Intrigue these days, but it’s still not an area of great strength for them, so that’s a big drawback. The stand is nice, but I think I still prefer Treachery.

 

Targaryen

Doreah This cycle is all about Kings, and so far Viserys Targaryen is the only character we’ve seen who makes you want to not control a King. On that basis, their new attachment, Beggar King seems like a useful bit of resource manipulation: it won’t turn around a lack of economy altogether, and it’ll take at least a round to pay for itself, but the promise of having 1 or 2 extra gold when an opponent reveals a plot with better income will definitely help to smooth out bumps, as well as giving one of your characters the “King” trait.

Doreah offers Targaryen players some additional card-draw, gaining insight in challenges where you control a participating Lord or Lady. Like almost all draw we’ve seen up until now, she is loyal, and as a 2-cost, 2-strength bicon, she isn’t going to be setting the board alight, but she is cheap enough to include 1 or 2, and can combo well with characters like Viserys or Illyrio.

 

Tyrell

I found the Tyrell cards in the last pack quite underwhelming, and There Is My Claim doesn’t feel like much of an improvement. Obviously a free event is nice, but the requirement to reveal 4 Tyrell characters from your hand seems a pretty steep one, and just not that likely to trigger. As it’s free, you might want to chuck this in – unexpectedly changing the claim of a challenge is always a bonus, but it just feels too niche to rely on.

The Knight of Summer on the other hand, is quite an interesting proposition. At 4-cost, he comes the right side of the First Snow of Winter cut-off that hit the old Tyrell Knights deck so hard. As a body he’s decent without being exciting, but if you can get the “Summer” theme rolling, then a 5-strength bicon with renown seems nice. I think this might even be the inspiration I need to build a Tyrell Summer deck.

 

Neutral

As you’d expect given the pack’s agendas, Called to Arms comes with a new summer plot, and a new winter plot.

Harvest Summer Harvest is certainly not the most exciting plot, but with income of X, where X is another player’s plot income + 2, most of the time it’s going to allow you to play plenty of stuff. Value definitely goes up in multiplayer, and it would be a real flop on a Rise of the Kraken or Valar Morghulis turn, but if you’re building for summer, it seems an obvious choice.

Winter Festival sticks with the more established theme of a season plot that hinges on there not being any plots in play of the opposing season. If you can fulfil that requirement, this offers plenty of gold, and two free power at the end of the round. Dangerous in melee, the rest of the time it’s probably a meta-call, and only worth it if you can leverage that Winter keyword.

 

So that about wraps things up for another chapter pack. Most of the cards in here seem interesting without being earth-shattering. I definitely think that the big long-term impact from this box will be the Agendas, and I’ll post more thoughts on these once I’ve had a chance to see them in action.

Waiting for Cthulhu

CallMinis

I feel like I’ve been waiting for years for a good Cthulhu game for our group.

I’ve not read a massive amount of Lovecraft, but I enjoyed most of what I did: some of the prose is a bit over-the-top, and the casual racism is very jarring (check out the name of the cat in The Rats In The Walls for a line that would never make it past the editors today), but the idea, the world Lovecraft created, is brilliant. Ever since I first encountered it, I’ve always felt that the Mobsters and Monsters setting of his alternate 1920s and 30s was a great setting for fiction, or for a game.

Call of Cthulhu LCG

LCGI picked up the Call of Cthulhu Living Card Game several years ago and really enjoyed it: I think in terms of the basic mechanic, it was one of the best card games Fantasy Flight made. The overall objective is to complete various stories, by means of investigation: being the first person to put 5 Investigation markers on a story allows you to claim it. The twist is that before you get the chance to investigate, your opponent has the chance to kill your characters, or drive them insane first: so decks needed to balance their investigative power, with enough strength or terror to hold your own in the struggle.

As good as Call of Cthulhu was, there were definitely issues with: I had some minor quibbles about the resource curve (it always felt very slow to get going, and you’d often spend much of the game with all your good characters just sat in hand), but the much bigger problem though, was the standard issue for game in our house – trying to play a competitive LCG without competitive opponents. Whenever I tried to play this game, I’d be using a deck I’d built – and so would the person I was playing against. Invariably, I knew the rules and the decks far better than my opponent, and the end result tended to be 1-sided games that were no fun for either of us. In the end, this just ended up gathering dust, waiting for me to recognise the inevitable, and decide to move it on.

Elder Sign

ElderThe other game I picked up around the time I started looking at Cthulhu Mythos games, was Elder Sign. From the outset, this seemed to have some fairly obvious advantages over the LCG – it was cooperative, and capable of supporting any number of players from 1 to about 7 (I can’t actually remember the upper-limit, I’ve certainly never got particularly near to exceeding it).

In Elder Sign, players are investigators in Arkham Museum at night, working through various mini-adventures and puzzles, trying to collect enough Elder Signs to seal the gate to another place before an Ancient One awakes. If they get the Signs in time, they win, otherwise there may be a brief last stand against the Ancient One, but more likely they will just be devoured and/or driven insane.

Elder Sign sometimes gets called Cthulhu Yahtzee. I don’t think that this name is intended as a compliment, and it’s certainly an over-simplification of what’s going on in the game. However, there is still an element of dumb-luck, as you try to roll the right symbols, and probability refuses to play along. The randomness of the dice is added to by the randomness of the cards you draw, and the inconsistent power-levels of the characters you can play as, leaving an end result which is just a little bit too unpredictable, and doesn’t really give enough of a sense that your defeat could have been averted with better decisions.

ElderOmens
Having the expansion also helps the box feel less foolishly over-sized

There have been various expansions for Elder Sign over the years. After some deliberation, I skipped the early ones, on the basis that the game wasn’t getting played all that much anyway, but I picked up the most recent one when I reviewed it for Games Quest earlier this year. Omens of Ice takes the story and sets it in a different location entirely (Alaska), with a whole new set of Adventures and Ancient ones – overall, it feels harder than the base game, but it also feels like they’ve done a good job of making the game feel a bit more even, and giving players more interesting decisions to make.

Elder Sign isn’t going anywhere, and is the sort of game that can expect to get played a handful of times each year. I’m a big fan of the fact that it’s playable solo, and have never gone above 4 as a group-size for it.

The others

Arkham Horror

Complete Horror
One BGG user’s complete collection

Arkham Horror is a sprawling, epic game – it has an advertised run-time of 2-4 hours, and experience tells me that games (at least in the early days) tend to run a lot longer than the time printed on the box. By the time I was looking at Cthulhu games, this had amassed a glut of expansions, which just added to the length, complexity and cost. For a long time, this was a game I wanted to try, but felt I’d struggle to sell it to the people I game with regularly, just based on sheer length.

Mansions of Madness

Mansions of Madness was always spoken of very highly by the people I encountered who had played it. A thematic experience, exploring a house, and doing your best to uncover the secrets behind a particular mystery before you’re driven insane, or killed.

Still a fairly hefty time-commitment, this one clocked in at about 2-3 hours, which was a significant improvement on Arkham Horror, but still not something to be taken lightly. The bigger issue for us, was the role of the Gatekeeper, the person who controls the monsters and other forces of darkness facing the investigator. In essence, with a big enough group, this becomes a mostly co-op experience, but in 2-player, it’s head-to-head. That, combined with a hefty price tag, made it too big a risk for us to try.

Eldritch Horror

Eldritch Horror was the successor / reboot to Arkham Horror. Keeping that fully co-op feel, but expanding the scale from Arkham to the whole world. It definitely caught my eye when it was first announced, but somehow it never quite made it onto the shopping list – If I remember rightly, when it came out, there was a fairly vocal debate between those who hailed it as the best game ever, fixing all that was wrong with Arkham Horror, against a backlash from some hard-core Arkham Horror fans, who decried it as a travesty and a mess. Caught between these two opinions, and without managing to find anyone locally who’d actually played it, I just felt a bit unable to make a decision, and didn’t end up getting either.

Emerald.jpg(I should note at this point, I’m aware that there are games out there which involve the Cthulhu Mythos, but aren’t made by Fantasy Flight Games. Study in Emerald was definitely the most interesting-looking of these, but I missed the Kickstarter, and then forgot to look for a retail release – it’s probably a very good game, but I just didn’t feel like I had enough to write a section on here. Most other offerings just feel like paper-thin themes (Cthulhu Munchkin, Smash-Up Cthulhu etc), and don’t really belong in this discussion.

2016

With a sense that I’d explored all the options out there, the Cthulhu Mythos had fallen off my radar a bit (it was probably already slipping by 2013, which may well be why part of why I didn’t get Eldritch Horror. Then, early in 2016, I heard the first rumours of something stirring in the depths.

ReignSoon
I do actually have photos of this one from UKGE, but the advert felt more fitting

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is still a name which annoys me: it feels like a cash grab, (and reminds me of a very frustrating day of Games Demonstration trying to explain Batman Love Letter to lots of people who had never heard of Love Letter).

However, the game – let’s just call it “Reign of Cthulhu” – looks great. It has a lot of the things that made Pandemic such a good game in the first place, including things included in the core box which only became part of Pandemic in expansions and later editions (the penalties for controlling insane characters feel a lot like the scars you can acquire in Pandemic Legacy). More to the point, Reign of Cthulhu has things which are unique to the game (Shoggoths, Ancient Ones, Gates) which give it a really good atmosphere. Having got to try this once at UK Games Expo, I’ve been on high alert since the end of July, waiting for this one to appear on general release.

Summer Madness

mad20_featureIt was whilst I was in this heightened state of alert, that something completely unexpected caught my eye – Mansions of Madness: 2nd edition. In a climate where games are typically trailed and hyped for months, there was less than a fortnight between Fantasy Flight announcing this game, and it being available for buyers at GenCon. Crucially, this second-edition uses an app to take over the role of the Gatekeeper, making it possible to play the game solo, making it fully co-op when played with any size of group, and allowing for new creativity in areas like an expanding map-board. This was an approach FFG had taken with Descent (a game I’m still keeping an eye out for) My interest was piqued, and when I managed to snag a review copy of it, the final hurdle (the £90 price-tag) was cleared.

ahc01_featureWhilst I waited for Pandemic and Mansions, I turned my attention back to the LCG, and was reluctantly preparing to move it along. The very day I had made the note for myself to sort through the game ready for selling, I discovered that Cthulhu Mythos games are indeed like buses, and all come along at once – an announcement from Fantasy Flight of a new cooperative Arkham LCG coming this winter. In something of a dry spell for me on the Lord of the Rings LCG (expansion fatigue/analysis paralysis from a card-pool that has got very big after 5 years, in a game that just keeps getting harder). Right now, the prospect of a new, co-op, Cthulhu LCG was about the best conjunction of events I could have wished for.

Mansions I was told I could have a review copy of; Pandemic I’m hoping to do the same with (admittedly, other people may have the same idea, so there’s certainly no guarantee). The LCG is a little way off yet, and I’ve no idea whether a review copy will even be a possibility, but being a living card game, it’s probably something I’d need to make a medium-term commitment to rather than just getting a single core set.

Mansions 2.0, Reign of Cthulhu, Arkham LCG. Perhaps any, or all, (or none) of these will finally be the Cthulhu game that becomes a regular favourite for us. Either way, I’ll make sure to report back here once I know – unless of course I’m driven mad first…

1 of 13 but still only 9 of 9

Natalia July was an interesting month for games. I managed to get in a decent number of Game of Thrones sessions, and even managed a Dice-Masters tournament – it was a rainbow draft: I picked up the Natalia Romanova chase-rare in the first round, and won all my games, coming away with a full set of the OP cards, including an alternate art Villainous Pact, so a pretty successful evening all-round.

Looking at the gaming challenges in particular, there was a little progress, although with no new milestones actually being hit: I’m still not quite there yet on the 10 of 10, (and way off on the un-played) but making progress on both fronts.

 

9 of 9 (still)

It’s getting tight at the top of the chasing pack for the 10 of 10 challenge. Nobody has yet made that last fateful step, but it can only be a matter of time. Surely? There are 3 games on 7 (with some tenuous accounting, I could probably push one of these to 8, but I’m resisting the temptation), 3 on 6, and 5 on 5, (I was keeping track of the 4s as well, but there were several review games in this group that have now been moved on, so I’m simplifying).

 

Symmetry
I drew this table a week or two ago, when I started drafting this article. It had a pleasing symmetry, so I decided to include it, even though it’s now out-of-date…

Beyond-Baker-Street-Board-Game Some of those were new entries for July: games that came brand-new to my house, or found themselves dusted off after a longish hiatus. Beyond Baker Street (7) and AYA (4) were both review games that I picked up, and both things I wouldn’t have looked twice at in the shop – a strange domino-toppling activity, and a deduction game, which is basically just a re-theme of Hanabi. It might be far too expensive for the amount of components included, but it’s a fun, clever, well-presented game, and each time we sat down to play it, we’d find ourselves playing it multiple times in no time at all.

Dominion is not new at all. It’s been around for years, and over that time, the core cards have gotten well-worn.

Dominion-Storage-Card-Game I like Dominion. I own the base game, the first 5 retail expansions and a handful of promos, although there had been a bit of a lull in buying things. I thought long and hard about picking up Adventures last year, before eventually getting into Marvel Legendary instead (an expensive decision, but a popular one amongst most gaming friends). This year’s Empires expansion found its way to me as a demo copy, and breathed new life into the game, hitting the table half-a-dozen times in a week.

As much as I like Dominion, it’s not always the most popular game for me to wheel out: I probably have an 80% win record in 2-player games with my wife, and too long a winning streak can sap the fun for others. That was what eventually decided me against buying Adventures last year, and it was my big hesitation as it headed towards 10 plays this year – I could very easily see it getting binge-played to 10 in July, then disappearing back onto the shelf until next year. I’ve very deliberately put it back on the shelf whilst still in single digits for July, but I hope to see it re-appear later in the year to make it to ten – whether that happens remains for me to be seen.

So far only 1 game has made it onto the top ten this year in a single month (i.e. without being played in any other month) Curse of the Black Dice, an entertaining enough semi-co-op which I picked up for review, played ten times in March, then ended up selling on to make room for other things. It earned its place on the list fair and square, but somehow it feels slightly less worthy than those which surround it (incidentally, 7 other games have been played 10 or more times in a month, but all of those have recorded plays in at least 3 other months…)

 

1of 13

SettleDice
You only actually need the dice and the sheets – the cup keeps it all together, but also bends the paper

The only game to make it off of the Un-played list for July was Settlers of Catan: the dice game (regular Settlers remains un-played, awaiting full article-treatment).

As a dice game, this one is light, in both the physical and the mechanical senses, and transports easily, although it has the downside that I have long-since lost the rules. This one made it out of the box during a weekend at my parents’ house (they didn’t play it. My parents will basically only play Mah Jong with us – I think I’ve even scared them off at Trivial Pursuit and Articulate after previous Christmases…) and was a perfectly tolerable way to pass half an hour. That said, this was one of those games, where I was very conscious of the fact that I was playing it because I have a list of un-played games that I’m trying to work through. As I say, it was “fine,” but I don’t foresee any compulsion to play it again lots in the near future. I’m not expecting get rid of it any time soon – it scores enough points for being light, small, portable etc that keeping it is no hassle, and it’s unlikely that I’d make enough selling/trading that it would be worthwhile by the time I’d covered postage etc.

SomeUnplayed
A few of the un-played games

That leaves 12 games left that weren’t played last year, and haven’t been played this year yet. Given the way that the Academic Year tends to define our lives (I work at a University, my wife works at an FE College), I have a strong sense that August may be the last chance for a lot of them to make it to the table.

It’s also reaching the point in the year, where I need to start paying attention to the “new” un-played list (currently 12 games I own which were played last year, but haven’t left the box in 2016). On the one hand, I’m already in the position where I’ll have fewer un-played games in 2016 than 2015 (unless I suddenly get a load of new stuff then don’t play it), but If Firefly or Middle Earth Quest can’t get a game during the holidays, what hope have they when term resumes and work is really busy again?

 

Modern Classics: From Puerto Rico to the Stars

A Board Game, two cards games and a dice game; 2 set in the West Indies, 2 set in Space. At first sight, this might not seem like a particularly obvious grouping of games to be looking at together, but hear me out…

 

These games all come from the same designer, and they follow a semi-linear development pattern that can be traced through…

No. Scratch that. Apparently they don’t come from the same designer. But stay with me…

The basic premise for these games is shared: broadly speaking, players choose from a set of actions – when an action is chosen, everyone gets to perform that action, but the person who chose it gets an additional bonus which only applies to them.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico came along almost a decade and a half ago now, in 2002. It’s a fairly dry, fairly heavy, fairly fiddly Euro game – players are trying to develop the island of Puerto Rico – the ultimate aim is to gather the most victory points, but in order to do this, you’ll need to develop a network of plantations around the island, and buildings in the capital, in order to allow you to get the most out of your actions.

The roles available are Builder (make buildings), Settler (plant plantations), Mayor (get colonists to work in those buildings and plantations), Producer (get stuff from your plantations), Trader (sell some of the stuff from your plantations, and Captain (ship stuff grown on plantations back to the Old World for Victory points).

Puerto Rico
Just a few components then…

Puerto Rico is a solid game, albeit one that’s feeling its age. It is, in keeping with the theme of these articles, a ‘Modern Classic’ of heavy Euros.

That said, Puerto Rico is not a game without issues. There’s a reason I got rid of my copy 4 or 5 years ago. The game is fairly long – a good couple of hours, it needs a minimum of three players (a challenge when most of our gaming is just my wife and me) and above all, it’s incredibly fiddly: piles and piles of different tokens, and the numbers you need vary depending on player count. For example, the little wooden colonist tokens: with 3 players you need 75 of them, 100 with 4 players, and all 122 with 5 (those figures are from memory, and may be slightly out, but you get the idea). It’s the sort of thing that’s mildly irritating when you’re playing at home, and a full-time nightmare when you’re demo-ing the game to the public.

In the end then, Puerto Rico wasn’t for us: I certainly don’t mind the settle and develop theme, but it wasn’t interesting enough to justify the time and energy involved.

San Juan

Fortunately, 2 years after Puerto Rico first landed, the people who made it released another game: San Juan. This is a game which has lasted far longer on my shelves than its elder brother, still gets played periodically, and I think it’s a remarkably clever bit of design. The basic concept is the same: you are an enterprising merchant on Puerto Rico, your end-goal is Victory Points, and you’re going to get there by producing Coffee, Sugar, Indigo, Tobacco and the like.

SanJuanCardsThe genius of San Juan, is how much is done with such limited components. The bulk of the game is a deck of cards:

  • Face up, a card is a building that you can construct in your city: it will have a cost, (usually) an ability, and a victory-point value.
  • Face-down on a plantation, a card is a type of goods – so if it’s on a coffee plantation, it’s some coffee, if it’s on a sugar mill it’s some sugar.
  • In hand, a card is money – if you need to pay 3 money to do something, you discard 3 cards from your hand. If you sell something for 4 money, you take 4 cards from the draw deck, and add them to your hand.

The basic structure of San Juan, like the overall aim, has changed very little from Puerto Rico. Each round, you choose a role. When you take a role, everyone gets to perform the associated action, and you get a bonus. The roles are simplified slightly (no colonists needed, so the Mayor role has gone), with the addition of a new “Counsellor” role (draw a couple of cards and pick one to keep, with more choice for the person picking the role) but anyone who has played Puerto Rico will instantly recognise what’s going on.

SanJuanRolesThere are cardboard tokens to represent the roles, and there are others to determine the prices of the goods you sell, but it’s still a very limited pile of stuff, which gives you a great return in terms of gameplay. It’s playable with only 2, which is a great bonus, although sadly it doesn’t stretch to 5.

San Juan isn’t a perfect game – there are some cards which are much more powerful than others, and a few lucky draws early on can give you a major advantage, potentially one that will prove impossible for the other player(s) to recover from. That said, it’s not too often that a game will be a complete whitewash, and even when it is, it’s so much shorter than Puerto Rico, that you don’t mind as much. Having played San Juan once, I never wanted to go back.

 

Race for the Galaxy

Given the way that expansions abound for modern games, I think it’s remarkable that there hasn’t been an expansion for San Juan…

(ok, technically this isn’t true. There were some new buildings and some events which came in a “Treasure Chest” promotional expansion. The Buildings then became part of the “2nd edition” of San Juan, released in 2014. However, I don’t think there has ever been a point in time where you could walk in to a normal shop, and buy a box that was just ‘extra stuff for San Juan,’ so I’m classing that as “no expansions.”)

… I think the reason that there haven’t been any expansions for San Juan, is because of another game: 2007’s Race For the Galaxy.

RaceQuickRef
This is the Quick Reference card – so just a bit more complex…

Until I came to write this article, I’d always assumed that San Juan and Race for the Galaxy were made by the same designer: closer research has told me that this was not the case, but that the designer of Race had been asked by Rio Grande (the company who publish all these games) to design a card-game version of Puerto Rico, and that some of his ideas were ultimately incorporated into San Juan, which feels pretty close to “they were both made by the same guy.”

For a 1-line explanation of Race For the Galaxy, you can’t get much better than “San Juan in Space” (assuming the person you’re talking to knows San Juan). There ARE differences, most noticeably that everyone selects the role they want to take for the round, and reveals simultaneously, which adds an interesting element of guesswork to the start of each round, but you’ve still got the basic principle that when a role is selected, everyone gets to do the action, but the person who chose it gets a bonus. Likewise, the aims are the same: build a tableau of cards to generate income in the short-term, and victory points in the long-term.

RaceSettleBuild
Top-Left: Settlement Worlds, Top-Right: Conquest Worlds, Below Structures to build

Race is more complicated that San Juan: You can settle planets using different types of resources (normal or military); The different resources your planets produce have far more specialised interactions with the cards that produce and process them. It also relies quite heavily on iconography which is not entirely intuitive.

Overall, I think San Juan is the more accessible of the two – and by extension it’s probably a better game for people who want something light to dip in to. Race for the Galaxy offers more complexity and has various expansions which can take the player count up to 5 or 6, or even down to solo. The steeper learning curve can also lead to more mis-matched games between experienced and novice players, and generally I think that this is a game which has the most to offer a group of similarly seasoned veterans playing regularly.

Roll For the Galaxy

“If a game exists long enough, and is popular enough, eventually a dice version will come in to being” – That’s a statement I made up about 30 seconds ago, and doubtless there are many exceptions, but as a rule of thumb, I think it’s sound enough.

Roll
and we’re back to a million components

Roll for the Galaxy appeared in 2014, and it’s not a particularly challenging activity to spot the leap in imagination between the names of the two. I’ve not actually played Roll, so I’m not going to talk too much about it, but it’s certainly found an audience of willing fans. It currently has slightly less than 10,000 Reviews (as opposed to 31,000 for Race), but it’s been out for less than 2 years, rather than 9, so a lag in numbers has to be expected. More to the point, those ratings are positive enough for Roll to have overtaken Race in the Geek-Ratings.

At 45 minutes, the dice version isn’t just a light, quick alternative, it’s a fairly meaty game in its own right, so keep that in mind before you pick it up on a whim.

Final Thoughts

So that’s the family. For each of them, you can find people with plenty of good stuff to say, and plenty of people ready to slate it. For me, I think that San Juan is the best- it’s got the right ratio of complexity to play-time, and is accessible enough to be an occasional play. If you are a fan of big Euro Games, then you should probably have played Puerto Rico once, but I think there are better games out there to buy and keep.