Some Thoughts on Lords of Waterdeep

At just over five years old, Lords of Waterdeep is a modern classic — which is a polite way of saying that, in boardgame years, it’s kind of old. On the other hand, considering that it’s still being played five years later demonstrates that it’s withstood the test of time thus far; personally, I’ll rarely turn down an opportunity to play it.

We had six guys at our recent game night — slightly more than our usual four or five. Most of the games in our respective collections top out at five or less. Furthermore, Ty was joining us the first time, so we wanted to avoid jumping too far into the deep end right away. These parameters narrowed down our options pretty significantly. Fortunately he did have some prior gaming experience (including playing D&D), so Lords of Waterdeep fit the bill perfectly.

At its core, Lords of Waterdeep is a fairly straightforward worker-placement game. Each player, taking on the role of one of the hidden (as in, secret) lords of the City of Splendors, sends their agents out to various locations around the city to recruit adventurers to go out and complete quests. The rewards for completing quests normally come in the form of influence over the city, represented by victory points, but they can also take the form of gold or even additional adventurers. Taking a page from Ticket to Ride, each player is randomly assigned a lord at the start of the game which gives them bonus points at the end, typically based on types of quests completed, but there are a few exceptions.

There are five basic resources in the game: four types of adventurers (fighters, rogues, clerics, wizards) and gold coins. Each quest requires a specific group of adventurers, and frequently a sum of gold as well. Gold is also used to purchase buildings — other locations around the city where agents can be sent in order to recruit adventurers, earn gold, or gain other types of benefits, ranging from the relatively mundane to the quite powerful. Of course, this being a worker-placement game, there is also a sixth resource, the most precious one of all, hidden in plain sight: the number of actions available to you over the course of the game, represented by the number of agents under your control. Each player has the same number of agents throughout the game, but there are a few ways to do some “sequence breaking” and acquire additional actions.

Everything functions within a fairly tight set of parameters. Although not explicitly stated, there’s a firm exchange rate in place on the relative value of adventurers, which can be seen with a little effort by comparing the number of adventurers required to complete a quest with the rewards that it yields. Essentially, two coins equals one fighter or rogue, and two fighters or rogues (or one of each) is equal to one cleric or wizard. The starting locations also bear this out, as you can recruit fighters and rogues in pairs at their usual hangouts, but only a single cleric or wizard at their respective locations. There’s also a starting location that earns you four coins.

There is a clear effort in the design to balance all of the moving parts and for the benefits of each action to be incremental and sometimes even beneficial for multiple parties. For example, when a player sends an agent to building, that player receives the reward for placing their agent there, but the owner also receives a small bonus as well. Likewise, Intrigue Cards will frequently provide a bonus to multiple players, not just the one who plays it. Even Intrigue Cards that attack other players aren’t terribly punishing.

The board is reasonably sized, but you’ll never have too much space available to play this game.

 

For those steeped in D&D lore (specifically, the Forgotten Realms campaign setting), the game takes on extra flavor and immersion. The quests themselves are fairly thematic. For example, a mission to break into an ancient crypt is primarily rogues’ work, but a wizard or two may be necessary in order to assist with any magical dangers that may be present.

On the other hand, a common criticism of game is that the theme feels tacked-on. This is a fair assessment, and something that will be felt most acutely by those who are not familiar with the setting. Extrapolating from the name of a quest why a particular group of adventurers is needed requires a little imagination on the parts of the players, and being familiar well-versed with D&D, or fantasy tropes in general at the very least, is definitely helpful in this regard. Making the extra effort to refer to the cubes as the type of adventurers that they represent (not simply by their color) along with reading the little bits of flavor text that are present on the Quest and Intrigue cards will also go a long way for creating a sense of immersion.

The tight design of Lord’s of Waterdeep, whileone of its greatest strengths, is also an easy target for criticism. For all of the flavor present in the quests, there really is no differentiating one type of quest from another. Sure, Piety quests will typically require clerics and Skullduggery will require rogues, but they’re all simply worth points in the end based on a fairly straightforward calculation and they are mechanically identical; the only reason to choose one over another is based on the particular lord you’ve drawn and the types of quests they earn bonus points for.

The burdens that accompany the role of being one of the hidden lords of Waterdeep proved to be too much for Spike.

 

Expansions
Lords of Waterdeep has two expansions available (or “modules” as they are referred to within the game, a nod to classic D&D lingo): Undermountain and Skullport. Both come in a single expansion set called Scoundrels of Skullport (a questionable marketing move since by focusing on “Skullport,” the name downplays the fact that there are two expansions present in the package).

Undermountain is basically what Prosperity is to Dominion: no changes to core mechanics or gameplay, just more of it, bigger and better. It adds a new section to the board with several powerful areas where lords can send their agents, along with bigger quests that require larger groups of adventurers going for bigger payoffs, and more expensive buildings that provide greater benefits to their patrons. It adds a new layer of decision-making: is it better to complete several lower-point quests, or go for more difficult but higher-value ones? Worker-placement games are fundamentally about action economy and determining optimal moves. It takes fewer actions to complete a single higher-value quest, but it requires more actions to recruit the requisite number of adventurers, so it’s not always clear which is the better decision.

I’m not sure if there’s a direct Dominion analog for Skullport. Alchemy would probably be the closest because, as with Alchemy, Skullport also adds a new resource type and with it, new mechanics: corruption. “Resource” is actually a misnomer because, while it must be carefully managed, it’s a negative side effect that comes frim sending agents down into Skullport, the seedy (literal) underbelly of Waterdeep, represented by another separate board with new starting locations, or by participating in particularly unsavory actions (new quests and Intrigue Cards). The payoffs for sending your agents to these places is significantly greater than for sending them to the more reputable parts of the city, but they come at a steep price — represented by subtracting victory points for every corruption token that you possess (or does they possess you?) at the end of the game. In a really clever example of game design, the tokens start out on a corruption track and are removed as players earn them, revealing a progressively worse negative value for each token. A small taste of corruption can help an ambitious lord get ahead; too much will easily bury him or her in the end. As with Undermountain, Skullport introduces its own set of new buildings, quests, and Intrigue Cards.

Each expansion adds three new lords to the game, with benefits that are more interesting than the standard “earn 4 victory points for these two types of quests” from the base game. In our gaming group, we have a house rule where we divide the lords according to whether they come from the base game or the expansions. Each player is randomly given one from each group and chooses the one that they wish to play as. My personal favorite is the beholder crime lord of Skullport known as the Xanathar.

In a nearly complete inversion of the corruption mechanic, and one of the rare instances where the mechanics and theme of using a particular lord converge, the Xanathar actually scores 4 VP for each corruption token at the end of the game. The catch is that he still takes the penalty as well. Effective play with the Xanathar comes down to making the most of locations and quests that confer corruption, carving out enough of a lead over the other players during the game in order to still be in the lead even after lords are revealed and bonus points for quest type are awarded. This is decidedly not how it turned out for me during my group’s last game.

I got the Xanathar! Oh, happy day.

 

We played the full version of the game, using both expansions, and I was thrilled that I drew the Xanathar as one of my lords. However, I ended up struggling to score many points during the game, due to a combination of some sub-optimal choices I made early on, as well as the vissicitudes of the game, particularly which quests came up. There was a relatively low number of the big 40-point quests that showed up, which meant that they were even more valuable when someone was able to score one. Despite having a fairly high number of completed quests none of them were of the coveted 40-point variety, and I finished in fourth place.

My resources and completed quests at the end of the game. Needs more points.

 

For almost the entire game, it appeared that Nick was going to finish closer to the bottom than the top. Nick has earned the reputation of being our resident game shark, so no matter who wins, it’s always at least a minor victory for everyone else as long as it’s not him. [Just kidding, Nick, you’re awesome! Please don’t take umbrage and destroy me even worse in whatever game we play next!] However, in the last round, he pulled off an impressive combo involving a couple of different Intrigue cards and Quests, rocketing past several other players on the score track, and finishing tied with Joe at a respectable 124 points after bonus points were tallied. Of course, being Nick, he ended the game with more coins in his tavern than Joe, winning the tie-breaker and the game.

Although it wasn’t a very good showing for me, I got to make some fun plays over the course of the game. I drew an “Open Lord” Intrigue Card early on. Playing it meant that I revealed to everyone that I was, in fact, the Xanathar, but it also made me immune to Mandatory Quests and other attacks from the other players for the remainder of the game. I was also able to complete the “Unleash Crime Spree” quest during my final turn, true to form for the Xanathar and a (im)moral victory at least. I may not have won, but I got to tell a fun story with the quests that I completed.

It was an enjoyable game with an exciting and unbelievable ending, and I’m happy to have logged another play with this classic.

 

It’s World of (S)laughter: Some Thoughts on Small World

I’m as susceptible to the cult of the new as any other gamer, but once in a while, I reach back into the mists of time and acquire a title that, although being a bit long in the tooth by boardgame standards, is new to me (we have to keep those long tails on board game sales going if we want to see expansions, right?). I received my copy of Small World as a birthday present from my wife and daughter earlier this year. We’ve played it a few times since then, (both one-on-one games with my wife as well as a simplified version with my daughter), but the other night’s five-player game was the first time playing with a larger group.

This past Friday was the regularly-scheduled game night with the guys. However, a bad storm and downed power lines quickly put the kibosh on those plans. Since Nick still had power at his house, my wife and I regrouped and headed over to his house along with our friend Mike for an impromptu sleepover for our daughter with Nick and Heidi’s children, and a game night for the grownups. After getting our daughter settled in, we decided to give Small World a try.

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It only took a power outage and a tornado, but not only did Small World hit the table, but two of our wives also got a chance to participate in the game. Bonus points to my wife for drinking a beer that matches her description.

 

Small World is the 30,000-foot view of the rise and fall of a series of different civilizations playing out at light speed. It’s a fairly light, primarily tactical game that plays at a brisk pace — which is ironic considering the vast amount of time that playing the game represents. Each player chooses a race from a diverse collection of fantasy and fairy-tale (and possibly nightmare) creatures that they guide in their attempts to spread out and conquer the world and the other races, scoring victory points based on the number of regions under their control. It’s an area-control game at its heart, but there are a few twists.

First, not only does each race have its own unique power, but each race is also paired with a special ability that grants an additional power. The race and ability cards are two different physical components that are randomly combined, meaning that any combination is possible. Some combinations are powerful than others, and repeated play will help players distinguish the standouts from the less-than-stellar options. The second twist comes from the tragic reality every one of the races in Small World is destined not for prosperity and happiness, but for downfall and demise. Faced with this realization, it is up to the player to decide when to leave their current race behind in the dustbin of history and choose a new race to lead — until the cycle repeats with this new race. Timing this is crucial, as placing your race in decline comes at a steep price: sacrificing your entire turn. The one saving grace is that your newly “in-decline” race continues to score victory points through the course of the game until they face extinction at the hands of other players, or by you choosing to place a second race in decline.

Small World hits the sweet-spot for what I’m currently looking for in a boardgame: a light to mid-weight game that involves a decent level of strategy and thinking, but which is accessible enough to quickly teach new players and to finish a game in a reasonable amount of time. Conquests are a simple matter of counting how many enemy tokens currently occupy a region and bringing an equal or greater number of your own tokens to bear. Deterministic conquests are an interesting design choice to me given that in real life, vicissitudes of fate often conspire in such a way as to make combat anything but deterministic.  However, I think it’s one that fits well with the overall design of the game: core rules that are relatively simple and straightforward, with the real meat of the game being analyzing the various race-special power combos that come up and deciding which ones to choose and how best to use them.

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I don’t really have a caption for this photo. I just thought it was a good pic and that it would have been a shame not to use it. 🙂

 

For three out of the five payers, this was their first game of Small World. Although there were several errors over the course of the game, everyone had a firm understanding of how to play by the end of the first turn. We cycled through every race and most of the special abilities by the end of the game. The standout combo of the night was the Flying Sorcerers. It’s a powerful combination, to be sure, that increases with player count. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from four of the players about how over-powered and game-breaking this particular combo was. We did eventually figure out how to counter it, which really wouldn’t have been difficult to do much earlier, if we had just taken a moment to stop and think about it. But by then it was too late in the game; Heidi emerged as the victor with 114 points, due in no small part to her legion of Flying Sorcerers. As for myself, I came away with a grand total of 60 points… placing me firmly in last place. Most importantly though, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the game, which was peppered with much friendly banter throughout.

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Aww man. I wish that I could’ve gotten those Flying Sorcerers.

 

Small World exemplifies the kind of game that has become Days of Wonder’s trademark: a solid title that is straightforward to learn and play thanks to its uncomplicated rules, but which nevertheless manages to achieve a good level of depth and replayability, accompanied by solid, but not overly flashy or expensive physical components. It is this combination of accessibility and depth that, again, much like several of Days of Wonder’s other titles, makes it both a perfect gateway game as well as something that can hold the attention of veteran gamers. Ticket to Ride may be Days of Wonder’s most well-known game, but Small World is probably their best.

Some Thoughts on Bones 3

Reaper Miniatures Bones III was a project to continue the expansion of  Reaper's Bones line of high-quality plastic gaming miniatures.

It’s here! It’s finally here!

 

After the typical Kickstarter delays, my rewards from the Bones 3 Kickstarter came in last week. This isn’t a knock on Reaper or any other Kickstarter creator, by the way — timelines for bringing new products to market are notoriously difficult to manage since any bump in the supply chain can have significant ramifications further down the line, regardless of who’s responsible for causing said bumps. And this doesn’t even take into account the added difficulty of not even knowing how much product is actually going to be needed at the time a delivery estimate is set. All in all, if a creator manages to fulfill shipment on a Kickstarter project of this magnitude within six months of their delivery estimate, I’d say they made a pretty good guess, and even being off by a year isn’t too unreasonable, frankly.

Now that I’ve had the chance to spend some time inspecting the goods and enjoying these new additions to my collection, I figured I’d share some of my thoughts on some of the minis that stood out to me. Note that none of the minis in my photos have been glued together, just dry-fitted. Some of them stay together well enough without glue to take photos, whereas other ones can’t be fully assembled without glue (looking at you, dragons). If you want more photos and preview pics, just check the Kickstarter page.

Core Set
The usual mixed bag of exciting and mediocre, new sculpts and metal conversions. Of course, “exciting” to some people is often “mediocre” or “bland” to others, and vice-versa. I imagine it must be incredibly challenging trying to decide which minis to include in the Core Set for each Kickstarter. On the one hand, you want to have minis that have a broad appeal to bring in more backers, but you want to avoid making everything too generic for the exact same reason, and Reaper does a good job in this regard.

It could be due to me getting more into Games Workshop lately, or because of my changing interests since backing this Kickstarter nearly two years ago; or it could simply be that I’m pretty much glutted on minis in general. Whatever the reason, I’m less interested overall in the contents of this Core Set than I was in the previous two. There are a good number of minis in here that I like, just fewer of them on the whole. This is probably more an indicator of where I am currently because like I said, I think Reaper did a good job with the mix. Or, it could be that they were too spot-on with their choices because out of all of the ones that are conversions from metal sculpts, it turns out that I already own most of them.

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It was either this, or a picture of a big pile of jumbled white plastic minis still in their individual bags. Either photo would have been just as useful for showing you what’s inside.

Goremaw
For those times when your ordinary, garden-variety purple worm just won’t do, or for when even an already impressively huge one still isn’t enough; for those times when the DM wants to add a TPK to their list of accomplishments or wants to let their players know exactly how much they’ve pissed them off, there’s Goremaw. There isn’t much more that needs to be said about this beast. This is the purple worm cranked up to 11, the Shai-Hulud cross-bred with Satan. Keep him on your shelf where he’ll provide a menacing presence as he looks down on your players, but don’t actually plop him down on your table unless you’re willing to let them know just what a malicious SOB you are.

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Size comparison with the D&D Minis Purple Worm. It used to seem like a fairly impressive mini, up until about a week ago.

 

Froghemoth
A great example of how much Reaper responds to their customers and fans. The Froghemoth is a classic D&D monster, dating back to nearly the earliest days of the game. While many of Reaper’s fans may have at least a passing familiarity with this beast’s pedigree, I’m sure that for a lot of them, it will simply be a bizarre, misshapen, vaguely reptilian, tentacled monster. Reaper could have chosen to fill this stretch goal with a mini that would have had broader appeal, but instead they chose to listen to their fans who were clamoring for them to make this classic monster instead. There’s also a great backstory about how this mini came to be (although I was, unfortunately, unable to find it to link to it).

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I also appreciate how feet and the base are completely separate, allowing you to easily cut the tabs off its feet and use a different base if you prefer.

 

Iron Golem
We now have a complete set of the four classic golem types! Original sculpts of a flesh, clay, and stone golem debuted in the very first Bones Kickstarter. There was an iron golem included in that group, but it was a metal conversion, not an original sculpt, and, while acceptable, I always thought that it was a little too small for an iron golem, especially when compared to the other three. This new iron golem surpasses the old one in every way. It’s size, stance, and clenched fists in lieu of a weapon all make it much more imposing than its predecessor.

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You don’t have an official name yet as far as I’m aware. But what else could you be if not an iron golem?

 

Temple Dragon
A Bones conversion from a sculpt originally done in metal, the Temple Dragon stands out to me as one of the cooler minis in this Kickstarter. The texture on his scales and other details hold a lot of visual appeal, but I particularly like its non-static pose and how it looks like it’s ready to pounce on unsuspecting adventurers/prey. It’s unfortunate that in a Kickstarter with so many dragons and other large minis, this one would have been even better had it been a little bigger.

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Air Elemental
In addition to golems, elementals have always been some of my favorite D&D monsters, and I’ve always collected complete sets of the four basic types when I could, dating back to my very first Ral Parthas. The first Bones Kickstarter gave us earth and fire elementals; Bones 2 gave us water; and now, we have Bones versions of all four basic types. Reaper’s take on the air elemental is an interesting hybrid between a vaguely humanoid form and the funnel-cloud design that’s often seen with air elemental minis, and I think they pulled it off well.

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Ma’al Drakar
Before the rumors for Bones 3 even started, I had said that if Reaper did another Kickstarter for a single insanely-large, 5-headed dragon with only one $100 pledge level with no stretch goals, I’d back it for $300. Ma’al Drakar is the apotheosis of Bones miniatures, the epitome of what can be done with this type of plastic miniature. Other companies have released their own versions of enormous dragons, but I can’t think of any that combine sheer size with sculpt quality the way Ma’al Drakar does — and certainly not at this price point! For example, Wizard’s Colossal Red Dragon is at least as big, if not bigger, but it was crammed into somewhat of an awkward pose to get it to fit onto an 8″ x 8″ base for D&D. And while Magnificent Ego’s Viszeralyn may be twice as tall as Ma’al, much of that height is due to its abnormally long tail and torso and unnaturally proportioned wings. By comparison, Ma’al is posed in a way that’s much more visually appealing and is proportioned much better throughout. At an estimated $150 MSRP (or $60 if you got him during the Kickstarter!), I don’t think there’s anything else out there that’s comparable.

Bones 3 created about two hundred new miniatures, but to me, the true sole purpose of this Kickstarter was Ma’al Drakar. Despite all of the other great models to come out of this Kickstarter, if I had to pick just one as my absolute favorite, it would be him.

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A half-assembled, dry-fitted model just wouldn’t do justice here. If you haven’t seen what he looks like assembled, you definitely owe it to yourself to do so.

 

T’raukzul
The hidden gem of Bones 3. There’s no denying the awesomeness that is Ma’al Drakar. However, the competition for the #1 spot in my book was closer than I had anticipated.

It was an open secret that Ma’al Drakar was coming before Bones 3 got underway, and there were plenty of preview pics going around before and after his official reveal (and rightfully so!). T’raukzul made her appearance unannounced as another stretch goal, a Bones version of an older dragon from Reaper’s catalog. However, unlike most of the other older dragons from Reaper’s catalog that were converted into Bones over the course of three Kickstarters, this one was a new sculpt — inspired by the original, but still a fresh, new design. Unboxing this dragon, I was blown away by her size and by what a great sculpt she is; I did not anticipate either of these things when I pledged for her.

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The Kickstarter preview pic was taken at a strange angle, and in no way conveys how great this mini looks, nor how big she is, so I’m really glad that I took a chance and spent a little more to get her.

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Not that my pictures are a whole lot better. For whatever reasons, it seems like it’s really hard to take a good photo of this dragon.

 

I’m not sure, because I didn’t get all of the dragons from this Kickstarter, but I’m fairly certain that after big Ma’al himself, she’s the largest miniature from this Kickstarter. You can see that her body isn’t actually that much smaller than Ma’al’s, and her wings are nearly as big as his.

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Ma’al on the left, T’raukzul on the right. Ma’al is bulkier given that his torso is supporting five different heads and necks, but overall length isn’t that much greater.

 

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Ma’al on the left, T’raukzul on the right. Although Ma’al’s wing is clearly bigger, again, there isn’t a huge difference.

 

Closing Thoughts
It took nearly two years, but it was worth the wait. Reaper once against delivered a great product at an incredible price. The minis themselves haven’t changed much (aside from some experimentation with more rigid plastic for certain ones), so if you’re already in one camp or the other regarding Bones minis, these new ones probably won’t do anything to change your mind. The soft details on smaller sculpts will still be an issue if you’re looking for a piece for competition or for display and want the highest quality possible.

Like many people, I still think the best use for Bones minis is creating large minis that would be too cost-prohibitive to do in metal. Reaper appears to have been thinking along these lines as well, as this Kickstarter seemed to place more of a focus on large and downright huge minis than the previous ones. If I had to find something to criticize, it would be that things went a bit too far in that direction. While the froghemoth, Goremaw, and the iron golem are among my favorite minis from this Kickstarter, they’re also examples of minis that are just a little too big.

Whatever your opinions about Bones or Reaper in general, it’s undeniable that Reaper’s projects are the perfect fit for Kickstarter: a product that has steep up-front manufacturing costs (the molds) with a very low material/manufacturing costs for the actual product. This is the key factor that allows them to offer such amazing rewards relative to the pledge amount required.

A Bones Kickstarter is more than just a transaction between a company and its customers. They’re funded in minutes, if not seconds, and early stretch goals are demolished in the early minutes and hours of the campaign. The excitement is palpable as new stretch goals are revealed and met in the early days, followed by the long lull in the middle, only to inevitably pick up intensity again in the last day or two. A Bones Kickstarter is a cultural experience for the gaming community, and a clear sign of how spoiled we are as gamers in this day and age.

I don’t need or even really want more miniatures at this point. But I’m eagerly looking forward to Bones 4.

 

Some Thoughts on Villages of Valeria

I’ve been making an effort the last few months to reduce the ratio of played to unplayed boardgames in my collection. One game that made it off the shelf recently after arriving as a Kickstarter reward several months ago is Villages of Valeria from Daily Magic Games. My wife and I recently put it through its paces a couple of weeks ago and it was the game that the guys and I chose to play at our game night last night.

We played two games and the consensus at the end is that we all enjoyed it. Then again, we’re a fairly easy-going lot, so it typically doesn’t take a much for us to find a boardgame enjoyable. I’m probably the most critical in our group, so the real measure is probably whether or not I enjoyed it, which I am happy to report that I did.

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Game one, about mid-way through. A bunch of buildings on the board, but we didn’t end up recruiting many adventurers during this game because most of the ones that were available didn’t work well with the buildings that we had chosen.

The theme of the game is, starting with your castle and the resources it provides, to expand your village one building and one adventurer at a time. Buildings and adventurers are worth victory points at the end of the game and during the game provide either a one time immediate bonus or a recurring one that’s triggered by certain actions. The game ends when one player accumulates a set number of buildings and adventurers. In a surprise twist, the goal of the game is to have the fewest victory points at the end. Actually, it’s not. But that would be a surprising twist, wouldn’t it?

Gameplay is smooth. The core mechanic is reminiscent of Puerto Rico where the lead player chooses an action that all of the other players follow, with the player who chose the action receiving a bonus. The core mechanic is action-selection, but the depth of the game comes in determining which buildings to construct and which adventurers to recruit.

You must build your economy from the ground up, first developing the raw materials needed to construct your buildings, which are in turn used to recruit adventurers, all the while trying to find the best combos and synergies with the options that are currently available. There is a large variety of buildings and adventurers, but only a few of them will be available at any given point in the game. Good decision-making goes a long way in converting the random arrival of cards into winning plays, and your success will largely depend on your timing and the ability to determine when to switch over from low-value buildings and adventurers that provide immediate benefit to more expensive buildings that are essentially dead weight and resource hogs during the game but which have a higher payoff at the end.

Despite the depth of interaction between the different buildings and adventurers, there was little downtime, even with our most analysis-paralysis-prone players. The lead-follow mechanic is a key feature in keeping everyone involved at almost all times since it means that there’s less downtime in between turns.

One of my favorite parts of the design is that you can pay gold to another player to use the resources that they’ve developed to construct your own buildings. This deprives them of the ability to use those resources for a turn, but the sting of this inconvenience is mitigated by the that the gold they receive goes into their coffers for their own use. The net effect of this is that it creates an actual economy and a greater level of interaction between players.

Thematically, it feels like there’s a difference between buildings and adventurers. Both are worth points at the end of the game and either provide an immediate benefit or an ongoing one that’s triggered by different conditions, yet they somehow feel distinct. Part of it probably has to do with the fact that the mechanics for building are almost completely different from those for recruiting. Another factor is that there are multiple copies of most buildings but only one copy of each adventurer. Mechanically, having each adventurer be unique also leads to a little bit of asymmetrical gameplay and strategy as the game progresses.

The only place where the theme breaks down a little is in situations where the cards representing buildings and adventurers are themselves used as a resource, needing to be discarded in order to complete certain actions, or traded for gold. It all fits mechanically, but I’m not sure if it’s supposed to represent something theme-wise.

We played with the Guilds Halls expansion in the first game, minus the event cards, and we used all of the expansion content in our second game. Out of all the expansion material, we found the event cards to be the least interesting. They’re highly thematic and easy enough to implement, but in terms of actual impact on the game, they’re fairly lackluster. They typically involve a minor penalty or bonus to one player, although they sometimes have global effects. In fairness, it was probably a prudent decision to err on the side of limiting their effect, lest luck have too much of an impact on the outcome of the game. The guild building cards themselves add more flavor and asymmetrical play since, unlike the other buildings, they are unique, but they don’t add any new mechanics, meaning that it’s just as easy to use them when first learning the game, which is something I recommend.

The Monuments expansion adds some new mechanics, but they’re easy enough to learn and aren’t complicated. The monuments themselves are a welcome addition, adding another layer of depth and decision making. Do you focus on keeping your economic engine humming along, erecting new buildings and attracting new adventurers to your village, with more instances of low-scoring moves, or do you devote the necessary resources to completing the high-cost, high-value monuments instead? I’m not sure if well-played games always incorporate completing monuments or if ignoring them to focus on other scoring methods is considered a viable way to play, but for what it’s worth, in a four-player game, only one of us had managed to complete one by the end, and it was a different player who won the game.

The length of the game is just about perfect. You get enough turns to allow you to feel like you were able to accomplish some things, but it’s short enough to create that tense sweet spot where you’re hoping that the game will last just long enough for you to see all of your grand plans come to fruition. In terms of real-time, it feels just about right and avoids overstaying its welcome.

Villages is my gaming group’s and my first experience with the games in the world of Valeria. Based on our experience, I’m eager to explore more of it, and I imagine that they would be willing to come along on the journey.

Some Thoughts on Tiny Epic Galaxies

The guys and I tried out Tiny Epic Galaxies tonight (the base game only, with none of the expansion material). It was the first time for Nick, Tim, and myself, but Mike had played it a few times before with his family. My overall impression of it is that it’s pretty good. Gamelyn Games’ trademark is big gameplay in small packages, and there are several entries in the “Tiny, Epic” brand. Tiny Epic Galaxies certainly delivers on this promise. I’m familiar with Gamelyn from backing the second edition Kickstarter for Tiny Epic Kingdoms. Galaxies has some similar themes mechanics-wise, but the gameplay between the two games is different enough to make it worth owning both.

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Nick rolls dice with the fate of the galaxy while Tim looks on.

Players have a limited number of ships which they move to any planet currently in play in order to collect resources and to either take advantage of the special power it offers or attempt to take control of it by spending resources. Similar to King of Tokyo/King of New York, players have a pool of dice which they use to randomly determine which actions are available to them that round. Taking control of a planet not only gives them access to additional actions, but, more importantly, scores victory points for them. Effective gameplay is heavily dependent on correctly deciding which planets to vie over for control and which to use in the short term. The variety of basic actions and the way they interact with special abilities granted by planets creates some potentially heavy decisions to crunch later in the game.

Another mechanic, and one that I haven’t seen before, allows players to perform the same action that another player chooses during their turn. It’s somewhat similar to the core mechanic in Puerto Rico where the active player chooses an action to perform and gets a bonus and everyone else follows suit. But the twist in Galaxies is that copying actions is optional and players must spend resources to do so. Much of the game revolves around weighing the trade-off between time and material that Garry Kasparov talks about in his book How Life Imitates Chess; chances are pretty good that the dice will be kind enough on your next turn to allow you to perform the same action, for free, but doing it right now might prove beneficial enough to justify spending the resources. The mechanic is executed well and elevates the gameplay from rote, economic engine-building into something deeper and more engaging, despite not really being thematic in any way (it’s a sci-fi game; maybe rather than “following”, they could have called it a rift in the space-time continuum or something along those lines).

We got two games in last night, and it was during the second one that I realized my major criticism of this game*: Tiny Epic Galaxies suffers from a phenomenon that I’ve seen cropping up in games in the past five years or so. I’m planning on writing a more detailed essay about this, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but essentially, it involves mechanics where different types of resources or even actions are interchangeable with other types.

In Galaxies, there are four types of resources which are used to perform actions or take control of planets: energy, culture, diplomacy, and economics. They each have different uses… sort of. Energy and culture are used to upgrade your empire (essentially, allowing you to take more actions on your turn by giving you access to more dice and ships). Diplomacy and economics are the “resources” that must be collected (rolled on the dice) and spent in order to take control of a planet. So far, mostly good.

The problem is that the names are simply placeholders; the only difference between diplomacy and economics is… well, nothing actually. The difference is that some planets require a set amount of one in order to be conquered, and other planets require the other. There is no mechanical difference between the two; they could have just as effectively been called “Red Macguffins” and “Blue Macguffins”. There are even planets that allow you to exchange one for the other. Combined with so many other options, interactions, and combo chains,the resources and special abilities really don’t feel unique and the net result is that everything just starts to blend together. If there were even just a minor mechanical difference between diplomacy and economics, it would probably have been alright.

Despite its flaws, Tiny Epic Galaxies provides a good deal of enjoyment and replayability and is a good value for its pricetag. It’s not quite a heavy game, but its physical stature belies the depth of its gameplay; it’s a solid middle-weight game that can be the sole attraction for a game night. We all had fun playing it last night, and I genuinely look forward to playing it again.

*And it wasn’t just because I suffered a caffeine crash which caused my brain to basically shut down, completely gimping my ability to play well, resulting in my scoring a whopping six points at the end — one-third as many as Mike and Tim who tied for second place. Nor was it borne out of an irrational hatred of this game because on my final turn, on 18 dice rolls, I didn’t roll a single instance of the action I only needed to perform once which would have boosted my final score to nine points, which would have at least given me a moral victory despite having finished in last place.

Some Thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse

So I finally decided to write this essay, eight months after this movie was in theaters. Why now? Mainly for two reasons: (1) It’s my blog, so I write on my own schedule, when I feel like writing about a particular topic; (2) I finally watched my copy this past Friday night, nearly two months to the day that I picked it up from Best Buy on Black Friday.

The fact that it was still sealed in shrink-wrap up until the other night tells you all you need to know about my level of excitement to see this movie again (contrast this to Days of Future Past, the movie that made me decide to finally get a Blu-ray player). Or I can let a gag line by a teenage Jean Grey pretty much sum it up:

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Ouch. Unfortunately, this cleaves too close to the truth to be really funny. Image courtesy of John Kenri (@johnkenri)

Ok, let’s do this. Oh yeah, spoilers ahead, but if you’d really wanted to see this movie, you would have by now, right?

Apocalypse feels bloated. It’s a long movie, but a movie can be lengthy as long as it’s good. It feels bloated because as cool as it is to see so many characters from the comic books brought to the big screen, cramming in too many is a disservice. The more characters there are, the less opportunity there is for character development. Besides their physical appearance and abilities, did Storm, Angel, and Psylocke have any defining characteristics or personality traits (you know, the things that make characters feel like actual CHARACTERS)? Did anyone even call Storm by name?

Of the characters who’ve had significant roles in the First Class Trilogy, which ones experienced significant change in Apocalypse? Are Charles and Hank any different by the end than they were at the beginning? Erik loses his wife and daughter, but the fact that he was married and had a kid comes as a complete surprise¹, and they barely have any time on screen before being killed off. Does this devastating experience do much to change Erik, make him different somehow? Raven experiences the most interesting character development in this movie, struggling to reconcile her role model status in the eyes of younger mutants with the way she perceives herself — definitely an interesting development for a character who was solidly in the villain category in the original X-Men movies.

Several times, it felt like Apocalypse was retreading themes and story elements from the last movie. Charles explicitly does this when he recalls a pivotal experience from the most emotionally powerful scene in DoFP . There’s nothing wrong with this, except that the reference just kind of sits there and isn’t used to build on for something else.

Quicksilver’s standout scene, despite being fairly awesome, is the worst offender here. His breakout scene in DoFP was was perfect. However, once you achieve perfection, any attempt to outdo it, no matter how well done, is a dangerous road to tread. Here, the scene is bigger, the stakes are higher, and everything about it tries to be even more spectacular, but it ends up mostly just feeling overdone.

Worse than rehashing familiar material though, is introducing new material that creates problems for the overall storyline of the franchise. DoFP remedied the worst missteps of the previous movies, particularly The Last Stand, and managed to plausibly merge the continuity of the original X-Men trilogy with the First Class TrilogyApocalypse, while not undoing this, creates new problems. Apocalypse includes the first encounter between the X-Men and Angel, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine — characters whose introductions and first meetings with the X-Men have already been established in the first three films. The worst thing about this is that none of this continuity-shredding was necessary — none of these characters had pivotal roles that required them to be in this film. Perhaps the intention behind this was to establish that the X-Men universe of the original trilogy and the universe of the First Class Trilogy are in fact separate, but that then begs the question: why?

The main villain and the overall plot lacked gravitas. Part of this has to do with the difficulty in portraying a character with near-godlike powers. Paradoxically, the closer a villain is to being an all-powerful being, the more difficult it is to portray them in a convincingly menacing way (after all, a villain with super-powers who uses them for world domination is just doing what he’s supposed to do), and the weaker they seem once they are finally defeated. Normal people who become powerful villains through a combination of intellect and force of personality, rather than brute force, are the most terrifying (consider Hannibal Lecter and Gus Fring). With regard to the plot, somehow, witnessing large scale destruction taking place somehow has less of an impact than the threat of global war (the third act of First Class) or seeing its after effects (the post-apocalyptic future depicted in DoFP).

Apocalypse does have its good points and some truly enjoyable moments. For one thing, it’s hard to conceive of a more perfect use for Metallica’s The Four Horsemen as background music. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was also put to excellent use. James McAvoy, as always, is delightful to watch as Professor X. It was especially fun watching him revert to a flustered adolescent state during his meeting with Moira MacTaggert. His character development through the last two films was one of their strongest features, and in this film, he truly feels like a younger version of the Professor X we came to know in the original trilogy.

My overall reaction to Apocalypse is probably the worst possible one that anyone can have to a creative work: I found it boring. The action scenes and visual effects are well-done and have some creativity. But at their core, X-Men movies are about people with special powers. Powers are cool and allow for great action scenes and special effects, but it’s the characters, the people that make the stories and provide a framework for the action. X-Men movies work better when the focus is on characters. Think back to all of the best moments from all of the X-Men movies and I think you’ll find this to be true.

I realize that all of the movie reviews I’ve written so far come off as extremely critical. The truth is, I really do like the X-Men films as a whole, and the only reason I choose to write about them in the first place is because I care about them. As I’ve said in other places, I want every movie in a franchise I care about to be a great movie. Of course, I know this isn’t possible, and I don’t think that anyone who makes movies ever sets out to make a bad, or even a mediocre one (no one motivated at least partially by noble intentions, anyway). As harsh as I’ve been on Apocalypse, I believe that the filmmakers did their best to make the best movie they could, and I’ll give them credit for that. Even a misstep like including too many characters is probably a reflection of their love of the source material and their desire to see more of those characters come to life.

I’m sure I’ll watch Apocalypse again at some point, but probably in the way I tend to watch weaker entries in a movie series: more out of a sense of completion and a desire to experience the entire story, and not so much for its own sake, unfortunately.

  1. It seems more like a clumsy attempt to reconcile fraying continuities resulting from completely different character incarnations existing in different franchises than an effort at advancing Erik’s story arc. In case you’re even less knowledgeable about the X-Men mythology than I am, at some point in the comics, Magneto has two children, also mutants, known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. In the Avengers film universe, both characters appeared in Age of Ultron. Quicksilver is killed, while Scarlet Witch survives and goes on to join the Avengers. Quicksilver is now an established character in the X-Men movies, so I can only presume that the death of Erik’s daughter was a way to balance things out on a cosmic scale, or at least on a franchise level. Side note: if your level of knowledge of the X-Men mythology is the same as mine, you might have assumed, as did I, that his daughter in Apocalypse is a version of the character known as Scarlet Witch, his daughter in the comics. And you’d be wrong. It turns out that Magneto had another daughter before Scarlet Witch, something I found out after writing the paragraph above.

Black Friday Movie Deals: 2016 Edition

I’m kind of late with this, but I thought it would still be worth writing about. I went through my annual Black Friday ritual of scouring the shelves at Best Buy and Target for movie deals. Kind of slim pickings this year. I scored X-Men: Apocalypse and Creed on Blu-ray for six bucks each, but that was it. My wife also picked up Shaun the Sheep on DVD for four dollars because we saw it in the theater as a family and enjoyed it.

2016 was the year for mediocre big-name franchises that had awesome trailers and that I was excited and hopeful for, but which turned out to be disappointing overall. Captain America: Civil War and Apocalypse fill the first two slots, and Rogue One completes the trifecta now that it’s out. I look forward to getting it on Blu-ray next Black Friday. Then again, I’m not sure if Star Wars movies are ever part of Black Friday sales — I didn’t see The Force Awakens significantly discounted this year, which is when I would have expected it to have been.

Apocalypse ties the score at 4-4 between good and mediocre/bad X-Men films. I wasn’t expecting anything as glorious as Days of Future Past, but I was hoping for at least a good movie with Apocalypse. Mediocre. That sums it up well. Too much focus on big action sets and mass destruction special effects, not enough on characters and story. That’s typically what creates the distinction between the good X-Men movies and the others. Apocalypse isn’t a terrible movie, but even though I made it a point to get it on Black Friday, it’s still sitting in shrink-wrap.

Civil War is the first Marvel movie I’m aware of where the titular character is the villain. Not that Captain America was an out-an-out bad guy in this film, but when Tony Stark emerges as the voice of reason opposed to Cap over the need for oversight over superheros (or whatever term they use for superheroes in the MCU), I’m siding with Team Stark.

Civil War also made it abundantly clear that part of building a shared cinematic universe means keeping things in a state of relative stasis for as long as possible. Sure, crazy earth-shattering events take place across the almost innumerable movie and TV franchises, but nothing ever really changes. In fairness, this is understandable, as you want to be extremely careful when handling an intellectual property you paid $4 billion for.

Disney/Marvel had the opportunity to make what would have been a bold move in the cinematic universe while staying true to the comics: have Tony Stark kill Captain America and have Bucky become the new Captain America. But they took (what is at least for now) the safer, more commercially-friendly route: tell a relatively self-contained story which has clear and obvious ties to other elements in the expanded universe but which doesn’t disturb the status quo too much and which sets up nicely for more sequels to come.

We’re in the golden age of super hero movies and this is the magic formula for success. But every golden age brings chaff along with the wheat, and the formula will have to change once audiences are glutted on more and more of the same. But Disney didn’t become massively successful by being careless; I’m guessing they’re aware of this and have prepared for it with their long-term plans; maybe we’ll finally see things get shaken up with Infinity War.

Funny thing, Civil War was also on sale for $6. I passed on it because I didn’t feel terribly interested in seeing it again, but I kind of wish I had gotten it now.