Next of Ken, Vol. 3: Crows Review, Castle Ravenloft Solo Impressions, and Nightfall afterthoughts

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What's this, what's this?  Don't get spooked--just come on in for quick reviews on Crows, Castle Ravenloft solo impressions, and a wrap on my thoughts about Nightfall.

They're spelling out our names, yet we have no fear

Crows_BoxValley Games had sent to me a copy of their new gloomy abstract Crows, a game where players use shiny objects to force flocks of crows to fly to certain spaces on the boards, scoring points for doing so.  It's obvious that Valley has really extended their product line, with several family-friendly card games, some classic AT reprints, Euros, and now they're dipping their feet into the abstract realm.

You first form the map of tiles with gaps in between them, and position a number of crows on each should any be perched on the image of the tree on the tile.  On your turn, you draw and place a tile.  If any crows are pictured on the tile, you place that number on the supply to the newly-placed tile.  Then place your "shiny object" (one of those little gems that games like Niagara made popular several years ago) on any tile on the board.  Your opponent(s) take turns doing the same, but they can't place a shiny object on a tile that has either crows or someone else's shiny object already.  Once everyone has had a turn, the crows then make beelines for the shiny objects on the board.

They do this by looking horizontally or vertically.  If they can see a shiny object, they fly all the way to it.crows2--Ars_Technica  If they can see more than one shiny object, then whichever is closest will draw their attention first--after all, crows are like that.  If there's a tie, they flock evenly between the shiny objects that they see.  Each player then scores points based on how many crows flock to their shiny object.  If six crows landed on one space, two are taken from that flock and removed from play, and the crows then spiral outward from that tile.

Each player has a Trash Tile, a tile they can choose to play instead of drawing from the stack.  Crows can still see past the trash piles, but if their flight path ever takes them over one, they stop there, presumably to feed. 

One thing I didn't mention, if you place your shiny object on a blank tree, you get a reward tile.  These tiles either provide end-of-game scoring bonuses, or one shot use-and-discard abilities such as preventing crows from flying to shiny objects this turn.  The reason that there's incentive for placing on empty tree tiles is because places like the Graveyard allows for double-scoring, and the Trinket tiles allow any shiny objects on them to break ties.

Crows is a nice family strategy game.  It's nicely produced with lots of little wooden crow meeples, 8 of the little shiny object gems, and a nice stack of tiles.  The art is sufficiently dark and gloomy, which is a refreshing change of pace from many of the spartan graphic designs of lots of abstract games.

I'm not usually a big abstract gaming fan, but my wife and I enjoyed firing off a few quick games of this.  It's something that could easily be taught to kids, and they're going to love the little crow meeples.  Because this isn't my typical style of game, it's not going to come out as often as some others, but I was surprised by how much I like it, and it will definitely make the table again, next time with a couple of the kids having fun getting those crows to chase down their shiny objects.



Begin to ending is really just a go round and round and round

castle_ravenloft_copyI finally, finally got in a solo session of Castle Ravenloft recently.  It's one that had sat on my shelf for quite a while now, taunting me.  Really, I haven't been able to organize a gaming session with our main AT group in several months, or else this would've gotten played long ago.

Normally, I'm not big on solo games.  There's this eerie feeling (and I know this is my personal viewpoint, and not even remotely factual) that  I'm not *truly* playing a though because I'm the only participant, the "results" don't count.  There's that temptation to cheat or fudge the rules just to make it through the session.  I also enjoy the people part of gaming more than just about anything else, so going it alone always feels, well, weird and hollow.  Yes, I know, it's just me.

The real bugger for me of course is mangling the rules.  I have a legendary ability to mangle at least one rule during any given game session, particularly if I am teaching.

How does this apply to Ravenloft?  Well, I did the first solo session where you're running headlong from Strahd before he awakens, basically just churning through the timer in the form of tiles.  However, I missed a key little rule--the one about getting a treasure card every time you kill a monster.  Yeah, so I missed out on about five or six treasure cards, I think.

Even despite this, I managed to make it to the next to last tile, before a spider's web pulled me back and immobilized me, giving Strahd time to catch me.  Much beatings and blood loss followed, and my Dragonborn fighter met his untimely end. 

I think Ravenloft though is exactly the perfect game for the type of game that it is.  The bits are insanely good, it had been awhile forCastleRavenloft_STUFF me since I'd really opened a box that felt like it included an obscene amount of plastic.  The tiles are thick and sturdy, the cards are of decent quality and numerous, and the book provides plenty to do in the form of ready-made scenarios.  Then you've got a lot of fan content available on the web, which is gravy.

I can see why this game did so well in our best of 2010 fan voting.  I understand that some folks find it too light, and the Armor Class-inspired d20 system is something that's pretty rote and familiar to a lot of us, but the fact is, co-op DM-less dungeon crawls are not exactly a dime a dozen.  The system does a great job and keeping players on their toes, forcing exploration, and providing opportunities for teamwork.

It's the kind of game that I wouldn't feel comfortable assigning a rating to until I'd gotten in a session with a full group of players.  Part of the appeal of a game like this is working to your character's strengths while functioning as part of a larger team. Someone else is more suited to handle something for you, and they've got your back, and it opens up a world of tactics.  Games like this offer up what I consider "movie trailer" moments, where one of you is screaming to the other, "Get over here!  NOW!"  or collectively "RRRUUUUUUNNNNNN!"   Good stuff.

And spilled the first blood, When the old king was slain

BadSmoke-300x235Really, this is just a follow-up to my general thoughts on Nightfall.  A lot of what I said originally still stands from my first impressions--Nightfall is a deckbuilding game with a fully functional CCG-gameplay style underpinning everything.  True, the "my critters rush at you, and you choose critters to block" isn't all that revolutionary, but it certainly is welcome for those who have decried the lack of interaction in most deckbuilding games.  The point is to kill your opponent and his minions, not wrack up endless chains of victory points.

The two novel concepts, and both are something I expect to be borrowed from liberally in the future, are obviously the Chain/Moon mechanic, and the Private Archive notion. 

Private Archives are the alternative to having "character" decks, such as Puzzle Strike does, where each character has a selection of chips or cards that give them their flavor and ensure variety of gameplay.  For those who haven't seen this, basically each game starts with a draft of potential library cards.  You take a hand of four, pick one, and pass to the left.  Take another, pass to the left.  Lastly, you choose one of the final two cards to be removed from play, so if there's a card left that's a thorn in your side, you can ensure at least that if it's in those final two, you can keep it out of the game.

The two cards you chose during drafting are your private archives, and during the game only you are allowed to purchase from them.  There is still a public array of cards that anyone can purchase, but for two stacks, only you can.  That means during a game, you might be the only player with access to the counterspell card ("Flank Attack"), while Dave across from you is the only one who can put the biggest nastiest werewolf of all into play ("Big Ghost", with a terrifying 5 strength.)

I'm really looking forward to what they do with this system.  An expansion has already been announced, and a promo is available through the BoardgameGeek Store.  AEG has a fantastic history of supporting their games and taking care of their customers (free Thunderstone promo packs, anyone?) so I'm looking forward to how this system evolves.  I think if they add a bigger variety of effects, opening up the gameplay strategy space even more, this will jump from being A Really Good Game to Top of the Deckbuilding Heap.

Sorry for the shorter column this week, but I'll be back next week with some fresh opinions on games played, and as a bonus I'll have some recent gaming reviews from games I've gotten to play with my kids recently.  I'll see ya in seven.

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