This week, I'm pimping the Craig Ferguson Show, giving Grave Business a little preview action, and (finally) reviewing Alien Frontiers. Also, a random .jpeg of President Harrison Ford. Join us, won't you?
We No Longer Say Yes, Instead We Say Affirmative
I've gotten hooked on Craig Ferguson's late night show on CBS, mostly due to his completely off-beat sense of humor and his ever-present robot skeleton sidekick, Geoff Peterson. I think the fact they're on at 12:30 EST means they just kind of get away with murder.
If you haven't seen this at all, you've gotta check out the following two videos. Make sure to watch them in order, as they build on each other.
I Want That Ring, I Must Not Linger, I Can't Get it Off the Dead Wench's Finger
Not long ago, I received a review copy of Grave Business by Minion Games (Designer Andy Van Zandt, 2-4 players, 45 min-1 hr). You've probably seen the advertisement for this game featured on here and wondered it it's any good. I haven't had a chance to play it fully yet but I've punched it, fiddled with it and been over the rules several times, and figured I could give some preview thoughts.
Grave Business is a zombie-themed worker placement game. But wait! Don't turn that dial just yet! While players will indeed be placing their worker zombies on squares to acquire treasures, artifacts, and juicy cadaver parts (to make more zombies, of course!), the tweak here is a welcome one. Have you ever played a worker placement game and thought, "Man, I wish I could punch that worker in the junk so he'd get off the space I need!" Guess what? Your day has come. I mean, it's zombie junk you're punching, but still, hey, junk punching, am I right, folks?
There is a graveyard board that is a 4x4 grid, and at the start of every turn the graveyard will be filled with tiles. Players' zombies will then in turn be placed on either a row, a particular square, or on a couple of other action spaces. The zombies have a brains rating, and once all zombies are placed, the player who has exerted the most zombie brainpower on a particular square gets the item there. Zombies on a row or column exert their brainpower on every tile in that row or column, while zombies directly on a square have a value of their brainpower plus one. In case of a tie, including when no one is working on a tile at all, then the tile is shuffled back in the bag.
One of the special spaces you can play your zombie on is an Attack space, but I can't talk about that until I've talked about something that's fairly cool, in that zombies are built from the body parts you find in the graveyard. You start with three pre-determined zombies, and to build more, you need to have a total amount of body parts equal to their rating on their headstone.
When a zombie is attacked, their top tile is flipped over from their personal constructed stack, and this is how much damage they take. They're also removed from their spot on the board. Unless of course you flip a "Zombie fights back" from your stack, which means your zombie takes the damage but then attacks back. This can cause a chain reaction, and the last zombie to deal damage "wins." If you're the defender and you win, you get to keep your spot. Also, once a zombie has taken damage equal to half the value printed onitstombstone, it disintegrates into a bloody pulp.
The body parts are all gruesomely illustrated and have a value of 1-3, including the Zombie Fights Back tiles. So during the game, you'll want more zombies to get you more stuff, so you'll be faced with a choice. You can nab high number tiles to get your zombies out faster, but that means when they take damage, they'll be hit harder and be destroyed faster. Lower numbered tiles equal less damage, so your zombie will hold together better, but it also takes much longer to get enough low value parts to put the zombie together. Factor in the "Fights Back" tiles and the artifacts and weapons you can get, and you have a pretty high degree of customization for your zombies.
There is direct interaction also that's not limited to just attacking your opponent's zombies--you can also try to steal either their artifacts, "Remnants of the Master" pieces, or zombie body parts. I didn't mention the Remnants of the Master yet, basically there are three of them and they are absolutely worthless, UNLESS you can end the game holding all three. Then you reconstruct the fallen Necromancy Master and win the game, regardless of the other players' scores.
At heart this is definitely very Euro-y, and at first blush it also seems like somethingthat would be perfect as a iOS or Android game.
I do want to mention that for long-time readers, you may remember I gave Minion Games a lot of guff for their naff components in their previous releases. We're talking cards so flimsy, you sleeve them just so they don't fall apart during your first shuffle. Whatever their problems were, they've solved them VERY nicely--the tiles are of decent thickness, the mounted player boards are nice, I can't really fault them at all for anything on that front. Also, their art style that I praised before is very much intact, and the art on Grave Business is richly-hued and colorful, nicely done by Chuck Whelon. The art itself is plenty bloody but only really graphic in a humorous, cartoony sort of sense. I think it would be okay for slightly older kids, but you'll want to make that call. I don't think the rules are anything they can't handle, so the theme and graphics would be the only thing that might hold you up.
I'd hoped to have this played before Halloween but the game day fell apart--kinda like a hastily cobbled together zombie with three heads and five arms. I will definitely update my thoughts on this one in a few weeks after it gets some decent table time. I'm not the biggest fan of worker placement games in the world but the combat element and the ability to construct-a-zombie might just make this one I can legitimately enjoy.
You can find out more about Grave Business, including a download of the rules, here: http://www.miniongames.com/grave-business.html
And Your Prayers, They Break the Sky In Two
Alien Frontiers from Clever Mojo Games (Designer Tory Niemann, 2-4 players, 60-90 minutes) isn't exactly brand new, but it has just gotten its third printing, so folks no longer have to hunt the far corners of the internet to pick up a copy.
I'll admit, I was pretty hesitant about trying the game. I heard it referred to as "a dice placement game like Kingsburg", which is the sort of statement that generally gets me running in the opposite direction. However, plenty of folks whose opinions I respect genuinely liked it--including some of you, fine readers, who even gave it some Game of the Year nominations last year. So I knew at some point I'd have to give it a chance.
Boy, I'm glad I did, and shame on you for saying this game is "like Kingsburg." But more on that in a minute.
Alien Frontiers is a dice-rolling worker placement game where players are attempting to explore and colonize an unnamed planet. They'll do this by using their dice to build ships and colonies, as well as new technologies. Unscrupulous traders can instead hire raiders who will steal needed ore and fuel from your rivals, boosting your purchasing power while slowing them down.
Around the planet are various stations, with a select number of spots to place dice. When you activate them, you receive a particular benefit, but some of them require certain combinations of dice to be effective. You can put any die on a space at the Solar Converter and receive half that much fuel, rounded up. To get Ore at the Lunar Mine though, your die must be equal to or greater than any dice that are currently there. The Alien Artifacts location will let you get a tech if you put dice there totalling 8 or more. The Shipyard requires a pair of any value, and then a gradually increasing amount of ore+fuel for each ship that you add to your fleet. The Colonist Hub lets you build colonies gradually, while the Colony Constructor lets you place three-of-a-kind of dice there and spend three ore to drop a colony onto the planet immediately. There's a couple of spots I didn't mention, but the idea here is that there are plenty of uses for your dice each turn.
Because there are a limited number of spaces available (something that scales with number of players), coupled with the fact that players don't reclaim their dice until the start of the next turn, you will get some of the usual blocking that you see in worker placement games. It's not uncommon for example to place a 6 on the Lunar Mine, just to hamper other players' ability to collect Ore easily.
The goal is to have the most points when a player runs out of colonies. Each player has a fixed amount, also determined by the number of players. A colony on the planet is worth one point each, but more importantly, having a majority of colonies in a territory gives you not only a bonus point but access to a game-changing special power. The Burroughs Desert lets you purchase the Relic Ship, an extra die that comes in extremely handy in getting things done from turn to turn. Controlling the Bradbury Plateau on the other hand lets you use the Colony Constructor for two ore instead of three. The Herbert Valley (yes, these are all named for famous authors) makes purchasing new ships cheaper. You lose this special power along with the bonus point the instant you are no longer the majority of colonies, so there can definitely be some contestion and screwage as other players hone in on each others' turfs with new colonies to deny them points and those extra abilities.
I didn't talk much about the technology cards yet. The special cards you could purchase in King of Tokyo were easily my favorite part of that game. In fact, I usually got my butt kicked because I was hoarding points to spend on new abilities. The idea is similar here; there are cards from a special deck that also grant you additional abilities. You don't pay for these with money but instead dice. You can flush the face up cards for three new ones with any die, and if you've place eight pips worth of dice there in the same turn, you may also select one of the face-up cards for your own. These cards grant you extra abilities in one of two flavors; either a once-per-turn power that you generally spend fuel and/or ore to activate, or a more powerful one-shot ability that you have to discard the tech to utilize.
Here's an example: one of the Tech cards is called "Polarity Device." You can either spend one fuel to flip an unplaced die to its opposite face (a '1' becoming a '6', for example) or alternately discard the tech to swap the locations of two colonies on two different territories. This can be a big deal as you can swap over to a territory you really want, or move someone out of contestion on one of yours.
So what you've got is a series of players rolling their dice, manipulating them if they can, then placing their dice on the board to get resources and technology to help them build colonies, and earn points and hopefully bonus powers.
Now...let's talk about the things that this game gets right that Kingsburg does not. Because I think this is a fantastic game, whereas I'm pretty soured on Kingsburg for a lot of reasons.
First up--and this has always killed me about Kingsburg--is the emphasis that Kingsburg places on higher dice. Yes, for all the bitching Eurogamers do about dice and luck, one of their poster children for dice placement games is overwhelmingly riddled with lucky dice ruling the day. Straight up, if I can roll higher dice over and over again, it does not matter what you do.
All the lower row items in Kingsburg are strictly weaker than their higher on the chart counterparts. Contrast that to Alien Frontiers, which allows you to make solid use of pretty much anything you roll. Only the ore spot concerns itself with forcing higher values, but even then you can place a pair of 1s on the Orbital Market and make 1/1 fuel/ore trades.
Sure, you're going to curse sometimes, but only rarely about what you rolled. It's more often the fact that someone has blocked you, or you needed a particular combination to do something this turn. And the power to improve your odds for those combinations are totally in your hands, with tech cards and additional dice definitely assisting you in meeting your goals.
The other thing is the blocking itself. In Kingsburg, unless you had the King's Favor or whatever, once a square was blocked, it was blocked. You know the routine. The problem with that was two-fold; first up, blocking was actually pretty incidental. I argued with a guy on BGG one time who swore up and down you could be clever and block a specific player whenever you wanted. And I kept replying, "Yeah, if you roll what you need." I don't care if I want to block you in Kingsburg, most of the time the dice don't cooperate. Either I don't roll what you were after, or you don't roll what you wanted anyway. You can block the lower stuff at will, but that just further screws over those who rolled low to begin with. Seriously, Kingsburg has one of the most rotten randomization schemes I have ever had the misfortune of being exposed to.
The second thing was the lack of recourse once an avenue was blocked. Not so in Alien Frontiers, my friend. There are techs that let you move your opponent's dice somewhere else. There is a tech that lets you "Mind Control" an opponent's die, moving it somewhere else and getting the benefit for it. There is even a tech that you can discard to DESTROY AN OPPONENT'S DIE. Yes, they can build it back, but how cool is that?
"GET OFF OF MY PLANET!"
(See? It's better when you have to wait for it.)
Anyway, I really can't say enough good things about Alien Frontiers. It's got rock solid gameplay, I really dig the retro 50s sci-fi retro vibe that it has going on, and the cards and bits are good. The colonies could be more evocative than just the little wooden discs, but they get the job done. As I understand it, an Upgrade Kit is in the works with cool plastic colonies and other spruced up bits--very cool. The only real negative I have whatsoever is that the finish on the board is prone to scuffing. It's the same printing/finish as the Pandemic board which was also prone to scuffing, but moreso with Alien Frontiers because you are constantly moving and sliding dice around on the board.
Yeah, that's it, that's all I've got...a really nitpicky production thing. The board scuffs. Well, and the theme is kinda thin, naturally. But that's the best I can do.
This is a great game that my wife is more than happy to kick my butt at. We've found multiple strategies, including colony rush, tech spam, raider/blocking, and Relic Ship abuse. The dice and tech cards keep things spicy from turn to turn. Folks, this is a really, really good game and I'm very much looking forward to the Factions expansion. Consider my "dice placement" spot in my collection filled, and it would take an insanely good game to knock this one off.
I was a skeptic, but consider me convinced. Thumbs up, big time. Give this game a try.
(Big thanks goes to Gamesalute.com, Clevermojo, and Minion Games, who collectively provided review copies of games featured in this column.)
Another edition of Next of Ken comes to a close. As always, feedback and comments are welcome and encouraged. Meanwhile, we'll be throwing beads at people, taking our clothes off, going swimming, enjoying a bevarage, things of that nature. Until then, I'll see ya in seven.