Next of Ken, Volume 53: Small World Realms, Sunrise City, and Starship Merchants!

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Come on in for this week's Next of Ken, where I'm talking about Days of Wonder's newest Small World expansion, zoning up some skyscrapers with Kickstarter darling Sunrise City, and digging deep into the newest space economic game Starship Merchants, co-designed by Tom Lehman (you may have heard of one of his games called Race For the Galaxy).   Join us, won't you?

I Heard About All the Pretty Girls, With Their Grass Skirts Down to their Knees

We Redboxed The Descendants recently -- well-acted, but one of those "personal journey" movies where very little overt happens and the movie swims in its own inertia. Clooney is great as always, and it has its moments, but it also flounders and you don't get the payoff that you really want or expect.

The scenery is gorgeous though and the soundtrack is soothing and sedate, so there is that.

Also--a little movie called The Dark Knight Rises opens this weekend. We've had our tickets for a couple of weeks, I am trying to temper expectations but early reviews have been INSANELY good.



Welcome to a Land Where Faeries Dwell and Mighty Dragons Fly

sw realms boxDays of Wonder was kind enough to send me a copy of their latest offering, Small World Realms.  Color me one of those who finds that Small World strikes an excellent balance between light and "real" gaming, and manages to hit all the right notes for a lot of crowds.

If the "pre-set" maps tire you out though, along to the rescue is Realms, which is basically a 'make your own board' kit for Small World along with a smorgasbord of scenarios and boards to build included in the fatter-than-you'd-expect instruction booklet.

Like hearing the name of the movie "Snakes on a Plane", once you realize what Small World Realms is, you're probably going to be able to figure out what's inside. Lots of thick tiles, some with three areas, some with one, and all of them can be linked together with each other to create the perfect map of your dreams. Find the original two-player map too cramped? Give yourselves room to breathe. Think the five-player map is too wide open? Make the map a tightly-wound bloodbath.

I really was amazed at the thickness of the scenario booklet. Yeah, it's multi-lingual, but there are a dozen scenarios included with pictorial diagrams. Many of the latter scenarios are multi-area beasts taking advantage of both Underground and regular rules (yep, it supports both with ease), and awesomely enough the Tunnels expansion is also included in the box.

It's important to note that you need either Small World or Small World: Underground to use this expansion, as there are no races inside the box. This is essentially a map-making kit and you'll use it in sw realms tilesconjunction with one or the other of the base games, or both.

As such, it's not going to change your mind about Small World if you tried it and didn't like it, unless your specific complaints were about the basic maps. That is highly unlikely, so if you're a Small World hater then there unfortunately won't be much here to change your mind. The rules of the game are the same, this just gives you the ability to build nearly endless new playgrounds and sandboxes for your Commando Dwarves and Flying Skeletons to bash heads and claim territory, score you some coins, and call it a day.

For me, Small World is a fun time when you're looking for some wild multi-player combat where you're always on the lookout for abusive power combinations to help you get a leg up on your opponents. If you're a fan like me, you should snatch this up and understand that you have purchased a box that will keep Small World fresh for you pretty much forever.

If I have a few complaints, I will say that it's kind of a bear doing set-ups for any of the larger scenarios. You have a letter-based guide that match the letters on each tile, but it's all a little trickier than you might expect.   For me, Small World is of the weight where I'm not so sure I need to spend 10 minutes setting up the board.  Also, I'd have loved to had even just three or four new races/powers for even more added spice, but at this point with the number of available races that's probably just being overly greedy.

For hardcore fans who are looking to maintain replayability, look no further--this is it. It's a well-designed kit that is aimed squarely at folks who already enjoy the game; your gut response to hearing about this expansion is likely enough to tell you whether this is for you or not. Me? While I'm miles away from wearing out everything Small World and its deep-dwelling sibling have to offer, I'm always grateful for options--so a thumbs up here.

The Surgeon General Says It's Hazardous to Breathe, I'd Have Another Cigarette But I Can't See

Sunrise City CoverAlso on the review copy plate is Sunrise City, a tile-laying zone-based city building game with role selection. Each player can use certain role cards to influence their ability to build, or give additional points for building in certain ways, or affecting what your opponent can do.

The game is all about these zones that are color-coded. The colors must match on the zone tiles for any building tiles you want to place on top of them. The game adds a 3-dimensional touch because you can continue to build on existing building tiles provided you match them up by color.

What I did enjoy primarily about the game was the unique scoring system. As you play your tiles, you'll earn a number of 'points', but these are simply to move you up a ladder that goes 1-10. If you loop, you'll earn a "real" victory point. However, if you can land on "10" by exact count, you'll get TWO victory points--a significant advantage by doubling your points each go 'round. It's much harder than it sounds, though.

I also liked the different role cards, as you'll have three for each round and you can play each of them once. Some let you break certain rules of building, others grant you bonus points for building in certain ways, and allSunrise City Back Cover of them will help guide your strategy for how you want the city to develop.

Overall the game is kind of nifty but in a lot of ways very, very dry. There's not a lot of screwage other than "hey, you built where I wanted to" kind of things going on. As such it's suitable for family play, just don't expect a lot of razzle dazzle. The scoring system will elicit a few 'hey, that's neat', though.

The cardboard in this box is ridiculously thick; it's not a large box relatively speaking but is easily heavier than a lot of games I own that come in bigger boxes. What I really appreciated was the fact that instead of opening a box and finding two dozen tile sheets, everything is already pre-punched and ready to go.

If you're really into city-builders there might be a little crackle here, but the gameplay was a little too docile and dry for me to be reaching for this one very often.


Take Your Protein Pills and Put Your Helmet On

Starship Merchants contentsMy wife and I have had a chance to play several games of a preview copy of Toy Vault's latest game Starship Merchants, designed by Tom Lehman (of Race for the Galaxy Fame) and Joe Huber. It's a game about using your ever-growing fleet of ships to buy upgrades, venture into "The Belt" to find and pickup lucrative mines, occasionally stopping at special destinations, then bringing them back home to sell for a tidy profit.

The game uses a four-quadrant board that is divided up into the Shipyard (where ships are purchased), the Market (where you'll get pilots, gear, and refineries), the Belt (where all the action takes place) and the Dock (where you'll offload your mines for money.)

There are four generations of ships ranging from Mark I through Mark IV, and each successive generation has more energy and more cargo holds than the one before it. As you continually loop around the board, you'll look for profitable upgrades and ways to claim the best mines so you'll earn enough for the better, more efficient ships.

The mines themselves come from a draw bag, where there are three different kinds, each with different values. Mines not loaded at the end of all your space runs will go into a collective spot in the middle where anyone can claim them. Players can also venture into an opponent's local space for more energy to snipe away their mines before they pick them up. Enterprising players can purchase claims for their mines, costing them credits but increasing their worth and protecting you from theft.

Spaceman AldoWe're in the Space Minin' Business.  And Cousin, Business is a'Boomin'.

Players are trying to be the first to reach 100 credits in their possession at the end of the run. If they do that, they have the option of calling the "Final Run", where they'll sit in the dock collecting a few bonus credits while the other players finish their current loop. After all ships are in after the Final Run is declared, you tally up credits and declare a winner.

Starship Merchants is all about dealing with efficiency, of improving your economic engine so that you can squeeze more credits out of your ships with every run. There's no conflict or risk in terms of external enemies--no space pirates to deal with, no asteroids, only the threat of another player running more smoothly than they do, or perhaps stealing one of their better mines before they can claim it or load it onto one of their ships.

The game has a few other wrinkles, such as a Loan system that will let you pay half the cost of a ship but then you'll have to pay half again *twice* on subsequent loops. It can be a necessary evil if you really need a ship but also need some better gear. There are also pilots that you can hire to fly your ships, each with their own ability. There are only so many knobs to turn so their powers are often variations on "buy stuff Starship Merchants Shipscheaper/get more energy/get more money". There is a pilot named Tom Major that had my wife and I singing "Ground control to Major Tom" the entire time. There's also ships going obsolete as newer ships are purchased, requiring you to decommission the older ones at the completion of their current run. Smart players can time ship purchases so that it will cause other players to encounter obsolesence before they're quite ready to have to go out and buy new ships.

Still, the entire core of the game is about maximizing these cycles around the board, making sure that gear or pilots you buy end up being worth the money, and that you're hauling back as many credits as you can. Buy bigger ships, bring home even more money, reach the 100 credit finish line before anyone else does. It's all about fine-tuning that engine and maxizing profits. What would be nice is the added spice of pirates interfering with your runs as you're collecting mines, and hazardous sectors causing you to risk losing cargo but at the chance of bigger payoffs.

There's also the fact that I'm generally terrible at these kinds of games. I am easily distracted by shiny toys, so I'm more likely to be tricking out my ships, buying refineries that never pay off, and hiring the flashiest pilots in the galaxy while my opponent runs loops around me and builds their multi-galactic empire.

I just wish there were a little more "oomph" here. After about our sixth game or so, I thought my wife was really enjoying the game, so I asked her thoughts. She replied, "It's okay, but there are plenty of other games I'd rather play."  So after our sixth play, back to the shelf it went for now.

I have read that the game resembles an ultra-light version of an 18xx game. I can't attest to that as I have no intention of ever playing an 18xx game; I'm just unwilling to commit the mental gravity to that sort of endeavor. I could definitely understand the appeal of a lighter version of that system if that's indeed what this is.

Starship Merchants is a moderately pleasant game that just seems to lack the punch to really grab you. Without direct conflict other than stealing mines, it comes down to an economic race--and that's the sort of thing I generally have to be in a special kind of mood for.  It can be enjoyable once you've got your engine tuned and the money flowing, but getting there isn't always as exciting as it could be.  This one's definitely a try before you buy.

Another column in the books, by this time next week I'm likely to be dribbling and drooling over The Dark Knight Rises (or writing a 1,000-word essay on how Nolan urinated on my childhood or whatever it is people on the internet say when they're mildly disappointed with something.)   So until Batman and Bane attend speech therapy together, I'll see ya in seven.



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