Next of Ken, Volume 67: Bad Bits, Mage Wars, Rumble in the House, and Serenissima!

Next of Ken, Volume 67: Bad Bits, Mage Wars, Rumble in the House, and Serenissima!

Ken B.     
 
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Still playing catch-up with 2012 reviews, thoughts, and impressions.  This week I'm talking Mage Wars, Rumble in the House, Serenissima, and the colossal production screw-up of Exile Sun.  "I have blah blah insurance, so person come help?!"
 
 

 
Diving right in, folks.  Got a lot of ground to cover, and this week it's all gaming.  Let's go!
 
 

 
And Sometimes, Far Too Long for Snakes
 
drive angry posterI encountered the first game in my days as a reviewer that the physical production actually pissed me off, and that is the Kickstarter game Exile Sun.  When I popped this guy open and started fiddling with the stuff inside, I quickly discovered the little player cards with the sliders did not work.  As in, the cardboard strips meant to show your energy allocations would not budge.  Pressed hard with the thumbs, tried moving from the underside, no luck.
 
When I checked the forums to make sure it wasn't just me, I found out that no, this was simply how it was.  The designer had suggestions including prying a knife inside, making slits, that sort of thing.  But essentially a vital component to the game does not function out of the box.  You can't battle without them.  I mean, I'm sure you can get a handful of dice or pen and paper or whatever, but really?  One of the most important components?
 
I'm the kind of guy that if you send me something, I will play it and comment on it eventually.  But reading San's review and the comments of others, I'm looking at jabbing and butchering game bits in order to play a fairly mediocre, overlong, and abstracted space battle game.  Needless to say at this point I'm in no hurry.
 
I'm not shallow all that often.  So humor me.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
Woven Deep Beneath the Caves of Melted SteelMage Wars GameComponents
 
 
 I'm nearing the point where I'm ready to give Mage Wars the full review treatment.  As I was reflecting on my end-of-year awards, looking over so many
other reviewers' lists I saw that Mage Wars was coming up, time and time again.  We have several readers on our own forums who have sung the game's praises.  It seemed like high time I rectified my not having played this yet.
 
So far, my brother and I are two games into it.  We've tripped over the games proclivity for "keyword soup" a little bit (there are a LOT of keywords in this game), but other than that, I can simply say this game is pretty fucking amazing.
 
It's Wiz War meets Magic: The Gathering, in every way that this comparison would be considered positive.  In fact, I previously have referred to Dungeon Command as "Magic: The Skirmishing."  I stand corrected, as this is in all honesty what Magic would look like extrapolated into a board game.
 
I've also heard it compared to Summoner Wars, though I don't quite see that comparison as strongly beyond having two mage masterminds summoning creatures to bash each other, all on a grid.  The grid here is smaller and the mechanical feel is totally and completely different.  That's not a bad thing for either game, but I don't see these two titles as being redundant in a collection whatsoever.
 
The spell book thing is genius, and despite the fact that you have full access to all your spells all the time, you're going to struggle to figure out what to cast and when, and learn to deal with the fact that you won't be able to cast everything you want right when you need it.
 
I'll cover this in more detail as we get some more games in.  I can say without a doubt that I'm thoroughly enjoying this game and am already looking forward to more Mages being added in the expansions.  Bring 'em on!
 

 
Voodoo Beat on the Mind, The Digs Too Deep to Find
 
Rumble-in-the-House-ContentsLet me just give some quick props to what I consider one of the best family games I've played in a long time--Rumble in the House.
 
It's one of those "stupid funny" games where you make a small floorplan out of tiles, put characters in the room randomly, get assigned two secret characters, then the battle commences.
 
The rules are dead simple.  On your turn, either move a character from one room to the next (unless they're in a room with another character) or, if multiple characters are in a room, choose one of them to be eliminated.  Once there is only one character left in the house, you reveal your secret characters and earn points.  First two characters eliminated are worth nothing at all, then scales upward until the last one standing gets 10 points.  You do three rumbles, assigning new characters each time, and at the end, player with the most points is the winner.
 
My kids get excited at the mere mention of busting this one out.  "RUMBLE IN THE HOUSE!  YEAAH!"  I've discovered that they're a bloodthirsty lot--if two characters are in a room, one of them will absolutely not survive the next turn.  They can't resist it.  Two enter, one leaves.  Now.
 
Half the fun is also coming up with nicknames for the characters, as they don't seem to have official names.  We've got Machine Gun Kitty, Rage Wizard, Dynamite Penguin, Cloud Strife, Kong, Toxie, and several more.
 
It's small, compact, sets up quickly, and has fast, frenetic action as player turns go quickly.  I'm thinking of making a little scoring printout to speed up scoring, which occasionally takes as long as a round of play.   My kids adore this game and I'm guessing yours will too.  Never suffer through another shitty kids' game again--pick up Rumble in the House, right now.
 

We're Gentlemen of Fortune and That's What We're Proud to Be
 
 
Last but not least this week is Asmodee's fantastic reprint of an older Euro--Serenissima.
 
This was one of those old-school games I'd heard of but it had long since been out of print.  Its mixture of trading and combat always sounded appealing butSerenissima Box I never felt like chasing down a copy.  I hadn't really kept up with the reprint, but when Stephan at Asmodee sent me a review copy, I was pleasantly surprised.  And opening it up, man, is it gorgeous.
 
For the uninitiated, the heart of Serenissima's gameplay is sailing your ships to various ports, moving them to other ports, and selling your goods to buy more ships and sailors for those ships.  Sound boring enough yet?  Well, not so fast, as you can do something that most of us always want to do when we play these sorts of games...attack the other ships, sink them, and steal their loot.  Yep, you read that right.
 
Ports have a certain type of good they provide, and you can sail your ships there to load them up.  You can then sail them to other ports to sell these wares and earn money.  Each port won't buy their own good nor will they buy any good that has previously been sold there.  The game rationalizes this as the ships establishing a trade route.  Whatever, works for me.  Ports are worth more as they have more goods sold there, and you can actually offload your sailors at a neutral port to take control of it.  If your opponent has sailors there, guess what?  You can attack them and take over the port for your own.
 
Ships have limited space, so you'll need to balance sailors with spots for goods.  A combat-ready vessel will have little room for cargo, but will move faster and roll more dice in battle.  Fewer sailors mean more room for goods, but you'll be slower and more vulnerable.
 
As you accumulate money, you can buy additional ships.  These ships are numbered, and these numbers determine player order.  So you have one large turn that is threaded among all the players.  When you buy a boat, you can choose any of those available.  Sometimes it's worthwhile to edge your way into a spot between two rival foes, other times you'll want to take the earliest spot in the turn available, other times having the very last spot in the turn might be advantageous.
 
You can also spend your money on Forts.  If you have the right goods at a port you control, you can spend gold to place a port there.  These forts fire first defensively, discouraging others from trying to take your hard-earned real estate.
 
Why do you care about owning ports?  Two reasons.  One, when players buy goods to load from a port, they pay the owner for the privilege.  So if you have one of the more hard-to-get goods, this can be a lucrative source of cash.  Also, scoring rounds happen periodically and you'll earn points for how "loaded" the ports you control are in terms of the goods that have been sold there.  And I didn't even really get into wine, which is a special good only found at a single port.  Selling wine at a port automatically makes it worth more points, so just remember..."the wine must flow."
 
Paul AtreidesBeer is the mind killer
 
 
The game's currency both in purchasing and in victory is gold, plain and simple.  So yes, while you're buying a larger fleet and recruiting more sailors, just remember that you're spending precious points to do so.  I've always been a fan of that system in games dating back to Jyhad/Vampire CCG, where you spent your own life essence to recruit minions and arm them with weapons.
 
Players therefore traverse the seas, moving goods to other ports, taking over the lucrative spots, defending them vigorously, all the while wary of attack from other players who want their juiciest ports or to sink their vessels to limit their actions and raid any goods from the sunken ships.
 
If all this sounds like an uber-light version of Merchants & Marauders, I don't think that's an unfair comparison, and that is far from an insult to either game.  Not in terms of any mechanics or implementation, just in feel.  You can sail your ships quickly, safeguarding your goods, playing the peaceful merchant.  Alternately you can load up ships and men and seek to plunder the ships and ports of others.  Even better, you can have multiple ships and get the best of both worlds.  The rules are nowhere near the rich depth of Merchants & Marauders nor is it nearly as thematic, but it's certainly a kissing cousin of that style of play.
 

Serenissima Board
 
 
It should be noted that the old edition had its share of critics.  I have not played the original so I can't speak to how it played, but this new version reportedly fixed some of the older issues that players had with the game.  The scale of money is more manageable, the components are more functional, and several smaller rules have been changed.   Something else that changed was the timing of the endgame.  You have a small deck of cards that advance the turn marker in variable fashion.  So you can't quite be sure when exactly the game will end.  This solves a purported end-game problem, where once everyone knew for certain it was the last turn, a bloodbath would ensue as players sent their ships on suicide missions to take their last few points.
 
To me, though, hearing that a game can end in a bloodbath is not a negative thing.  I mean, even hearing that as a complaint is puzzling to me.  That's like someone saying, "This dessert tastes too  much like ice cream" and then making a face as though this should be a bad thing.  If there's one thing that most lifeless Euro trading snorefests need, it's bloodbaths.  Let the damned seas run red with the blood of your enemies, I always say.  Forget this whole "you do your thing, I'll do mine, we'll compare scores at the end" nonsense.  I play games to freaking play games with other people.  That means if you're doing too well, expect my guns (and those of others) to start heading in your direction.  This is all that is well and good with gaming and I think we need more of this.
 
When you reflect that Serenissima was originally released in 1996, it's astoundingly sad to realize that there is little of this game's DNA in modern Euro designs.  This was a hybrid before hybrids were even a thing, and unfortunately Euros retreated into their own shell rather than followed this game's example.  Euros became more about "I'm making my own little board here, don't mess with it" and would-be gamers braying about other players being able to attack or disrupt them.  If that seems like the nuts to you, more power to you, but I want to FIGHT.
 
So yeah, I like this game a lot.  The only real complaint I could possibly have is that it does run a little long for a game of its weight.  There's also a strong possibility that the presence of the trading/collection aspect will be a turnoff for some gamers.  I totally get that.  I will say that one very minor issue I have too is that there is no real advantage for the attacker other than getting to pick the moment of the engagement.  Attrition hits both fairly equally, and once established those forts can really shred you before you even launch your attack proper.  You'd think that would mean that players that don't spend their money on troops and boats would have an advantage, but then there's the whole thing of sailing a skeleton fleet being vulnerable to bloodthirsty opponents.  So sail light and with few guns at your own risk.  You can also get into backstabby wars that act as huge money sinks as the other players cheer on the bloodshed, only to descend on what's left like a bunch of sharks.  Fucking pirates, the lot of you.
 
Anyway, fantastic game, this one's earned a spot in the permanent collection.  It's a nice mixture of accessible rules, with trading spiced up with direct conflict and combat.  It's also gorgeously produced and you can have folks up and running in five-ten minutes, tops.  That makes it a winner in my book and fills a nice "casual, but bloodthirsty" niche.  When you get Euro guys whining about your ability to attack them in a game, you're barking up the right tree, matey.  (Talk about your mixed metaphors.)
 
 

 
 
Another column in the books, as January draws nearer to a close, we're heading toward an action-packed February full of Reader's Choice goodness and my own end of 2012 mega-column.  So until the whiny Patriots and Pretty Boy Brady get that elusive fourth Super Bowl Ring, I'll see ya in seven.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Next of Ken, Volume 67: Bad Bits, Mage Wars, Rumble in the House, and Serenissima! There Will Be Games
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