Well folks, I've been running around like crazy the past few days, and since last week's round-up was well-received (and allowed me to get a lot of my gaming thoughts and opinions crammed into one article), I thought I would follow suit this week with some more not-quite-ready-for review discussions about stuff I've played recently. Next week--The Big Yomi Review, I promise.
Cargo Noir (Days of Wonder, 2-5 players, 45 min-1 hour)
I was sent a review copy of this, the latest Days of Wonder offering, just prior to it going on sale next month. For those who haven't read anything about it, it's basically an auction-style game with set collection, where you trade sets of "cargo" for exponentially increasing awards.
The theme, such as it is, revolves around shady dealings in a noir setting, with some great cartoony artwork trying to capture the (not-too-serious) theme.
Each player takes control of a rival family, each based on broad stereotypical crime factions from the era, so you've got Chinese, Mexican, Italian gangs and so on. The board itself is made up of several modular pieces, which certain ones flip based on the number of players in the game. This keeps the bidding tight by providinng fewer locations for fewer players.
These ports have a varying number of random goods that pop up. The small sunken port of Cape Town only has one good revealed at a time, while a big port like Rotterdam will have four goods. The goods are various contraband or black market items, such as art, alcohol, cars, jewels, and so on.
You also have a small stack of coins, 7 to start the game. You can get more by putting your ships at the Casino, which will grant you two coins per ship there. You have three o f theseships and during your turn, you first resolve your ships placed on a previous turn, then trade in sets of cargo you've collected, and then place your three ships at whatever ports you'd like. Cargo of differing types will pay out far less than if you can get lots of them of the same type, so the different goods will become worth different things to different players based on the ports they've managed to claim.
When you place your ships, you simply select which port you'd like them to go. If there are rival ships there, you must stack your ship with at least one more coin than the ship already there with the highest amount of coins. Of course, they will have the chance on their turn to either up the stakes or retreat. If you start the turn on a port with no other rivals (due to them backing out or no one contests you), you collect the cargo and refill that port, then take your ship back in front of you.
Most of the cards you trade for are just straight victory points and represent various real estate properties that your crime family invests in...to make it, you know, all legitimate like. Some cards are worth fewer victory points but provide you abilities, such as extra ships (to allow you more actions in a turn), bigger warehouses (to let you save more goods from turn to turn), or grant you bonus coins if you're forced to retreat (it's assumed your corrupt captains take a bribe to look the other way.)
The game is of course your typical lavish Days of Wonder production, with rich colorful artwork, thick cardboard pieces, little plastic ships, and most surprisingly big thick plastic coins that make it easy to see from across the board how many each player has bid. The only niggle I've got is that while DoW is generally aces at making some of the best inserts in the business, this time the insert has a perfect spot for everything....except the bag and tiles. You'll need to put them underneath and really, really spread them flat to get it to fit in there right. Little weird, but it works.
Now, as to our opinions on it, it's been a hit with the lunchtime crew. They liked the fast, fluid gameplay, the attractive bits, and trying to screw people out of their bids and actions.
I have always been a fan of Ra as the perfect bidding/auction game. In fact, if I am going to enjoy a Euro, since the theme is irrelevant anyway, I'd prefer if it kept things simple, since whatever chrome gets applied is usually unintuitive anyway. Cargo Noir isn't quite in the same league as Ra, but I do appreciate its appeal and its ability, like Ra, to keep the rules simple and allow people to focus on the scoring, which is where the strategy is anyway. In Ra of course you've got lots of scoring strategies and they're less diverse in Cargo Noir, but I think as a family/casual auction game this is much less opaque for some in explaining the scoring.
I like it. It's not a grand slam, but I think it's perfect for its market and is fun and will have broad appeal for gamers with families, or those looking for a good lunchtime game. Early thumbs up here.
Terra Prime (Tasy Minstrel Games, 2-5 players, 90-120 minutes)
This has long been on my radar to try, and my brother and I finally managed to get a 2-player game in this past weekend. Terra Prime is a very, very light 4x-style game with some heavy doses of abstraction, but enough fiddly stuff and chrome rules to make it not-so-Euro in my eyes.
Players start at the Terra Prime station, and the galaxy is built from hexes of different colors. The "ring" closest to the station is the safest, but by the time you enter the farthest reaches, you're going to find things much more dangerous for your explorers.
You have a ship token and a ship board, and here you will find at first a ship unequipped to hold the most expensive cargo, and having only one shield module, one gun, and three engines. As you explore the hexes by moving from one to another, you'll reveal potential planets for settling colonies. This is where the meat of the game is, as you want to get your colonies on the better planets so you can produce stuff to take back and sell to the good folks back home on Terra Prime.
However, unexplored space has its risks, and there are asteroid fields and aliens that lurk out there. Unlike some other 4x-style boardgames, you do have the option to either blast your way through the enemies, or instead attempt to pacify them using diplomacy. Yeah, it's really abstract because you're just giving them goods, but the option is there.
There is a stack of "reward" tiles you get for colonizing and destroying or pacifying aliens, and these act as the game clock. When you accomplish one of these tasks, you flip a reward tile and claim whatever it says--usually free goods or a ship upgrade of some kind. Once you hit the bottom of the stack, you'll eventually reveal three "red" rewards, and the third one indicates the end of the game.
It is the kind of game where you've got tons of ways to score. You've got the pick-up-and-deliver elements where you pick up goods and bring them back home to satisfy demand (and earn profit), you've got technological upgrades for your ship (which allow you to do stuff like navigate asteroids more easily or cloak yourself from aliens--and many of these offer VPs as well); you've got the opportunity to load your ship with shields and blasters and earn VPs by doing alien diplomacy "the hard way"; and you definitely get points for putting colonies in the farthest reaches of space, but it's dangerous flying out there.
Unfortunately, like most small publishers, there were some components issues, but my copy didn't suffer too badly. The ship boards looked like they weren't allowed enough time to dry, so they sort of stuck together at the top. Also, the little star-shaped VP tokens didn't want to always punch cleanly, so there was some tears and flaking. I think some of the components complaints were overstated, but just be aware--it is a smaller publisher, and the production isn't perfect.
Surprisingly to me, I liked this game quite a bit. I can't really judge it fairly yet on one 2-player game, but the mixture of exploration, delivery, battle, and ship upgrading, all in a tidy 90-minute package hit a sweet spot for when you're looking to get your 4x on in a short period of time. Yeah, it's too light and abstract to "truly" fit the bill of 4x, but trust me, there's enough fiddliness and thematic chrome to make it feel a far cry from the typically dry Euro.
If you're looking for a game to fill this niche and can find a good deal or trade on one, I recommend it.
Nightfall (Alderac Entertainment Group, 2-5 players, 45 minutes)
Hoo boy, I saved the best one for last this week, as AEG's new deckbuilding game is right around the corner, and at first blush, it's a doozy.
To me, Puzzle Strike was basically the Dominion model of deckbuilding perfected. It was the logical pinnacle, adding in character variety and confrontation instead of vanilla decks and VP purchasing. Thunderstone is great because it's the crazy, drunken uncle who still drives that big heavy metal-inspired airbrushed van around the town square on Saturday night, but it's really just a game that has a great way of theming the VP collection race better, by making it about collecting trophies of kills instead of Gardens or Duchies or whatever. If I can get points by cleaving a Doomknight in half rather than fogging up my monacle looking over my latest land acquisition, sign me up. Am I right, folks?
However, neither Puzzle Strike nor Thunderstone--nor Dominion, at the genre's origins--paid more than a winking resemblance to "true" CCGs, the style of games that birthed them. Sure, you had turns where you'd play out big combos, and you were always in the process of tweaking your deck to improve it as the game wore on, but as far as what was happening on the field so to speak, there really wasn't this battle going on, this waging of war with assets or possessions or creatures.
We've seen the next evolution beginning with Graxia and Ascension, but to me, they both were a little clumsy, or kept the mechanics of VP gathering with a new coat of paint. Resident Evil has the Mercenary mode, but I have to beg off comparisons there because I haven't gotten a chance to play the RE deckbuiling game yet.
Nightfall looks to bring all of these familiar mechanics to the arena...you remember the thrills of summoning monsters and sending them slamming into your opponent? Or tossing off direct damage spells to fry your opponent's critters before they could do you harm? Well, they're back, baby--now in shiny, deckbuilding form--and for me, it's not a moment too soon.
Needless to say this one will also be getting the full review treatment, but just know that this game is all about the war on a perpetually darkened earth, where (non-sparkly) vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and what's left of the human race are locked in constant battle for dominance and survival. You take part in the war by assembling an army of warriors and all of your dirtiest, bloodiest tricks, and you hope to be the last one standing.
There are some really cool things going on here. First, each player takes part in a draft at the beginning of the game, selecting two card stacks that will be their "private archives." This means that only that player can purchase cards from those stacks. So if you luck up and get the powerful werewolf "Big Ghost" as one of your private stacks, you're the only one who will be able to bring his blood-soaked claws to bear on your enemies. So you've got variance between players built in from the gate, something that was very much appreciated in Puzzle Strike.
You've also got a cool chain mechanic that if you draft right, allows you to put lots of cards into play on one turn, but you can't just buy the same card over and over as cards of the same color don't usually chain into themselves. So you've got to branch out and aquire just the right cards to keep your deck signing. Also, you can chain to the end of your opponent's cardplays, so the days of watching your foe play five villages, three Smithies, and two Laboratories while you go fetch a beer are long gone. If your opponent leaves you the appropraite colors to chain off of, you can play cards on his turn, summoning instant defense, wreaking havoc on his plans, and destroying his minions.
The game also wisely dispenses with money, the first of these deckbuilding games to do so (correct me if I'm wrong.) It solves the resource problem the same way the VS. TCG did, by making every card a potential resource. You get two "influence" (the currency of the game) for free on your turn, and some cards grant extra, but you can also pitch cards one for one during your Claim phase for one point of influence each. This means, no turns spent just buying money, and less buildup time before the blood starts flying. I cannot stress how awesome this concept is.
Add in the combat with minions locking horns, a victory system that provides those taking a beating basically a "surge of adrenaline" to help them try to power through instead of being stuck on a slippery slope of doom, starting cards that are smart enough to remove themselves from play when their usefulness is gone (the reason that cards like Chapel in Dominion were so popular)...this is something really special here, folks.
Truthfully, I've said too much already, but I'll cover all of this ground in more in my official review in a few weeks. If I can give you an early word? Pre-order this. You're gonna want it.
That's all for this week, folks. I hope to get back to my REAL review schedule next week. Thanks for reading!