Not a lot of fluff this week as I'm going to dig in to reviews of two newer releases: Nightfall: Martial Law and Omen: A Reign of War. Oh, and talk about Batman's animated voice like an absolute fanboy nerd. Join us, won't you?
I've Been Sane So Long My Vision's So Unclear
Just a quickie Trash Culture note: I finally got around to watching Superman/Batman: Apocalypse on Netflix. Netflix has had a healthy chunk of the DC Animated releases pop through their instant streaming, so be sure to check those out if you haven't already.
As an immense fan of the repsective shows as well as the animated Justice League series, it was refreshing to hear all the familiar voice actors (even for Granny Goodness, lol.) To my generation, Kevin Conroy is and always will be THE voice of the animated Batman, and it just never feels quite right when someone else is doing the voice. It's why Arkham Asylum feels so awesome (along with Hamil's Joker.) Conroy even made the otherwise forgettable Gotham Knights DVD enjoyable.
That reminds me...when is Young Justice coming back? (And has there ever been a series with a name that sounded more like porn than this "Young Justice"?)
Admittedly, Kevin Conroy's voicework has nothing on this guy though:
I will say this for SB: Apocalpyse...the ending fight is as knock-down, drag-out, balls to the wall action as I've ever seen Superman have in a movie. I thought his no-holds barred with Darkseid at the end of Justice League Unlimited was pretty bad-ass ("But you can't take it, can't you, big man?") but this one blows it out of the water. I really, really, really hope that the folks behind the upcoming Man of Steel movie are taking notes...it would be nice to have a live-action Superman that does more than just LIFT stuff all the time, y'know?
The next Batman animated DVD will be Batman: Year One, and the preview trailer just debuted recently. It looks awesome, but again, there's the whole thing with the voice (Conroy will not be voicing Batsy for this one.)
Good stuff. DC might flounder on pretty much everything else, but they handle their Big Three extremely well.
I Won't Put Up With No Big Mouth Yappin', At Least Not While I'm Around
Nightfall: Martial Law is the first expansion for the Nightfall deckbuilding game from AEG, and it focuses on the continuing war between humans, ghouls, zombies, and werewolves, while introducing an Asian-themed clan of vampires who are moving in to take advantage of the chaos.
Since Nightfall debuted, it's distinguished itself as being, along with Puzzle Strike, one of the most directly interactive deckbuilding games on the market. For me, I've found the blend of deckbuilding and drafting mixed with the old-school "creatures go smash stuff" gameplay a breath of fresh air for this old-school CCGer.
In fact, Nightfall has been fairly unique in that I seem to enjoy it more and more as I play it. With a lot of games, my excitement is going to peak or plateau within a few playings, perhaps maintaining that level for a long time if the game's good. However, with Nightfall, I sit down to play a game, and I'm ready to play again. And again.
One of my only complaints with the base game was the fact that there wasn't much variety in the creature effects. You had some direct damage, some creature removal/bouncing, and wound-dealing, with a sprinkle or two of "counterspell" and influence-gaining cards. Would the expansion bring enough new flavors to the table to make a great game even better?
Right out of the gate, it's important to note that this is a stand-alone expansion. You don't need the original base game to play. You get five 'starter decks' of 12 cards each, a pile of 50 Wound cards, and 24 stacks of 7-card "Orders", the heart and soul of the game. The starter cards for each player are identical to those found in the original game, but the Wound cards now have a few of a new type; as opposed to drawing lots of cards, this one lets you pump up the strength of your minions. Since each Wound type refers to discarding additional Wounds to pump up the effect, you only need one copy of the Wound that has the effect you want to trigger, and the others will just be used to pump up that effect.
The new cards are an interesting bunch, to say the least. First, there's a new mechanic called Feed. Feed has an associated cost--i.e., "discard two cards"--and it allows you to repeat the effect of the card in question as often as you can pay the Feed cost. Several cards in the set have this, and while often costly, it can allow you to trigger a needed effect more than once to save your undead bacon.
As far as new effects in general, there are certainly a decent share of game-changing effects, adding much-needed variety. Chan Jiang has an ability that allows him to choose a minion that must block him. There are a couple of cards that key off of fetching discarded minions and putting them back into play, including the jaw-dropping Bleak Resurrection that has a Feed cost allowing you to do it multiple times.
Control in general seems to be a new viable playstyle, as you have a few more control-style cards mixed in with some solid defenders, such as Legion Ten who has only one health, but absorbs *all* damage when blocking. While you're using meatshields like him, you can play cards like "Hysteria" which turns a minion against its controller, damaging itself and its controller equal to its strength (why, hello, Big Ghost!)
There are new powers on creatures that allow them to stay in play, only being discarded when killed. The minion "Brynna and Taylor" allows you a bonus draw at the end of your turn, and only leaves play once destroyed (as opposed to being discarded at the end of your Combat phase.) With only 1 attack and 1 health, they're weak, but if they're allowed to stay in play they can create considerable card advantage.
Last but not least, the game starts to move towards looking at the actual composition of your army. In the base game, you could have werewolves, vampires, and humans all fighting for you, leading some to complain about theme. The rulebook has two short fiction pieces that address this (with alliances and human 'sypmathizers'--they even roll with the joke and call some of the sympathizers 'Bellas'), and now you have cards that target specific types of creatures. The powerful "Silver Stake" allows you to destroy one vampire and one werewolf. It's important to remember that you must satisfy all parts of a card possible, so if you're using lots of vampires and werewolves yourself, there will be times that it will destroy your own guys for a lack of other viable targets...meaning to maximize its use, you'll tend towards a more human strikeforce. Ditto the Shining Cross, which will damage *each* player (including you) for every vampire they have in play. These types of cards are extemely nice and begin to lend much more flavor to army composition.
There are new mixes of moon colors too, so you're going to see new combinations and possibilities there. That's I think the toughest part to crack in an otherwise simple game, and what gives it its staying power and replayability--mastering the Chaining of cards. You've gotta watch which of your cards chain into each other, as well as looking to see what colors are frequently being left to you by your opponents. Moreso than any other deckbuilding game, you are involved the entire time and rewarded for paying attention to what your opponents are doing, what they're playing, what they're drafting.
If you haven't played Nightfall, briefly speaking the Chain mechanic means you can play more cards than the one you're allowed on your turn, but only if you can follow with a color that's allowed to play off the previous one. You can also chain out of turn on cards other players plop down, keeping players involved when it's not their turn, allowing them to defend themselves, get rid of problem minions, so on and so forth.
It's this depth of mastering the Chain, along with the intense level of direct player conflict and interaction, that keeps me coming back for more. Nigthfall has quickly moved up the ranks of my favorite games this year, and Nightfall: Martial Law is a more than worthy addition.
I do have a minor complaint, and that's the lack of cheaper creature removal/damaging in this set. Most of the options are expensive, like the previously mentioned Hysteria, now the most expensive card to draft in the game at 5 influence. You've got Headshot which is permanent creature removal, but at a cost--exiling the card itself and taking a wound. With new creatures in play that can stick around, it's a little more problematic to deal with them sometimes. I understand that they didn't want to duplicate a lot of the effects of the base game set, and it's very likely they were looking to promote this new flavor of creatures hanging around and having an impact on the game, but it's something to be aware of.
Would I recommend this or the base game as your first? Tough, tough call. The new cards are especially shiny and sexy I gotta admit, but the base game feels like it has some of the fundamentals that, due to absence of effect duplication, might be sorely missed. Of course, you might try it and find the style of gameplay presented to be exactly your style.
If you're already a fan of Nightfall, this is absolutely a no-brainer. The available card pool just doubled, meaning you'll see more variety in your games (meaning Ivan and Big Ghost won't be in every...single...game.) You're going to get great new card effects that will shake up your game. For the price, you can't beat it. Huge thumbs up from me, and if you ever sat down with me to play it, I promise I'd make you a believer.
In Burning Chariots, As Bright as a Thousand Suns
I got a copy of Omen: A Reign Of War to review this week, and I have to admit being my first Small Box Games title, I didn't quite know what to make of the little game that came in a black VHS cassette box. However, after digging in for a few rounds, I found a card game that is pretty damned enjoyable.
Stop me if you've heard this one--two factions/brothers/armies battle in ancient Greece to win the favor of the gods, using soldiers and mythological creatures to make war against their enemies. I know, I know...ancient Greek and Roman warfare is a trifle overdone.
Anyway, the game is all played with cards. You've got Rewards cards, to be split into 3 stacks of four, and these represent the plunders of war in each city in the form of rewards from the gods. There are Unit cards in a central deck, and these are either Soldiers, Beasts, or Oracles. These are the cards that will do battle over the cities. Soldiers have effects that happen when they come into play. Beasts are strong, but can also be discarded rather than put into play to perform a strong game effect. When you do that though, you give up their often considerable might. Last but not least, you have Feats, a set of six for each player that have goals on them. These goals vary, from "Have an oracle in every city" to "draw 5 cards in a single turn", and when you claim them, you flip them face down.
Here's how a turn goes. First up is Wealth, in which you have three "Wealth" actions to take. YOu can use each action to either draw a card or take a coin from the bank. If you do all of the same action (i.e., take 3 coins), then you get a bonus of that action, 4 coins/cards instead of 3.
The cities are the meat and potatoes of the gameplay, and this is where the Surge step comes in. You play your troops to your side of each city, paying their associated cost. Later during your turn you evaluate each city. If your opponent has 3 units there, or there are a total of 5 units there on both sides, then a battle ensues. You total up your strength, and the winner claims the top reward card from that city.
You then have the Portent step, during which your Oracles trigger. Oracles are weak militarily, but all have effects that take place during this phase. These generally take the form of either drawing a card or taking a coin, then flipping the top card of the deck. If it's an Oracle, you get a more powerful, specific effect.
Battles are determined and fought after the Portents phase. Something that's cool is that the winner of each battle gets the top reward card for the city, but has to discard down to one unit in the city (Beasts count as two units and so can't be left to garrison the city.) The defender, however, gets to keep two of their units in the city they just lost.
Then you have the Offering phase. Each card has a blue "Offering Value", and you can discard one card to take a mix of cards and/or coins based on that value. You can choose one or both, but there is no benefit or bonus to taking all of one type in this phase.
From there, it's the other player's turn, where they'll respond to the things you did, and try to seek victory in their own way.
Once two of the city piles are emptied, or one player accomplishes five of his six feats, the game ends, and points are scored.
The scoring is pretty simple. Each feat you accomplish nets you 2 points. Rewards are a little more interesting; if you still have them in your hand at game's end, they're worth 2 points each, but you can play them for a powerful game effect. If you do, though, those rewards that you've played to the table are only worth 1 point each at the end of the game. So you'll have to make a trade-off...is the powerful one-shot effect worth the point it will cost you?
From playing this a few times, it's clear to me that designers are after the "burnt out CCGer" market. Playing this game feels *very* much like a simple CCG from that era, where you're slapping down troops, doing battles, and playing cards with crazy effects like nuking your opponent's hand or destroying their cards in play.
And in fact, the game offers a way to draft decks at the very start in a pretty cool variant. You separate the cards into each distinctive card, as there are multiples of each card in the deck. Then, players have ten coins, and alternate paying one coin to draft one of the stacks of cards. Once done, each player uses their own deck made of the cards they drafted, but otherwise the gameplay is the same.
This is a pretty cool variant as you can try to specialize in certain gameplay effects, such as trying to make your Oracles trigger more often by drafting more of them, or maybe nabbing the cards that will strip your opponents of cards and coins, making it tougher for him to respond. The only two knocks against this mode is the added setup of having to separate out all the cards, along with the fact that since a total of 20 of the 24 stacks will be drafted, there won't quite be as much variety from game to game.
You should be warned going in though; the box is literally a VCR cassette box. Inside, there is no way to organize your stuff once the shrink is off the cards. The cards are of decent quality, with a glossy sheen, but you'll still want to sleeve them--and if you do, they're not going back in that little case. Heck, just getting the cards and wooden coins back in without the case bulging is kind of a task in itself.
Omen: Reign of War is pretty much right up my alley. I like the powerful cards, I like the multiple uses for cards in the form of Beasts and Offerings, and I like the battle and reward system. I especially like how the game prevents bogging down and stalemates as when you win a battle, you have to sweep out all your troops in excess of one, meaning the battlefield is fluid with a constant ebb and flow.
There are a couple of knocks. The theme itself is a little tired. I don't dig the little box at all, it looks neat but isn't really functional for storage. I am curious as to why my copy has two small sheets of stickers...I think they're to go on the wooden coins? Since those are already painted in a yellow/gold color, that doesn't seem necessary, and John could've saved a little bit on production costs there.
You should also know that coming from a small publisher, it's $30 shipped, and it's not going to feel like what you normally get for that price from other publishers. The artwork on the cards is absolutely gorgeous though, I really like Michael "RIIVEN" Ng's art here and it's used to great effect.
The gameplay is solid. If you played any CCGs at all back in the day, this gameplay is going to feel vaguely like something from that era. Not that it's derivative of anything in particular, but it has some of that old school CCG sensibility in much of its design. For me, that makes it a winner.
All in all, I think if this sounds at all appealing to you, you'll probably enjoy it quite a bit. I know that most of us have a lot of short-playing two-player conflict games, but this one is fun and has that odd feeling of familiarity that is going to make it fit like an old glove for many gamers.
That's gonna do it for this week folks, and I apologize for the lateness of the column today. As always, feedback and comments are extremely welcome and encouraged. 'Till then, I'll see ya in seven.