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  • Next of Ken, Volume 22: Small World Underground, Sylla, Ascending Empires, Quarriors!

Next of Ken, Volume 22: Small World Underground, Sylla, Ascending Empires, Quarriors!

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There Will Be Games

Come on in for Next of Ken, where today I'll talk about a couple of recent movies I watched (Unknown, Dinner for Schmucks) and talk about a gaggle of games that got played recently, including Nightfall, Quarriors, Ascending Empires, Sylla, and to cap it off, a review of Days of Wonder's latest release, Small World Underground.  Join us, won't you?


You are a Cinema, a Hollywood Treasure


UnknownActually had some quiet time with my wife on Friday to watch a couple of movies.  First up was Unknown (Liam Neeson) from Redbox, something I had been jokingly called "Taken 2" from watching the previews.

It turned out to be a decent thriller, all in all.  Neeson's character is on a business trip with his wife, but an accident leaves him wondering about his memories as when he awakens from a coma, another man is going by his name, his wife doesn't recognize him, and everything points to him being crazy.

I'll admit I didn't quite figure out the reveal, even though I probably should have.  It kept me guessing, and that's welcome for a movie like this.  The run time was a little long at 2 hours, but it was worth a buck in rental, for sure.

Then we watched Dinner for Schmucks from HBO OnDemand.  I like Steve Carrell a lot, but I was starting to suffer from Zack Garifinalkalikis burnout already.  So when I saw him in the trailer, I didn't get very excited about rushing to the theater and watch it.



I was wrong, I'll admit it--the movie was pretty damned funny.  Like Unknown the run time was too long for the type of movie it was, but it had some solid laughs, not really going for the gross-out like so many movies of this type do.


It's hard to believe that anyone would be as oblivious as Steve Carrell's "loser" character, but that's the premise the movie rests on, and once you go with that, it's fairly funny throughout.

"You can eat my pudding."


That's just...wrong.




It's a brand new day and I can't be late, got to get myself on the bus

Crammed in a bunch of gaming lately too, which was nice.  Invited both brothers over to play some games on Saturday, and we played for pretty much eight hours straight.  It was pretty awesome...a little beer, some loaded surpreme pizza, and some great gaming.

Here's what we played, and some thoughts on each:


Small World Underground

Jarrod and I kicked off with some 2-player Small World Underground while we waited for Jeremy to arrive.  I'm reviewing that one below.  Itsmall_world_underground_box was a learning game for Jarrod, but brothers do NOT take it easy on each other.  I had a couple of great race combos plus a sweet location discovery that bumped up my points pretty quickly.

He figured things out though and started to make a solid comeback, wiping me out of my precious location and slowing down my massive point grabs.  I swapped in a new race of Reborn Ogres and went on a re-conquering spree.  I don't think Jarrod saw the threat quickly enough and sat on his race on turn too long, and as a result during his inevitable decline turn, he only scored three points.

In the end, I won, but only by 12 points.  Considering this was his first game and at one point I was outgaining him by double-digit margins, that's pretty damned impressive for a first timer.

Like I said, review to follow below.  Let's get to the other games played first.




Quarriors_ContentsFinally got to dig into the "dice-building" hotness with a couple of 3-player games of Quarriors!

It was pretty much as I expected, a very light battle game with dice and deck-building options.  And you know what?  It's a lot of fun.

There's no denying how cool all those dice are.  If you know me, you know I love dice.  So opening that tin and seeing 130 custom dice was pretty amazing.

Getting past that, the game really does play pretty much as I expected.  On your turn, first you score any creatures that are left in front of you from your previous turn.  Each creature has a glory rating, and if they survive a full round,, you get that many points.  You are also allowed to cull (place back in the middle of the table) a die from discard for every creature you score.  You take six dice from your bag and roll them.  You'll either roll "Quiddity" (the game's currency), creatures, or special icons.  You can use your special icons immediately, some special abilities offer re-rolls, and you can pay Quiddity to summon the creatures that you've rolled.

Then, any creatures you have attack all of your opponents.  Tally up your total strength and each opponent who has creatures must use their creatures to soak up the attack.  So if I manage to get 5 attack, you have to kill off up to 5 points worth of defense on your critters.  You can "absorb" leftover damage with tougher dice--so if you're facing 3 attack versus your creature with 5 defense, then that damage is absorbed by that creature, and it isn't killed off.

At this point, you can use any leftover Quiddity to buy one die from the center of the table.  What's cool is that each die has many cards that it could potentially be tied to, and during setup this is determined randomly.  We played two games and only had one creature that was a repeat, which was cool.  What that means is that you may have a green die with six faces, but based on the card that gets dealt for it, those faces will have different powers (and different costs to purchase.)

You take the purchased die and add it to your discard pile, and your turn is done.  If you ever need to draw and you don't have enough dice in the bag, you reshuffle your discard pile into your bag.

Based on the number of players, you play to a given point level.  You keep going, buying and culling dice, summoning creatures, attackingQuarriors-Dice4 your opponents, and trying every trick you can to keep your creatures around long enough to score.

I've heard complaints that the game isn't very deep, and I can sort of see that argument.  There isn't as much going on here as there are in a lot of other deckbuilders, and there are fewer chain combos and mixing of powers as you're probably used to seeing.

The price issue doesn't help, as having that many dice in the game was likely very expensive to manufacture.  I guess some may feel that the weight of the gameplay doesn't match the price tag; that's a peril with any light game that also happens to be well-produced.

Even so, I found my first two games of this to be a blast.  We were tossing dice, summoning the biggest creatures we could, cheering when we'd roll a dragon face, groaning when an opponent popped a spell that ruined someone's plans for the turn.

It's a keeper for me at this point, for sure.  The different cards/different dice thing is pretty genius and adds variety to each game.

I don't know if this game is going to win over any people who were already anti-deckbuilder, and the randomness of the dice rolling may put off some other players.  But it's the perfect combination of components and mechanics for certain gamers, and it deserves the success that it found so far.

There's talk that the culling mechanic results in "rich get richer."  Two thoughts on that--it forces players to get off their ass and try their best to score, and the game is short enough that who cares?  Next game, roll better.  End of story.



Ascending Empires

AscendingEmpires_BoxThis was all the rage with a few of the fellas at Trashfest South.  I watched a session that was played on Frank Brahnam's custom board, but I'm not going to lie...I wasn't really taken with what I saw.

I think either Josh or Chris told me I was sleeping on a good game, so I did promise that I would at some point give it a try.

I'm glad I did.

My brother picked up a copy in his big birthday order, and we finally got to bust this out.

We played a three-player map which had the asteroids mixed in, and as you would kinda figure, almost every one of the asteroids ended up next to me.  That sucks because they provide no technology.  But back to that in a minute.

Ascending Empires is a weird mixture of empire building, resource management, and...disc flicking.  That was the part I think that was putting me off so much.  I dig dexterity games in very limited bursts; Crokinole, Kineti-Go, and Sorry Sliders! are cute, but they're not my "go-to" kind of games.

Players have one action per turn, and on your turn you have a selection of options.  They involve moving your ships (by flicking them), trying to get them into the orbit of planets, so you can settle them.  Once settled, you can build resource centers, cities, or place new troops there when they're recruited.

You can also research technology that makes your ships better, or give you bonuses for certain actions, lots of different techs.  Four different branches with four levels each.  To access them, you need research centers on the appropriately-colored planets.

It's not all building and settling, as your ships can shoot down other ships if you get a pair of them in range of an enemy ship.  You can also ram other ships, removing you both from the map.  If you get the right tech, you get access to a big battleship, this (relatively) huge honking ship disc that can mow down enemies like crazy.

You can also attack other players settlements by bringing enough ship strength into their orbits.  If you do, all their hard work will be lost, and the planet will be empty and ripe for the taking.

The game has a great pace, since each player only has one action.  We started off very, very slowly as we figured out what our different options did, but by the end of the game, we were knocking down our turns very, very quickly.

We did miss a rule--SHOCKING~!--in that we did not see that only one of a player's planets could have two research centers on them.  This is important because to get a level four technology, it's not a matter of going up in increments, but you need four research centers on the matching color planet to make that level 4 tech.

Jarrod had multiple planets with two research centers on them, so he got strong tech early, and raced off to a big lead.  A lot of that had to do with the bonus a player gets for being the first to discover a particular technology--you get bonus VPs equal to the level of that tech.  So he was raking in VPs off that when he shouldn't have been able to do it that quickly.

Regardless, we had a blast.  Even with the quick-paced turns, you're itching for your next turn, agonizing over which ONE thing you get to do before your opponents react.  There's going to be so many things you want to do--recruit troops, get those ships launched, send a fleet over to take down an opponent's holdings, build cities and research centers...but you only get one action a pass, so you have to make it count.

I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would.  The flicking part simply isn't as big a deal as you expect as soon as you see the game.  It's an important part, but far, far from the only part.  That's a significant distinction.

What's kind of a bitch is that you have to be so careful about cardboard tile warping.  Jeremy's copy didn't have any bad warping but there were just a couple of spots where it wasn't quite flush, so we had to watch those spots carefully.  I think so long as you keep it bagged and the little Silica gel packets inside, you will be fine.

My brother's already talking about making a custom board.  I wonder how difficult it is to make one with just the right amount of "play" for flicking?

Anyway, a great game, and folks should definitely check it out.




Good ol' Nightfall, the game that has quickly become a staple of our game days.  We didn't end up playing this one for four hours like lastNF_Martial_Law time; this time we settled for one game, a three-player brawl.

This was the first time Jarrod had gotten to try the expansion cards from Martial Law.  After looking them over, he was pretty impressed, as the new cards add a lot of variety and spice.

I latched on quickly to a ferocious chain that started red; once they stopped leaving me red, I added a blue and a purple that chained into red.  I was tossing out massive creatures, including the new vampire enchantress who steals other players creatures.

I did this one turn and stole a Zombie Horde, who on my side was a whopping 10 (!) strength.  Sadly, she was taken down by some direct damage before the Horde could swing.

The big chains put me in the lead, but also put a big target on my head.  Finally, they broke through my defenses one turn, and I took I think four wounds at once.

I was still in it, getting ready to lay an unblockable Alton Hickman/Martial Law big wound pump on somebody, but Jeremy handed out the last wound before I could get another turn.  The scores were tallied, and I had lost by ONE STINKING WOUND!  Not cool, man.  Not cool!

Every time I play Nightfall, my resolve weakens a little more, and I want to call it bar none the best of the deckbuilders.  It's interactive, full of tons of cool card combos, and no two games play exactly the same.

Once Nightfall: Blood Country comes out, I'll probably be totally gone.  Nightfall is definitely one of my favorite games released this year, and one of the only ones I can think of that might--MIGHT--sway someone who is anti-deckbuilder.  MIGHT.

It really is that good; it's the closest of all the deckbuilders to feeling like an old-school CCG, and I mean that in the best way possible.



Sylla_BoxI used to occasionally run blog entries entitled "Euros that Don't Suck." If I still did those, Sylla would easily join those hallowed ranks.

Sylla covers the oh-so-rarely covered Roman empire from the time of Sylla; the building of great Roman works, and the advent of Christianity.

Hey, wake up!  I know that doesn't sound so gripping.  Let me explain why I like it.

The game is mostly about using a selection of characters and buildings to earn fame, influence, and power.  You also use your characters and money to contribute to the building of great works, also earning you even more fame and power.  Sounds boring, right?

Well, there are also nasty disasters that threaten Rome, including Slave Revolts and Senate Purges (that card has a cool image of a Senator lying in a corner, bleeding profusely.)  All the while you're collecting certain types of tokens, and trying to manipulate which disasters do and don't happen; you want those things that will hurt your opponent more than you to happen, while working to prevent those things that would ruin your hard-earned plans.  (Thought I have to admit, it is really, really weird to say, "I'll use this Vestal Virgin to help prevent the Eruption."  What a cocktease.)

The game has a nice mix of card drafting, bidding, a little bit of negotiation, some screwage, but best of all, enough randomness in how the characters, tiles, and disasters come up to keep the game from being a deterministic solvable bore-fest.

It was only my first play of the game, but I see a lot to like in it.  I look forward to playing it again.  Hey, we're allowed to latch on to the occasional Euro, right?  Right?


That wrapped up our game, that was one of the better ones in quite some time.  Not a stinker in the bunch.


BONUS GAME!:  Nostra City --

We squeezed in a game of this at lunch yesterday with four players.  Tension was high as after the first reveal of evidence, there wereNostra_City_Gangsteralready "thumbs down" icons in the stash.  Two of them, in fact.

Roxanne pointed fingers at Jeremy immediately, but he was pretty flustered, as he'd only put one negative bill in there.  (There was no denying that two of us were not snitches, as we had no Vendetta cards.)  The notion of a snitch getting angry because he wasn't the one that did all the snitching is pretty hilarious.

We figured we were toast as we only had a short time to turn the trial of the boss around, but the final three turns saw the whammy of The Feds, the IRS, and the NYPD keeping us "good" gangsters down.  We were unable to deal with two of those fast enough and suffered -2 to the bosses innocence thanks to that.

The last turn, I did manage to do a cool trick where my only wiseguy had a power if he was alone in an auction, he could untap afterward.  I used him to nab another gangster.  Then, with the help of a Vendetta card, was able to put SIX points worth of "positive" evidence on the boss all in the last turn.

Only one more problem--in order to reign Jeremy in, we'd started deliberately cheating each other to get Vendetta cards to mess him up.  Big mistake, as the final turn saw Lane also turn into a snitch.  He didn't have time to do a lot with it, but it did mean he wasn't putting in any evidence to help us that last turn.

The trial wrapped up, and the boss was BARELY found guilty (literally--the track was at -1.)  Jeremy had the higher VPs out of the two snitches and won the game.

We talked about it afterward and still couldn't figure out what happened.  Jeremy had only put one negative in the evidence, but two were in there when they were revealed.  He was the only snitch at that point.  Roxanne later confided in Jeremy that she saw his face when he drew the snitch card and knew right away what had happened, so had slipped in a negative bill to incriminate him.

Did I mention we lost by one freaking point?  Brilliant Roxanne....brilliant.

It also occurred to me later that mechanically, Nostra City and Sylla are somewhat similar.  Both games have you drafting guys, gaining money, and using your guys to improve your position, or work together to collectively deal with threats.  Sure, there are differences as well--no "traitor" in Sylla, no cards to directly screw other players, things like that--but there is definitely a similar feel.  It's as if one is just on this side of the AT divide, while Sylla is on the Euro side.

I would almost say if you liked one, you would probably like the other; and I'm not sure there's a need to own both.  My brother has Nostra City and I have Sylla, so we're definitely covered.  Good games, both of them.


And now...on with today's Main Review!



They Made a Vow Their Mother Would Be Found


SWU_contentsWhat do you get if you mix the light civ/conquest game Vinci with some silly fantasy art and crazy powers?  You get Small World, a massive runaway hit for Days of Wonder.  What do you then get if you add some cool stuff that really enhances the game, mix in some rich art, and even more fantasy/geek in-jokes?  You get Small World Underground, which is basically Small World 1.5.  But that's not a bad thing exactly.

The Small World games have players choosing from among randomly paired race and special powers, from which point they'll receive a supply of cardboard troops.  They'll use those troops to have their race move onto the board, signaling the dawning of the era of a new race.

Conquering territories is a pretty simple formula; it requires two troops + one troop for each "piece of cardboard" that's in a territory.  If those pieces of cardboard happen to be enemy troops, then those tokens will be removed, one of them returned permanently to the box, and the rest returned to that opponent.

Because you'll have a limited number of troops, eventually you'll be unable to conquer any longer.  One big difference between Small World and Vinci is that if it's your last conquest for the turn, you can roll a die for a temporary strength boost that might give you enough points to conquer one last territory.

After this, you earn one VP per territory you control; some races grant you bonus points for holding particular types of terrain.  Then you can collect all but one troop from each of your lands and redistribute them defensively, awaiting the turn of another would-be conquerer.

Players take turns doing this, trying to both maximize their conquering abilities, earning lots of points, and knocking opponents off of spaces that are granting them lots of points.  Eventually, either through attrition or being stretched thin, a player will need to put their old race "in decline", making them inactive and choosing a new race, at the expense of pretty much their entire turn.  A timely decline means all the difference in the world, as you'll bounce back on the next turn with a fresh race and a fat stack of tokens to do some more conquering.

What's cool is that Small World solves the problem that many conquest games have, in that boards are rarely balanced for different numbers of players.  Small World Underground includes two double-sided boards, and you use a different side based on the number of players you have.  The five-player board is a massive quad-fold board with tons of space, while the 2-player map is only half that size and will have both players in each other's face immediately.  I really can't stress enough how this setup solves this issue that plagues so many other conquest games that end up only being truly good with certain numbers of players.

Anyway, so far so good, same old Small World, right?

Not so fast.  Underground adds several new twists to the game that having played them, make it tough to want to go back to vanilla SmallSmallWorldLizard World.

The addition of Relics and Places is brilliant.  How this is handled is during map setup, certain territories have monster tokens added to them.  These are, for all intents and purposes, neutral units that must be conquered.  Once a monster-infested space has been cleared, a player draws from a face-down stack of Relics and Places.  At that point, it will either be a Relic, which your army will be able to carry around and use on the map; or it will be a Place, something that stays in place and grants an ability to whoever owns that space.  If you discover it but get knocked off that space, now your opponent is getting the benefit.

To give you an example, the Flying Doormat is a relic that allows you to fly over and attack any territory.  When you do this, the carpet goes with you, to be used on a future turn.  By contrast the Fountain of Youth is a place, and if you own the territory where it is located, you get to take a bonus race token from the tray at the end of your turn.

The reason these are so great is that they focus the attacking actions in the game.  Before, it was generally turn after turn of opportunistic but otherwise random land-grabbing.  If you had a race that keyed off of a particular terrain you might go for that, but otherwise, it was basically a matter of maximizing the tokens you have.

You still have that need to use your race wisely, but Relics and Places key the action on the board to specific locations.  This causes the game to have a flow as certain territories become way more attractive than others, just based on the real in-game benefit of holding them.

Small World Underground also improves on the old game in terms of the art, which due to the underground theme has much more in the way of rich, dark hues.  I know the silly artwork isn't to everyone's taste.  I get that some people aren't keen on "funny" fantasy games to begin with (even though I will never understand this--not every game needs to have a grim-faced wizard, standing grimly, casting grim spells against a grimly enraged dragon.)  I mean, I know that so many bad games try to rely on humor to carry them; but this has a solid engine underneath in the form of Vinci.  This isn't a crappy game trying to earn a few gamer bucks by randomly tossing in buck-toothed Paladins.

SWU_Scoring_ExampleI also know that the deterministic combat isn't everyone's cup of tea.  But for the weight of game that it is, I think it works fine.  I love dice as much as the next guy--probably more--but I don't need EVERY game I own to have combat decided by dice.  I really don't.  Even so, there's a die in there for adding tension to that last conquest of every turn.  You'll still get to hoot an holler when that last troop, against all odds, rolls a 3 and kills off that pair of troops in that last territory.

In short, Small World Underground is a great, light game of conquest and crazy powers that you can pack into 90 minutes or less, easily.  It's the usually wonderfully awesome high-quality production that Days of Wonder is known for, with high quality art, thick tiles, and a beautifully illustrated pair of mounted boards.

I do have a couple of complaints.  First, I was hoping for a more elegant way for this new game to mix with the older stuff; instead, you get a blurb in the Underground rulebook that basically says, "treat certain terrains as the same types from the base game" and "if a piece uses a power that's not on the map, don't use it."  I was really hoping for something better than that.  It's not a big deal, but if you've been collecting all the Small World stuff, it's something to be aware of, in that you may be conditionally adding only some of the stuff to your games depending on which map you used.

The other complaint is that this really does obsolete the first game.  You're getting races that are roughly analagous to those in the base game in terms of getting bonus VPs from certain territories.  You're also getting a mixture of new powers that are different than those in the base game, but unless you're just super-attached to Dragon-Riding Halflings (which admittedly are pretty cool), you're going to do just fine with this version.  The addition of Relics, Places, and Neutral troops really does enhance the game and help focus the conflict to certain portions of the map, making the game much more strategic.

If you've got family that want to play conquest games with you, or you and your regular game group need a good, light battle game for a game night starter or ender, this is your game.  I don't see it as ever being a "Main Event" game, but then again, I'm pretty certain it's not designed to be.

What it is; a great, fast-playing battle game with lots of interaction and tons of conflict.  Despite the potential turn-off of the sillier fantasy art, there's a great game underneath.

I recommend Small World Underground pretty highly.  If you're new to the series, this is your jumping in point.  If you're a die-hard fan, be aware that the fit of this new stuff isn't quite seamless into the old, and is going to depend on which map you play on.

Thumbs up, another winner from Days of Wonder.  It might seem to be milking the franchise cow, but there's enough new stuff in here to definitely make it worth your while.





And that's going to do it for me this week.  As always, comments and feedback are welcome.  'Til then, I'll see ya in seven.



There Will Be Games

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