This week's NEXT OF KEN comes to you live and on the road as I'm travelling with the family on vacation. Luckily, I squeezed in a few minutes between the "ARE WE THERE YETs?" to review two games from smaller publishers--Third and Long: The Football Game and Sentinels of the Multiverse. Join us, won't you?
Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
Yep, on the road this week doing a little family vacationing. There's something about taking family vacations--you've got the high levels of stress getting packed, getting everyone ready, then those long car drives where you're about to tear your hair out, thinking "WHY DID WE AGREE TO DO THIS?!?" Then you get to the hotel, get settled in, the kids are having a blast, and all the stress is suddenly and totally forgotten. Until the next time you're foolish enough to try the whole thing again, of course.
Luckily for all of my avid fans (hi Mom!), I'm checking in with two reviews of solid games from smaller publishers. While I do often cut smaller publishers a bit more slack, this week I'm pleasantly surprised to say that neither of these games required any sort of conditional mercy.
So let's dive right in, eh? I've got kids clamoring to go to the indoor wave pool here!
Coach Says I'm Real Good, Best Kid In The Neighborhood
Third and Long: The Football Card Game does the unthinkable--there's no board, no tracking of yards or downs, and yet, it manages to deliver a satisfying experience that very much feels like football with realistic football scores--all with only a deck of cards, and inside an hour to boot.
The game eschews the play-by-play grind of your average game and focuses on those "key moments"--those plays that truly have the chance to make a difference in a game. Instead of toughing it out through those 1st down "three yards and a cloud of dust", you get down to those almost cinematic moments with dramatic catches, big tackles, fancy footwork, and highlight reel bone-jarring hits. It's brilliant in how it manages to abstract so many elements of a game of football, and yet captures the essence of the game very well.
Players have a small selection of players. Instead of an entire squad, you've got the stars of your team, those players who really make a difference. The meat and potatoes of the game is the play selection process, where the offense will choose from one of 9 plays and the defense one of their 6, and from that pairing a one-on-one matchup will be determined, along with which stats to use for the current play.
Each side is free to play action cards to help the play succeed, or stop the offense cold. There are also action cards that can cause interceptions and fumbles, penalties, break open the current play for BIG results, and more.
The deck itself is the timer, and each exhaustion of the deck signals the end of the quarter. Four quarters, the game's done, the whistle blows, and only one team will emerge the winner (with overtime, if necessary.)
I've got to say that the designer's ability to abstract as much of this game as he did is brilliant. What you're left with is a game that gives you a satisfying football feeling, with scores that feel like real football, but portable, fast-playing, and decidedly non-fiddly. To be honest, this is the depth and ease of play I'd wished that Card Football had possessed.
There are a few negatives. While the player cards have nice art, the action cards have no illustrations at all. Given that some of the cards are pretty busy with the random numbers, game text, and the scoring results, this is not as bad as it might initially seem. While the numeric action cards have names like "Juke Move" and "Hears Footsteps", ultimately they're just flavor, as they boil down to whatever value they're contributing to the current play.
The lack of yardage too means that you'll never have a 3rd and 7 where the defense can prep for the pass. Since a successful play has the same result regardless of type, that leaves the game more reliant on the matchups between players. Personally, I don't mind that as much because you get some interesting 'double-guessing' games--should I use my power running back even if my opponent expects it? Or should I dump a short pass over him, expecting him to crowd the box to contain my running game? There's even an additional layer here to the rock/paper/scissors, as often you can have the "wrong" play called on defense, but end up better off by getting one of your stronger players involved on the play instead.
Still, what you're getting is a fast n' fun game of football. I'll give you an example of a game between my wife and I. For the first half of play, she was outguessing me and judiciously using her action cards and ran up a 17-0 lead at halftime. The halftime refresh of hand cards left me with better options, and I started catching on to some play-calling patterns. She only had one more field goal for the rest of the game, while I racked up two touchdowns to make it 20-14.
With the clock winding down, I was able to force a punt, and then drive down to the last key moment card, using time-outs to prolong those final seconds when the game would ordinarily have ended. During the drive I had played a "He Breaks Loose" for a Touchdown, only to look back and see a Penalty Flag (Holding, I imagine) that brought the play back. A last flurry of cards on that last key moment, and she won that final play by 1 point, stopping me just shy of the endzone as time expired. You could literally imagine the ball-carrier stretching, reaching, struggling for the score, only to be valiantly tackled at the last minute.
For football fans, Third and Long is fast, fun, affordable, and completely satisfying to play. Purists may miss some of the elements that ended up being abstracted, and I do wish there were more teams and players to choose from, but this is a solid effort that's a completely enjoyable and does some creatively cool stuff. If you're a big fan of the pigskin, it would be silly to pass this up.
No Man Could Understand, My Power Is In My Own Hands
Superhero board games have sort of had a rough ride, with very few gems to speak of. Enter Sentinels of the Multiverse, a co-operative superpowered beatdown that succeeds where many games of this type have failed.
Players have their choice of one of 10 superheroes, each obviously inspired by more famous comic book characters. For example, you've got characters like Legacy, a super-strong flyer who bears more than a few similarities to a certain Kryptonian, or Bunker, a guy in an armored suit that's loaded to the gills with advanced weapons. It's pretty easy to flip through the decks and spot who many of these characters are based on.
Once the players have their heroes chosen and their team assembled, it's time to select one of four powerful villains to take down. They can face Baron Blade, a crazed scientist; Omnitron, a sentient robot that is capable of generating endless mechanical henchmen; Citizen Dawn, leader of a group of superpowered "citizens" intent on world domination by those with powers; and Grand Warlord Voss, an evil alien overlord who wants to take over the Earth.
These villains have their own decks, along with a double-sided card showing their HP and powers. There's also a card for each villain that acts somewhat like an AI card, triggering the villain's card flipping under certain circumstances, granting them additional powers, and more.
Once you've chosen a villain, then you'll choose one of four locations where the battle takes place, from the depths of Atlantis to the surface of Mars. There's a location-specific deck for each, where events will also affect the battle.
Now set-up is complete, and you're ready to rumble. First, the villain acts by flipping over his top card and taking whatever action the card indicates. Depending on the villain, it may be henchmen who show up, or protective gear, or an extra powerful attack. Each villain's cards have a different flavor--Citizen Dawn is more likely to bring additional superpowered Citizens into the fray, while Baron Blade will use his variety of inventions to thwart the hero.
Then the heroes get a chance to act in turn. Heroes may play 1 card, then use 1 power of a card in play, then draw a card. Sounds simple, but defeating the bad guy will require effective use of each hero's strengths. And while you want to pound on the head nacho, his henchmen or devices may require taking out first, and as the threats pile up, the heroes are going to have their hands full.
After all heroes have had their turns, the environment deck has its effect. The top card is flipped similar to the villain's deck, and things happen based on where you're fighting. The ancient defenses of Atlantis may come to life and fire indiscriminately on friend and foe alike, or a dinosaur could come tearing out of the jungle...it brings the surroundings of the battle to life.
This continues until either the heroes defeat the villain, or the villain wins through KO'ing all the heroes or through another special victory condition. For example, if Baron Blade gets 15 cards in his discard pile before his villain card is flipped, then he successfully uses his device to send the moon crashing into the earth--game over.
What's good about Sentinels? It's a fast-playing game of super-powered brawling that does a fantastic job of bringing the four-colored universe of spandex-clad superbeings to life. With 575 (!!!) cards consisting of 10 heroes, 4 villains, and 4 environments, every game is going to have plenty of variety. There are heroes for each type of player. Legacy is a straightforward brawler, while the Visionary is better in a support role, providing her teammates cards. Wraith is all about projectile weapons and gadgets, outsmarting her more powerful foes. Bunker has mode-switching cards that let him funnel cards into additional power-ups or supercharged attacks.
The artwork by Adam Rebottaro is especially crisp, vibrant, and well-done. They capture the comic book style perfectly. I love the art design and look forward to more.
What's not as good? First up is the fact the game makes very little effort to scale. 2 players will have a very difficult time taking on the baddies, where 5 players is a cakewalk. You can solve this by giving the villain an additional action phase in between the third and fourth player's turn, but this is definitely an unfortunate oversight.
The box? While I love the artwork on the box, I'm left questioning who thought this tiny box was a good idea. Once you unshrink the massive number of cards, the only way to get them back in the box is just to pile them in stacks and cram them in there with little organization. And if you want to sleeve it? Forget it. They're not going back in there.
This is compounded by the fact the game gives you no way to track the hit points of heroes and villains. The rulebook suggests pen and paper, but I say like most others have just grab some ten siders to help you track health. But that's even more stuff to put in the box, so while the art on the box is cool, the box itself is damned useless for storing the game and the stuff you'll need to play it.
Lastly, because the game's villain is fueled by a semi-random AI, they're going to do bone-headed things sometimes that will take you out of the moment. We played a game where Baron Blade's first action was to heal himself of 10 damage...while he was immune to damage and hadn't taken a single point yet.
Still, this is a problem that plagues a lot of AI systems for co-ops, and with the additional card that gives the villains certain powers and conditions for flipping, it's still a decent system.
What it feels like is a Final Fantasy battle against an end boss, albeit an end boss that is prone to occasionally strange, random behavior. BARON BLADE summons MOBILE DEFENSE PLATFORM! LEGACY attacks...0 damage! WRAITH uses projectile attack on MOBILE DEFENSE PLATFORM! 5 damage! BARON BLADE heals himself for 10 HP! It's not very effective!
The sheer amount of cards, the potential for teamwork, and the different playstyles offered by the various heroes makes this a winner in my book. In fact, after playing this, it made it extremely difficult to go back to Lord of the Rings LCG's clumsy, lurching, 7-phase based gameplay, and I traded away my cards for that soon afterward. Sure, I'll miss the customization, but with 10 heroes and plenty of room for expansion, I think I can make do. The gameplay is fast and furious, the heroes will have to work together like any great superhero team to get the job done, and there's enough variety to keep things fresh for quite awhile.
Another great, enjoyable effort from a smaller publisher this week. Sentinels of the Multiverse is a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to playing this even more.
And that's going to do it for another episode of NEXT OF KEN. Tune in next week, where I'll be doing ENTRY #2 in KEN B.'s AMERITRASH HALL OF FAME...you KNOW you want to be here for that. Til then, I'll see ya in seven.