Hope the New Year is treating you well, gentle readers. This week, I'll talk a small bit out the plans for this years Reader's Choice awards, and delay my own retrospective of 2012 as I dig into the last few games that hit my doorstep over the last month of last year. To that end, I'll discuss two of AEG's entries in the Tempest line, the luscious Love Letter and the cubey Courtier. Join us, won't you?
So here's an update on our F:AT Reader's Choice awards. After feedback from both sides, I've decided to meet in the middle. I'll start the nomination process in early February, let that run for a week, then post the voting column. We'll have the results column the week after that, and I'll do my own awards at the end of February.
Mel Gibson's Reaction to Hawaii winning F:AT Game of the Year
This seemed the best option to hopefully please most folks. And from my own perspective I realized there are some games released at the tail-end of 2012 that I still either need to play, or play more than I have already so I can make sure my opinion of them holds up. Star Wars LCG from Fantasy Flight for example released what, four days before Christmas? Yeah.
Speakin' ta wit, I've gotta admit that I'm really digging Star Wars: The Card Game quite a bit. It's tense, fast-playing, the deck-building is a breeze, and because Star Wars. Does it have a few thematically weird things going on? Sure it does. It's also not "perfect". But it's damned fun. Expect a full write-up in the coming weeks, the likes of which I haven't really done in awhile.
Also: I think I'm about to start playing the ever-loving shit out of Mage Wars. Stay tuned for more details on that one, too.
Sailing into Tomorrow, To a Gilded Age Foretold
AEG did something very interesting about the middle of last year in announcing their new series of games linked to a common world they'd created called "Tempest." Initially, that sounded fantastic, but when I learned that most if not all of them were going to be very Euro in design, I'll admit I lost some of my enthusiasm. Even so, I still wanted to see where they took this.
The first batch of their Tempest titles arrived at my door just after Christmas, so I figured I'd dig in and find out for myself how this experiment of theirs went. We started with the lightest and are working our way up.
First up is Love Letter, the frilly little card game you've probably heard some buzz about. Easily the lightest by far of the Tempest games, Love Letter is a game made of only 16 cards. Yes, I know, that sounds ridiculous, kind of like those arguments with people about how thematic Race for the Galaxy is. Rather than that mental boner-killer though, what you'll find in Love Letter is a game that is waaaay better than it has any right to be.
The 16 cards represent various people close to the Princess (or the Princess herself) and each player is a suitor to the Princess, who is due to current events quite forlorn. I'll explain more about that one below. Each player holds on to one card at a time, and on their turn, they draw one and play one. At the end of the round, player holding the highest card wins.
Wait, where are you going? Get back here, don't be afraid of your feminine side. You see, if that's all there was, that wouldn't be much of a game. Each card though has a game effect when it's played. Some of them eliminate other players from the round based on the card in their hand, or your hand, or both. 5 of the 16 cards are Guards for example and when you play one, you name another player and a card. They secretly reveal that card to you. If that's the card they have, they're out of the round. It can often result there's only one player left before all the cards have been drawn. All's fair in love, war, and frilly card games, so that suitor is the winner of that round.
Each time a player wins a round, they get a "token of affection" (that oddly looks like a red cube, so you wonder what that says about the Princess' prowess in the bedchambers). First one to get enough tokens of affection based on the number of players is in the winner, and that suitor runs off with the Princess and they make royal babies that look vaguely if not entirely like Brad Pitt.
Seriously, the game is 16 cards. It has a rules framework that is basically the bare minimum to be considered an actual "game" (whatever that means). And yet, it is really damned fun. You'll groan when someone hits you with a Guard, or gets a lucky break against you with the Baron, or forces you to discard the Princess with the Prince--did I mention anytime you have the Princess and are forced to discard her you lose? Yeah.
You can do things like trade cards with another player, wait to see if they play it, then hit them with a Guard. Or wait until the last go-round when they're holding that high-value card and screw them out of it. You're going to laugh your ass off.
There's some big ol' lucky swings in the game, mitigated by having more than 2 for sure. Sometimes you're just going to get boned by random chance. Suck it up, the game only lasts three minutes per round tops. Yeah, you heard that right.
What a cool little game this is. Right now I think AEG is between print runs on this as it's been wildly more popular than they could have dreamed. Just wait for them to churn out more, they certainly will. Ten bucks gets you the cards, cubes, and a swank velvety pouch to put all the potential paramours in. Oh, but sleeve those puppies...the card stock is a little flimsy, and if cards start getting marked, that's bad news ("You there holding the card with the teeth marks on top? Playing Guard, guessing Prince, buh-bye. And quit eating my fucking cards.")
We move from dumb fun into the first of the more serious games, Courtier (pronounced, as best I can tell, as "Sven Jacobsen".) In terms of storyline, this one takes place before Love Letter. Rumors are brewing about the Queen as players move behind the scenes to influence the most powerful pawns around. The King grows ever more suspicious as whispers continue to flood his ears. As this build before the turmoil and eventual power vacuum, players work to secure their political future in the City-State of Tempest.
The game consists of a board with slots of influence for the titular courtiers. These powerful characters also belong to specific institutions or groups, and having control of more characters in those groups than any other player will grant you a special ability.
Your goal is to complete Petitions. These Petitions are basically a list of a varying number of these courtiers, and are worth points based on how difficult it is to complete that petition.
How do you win friends and influence people in the City-State of Tempest? Glad you asked. There are two decks, an Influence and Power deck. You will always have a hand of cards that you can play to influence the board. Most of them will place your influence markers on either specific character or your choice of a character within a particular group. At the end of your turn, you'll draw back up to your max handsize, and you can pick and choose which deck you draw from. The Influence deck is best at getting influence cubes onto the board from your supply, while the Power deck is generally filled with 'take-that' cards that allow you to shuffle cubes around, move them off the board, and so on. There are some other wrinkles including managing your supply of influence markers, but that's the basis of the game. There is a central deck of cards that act as a timer on the game, with one drawn at the completion of each petition. At some point, the bottom half of that deck will yield the "Queen is Arrested!" cards. Players will reveal their completed petitions, score points, and declare a victor.
What's to like? I like earning the special powers of the various areas and contesting control of them. This is one of my favorite parts of Alien Frontiers, and the powers are even more diverse here. Since completing petitions forces you to remove all your tokens from a character (you're cashing in your favors, essentially), many times causing you to lose the majority in a particular area, so you'll often have a tough choice to make as to when you should cash in and give up power for points.
I also like the shorter playing time. Most area control games are guaranteed 90 minute affairs, whereas once you get the rhythm of this you can knock it out in 45 minutes-1 hour, and half an hour at most with two.
I dig the two decks, with the influence deck letting you "play nice" and building for the future while the Power deck was more about sacrificing the long-term to manipulate the board right now, or to do nasty things to your opponents. Well, as nasty as "ha ha, take your two cubes off the board, good sir!" can be, anyway.
What didn't I like? First off, though I really appreciate the world-building effort, this is a case where if it weren't for the fiction online and in the instructions (plus some snippets of flavor text), the theme of what's actually going on is hard to decipher, even if you squint. It's hard to take most common Euro mechanics and make them into something that truly drives a story.
Secondly, the petition cards need some graphical help. They're just a listing of the various Courtiers needed to control and complete them, with a banner matching the color of their character group. But from across the table, it's nearly impossible to know exactly which ones are listed. They're just too hard to see from across the board, and they need to be in a central location for all players to have access to them.
Sure, you can pick them up or walk around the table to look at them, but often you're tipping your hand as to what you're going for, or worse alerting other players to potential scoring opportunities.
Last but not least because there are so many specific character cards mixed in with others that are essentially wild cards, it's really difficult to string together a strategy at first and the game seems slow to get started. I didn't mention the fact though that at the completion of each petition, the revealed event card will often fill various Courtiers with neutral cubes. What's weird is that if a Courtier is completely filled with neutral cubes, the player whose turn it is can treat that character as if they control them directly.
So what happens is players churn some cards, trying to get enough of them together and sort of grind out a little board position. Then the first event happens after the first completed petition, and the board fills up with random neutral cubes, and players start earning scores sometimes consisting almost entirely of neutrally controlled characters, which feels cheesy.
There is a "No Cheese" variant in the back of the book, but I think it would turn the game back to being grindy. Just be aware that the first score or two will be quite slow, then you'll be looking at a lot of them happening fairly quickly.
It's a narrow niche, but if you need a 45-minute area control-esque game with some attached world-building flavor, then there's Courtier. Unfortunately it's not one that's likely to hit my table very often.
That's going to do it for this week. I'm planning on a weekly schedule for the next few weeks as I cover the last of the 2012 releases, gear up for Reader's Choice, and provide my own extensive 2012 retrospective. So until next week, I'll see ya in seven.