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  • Staff Blogs
  • Barnes on Games: A Study in Emerald in Review, Evolution: Climate, Stronghold 2nd Edition, Doomrock Returns

Barnes on Games: A Study in Emerald in Review, Evolution: Climate, Stronghold 2nd Edition, Doomrock Returns

MB Updated
Study in Emerald
There Will Be Games

'Sup, Holmes.

Man, Study in Emerald is really good. It took a couple of games for it to bring it home, but once you get a handle on its eccentricities, I think it is probably Martin Wallace's best game yet. I think it feels like a culmination of what he's been trying to do since A Few Acres of Snow. Yeah, it's deckbuilding... but it's very different than what that usually means. It's also an unusually confrontational area control game. With secret agendas, intrigue and Great Old Ones. And Sherlock Holmes! Lots going on, and this is the "streamlined" second edition. I'd like to try the original just for the sake of comparison, but I'm not sure I want this one to be any more complicated. So this is in the "love" column- review over at Miniature Market.

I've been playing a prototype of the new Climate expansion for Dom Crapuchette's Evolution, and it is really good so far. It adds a bunch of new climate-oriented trait cards to the mix of things you mutate your animals with, while pulling some out of the base game for balancing purposes. Interestingly, it doesn't mix with Flight at all but the tradeoff is that this expansion is quite a bit more extensive in terms of how it impacts the game. It adds a completely new tracking board that gauges the overall climate (obviously) and not only does this impact food supply, it also impacts animals based on their size. Small animals die in the cold, large animals die in the heat. So where the climate marker rests on a turn can have a critical effect on what traits are or are not favorable, and you've got to plan accordingly.

There are also event cards that can be triggered if the climate marker moves into specifically keyworded spaces, and there is one face-up, locked and loaded for both the "hot" side and the "cold" side. Volcanoes erupt, there are cold snaps, asteroids hit the planet. Generally effects that make it hard on living things that aren't adapted to the changes or new situations impacting food, population and size. Climate changes as a result of playing cards during the food supply phase, which adds another facet to selecting which card you throw into the pile. Not only are you looking at what you are adding to the available food, you also have to consider how the climate marker might move based on snowflake and sun icons. And of course, if you have animals with traits like Heavy Fur that thrive in the cold... maybe put a snowflake in there for your heat-loving opponents.

This all adds a compelling strategic layer to trait selection and I think it greatly enhances the sense that you are, with the other players, developing a living biosphere throughout play. Your biosphere might be in a long, protracted ice age and that will influence the kinds of animals that emerge. Or it may be hot, meaning that larger, carnivorous animals are more common. The theme of evolution now includes adapting to climate change as well as in response to other animals, and I think it feels like a richer and more complete game because of it. Rules-wise, it's only about a page worth of additions but the gain feels much greater. I got a message from Dom the other day that they are changing it somewhat to be less dramatic, which I find kind of disappointing but the track and the event cards could be pretty serious in terms of consequences. And the event cards weren't actually a part of the original design, but were added as a variant in the stretch goals for it. But they need to be there as part of the core design in my opinion, because they're great.

Dom told me that more expansions are coming and eventually some WILL allow for combining different add-ons, which is something I am very interested to see. Flight didn't really change the game dramatically or add any weight to the core game and anything that expands the game vertically without bloating it can only make this one even better.

So yeah, more Evolution is coming, and that's good because it is a great card game.

I have finally, thanks to gaming magnate Stephen Buonocore, played Stronghold. He sent over a copy of the new 2nd edition and this time I actually made it further than the rulebook, which is where I ran aground back in the second edition.

So far, so good after 1 ½ solo runs through it. I think it might be awesome except for the rules are still horrible. It seems a little smoother and a little cleaner than the previous edition (in other words, I actually understood the process of playing it from reading them) but I still found myself with furrowed brow, pouring over the rules to figure out what the hell was going on. For example- cannons. You draw a card. They shoot a cube "of the color shown". Nowhere does it specify what to do if it shows THREE CUBES. One of each? Choose one? And it was not clear at all that invader cubes are OUT OF THE GAME when spent or killed. There's like a tiny line buried in text that states that. And why does a card reference a "carpenter" when there's not even one in the game?

But get through that, and there are some brilliant things going on. I love the time trade-off in the preparation, I love the flow of seven prep rounds, seven assault rounds. I like all of the options available, I like the simple battles for advantage at the walls. The invaders have some interesting decisions in terms of focusing force or spreading out. The defender has to figure out how to marshal their resources to the right place at the right time. Lots of tension, drama and tough choices.

Definitely looking forward to exploring it more.

Out of nowhere, a box came from Poland on Saturday. In it was the new edition of Assault on Doomrock and its new expansion, Doompocalypse. Tom Stasiak of BD Games had mentioned sending me the new version last year, but I sort of forgot about it. I really liked this game a lot but felt like it needed some work, so I was pretty stoked to try it out again. There aren't that many changes, but the new expansion does a lot for the game. It adds terrain to the tactical battles, adds two new heroes (including a heavy metal bard), increases all the card decks, adds new minions and bosses, more of everything. One new ability for all of the classes, so you can choose three out of four. More crossbow axes and hilarious magical items of doom. A Cheat Code treasure card (IDKFA). Big cards for the encounters that have more detailed setups. I've played it a couple of times over the past few days and have just been, of course, beaten to death by the game. It is hard as balls, that much has not changed. But strangely, it feels fair and never capricious. On the second go-round, I think I like it even more.

Hooray, I just got word that HABA is sending me Titus Tentacle. Mexica came from MM and I'm really digging going back in time for that one. And for some reason I traded for Shadowrun Crossfire. I don't even like Shadowrun!

There Will Be Games
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of and as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #222866 19 Feb 2016 14:42
Super curious what you think of 1st edition if/when you play it! Please let us know in the forums... I have 1st and I like it but it really needs repeat plays with a group who knows WTF they're doing. I think, personally, A Study in Emerald is the true epitome of a "gamer's game." Most people decide that complexity makes a "gamer's game" but to me it's more about the subtleties the players are required to know coming in, and the delicate way they have to balance other players. Raw rules complexity doesn't make a game a "gamer's game" to me, especially if it doesn't require knowledgeable players to make it sing.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #222871 19 Feb 2016 16:21
still got dibs on Stronghold
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #222874 19 Feb 2016 18:38
Steve, the thing about it is that I would still regard ASoE as a "gamer's game" by your standard there. It took me a good three games with actual people and about three solo sessions to really get to grips with it. In fact, the first time I played it with friends it was a complete flop. Nobody really had a handle one what the hell to do, and there was in fact a lot of brow-furrowing and "I don't get it". The three people I was playing with are not really serious gamers at all, so that could have been part of it. But I also wasn't seeing the subtlety of the game, and this is DEFINITELY a game of subtlety. It isn't even really about "knowing the cards". It's more about knowing how to make use of what you have, the goals, how to manipulate the scoring AND the other players, when to make a move and when to lay low...and the whole "secret identity" thing is a lot different than in other games with this concept.

When I played it two players with someone that had played it before, it suddenly made a lot more sense. And then I started to see how those subtleties really make this a superlative game.

From what I've read of 1st edition, I'm not really sure any of the additional material is necessary. It sounds like it adds some detail, but I think the streamlining- and this is completely from a second-hand perspective- is pretty smartly done. In fact, there are a couple of elements that I think could have been left out (the zombies and vampires, for example) without "dumbing down" the game.

Anyone who thinks this game is "dumbed down" is probably pretty dumb anyway. I don't like the box art, I would say that was the big negative change. It's just silly. And seriously, could they not have included the story that you can read online for free? It would have been nice to have it in the box with the game.

Mark, I'm not decided on it yet. I _really_ like it, but it may come down to "is this game going to be played or not". It's so unique though, and I like unique for the Forever Shelf. I want to get some face to face time with it, hopefully over the weekend with a friend of mine that was all into the first edition a couple of years ago.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #222876 19 Feb 2016 21:30
I'm glad I have it, in case it ends up being the superior edition, but I'm open to the idea that 1st edition could benefit from some editing. Like... blocking discs. And the big one is cities can change hands relatively easily once they've been acquired in 1st and I don't think that's necessary.

Other "Gamer's Games" that come to mind that need experienced hands at the wheel are Splotter games or 18XX. While some of them are complicated, I think the real part that makes them hard games is how well everyone has to understand the levers they're presented with and play with some mental dexterity---giving subtle signals, preparing many turns ahead, laying the groundwork for others moves to keep the game state stable. Especially if the game can collapse. Like, Antiquity or Food Chain Magnate, for example, aren't THAT complicated. They're just incredibly delicate games that requires a table of people playing with real finesse. Same with the stock markets in the 18XX.