Build a circuit, make a fortune, or find a monster - the choice is yours in this edition of Barnes on Games.
Matt Leacock is, of course, best known for designing the blockbuster Pandemic and its residuals but his "Forbidden" series of co-op games at Gamewright are well worth playing. His latest, Forbidden Sky, is no different and it boasts a wonderfully novel concept that I imagine he came up with while playing with one of those kids' Snap Circuits sets. The idea is that players are stranded on an array of aerial gangways and platforms during an intensifying storm, searching for an escape rocket that also needs to be powered up to launch. In keeping with the other Forbidden titles (and Pandemic for that matter) each player represents a specialist with, of course, a special ability. And you are gonna need 'em, because this is a dangerous game that wants to kill you, blow you off the platforms, or both.
It is essentially a tile-laying game with the goal of combining tiles to set up a network of capacitors and lightning rods. Then you must wire it all up- using actual electrical components- to the launch pad, which also must be discovered and built from four tiles. All while moving your character around, ducking into Faraday Cages to avoid lightning strikes or using Wind Shelters to avoid the high winds that threaten to blow you off the platforms should you run out of rope points. If you succeed in connecting everything (with higher levels of difficulty requiring more capacitors and lighting rods), the rocket ship lights up and makes some fun sounds and you win.
This is a neat game- which is ironic because it is so sloppy. The concept is great, and it does feel like an evolution of Mr. Leacock's previous designs with a fun and effective element of novelty. But I don't feel the development has really panned out with this design for a couple of reasons including some production and usability issues as well as a capricious sense of difficulty that is not uncommon among co-ops, but especially pronounced in this title.
As much as I like all of the electric components, they never seem to fit right and there's a good amount of finger-fiddling to get the wires and contact points together. The wire pieces seem too large, and the too-small tiles are governed by a somewhat odd rule about how you only have to match up a wire to another wire to place a tile regardless of its other depicted features- which makes the board visually difficult to read at times. This all impacts gameplay because it is actually quite difficult in the early going to figure out where exactly you should put elements so that you can make the complete circuit needed to win.
The production results in a game that feels needlessly ramshackle, but the design also has a ramshackle quality to it that makes me wonder if this design isn't quite complete. It does not feel properly balanced or refined, especially in terms of the overall difficulty. This is one of those co-ops where you are more likely to lose from a bad sequence of cards than from errors, lack of coordination, and bad choices.
This is something of an issue because the fatality rate is high- and not because of bad player choices or lack of coordination but because this is one of those co-ops where the sequencing of random draws can often determine success or failure. The heart of this issue is twofold- one problem is that the game is dependent on farming the stack of tiles for the right pieces, especially the four-piece rocket launch pad which then has to placed correctly as part of the network, which also requires moving characters around and coordinating placement as well as wiring actions Finding these four tiles earlier results in a far easier game than finding them later - if you find them at all.
The other key problem is also draw-related, and this is in the storm deck. At the end of each turn, the player draws cards from this deck that result in damaging lightning strikes for all characters not protected in some way, high winds that may blow characters to adjacent tiles or off the platform, a change in wind direction, or an increase in the intensity of the storm. As the storm intensifies, more cards must be drawn per turn. This can turn into situations where players are losing two or three HP or rope points in one storm draw - and they may be looking at multiple turns like this before their chance to act comes around. I understand the point of the intensification - it creates a sense of escalating time pressure - but that pressure winds up crushing the game rather than sparking it along.
It's true that character abilities work to mitigate some of these issues- the medic heals, the knotmaster gives rope back, the engineer wires for free and so forth- but I've found that the challenge is definitely not of the satisfying variety. It's more frustrating, especially at lower player counts where you just don't seem to have enough bodies to do everything that has to be done to win and the storm reaches greater intensities faster.
Forbidden Sky just doesn't quite work. I appreciate that it's trying something a little different and it's undeniably cool. But it needs some stronger development to get off the ground.
My favorite train game remains Glenn Drover's distillation of Martin Wallace's Age of Steam, Railways of the World (formerly Railroad Tycoon). The game itself isn't nearly as complicated as all that, rather it is a fairly simple and accessible design that rests a bit north of Ticket to Ride and a bit south of 18xx. So it was almost by default that Mr. Drover's new design Railroad Rivals caught my eye chiefly because it offers the one thing that Railways of the World lacks - stock investing, manipulation, and speculation. But this is a very different kind of rail game, a more abstract and very high-level take on the subject matter. I am reminded somewhat of last year's minimalist Mini Rails, but I think this is a better game that offers a bit more for players to bite into.
This is a tile-laying design with a little drafting involved. Each player represents an investor, and every round starts with players choosing a City Tile and a Stock Tile. The city tiles have connections on each side for the 12 different real-world rail companies represented. The stocks, of course, correspond to these companies and in proper train game fashion making deliveries on these lines increases the value of each share. After drafting, players then place one of their City Tiles onto the board, connecting sides with matching companies and claiming that "line" between locations with one of their trains. Cities also get a couple of goods tokens. Then, each player makes a delivery across one line, with the VP value of each subsequent good type decreasing. Turn order is hugely significant in this game, and the next round kicks of with bidding points to get in front of the line.
There are some quite neat things going on here. One is that the map is obviously not fixed, and the viability of routes is wholly dependent on how the placement of the tiles shakes down. Yet there is still a rough sense of regional geography in how certain lines rune between certain cities. Another is that the speculative element gives you just enough information to try to make informed strategic decisions. If you are holding a couple of tiles with good connections for B&O, ATSF, or Union Pacific then this can help guide you toward more City Tiles with those sides and toward stock drafts to exponentially increase their values. Of course, you can also invest in rails that you have no routes for if you see the opposition making lucrative connections and bumping the shares along the track.
However, what this game is missing is a sense of drama and engagement. It feels a bit more passive and arms-length than other train designs, mostly due to its higher level approach. It also seems that most of the game's friction is in that bidding for turn order and not so much in any kind of placement, opportunistic plays, or challenging developments. Another demerit is that the connections are all tile-to-tile. There's no actual route-building, which I particularly enjoy. There's a small "first edition expansion" that adds a Water Tower for each player allowing cities to act as a hub for two-space runs and I can't imagine playing without that, if only because it adds a touch of what I crave there. I'm also not fond of the fact that VPs are the measure here and not MONEY. I want this kind of game to make me rich, not shower me with VPs.
It's a minor nomenclature thing, really- in fact, my gang never said "VPs" or "score" or anything like that and we just said dollars the whole time anyway. This is a good game, a solid design, and a fun take on a simplified train game but I'm finding that I'd rather just invest about twice this game's 30-45 minute running time toward another game of Railways of the World. For those who may be new to stock market mechanisms and the concept of manipulating value by developing point-to-point delivery connections, this might be a good option that is also very family-friendly. More serious train gamers are not likely to find the competition or engagement that comes from more complex games in the genre but it's clear that is not this design's agenda of offering a "fast paced tycoon game" per the tagline.
I am notoriously bad at deduction and logic games, but nonetheless I thought Osprey's Cryptid looked like a fun choice. The idea is that you've got to find where a cryptid- that is, a mysterious and previously unknown creature like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster- resides on a map depicting various terrain types Players are each given one clue - generally a piece of information confirming the cryptid's residence as being in or near certain terrain features, some of which are randomly placed in setup to ensure variety from play to play. In an advanced mode, there are also clues that exclude proximities and correlations.
On a turn, you usually Question another player if the cryptid could live in a selected space based on the clue they have. If it is a possible habitat, the player that was asked places a disc. If it is not, then a cube is placed and the asking player must also place one of their cubes on a space that is also not possible based on their clue. The other option is to Search, which means you confirm a space with one of your discs and then ask everyone at the table if that space is possible. If no one places a cube, then you have discovered the only possible spot on the board that could be the cryptid's lair and you win.
The mechanisms of questioning, confirming, and triangulating are simple, but very effective and smartly considered. It's an easy game, implemented well and offering some appealingly brainy play. It's about 45 minutes, which is appropriate for the type of game it is and it could hold some appeal to nongamers as it is very light in terms of processes or strictures.
But what Cryptid lacks is drama. The stakes feel low. There is little tension, especially with players who are at least attentive to the give and take of information that goes on over the course of the game. By the endgame, most players will have a reasonable idea of where the correct space is and it becomes a matter of who either connects all the dots or makes an accurate presumptive guess. Although the game reminds me of the minor cult classic Tobago, I'd be inclined to reach for that game over Cryptid if only it were more widely available. Regardless, Cryptid is a very well made and well-presented design that looks and plays light but offers a mostly satisfying deductive experience at least in terms of drawing conclusions and making logical connections. Our very own Matt Thrower has offered up his thoughts on the game here at TWBG as well for those interested in a counterpoint.
Review copies for this piece were kindly supplied by Gamewright, Forbidden Games, and Osprey Games- special thanks to these folks for their support of quality games writing and criticism. ThereWillBe.Games never accepts payment or editorial direction from any publisher or designer.
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