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  • mageknightAt some point in the last 50 years, "fantasy" came to denote a certain image: elves, dwarves, and wizards who embark on a quest and have lots of big adventures. There's a certain epic sweep to fantasy, but at its core it tends to be pulpy. That basic silliness must be overcome or cast aside for a fantasy novel to really shine. The exception to goofy nature is what most people would consider the first true modern fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's classic may have many similar trappings, but its attitude is entirely different. Instead of action there are journeys. The tone is lyrical and elegiac, rather than fast-paced. As such, some modern readers find The Lord of the Rings to be curiously slow. It's not a book that is meant to be burned through. It demands something from the reader.

  • kingdom-builder-10364-pWhy hello. Take a glass, and pull up a chair. Let me tell you about my week.

    On Thursday a box arrived containing a copy of Kingdom Builder, winner of the coveted 2012 Spiel des Jahres award. That night I slotted into my well-worn groove on the settee and got down to the job of removing shrinkwrap and popping cardboard. Sadly, and perhaps surprisingly, that task gets tiresome when you’ve done it as many times as I have.

    The components are functional, but pedestrian, little wooden houses and lots of brown modular board pieces. I was reminded how unreasonably annoyed I am by the fact that Queen Games puts multiple copies of language dependent components in all their games. So after sorting I’m left with a big stack of cards in every major European language which I will never use, and a small stack of English ones. There’s a big sheaf of individual rulebooks in a babel of tongues.

    On Friday I fished the English rules out of the morass and read them. It’s very simple. Take a terrain card and place three little houses on matching hexes on the board, adjacent to your existing houses if possible. Place next to a special hex and gain either points or an extra build power. Attempt to make the best of the three scoring cards out of the ten available that are in use that particular game.

    Simple enough that I thought on seven-year old daughter could play it. So on a lazy Saturday afternoon we did just that, dust motes dancing above us in the late winter sun. “This isn’t a game I can beat you at, is it?” she asked. “Probably not” I replied, not wanting to risk disappointment. She duly lost the first game and then inevitably won the second. And the third. By the time I got up off the floor my legs were stiff from sitting cross-legged for so long.

    She liked the game, got the strategy of the simpler powers and scoring cards, like points for each building next to a river or mountain. She said she thought it was unusual, and liked the excitement of the card draw that determines where you’re allowed to build each turn. I asked her how much she enjoyed it compared to the other games of mine she’d played. Better than Carcassonne, she thought, but not as good as Wrath of Ashardalon. Sensible girl. I agree entirely.

    On Sunday I dared to have another try at the originally abysmal iPad version which I excoriated in a review. The single player version has improved considerably, fixing the slow speed and frequent crashes of the original release. But it’s still got usability issues, and I gave up trying to start the barely-functional multiplayer. Instead I played against three AI opponents who crushed me unmercifully, and demonstrated that it’s a much more interactive with more than two. The board is more cramped and you can engineer races for the best building plots. This is a good thing. I played until my fingers ached.

    I tried to confirm this that same evening by playing live on the service Brettspielwelt, the first time in years I’d been there. It didn’t go well. The client was as obtuse as I remembered, and slower. Only a community as insular as gaming would put up with such a poor tool. I did play a game, but only with two. And my opponent, who beat me handily with some clever moves, was silent when queried as to its charms. Either that or they were German.

    So on Monday night I gathered with some friends to play, one a gamer, two not. We sat round a homemade table on tatty but cosy chairs in a smoke-filled parlour before a roaring fire. It took no time to explain, and felt so effortless to play that we chatted and chugged beer between moves. The talk flowed freely around the little wooden houses and settled comfortably into the small spaces between the bits of modular board.

    There was little of the usual excitement, tension, bending stiff-backed over the play that board games usually generate. Nor did we lose ourselves, engrossed in some shared world or tale that the game provided. But it was strangely engaging for all that, gently occupying active minds in the same way that fidgety people twirl keys to occupy active fingers. And the thrills came, briefly, in the end when we toted up how we’d done against the three scoring measures in use that game. I won against my three inexperienced friends.

    By Tuesday I was convinced enough about the qualities of the game to drop $5 on a promotional 
    expansion. But not convinced enough to spend 5 Euros, plus a qualifying 20 Euro purchase, plus posting and packing, for another one from Germany.

    On Wednesday lunchtime I went for a long walk through my lovely home city, working up warmth and lather against the cold, drab British weather. As I trod the firmament, I thought about Kingdom Builder and about Armadillos. There’s a famous advert from long-ago UK TV that featured the quote “Armadillos: soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside.” Kingdom Builder is the opposite. It’s enormously soft on the outside, almost repellently flaccid. But once you reach the tasty bits within, you’ll find there’s more than a little bite to them.

    The next lunchtime I gathered together some of my semi-willing work colleagues upon whom I regularly inflict shorter games. We played Kingdom Builder in a meeting room under the harsh glare of an office striplight. They seemed vaguely annoyed by the game at first, as though without spaceships or monsters and requiring some thought, it wasn’t a sufficient diversion from the drudgery of code. But they settled eventually, and enjoyed it. We couldn’t quite finish inside the hour, not with four, but I’m pretty sure my experience would have told if we’d toted up the score. It felt nice, going back to my desk, to carry a box that wasn’t covered with embarrassing, juvenile art.

    My daughter has asked to play it again. So have my friends. The people at work have not, although they’re an uncommunicative lot so that may mean nothing at all. I never got to try it at my local game club, strangers stoked with shared passion gathered in the stifling heat of a delightfully shabby meeting room above a worryingly shabby pub. But they’re plotting a special exhibition game in a bookshop for TableTop Day, and I’m plotting to bring Kingdom Builder along.

    I keep most of my games hidden in wardrobes and cupboards. Many are in the attic, nestling close together in airtight containers for comfort against the long dark. But there’s a small selection in open view, downstairs, on a bookcase. Titles I can pull out when my family want to play, or friends come visiting, or I need something to grab quickly before heading out. Games that, basically, anyone can learn and enjoy from small children to die-hard hobbyists. It’s not a big selection because games like that are hard to find. And today Kingdom Builder has taken its rightful place amongst that select and exclusive club.

  • I read about Dominion. I thought it sounded interesting. I played it. This is what I thought. Makes you realise how succinct and to the point "Vini, Vidi, Vici" is when it comes to tripartite quotes, doesn't it?

  • Not quite a Modern Prometheus.

  • Ace of Aces: Handy Rotary Series is the perfect portable, two player game. This World War I dogfight game has no markers or dice to lose. Heck, it has no board. The whole game consists of two books—one represents a German plane and the other represents an Allied plane. It is Ameritrash in a book. Both players start on the same page---but “see” the enemy from the perspective of their own cockpit which is a black and white sketch on each page of the book. Your mission: riddle your enemy with enough bullets to bring down the plane.

  • What do we want from expansions? There are the ones that simply add extra pieces for more players. Some games satisfy themselves with extra maps or scenarios. Others have figured out that if they have enough fans, they can make them purchase something every six months or so. And that doesn’t come close to covering the legion of collectible and expandable games out there that explicitly build constant expansions into their business models. But my favorite kind of expansions are the ones that add new options to the game that it expands. If I really like a game, I’m ready for a new way to play. And the undisputed king of that last kind of expansion, for good or for ill, is Fantasy Flight Games.

  • Heavy metal thunder.

  • Admiral Cain is awesome. And she's the first character picked in pretty much every game I've played of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: PEGASUS EXPANSION.

  • Build a thousand bridges and no one calls you a Bridge Builder, but if you cause one Aftershock…

  • Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

    Few games have generated the level of anticipation and fanboy anxiety that of Age of Conan has. Although nearly any game designed with this incredible license would generate a lot of hype, the fact that Age of Conan was being designed by the team of Nepitello, Maggi and Meglio just raised expectations even more. 

    Who wouldn't be excited about this game? After all,

    Mongol General: What is best in life?

    Conan: To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.

    Sounds like a outstanding board game to me.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure this one delivers.

  • Age of Conan first caught my eye when I heard it described as a simpler, shorter, multi-player version of War of the Ring. Being someone who loved WotR but thought it suffered somewhat from being complex, long and two-player only I was instantly intrigued. Further investigation revealed that the game appealed to me on a number of different levels: I’m a sucker for multi-player conflict games of any type, but the fantasy theme has proved the hardest for designers in this area to pin down. I was quite content to pursue my usual policy of waiting until the dust had settled before reviewing the opinion and deciding on making a purchase, but FFG kindly decided to provide me with an early copy to review - so here are my impressions on the latest offering from the Nexus design group.

  • What the Necroquake hath wrought...

  • Spies fighting evil geniuses in the cold war.......

  • This is a F:AT exclusive, last weekend I had a chance to fly to Atlanta and play the most highly anticipated euro of the past 12 months with none other than M Barnes, Dr. Martin and Will "Why are we not playing Ti3" Kenyon.

    This is the Session Report.

  • As a worker placement game, I didn't have much hope for the engaging theme of Alchemists. All the rich, wacky art, plastic potion bottles and player screens in the world couldn't make up for the thematic drag of worker placement. At least, so I assumed. Turns out that I was very wrong.

  • I think it's time I raved all about the brilliance of small-press games. Specifically, I want to rave about Alien Frontiers, one of those incredibly rare cases where a pint-size publisher proves to have some serious staying power. The first game from Clever Mojo Games, called Ogre Castle, was fun, but it smacked of small-press corner-cutting (a cloth game board seems like a neat idea, but it's really just a neon sign that says, 'we can't afford to pay the printer'). But Alien Frontiers is not only great for a fledgling publisher, it could hold its own against anything cranking out of Rio Grande or Mayfair.

  •  Pictured is one of the very best games of the year. At least its box, which I don't have because I had to beg Clever Mojo to send me a review copy composed of spare parts wrapped in butcher paper. The tiny little company that had to bankroll their game through Kickstarter.com wasn't scared of bad press.

  • AF

    Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, it will not have escaped your attention that at the end of last year a company called Clever Mojo Games released a title called Alien Frontiers through the kickstarter service and that it rapidly sold out. If you read the opinions of people who’ve been lucky enough to play a copy of that original printing you could be forgiven for believing that this wasn’t only a great game but a cure for all known diseases and a sign that second coming was imminent, so great has the level of praise been. So, naturally, I needed to play the game and find out if it lived up to the hype and to that end Clever Mojo have generously seen fit to provide me with a copy of the second printing now that it’s available.

  • You  know those last moments of a convention? You’ve stayed up til the wee hours for three nights in a row, and you’re just killing time before the last door prizes are awarded. Might as well learn a new game,  but for the love of heaven, not something heavy. You’ve spent the whole convention learning 3-4 hour games. This is the situation I found myself in when I first played King of Tokyo earlier this year. Since none of us know how to play, we learn from the rules, which is usually a no-no. But in this case, it’s not bad at all. We’re up and running in about fifteen minutes. After one game, we’ve gotten a feel for the rules, for the different dynamics and interactions. So hey, might as well play a second game. That’s a good move, because by now the rules are totally internalized, and we can focus on trying to push each other around. But the third game? That is the coup de grace. Because after two previous games, we now have some grudges. We all have someone we want to take down. And it was at that point that my experience with King of Tokyo became something special. It’s a good thing the game wasn’t available at the con, because otherwise you couldn’t have stopped me from buying it. 


  • I’m not sure I actually like Love Letter, but I also don’t know if I’d ever turn down a game of it. What would  be the point of refusing to play? It’s such a trifle that I find it hard to believe that anyone would hate it enough to want nothing to do with it. In fact the most impressive thing about Love Letter is probably that it makes a case for itself at all, over easier activities like having a sip of coffee or sitting quietly. It’s just good enough to justify its existence and it makes the wise choice to wrap it up at about the two minute mark, then grab the cards, shuffle them up, and go again.