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.
I thought I'd take a break from reviewing new stuff this week and take a dive into my long-promised review of the Avalon Hill classic, Wrasslin'. Someday I plan on working up my own Ameritrash Essentials list, and I expect this one to securely find a place there. It's a game "simulating" the best of the 80s era of wrestling--when Hulk Hogan and his prayers and vitamins ruled the world, when mustache-twirilng "heels" would get their comeuppance at "Wrasslemania", and when wrestlings storylines were the simple "They're fighting because they HATE each other." Man, I miss those days.
Historical wargames are often a terrible waste. All that wealth of history, all over the world - political, social and economic - and games choose to focus on violence. Such a shame, especially when turning history into a game is such a great way to get inside it, to learn it and understand it. Now the case for the prosecution has a new exhibit to showcase all these points: An Infamous Traffic.
Grab a knee and get coached up on the sheer brilliance of the adventure game for people that generally hate adventure games. It's that good.
Quite frankly, the reason some of us still today peek into KB looking for that clearanced gem. One of the best sci-fi games of all time.
When people ask, "What, exactly, IS Ameritrash?" sometimes you just want to grab a game, point at it, and say, "Here."
In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m an egghead. I've gotten to the age where I’d rather read Xenophon than George R. R. Martin, because to me history is more gripping than the best of make-believe. I'm not into fiction anymore because it can't be even half as strange as real life. For good reason -- if it was no one would believe it.
Android: Netrunner is a Living Card Game and that means lots of little expansion packs. Quite an alarming number of little expansion packs if you're a relatively casual player of the game like I am. But this latest pack isn't little: it's big. It comes in a proper box and contains 165 cards: 3 copies each of 55 different ones. As a casual player I approve mightily.
Like all the expansion before it, the focus is squarely on one faction each for the corporation and runner players, in this case Haas-Bioroid and the Shapers respectively. That's a bit more odd considering you get a lot more cards in this deck but there you go. The Shapers probably needed it as, despite their name, they're probably the most shapeless, ill-defined faction so far. And I like Haas because I'm a former genetic engineer myself. So, again, I approve mightily.
So what do we learn about the Shapers? The most amazing thing about Netrunner, in my opinion, isn't simply that it's a great game. There are lots of great games. What makes Netrunner special is the emergent theme, the way that if you stripped away the mediocre art and the pseudo-intellectual quotes and the stupid, obtuse jargon the game employs, it would still feel like a game about hackers trying to bypass corporate security and steal digital secrets. And what we learn about the Shapers follows that pattern.
Look at their cards. Self-modifying code which allows you to pick and play a card from your draw deck. Clone Chip which permits you to pick and play a card from your discard pile. Scavenge, which instructs you to discard something in play but replace it with something else from your hand or discard. This is a faction all about flexibility, about freedom, about feeling the code and being one with the machine. And it comes across in the cards.
You see the same playful spirit in their aggressive cards, too. Atman, an icebreaker you can pump up to any strength you like and keep it there, forever, and which can break any subroutine of any kind looks like a game breaker until you realise the strength is fixed, so it's really only useful against one kind of ice card. But you get to choose that card. Similarly Cypher-Cypher is a super-cheap and powerful icebreaker but it's tied to one target server. Escher, an event that sees you rearranging corporate ice as you see fit. Destruction by exploration.
So what about the corporation? Haas-Bioroid had a much stronger sense of identity than the Shapers before this set, but they were a little boring to play. Creation and Control adds spice and uncertainty. There's a new ambush asset which burns the runner for brain damage in exchange for a few creds. Another shock is Howler, a 1-cost ice card that does nothing except install and activate another piece of ice, for free, directly behind it. Tyr's hand is an upgrade you can trash to stop an ice subroutine being bypassed. Runs on unknown Bioroid servers now have a similar amount of inbuilt tension and danger as the other corporations.
Actions generally are a focus, as befitting the Haas-Bioroid vulnerability of having ice that can be bypassed simply by the runner spending actions. The Efficiency Committee agenda, for instance, which gives you two actions in exchange for one and an advancement token. Or the Arcology asset which does the same thing except it's not an agenda, even though it'll look like one to the runner. You can save actions a different way with the Pet Project agenda which effectively gives you a bunch of free installs.
There are a few neutral cards, too, but they're generally less interesting. The most powerful is the runner card Daily Casts which costs three credits but pays out eight, two a turn. It's pretty easy for runners to make a lot of money with the current Netrunner card selection, and this set makes it easier. Indeed I've seen some complaints from tournament players and real enthusiasts that Creation and Control has made the game too lopsided in favour of the runner.
That might be true, although if it is it'll probably get re-balanced over the next few data pack releases. I can't really say because I'm not a tournament player or a real enthusiast but a casual gamer who likes to break out Android occasionally with friends and savour that amazing emergent theme. I don't have that whole arms-race deckbuilding thing going on, and I tend to construct decks just for their amusement value and give them to new players to teach the game.
Given that, one of the most interesting things for me in this set wasn't so much the new cards but the suggested preconstructed decks to use them. A Haas-Bioroid deck loaded with ludicrously expensive and powerful ice, but with lots of tricksy ways to mitigate the credit cost, so allowing you to be in a much more powerful place than it may appear to the runner. A shaper deck which is all about installing and recycling stuff on the cheap, saving money to power one or two game-changing cards.
I like these decks a lot. Not because there's anything inherently amazing about them: the corporation one in particular is quite difficult to play. I like them as a casual gamer because they seem very well matched, designed to set up interesting trade-offs and gradual power creep against one another. I like them because they're full of cards that can be used creatively, challenging the player and demonstrating to the neophyte how much scope for cleverly synchronizing card effects there is in this game.
I like Creation and Control a lot. You could go a long way with Netrunner just owning this and the base set, especially if you don't intend to be a frequent player. Although I'm glad I've got a few more cards personally, just to flesh out my beloved Jinteki. You won't really need any more data packs. But be warned: if you've got this, you'll probably want them.
Once upon a time, I played inordinate amounts of Magic: the Gathering. I played it so much that information about anything other than Magic: the Gathering could do little more than skitter across the surface of my overheated, addicted brain. Nevertheless I was dimly aware that there were other collectible card games available for those poor, benighted souls who couldn’t cope with the munificence of Magic: the Gathering. It was all very sad, but they had to have something to play, I supposed.This is why, when Fantasy Flight Games released Android: Netrunner, I had absolutely no idea that it was in fact a Living Card Game version of one of those limp, feeble Magic: the Gathering wannabees. But now I have purged all traces of that overwhelming monstrosity from my mind, body and game collection, and am shriven and ready to look again at the Collectible Card Game format with fresh eyes. And good job too. Because it turns out Andriod: Netrunner is neither limp, nor feeble, but really rather good.One player is a dystopian, morally ambiguous corporation hoarding secret agendas for profit while the other takes the role of a dystopian, morally ambiguous hacker attempting to steal said secret agendas for profit. You’d be hard pressed to get any of this from watching people play the game. Artwork is bland and generic and the mandatory fictional quotes on each card are largely meaningless. So how, then does the game go about communicating its theme to the players?Well, in a slice of minor genius, it does so entirely through the mechanics. All the cards the corporation has are computers that can be hacked by the opposing player. You’d expect this of the agenda cards that are the target of the game and the “asset” cards that the corporation uses to generate money. But it’s not just these, it’s everything. The corporation’s hand, deck and discard pile can be hacked, examined and sometimes forced to trash cards. It’s a simple conceit but it works wonders in creating a sense of realism during play, the cold blue card backs of the corporation glittering at the players like banks of server lights.To stop the hacker from doing terrible things to all his cards the corporation has two weapons. The first is ICE cards which sit in front of the cards contained on a computer and anyone trying to hack in either has to have appropriate hardware and software to bypass or disable it, or be willing to suffer its unpleasant effects. The second is good, old-fashioned bluffing. Almost everything the corporation plays starts life face-down so the hacker has no idea what it is. He doesn’t know if he’s hacking a valuable agenda, a worthless asset or a dangerous trap, nor if the ICE protecting it is cheap rubbish he can brush aside or lethal software that will fry his brain. Once he attempts to break through into the server he’ll find out, but by then it may be too late. But activating defences costs the corporation valuable money. Similarly acquiring tools to break down the barriers costs the hacker money. And so the entire game becomes a tantalizing ballet of resource management and poker faces, probing and reaction, fear and paranoia. The corporation faces a circular struggle of installing assets to make money, which then need money spending on them to create defences. The hacker has to split his precious time between getting money to buy hardware and software, and testing the defences to find out what they are, what they’re protecting and whether the corporation actually has the resources to activate them. It’s beautiful to watch, head-crushingly tense to play.There’s also an arms race going on, a spiralling evolution of one-upmanship. The hacker can only deploy a limited amount of software at any one time, and all of it is limited to bypassing certain threats, being ineffective against others. So as the hacker uncovers bits of defences, he’ll need to constantly fine-tune the tools at his disposal. The corporation will be trying to stay ahead of him, varying the amount and types of ICE to try and ensure there are always barriers that can’t be broken. It’s a useless struggle: in another thematic nod, just like real life, hackers will start probing for weakness in defences as soon as they’re uncovered and will eventually prevail. But the corporation just needs to stay ahead for long enough to get his agendas played and scored and the constant struggle of capabilities toward this goal is underpins much of the games thrills. There’s a huge asymmetry between the two roles in the game. Each draws from a completely different set of cards, and has a different turn structure and set of actions to perform during their turn. The hacker is cast in the role of aggressor, scouting enemy security and attempting to defeat it while the job of the corporate player is more defensive. Some people may find that job dull in comparison. It’s a little like the role of the games master in an RPG: very reactive, but you have the deliciously smug pleasure of knowing all the secrets while your foe deliberates in a stormy sea of uncertainty. I think there’s plenty to make playing both sides thoroughly enjoyable.The asymmetry has worked its way into rulebook terminology in a most irritating fashion with a ton of needless jargon to ingest before you can play. Players don’t have hands of cards: the corporation has an “HQ” and the hacker has a “grip”. Cards are not turned face-up but “rezzed”. The rules introduce a wealth of similarly inane terminologies and then use them throughout instead of sensible, clear terms. I presume the intent was to immerse players further into the Netrunner world, but the play alone does a fine job of that, and all the jargon just serves to make this moderately complex game far harder to learn than it should be.Once you’ve got past the language barrier, you’ll need to use the cards in the box to build decks for the two players to use. A deck is built around a faction, a unique identity which gives the player a special power and limits the number of cards from other factions that can be included. Starter decks are suggested, but they’re not great. The corporation decks contain insufficient ICE, and both sides suffer from the limited pool of powerful cards.You can overcome this by buying another box, but both these issues give a clear message: Netrunner is not a game well suited for casual play. After more than a few hands you’ll want to start constructing decks, and then you may well want a second copy. Down the road there are expansions hovering into view. Time and money is required to get the most out of the game.That’s my one gripe, but it’s a big one since it undermines a key advantage the LCG format has over the CCG one. Beyond that, I can find little reason to fault Android: Netrunner. The way it brings its theme alive through the play alone is magical. Better, it makes a virtue out of forcing two seemingly incompatible bedfellows, carefully planned strategy and bluffing, to lie together under the same duvet. It’s a lot like Poker, but with more time planning tactics and less time calculating probabilities. Ultimately it may end up costing you a similar amount. But if you’re ready for a brand new time sink in your life, they don’t come much better than this.
About the only major issue there was with FFGs reboot of Netrunner in the Living Card Game format was that the starter box encouraged deckbuilding but didn’t give you the tools to do it. Whether it was the somewhat mean choice to only supply one or two copies of powerful cards when the maximum was three, or the limited pool of cross-faction cards, it didn’t quite make the grade when it came to constructing your own decks.
But Living Card Games of course get boosters from time to time. Now the first ones are available for Netrunner labelled, rather curiously, as Trace Amount and What Lies Ahead. The names may appear rather meaningless. But I’m glad to say that between them they pretty much perfect Netrunner as a system.
Each booster set contains three copies each of twenty cards. Doesn’t sound a lot, especially when you consider that each has a couple of identity cards which, for production cost reasons, you get in triplicate when you only need one. But they’re targeted to address key areas of weakness in the base game alone.
I wanted more corporate ICE in my decks, and now I’ve got it in both faction-specific and generic flavours with a variety of complementary effects. There was a dearth of Agendas tied to particular factions in the base game, forcing you to fall back on generic alternatives to score your points, limiting options and weakening the theme. That’s fixed now.
For the runner there’s now a way to defend yourself against the relatively uncommon but devastating meat damage effect. There’s also some more ways to make money, something a lot of factions struggled with. And you’ll need it since there’s a some smoking new hardware and software to run, capable of scattering corporate defences like dry straw in the wind and with a price tag to match.
Perhaps the most important improvement is a power boost for Jinteki, commonly seen as the weakest of the corporate factions. I’ve not played enough to really comment on their respective power, but I do love their tricky, slippery cards which add further layers of subterfuge and double-bluff to a title already rich with mind games. It’s good to see them get a boost.
Jinteki also get my favourite card of the two expansions, Snowflake from What Lies Ahead. I didn’t want to get into detail on individual cards, there being plenty of discussion about that elsewhere, but I can’t resist on this. It’s an ICE card that causes the two players to secretly choose between 0 and 3 credits, and ends the run if their choices are different.
Right there you’ve got psychology, greed, stealth and yet they’re kept tied tightly to rock-solid game mechanics and resources. Just wonderful. It’s almost a shame that the runner will usually just bypass it with an icebreaker. But then again, there’s always the temptation for them to try and save a few resources by engaging with it. That whispering allure is what Jinteki is all about.
What Lies Ahead that’s overall the better, more widely applicable and more interesting expansion of the two expansions. Unfortunately it’s Trace Amount that generally does the heavy lifting to improve Jinteki, also having a new identity and a vicious agenda to sit alongside Junebugs in giving the runner jitters.
By now my personal faction sympathies are probably showing strongly. But most factions get some interesting new toys of play with. Best of all, everything introduced in these expansions bolsters the emergent theme that’s the best feature of the basic game. We’ve already talked about Jinteki. But the Anarchs get cards that cause more chaos, Weyland cards that suck in money. Shapers become more flexible and versatile. It all slots together, building an amazingly rich picture of the near future from a mere handful of cards.
The near future of Android: Netrunner is going to be filled with a lot more of these booster packs, and inevitable, tedious arguments about killer combinations and nerfing certain deck types. It’s almost a shame that we can’t freeze-frame the game right now because with these first two the base game feels like a well-oiled, well-balanced machine with plenty of intriguing combinations and nothing excessively over- or under-powered. If you plan on playing the game as anything other than an occasional curiosity from your collection, they’re pretty much essential.
If there is one law that has developed in the board gaming world, it's that any successful game will have at least one expansion. If it's a VERY successful game, it'll probably get several of them. And since most gamers don't have qualms about spending $50 for another box of cardboard, we lap up every new installment. But then we start to feel like maybe, just maybe, we have enough of a certain game. There are lots of new titles out there, and expansions pull away valuable time and money from new titles. For my own part, I've decided to not pick up Dominion: Cornucopia for the time being. I just have enough variety, you know? But I do have one weakness with expansions, one tiny little confession to get off my chest.
It's really too bad, because I know a lot of you folks would love TRAIN RAIDER. I think it's probably the coolest, most fun, and likely best train game I've ever played. It would be a great game for a company like Z-Man or Fantasy Flight to pick up- it's totally unique, innovative, and daring in a way that many games released today simply aren't.
By now, you've probably heard that SUMMONER WARS is a good one- our very own Matt Drake wrote a review of it something like ten years ago and gave it high praise. I even stole the picture at left from his website. I've been playing the game off and on over the past couple of months and now I've finally gotten around to the write-up and I'm happy to say that Plaid Hat Games is off to a great start. Colby Dauch was kind enough to send me a review copy, and in the next couple of weeks I'm going to be doing an interview with him and we can hopefully get him to spill the beans on some of these secret Hasbro projects he's been involved with. Maybe not.There may also be a SUMMONER WARS contest in the future- details TBA.Anyway, the review is in the usual spot over at Gameshark.com. I may be appearing on one of the new "Jumping the Shark" podcasts in the near future rambling on about board games, video games, or both. Stay tuned.
Some games just have an “Old School” feel. Antiquity Quest is one of those. And rightfully so. It is a re-imagining of Hand and Foot, a card game that I had never played before. However, looking up the original rules, it is easy to see the similarities. You have two “hands” (or, one hand and one foot) of cards: Your main 10 card hand and, once you have played those, you pick up your 10 card cache. The original Hand and Foot was limited to team play, but Antiquity Quest opens it up, supporting two to eight players including all of the odd-numbers in-between.
This probably doesn't happen to many other people, but earlier this evening I started writing a review of Arcana and realized something horrible - it wasn't the least bit entertaining. I mean, if I wanted to write boring rules summaries, I could just leave it to Tom Vasel. I had the whole thing written, and went back to check it, and said to myself, 'Self,' I said, 'this review is less interesting than the safety instructions of a box of Kleenex.' So I threw it out and started over.
Arcana is a deckbuilding game from Alderac, only it doesn't really feel like a deckbuilding game, it feels like a kick-ass card game that shows us how many things you can do with the idea of creating your deck while you play. And the first thing I want to get out of the way is the elephant in the room, because he just took a dumper in the corner of my office and he's about to sit on my comic books.
Yes, Dominion was the first real deckbuilding game. Yes, every game after that will have to be compared to Dominion, until enough games are made that people quit comparing them. Yes, I'm started sentences by answering questions nobody asked me. No, I don't give a rat's ass. And no, this game is not Dominion, and while it does borrow from Dominion on a very fundamental level, it is very different and should not be labeled a 'clone' of any kind.
In Arcana, each player assumes the role of a guild in the fantastic city of Cadwallon (that's 'fantastic' like fairies and unicorn farts, not 'fantastic' like awesome, though the city might be a very nice place to visit, but I wouldn't know because I've never been there, probably because it's not real). Each guild has a handful of agents at its disposal, and they'll send those agents throughout the city to exert influence, recruit more help, and lay claim to areas of the city.
As players swipe relics, control locations and persuade important people to join their guilds, those cards are added to their decks. Since different people are good at different things, you'll want to get a variety of people with a variety of skills to make it easier to get more people and places down the road.
Since the Dominion comparisons are inevitable, allow me to explain why this is not Dominion (and it's not like you have the choice of not allowing me to explain - even if you stop reading now, I will have already explained, you just won't actually see it).
The first and most important difference between Arcana and other deckbuilding games is the tense and persistent interaction with the other players. Since there are only five cards available at any time, you'll find yourself constantly trying to outdo your opponents to snatch up the cards you want. You'll scheme and bluff and possibly resort to bribery in order to get the cards, because if you don't, your opponent will get them and you'll get nothing. You don't get to just pay for cards. Everything is a competition here.
The second major difference is that you don't know what cards will be available from turn to turn. There are only ever five cards available, and they're randomized, so it's not like you can look at the available options and decide how you're planning to win the game. You have to play smart and keep your eyes open, and keep in mind what assets you're going to need down the line. Preparation is key here - if you grab up all the military men who appear, you're going to come up short when the only cards available require you to have some clergy in your pocket (quick note - you need either very large pockets or very small priests if you want to have clergy in your pocket).
A third element really sets Arcana apart from the crowd. The art in this game is amazing. Looking at the graphics on the cards make me want to visit Cadwallon, though I can't, because as I may have mentioned, it's not real. But between the theme (which is surprisingly consistent for a card game) and the amazing art, it sure feels like it could be real. I don't really play many RPGs any more, but if I did, Cadwallon would make a great setting for some half-troll druid/archer to run around and kill things. Hopefully someone can see that, and makes this wacky town into a roleplaying game.
Unfortunately, I recently heard that Alderac is sending all the Dust Games stuff to Fantasy Flight, and Arcana is one of those games. That's unfortunate because it means the likelihood of Arcana expansions is suddenly a lot lower - FFG doesn't have a good track record of supporting their smaller games. It's also unfortunate because Fantasy Flight kind of hates me, which is going to make it a lot harder to get Dust Tactics.
But even if Arcana never gets an expansion, it's still a totally kick-ass game in its own right. Do yourself a favor and just play the full rules - there's a beginner version of the rules, but they're not anywhere near as much fun as when you add in the militia and the objectives, and the ability to stash some of your cards instead of having them take up space in your deck is really nice.
Arcana doesn't invent any brand new game mechanics, but it does take some existing ideas and throw a really good spin on them. It's fun and pretty and downright affordable, with plenty of reasons to play it plenty of times. Basically, it's fantastic, in nearly every sense of the word.
Pros:Great setting with beautiful artA great twist on the deckbuilding gameConstant interaction
Cons:Some of the symbols can be confusing
Mattis a staff writer for Fortress: Ameritrash and the author of theDrake's Flames blog, where you can read more of his crassly opinionated reviews.
Click here for more board game articles by Matt.
Creation is a powerful motivation for playing games: creation of story, of fun, of moments of drama, tension, victory and defeat. There is something primal in the creative act, it speaks to times spent away from the hubbub of the world, quietly making something merely because you want to, not because it has any intrinsic monetary value. I love games that allow me to create something, to have a story to emerge as I play and it is that creation that is at the heart of Arcane Blaster Casters, the debut game from Battle Boar Games.
I've been writing hack game reviews at Drake's Flames for a couple years now, and last week The Fortress asked me if I would like to do a weekly spot here. Since I'm a total whore for attention, I graciously accepted. And since I'm an unoriginal bastard, for my first piece, I just reworked a game review I wrote a month ago. You can read the original here, if you have too much time on your hands:
Arcane Legions Review at Drake's Flames
So to stop pimping my own site and contribute to this one, here's a review of Arcane Legions. I'll spoil the ending for you - it's fun.
As the title suggests, I like ARCTIC SCAVENGERS a lot.
Putting the microchip in micro games.
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