Be True to Your School.
Game expansions are generally created for one of two reasons. First, they exist to extend the value of the original game and give players more enjoyment out of their initial game investment. Whether an expansion adds new stories, new mechanics, or new options, players can get more fun out of games that had grown stale and begun to be boring.
You'd have thought there was only so much Lovecraft that gamers could stomach. Yet, year after, year release schedules continue to put a lie to that presumption. Arkham Horror: The Card Game, though, promises to be different. At night, in dreams, eldritch horrors whispered in my ear that it was new and exciting. At dawn, zombie-like, I staggered out under their baleful influence to secure and play a copy.
If there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me in Ascension, it’s the innovation that keeps emerging after 13 sets. The latest standalone expansion, Delirium, does what Ascension does best: reinvigorates some old mechanics while adding a few new trappings. I was trepidatious about these new features, especially after the previous release being rather lackluster, but it turns out that the Stoneblade team knows better than me.
Everyone loves trilogies. Lord of Rings. Star Wars. Fifty Shades of Grey. You know, the classics. Deliverance is the third in the Insight trilogy of Ascension games, giving you something new, something borrowed, and something Pasythea. How does Insight play out in this version? Let’s start with the latter.
As a writer (an amateur, of course, and a total hack, but still a writer), I have a pretty serious grammatical complaint. This may not bother a lot of people, but it bothers me, because it poses difficulties if I have any intent to adhere to the rules of the written language. The complaint I have is about punctuation. Specifically, my complaint is with games whose titles end in an exclamation mark.
You might pick up a game clearly emblazoned with the legend "Rise of Augustus" expecting a wargame about the final wars of the Roman Republic. But you'll have been cruelly fooled: the game is actually just called Augustus and is a light family Eurogame that casts you as assistants to the first emperor, controlling provinces and senators through the distribution of resources. Quite how the "Rise of" got tacked on to the English edition is beyond me.
You might also expect a game that comes in a box the size of the original Arkham Horror to be packed with a similar amount of heady cardboard goodness. And in a sense, there is, in the form of a truly colossal box insert to stop the few components rattling around. That's a little unfair since the game is hardly expensive, but it's annoying to have something taking up so much shelf space unnecessarily, just to store two sheets of tokens, a deck of cards, a few wooden meeples and a score pad. And it has to be said that the stylised art is wonderful.
Put all these things together and you get a game based heavily on cheap-ass gambler's favourite bingo. Indeed if you read critical comment on the game elsewhere you'll see it attracts a surprising amount of venom for daring to be so mainstream. This is also unfair. Not only because the fact it's mainstream means the game is directly simple and accessible, but also because the designer has gone to considerable pains to spice up the old classic with a generous dash of modern gaming.
For starters you're trying to match symbols drawn out of a bag rather than numbers. That might sound like a thin veneer of theme, and it is, but it also means the odds are weighted more in favour of some symbols than others. Instantly, there is light strategy: you get a choice of objectives in the form of senator and province cards, each with a different mix of symbols needed for completion, so players need to spread their bets according to the likelihood of the draw. But there's another catch. Rather than simply marking off every matched symbol as it comes up, you only get seven legion pieces for the job and so must focus on certain objectives over others in order to complete a card and free some legions.
Further opportunities for strategy exist in scoring. Objectives are worth hugely variable amounts of points, with easier cards worth less meaning clever players can adapt their style to focus on quicker or slower objectives depending on who else is playing. But many don't have a fixed value but are instead calculated on other factors. How many of a certain symbol there are on the cards you've won, for instance, or the number of provinces of a certain colour that you complete. In addition there are some bonus tiles for the first player to reach certain goals, like collecting three Senator cards or the first to six overall.
Okay, so it's hardly demanding. But that's part of the charm of the game. It's incredibly accessible, desperately easy to pick up and play being based on a culturally familiar game furnished with appealing art and a few extra rules and taking less than thirty minutes to complete. That makes it a superb family game. Everyone in mine liked it a great deal, even people normally resistant to games. In fact, playing Augustus made me realise that many of the other titles people had seemed to enjoy like Carcassonne and Kingdom Builder had largely been merely tolerated. My seven-year old daughter loved it so much that she asks for it constantly and is refusing to play anything else.
In some respects, that's a surprise. There are elements to Augusts that don't fit well with the stereotypical family game. It can, for example, occasionally get quite nasty. Many of the objective cards, in addition to scoring points, also have a special power. Most of these are fairly innocent, such as giving a player some free legion placements, or an extra objective draw, but a few are directly interactive, forcing other players to remove legions or even completed objectives. Hardly a recipe for group harmony.
In addition there are bonus tiles for the player with the most objectives that produce gold and wheat. I say "most" but in fact as soon as someone draws level on production count, they can take the tile away from the player who currently has it. It's an odd mechanic, this. Not only is it potentially upsetting for a young or casual player, but it can terribly imbalancing. There aren't many objectives with gold or wheat on them, so often the first player lucky enough to grab one gets the bonus points, and it can be decisive in determining a winner. And when the game is over, there's an annoying period of score toting rather than an immediate winner, which is rarely a crowd pleaser for non-gamers.
And yet the evidence is clearly that Augustus works as family fare. Not only from my own household, but from the testaments of other players and the fact it got nominated for this year's Spiel des Jahres. So, given the huge appeal, why isn't it sat at the top of every gamer's family-friendly collection?
The answer, sadly, is because it doesn't work all that well as a gamer's game. Essentially it's far too lightweight, but neither thematic nor exciting enough to compensate. And it has a number of features that can actually make it actively annoying if played with people inclined to take games too seriously. Players who want to win will do well to keep a close eye on what other people are collecting to try and deny them the opportunity to collect bonus cards. In reality that means frequent pauses while everyone looks over everyone else's objectives. And the really competitive will be motivated to do things like try and track everyone's scores as the game goes along, which slows it down to a snail's pace of excruciating tedium.
But if you can keep things clipping along at a fair pace, though, it can be fun. And as a gamers, there's immense pleasure to be had from owning a title that can draw family members together so effectively and let you watch them enjoying themselves so thoroughly with your favourite hobby. But really, deep down, I think I'd rather they went back to Kingdom Builder and Carcassonne instead.
The best expansions don't just improve or fix their base games, they let you see them in a new light. That's what I was hoping from the racing seasons in this Racing Season expansion for Automobiles. Its parent title has been my sleeper hit for the past two years. While other games have peaked and gone, Automobiles is still lapping round for regular plays. It might not need the fresh coat of an expansion, but some go-faster stripes would be nice.
Cthulhu Down Under: Where Old Ones grow and men shudder.
The smell of the salt breeze. The creak of rigging in the air. You’re in sight of the port of Tobago, when you see a ship off in the distance, on an intercept course. Word from the crows-nest is that the ship has run up the fleur-de-lis. The French Navy! You order the crew to man their stations and load the cannons. As the larger ship draws closer, volleys of fire are exchanged, shattering masts and shredding sails. All at once, grappling hooks sail from the enemy ship. They’re trying to board! As the enemy pours onto your ship, your crew fights to the last man. Will you survive long enough to protect your precious gold and valuable cargo?
Azul is all about using beautiful Spanish tiles to create a wall design. That subject matter may not be the most evocative or exciting (unless you're abnormally enamored with décor), but it doesn't matter. The game is basically an abstract title with pretty pieces. But it does demonstrate how exceptional and fulfilling a game can be even without an interesting setting.
Azul sits out on the shelf, because there are too many games and I can't find anywhere to put it away. Elder daughter arrives home and seizes on it with a level of enthusiasm only a pre-teen can muster. "OH my GOD that is the MOST GORGEOUS game I have EVER SEEN!". There is a pause. "What is it?"
I explain it's a game about tiling walls. Her enthusiasm cools noticeably. But we play it anyway.
The Seasons of Inis expansion, as seems to be tradition with the Madagot Trilogy, is presented in modules, giving you the option of adding and removing portions of the expansion material as you see fit. Five total modules are included and I've broken them down by my order of preference:
For my money, no game released in 2010 was as excellent as Carl Chudyk's Innovation. It took the fascinating tactical card play from classics like San Juan and paired it with the bracing chaos of a game like Cosmic Encounter. For me, that's an intoxicating blend. For other people, it really isn't. My first game of Innovation was so off the wall that two players quit in disgust before the end of the game. Their loss, I say. Innovation feels different every time, and those who stick it out will find a real treat.
But I confess, I was a little skeptical about Echoes of the Past. Innovation is a very dynamic game, and it was able to pull that dynamism off because at its core, the rules were simple. If they cluttered that up, the game might completely collapse. Any expansion to this already chaotic game could overload the whole thing, like putting too much Tobasco on your food. And indeed, Echoes of the Past does increase the insanity of Innovation. But it does so in the best way it possibly could. Instead of making the whole thing too intense, it deepens and fills out the experience. Innovation was already terrific, but Echoes of the Past makes it even better.
Three main things are added to the game. The first is the ability to "forecast." Essentially, some cards let you draw a card and store it in on your player mat. When you use a meld action later on, you can also meld a forecasted card of equal or lesser value, and then immediately take its dogma effect. This is the strangest rule to understand, but if you time it right, you can do some serious damage. An "I Demand" action that is suddenly sprung on your opponents is pretty devastating. It's also nice to have a little more knowledge of what you have coming up. You can "tech up" faster if you fall behind on icons.
The second addition is one of bonuses. These take the place of an icon on some expansion cards, and they count towards your score for all purposes, mostly claiming achievements. That means if you get the right splay, you can reveal more points. This sounds pretty powerful, but only the highest visible bonus counts for its full amount. The other bonuses just bring one point each. I am a big fan of this addition, because it evens out a lot of the clumpiness of scoring. There are now far more cards that can give you a boost in points. There's still some luck of the draw, as there should be, but it's now a rare time when I am unable to get any points at all.
The third and best addition is echo effects. These are, in essence, mini-dogmas. Like bonuses, they also occupy an icon's slot. If they are revealed in a splay, they add onto the dogma effect of the top card. If you use that action, you occupy all of the echo effects, bottom to top, before resolving the top one. They are treated exactly like dogma effects, so if you are a fan of sharing effects, you could end up helping your opponent a lot. I can't overstate how much I enjoy this effect. It increases the "Innovation-ness" of the game by resolving a huge string of effects. That means more wild synergies, more dynamism, and more considerations when using a dogma effect.
In fact, the whole expansion adds to the "Innovation-ness" of the game. Innovation, at its best, goes to the 9th or 10th age, and the card combinations become highly unpredictable. That happens more often with Echoes of the Past. I've only had one game end from the achievement rush in age 6 or 7, and that was largely from some careless effect-sharing. I now find it easier to push the ages forward when I get behind on achievements. But the push isn't too far in that direction. There are also many more ways to achieve, so what it really does is allow you a little more flexibility in your game.
This sounds like it adds a lot to the game, and that's sort of true. But if you've played, say, five games of the base game, this shouldn't be a tough adjustment. In fact, all of the additions feel very organic to the experience as a whole. But I should warn, this is definitely "advanced" Innovation. I wouldn't introdue this to new players right off the bat under any circumstances. But I would recommend that ANYONE who enjoys this game buy the expansion. It adds a lot of meat to the game, but the effect is similar to playing Agricola with or without Occupations and Minor Improvements. It's easier to teach without the expansion, but when someone is ready, you move them to the full game.
More annoying is the increased setup time, which is a little obnoxious with the expansion. Each age uses a certain number of base game cards, and a certain number of expansion cards. So you need to sort a lot of cards before and after each game. It'd be a bigger problem if the game was a shorter affair. But with Echoes thrown in, the game edges closer to an hour long, even with just 2 or 3 players. You can now play with up to five people, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. The game supports it, but it's clearly not committed to the idea, since there are only 4 expansion player aids in the box.
That's a very small trade-off, however. The truth is, Echoes of the Past feels like the "full version" of Innovation. I've played a few games without it, and the base game alone feels thin now. I would even venture to say that this is one of the best expansions I've played for any game ever. It does everything an expansion should do. It makes the gameplay better in almost every facet, and it does so without forcing you to forget old rules. Nothing feels bolted on or forced. It could have been a cluttered mess, but instead it's a masterpiece of an expansion for what was already a pretty terrific game.
Holy crap! This review is posted on my blog, The Rumpus Room. Check it out, leave some comments.
My wardrobe is full of spaceships. So many spaceships that there's barely room for clothes. Most of them live in an enormous box which crushes my shirts out of all recognition when it's squeezed in and out for play. It's a good job I play with spaceships a lot more than I wear shirts.
"So, let me illustrate. Imagine a line that represents time and at one point is 1985, to the left of it the past and to the right of it the future. If we travel back in time and make some small changes, the timeline skews off at an angle, creating an alternate 1985 - or rather, it's an alternate to you, Einstein and me, but a complete reality for everyone else. It turns out that Biff took the Sports Almanac into the past and thereby created this new timeline. It's now up to us to find a new way to get Back to the Future: Dice Through Time by Ravensburger."
Prospero Hall's take on the classic Disney Parks ride is featherweight fun, but may not please the thrillseekers.
Banditos, a new and rather under-the-radar game from Baksha games, isn’t going to win any awards for its design. It’s a disorganized, somewhat sloppy game plagued with a badly written and confusing set of rules that fail to convey the relative simplicity of its gameplay. The enormous card deck which drives the game is ridiculously bloated with redundant cards. It’s an amateurish mistake- throwing in the kitchen sink instead of brandishing the editor’s machete. The first third of it tends to be oddly paced and hesitant, with players waiting to fish multiple cards out of that giant deck to really get the game started. There are a couple of errors and the card backs are poorly printed with indistinguishable markings between decks. Banditos, a game about robbing banks, looks like a heist gone wrong at the outset.
Remember folks, keep your friends close, and your pesos closer.
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